By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.
Since 2017, and even before, I have come to question the idea of “spiritual death” as a concept, or idea. Of course, I was raised with hearing this taught in the Foursquare tradition, and it is certainly taught in the Reformed one. One can find it in almost any circle of Christendom. Although it is not found in the earliest part of Church History, it does show up in Augustine. It is quite likely that Augustine read Philo, where it definitely shows up. In fact, David T. Runia demonstrates that Augustine was familiar with Philo – though to what extent is debatable. Philo of Alexandria, as is well known, is described as developing an allegorical method, ‘who sought to reconcile Greek philosophy and the Old Testament by it, [and it] was later developed into an organized method of interpretation by Origen. It has done much harm to sound interpretation of the Bible’ . Indeed.
Philo notes that the text of Gn 2.17 states, ‘in the day in which you eat from it, you will surely die.’ He is using, however, the LXX which pluralizes the verbs ‘eat’ and ‘die.’ The Hebrew does not do this. God is speaking to Adam alone, before Eve is ever made. Nonetheless, Philo comments, ‘not only do they not die, but they also have children.’ In light of this, ‘What, then, are we to say? That there are two (ditto) deaths; one is the death of the man, the other is the death of the soul (psuche). The death of a man is the soul without the body; but the soul-death is removal of moral excellence, it is corruption, a taking up of evil’ . Thus, Philo is able to account for ‘dying the death’ in allegorical terms, or what we would call today, spiritual terms.
Jumping from Philo’s text to Augustine’s City of God (413-426 CE) there is a remarkable parallel in reasoning found in Books 13-15. Both take the prepositional phrase, beyom (‘when’, or ‘in the day’ – though the article is not retained) seriously. If it says, ‘when you eat, you will die’, then Adam must die in some sense. And, since it is quite obvious that he does not organically die, then it is inferred that he spiritually died, else God’s threat is rendered as a lie. However, drawing the conclusion that a commandment, and in this case a prohibition, with its threat must be carried out as stated is an assumption. God is perfectly free to issue a commandment and its punishment (a law), and yet retain the right as to how He will actually carry that out. It may be that He could carry out the law as stated, or He could exercise discretionary powers based on other considerations. We find examples of this in numerous places of His dealings with Israel. These can be summed up in David’s cry, ‘He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities’ (Psalm 103.7-10). His ways made known in Genesis 2-3 is that he did not treat Adam as his sin deserved. He showed compassion.
R.C. Sproul also states, ‘Numerous commentators have tried to soften the divine warning by interpreting the “death” of Genesis 2 as a kind of spiritual death. That is not what the text says’ (Holiness of God, Tyndale, 1998, page 162). In an about face, however, Sproul does ‘soften the divine warning’ by saying immediately after, ‘The death penalty of which God warned was real death, death in the full sense of the word. To be sure, Adam and Eve did suffer spiritual death that very day, but God granted mercy in terms of the full measure of the penalty’ (162). That, folks, is a contradiction. If Sproul is arguing that the text does not say that death is softened to mean a ‘kind of spiritual death’, then turns around and says that they did, to be sure, die a spiritual death, but not the full measure of death, then the penalty has been ‘softened’! No matter how one slices this, logically speaking, Sproul has contradicted himself. Be that as it may, and aside from the contradiction, we may be sure in what Sproul means: death means, ‘instant death. Death that very day’ (162). He further states that the ‘full measure’ was ‘delayed’ – which means the lesser measure was carried out – softening the warning. It is this type of reasoning that creates confusion. Either the full measure is carried out, or it is not. They either died, or they did not.
We find contradictions like this throughout Evangelical commentaries and works. In another place, Geerhardus Vos sought to minimize the prepositonal phrase, ‘in the day.’ He wrote, ‘Finally, the stressing of the phrase “in the day” in 2:17, is not only uncalled for, but, in view of the sequel of the narrative, impossible. As a threat of immediate, premature death the words have not been fulfilled, and that God subsequently mitigated or modified the curse, there is nothing whatever to suggest’ . Vos ignores the many references of the phrase as used in the OT, and it means what it says: when, in the day. He does this not for lexical reasons, but because Adam does not organically, immediately die. Noting then that some ‘form’ of death is meant, what kind is meant ‘the answer is not easy to give’ (ibid., 50). Although favoring the meaning of ‘bodily death’, he veers to consider that ‘a deeper conception of death seems to be hinted at’ (50, ital. mine). ‘Death may have been interpretable as separation from God…in a more internal sense’ (50). In other words, Vos strained at getting to admit a spiritual (internal) death. At least we see that Vos is all to aware that the answer is not easy to give. Today’s Evangelicals give the answer with ready quickness: Adam died a spiritual death the day he ate, and ‘in the day’ is not at all lessened as it is in Vos. It is taken, rightly so, at face value. But, this begs the question: if ‘in the day’ is not to be ‘stressed’, then why does spiritual death have to be invoked as an ‘immediate’ (i. e., ‘in the day’) punishment?
