Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Was Adam Immortal?

When I was younger, I used to spend a fair bit of time looking at and refuting lots of alleged contradictions in the Bible. They were mostly really really easy, which gave me confidence that the people arguing against the Bible didn't really have any good arguments. Here's an example of one of the better ones.

Now I'm studying academic theology, it turns out that there's a different set of poor arguments for contradictions in the Bible (though there are a few overlaps, such as the Abiathar one). It's not that they are any better - they're just more difficult to see. One of them is the question of whether Paul saw Adam as being immortal or not before he sinned, and the resolution is kind of interesting.

The Problem

If people want to argue that Paul saw Adam as immortal before he sinned, they tend to use Romans 5:12.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned
Romans 5:12, ESV

In context, that verse is clearly talking about Adam, and death entering into the world because he sinned. (In the context of Romans 5, it's obvious it's human death, which means that it's a poor argument for a Young Earth, but that's not really relevant here. The point is that Adam died because he sinned.

And if they want to argue that Paul thought Adam was necessarily mortal, they tend to use 1 Corinthians 15.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:42-49, ESV

Paul's argument is a little involved, but his main point is contrasting Adam's body, which was "dusty" and perishable with Christ's resurrection body, which was "spiritual" and imperishable, the implication being that Adam was intrinsically mortal, even before he sinned.

So what do we make of it?

The Solution

In Genesis, God says that Adam and Eve will die when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They eat the fruit, God judges them. But he doesn't kill them immediately, and his words to them don't have anything to do with death. Instead, after the "curse" in Genesis 3, we see this:

And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 2:22-24, NIV

In other words, the death sentence on Adam is by stopping him from getting access to the tree of life. He never was intrinsically immortal, it was only because he had access to the tree of life. And that manages to neatly fit with what Paul says in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Adam was mortal, but he had access to the tree of life, which would have enabled him to live forever. But when he sinned, he lost that access.

I was encouraged by seeing quite how neatly that works. Hope others are too.


Unknown said...

I was thinking about this recently in discussing creation and evolution with a friend and in thinking about the resurrection. The whole question of death before Adam is an interesting one, and something that Creationists like to pick up on, arguing that if death came through Adam, then evolution couldn't have happened since natural selection involves animals dying and so on.

This rather ignores the fact that biological processes of death and decay are rather necessary to the way the natural world works. An intrinsically immortal creation would have to be very different to the one we exist in, so if you take that line, you basically need to argue that the Fall involved a complete and drastic alteration of the laws of nature. This strikes me as rather unlikely.

That Adam and Eve needed to eat from the Tree of Life to live suggests to me that "death coming through Adam" doesn't mean that the creation was somehow immortal and therefore radically different before the Fall. What was different was that prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve could rely on God's supernaturally sustaining power to balance out the processes of decay so they didn't have a destructive effect on them. The laws of nature aren't any different now - it's just that they are allowed to have their full effect unchecked. Immortality came from their relationship with God rather than being un-Fallen in some abstract sense.

John said...

Yes. It's also clear in Romans 5 that death entering the world must be talking specifically about death of humans ("and so death came to all because all sinned"), humans being defined partly in relation to God.

So Romans 5 is completely compatible with the idea of having Adam evolving, then God revealing himself to Adam and giving him access to the Tree of Life, which Adam then lost through sin.

One example of death being necessary before the Fall (if anything like current physical laws hold): if Adam's gut bacteria didn't die, I rather suspect he would have exploded within a few days.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I find it hard to believe that God could call death and suffering "very good." Whether we're talking about humans or not, death and suffering can't be a good thing. If the perfect God of the universe creates something and says it is "very good," I think we can be pretty sure it's perfect. Is animal death a perfect situation?

I presume insects, bacteria and plant life all died before the fall. These things do not have the breath of life in them. They may be alive in a scientific sense, but it is doubtful that they are alive in any moral sense.

John said...

And that's heading towards a better argument against death in creation before the Fall...

My point was simply that Romans 5 doesn't do the work creationists want it to.

Anonymous said...

OK guys, stick this one in your theological pipe and smoke it:

What to you think would have happened if Eve having eaten the fruit gave it to Adam who then refused to eat it and obeyed God's original command? Would Jesus still have come-but to die for women only? What about the seed being passed from Adam?

Some questions to consider are:
1. Would the progeny of Adam and Eve still be sinful? (the seed of Adam issue.

2.How would God have provided for the salvation of Eve?

Answers on one page of A4 please...

John said...

Interesting hypothetical, but that's all it is, especially since I'm supralapsarian.

Irenaeus, with whom I have quite a bit of sympathy, argued that Jesus would have needed to become incarnate anyway, even if neither Adam or Eve had sinned, in order for us to be made holy. And that's an important point to make. The redeemed Christian in glory is far better off than Adam and Eve were pre-Fall.

I'd also agree with the author of 2 Baruch that we are corporately under God's judgement because of Adam's sin, but we each become our own Adam.

So your question then becomes if (condition that didn't happen), what would happen to their descendants who didn't sin (a group of population 1 - Jesus)?

So yes - we'd still sin, and we'd still not be in God's image properly, following from Eve or Seth or someone.

Anonymous said...


So are you saying then, that Adam and Eve were not holy although they were pre-fall, pronounced 'good'.

