When many Christians read Genesis, they picture Eden as a sinless, deathless paradise. “Heaven,” to them, represents a return to that original created condition, before Adam and Eve sinned and brought God’s curse of death upon themselves and every other living thing as well.
Without question, death has accompanied life since it first appeared on this planet millions of years ago, long before humans existed. The fossil record testifies to this fact. All death cannot be the result of human sinfulness. Although sin undoubtedly causes a great deal of suffering and premature death, substantial biblical evidence indicates that death – even human death – is simply part of the present creation and not the result of sin. In short, the present world is different from the world to come, and the Bible speaks of death in surprising ways, not all of them negative.
Creation vs. New Creation
While the new creation of Revelation 21-22 is sometimes described as a “return to Eden,” a comparison of the opening and closing chapters of the Bible shows they are quite different.
The world of Genesis contains things that ancient readers would associate with chaos and evil, such as the sea, darkness, and the serpent. God’s “very good” creation in Genesis 1 restrains the darkness and waters, limiting them to night and sea and making room for life-enabling day and land. In contrast, the foreboding night and sea no longer even exist in Revelation 21-22. In Genesis 1-2, humanity is instructed not only to rule and work, but to subdue and guard. The command to guard implies there is something to guard against. Soon after, yet still prior to the first sin, a serpent appears who works against God and deceives the humans. When we turn to Revelation, though, the serpent is destroyed. There is no longer anything to guard against, and the gates of the city are always open. The tree of life makes its return in Revelation 22, but the tree of good and evil is missing. Clearly, the conditions in the end do not recreate those in the beginning.
Sin & Death in the Life & Death of Jesus
Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead during his ministry. Yet, he never blames human mortality on Adam and Eve. He doesn’t often address the origins of human death and suffering, but when he does, Jesus explicitly denies that disability, illness, natural disaster, and death are punishment for specific sins. Instead, he explains that God can work through such circumstances and also use them to call people to repentance.[i]
Jesus ultimately was rejected, tortured, and crucified. The sinless Jesus did not atone for sin by passing away in his sleep. Instead, taking our place required accepting the curse of being hung on a tree (Galatians 3). Christ, whom the New Testament repeatedly describes as the agent and organizing principle in the creation of the world, brings life through death.[ii] Revelation 13 depicts Jesus as the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Christians should not be surprised to see this pattern of life emerging from death reflected in God’s good creation.
Death as Enemy & Friend in 1 Corinthians
If mortality is part of the original, good creation, how could the Apostle Paul call death “the last enemy” in 1 Corinthians 15? First, death is not the only enemy that Paul says God will judge. In this same passage, he also names rulers and authorities, though these are part of God’s good creation (Colossians 1). Paul elsewhere names all humanity as enemies of God (Romans 5). Paul names death an enemy, but death remains part of God’s good creation.
Second, death is pictured as a friend in 1 Corinthians 15. Resurrection life comes through death – Christ’s and our own. Paul describes how Adam’s body was perishable precisely because it was made of the dust of the ground. The imperishable body of the world to come is not of the same kind as the “very good” body of Genesis 1-2. Jesus teaches that in the resurrection we will neither be able to die nor to marry and bear children.[iii] Jesus’ own resurrection body does appear quite different, though still recognizable (Luke 24, John 20-21).
Death in Deuteronomy & Genesis
The Bible admonishes us to flee from sin and promises that various forms of death follow from sin. But we have to ask: What kinds of death?
Israel is urged in Deuteronomy 30 to “choose life.” This means obedience to the covenant, which brings peace and abundance in the land. The other choice is death, which translates to disobedience, hardship, and exile from the land. Israel ultimately chose disobedience and was subjected to the curses of Deuteronomy 28, including not only exile but the loss of food, health, fertility, family life, and protection from enemies. The “death” Israel chose was holistic and total, even though the nation was not annihilated or the people immediately struck dead.
Understanding Israel’s story of sin and death helps us understand Genesis 2-3. Central to that narrative is whether God or the snake should be trusted. Will eating from the tree of good and evil result in death, or not? God and the serpent seem to agree that the consequences are immediate (“in the day that you eat”), and the serpent’s statement that their eyes would be opened proved true right away. Nevertheless, Adam and Eve don’t die immediately, but instead live long lives. This has led some interpreters to see spiritual death rather than physical death as the type of death promised by God. Surely, the serpent is not more trustworthy than God!
Even more than spiritual death, the death that Israel experienced matches the consequences tied to work and family that Genesis 3 describes. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that matching calls to obedience and life appear at the beginning and end of the Torah (Genesis and Deuteronomy). In both Israel and the original male and female pair (Adam and Eve), God creates a special people, offers a promising land to be subdued, provides a law, and encourages the people to choose life rather than death. In both cases, the people choose death. Curses and exile result. Interestingly, when Eden reappears in Ezekiel 28, the King of Tyre is expelled for his sin and faces a metaphorical “death” of lowliness and humiliation.
This understanding of “death” in Genesis 2-3 matches the rest of the Old Testament as well. The Hebrew Bible often laments premature human death and associates it with sin. However, the deaths at old age of faithful people in the Old Testament are repeatedly described as “full of days,” “good” (the language of Genesis 1 again), or both.[iv] Adam hardly appears (and Eve not at all) in the Old Testament outside of Genesis, and thus the couple are not blamed for human death or anything else.[v]
As far as nonhuman life, carnivores are extolled as part of the goodness of creation throughout the Psalms and Job. Although biblically lacking “the breath of life,” Scripture describes plants as living and dying.[vi]
Spiritual & Eternal Death in Romans 5-8
The various ways the Bible speaks of death are crucial to understanding Romans 5-8. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul famously compares Adam’s disobedience to Christ’s obedience, and the death that came through Adam to the righteousness and life that come through Christ. How should we understand death in this difficult passage, given that the life received from Christ is spiritual life now, and eternal life following biological death? If the death Adam’s disobedience brought is biological, Paul’s logic seems to require that Christ’s obedience brought the end of biological death. Yet, Christians still die.
The following chapters, Romans 6-8, clarify the senses of “death” on Paul’s mind. In these chapters, he repeatedly speaks of death in relation to spiritual and eternal death, not physical death. Sinful humanity is described as dead, though biologically alive. Christians have died to sin, died in baptism, and died to the law. Having the Spirit, Christians will live. Twice, death is contrasted with eternal life in Romans 5-6, implying eternal death.
Jesus speaks of “death” in the same way as Paul. He describes as “dead” the physically alive Pharisees, the prodigal son, and those who prioritize tradition, burying their dead, over following him.[vii] In the Gospel of John, Jesus often uses death to represent eternal death, as opposed to eternal life, and thus he can say that Christians have “passed from death to life” and “will never see death.”[viii]
As we have seen, the Bible affirms biological death as part of the original goodness of creation. Scripture pictures the world to come – where death will be no more – as fundamentally different from the “very good” heavens and earth of Genesis 1-3. The Bible and modern science are not in conflict concerning the subject of biological death.
Recognizing mortality as part of God’s good creation in no way reduces the seriousness of the biblical truth that sin leads to death. The Bible’s consistent message is that human decisions have profound consequences – for individuals, communities, the creation, and even the world to come. God calls us to choose life. Jesus, our example of obedience, shows us that we may face opposition and difficulty in doing so. However, Christians face suffering and death trusting in the God who brings life through death.