Theology & Spirituality

Why Adam and Eve Had to Die

Genesis 1 tells a story of God creating, forming, and filling the universe, while continually delegating responsibilities to created things. Chapters 2 and 3 extend the story by showing how God begins teaching humans to see good. I argued last time1 that this process of delegation and teaching explains both why the Garden contains the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and why God is not around when the serpent appears in chapter 3.

A final puzzle about the story of the Fall, however, remains to be answered. Why is death the penalty for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree?

Last time, I argued that God forbade the tree because eating its fruit would amount to humans—who are intrinsically images and students—trying to replace God as their own subjects and teachers. But isn’t threatening them with death an overreaction? How is wanting to teach yourself a capital crime?

What I want to argue today is that death is not something God attaches to eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is not a penalty God imposes on the humans. It is, instead, the automatic and natural consequence of beings like the humans trying to act as their own instructors.

To explain why this is, however, I need to to start with some metaphors.

Pictures as Mirrors

Humans are images of God, designed to reflect God’s actions and attitudes to the world. But imagine what would happen if humans tried to take God’s place—if they tried to become the subject of the images they are. Imagine what would happen if, instead of reflecting God, they tried to reflect themselves.

A picture is like a mirror of its subject, and you know what happens when you are in a room with facing mirrors. You see reflections of yourself out to infinity. But imagine removing yourself from the room, leaving the two mirrors reflecting only each other. In fact, let’s imagine we have a spherical room, whose internal surface is simply one inward-facing mirror. If you could see what was reflected in this inward-facing spherical mirror without being in the room, what would you see?

The answer is that you would see nothing. A mirror that only reflected itself would ultimately reflect an image of nothing.

Pictures as Windows

But in addition to being like mirrors, pictures are like windows through which we see their subjects.2 So, imagine what a picture that was a picture of itself would be like if pictures are like windows.

A picture that put itself in the place of its subject would be like a window through which you see not a tree, nor the outside world, nor even a wall, but only another window. The problem is that this “second” window is just the first window all over again. And that would mean all we can see through the “second” window is a “third” window. But this third window would just be the first window all over again, and through it all that could be seen is the same window, and so on, ad infinitum.

Now, ask yourself what you would see through a window that is just a window onto itself. And by “window,” I mean just the window, not the frame, bars, or wall in which the window is placed. What you would see through a window that is just a window onto itself is . . . nothing. But if you can see nothing through a window, it has ceased to be a window.

A Picture of Itself

Finally, imagine a portrait of Sam, who is wearing a t-shirt. Imagine that on this t-shirt is the same portrait. Thus, on Sam’s shirt in the portrait you see another copy of the portrait, in which you see Sam wearing a t-shirt that has the same portrait on it. In the portrait of Sam, in other words, you see an infinite number of portraits of Sam.

But now imagine that the portrait did not want to be a portrait of Sam any longer. Imagine that it wanted to be a portrait of itself. So, imagine that it erased from itself the image of Sam, the background behind Sam, and even the t-shirt Sam is wearing, leaving only the copy of itself that was on Sam’s shirt. The portrait would then be entirely blank except for the copy of itself that it contains. But that copy would also be blank except for the copy of itself that it contains, which would be blank except for the copy of itself that it contains, etc.

But think about what a picture that contains only itself—no background, no borders, no people, no outlines—would look like. It would be entirely blank. (After all, an image is not a thing, and only things can truly “fill in” an image.) A picture of itself, therefore, would not be a picture.

So, just as there is ultimately nothing reflected in a mirror that reflects only itself, and just as there is ultimately nothing to see through a window that opens only onto itself, an image that images only itself represents nothing. And a picture that represents nothing has ceased to function as a representation. It has ceased to make a subject present, and thus is no longer an image in actuality, even if it remains an image in essence.

Images as Irrigation Pipes

The results of something that is intrinsically a representation of God becoming a representation of itself are more serious than they would be for representations of other things. God is the source of life, and in putting themselves in God’s place the humans would cut off the relation of representation that linked God not only to themselves but to the world. They would cease to make the source of life present, and decay could only follow.3

Here, another metaphor may be helpful. As representations, the humans are the means through which God is present to the world. They are, as it were, the irrigation system through which God’s presence flows.4 But having put themselves in the place of the spring that feeds the irrigation system—like a tube circularly linked end-to-end with itself—they no longer have any water to transport. They were designed to be carriers of God’s presence, not producers of God’s presence.

