Death (The “Four” Biblical definitions)

It is very important for us to take a look at different kinds of death that are mentioned in the Bible, in order to better assist us in determining what the Bible is trying to tell us in Gen. 2:17 about the “death” that Adam and Eve were threatened with, and what death they did surely die “in that day.”  Let’s look at these four kinds of death mentioned in Scripture:

1. PHYSICAL DEATH: This of course, is our easiest and most natural concept to understand, simply dying physically – death of the physical body.  The soul being separated from its physical body. (Jam. 2:26)


2. SIN-DEATH: = defiled conscience awareness, spiritual eyes opened to nakedness and guilt and shame, broken relationship with God, and condemnation.  This is referring to our condition or status before God (spiritually, morally, judicially, and covenantally) when our relationship to God has been broken by sin.  When Adam and Eve sinned, they were immediately under the condemnation of eternal death.  They no longer stood innocent and righteous in His presence.  They were condemned and had to be expelled/separated from their special habitation in the Garden where they had enjoyed intimate and personal fellowship with God.

a. By sinning they immediately died “sin-death” (“dead in their trespasses and sins” Eph. 2:1, 5), and were under God’s condemnation.  They were “dead even while they liveth” (1 Tim. 5:6).  Or, like the statement of Jesus, “Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead” (Matt. 8:22).  Adam and Eve did not die physically “on that day,” but they did die that very day in their relationship to God (spiritually, morally, judicially, and covenantally, and came under condemnation).  They had broken the covenant, and were now under condemnation.  They no longer stood innocent and righteous in His presence.  They were stood condemned and would now need to be removed from the Garden where they had enjoyed close fellowship with God.  The Fall killed Adam and Eve in their spiritual relationship to God.  A most detrimental death that Adam suffered “on that day” was this sin-death.  The focus in redemptive history was on reversing that sin-death/separation from God, and the eternal death/separation from God to which man would ultimately be sealed once he physically died –> if he died without his sins forgiven.


3. SECOND (ETERNAL) DEATH: This is eternal conscious punishment in the unseen spiritual realm for the wicked and unredeemed (unalterable after physical death).  It is their eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14) after physical death.  It is termed the “second death,” or second separation from God (the ultimate destiny of the unredeemed).  This would have been inseparable with sin-death, and would have begun immediately “in the day” Adam and Eve sinned, and would have been their full and final destiny, if God had not intervened with the substitutionary sacrificial system in the Garden, ultimately consummating this provisional atonement through the full, final and perfect atonement sacrifice of Christ.


Before we look into the 4th type of “death” mentioned in the Bible (substitutionary death), I believe it is critical that we get a correct understanding of that time in the Garden “before” the Fall.


** COMPREHENSIVE DEATH (Gen. 2:16-17) – this would have been the “only” meaning of the death promised by God to Adam “the day” he sinned.  Comprehensive death means full and complete death: physical, spiritual (sin-death) and eternal.  Death meant death – full and total death.  There was no distinction between any aspect of death.  If no intervention by God had been done then “the very day” Adam and Eve ate from the tree they would have experienced a comprehensive death: sin-death, died physically, and their physical death would have been the portal into an eternal sin-death separation from God in the Lake of Fire.  The death threatened meant full death.  The death promised was a comprehensive death.

This means that when God showed up “in the cool of the day” they should have been struck dead on the spot, in the same way Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on the very day they lied to Peter and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5).  God did that very kind of thing to Ananias and Sapphira, so why did he not kill Adam and Eve “on the very day they sinned”?  Below we explain how there actually was a physical death on behalf of Adam and Eve on the very day they sinned.


How Was That Physical Death Carried Out?

“The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” [Gen. 3:21, NAS95]

So, why didn’t they die physically “on the very day” that they sinned?  An animal was slain “on that very day” on behalf of Adam and Eve to provide “garments of skin” for them (Gen. 3:21).  But that was not the only thing the animal death did for them.  God’s main concern was NOT about their physical needs, as any clothing from any material could have sufficed for that, but of the utmost concern was their spiritual wellbeing and forgiveness from the condemnation of their sin.  If that animal had not died as their substitute, then Adam and Eve would have been struck dead on the spot when God showed up “in the cool of the day” (as Ananias and Sapphira were).  That was a penal death [capital punishment] – NOT a natural death (i.e. dying from a natural cause).  That animal died Adam and Eve’s penal death for them, i.e., the death they would have died “on that day” if the animal had not died in their place.  That animal did not die their natural death for them.

