I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about Adam recently, and one idea which I’ve read is that Adam was physically immortal prior to the fall. This idea has been around a long time, at least since the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century.
Here is a representative statement; it’s from the Council of Carthage in AD 418, convened in part to combat the (supposed) teachings of Pelagius and his followers. Canon 1 of the council states,
If any man says that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that whether he sinned or not he would have died, not as the wages of sin, but through the necessity of nature, let him be anathema.Council of Carthage (AD 418), Canon 1
It seems the reasoning goes that since death entered the world via sin, that without sin there could be no death, which would therefore make Adam immortal. As long as he doesn’t sin, Adam lives forever. It sounds reasonable, but is it? Should we conclude that Adam and Eve were created immortal, and only lost their immortality as a result of sinning? Let’s look at the text.
Evidence from Genesis
The text in Genesis which describes the creation of Adam is this:
Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.Genesis 2.7
The Hebrew word for “living creature” is nephesh, which means soul, living being, life, self, person. The Bible Project has a great video on this word; check it out here.
This same word is used to describe animals:
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures.”Genesis 1.20
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures.”Genesis 1.24
The word nephesh is used in both of these verses and is translated by the ESV as “living creatures.” It seems to be a commonly-used word to describe anything which is alive, whether persons, animals, or fish. We cannot claim that this word is describing something unique to human beings. A nephesh is simply something which is alive.
Each person, therefore, has a nephesh, or it may be better to say each person IS a nephesh! Either way, it’s the normal manner of referring to living things. The text in Genesis 2.7 is simply saying Adam became alive in the way other creatures are alive, and is not making any claims about Adam’s unique ontology or the type of body he possesses.
Note that this term is used to describe Adam before the fall. It’s not like Adam used to be something else, and then changed into a nephesh when he sinned. We can’t say that Adam’s body used to be immortal, but then as a result of the fall his body changed and became mortal.
But maybe someone wants to claim that Adam was a living being, but an immortal living being. He was a nephesh, but not a nephesh like other creatures. I think the New Testament evidence closes the door on this idea.
Evidence from Paul
Paul quotes Genesis 2.7 in his first letter to the Corinthians:
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.1 Corinthians 15.45-46
The Greek word Paul uses for “living being” in verse 45 is psychen (this is where we get our English word “psyche”). For Paul, this term appears simply to mean someone who is alive. For example, Romans 2.9 says, ”There will be tribulation and distress for every human being [psychen] who does evil.” Paul is using this word to describe the entire human race; it is not a term uniquely applied to Adam.
The word Paul uses for “natural” in verse 46 above is psychikon, which shares the same root as psychen. Paul uses this term three times, all in 1 Corinthians. In each case, he is contrasting it with pneumatikos, meaning “spiritual.” In addition to 1 Corinthians, psychikon is used in two other places in the New Testament (James 3.15 and Jude 19), in both places also as a contrast to spiritual things — wisdom for James and people for Jude.
Paul refers to Adam using the same terms he uses to refer to other persons. He portrays Adam as having a natural body, in contrast to our (future) spiritual bodies. Paul consistently uses normal, earthly — and earthy! — terms to describe Adam’s body. We don’t find any indication that Paul thinks Adam’s body was in any way different than our own.
Just as in Genesis, note that Paul uses these terms to describe Adam’s body before the fall.
Why the tree of life?
The word study above should be enough to demonstrate the nature of Adam’s body before the fall. However, we can also examine the presence of the tree of life in the garden for further proof. The tree of life is part of a complex metaphor which I don’t quite understand and want to learn more about. One thing we can all understand, though, is that the fruit of the tree gives one the power to live forever. God specifically cuts off Adam’s access to it in Genesis 3.22-23:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.Genesis 3.22-23
What is the function of the tree of life, other than to grant immortality to human beings? Think about it: if Adam were created as an immortal being, then he wouldn’t need the tree of life to make him immortal. Again, the only purpose of the tree of life is to grant immortality, which an already-immortal Adam would not need.
From this evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that Adam was created mortal, but that eating from the tree (whether one time or regularly, we are not told) would grant immorality.
Maybe Adam was immortal before the fall
Some might protest that Adam was immortal before the fall, but lost this immortality after it, as a result of his disobedience. We can get a taste of this in the quote above from the Council of Carthage; Adam was not subject to death due to “a necessity of nature” (that is, because of being mortal) but as “the wages of sin” (that is, when he sinned he became mortal).
