So now we must consider, what is the significance of the Fall for our understanding of death and immortality? What ought we to make of the command that eating of the forbidden tree will cause death, (Gen 2:17) or the subsequent banishment from the garden of Eden (Gen 3:16-24) and the regular assertion that death exists because of sin (Romans 1:23; 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:50)? What was man’s created state, and how was that altered by the fall?
Here are three main answers to these questions:
1) Man possessed immortality, which he forfeit
Man was created immortal, with the threat of death for disobedience. Upon eating the forbidden fruit, man forfeit immortality and became subject to corruption, physical death and separation from God. This position has the benefit of being a relatively natural way of reading the Genesis account. If you believe that the world was created entirely perfect with no potentiality of death in Gen 1-2, then you need this kind of view to fill in the gaps. I personally think this reads a little too much into God’s pronouncement that the world was ‘good’, which may more likely mean that God was satisfied with His work, rather than that there was not a hint of decay in it.
I would also suggest that there seems to be something a little illogical about the idea of immortal man forfeiting immortality. Surely immortality, by definition, implies permanence and irreversibility. In what sense, therefore, can immortality be rescinded? Nor is it satisfactory to argue that man was created immortal and could have that immortality permanentised by virtue of proving himself obedient during a probation period in Eden, since there cannot be degrees of immortality, nor can it be a momentary or temporary state.
On the other hand, I would suggest, there is nothing logically incoherent with the idea of immortality being granted to a previously-mortal being.
2) Man never possessed immortality, nor was he ever intended to
Another approach suggests that man was created mortal and death is simply a part of God’s creation. Katherine Sonderegger writes that death and life are the markers of the doctrine of providence and that,
Under the Lord’s gracious ordering, all creatures and the cosmos as a whole are marked out, ranked and structured by natural death […] To be a creature under God’s hand is to exist for a season and a day, a season and a day only, and at the end to be returned to the dust, the pit and the places that know them no more. Death is not principally and properly the last enemy.1
Sonderegger argues that death distinguishes creature from creator.2 Death is not simply a neutral fact of human existence, but “in its essence, death is the good, gracious and healthful work of Almighty God.”3 It is pleasing to Him, since it is a form of sacrifice.4 She argues that the death which comes as the result of sin is ‘the second death’ or ‘the sting of death’, which she defines as corruptions such as sin or evil.5
I think this view has an unhelpfully positive view of death, which jars with the biblical perspective. It is one thing to accept that death may exist in God’s creation, but quite another to see it as something good and pleasing to Him. Scripture regularly describes it as an enemy and an unwanted evil, and as Rahner reminds us, whilst we all accept death as inevitable “at the same time, a secret protest and an inextinguishable horror before the end abides in every man.”6
Although God can utilise death for His purposes, (eg. Deut 32:39) that doesn’t mean that it is good. The Wisdom of Solomon says that “God did not make death and he does not take delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist […] For righteousness is immortal.” (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15)
Sonderegger fails to adequately differentiate between different causes of death; the gradual weakening of the body to the point of expiration; accidental death; brutal death at the hands of another, and so on. Are we to say that all forms of death are good? Or if we are to make a distinction between good and evil deaths, on what grounds, since either may be God’s chosen method of numbering our days.
It is unclear how Jesus’ physical death (the first death) and rising to bodily life, constitutes only victory over the second death.7 I would have thought that his bodily resurrection, which guarantees our own resurrection, implies that physical death is unnatural. In this I agree with Cullmann that,
The belief in the resurrection presupposes the Jewish connexion between death and sin. Death is not something natural, willed by God, as in the thought of the Greek philosophers; it is rather something unnatural, abnormal, opposed to God. The Genesis narrative teaches us that it came into the world only by the sin of man. […] To be sure, God can make use of death […] Nevertheless, death as such is the enemy of God.8
Whilst I agree with Sonderegger that man was not created fully immortal, I do not share her positive view of death.
3) Man was neither created mortal, nor immortal, though had the potentiality to become either
I consider this third approach, of which there are at least two variants, to be the most logical, doing justice to the text of Genesis 2-3, and taking seriously the eschatological resurrection.
