When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were in unity with each and with God. They could perceive spiritually, as well as physically. They could talk with God, and they could see him, in a way that was real. They were free to choose how they would behave. God taught them his will, but they were free to disobey.

Adam and Eve committed their first sin well before they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They could hear God's voice, but they chose to listen to other voices and decide if they really were evil. This was an insult to God, who is good and perfectly wise. Deciding not to trust God was their first sin. When they made this decision, God's presence left them.

He was already gone when the serpent approached them, because he could not have come near to do evil, if God had been there. The serpent could not tolerate God's glory, when he was planning to do evil.

Eating the forbidden fruit was not the first sin. It was the inevitable outcome of losing God's protection. Without God, Adam and Eve were never going to be a match for the cunning of the devil.

What Happened

God had told Adam and Eve that if they disobeyed him, they would die.

you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat from it you will certainly die (Gen 2:17).

Yet after they ate from the tree, they carried on living. Adam lived for nearly a thousand years. This was not a sudden death, so what did happen to them? In what sense did they die?

What Did God Do

God pronounced three curses: on the serpent, the woman and the man.

  1. He physically changed the serpent, by removing its legs and modifying its body so that it would have to crawl upon the ground.

  2. God is not recorded as changing Adam and Eve in any way. He explained that their relationship to each other would be changed. This would be the natural outworking of their personalities, without the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit. The man's strength would distort into domination. The women's sociability would distort into fear.

  3. The land would become hard to work and toil would be painful. However, God did not change the man, or the land. The land was changed by the powers of evil (more on that in a moment).

God withdrew from his people. His holiness meant that he could not be close to sin, so he had no choice but to withdraw from the sinful humans (Is 59:2). They had grieved the Holy Spirit, so he could no longer dwell with them in the way that he did.

The key thing that God did was to exclude Adam and Eve from the garden.

The Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:23)
He drove the man out (Gen 3:24).

Although God had warned them that they would die, he did not put them to death. Instead, he drove them away from his presence, and out of the place where he had been working. Certain death became exclusion.

What Happened in the World

Several things happened as a result of being excluded from the presence of God.

We have no idea how what a terrible place the world had become. The hundreds of thousands of evil spirits are still at work in the world, but they have to spread themselves across 6 billion people. Even with the benefit of the cross, some Christians can find it hard to deal with a couple of attacking spirits. Imagine if the entire host of fallen spirits all attacking one couple and their children, with no spiritual protection. Fortunately, they were divided, and some of them were more intent on messing up the world, but the onslaught faced by Adam and Eve would have been overwhelming.

The Flesh

The spiritual powers of evil quite likely achieved their evil purpose by altering human DNA. There is no doubt that human DNA has changed over time, but these changes are usually attributed to natural causes. I presume that some of the changes were made after humans were expelled from the garden and thousands and thousands of evil spirits were available to join together in attacking them. The changes they made to the brains of the first couple would be passed on to all their descendants causing a change in human character and personality. This was too good an opportunity for the powers of evil to let go by, as once the numbers of humans on earth increased, they would be spread much thinner, and less effective.

In the New Testament, the "old man" that causes us to sin is described as "the flesh" (Rom 6:19).

That which is born of the flesh is flesh (John 3:6).
The ones according to the flesh are inclined to the things of the flesh;
The inclination of the flesh is death,
The inclination of the flesh is hostile to God
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God
if you live according to the flesh you will die (Rom 8:5-8,13).
While we were in the flesh, the passions of sin... were at work in our members to bear fruit to death (Rom 7:5)
I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Rom 7:18).

If we think of "the flesh" as the human body or brain, which we inherited from Adam, and which was damaged when he was attacked by the powers of evil, it would explain why the person who has not been saved by Jesus, struggles to do what is right.

Paul did not understand DNA or the working of the human brain, but he recognized that something in our body (flesh) that we have inherited from Adam has twisted our behaviour towards evil. Like the rest of the people of his time, he assumed that the driver of human behaviour was the heart, but we now know that the mind and the will are located in the brain. Therefore, thinking of "the flesh" as a corrupted brain might be the best way to understand what Paul was attempting to explain to the Romans.

Results of Evil Attack

Being expelled from the presence of God and sent into a world controlled by the powers of evil without any spiritual protection was a disaster for the first humans. The powers of evil hated God and wanted to destroy his earth.

Humans had been given authority on earth, but they had surrendered it to the powers of evil. If the powers of evil could keep humans hostile to God, they could retain their stolen authority forever. They were not able to destroy humans, because this would destroy the basis of their authority on earth. If there were no humans, God would be free to take back his earth again, because it would release him from his covenant that gave authority on earth to humans without recourse.

To cement their authority on earth, the powers of evil set about doing their best to modify brains (flesh) of the people created in God's image, so that they would never escape their clutches and turn back to him. They achieved this by making subtle changes to human flesh, and particularly the brain, which is made of flesh. They could not change them too much, or modify them to be sub-human, because they would cease to be human, and they would lose their authority on earth that came through God's covenant with humans. (I suspect that many of the fossils found by palaeontologists are actually sub-human species created by the powers of evil going too far.)

