So many fallacies abound (and are passed on by being repeated over and over again) regarding the Genesis account of the creation of humanity, the nature of the first humans before and after the fall, and the nature of the human soul (or spirit, or both if one thinks they are distinctive). I confess here that I myself have heard these ideas, believed them, and taught them as faithfully as I believed them over the years. Like many of my friends and fellow theology-geeks who are carefully re-thinking some of these conclusions, I am particularly indebted to both John Walton (regarding human origins as they are presented in Genesis) and Ed Fudge (regarding conditional immortality as it is presented in both the Old and New Testaments) for many of the ideas that follow.
Was Adam originally created as an immortal?
Regarding the creation of the human race, the Genesis text reads…
Gen 1:26-27 –
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Gen. 2:7-8 –
7 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. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.
Lest we imagine that what the writer of Genesis is telling us is that God scooped up a pile of dust and made the very first human out of it, we need to look at the context of Genesis to get the meaning. Thankfully, there is a reference to dust in the very next chapter (and elsewhere in the Bible too!).
Genesis 3:19 –
19 “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Dust – Not about materiality but rather, temporality and mortality
After the fall of humanity, God’s pronouncement was that they would return to dust after death. What other option would there be besides returning to the dust? We shall see! As is obvious from the intermediate context, dust in this text is a reference to temporality and mortality, and not merely (or even primarily) materiality. It is a reference to death. Thus, “formed out of the dust” actually means “created mortal.” We often hear that God made Adam out of dust, but everyone else after him was born the “normal” way. We know this, we are told, because Genesis clearly says that the first human, Adam, was formed out of dust. We imagine that this means that God took dust, formed it (like clay) into the shape of a human being, and then animated it.
But wait – Psalm 103:14 says…
“For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
According to the Psalmist, it is not only Adam who was specially formed from dust. It was (and is) the collective “we” – the entire human race. But how is this possible if we were all born in the way that all humans are born? It is possible if we understand what the Genesis writer is saying by referring to the creation of Adam (human) out of dust. The Genesis text is no different from the Psalm. It is a reference to Adam’s temporality and mortality, and to the fact that he is made of the very same stuff as everything else in the world. And like everything else in the world, without something to stop or reverse it, he can die. The Psalmist agrees with this understanding, and uses the same metaphor to refer to all of humanity in his song. A more literal translation (minus the metaphors) of Genesis 2:7 could be something like, “God made humanity to be earthly, temporal, and mortal, and he was given life, and kept alive – just like all living things — by the Spirit of God himself.”
Speaking of all living things (especially animals) apparently they are made from dust too (cf. Ecc. 3:17-22)! Again, this text is primarily dealing with death and mortality, and not materiality. Taking them all together, the references to dust as they pertain to Adam, to the entire human race, and the entire animal kingdom point to mortality. They are all the creations of God, they are all mortal, and they are all given life by the Spirit of God who is Himself life.—-
“But,” someone will respond, “what about the fact that it is only after the fall that God says Adam will die. Surely this means that he was created to live forever.” I would respond to this theological mistake in a couple of ways.
First, the reason that Adam dies after he sins is not because his supposed originally-intrinsic immortality is corrupted by sin. It is, as the text plainly tells us, because he is cut off from something outside of himself that was put in the garden for his benefit at the beginning.
Gen. 2:8-9 –
8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Gen. 3:22-24 –
22 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—” 23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
Why did Adam “return to dust” (die) according to the actual text of Genesis? It is not because the immortality with which he was originally vested was corrupted. He has no immortality (as will be discussed a bit later). It is because he was cut off from access to something that, had he died for any reason while in a state of obedience, would have renewed and raised him back up to life again and again as often as would have been necessary. As we discover by simply reading the text, he died because he was cut off from “the tree of life in the midst of the garden.” An immortal person does not need a tree of life. A mortal person does. The text seems pretty clear. God removed the mortal, Adam, from the tree of life (whatever it was) so that he could not be renewed over and over again since he was in a state of rebellion. His mortality would need to take a full and final course. With that in mind…
Adam already knew what death was – and that it could be final
Some people believe that in the original creation everything was created to live forever, and that it is only sin that caused things to die. Yes, they conclude that all the birds, the cows, the grasshoppers, and the squirrels — and of course, the people were all created to live forever and ever, but that Adam’s sin corrupted their collective immortality. The most often-cited text for this belief is Rom. 5:12. But in order to understand Romans 5:12, we have to look at what God originally said to Adam (who was, as we have seen, made from dust just like all the other people and the animals too) about his own death as it relates to sin.
