Part I: The Intrusion of Death
The Original Immortals
Made after the power
of an endless life.
It has very
commonly been held from the earliest times that Adam and Eve
were originally immortal. Pagan writers of antiquity and the
oral traditions of some contemporary primitive people reflect
the same view: man at first was not subject to death. Moreover,
we have seen that even after death had been introduced into human
experience by sin, the longevity of the first few generations
was held by all nations of antiquity to have still been very
great, declining to the present limits only after two thousand
years or so.
Early Jewish historians held that
Adam and Eve need not have died, and they drew certain very logical
conclusions from it. The Church Fathers of the first few centuries
of the present era held the same opinion, basing it upon the
same statements of Scripture which had guided the Jews. Church
Councils later categorically asserted it and held it an important
truth to be accepted by the faithful. And since that time many
of the best informed commentators have explored the implications
of it at some length.
Let us set forth the passages of
Scripture in both the Old and the New Testaments which bear directly
upon the circumstances surrounding man's creation and subsequent
testing in the Garden of Eden.
26 And God said, Let us make man in our
image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion
overthe fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over
the cattle, and over all the earth, and
over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in
the image of God created he him; male and female
created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto
them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish
the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of
the sea, and over the fowl of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every
herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all
the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree
yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
30 And to every beast of the earth, and to
every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth
upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green
herb for meat: and it was so.
7 And the Lord God formed man of the dust
of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils
the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
8 And the Lord God planted a garden eastward
in Eden: and there he put the man whom
he had formed.
9 And out of the ground made the Lord God to
grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight,
and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the
garden, and the tree of knowledge
of good and evil.
15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him
into the garden of Eden to dress it and
to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying,
Of every tree of the garden thou mayest
17 But of the tree of know ledge of good and
evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that
thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that
the man should be alone; I will make a help meet
19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed
every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air;
and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and
whatsoever Adam called every
living creature, that was the name thereof.
20 And Adam gave names to all the cattle, and
to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field;
but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
21 And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to
fall upon Adam and he slept: and he took one
of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
22 And the rib, which the Lord God had taken
from man, made he a woman, and brought her
unto the man.
23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones,
and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called
Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and
his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and
they shall be one flesh.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his
wife, and were not ashamed. . . . .
2 of 11
22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man
is become as one of us, to know good and evil:
and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree
of life, and eat, and live forever:
23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from
the garden of Eden, to till the ground
from whence he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at
the east of the garden of Eden cherubim,
and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of
the tree of life.
12 Wherefore as by one man sin entered into
the world, and death by sin; and so death
passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
13 For until the law, sin was in the world:
but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to
Moses, even over them that had not sinned
after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure
of him that was to come.
1 Corinthians 15:
21 For since by man came death, by man came also
the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ
shall all be made alive.
1 Timothy 2:
13 For Adam was first formed, and then Eve.
14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman
being deceived was in the transgression.
to an analysis of the circumstances surrounding these events
in Eden, it is important once again to underscore the fact that
in the present context the term immortal is being used
entirely in its biological sense. It has reference here only
to the physical life, not spiritual life (which is not the issue
at the moment), and it means that the organism has the natural
capacity to stay alive indefinitely. It allows that death is
possible from outside causes (predation, poisoning, etc.) but
states that it is not an inherent principle of the life of the
Man as now constituted,
however, does not enjoy immortality, having forfeited it by eating
the forbidden fruit. It is most important to bear in mind, therefore,
that the penalty of eating the forbidden fruit was not the mere
shortening of a life which would have terminated later
in any case, but the introduction of death as an entirely
new experience for man as a species.
There are other forms of life which
also appear to be subject to death, but not because they have
forfeited something they once possessed. It is rather
that they seem to have a built-in or "programmed limitation"
to length of life, designed to prevent over-population. In unfallen
man no such designed limitation was needed to prevent over-population
because removal by translation would effectively have served
this purpose. The meaning of programmed limitation will be made
explicit in Chapter 8.
The point of importance at this
juncture is to recognize that for such creatures a mortal condition
is not in any way the result of a judgment brought upon them
as a species ‹ except in so far as the Fall of man has made
him destructive of all other forms of life. It is part of the
economy of Nature that no species shall be allowed to multiply
at the expense of any other: it is in this sense natural,
an essential factor in the total balance of Nature. For man,
by complete contrast,
death is UN-natural.