The corrupted flesh that has been inherited by all human descendants affects us in a variety of ways. See more at What is a Person.

Every human inherits the flesh that manifests these problems.

What Death?

Humans did not die physically on the day they rebelled against God, so what happened?

Humans died in four ways.

Dying to Death

Paul said in Romans that Death reigned from the time to Adam to the time of Moses

Death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:14).

Who was this Death that reigned on earth? Death was a name of god of the people of Canaan. He was opposed to a better-known god called Baal, who represented life. This suggests that Death was the name of prominent spiritual principality and power. This controlling spiritual power ruled the spiritual powers of wickedness from the time of Adam to the time of Moses.

God had given authority over the earth to Adam and Eve. When they sinned, they surrendered to the powers of evil, so they gained authority over the earth that God had given to humans. However, the spirit who deceived them was not strong enough to gain control, so an evil spirit called Death rose to dominate the spiritual forces of evil. He focussed on destroying the people and earth that God had created.

For if by the one man's offense, Death reigned through the one (Rom 5:17).
Sin reigned in Death (Rom 5:21).

The powers of evil are not united, so they are always fighting amongst themselves for dominance and control. The giving of the law brought a shift in control over the powers of evil, as once God had given his standards in a written form, along with curses for disobedience, Satan, the accuser, ascended to dominance. He was able to go into the presence of God and accuse humans of sinning, and demand the right to implement the curses required by the law. This skill enabled him to regain control over the powers of evil.

When Jesus died on the cross and ascended into heaven, the accuser lost his place and was thrown out of heaven and cast down on the earth (Rev 12:10). Satan now has to work by deception, persuading humans that he is not defeated and persuading or tricking people into sinning.

This clarifies the Hebrew expression translated as "you shall certainly die" in Genesis 2:17. The Hebrew doubles the word death/die for emphasis. It uses the "infinitive absolute with an imperfect" and the presence of the infinitive absolute intensifies the meaning of the imperfect verb. This is quite common in the Hebrew Bible.

A literal translation would be

To Death, you will die.

Once we realise that Death is a powerful, controlling, spiritual power, we can understand that God was warning that if they sinned, they would destroy their lives, by placing themselves under the control of Death, a nasty evil spiritual power. That is what happened.

By rejecting the wisdom of God, they surrendered to the authority the spiritual powers of evil and these spiritual forces were controlled by an evil spirit called Death. He would reign until the time of Moses, when Satan rose to dominance again. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, they were still free, but they were battered and beaten by the powers of evil controlled by their leader called Death.

Paul said something similar in his letter to the Corinthians. He was explaining that a brother, who was deliberately sinning and rejecting correction, should be excluded from the fellowship.

Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:5).

When the man was excluded from the fellowship, he lost the spiritual protection that came through the oversight of the elders and the other Christians standing with him against attacks of evil. Because he would lose his spiritual protection and continued to sin, he would be in a situation where he was extremely vulnerable to Satan and his spiritual powers. This is exactly the same as what happened when Adam and Eve were excluded from the safety of the garden, except that the controlling spiritual power was Death, rather than Satan.

Therefore, "to death you will die" means being excluded from spiritual protection and being made vulnerable to Death and his spiritual powers. It is the same as being handed over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5).

The letter to the Hebrews contains a similar message.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil (Heb 2:12).

Jesus came to earth and went to the cross to destroy the physical power of the devil. He also destroyed the power of the spirit called Death.

In John's first letter, he explains that Cain was controlled by the evil one.

Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother (1 John 3:12).

Adam had surrendered to the powers of evil, so his son Cain was also controlled by the "evil one", aka Death. That is why he put his brother to death. However, Jesus came to destroy the devil's work (1 John 3:8).

John then explained that we know we have been saved from the power of Death, because we love each other.

We know that we have passed from Death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in Death (1 John 3:14).

Literally, we have changed our residence to the place of life in Jesus, from the place controlled by Death.

Born Again

Jesus was conceived when the Holy Spirit overshadowed his mother Mary. This broke the line of the flesh from Adam. He did not inherit the corruption of the flesh that troubled the rest of the human race.

When a person trusts in Jesus and is born again of the Spirit, the harm to their flesh/brain is restored. The Holy Spirit restores the damage to our flesh (including the brain) that was inherited from the first man, who was attacked by the powers of evil.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24)

When we are born again to become a new creation, the harm done to Adam that we inherited is restored. The Holy Spirit changes what we are. We are born again with a restored brain.

Being born again reverses the damage done that we inherited from Adam and Eve, but that is the first step. While living with corrupted flesh, we have picked up a lot of junk that we have to learn to let go.

There is one other important physical change. When a woman has been born again through faith in Jesus, this force of this curse is broken, Paul pointed to this blessing in his letter to Timothy.

Women will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim 2:15).

We should be praying that the Holy Spirit will work this restoration in women who trust Jesus, that he would restore their bodies from the damage that was done when Adam and Eve sinned.