Death of Adam: Spiritual-Only or Physical Also?

Ed Stevens – March 1, 2019

The two major views on resurrection within the Preterist movement (CBV versus IBV) part ways at the very beginning of the Bible in regard to how each defines the “death” that God threatened and carried out against Adam “on the very day” he sinned. The CBV defines it as a spiritual-only death, while the IBV sees it as a comprehensive death, including physical, spiritual, and eternal death.

Some might wonder how physical death (in any sense) could be included in the death that was threatened against Adam’s sin, especially since Adam did not personally die physically on that day. We will explain that down below.

The CBV affirms that the only kind of death Adam died on the day he sinned was spiritual. They deny Adam died physically in any sense “on the day” he sinned. In his book, We Shall Meet Him in the Air (WSMHA hereafter), Preston explains how crucial the spiritual-only Death of Adam concept is to his collective body framework:

[The] death of Adam, which is the focus of Christ’s end time resurrection work, has nothing to do with biological death, but with the loss of spiritual fellowship with God. . . if you mis-identify the death of the Garden, you will of necessity wrongly identify the nature of the resurrection in [the whole] New Testament. If your protology (doctrine of the beginning) is wrong, your eschatology (doctrine of the end) is destined to be misguided. [WSMHA, 4, boldface added]

To wrongly identify the death of Adam is to wrongly construct eschatology. To wrongly identify the nature and focus of Christ’s substitutionary, atoning work is to mis-interpret ... the story of redemption. We must place our understanding of . . . all eschatological passages within the proper context and framework or we are doomed to miss and/or misconstrue their message. [WSMHA, 20, boldface added]

Do you see what Preston has admitted here? This means that if the CBV concept of a spiritual-only Death of Adam is mistaken, then both their protology and eschatology are “wrong” and “misguided,” including their explanation of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and the whole story of redemption. And that would negate their entire collective body framework which is built on their assumption that the Death of Adam was spiritual-only.

Furthermore, the CBV cannot be right about the Death of Adam being spiritual-only, since it would necessarily imply that Christ did not need to die physically in order to overcome the spiritual-only death of Adam, and that the physical death of Jesus was not His substitutionary death for our atonement. But that fatally contradicts Hebrews 9:22 which states, “without the shedding of [Christ’s] blood there is no forgiveness.” That clearly demands that our substitutionary atonement could not have occurred without the physical death of Jesus. The CBV attempts to avoid this dilemma by redefining “blood” in Heb 9:22 as being “spiritual blood.” Steve Baisden, Holger Neubauer, and Don Preston defended that “spiritual blood” idea on FaceBook recently.

So, we see that the core issue distinguishing the CBV from the IBV is our respective definitions of the death that Adam died “on the very day” he sinned. And since these two diametrically-opposed definitions of the Death of Adam cannot both be right, it means that one of these two views is “wrong” and “misguided” (Preston’s words). Therefore, the whole debate between CBV and IBV can be settled right here on this very issue of the Death of Adam.

How we define the Death of Adam in Genesis will absolutely determine what we believe about the Death and Resurrection of Jesus and His saints in the New Testament. This immediately raises the question, “Why does the CBV absolutely insist that the only death that Adam died on the day he sinned was spiritual death?” Let’s look at the Genesis text to see what kind of death was both threatened and carried out upon Adam “in the day” he ate.

What Does ‘in the day you eat’ Mean?

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 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.” (Gen 2:16-17, NKJV)

Notice that whatever kind of death God threatened against Adam was to be executed upon him “in the very day” he ate from the forbidden tree. There is nothing ambiguous about this language. It is very explicit. Therefore, it cannot be talking about the physical natural death of Adam nine-hundred years later. Instead, it can only be talking about a penal death that Adam would die “in the very day he ate.” No other death at any other time will fit the clear language here.

Many commentaries try to explain away this language by suggesting that Adam merely began to die on that day, or that he became mortal (subject to eventual death), or that the death penalty was only imputed against him on that day. But there is not a hint of those ideas in the context. God explicitly warned Adam that if he ate from the forbidden tree, he would die “in the very same day he ate.”

