From Bible Standard February 1878 pg 36-37
Genesis 2:17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
Our opponents frequently refer to this passage to substantiate their claim that the penalty pronounced upon Adam was a moral or spiritual death, and that he at once paid the penalty by being severed from God, thus causing a loss of holiness, &c.
It is somewhat difficult to understand what is meant exactly by the term spiritual death, for if physical death is a total extinction of all life from the body, then spiritual death would, of course, result in a total extinction of all life from the spirit; hence, according to this reasoning, the spirit died before the body, therefore the sinner must carry about with him a dead spirit. But we are told that the spirit cannot die. Then what are we to understand by the term that Adam died a ” spiritual death”? We are told in reply that it means a separation from God, a separation from holiness and happiness. But we should like to ask our friends where they obtained this ingenious definition of Goers penalty upon Adam, for we have no record that God ever said anything of the kind, and if he did not, then from whence do they derive their authority? They tell us it must mean this, for Adam did not die literally in the day that he eat of the forbidden fruit. We fail to see a ” needs be” in this matter. On the other hand, adopting the popular view of the penalty, it involves us in difficulties out of which we can not see our way.
Let us take for granted that Adam’s penalty was a spiritual death, and this spiritual death consists in being a sinner, an alien from God, one without holiness, &c.
Can we, then, reconcile this position with Christ’s work of atonement? for, if the penalty on Adam was a moral death,then, inasmuch as Christ suffered the same penalty to redeem man, He must die a moral death. In that case it would be necessary for Him to become a sinner. But the Scriptures affirm that He “did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” (1 Peter ii. 22), therefore, moral or spiritual death was not the penalty for sin.
Again, if the penalty pronounced against sin was a spiritual death, which consists of being a sinner and an alien from God, then the words, “In the day thou eatest thou shalt surely die,” are merely equal to saying, in the day you sin you will become a sinner, and are no longer a penalty, but a needless statement of an obvious fact – a truism. Once more, if the penalty was a spiritual death, not a literal one, it was only a figurative death, and really no death at all. The difficulty, we think, is all removed when the facts in the case are presented.
The statement, “Thou shalt surely die,” occurs in twenty other passages besides Gen. ii 17, and in them all it refers to a literal death. Why say its first use (when language was in its simplest form) is a figurative one? We think, if any such assumption were necessary, it would be more reasonable to assume that the day mentioned was figurative rather than the penalty.
When speaking on Gen. ii.7, Dr. Clarke says :-” From that moment thou shalt become mortal, and shall continue in a dying state till thou die.” This we find literally accomplished.
By anticipation Adam was a dead man when he had partaken of the forbidden fruit. During the plagues upon the Egyptians, they urged the children of Israel to depart, saying, ” We be all dead men.” Exodus xii. 33. In consequence of what Abimelech had done, the Lord came to him” in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man.” Gen. xx. 3. So, when a man takes poison, we say of him, ” He is a dead man,” by which we mean he will certainly die in consequence of taking the poison.
Instead of “Thou shall surely die,” the Greek of Symmachus reads, “Thou shalt be mortal; likewise the Syriac,which is approved by Jerome, Grotius, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, Patrick, Mant, Henry, and Dr. Payne. The Targum of Jonathan reads, “Thou shalt be subject to death.” In harmony with the foregoing, it should be stated that the Hebrew preposition “be” rendered “in,” is translated thirteen ways in the Bible. But three of these thirteen renderings would make sense in Gen. ii. 17, and these are ” in,” ” after,” and” against.” “Against” would hardly be appropriate in the passage, and we drop it, leaving the choice between “in” and “after.” “In the day that thou eatest thereof,” and” after the day,” are expressions equally sensible and proper, and the choice between the two depends entirely upon the meaning of the passage. In Num. xxviii.26, the same preposition” be “is correctly translated both in and after in the same verse as follows :-” Also in the day of the first fruits, when ye bring a new meat-offering unto the Lord, after your weeks be out.” Genesis says, the Hebrew preposition” be” should be rendered after, ” where- the mind rests more upon the end of a period, and spoken therefore of time already past.” This is the case with the sentence pronounced on Adam, in Gen. ii. 17.
Had it been rendered “after the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” it would have been in harmony with all the facts and statements connected with the historyof the first man. The Lord did not design that he should die in that day, for He says to him in Gen iii. 19, ” In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” This passage shows that the Lord designed Adam should live ” till” a certain period, and then he would” return unto the ground.” If he had died in the day he ate of the tree, it would have exterminated the human race, for Adam had no children at that time.
Those who translated the received version of theScriptures, in King James’ time, believed man to be immortal,consequently he could not die a literal death. Itwould not have been in harmony with their views totranslate the preposition” be” by the word'” after.” Letthe death penalty pronounced against Adam be literal death,and all is plain and harmonius, We think it is obvious that the penalty for Adam’s sin was literal death.