God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “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” (Genesis 2:17). However, Adam and Eve ate of the tree and lived to tell about it. How can we reconcile God’s warning with their continued existence?
Interpreters typically answer this question in one of two ways. First, many note that Adam and Eve did die, though not immediately. The Hebrew phrase translated “in the day” in Genesis 2:17 is sometimes used to mean “for certain” (e.g., Exodus 10:28; 1 Kings 2:37, 42). So, Adam and Eve “certainly” died; it’s just that their death took place much later (Genesis 5:5). This view is also supported by Genesis 3:22, in which God determines to bar man from the tree of life to prevent him from living forever. Adam and Eve lost eternal life, were expelled from the Garden of Eden, and eventually experienced physical death.
The second way to view the warning of Genesis 2:17 is that “death” refers to spiritual death. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they experienced a separation from God, a loss of relationship due to their sin. Their first actions after sinning were to cover themselves up and hide from God (Genesis 3:7-8). This alienation from the Source of Life can be viewed as spiritual death.
A third approach understands that both physical and spiritual death were with the result of original sin. The moment Adam and Eve sinned against God, their souls were separated from God, and their bodies began to die. Their spiritual deadness and susceptibility to physical death have been passed on to all humanity (Romans 5:12).
Praise the Lord, He did not abandon Adam and Eve. He provided clothing for them (Genesis 3:21) and allowed them to have children (Genesis 4). He also promised “the seed of the woman” to crush the power of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). This promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who defeated sin and death on the cross and provides abundant life now (John 10:10) and eternal life with God in heaven (John 3:16). As Romans 5:19 says, “For as by the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s [Jesus’] obedience the many will be made righteous.”