For him, it is forfeiture of a once enjoyed potential. Animals
die: man, strictly speaking, is executed. The death of
man is not the same thing at all as the death of an animal, neither
when considered in its theological aspects nor in its physiological
aspects. This means that the physical life of man is different
in some way also, and that Adam did not derive it from any animal
In 1895 James Denny,
inspired by James Orr, wrote a remarkable forecast of the present
position which was far in advance of the views held by many of
his theological contemporaries. It is a long extract, but seems
worthy to be quoted in full. He wrote:†
There is one special question
here to which Scripture teaching gives a peculiar importance
‹ the question
as to the connection of sin and death. In the Old Testament and
in the New alike the connection is maintained: man dies because
of sin; or, as St. Paul puts it, the wages of sin is death. .
. . All men must die. Mortality is a consequence of sin.
But is this true? Is it really because
of sin that men die? The consenting voice of science seems to
say no: death reigned in the world long before man and what theologians
call sin, appeared. Death is a law of nature; it is an essential
lever in the great machine of the world. Every living creature
is born with the seeds of decay in it; it is like a clock, wound
up to go for a certain number of hours, but liable, of course,
to be stopped by a thousand accidents before it has run down
of itself. This line of argument, backed up by the actual universality
of death, has something imposing about it, and a good many theologians
accept it without more ado. Possibly they try to secure the truth
of the Scripture idea by making death mean something else than
death means in common language: they darken it by shadows of
spiritual and eternal separation from God, as distinct from the
purely natural experience ordinarily indicated by this name.
I do not think that these
distinctions avail at all to secure the Scripture doctrine, and
if it is to be maintained, as I think it ought to be, the line
of defense must be drawn further back. The scientific assertion
of the natural necessity of death, closely considered, really
amounts to a begging of the question. Man, it means, must
die, must always have died, because he is a natural
being, subject to the universal law of birth and decay; there
is nothing but this for him. But the whole ground on which the
Bible doctrine is based is that man is not simply a natural
being, with nothing but the destiny which awaits all
* Hugh Miller was perceptive enough to see
that the Theory of Evolution is fatal when applied to man, on
this account. See Note #113 at the end of this chapter.
† Denny, James, Studies
in Theology. Grand Rapids, Baker, 1967 reprint, p.97ff.
nature awaiting him. He is a being invested
by his very constitution with a primacy over nature; he is related
to God in a way which makes him specifically distinct from every
merely natural being, in a way which those who understand it
regard as containing at least the promise and the possibility
of immortality. To say that he must die, because he is
a natural being, ignores all this: it amounts to a proof of man's
mortality only in the sense that it is a disproof of his immortality.
But this disproof carries us too
far: it would not be recognized as valid by most of those who
have too hastily accepted the inference which it includes, viz.,
that death is inevitable for man, simply because of his incorporation
in nature. Once we understand what man is, we see that death
in him demands an explanation which is not demanded in the case
of creatures whose whole life is bounded by nature; and that
explanation is supplied by Scripture when it makes death the
punishment of sin. Death means, in this case, what we see when
we stand beside the dying, or rather what the dying experience
as their connection with the present order ceases. It is a mistake
to minimize the significance of this by speaking of it as if
it were only natural, by speaking, as people sometimes do, even
where Christ is concerned, of "mere physical death."
There is nothing whatever, in human
experience, which is merely physical; death is not merely physical;
it is human; one, awful, indivisible experience, which cannot
be analyzed, and which is profaned when it is identified with
anything that could befall a lower than human nature. We can
be redeemed from the fear and bitterness of it by Jesus Christ;
but in itself it has not a natural but a spiritual character:
to the consciousness of man, in which it exists in its completeness,
it is not the debt of nature, but the wages of sin. . . . The
fact that man is constituted for immortality, and has the promise
of it in his being from the first, forbids us to ascribe to death
a natural and inevitable place in his career. It is an intrusion,
and it is to be finally abolished. [Emphasis his]
Now this once
enjoyed potential may be termed "contingent immortality."