It is also striking that Vos simply dismisses the idea that ‘mitigating’ circumstances would not influence a righteous Judge. After all, the serpent coerces the situation, and is certainly judged: ‘because you did this!’ (Gn 3.14). He is the only character in the story that is cursed. Renowned lawyer Adam Dershowitz rightly noted that ‘mitigating circumstances’ come into play here (The Genesis of Justice, Warner Books, 2000, page 43). Dershowitz also recognizes that ‘God does not carry out his explicitly threatened punishment’ (30). Another highly influential intellectual, Aaron Wildavsky, wrote in his landmark work, Moses as Political Leader (Shalem Press, 2005), ‘Adam and Eve did not die…they have to face up to their own mortality…’ (page 32). This is the harrowing dilemma we find in the Romantic literature, and in the existential Philosophers up to our own day: how can we escape death? Every religion, and every philosophy, and even the empirical sciences are fill reams of volumes on the subject .
It remains to be seriously challenged as an impossible exegesis within the Evangelical perspective that the idea of ‘spiritual death’ (as defined as ‘alienation from God’) need not be appealed to as an “answer” to Gn 2-3. That it is an interpretational answer goes without question, but the question is, is it a textual-exegetical answer that can be deduced from the narrative itself? At best, Vos notes that it ‘may be hinted’ at, but so might also God’s discretionary powers to bring, or not bring the force of the penalty in that day. That there were, in fact, ‘mitigating circumstances’. Given Adam and Eve appropriately respond to their acknowledgement of sin (‘I ate’), and that their minds did not immediately become corrupt as described later in Genesis 6.3-ff. notes the gradual working of the ‘powers’ of Sin and Death, afforded by ‘the commandment’ (the Law). Man’s inability to know God intimately is due to his evil reasonability crafted in various self-referenced, autonomous thoughts. Van Til rightly states, ‘The result for man was that he made for himself a false ideal of knowledge‘ (ital. his) . This is not spiritual death, but man very much alive and in rebellion before he faces death – which he does, and will.
‘Men and women,’ writes Longman III and Dillard, ‘deserved death; however from the time of their first sin (Gen. 2:17), God always reached out to them in a gracious way in order to mitigate punishment’ . Even the popular writer Andy Stanley comments, ‘They were warned that on the day that they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die. But they didn’t. Growing up, I was told that they died spiritually. But that’s not part of the story. I was told that they were separated from God. But that is not in the story either. In fact, right after they sinned, Adam and Eve had a long conversation with God’ . What effect this has on our understanding of the good news of a patient God, who also has set a day wherein he will judge the world through a man (Acts 17.31), time will tell. However, ridding error in order to better understand His Truth is the goal of the scholar, the exegete, the seminarian, the servant, and the bond-slave of Jesus Christ.
 David T. Runia, “Philo of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Thought, Alexandrian and Jew,” Studia Philonica Annual 7 (1995): 143-160. ‘It is apparent, therefore, that Philo was well-known in Christian circles not just because of the legend of Philo Christianus. In fact a close reading of the sources shows that most Christian intellectuals were quite well aware that Philo was a Jew who had lived at about the time of Jesus. Philo was also well-known on account of his writings and their contents.’ ‘Philo Christianus’ emerged as a legend from Eusebius (4th century) from his Church History, Book 2.16-17, Eusebius remarks that Philo conversed with Peter in Rome. Runia’s work demonstrates that, ‘Plato is often admired as the pagan thinker closest to the truth of biblical revelation. And time and time again there is demonstrable dependence on Platonic and Platonist ideas in the way that scripture is understood.’ As well, he notes, Philo’s allegorical method ‘allows the interpreter to connect up with and exploit significant philosophical and what we now would call spiritual ideas.’ See further, Bruns, J. (1973). ‘Philo Christianus: The Debris of a Legend’. Harvard Theological Review, 66(1), 141-145.