(NOTE: Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross to save us from natural death (everyone still has to physically die).  He died to save us from our sin and its condemnation, which would have killed us by God’s decree instantly “on the day” we sinned sealing our fate to eternal death in the Lake of Fire, unless He died in our place.  He died our PENAL [capital punishment] death for us – NOT our NATURAL death)


Why did Adam and Eve still have to physically die? 

 The reason they still died natural death 900 years later is because they lost access to the Tree of Life (eternal life on earth).  And they lost access to the Tree of Life because of their sin.  The Tree of Life would have enabled them to live forever on earth in its fallen condition.  That would have been eternally miserable.  God’s ultimate desire was to have man in heaven – NOT left on earth forever.  But now, because of their sin, what would now be natural for man would be to physically die after the allotted days of their life [dust returns to dust], and then his soul go to Sheol (aka Hades) to await a kinsman-redeemer (Christ) who would at the resurrection ransom them out of Sheol by His once-for-all substitutionary physical death on their behalf.  He died a penal death for them (as well as for us).  He did not die their natural death for them (or us).  Jesus did not die to save us from physically dying a “natural death” after our allotted days.  He died to save us from our sin and its condemnation, which would have resulted in our penal death “the very day” we sinned, taking our physical life and ushering us into the spiritual realm into our eternal death if not remedied by his substitutionary death on our behalf. 

After Adam sinned, he was removed from the Garden “lest he put forth his hand, take, and eat from the Tree of Life and live forever” (Gen. 3:22).  Even after he sinned he could have physically lived forever on the earth if he had continued access to the Tree of Life.  But that was not what God had planned.  God’s ultimate purpose was to have His faithful obedient believers in heaven with Him.  So, He removed access to the Tree of Life so that man would now have to die and go to Sheol to await the redeemer (Jesus Christ) who would pay the substitutionary ransom to raise us out of Hades and take us to heaven.

Adam and Eve would now have to naturally physically die as a “direct consequence” of eating from the forbidden tree and being put out of the Garden –> being cut off from being able to continue to eat from the Tree of Life. 

  • Example: if you owned a garden and told a worker to remove all of a certain plant in your garden by pulling them out by the roots from the soil [source of life] to be cast out of the garden onto a cement walk or road away from their source of life – the result of your decree for the plants to be removed would not “immediately physically kill them.”  However, as a direct result of being “cut-off from the source of life,” the plants would all now dry up and die over time depending on the strength of the sun, lack of rain and nutrients, temperature changes on the root systems, exposure to insects, animals and a variety of other things.  This process could take some time, depending on the plant, but they will “all now physically die and turn back into dust.”  Thus, is the course of all mankind now.  We are made from dust and have been barred from the Tree of Life on this earth (It is now in heaven.  Rev. 22:2), and after the days of life God has allotted to each of us, our physical bodies will return to the dust from which they are made (Gen. 3:19).
  • While the substitutionary death of the animal slain by God paid the penal death, and provisionally atoned for their sin, physical death would still be a natural consequence of being cut-off from the access to the tree of life à physical death would eventually and naturally follow (i.e. they were made from the dust, and now being cut-off from the Tree of Life, would eventually age and physically deteriorate until they return to the dust (Gen. 3:19)). 

(Also see Federal Headship)


Now let’s go back and look further at the 4th type of death spoken of in the Bible:


When God killed a sacrificial animal to provide skins for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness, that sacrificial Lamb died in their place.  They died with” the lamb on that day, and “put on” the skin of that lamb to cover their guilt and shame.  This is sacrificial language.  Whoever pays for the sacrifice gets the benefits of that sacrifice (escape from death and forgiveness of sin).

So, when the lamb died physically on that day, they “died with” it, just like we “die with” Christ on the day of our conversion (Rom. 6:8; Col. 2:20; 2 Tim. 2:11; cf. Rom. 6:4-5; Gal. 2:19-20; 1 Pet. 2:24).  They “put on” the skins of the sacrificial lamb in the same way we “put on” Christ in our conversion (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 13:14; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:9-12; Rev. 3:5, 18, 19:8; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:19; Phlp. 3:9), which covers our sin and enables us to stand uncondemned and righteous in God’s presence.