Karl Rahner argues that death is, and has always been, common to all men. Yet “death is an event of actual salvation or damnation involving the whole man”9 and man has the potentiality of dying in both directions.10 Now humans die either the death of Adam or of Christ; death is either “evidence of man’s sinfulness, or of his participation by faith in the destiny of our Lord.”11In Eden, Adam would have died, but his death would have taken on one of two forms, either a separation of body and soul – a death “hidden in darkness”12 – as a result of his disobedience, or, had he been obedient, “his end would have been the perfection and preservation of the personal reality effected in life.”13 Through obedience to the command of God, Rahner argues, Adam would have achieved the consummation – the transformation of his body and soul into a perfect, imperishable form – a ‘death without dying.’14 As a whole being he would have experienced that which believers will experience at the new creation, but “without suffering any violent dissolution of his actual bodily constitution through a power from without.”15
Rahner’s position combines a number of the strengths of the previous two approaches. It takes seriously the threat of death in Genesis 2:17, understanding it to be the separation of body and soul; it affirms the immortality of the soul and mortality of the body; it pre-empts the biblical doctrine of the resurrection; and whilst affirming that even Adam might have died, avoids affirming death as pleasing to God. Immortality for the whole being, the consummation, was potential for Adam, yet forfeit due to his sin. Now man must undergo a violent, unnatural separation of body and soul, but that experience of death will either be the death of Adam, “guilt made visible”,16 or the death of Christ, anticipating the final consummation. Death “may be a darkness which manifests the eternal death, or it may be a twilight, in which alone that faith is possible by which man appropriates to himself the salvation brought about by Christ.”17
Whilst I find much of this construction compelling, I feel it does not pay sufficient attention to the manner in which Adam might have achieved the consummation. In the Eden story, we are introduced to the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil at the same point in the narrative, and their shared centrality in the garden indicates their centrality to the story (Gen 2:9). Once man has eaten of the forbidden tree, God’s act of punishment references the Tree of Life,
“See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” – therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:22-24)
Eating of the Tree of Life appears to be the way in which man achieves immortality. Hence when God banished man from the garden, His decision was a gracious one, saving man from the agony of living forever in a fallen state.
Michael Horton describes Adam’s pre-fallen state as being “between the two trees: between everlasting confirmation in blessing and everlasting confirmation in death”18 and he rightly sees the banishment from the garden as an act of God’s mercy in which “He delayed the consummation, which would have left humanity – indeed the whole creation – under the everlasting sentence of death and judgment”19 and “promised the triumph of the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head.”20
Horton goes on to argue that both body and soul were created mortal with the chance of immortality offered to them.21 I personally find this a little peculiar, since it suggests that at the point of judgment, God made the soul immortal so that it did not suffer the same fate as the physical body and could survive across the period of separation. This seems odd at best and malevolent at worst! I think it makes more sense to imagine that the soul was already gifted with immortality, and that the body was created to go either way, depending on man’s obedience to God’s command.
I would propose that this third approach takes seriously the nature of man (an holistic, dualistic being), the nature of death (the unnatural separation of man’s body and soul), the hope of the resurrection (the reuniting and transforming of those two elements into a single, imperishable form) and the place of the two trees in the Genesis narrative.
In the final post, I shall try to tie all of this together and offer a concluding summary.
1. Sonderegger ‘The Doctrine of Providence’ in Francesca Aran Murphy and Philip G. Ziegler (eds.), The Providence of God (2009), p. 150
2. Ibid., p. 152, cf. Psalm 102:26-27.
3. Ibid., p. 152.
4. Ibid., p. 153.
5. Ibid., p. 152.
6. Rahner, On the Theology of Death, (1961), p. 61. See too Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting(2000), p. 198.
7. Sonderegger ‘The Doctrine of Providence’ op. cit. pp. 154, 157.
8. Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection from the Dead? (1958), p. 28.
9. Rahner, On the Theology of Death op. cit., p. 46.
10. Ibid., p. 44.
11. Ibid., p. 46, cf. 44.
12. Ibid., p. 50. See too pp. 62-63, 65, 76-78.
13. Ibid., p. 50.
14. Ibid., p. 42-43.
15. Ibid., p. 42.
16. Ibid., p. 57.
17. Ibid., p. 54.
18. Horton, The Christian Faith (2011), p. 387.
19. Ibid., p. 437.
20. Ibid., p. 437.
21. Ibid., p. 387.