Many believe, and some of these are Christians, that man dies because he is part of the natural order in the same way that everything else is. To these, death is as natural or normal for human beings as it is for every other living thing. On the contrary, I believe the Bible teaches that although the immediate consequence of Adam’s sin was spiritual death, it is more likely that physical death is the principal focus of Genesis 2:16-17:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (NKJV, emphasis mine).
It is, of course, the emphasized phrase that has given rise to much discussion over the years. Critics of the Bible, who assume this passage refers to physical death, have argued the Bible cannot be trusted because Adam did not die physically until he was 960 years old, which was many hundreds of years after the event in question took place (Gen. 5:5). But in assuming this passage is speaking primarily of physical death (and I know that most who read here will probably not think so), does it necessarily teach that Adam would have had to physically die that day? Furthermore, does the claim that the Hebrew word meaning “die” (mûth, Strong’s #H4191) is repeated twice and can literally be translated “dying he will die” have any bearing on this? In trying to answer these questions, I found the following from an article by Dr. Terry Mortenson, entitled “Genesis 2:17-‘you shall surely die,’” which is found here, to be helpful:
The Hebrew has beyom (בְּיוֹם), where the Hebrew preposition b (ב, usually is translated “in”) is connected as a prefix to yom (יוֹם, which is the word for “day”). This Hebrew temporal adverb is often translated with the English prepositional phrase “in the day that.” This would be the essentially “woodenly literal” translation (although “the” and “that” are not in the Hebrew but are added to make the English sound smooth). But only sometimes (not always) does beyom refer to a literal day, in which case the context makes it clear. This same construction (beyom) appears in Genesis 2:4 and does not refer to a specific 24-hour day but to the whole creation week of six literal days. See also Numbers 7:10-84, where in verses 10 and 84 beyom refers to a period of twelve days of sacrifice. But a different construction occurs in between those verses. There in verses 12, 18, 24, etc., which describe the sacrifices of each of those days, bayyom (בַּיּוֹם) is used, where the “a” (the vowel mark under the first Hebrew letter on the right) and the dot (dagesh) under the second letter on the right (yod) indicate the definite article “the.” (For days 11 and 12, in verses 72 and 78, we find beyom). The phrase beyom is therefore sometimes rightly translated as “when,” referring to a period longer than a day, as in the NIV in both Genesis 2:4 and Genesis 2:17 (and in Numbers 7:10 and 84 and elsewhere—the NAS, HCSB and NKJV versions also translate it as “when” in these verses in Numbers).
So, from all this we conclude that the construction “dying you shall die” and beyom in Genesis 2:17 do not require us to conclude that God was warning that “the very day you eat from the tree is the exact same day that you will die physically.” The Hebrew wording of Genesis 2:17 allows for a time lapse between the instantaneous spiritual death on that sad day of disobedience and the later physical death (which certainly did happen, just as God said, but for Adam it was 930 years later). As Scripture consistently teaches, both kinds of death (spiritual and physical) are the consequence of Adam’s rebellion.
Now, when it comes to Romans 5:12ff., which is an inspired commentary on Genesis 2:16-17, the question that immediately comes to mind is, “Is this referring to ‘spiritual’ death or ‘physical’ death.” In my own struggle with this passage, I’m fairly certain it’s physical death until I get to the “for all have sinned” part, which clearly introduces into the equation our own personal culpability. Rejecting the Augustinian-Calvinistic idea that it was “in Adam’s sin” that we all became guilty of sin, I had concluded, along with many others, that this passage must be referring primarily to spiritual death. I no longer think so. After all, if spiritual death resulting from our own culpability is all that is meant, then why bring up Adam (v. 14)?
What, then, does Adam have to do with it? Well, we know it was Adam who introduced sin and its consequences into the world. We know that when Adam sinned, he died spiritually. But not only that, we also know he began to die physically as well. Thus, he became spiritually DEAD and physically DYING. Likewise, as we sinned, we became spiritually DEAD and, because of Adam’s sin, are on a track that ends in physical DEATH. As Paul’s point was to contrast what we have in connection with Adam with what we have in connection with Christ, it does not seem, at all, unusual that Paul would be referencing physical death and its devastating consequences in light of the given of man’s spiritual death—namely, all have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).
With this in view, I have started thinking of death as not so much an event as it is a process (viz., SPIRITUAL death + PHYSICAL death = ETERNAL death, or triple “D” death, if you will). Thus, it seems pretty clear to me that death, when viewed as the wages to be drawn on in connection with sin in Romans 6:23, is a “package deal” that will culminate, for those not in connection with Christ, in “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” in “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (2 Thess. 1:9; Mt. 25:41). It is this latter fate that every unredeemed sinner faces in connection with Adam, which is a fate that stands in stark, unembellished contrast to the hope we spiritually redeemed have that our yet to be completely redeemed bodies will, one day, be totally redeemed and glorified in connection with Christ. At that time, being both spiritually and physically redeemed, we will experience ETERNAL LIFE in its unimaginable fullness. Then, and only then, will the wages of sin (i.e., triple “D” death) have been TOTALLY REVERSED. This is the reason we hear Paul exclaim:
So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP IN VICTORY.” (55) “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING? O HADES, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY?” (56) The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. (57) But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (58) Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord [emphasis in the original]
Finally, there is nothing in such a view of death that would require Jesus, as our sacrificial substitute, to experience eternal death on our behalf. On the contrary, it was His task to taste, to the degree satisfactory to the Father, spiritual and physical death so that we sinners, by faith in Him, could avoid the deserved “end result” of our sin, which is, of course, ETERNAL DEATH. Thus, I believe the concept of triple “D” death is important, especially when dealing with the question of what Jesus had to experience if He was, indeed, punished by the Father in our stead. This article serves as the beginning of a series of articles I intend to post in defense of Jesus’ vicarious death and substitutionary atonement.