So what would have happened if they had continued in obedience? Would they have been taken up into heaven at some stage? This supposes that God had a sort of dualistic creation in mind.

How would he had dealt with the population explosion if people did not physically die since that were commanded to multiply and fill the Earth?

Would it really have been necessary for the 'Word to become Flesh'.

But then maybe he already was. In Gen 3 v 8 we read of 'God walking in the garden'. The sense of this verse seems to be literal - was this in fact Jesus?

It is apparent that God placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden as a kind of test. It was obedience that was the key factor. The devil was also in Eden so corruption in one sense was already present. So if Adam had succeeded in resisting the devil's temptations would the incarnation really have been necessary as Iraeneus asserts?

Jesus is described as the second Adam in as much as he was obedient unto God and succeeded where Adam failed. There is clearly some kind of purposeful functional correspondence between Adam and Jesus here.

While I take your point that much of this is hypothetical, to my mind we can often understand more clearly what did happen by considering what did not. I have often thought that the opening Chapters of Genesis are telling us much more that is currently realised.

And what is a 'Supralapsarian'? I googled this word and it even left google scratching it's head.

Not something from Dr Who is it?

John said...

In terms of Old Testament ceremonial categories, the best that good created things can manage is "clean". In order to be "holy", they need sacrifices and anointing and stuff.

Adam was clean, but it would have taken further action by God to make him holy.

Supralapsarian means I think that the Fall was always part of God's plan (hence dealing with a lot of the other questions). I think it was always God's intention to reveal his grace by loving sinners, but that doesn't remove our culpability for being sinners.

Anonymous said...

Not quite sure if I follow you here. Is there evidence in Genesis that pre-fall, there was any need for sacrifices? Sacrifices did not seem to be happening until after expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Offerings were made by Cain and Abel in Gen 4. The sense in which we read this is one of acceptance of individuals before God.

Yet surely Adam and Eve were accepted pre-fall or (and I concede that my analogy may be faulty here) but are you suggesting that Adam and Eve only had conditional acceptance - rather like running in a car to see if it develops any faults? If it doesn't then the car can be classed as accepted and 'holy'?

Sacrifices involve the need for atonement, but atonement was not necessary before the fall since sin had not entered the world and Adam and Eve were ' at-one-ment' (as I was taught what this word means) with God, and in communion with him. This is evidenced by the statement by God in Gen 3 v 9 'Where are you' - communion at this point was broken.

I think you need to define a little more carefully what you understand by 'holy' as opposed to 'Good'.

John said...

Couple of things to think about to help clear it up:

1) When the tabernacle/temple was built, it was exactly according to a perfect plan, using exactly the right materials. So why did it need to be consecrated with sacrifices and anointed?

2) In what ways is the risen Christ better than Adam (with reference to 1 Cor 15:35ff)? Could we have been created as "spiritual" instead of "dusty"?

Anonymous said...


I think you may be on to something here.Can I ask you what you think is the significance of the Tree of Life in Genesis and in Revelation?

Could it run like this?

1. Adam and Eve had conditional immortality and conditional
perfection -'good' but 'pre-holy' for want of a better term.

2. God permitted them to eat of all the Trees in the Garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. Presumably they were allowed to regularly eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life.

3.The fruit of the Tree of Life had properties that retarded or negated the effects of biological decay and enabled them to have bodies which were not subject to physical death.

This was view I believe held by Aquinas but not by Calvin (what is your view on this BTW).

As long as they ate regularly of the fruit of the Tree of Life then their mortality was deferred.

4. They ate of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. This transformed their moral awareness from being that of True and False to that of Good and Evil (the sinful state).

5. God barred the way to the Tree of Life so that they would nor be able to remain physically alive forever in their sinful state.

It is interesting to note at this point that Adam and Eve and their descendants had long life spans - a residual effect of the potency of the fruit from the Tree of Life? -even genetic perhaps?

6.But the phrase 'then he died' is introduced with poignancy. This suggests that death would not have occurred if access to the Tree of Life was still possible.

7. If Adam & Eve had not sinned and resisted temptation then they in due course would have gone from 'good' to 'perfection' i.e. holiness. The linkage of perfection with holiness occurs again and again in the OT laws and sacrifices
e.g. phrases like 'lamb without blemish' etc

8. So holiness is linked with
(a) perfection
(b) unconditional immortality
anything else?

My final point is that the Tree of Life appears again in Revelation where Jesus makes reference to eating of it Rev 2 v7 and it is seen as a centrepiece in heaven Rev 22 v 2.

It seems to me that the writers in the NT were fully aware of the significance of the Tree of Life re immortality and how it threaded through from Eden.

While I have never heard this discussed in CE churches,I think you have convinced me that your argument concerning Adam's immortal status does logically hang together.

John said...

We're generally on the same track here, though I think the position you describe is even closer to Irenaeus than mine is.

1,2,3 fine (but dubious on "conditional perfection" - depends what that means. In the Augustinian sense of posse non peccare, yes.)

4 - I've usually found it more helpful to see the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as being about taking for oneself the right to determine what good and evil is.

5 - yes.
6 - decrease in life spans could also be linked to accumulation of genetic defects in small population and inbreeding, etc.
7 - yes.
8 - Irenaeus argued that the incarnation would have been necessary anyway in order for man to be united with God. I think he's probably right.

Holiness is primarily to do with association with God.

Tree of life in Revelation - yep.