The skin of that animal not only covered their guilt and shame, but also pointed to their new immortal bodies they would “put on” which God had reserved for them in heaven (1 Cor. 15:38, 53; 2 Cor. 5:1-5).  The very Son of God Himself would be the true “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  The prophet Isaiah (53:7-8) points to this very thing (“like a lamb…cut off…for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due”).  Rev. 5:6 pictures Christ before the heavenly throne as “a lamb standing as if Slain,” and Rev. 13:8 as “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”

God provided the sacrificial Lamb for Himself (Gen. 22:8).  When we “die with” Him and “put on” the garments of Christ, we are given hope of life in heaven with a new immortal body.  God promised a redeemer (Gen. 3:15), and the sacrificial system was instituted on that very day to bear witness to the coming Son of Adam who would be the Lamb of God to take away the power of sin and death.  He died for us (Rom. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:10).  They “died with” that lamb “on that day,” and thus began the redemptive drama through the substitutionary sacrificial system.

There would have been no way for a Holy, Just and Righteous God to continue to deal with sinful fallen man if there had not been some substitutionary physical death to cover the sins of the person, for Hebrews 9:22 tells us that, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  And while that animal God slew in the Garden could not remove the sins of man, it was the substitutionary type which reflected the Antitype of Christ to come Whose blood would pay for and remove sin for all who would believe in faith.

God Himself instituted the substitutionary sacrificial system right there in the Garden from the very first sin.  This was absolutely necessary for a Holy and Righteous God.  Upon sinning, God’s Holy and Just Wrath would need to judge and condemn sin and cleanse it from His presence – so God took the life of an animal in their place.  It pointed to Christ as the perfect lamb who would die as a sacrifice in the place of the sinner. 

In effect, Adam and Eve (and all mankind) were bailed out of “immediate eternal death” from God, and the accounting for their wages of sin would be either:

  • “Carried forward” to the time when Christ would satisfy and remove the demands of justice for all those having their faith in His substitutionary sacrifice.
  • Or, if rejecting that only perfect sacrifice of Christ, they would face the full force of their sin judged upon themselves at the judgment after physical death (Heb. 9:27).

We can only imagine the horror that gripped the emotions of Adam and Eve as they watched God slay the sacrificial lamb in front of them “on that day” (the specific animal is not named in passage, but I do not think it farfetched to believe it was a lamb).  They saw its death tremors, as the last drops of blood spurted out of its veins, and it died.  Adam and Eve “died with” that lamb on that very day.  They knew that the death which the lamb suffered was what they themselves deserved.  The innocent lamb died in their place, in order that they could be provisionally forgiven, spiritually clothed/covered and still physically live. 

They were now fully mortal (subject to death, and destined to die physically).  Upon physical death their “souls” would now have to go to Hades/Sheol, waiting for the time of resurrection and judgment, and their flesh bodies would return to the dust permanently.  Someday, at the time of the End when the Son of Adam would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20), God would raise their disembodied souls out of Hades/Sheol and give them new immortal bodies, with which to live in heaven with Him (2 Cor. 5:1-5). 

Those skins were testimony to both their guilt and their forgiveness.  They were signs of a covenant based on substitutionary sacrifice.  Adam and Eve, and all mankind now, would still have to die physically because we all born with bodies of dust, we all sin, and do not have access to eat from the Tree of Life.  However, those skins typified that a sinless human substitute would come to actually physically die in their place and give them real covering for their spiritual nakedness and the very kind of immortal body that they needed to live in heaven with God (2 Cor. 5:1).  The Bible even tells us that a body made from the dust was never made to dwell in the spiritual realm, but always was in need to be “changed” (or replaced) at some point in order to do so (1 Cor. 15:43-51). 

The story of Cain and Abel should also speak to us of what man knew of the required death sacrifice of an animal to atone for sin.  Neither Abel, nor any other man, could invent a death sacrificial system, nor have God accept it, unless God had ordained or instituted it Himself.  The Bible has never permitted man to worship God any which way he chooses.  Where would Cain and Abel have heard or seen animal sacrifices to know what God required…would it not have been from their father Adam, who saw God Himself institute the first substitutionary animal sacrifice in the Garden?  Abel died a righteous martyr at the hands of Cain.  He was a “type” of the “Son of Adam” (Christ) to come.


See also related “Topic Studies & Terms”:

Death/Life (Bible verses teaching on the meaning)


For a more in-depth study see the related full “Study Series”:

Study Series 3 What Happened in the Garden