And the term is entirely appropriate since man was able by disobedience
to nullify the conditions upon which his immortality hinged.
Although the immortality of the angels appears to be unconditional,
they are created beings as man is, and therefore their existence
is conditional upon the will of God and does not inhere in their
nature. Immortality in the absolutely unconditional sense
belongs only to God (1 Timothy 6:16).
Let us consider, then, what the
biblical record implies by analyzing first of all the situation
in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had eaten of
the forbidden fruit. The specific phrases which I wish to elaborate
upon are italicized in
the following excerpt from Genesis 3:22-24:
And the Lord God said. . ."and
now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the
tree of life and eat, and live forever. . . .
Therefore the Lord God sent
him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from
whence he was taken.
So he drove out the man;
and he placed at the east of the Garden of Eden cherubim,
a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of
the tree of life.
is probably the only unfinished sentence in Scripture. That it
is an unfinished sentence has been recognized for a very
long time. The King James Version has a colon after the
words for ever and the sentence which follows is so structured
as to show that the translators did not consider it a direct
continuance of verse 22. They therefore adopted the colon as
a device for showing that the sentence was left hanging. In place
of a colon the Revised Standard Version and the American
Standard Version have both used a long dash where I have
used a series of dots. The intention is clearly the same. Some
other modern translations have re-phrased the sentence and effectively
concealed the potential danger implicit in the original by its
incompleteness. They seem to have felt that something was wrong
with the sentence as it stood and corrected it accordingly. Smith
and Goodspeed have added the words "(suppose he were to)
reach out his hand, etc." and have concluded with an exclamation
mark. The effect is somewhat the same, and so are the implications,
but it is not strictly true to the original. The Jerusalem
Bible has, to my mind, spoiled the impact of the original
by rendering it, "He must not be allowed, etc.," which
is more a statement of the precautionary measures taken than
of the reason for taking them.
Yet in all these diverse renderings,
the implication is simply that had Adam and Eve been permitted
access to the Tree of Life, they would have recovered the physical
immortality which they had forfeited by disobedience. *
But why forbid
now what had previously been clearly allowed and
* It is remarkable that in his Institutes
Calvin seems to have failed to see the biological implications
of this passage. He makes only two references to Genesis 3:22
(Bk. IV, iv, Sect. 12, 18). In both cases he is concerned only
or chiefly to stress the spiritual aspects of Adam's situation.
God excluded him from the Tree of Life lest he suppose that by
resort to it, he should be neutralizing the effects of his spiritual
disobedience, thus circumventing the need for the operation of
the grace of God in salvation through Jesus Christ. Although
Judaeus Philo (B.C. 20‹39 A.D.), the wealthy Greek-educated
Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, had many fanciful interpretations
of Genesis, he observed succinctly at this point "It
is unseemly to immortalize evil, and it is unprofitable for him
to whom it happens. For the longer the evil and wicked man lives,
the more wicked he is and the more greatly harmful both to himself
and to others." [Questions and Answers on Genesis,
translated by Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard,
had not yet been abused?
Genesis 2:9 shows that the Tree of Life had been there in the
Garden from the beginning and, if we may argue from the absence
of any injunction to the contrary, it had been accessible to
them, since Genesis 2:17 seems to indicate that only the Tree
of Knowledge had been forbidden.
All commentators who have engaged
themselves with the story of Eden have addressed this question.
The Rabbinic commentators studied the record of man's fall and
though their reasoning is sometimes a little strange to our way
of thinking, they nevertheless reached conclusions which have
been shared by the Christian Church in all ages. First of all,
they argued that angels are not propagated but are immortal,
whereas animals are propagated and are destined to die. "Whereupon
God said, 'I will create man to be the mirror of both of them,
so that when he sins, when he behaves like an animal, death shall
overtake him: but if he refrains from sin, he shall be immortal,'"
(i.e., like an angel). * There is another form of this view which
states more simply that "Every man could live forever if
he should lead a sinless life." **
Jacob Newman, in his edition of
the commentary on Genesis by Nahmanides written in the thirteenth
century A.D., translates the latter's comments on Genesis 2:17
as follows: "In the opinion of our rabbis, if Adam had not
sinned he would never have died, for the superior soul gives
life for ever."† But the
Jews went further than this and, reasonably enough, postulated
that, so long as Adam and Eve remained sinless, their married
life would have been pure and they would have begotten immortal
Ginsberg states the early Jewish
understanding of man's original condition: "Had it not been
for the Fall, death would not have been so terrible and painful,
but a joyful incident in man's career."‡
He gives several references where this view is clearly expressed
in rabbinical commentaries.