Furthermore, we need to note that Preston totally agrees with me on this. In his book, he spends three full pages contending for this idea that whatever kind of death it was that was threatened, it had to be the same kind of death that was actually carried out in the very same 24-hour day that Adam sinned. Here is how Don argues that case:

Did Adam and Eve die [physically] the day that they ate the forbidden fruit? … The vast majority say, “No, Adam and Eve did not die [physically] the day they ate.” Interestingly however, when we point out that God said they would die that day, and that Satan said they would not die that day, there is an immediate recognition that their view has a serious problem! The denial that Adam and Eve died the day they ate the fruit makes Satan the one who told the truth . . . This conundrum, is very real. Who really told the truth, God, or Satan?

It will be readily admitted that the term “day” can be used metaphorically. . . .

[However] only context can determine what “the day” means in any given text. Do we have any contextual help for understanding what “the day” means in Genesis 2:16f? We do indeed.

Note that YHVH told Adam and Eve, “In the day that you eat thereof, you will surely die.” When Satan confronted Eve, he told her, “You will not surely die, but, 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” (Genesis 3:5). Notice the direct correlation between “in the day you eat you will surely die” and “in the day you eat you will know good and evil.”

Of course, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The question therefore is, in what day did they come to know good and evil? Was that knowledge imparted 900 years later?

Did they continue in their innocence for several more centuries? The answer is obvious, is it not? They knew good and evil in that very day, the day marked by the sun, moon, and stars, a twenty-four hour day.

The identical term “in the day” is used to say they would die, and they would come to know good and evil. Where is the contextual evidence that “in the day that you eat you will surely die,” can be extrapolated into almost a millennium?

Consider the grammatical problem of saying Adam and Eve did die spiritually that day, but they did not die physically for hundreds of years. This means that the same identical term, in the same verse, has two totally disparate, contradictory, definitions. We are told that “in the day that you eat, you will surely die,” means that in that very same twenty-four hour period, they would lose their fellowship life with YHVH and be cast out of His presence. But then, that same identical statement, within the same verse, meant you will die physically hundreds of years from now! What rule of grammar, of linguistics, of semantics, of hermeneutic, allows the identical term, in the identical verse, to mean two totally different things? It appears from our vantage point that only a preconceived idea of the nature of the death of Adam can force this kind of meaning onto the text. [WSMHA, 5-7, boldface and bracketed words added for clarity and emphasis]

Thus, it seems clear that the phrase “in the day you eat” in the context of Genesis 2-3 absolutely means that Adam would certainly die some kind of death within the same twenty-four-hour day that he ate the forbidden fruit. There is simply no grammatical or contextual justification for the idea that this death could occur sometime later. Whatever kinds of death were threatened (spiritual and/or physical), they all had to occur literally “on the very same day he ate.”

And we need to note that Preston’s whole spiritual-only Death of Adam position critically depends on this idea that the threatened death (whatever it was) must have occurred on the very same 24-hour day that Adam sinned. So that raises the question: What kinds of death were threatened and carried out “on the very same day they ate”?

What Kind of Death Did God Threaten?

In the conversation between the Serpent and the woman (Genesis 3:1-6), we can discern what her concept of the threatened death must have been. The Serpent questioned what God said: “Did God actually say that you could not eat from every tree in the garden?” The woman replied: “We do eat from the trees of the garden, except this one about which God said, do not eat of it, nor even touch it, lest you die.” But the Serpent said: You will not surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and would make her wise, she took and ate.

Notice the four italicized statements above:

(1) not to eat of it, nor even touch it, lest you die;
(2) You will not surely die;
(3) good for food;
(4) delight to the eyes.

The woman associated three physical actions with the threatened death, eating, touching, and seeing. This implies that she understood the death threat to be physical death, since there is no indication that she already knew what spiritual death was. In fact, since they had not yet sinned, they could not have known what spiritual death was. Her spiritual eyes had not been opened yet. But she was able to see the delightful-looking tree with her physical eyes. And since she associated the threatened death with those three physical actions (eating, touching, and seeing), it strongly, if not necessarily, implies that her concept of the threatened death was physical.

This conclusion is further supported by the fact that when the Serpent reassured her that they would not die by touching it or eating it, she understood that the fruit was safe to eat (i.e., “good for food” Genesis 3:6). It would not kill them. It does not appear that she had any concept of spiritual death (sin-death) whatsoever. Her only concern appears to have been whether they would physically die from touching and eating the fruit.

Furthermore, Eve got this physical concept of death from Adam, and Adam got it straight from God, which necessarily implies that physical death was at least included in the kinds of death that God threatened to execute upon them “in the very day they ate.”

