In the book of Genesis, the reader encounters a scene in which God talks to Adam and gives him a single command:
Gen 2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;
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.”
Now modern Christians have a hard time with this verse because Adam did not die when he ate from the tree. In fact, Satan’s proclamation that Eve (Adam by extension) would “know good and evil” seemed more accurate. When asked to explain it, Christians give two main answers to what “surely die” means:
1. It would be enabling death to happen (like an invulnerability switch being turned off)
2. It would be a spiritual death. They even say death is mentioned twice, so I must be the “Second death” listed in Rev 2:11. Get it: death mentioned twice = second death. Yep, that makes sense.
Never minding the Hebrew language use of a double word to emphasize the concept, both explanations seem to be lacking when examined. The primary evidence for a literal understanding (that God would kill Adam then and there) comes a few verses later:
Gen 3:3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
Gen 3:4 Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.
Gen 3:5 For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So, Satan tries to reason with Eve about the command (with which she must have been familiar). If Adam and Eve thought that this command was about staying immortal, Satan would probably address this directly. He might say: “You will surely live forever.” If Adam and Eve thought that this command was about a spiritual death, Satan would probably address this directly. He might say: “You will surely still have access to God.”
Instead, Satan’s argument is that Adam and Eve would “surely not die [in the day they touch or eat]” and then follows by saying “in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened”. Satan is referring to a point event in the past (after they eat). He is saying that on the day that they eat, they will not die and instead will have knowledge. It doesn’t suggest an ongoing “death” or ongoing “gain of knowledge”. It is an instantaneous event.
In other words, Satan is acting as if Adam and Eve understood the threat as an instantaneous physical death.
A third possibility is that God was making a “cause and effect” value-neutral statement. This would be like saying “if you pour water onto yourself, you will get wet.” If this option is true, then God would have just been wrong. Adam and Eve did not die the day they ate the fruit.
But if God meant that God would kill Adam and Eve the day they ate of the tree, then this event could instead be seen as an act of divine mercy. Here is the scenario:
God creates mankind to have a mutual love relationship. God gives them one rule. On this rule he placed the ultimate penalty: death. Adam and Eve could choose either God or death. They eventually choose death. God is saddened, questions Adam on his actions, and then decides on expulsion rather than death. This is an act of mercy. God then places an angel with a sword at the front of the garden to stop Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of Life and “living forever”.
That possibility (that man can next eat from a second tree and live forever) seems to contradict the spiritual death claim and the claim about eventual physical death. Further evidence that God was talking about a “God killing someone instantly” is found in Genesis 20:7:
Gen 20:7 Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
Here we have God threatening a pagan king with the same “surely die” (the double death mentioned in Gen 2:17). This death seems like it would be instant and would also affect the king’s entire family. I am not aware of anyone who claims this is other than a imminent threat on the king’s life. The Hebrew is the exact same as Gen 2:17, so it would not be a stretch to assume both phrases had the same meaning.