Moreover, the Wisdom Literature
of the Jewish people in pre-Christian times reflects the same
view. In the apocryphal work The Wisdom of Solomon at
1:13-15 it is written: "God made not death;
* Ginsberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews,
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Association of America.,
1955, vol.1, p.50, quoting from the Midrash, Bereshith Rabba
** Ginsberg, Louis, ibid., vol.5, p.129.
† Newman, Jacob, The Commentary of Nahmanides on
Gen. 1-6:8, London, Brill, 1960, p.71.
◊ Ginsberg, Louis, ibid., vol.5, p.1-4.
‡ Ginsberg, Louis, ibid., vol.5, p.129.
neither delighteth He
when the living perish. For He created all things that they might
have being and the generative powers of the world are healthsome,
and there is no poison of destruction in them . . . For righteousness
is immortal." And in 2:23, "God created man for incorruption."
Both are from the Revised Version of 1884. It is interesting
that the word poison should have been employed here in
view of what is to be said later in this volume regarding the
nature of the forbidden fruit.
The early Church Fathers were certainly
aware of this Jewish traditional lore because, after all, the
Christian Church was entirely composed of Jews in its initial
stages of development. For example, Jerome (340‹420 A.D.)
in his Commentary entitled Questions on Genesis, favoured
the adoption of a translation for the latter part of Genesis
2:17 which had been previously suggested by Symmachus (a second
century Ebionite who had translated the Hebrew Old Testament
into Greek): "Thou shalt become mortal and liable
to death." Thus Symmachus had sought to indicate his belief
that Adam had potential immortality to begin with. Yet for some
reason Jerome himself did not adopt this rendering in the Vulgate,
perhaps being more strongly influenced by the Septuagint which
does not agree with Symmachus' version in this. *
Augustine (354‹416 A.D.) thought
much about the position of Adam before he fell and, with characteristic
insight, hit upon the exact truth and expressed it with the simplicity
of genius in words which we have already noted. Before the Fall
it was not impossible for Adam to die but it was possible for
him not to die. To use his actual words: non imposse mori
sed posse non mori.† The
fact that Adam could die, demonstrated to Augustine that the
immortality he at first enjoyed was not the same kind of immortality
that the angels enjoyed, since the "death" of an angel
would be annihilation. So Augustine argued that Adam was "immortal
by the benefit of his Creator." By which he evidently intended
that Adam could have lived on forever, his body being so constituted
that with the external aid of the Tree of Life to preserve its
balanced functioning he would have been continually renewed against
any aging of his cells. He was immortal, therefore, not because
he had such power in himself to be so, but because God had made
such a thing possible, provided Adam maintained the
* Jerome: quoted by Harold Browne, Commentary
on Genesis, New York, Scribner, Armstrong, & Co., 1873,
† Augustine: De Genesi ad Litteram, Book I,
p.25, note 35 [in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Buffalo, Christian
Literature Co., 1886, vol.1, p.73, footnote.
right conditions of life
both spiritual and physical. Adam's immortality was contingent,
not absolute. Augustine continually reverted to the circumstances
surrounding man's present mortal estate. In his treatise Enchiridion
(chapter105), he said:
[God] willed to show how good
is a rational being who is able to refrain from sin, and yet
how much better is one who cannot sin at all; just
as that was immortality when it was possible for man to avoid
death, yet there is reserved for the future a more perfect immortality
when it shall be impossible for man to die.
out with great clarity and precision the status of Adam and Eve
as first created. In his De Genesi ad Litteram (Book VI,
p.25) he wrote: "Aliud est non posse mori, sicut quasdam
naturas immortales creavit Deus; aliud est autem posse non mori,
secundum quem modum primus creatus est homo immortalis":
i.e., "It is one thing not to be able to die, as if what
God created were immortal beings; however, it is another thing
to be able not to die, after which pattern the first [Adam] was
created an immortal human being."
