This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr Craig
What is your view on the Biblical connection between sin and death? It seems as though there are only three options:
- God intended for death to be part of his design for the universe in the first place, and that humans would have died anyway, even if they never sinned/The Fall never occurred.
- God did not intend for death to be part of the design of the universe, and it was human sin/The Fall which directly caused it - somehow, our moral rebellion against God “broke the universe” (ie somehow we caused fundamental biological and physical processes to change when we rebelled).
- God did not intend for death to be part of his design for the universe, but when humans sinned/The Fall happened, God responded to it by “cursing” the universe and He introduced death into it himself - because he knew that that was the most appropriate way to respond to what humanity had done.
Given all the fears about death during COVID19, the many evangelistic opportunities to talk about sin & death & salvation (or, on the flip side, the objections that could be raised about the alleged absurdity of the connection), plus your own research into the Historical Adam, how would you best articulate the connection Biblically?
William Lane Craig's Response
Great to hear from you, Peter! The subject of your question is one about which I have had a major change of mind as a result of my historical Adam studies. The change has nothing to do with the historicity of Adam but with the proper interpretation of biblical texts.
In I Corinthians 15. 42-44 Paul characterizes our present mortal, corruptible body as a sōma psychikon (natural body). In the eschatological resurrection, it will be transformed into an immortal, incorruptible body. So why is our earthly body a sōma psychikon? I took it to be a result of sin, in particular, Adam’s sin. After all, didn’t Paul say in Romans 5.12, “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned”?
But in the course of my study of Paul’s teaching about Adam and Christ, I came to the realization that Paul does not teach that our sōma psychikon is the result of Adam’s fall. It is crucial to note that while Romans 5 contrasts spiritual death and condemnation in Adam vs. justification and righteousness in Christ, in I Corinthians 15 the contrast between Adam and Christ is not forensic but physical.
In Romans 5.12-14, Paul seems willing to countenance the existence of people who lived between the times of Adam and Moses who were evildoers but not wrongdoers, that is to say, they were morally evil but not accountable:
sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned—sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,
Commentators seem to agree that in saying that their sins (hamartiai) were not like Adam’s transgression (parabasis), Paul makes this very differentiation: since they do not have the law, the morally evil things they do are not, properly speaking, transgressions, that is, the breaking of a law.
Paul asserts that death nevertheless reigned over such people because they all sinned. So saying seems to require an implicit differentiation between death as a consequence of sin and death as a penalty for sin. Since the relevant persons are not accountable, death cannot be their just desert, that is, the punishment that justice requires. Rather death would have to be a consequence of their own sin. This fact shows that Paul is talking here about spiritual death. It would be outlandish to think that each person is born physically immortal and then by sinning brings physical mortality upon himself. But each person might be reasonably said to bring spiritual death upon himself in virtue of his sinning. Evildoing is spiritually deadly and alienates us from God, so that spiritual death can be a consequence of sin even if not a punishment for sin for those who have no law. The remainder of the chapter is about how the results of Adam’s sin, described by such expressions as “many died through one man’s trespass” (v 15), “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation” (v16), “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (v17), “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (v18), and “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (v 19), are reversed through Christ. Notice that the reversal comes, not through physical resurrection, but through justification and righteousness.
In marked contrast, the concern throughout I Corinthians 15 is with immortality, not righteousness and salvation. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15.21-22). Here Paul is talking about physical death and its reversal via resurrection.
What is striking is that in I Corinthians 15. 45-49 Paul associates human mortality with the creation of Adam, not with his fall.
Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (I Corinthians 15.45-49).
In v. 45 Paul’s expression “Thus it is written,” followed by his paraphrase of Genesis 2.7 directs our attention immediately to the Genesis creation narrative. Paul describes Adam as the first man, physical or natural (psychikos), from the earth, made of dust. He was the first human being that God made, formed by Him out of the dust of the earth, and therefore having a natural body. In saying that we all bear the image of the one made of dust, Paul is saying that each of us has a natural body (sōma psychikon), made of dust, and therefore mortal.
In contrast to Romans 5, Paul’s employment of the Adam/Christ typology in I Corinthians 15 is focused on physical death and resurrection. Although we might think that physical death is the result of Adam’s sin, Paul does not affirm this. Gordon Fee comments on I Corinthians 15.45, “The first Adam, who became a living psychē was thereby given a psychikos body at creation, a body subject to decay and death. . . . The last Adam, on the other hand, whose ‘spiritual (glorified) body’ was given at his resurrection, . . . is himself the source of the pneumatikos life as well as the pneumatikos body.” On this view Adam was created with a mortal natural body.
So for Paul, Adam is created with a sōma psychikon; he does not obtain one by sinning. Paul thus implies that physical mortality is the natural human condition. In saying that in Adam all die, Paul may be saying that in virtue of sharing a common human nature with Adam we share in his natural mortality.
Paul’s interpretation of the creation story in Genesis 2 seems to be accurate. As John Walton emphasizes, Genesis 3.19, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” supports the natural mortality of Adam and Eve due to their physical constitution. Moreover, if Adam and Eve were naturally immortal, then why have a Tree of Life in the Garden at all? It would serve no physical purpose in paradise. The Tree serves to rejuvenate its eater physically, not spiritually, hence, the concern in Genesis 3.22 about fallen man’s eating from the Tree and living forever (n.b. not his being spiritually regenerated). John Day thus reports that among Old Testament scholars “the majority scholarly view nowadays” is that Adam and Eve were mortal in the Garden, as implied by Gen 3.22.
John Collins further points out that in Genesis “The ‘death’ that Gen. 2:17 threatens is human ‘spiritual death,’ namely, alienation from God. This becomes clear once we see what happens to the human pair when they disobey in Genesis 3.” The only sense in which physical death might be seen as a consequence of sin is indirect: it is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, cutting off any hope of immortality, symbolized by the Tree of Life. As Day nicely phrases it, “What has happened is that they have missed out on a chance of immortality.”
So looking at your three options, Peter, my view doesn’t fit exactly any of them. The closest would be (1) in the sense that Adam and Eve were naturally mortal, but that shouldn’t be taken to imply that “God intended for death to be part of his design for the universe in the first place,” for according to the story God had given Adam and Eve the Tree of Life to rejuvenate them for as long as they wished.
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 789. Moreover, Jesus Christ, though sinless, also had a body which was nonetheless psychikos and therefore mortal. It is only with his resurrection that his sōma psychikon was transformed to a sōma pneumatikon. It cannot be said therefore that physical death is a solely a consequence of personal sin, or Christ could not die.
 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, with a contribution by N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 73. Walton’s mistake lies in thinking that their mortality is not consistent with, and even an implication of, their material creation.
 John Day, From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11, Library of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament Studies 592 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 45-46.
 C. John Collins, “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters,” [source unspecified] 62/3 September 2010, p. 158.
 Day, From Creation to Babel, p. 46.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.