Did Adam understand what death was?
A theologian who didn’t want to accept that death entered the world through Adam (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:22) posed the question, ‘How could Adam know what death meant if he’d never seen death before?’ He was saying that God’s warning in Genesis 2:17 would have meant nothing to Adam if Adam didn’t know what death meant because he hadn’t experienced it personally or seen it in operation.
Let’s consider what Adam could or couldn’t understand.
First, God declares that His creation is perfect, and that Adam is made in the image of God. The usual understanding of this statement is that since God had a will, Adam had one also, one which Adam could use whether it was in his interests or not. Like God, Adam had the capacity to love, to be unselfish. He was different from the animals for animals are not like this. They may appear at times to display something like love, but experiments demonstrate that, in similar circumstances, they always react in the same way—by instinct. Thus an animal cannot be truly selfish or unselfish, but operates on a programmed behaviour pattern.
In Genesis 2:19 we read that Adam was commanded to name the animals. He’d never done this before, but he obviously both understood the command and succeeded without problems. God not only had implanted language in him, but also the ability to understand language. He was like God, made in God’s image. Naming animals was a ‘first’, but Adam could do it. And Adam also understood new terminology which applied to things he had not seen or done before. Adam had to know what ‘trees’ were (Genesis 2:16). And what ‘plants’ were; and what ‘eat’ meant; and what ‘fruit’ was, and so on.
Each one of those events was a first, yet Adam had no problems with them. Why not? Because Adam was made as the reflection of the God who calls Himself the Word and it is only to be expected that communication skills figured highly among Adam’s newly created talents.
Man’s freedom to choose makes him unique. In biblical terms, man was created good in every sense, but also had a capacity to reject good or to sin, though he need not have sinned. Included in ‘good’ is ‘intelligent’, since Adam was made in the image of the all-knowing God. To assume that he could not understand everything God said to him is therefore folly. Even a child today (though vastly inferior in intellect to the freshly created Adam) can gain a quick understanding of new things. Even in our own life growth to adulthood, there always has to be a first time for every new concept and we come to understand it. Adam would easily have understood what God was talking about.
Even if we assume Adam did not fully understand death, he would realise death was neither good nor in his best interests since he was told about it in a warning against the due consequences of failing to follow God’s instructions. It is even possible that God used tone of voice or something else to convey to Adam the danger of the situation. The same as any parent does to warn a child of a danger the parent doesn’t want it to learn by experience. To doubt Adam’s understanding is to claim that the Creator God has only a limited ability to communicate.
In modern language studies linguists have shown that a child’s ability to understand language precedes a child’s ability to express in language by a fairly appreciable time factor. It is quite obvious that children understand their parents’ intentions long before they can reply to their parents’ questions or formulate questions to them.
The God who could take dust and make a man could easily empower a perfectly made Adam to understand the messages he was speaking to him.