Augustine felt there was a semantic
problem here. What was one to call a creature that could die
but need not, if one is to reserve the word "immortal"
for a creature that cannot die? He tried to spell out
this distinction in his treatise on The Merits and Forgiveness
of Sins (Book 1, p.5) where he titles one particular section
thus: "The words MORTALE [capable of dying], MORTUUM
[dead], and MORITURUS [destined to die]."
Then he comments as follows:
Now previous to the change into
the incorruptible state which is promised in the resurrection
of the saints, the body could be mortal (capable of dying),
although not destined to die (MORITURUS). . . . In like
manner was man's body then mortal; and this mortality
was to have been superseded by an eternal incorruption, if man
had persevered in righteousness, that is to say in obedience:
but even what was mortal (MORTALE) was not made dead (MORTUUM)
except on account of sin.
For the change which is to come
in at the resurrection is, in truth, not only not to have death
incidental to it, which has happened through sin, but neither
is it to have mortality (or the very possibility of death)
which the natural body had before it sinned.
would have delighted in finding out about the nature of the amoeba
and the paramecia! They exactly fulfill the conditions of Adam
as created: capable of being killed but not naturally subject
to death. In his City of God (Book XII, p.21) he wrote:
Man whose nature was to be a
mean between the angelic [which can never die, ACC] and the bestial
[for whom death is programmed, ACC], was created in such sort
that if he remained in subjection
to his Creator as his rightful Lord,
and piously kept his commandments, he should pass into the company
of angels and obtain without the intervention of death a blessed
and endless immortality; but if he offended the Lord his God
by a proud and disobedient use of his free will, he should become
subject to death and live as the beasts do ‹ doomed to eternal
punishment after death.
his treatise on Merits and Forgiveness (Book I, p..2)
Augustine had written, "If Adam had not sinned, he would
not have been divested of his body, but would have been clothed
upon with immortality and incorruption . . . passing from the
natural body into the spiritual body."
Perhaps the Tree of Life in the
normal course of unfallen man's life would have preserved the
metabolic balance of his body in a state of perfect equilibrium.
But it seems also to have the power to heal even this mortal
wound after he had fallen. Thus it came about that before
the Fall only the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden to him:
but after the Fall only the Tree of Life was forbidden.
Each was equally dangerous when taken out of place, and both
of them were so in specific relation to the experience of physical
we seem to have the basic truth which lies behind the worldwide
tradition of a period in history when man was immortal. Such
tradition virtually without exception places the Golden Age of
human experience in the past, not in the future as ‹ evolutionary
optimism proposes. Without revelation, mankind could not know
that this Golden Age will be recovered one day. A Golden
Age marks both the beginning and the end of history ‹ this
is what revelation tells us.
The implications of this tradition
of immortality were explored by many who took the biblical record
as sober history. Some of their conclusions, as we know from
the New Testament, were perfectly sound: and, as we also know,
were in anticipation of some of the discoveries of modern biology.
113. Here are Hugh Miller's words:
"If, during a period so vast as to be scarce expressible
by figures, the creatures now human have been rising, by almost
infinitesimals, from compound microscopic cells . . . until they
have at length become the men and women whom we see around us,
we must hold either the monstrous belief, that all the vitalities,
whether those of monads or of mites, of fishes or of reptiles,
of birds or of beasts, are individually and inherently immortal
and undying, or that human souls are not so. The difference between
the dying and the undying, ‹ between the spirit of the brute
that goeth downward, and the spirit of the man that goeth upward,
‹ is not a difference infinitesimally, or even atomically
small. It possesses all the breath of eternity to come, and is
an infinitely great distance...Nor will it do to attempt to escape
from the difficulty by alleging that God at some certain link
in the chain might have converted a mortal creature into an immortal
existence, by breathing into it a 'living soul'; seeing that
a renunciation of any such direct interference on the part of
the Deity in the work of creation forms the prominent and characteristic
part of the scheme, ‹ nay, that it constitutes the very nucleus
around which the scheme has originated. . . . If man be
a dying creature, restricted in his existence to the present
scene of things, what does it really matter to him, for moral
purpose, whether there be a God or no?" [Footprints of
the Creator, Boston, 1850, p.38,39].
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
Previous Chapter Next