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]

Notice that little word “skin.” Many commentaries point out that this necessarily implies that an animal was slain by God in order to provide these “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve. But God was not merely concerned about covering their physical nakedness. He was even more concerned about their forgiveness and spiritual well-being.

Chandler and McKeever explain how the physical death of that animal in the garden on the very day they sinned brought provisional forgiveness to Adam and Eve, and was the beginning of the substitutionary sacrificial system which pointed straight to Jesus who provided the full and final once-for-all atonement through His physical death on the Cross. Notice Chandler’s emphasis on the idea of a “sacrificial substitute,” or “substitute victim,” which “represented the death owed by the man”:

In harmony with God’s preplanned arrangement for atonement, physical death was required “in the day” of the sin, and was just as surely given! An animal was slain from which clothes were taken in the form of skins. It must be so that the slain animal was the substitute victim for Adam and Eve. Physical death came into Eden “in that day,” but it came upon man’s sacrificial substitute. When the animal was slain, it represented the death owed by the man. [Darwin Chandler. “The Fate of Innocence,” Expository Review (vol. 1, no. 10, Oct. 1982) boldface added]

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, this pattern of atonement for sins is followed: physical death of a perfect animal (i.e., without blemish or spot) on behalf of the sinner, although the blood of these bulls and goats could not take away sins (Heb 10:4). This pattern culminated in the real thing, which God had promised in the beginning – Gen 3:15

– the physical death of the perfect Lamb of God on the Cross on behalf of his people. [Stacia McKeever, “What Does Jesus’s Death Accomplish?” Answers in Genesis website article. boldface added]

Were Adam and Eve Forgiven?

Recently, in one of his FaceBook discussions, Preston was asked if he believed Adam and Eve were forgiven before they left the garden. He replied that they were NOT forgiven before they left the garden, nor afterwards, as far as he knew.

That is a very disturbing admission by Preston. If true, it would mean that the first parents of our human race died unforgiven and will spend eternity outside the Presence of God. Andrew Willet reminds us that the heretic Tatian taught that very same thing, i.e., “that Adam was damned [never forgiven].” But then Willet asks, “If Adam had no faith remaining, to what purpose should God have propounded the promise of the Messiah to a faithless man (Gen 3:15)?” [Commentary on Genesis, vol. 2. Thompson, ed., Reformation Commentary on Scripture, vol. 1, 162. italics added]

The Protoevangelium, or first statement of the gospel (Gen 3:15), provides proof that God had forgiven them. The promise of a descendant to crush the Serpent shows that God gave them a future. They were not going to die on that day. The animal was slain in substitute for them, and its skin was a visible reminder of its substitutionary sacrificial death on their behalf. Thus, Adam and Eve left the garden in a forgiven state.

Gulley notes that “As soon as there was sin, there was a Savior.” As soon as they sinned, God proclaimed the gospel to them (Gen 3:15) and offered a sacrifice for their provisional forgiveness as they looked toward the future Coming One who would fulfill that physical substitutionary sacrificial typology once-for-all by His physical death on the Cross. [Gulley, Creation, Christ, Salvation, Systematic Theology vol. 3, 416]

Restoration of Fellowship?

Notice what the following writers have to say about the forgiveness and restoration of fellowship of Adam and Eve:

Because [God] always seeks to forgive and restore what was lost, each covenant contains the element of forgiveness, either implicitly or explicitly, and each covenant—after the Fall—aims to restore what was lost, and that restoration can only come about by God’s gracious gift. … The church has long understood the skin garment episode (Gen 3:21) as an adumbration of Christ and his sacrifice, in much the same way as the later Levitical animal sacrifices anticipate that of the Son. Surely this is correct. [Jeffrey J. Niehaus, “The Common Grace Covenants,” in vol. 1 of Biblical Theology, Accordance electronic ed. (Wooster: Weaver Book Company, 2014), 77-80.]

