We’ve seen how the first things God did after Adam and Eve had sinned were: to curse their enemy and ours, to promise salvation through the woman, and to apply some instructive chastisements for their edification.
The next thing God did for our first parents was to slow down the death they died that day. Had God not intervened, they would physically have dropped dead on the spot with the taste of the fruit still on their tongues. They didn't. Yet God is no liar; they indeed died that day.
So what does that mean? What is this death our ancestors incurred the moment they tasted of that fruit? Death, described as it was before the Vanquisher of Death arrived, is a two-fold reality. The spirit dies by separation from the Holy Spirit, its only source of Life, while the body dies from separation from our own spirit. The body begins to die because the spirit sustaining it is sick; it dies finally by separation from the spirit. The body decays, while the spirit, also “decaying”, lingers much longer, continuing to waste away in a shadowy sort of disembodied existence the Greeks called Hades. God mercifully protracts the process, delaying complete death (annihilation) until Christ should come to revivify the human race.
And we see an icon of that merciful slowing-down right from the beginning, with Adam and Eve. They detached themselves from their own life support system that day and began the dying process. They severed themselves from the Spirit of God; which is to say, from immortal Life, spurning Him. They were now like cut flowers or fish out of water or astronauts in an irreparably damaged spacecraft: alive for the time being, but already doomed, already beginning to die. That Adam, body and soul decaying all the while, lived 930 years (Genesis 5:5) is an icon for us of how greatly God, in His never-ending kindness, slowed the process.
If Adam and Eve had been created possessing immortality in their own right, then by definition, they would have been invulnerable to death. Nothing and nobody could have taken away their lives, with the single, possible exception of God (provided, that to do so would not be an oxymoron), because He is almighty. This is what some people do think happened, but it is not the original Christian, the orthodox, or the Orthodox teaching. God did not inflict death as a punishment for the transgression, at least not literally. To suppose so would be to suppose Him the creator of evil. Instead, God had lifted our first parents from non-being and kept them in being by communion with Him, but when they ended that communion, they relapsed into the non-being from which they had come, began the descent back to inanimate dust.
For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt ...” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4)
God is the Author of Life; in fact, as we have seen, God is life. (John 14:6, 11:25) The Author of Life is not the author of death, not the cause of death, not the one who supposedly instituted death in response to sin. Death is not from God; in fact, the very opposite: death is precisely the “absence” of God, meaning estrangement from Him. As darkness has no substance (there are no darkness particles or darkness waves) but is only the absence of light, so death is not a thing in itself, but only the absence of something, namely, Life.
Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness... and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5. 27:2.)
Adam and Eve die for the same reason one dies after jumping from the top of a skyscraper: not because God is literally punishing them, but because that is the natural consequence of the unnatural deed. They die for a reason that goes into effect before we even get around to considering God’s reaction to their sin. Their deaths can be thought of as juridical, but they are at best only secondarily so. Fundamentally, their deaths are ontological instead. They die not because they have broken a rule, but because they have rejected Life (God). No decree or legislation is needed to cause them to die; they die with or without it.
To say sin causes death is like saying headache causes pain. Being cut off from God does not cause death; it quite literally already is death and the very definition of death. Put another way, God does not kill; instead, the very opposite is true: separation from Him kills, meaning sin kills (or rather, IS death) all by itself, unilaterally, with no “help” from God whatsoever. In fact, death is not God’s weapon at all, it is the devil's, as we read in the New Testament:
Since [His] children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
God most emphatically did not inflict death upon the human race; however, as St. Basil teaches us, He did not stop it, either, and for more than one excellent reason.
For as much as [man] departed from life, by so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is Life, deprivation of life is death…God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves. Not at all, however, did He hinder the dissolution... so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us. (St. Basil the Great, Homily on why God is not the cause of evils, PG 31, 345.)
Observe that Adam and Eve had not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. God drove them out of the garden precisely to prevent them from eating of it, for that would have made the tragedy infinitely worse: Adam and Eve’s sins would have lived in them forever. God continued to protect the universe from such a catastrophe by setting angels (Cherubim) “to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” Mankind was obviously not ready for immortality!
… He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, (Romans 6:7) putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, XXIII, 6.)
Another reason God did not prevent their death was, once they had so thoroughly rejected Him, Who alone was their Life, there was actually no way He could have prevented them from dying. This is not merely because to have prevented their dying would have falsified His earlier word (that, too!), but much more fundamentally because it would be an oxymoron, a logical absurdity, like cold heat. You cannot prevent someone from committing suicide who has already done it.