Without water to flow through them, the pipes and channels of an irrigation system heat up, dry, crack, and break, just like the ground that the system can no longer irrigate.

Curses as Consequences

So, after the humans have cut themselves off from God’s life-giving presence, the first consequence will be bodily decay—cell by cell, tissue by tissue, organ by organ, till they crumble into dust (Genesis 3:19). This will make both the labor of childbearing (3:16), and of food-growing and -gathering (3:17–19), more difficult and painful. With bodies bent out of their original shape or condition, nothing involving them can go smoothly.

Second, there will be the decay of the physical world, especially the earth. The humans were made to be God’s representatives to the earth, making the source of life present to it (cf. Genesis 1:28, 2:4–5). Without that connection, things will fall apart. The earth will not be as fertile, and thus will require more work (Genesis 3:17, 19), and the plants that grow from it grow stunted and ragged (as “thorns and thistles,” 3:18, NRSV).

Third, there will be the decay of relationships. Relationships require effort, but if they are cut off from the source of life, where will the humans find the energy? And more importantly, as humans begin to feel the decay of self-representation, they will naturally seek to represent other things. Since they are designed to be reflections, they must reflect something; they must define themselves in terms of something. But to define yourself in terms of something is to allow that thing to determine your identity and choices (i.e., to “rule over” you [v. 16]).5 And what could be closer or more obvious to the humans in Genesis 3 than their God-given partner (Genesis 3:16, 17), their God-given children (v. 16), or their God-given work (vv. 17–19)? None of these options will restore their link with the Source of Life, of course, but they will at least help to restore some of the representation/subject structure that defines the human essence.

What we call the “Curses,” then, are actually God’s attempt to alert the humans to the natural consequences of continuing to act as images of themselves. God remains in the mode of a teacher, inviting them to recognize their intrinsic role as students.

Why the Fall Makes Sense

If we read Genesis 2 and 3 as continuing the narrative of Genesis 1, we see that God is teaching the humans to see good through a series of lessons on food, companionship, clothing, rest, and discipleship. The last is the most important and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was central to it. However, because of the lesson on rest, the serpent had a day to play with the humans’ minds.

The serpent says: “God knows that when you eat of” the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5, NRSV). And I’m sure this is all the humans are trying to do; they are simply trying to be the God-reflecting disciples God wants them to be.

What’s worse is that the serpent isn’t lying. “[T]he woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6, NRSV; my emphasis). Once the serpent points it out, she can see it for herself. And in light of the obvious goodness of becoming even more of what God had made them to be, they could only experience God’s previous warnings as confusing. They had yet to learn the lesson God was trying to teach them about what they are, and how being an image of God works. Having yet to complete that lesson, what could they conclude but that they had misunderstood what God was saying?

So they eat. And disaster ensues. But God returns and continues to teach, inviting the humans to return and continue to learn. They have not been abandoned to their fate.

Questions for Later

We may still ask, of course, why God decided to do things the way Genesis 1–3 describes, knowing ahead of time how it would turn out. The story hangs together as a whole if we grant the choice to delegate divine responsibilities to creation and to assign to humans the post of divine representatives. But could God have created without delegating? Could God have made humans without making them in the divine image? And if not, why go through with it?

Asking this question, of course, leads to the more fundamental question of whether God actually did things the way Genesis 1–3 describes. In other words, we might very well ask how the story told by Genesis 1–3 relates to the stories told by archeologists, anthropologists, and historians.

And while we’re on the topic, we might ask what relationship the story told by Genesis 1–3 bears to other ancient stories of creation, gods, and early humans. But all these questions will have to wait for another time.


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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • The Rural Commoner

    I have never heard it put quite that way, but I think the thoughts are very helpful. I have a friend that is a Full-Preterist who attributes God with creating evil since He made the tree of the Knowledge of Good and “Evil.” I explained to him that even though God created the “possibility” of evil, He was not the author of evil itself (James 1:13). He also is an Annihilationist, which is a whole other discussion, but I have found that many are beginning to latch onto doctrines like this to explain the origin of evil. I think this post is a helpful description of the consequence of the Fall. Thanks again.

  • mmchanb

    Very interesting illustrations, Micah. Thanks for sharing.