Gen. 2:17 –
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.
And then, there is the serpent’s reference to death and disobedience in the next chapter…
Gen. 3:4 –
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.”
Interestingly, neither Adam nor Eve is reported to have said to either God or the serpent – “Um. Die? What is ‘die?’ We do not know this word or concept. What could you possibly mean?” No, they already knew what death was. Perhaps (as may be possible when we understand God’s warning), they had already experienced both death and resurrection, thanks to their access to the tree of life (but that is just conjecture, though it is not impossible considering God’s warning to them about what would happen if they ever ventured into sin). This is where it is important to understand the original language in order to see exactly what is being said about death in these texts.
In Hebrew, the words “surely die” are –מוֹת תָּמוּת – (mot ta mut) which are both essentially the same exact word used twice, denoting finality, or giving the idea an exclamation mark. That is, the language indicates not the difference between mortality and immortality, but rather the difference between death as an irreversible finality and death followed by the possibility of resurrection and renewal. In fact, we could translate the verse… “In the day that you eat of it, you will die-die.” If it helps to make my point, try to imagine an animated New Yorker using hand motions and saying,
“Like – I mean die-die – as in – dead. Okay – dead-dead. As in, no coming back, capiche?!”
We might, with this understanding in mind, hear God saying –
“In the day you eat it, you will die and there will be no turning it around. You will stay dead.”
And we might, with fresh ears, hear the serpent challenging Eve with something more like,
“Impossible. You won’t stay dead if you eat that.”
The threat of death to someone who didn’t know what death was would make little sense. The idea of an irreversible death, however, would be a very strong warning. The idea of staying dead (dead-dead, die-die) seems to be what the Hebrew text indicates.
By the way, is anyone who has read the New Testament able to think of any references to a human being talking about dying but not staying dead – even though he died and was buried – and why he didn’t die-die, but only died?
There is no good reason to assume that Adam and Even didn’t know what death was, or that they had never seen death in the creation, or that (perhaps) one or both of them had not experienced death and then renewal at the tree of life. In fact, their removal from access to the tree of life is the textual indicator that God was making good on his warning. Remember, Adam and Eve did not die at the moment of their disobedience. Rather, they eventually died (as all mortals do), but could not be raised back up to life again, having been cut off from their life-source because of their rebellion. The process of death in limiting their access to God and veiling their capacity to interact with the dimension of God’s Spirit happened immediately, but the long slow process of death in their physical bodies without the possibility of renewal happened over time.
The point is, the language of death coming through rebellious humanity in Romans does not contradict this idea at all. In fact, it seems to fit better with the idea of the permanence of death in contrast to temporary death followed by resurrection (again, no one needs a tree of life if he/she is intrinsically eternal). Paul seems to be saying that Adam died and stayed dead, as would be the case for all humanity without something interrupting that now-normal reality.
Solution: Jesus died, was buried, and was raised. *The Gospel! – 1 Cor. 15:3-4
By one man came irreversible death to all of humanity, and by one man came the possibility of resurrection despite death. Jesus did not die-die. That only happens to people who follow in the footsteps of Adam. No, in the case of Jesus, he died, was buried, and he was raised up by God again. Access to the tree of life restored!
We may be helped if we understand that in both cases the issue is not about whether or not everyone dies, but rather what happens next.
The human soul/spirit is not eternal
The final thing I’ll share here (this is getting pretty long) is that there is no good reason to believe that the Bible teaches the inherent immortality of the human soul. You may have heard the idea this way…
“Everyone lives forever, but not everyone lives in the same place.”
This belief presupposes the idea of an eternal soul. That is, it assumes that God created humans with innate immorality. Thus, it is taught that even if we go to hell, our immortality remains intact so that we remain alive in eternal conscious torment for all eternity. There is too much here already to take on the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, but we can at least begin to chip away at it (or even see it crumble completely) if we understand that the idea of the intrinsic immortality of the human soul is simply not taught in Scripture. To the contrary –
[God] alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Tim. 6:16
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. – Ezek. 18:20a
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. – Mat. 10:28
There is much more that can be said, but these are all good examples of texts that point to the biblical teaching that (1) The only one who has intrinsic immortality is God himself, (2) Human sinfulness brings about the death of the soul (viz., the whole person), and (3) God Himself is able to destroy (and will destroy) the bodies and souls of those who live in rebellion against him in Hell.
In fact, the teaching of Scripture affirms over and over that eternal life is the gift of God. It is not guaranteed to anyone but those who yield their lives to God, who alone possesses immortality.