God subsequently clothes them to signify their inaugurated restoration to him (Gen. 3:21). [G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 41. boldface added]

Yet God also revealed a way in which human sin could be forgiven and the broken relationship restored. God himself provided a substitute (an animal) whose blood (life) would atone for sin (Genesis 3:21). This began the sacrificial system. This revealed that once atonement had been made it was again possible for humankind to enter God’s presence which was manifested at the ark. However, this was done only through a mediator, the high priest, who represented God’s people (Exodus 28:12, 29). The sacrifices and the atonement conducted by the priests of Israel foreshadowed a coming sacrifice and a high priest who would make atonement once for all. [Randall Price, Rose Guide to the Temple, 4. boldface added]

The garments of skin were God’s provision for restoring Adam’s and Eve’s fellowship with Himself and imply slaying of an animal in order to provide them. [Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded, paragraph 245. boldface added]

From the beginning, some of the first notable changes that would attest to a new [covenantal] arrangement were a different location (cf. 3:24), additional descendants in the first family (4:1–2), and a sacrifice-based relationship of blood atonement with God (4:3–5). The blood sacrifice was the only acceptable means of reconciliation for those faithful ones who sought to remain in personal fellowship with Him. … this alteration of relationship (now indirect) was portrayed in the first act of personal redemption as personally accomplished by the Lord for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). [Ervin Starwalt, “Issue 8: April 1999.” ConTJ 3 (Apr 1999): p. 109. boldface added]

The Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), God’s promise to bring forth a kinsman-redeemer from the seed of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head, is further acted out in the substitutionary sacrifice that God performed in front of Adam and Eve. This certainly had to be the beginning of the sacrificial system, and the origin of the sacrificial lamb motif that recurs constantly throughout both testaments. For instance, we see Abel offer a lamb from his flocks, the ram (lamb) caught in a thicket on Mount Moriah, the Passover lamb in Egypt, the statement of John the Baptist about Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and preeminent of all, that marvelous text in Revelation (5:6) where John saw “a Lamb standing as if slain.”

‘Died With’ and ‘Put On’

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; 2Tim 2:11; cf. Rom 6:4-5; Gal 2:19-20; 1Pet 2:24). They “put on” the skins of the sacrificial lamb in the same way we “put on” Christ in our conversion (Rom 13:14; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10-12; Rev 3:5; 3:18; 19:8; 2Cor 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 which God would provide through the death of His Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29, 36). 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”). And Revelation 5:6 pictures Christ before the heavenly throne as “a lamb standing as if slain.” 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, 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; 1Thess 5:10). They “died with” that lamb “on that day,” and thus began the redemptive drama through the substitutionary sacrificial system.


Everything is at stake here for the CBV view. Their whole eschatological system is built on their spiritual-only Death of Adam position. It is the very foundation of their view. They absolutely CANNOT have physical death in any sense included in the kinds of death that were threatened and carried out upon Adam “on the very day he sinned.”

Preston claims (and I agree) that if we wrongly identify the Death of Adam, we will automatically mis-interpret the story of redemption, wrongly construct eschatology, and wrongly identify the nature of the resurrection in the whole New Testament. This means that if the CBV has mis-identified the Death of Adam as being spiritual-only (and they have), then their whole CBV view of eschatology is “wrong” and “misguided” (Preston’s words).

We have shown (and Preston agrees) that no matter what kind of death was threatened against Adam, it had to be carried out on the very same twenty-four-hour day that Adam ate (Genesis 2:17). We also showed that Eve understood that threat to at least include physical death (Genesis 3:1-6). And we saw how an innocent animal did die physically on that day to not only provide a covering for their nakedness, but also to be a substitute sacrifice for the provisional forgiveness of their sin (Genesis 3:21; Hebrews 9:22). That animal died in their place, and they died with it, just like we die with Christ. That began the whole substitutionary sacrificial system which pointed straight to Jesus who was the ultimate fulfillment of that sacrificial typology.

Furthermore, if the threatened death did NOT include physical death, as the CBV contends, then Jesus did NOT need to die physically in order to save us from the Death that Adam introduced through his sin. It would also mean that Christ’s physical death was NOT his substitutionary death for our atonement.

We also noted that Hebrews 9:22 (“without the shedding of Christ’s blood there is no forgiveness”) indisputably shows that physical blood had to be shed in order for us to have forgiveness. So it is not surprising to see the CBV advocates redefine “blood” here in Hebrews 9:22 as being “spiritual blood” and not literal physical blood. They are forced to do that by their “spiritual-only Death of Adam” concept. But that would trample the precious physical blood of Christ underfoot and treat it as unnecessary for our forgiveness and substitutionary atonement.

Thus, we have demonstrated that physical death was included in the kinds of death that were both threatened against Adam and executed on the very day he sinned. This means that the CBV has mis-identified the Death of Adam by saying it was spiritual-only. And therefore, the whole CBV view of eschatology is “wrong” and “misguided.”

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