Augustine had this view, according to R. C. Sproul:
Adam was made in such a way that it was possible for him to die. At the same time, he had the possibility before him of living forever had he not fallen into sin.[source]
John Calvin says something similar. Here’s a (lengthy) quote from his commentary on the phrase “you are dust” from Genesis 3.19:
Since what God here declares belongs to man’s nature, not to his crime or fault, it might seem that death was not superadded as adventitious to him. And therefore some understand what was before said, ‘Thou shalt die,’ in a spiritual sense; thinking that, even if Adam had not sinned, his body must still have been separated from his soul. But, since the declaration of Paul is clear, that ‘all die in Adam, as they shall rise again in Christ,’ (1 Cor. xv 22,) this wound also was inflicted by sin….Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.[source, page 180]
Calvin is sometimes difficult for me to understand, so I had to read through this several times to untangle it a bit. Calvin first points out that some interpreters take the line “you are dust” to mean that Adam was mortal: death was not added on (adventitious! a new word for me!), but was part of the design. These interpreters, according to Calvin, then read “thou shalt die” to mean spiritual death. Calvin disagrees, however: he sees Paul in 1 Corinthians claiming that physical death is a result of Adam’s sin; it’s not inherent in Adam’s design. He then speculates that had Adam not sinned, he would have passed to eternity without the pain and violence of death. (I say “speculate” here, but Calvin says “truly.” I’m not sure if he intends to state a doctrine, or merely an opinion.)
These views seem to interpret the death mentioned in Romans 5.12 and 1 Corinthians 15.22 as meaning a physical death which was unknown prior to Adam’s sin. Not everyone agrees, though. BioLogos proposes that animals died, whereas Answers in Genesis claims that only invertebrates died before Adam sinned.
As you can see, there’s a bit of debate on this, with confusing statements all around. Here’s one:
Yes, Adam and Eve were mortal before they sinned. They were mortal in that they physically could have died even though they had not yet sinned…On the other hand, barring any unforeseen accident, neither Adam nor Eve would have died because the effects of sin were not yet a reality and death had no place.Matt Slick (source)
So if Adam falls out of a tree, he can die, but if he avoids injury he will live forever? This is an odd position to take, and it’s also contradictory: if Adam doesn’t sin, he doesn’t die, unless he happens to die by accident. I think it’s reasonable to ask: could Adam have aged, and suffered the effects of age? Or if he fell from the tree but was merely paralyzed instead of killed – would he live forever in this paralyzed state?
It seems that the folks I’ve cited above really want death to be foreign to the created order (or at least to humanity) before Adam’s sin, and they go to great measures to get there.
In response, note my examination of the Biblical texts above. Both Paul and the writer of Genesis use the same terms to describe Adam which they do for other living things and people. There is no attempt to indicate that Adam was anything other than a normal, mortal human being.
Someone might protest that when God announced that Adam would die if he ate of the one tree, then that presumes that he would not die otherwise. But is this a valid presumption? When we look at the textual evidence presented above, then this presumption fails. Both Paul and the author of Genesis refer to Adam using normal words for a living being, and do not expressly say that Adam would otherwise never have died; assuming Adam had immortality is unwarranted.
Could Adam have died?
As Matt Slick noted, it’s reasonable to consider that if Adam were in fact mortal, perhaps he could have died from natural causes or from an accident, even before he fell. But Slick doesn’t go far enough. From the data we’ve examined so far, we can answer in the affirmative: we can expect that Adam could have drowned, or been crushed by a rock, or even broken his leg. Adam’s natural, mortal body was susceptible to all the dangers which threaten our own bodies, including growing old and eventually dying.
That is the precise reasoning used by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. He contrasts Paul’s natural and mortal body with our future spiritual and immortal bodies:
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.”1 Corinthians 15.42-45
Note how Paul quotes Genesis 2.7 when contrasting Adam’s natural, pre-fall body — with its attendant attributes of perishability (mortality!), dishonor, and weakness — with our future glorified bodies and their contrasting attributes of imperishability, glory, and power. To say that Adam was immortal (even prior to the fall) is to rob Paul’s argument of its power. It bears repeating: Paul is describing a pre-fall, mortal Adam, contrasting him with our post-return, immortal selves.
Both Paul and the author of Genesis refer to Adam with terms they commonly used for ordinary persons. There is nothing special or supernatural about Adam’s body. There is no indication here that he is immortal or has any quality other than what we currently see in persons.
Paul even uses Adam’s natural body as a contrast to the future spiritual bodies of believers. This only makes sense if Adam’s body were mortal.