Nor could He, within His overall plan, have restored them to Himself afterward against their will. First, you cannot force someone to be free, nor can force him to love. Union with God is by love, and if you make someone into an automaton by removing his free will, he cannot love. Even if God had wanted to override their freedom and reunite them to Himself by decree, it was still impossible, because the evil and death now in them was absolutely incompatible with His Goodness and Holiness and Life. Even repentance and forgiveness, though they could indeed remove guilt, could not remove death, because death is no mere legal sentence; it is a sickness, a pervsion in which man’s very being is wasting away.
By its very definition, sin is automatically self-punishing, because sin and death are two words for, and two faces of, the very same reality: separation from God.
“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Observe the two contrasts here. Death is what we have earned, is wages; eternal life is what we have not earned, is a gift. Sin (not God!) pays out our wages, death; God, by contrast, gives the gift, everlasting life.
Man’s withdrawal from god unto his own death, like the freedom of human will, is outside of God’s jurisdiction. And it is outside of His jurisdiction by His own will. The fact that God desires the salvation of all does not mean that all are saved. God saves only through love and freedom. (Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp. 31-32.)
Adam and Eve were now no longer living, but merely surviving; and that, temporarily. And this sorry picture truly depicts all of us ever since; we all stand in desperate need of a Savior.
Transmission of Sin and Death
… through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death passed to all men, because of which all have sinned-- (For until the [giving of the Mosaic] Law, sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no Law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam…) (Romans 5:12-14)
Adam’s essence, the “determining element” of man, as Bishop Kallistos put it, had been God in his inmost core, as man’s crowning glory. In rejecting God, Adam mutilated his own nature, gutted it or decapitated it. Now his nature was incompatible with God and hence with immortality.
We inherit this mutilated humanity (which in theological jargon goes by the name of “sin”, in the singular) from our first parents the same way we inherit some personality traits from them, or dimples, or freckles, and gender and race and so much else. Death, together with all it implies, is in our genes.
Everyone dies, as St. Paul says above, even if God is not counting his sins against him — in other words, he dies not for legal reasons. Between the time of Adam, who had been given one commandment, and the time of the prophet Moses, who was given ten (plus some six hundred more to supplement those), there was no divinely given law. Therefore, although there was indeed sin (transgression of God’s will), there was no transgression of any law. (There was nothing “according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” in other words.) Where there is no law, God does not reckon sin against a man. Yet all men died. They died because sin itself kills, whether or not any legal considerations exist. God counted Abraham as righteous on account of his faith (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3,9), yet he died. So did many other people whom God deemed righteous, such as Abel (Matthew 23:35, Hebrews 11:4), Job (Job 1:1,8), and Noah (Genesis 7:1).
The Orthodox Church does not teach that we inherit Adam’s guilt. God is not unjust, that He should hold us accountable for what Adam and Eve did and deprive us of life as a result. Rather, we are born with a human nature lacking the communion with God for which it was fashioned and thereby crippled, maimed, diseased, and dying.
Yes, Adam indeed fell and, having ignored the divine commandment, was condemned to corruptibility and death. But how did many become sinners because of him? What are his missteps to us? How could all of us who were not yet born be condemned together with him, even though God said, “Neither the fathers shall be put to death because of their children nor the children because of their fathers, but the soul which sins shall be put to death?” (Deuteronomy 24:18) Surely, the soul that sins shall die. Well, we became sinners through Adam’s disobedience in such a manner as this. He was created for incorruption and life, and the manner of existence he had in the garden of delight was proper to holiness. His whole mind was continuously seeing God while his body was tranquil and calm, and all base pleasures were still. For there was no tumult of alien disturbances in it. But since he fell under sin and slipped into corruptibility, pleasures and filthiness assaulted the nature of the flesh, and in our members was unveiled a savage law. Our nature thus became diseased by sin through the disobedience of one, that is, of Adam. Thus all were made sinners, not as co-transgressors with Adam, which they never were, but being of his nature, they fell under the law of sin…In Adam, human nature fell ill and became subject to corruptibility through disobedience, and, therefore, the passions entered in.” (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, P.G. 74, 788-789.)
But if it is unjust for God to hold other people guilty for their first parents’ sin, is it any more just that people (between Adam and Moses) who transgressed no law should die? No. It was not right that people like Abraham or Noah should die, whom God reckoned as righteous. Neither was it justice that satan should seize control of what rightfully belonged to God or destroy any of God’s handiwork, even when his victims deserved what they got. The devil, “the prince of this world” is a usurper, holding God’s beloved people captive, who are the bearers of His image. It is not right for them to remain under his dominion when they are meant to be gods. It is not right that the glorious destiny God had planned for them should be aborted.
That is part of the injustice Jesus, in the fullness of time, came to rectify.
“I am come,” says the Lord, “that they [My sheep] might have Life, and that they might have it more abundantly. “ (John 10:10)
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The next and, God willing, final post in this series will look at yet more aspects of the catastrophe that ocurred in Eden.