 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church, Zondervan Academie Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1981. 75.
. Philo, Patrum Ecclesiae Graecorum, Pars II: Philonis Judaei Operum Onium. Legis Allegor I.33, Lipsiae, 1828. 88 – Translation is mine. Further, Philo promotes the death of the body as a lesser death, noting that a soul-death constitutes man as dead, until freed from his body so that he may live. Reading him is remarkably similar to OT Evangelical exegesis.
 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids MI, 1959. 48-49. See also, Anthony Hoeksema, Created in God’s Image, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids MI, 1994. pp. 138-ff., wherein he takes note of the differences between himself, Vos, H. Bavinck, A. Kuyper, L. Berkhof, and G. Ch. Aalders.
 Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, Trans. by Bettina Bergo, Stanford University Press, 1993; on Romantic preoccupation with death see H. G. Schenk, The Mind of the European Romantics, Doubleday-Anchor Books, Garden City NY, 1969. pp. 64-ff.
 C. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2008, 36.
 Raymond B. Dillard, Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids MI, 1994. 28.
 Andy Stanley, The Grace of God, Thomas Nelson, 2010. 14.
What is Spiritual Death?
By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.
7 thoughts on “What is Spiritual Death?”
The “mitigating circumstances” you are alleging to be that “Adam and Eve appropriately responded by their acknowledgment of sin” (i.e. admission of guilt), yes? But is this alone enough to “soften” the punishment? In other words, is this enough to change the “in that day” to “930 years later”? Wouldn’t you also have to include the implied bloody animal’s sacrifice (perhaps two animals), in order to make the skins to cover Adam and Eve? In the story itself, it seems THIS would point to atonement (“covering”), and, therefore, serve as even a better reason for softening the punishment. Furthermore, as you keep reading the story, where would Abel have learned that God would be pleased with an animal sacrifice if NOT pointing back to this event which his parents must’ve related to him? I imagine, “Yes, son, we sinned against our God. But He had mercy on us because we repented and further graciously killed an animal on our behalf so that we wouldn’t die that day and then covered our shameful nakedness with its skin.”
What do you think?
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Thanks for the reply, and yes, that MUST be included. Being brief in the paper, I can’t include all the ideas/motifs going on in Gn 2-3, but do thank you for pointing that out. The “tunic of skin” followed by Abel’s “sacrifice” are certainly related in the proto-Levitical concerns of Genesis (foreshadowing).
Actually, I think you’ve come pretty darn close to the truth. The physical death was inflicted that day, but it fell on a substitute. “In Scripture a garment is a constant symbol of righteousness. You will note that, since a life had to be sacrificed before Adam and Eve could be clothed with coats of skins, there is here a reference to the sufferings of Christ” (Scofield Correspondence Course, Vol. 2, pg. 186). The mitigating factor would be that they believed the Gospel (see 1560 Scotch Confession, Article 4). If there was a spiritual penalty inflicted through Adam’s sin, it was effectively removed when they exercised faith in the promise of Genesis 3:15. Also, the expression to “die the death” is always used of physical death, and is translated in the Geneva Version. If “spiritual death” is taught in Scripture at all, it wasn’t revealed until the NT.
Thanks, I am being encouraged by many others, too. You note the issue that if Adam died, then he must have been regenerated within seconds of his death! This, of course, is highly doubtful. He didn’t ‘die’. As you noted, too, I find it frequently used that an appeal to NT texts (a couple) to ‘read into’ the Gn 2-3 narrative is supposed to be an ‘argument’. This means that no one “knew” they were “spiritually dead” until the NT revealed it! Again, highly suspect. However, what is telling about this appeal is that one CANNOT deduce from the Gn 2-3 narrative ITSELF that Adam “died” that day, spiritually. This must be supplied from somewhere else. For Vos, since the threat ‘was not fulfilled’, then it must carry a ‘deeper’ meaning. But, I can easily infer that it’s not being ‘fulfilled’ simply means God postponed the threat due to mitigating circumstances – which is not hard to see in the Gn 2-3 text itself, and the following story of Cain, and God’s protection of him. That Adam is ‘breath’, and the Hebrew term, nephesh (“soul”), then we know that their ‘eyes being opened’ and they ‘knew’ (yada, verb of the noun, d’ath – knowledge) is rooted in their mind – later ‘heart’ (Gn 6.3-ff.). The idea of ‘making aware’ for ‘opened eyes’ we find in Gn 21.19. See also Ex 23.8: a bribe blinds the opened eyed. 2 Kings 6.17; They became aware that they had done wrong, instead of doing good – which Eve was “tricked” into thinking that what she was doing was “good”, and Adam “with her” who “heard the voice of his wife” while she was talking to the creature of the field. Seeing that she did not ‘die’ meant the serpent was correct – inferring that the ban was now lifted, and God now permits them to eat of ‘all the trees of the Garden.’
Coming at the text this way, we can see that now being in the state of having their eyes opened, and now being able to ‘decide for themselves’ what is good and evil (apart from revelation knowledge), is shown in the following narratives. Cain hears God, talks with him, yet still acts on his own decision to kill (God simply says, “do good and it will go well with you” – apparently, in some twist of mind, Cain thought that the ‘good’ to do here was to off Abel. He made his own course. God, of course, protects him, yet does place limitations. By the time we get to Gn 6, man’s thinking is now ‘evil’ – totally corrupt. Yet, God ‘reveals’ himself to Noah, and Noah responds in obedience to the ‘vision’ of the Ark and its dimensions. Man, left to his own devices, is bent towards evil – easily manipulated by Sin and Temptation – easily besetting sins. He can be fooled, conned, and even believe the most craziest of ideas as ‘fact’. With amazing calculations, he can even ‘prove’ his facts as he sees it. These narratives highlight the need for 1. The Word of God (what God has said – which is what is attacked) 2. Getting the word of God correct. 3. The necessity of revelation, or divine-personal communication, in terms of what is “good” and “evil” (ethics, morals, life in general).
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Two thumbs up on another thought-provoking post!
I think John Walton hits the nail on the head when he reminds us that “the meaning of the Hebrew phrase in Gen 2:17” is that “they would be doomed to death” in the day they ate of the tree (The Lost World of Genesis One, pp. 99-100). Is this not exactly what happened? “Without access to the tree of life,” he continues, “humans were doomed to the natural mortality of their bodies and were therefore doomed to die” (p. 100). Inserting some abstract concept, like “spiritual death” (a phrase not found in Scripture) is unwarranted.
Robert Cruickshank Jr
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Yes, I believe Walton makes that point in one of his LOST book series. I have to look at that again (I have them somewhere in my library!). But, yes, increasingly, I am noting that some are seeing this – relooking at it – without minimizing the “universal effects” of Adam’s “transgression”. I myself am receiving a good deal of positive feedback like yours, and that’s encouraging! Focusing on the fact that their “consciences would be awakened” (Wilbur Glenn Williams, Genesis: A Bible Commentary in the Weslyan Tradition. Weslyan Publishing House. 2000. Page 54) opens up for us the whole universal conversation of human beings acting as “deities” deciding what is “right and wrong” for others – in the face of having those very “others” deciding for themselves what is “right and wrong” – and going to war. The whole cradle of philosophy and religion – in contemplation of our knowledge of mortality (Nietzsche) – is the bedrock of the Great Conversation. Human beings are not “spiritually dead”. They are very much quite alive, and thinking. God’s thoughts? Or their own?
I agree with Bob on this as well. The phrase is misunderstood because of our distance both in time and in culture from the original audience. Walton isn’t alone on this, but he explains it quite well.
The idea of “spiritual death” is also problematic in places like Eph. 2:1, 5 and Col. 2:13 as well, as some grammarians, such as E.W. Bullinger, recognize.
The problem with trying to attribute spiritual death to Gen. 2:17 is that the writer of the first five books of the Bible never uses the Hebrew word for “die” in that way. In the entire OT, we find the idea of the nation of Israel being spiritually dead, meaning wayward, but never do we see this applied to the human spirit on an individual level. I agree, every living being is very much alive, including the spirit. God communicates with man Spirit-to-spirit in order to bring man to belief. Thus the spirit must be alive before belief is even possible, right?