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Creation 8(4):29, September 1986

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Editor’s note: As Creation magazine has been continuously published since 1978, we are publishing some of the articles from the archives for historical interest, such as this. For teaching and sharing purposes, readers are advised to supplement these historic articles with more up-to-date ones suggested in the Related Articles and Further Reading below.

Did Adam understand what death was?

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Creative Commons adam eve cast out of garden

Wood engraving by H. Pisan after G. Dore

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.

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Readers’ comments

Joseph M.
When God said in Gen 2:17 “…thou shalt surely die.”, Eve was needed for Adam to fully understand death. Although, the language of God could/would have effectively conveyed death’s meaning. Death is a loss that leads to loneliness and God declares immediately after His warning that loneliness was ‘not good’ Gen 2:18 “…it is not good that the man should be alone…”

Jesus says in John 12:24 “except a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus is saying death brings loneliness. So we can say by the presence of Eve, Adam understood death i.e. a loss of Eve and a return to loneliness and that death was not in the category of ‘very good’ i.e. death was in the category of ‘not good’.
Ernst V.
Also the original meaning of the word meant seperation from God. Adam only died physically hundreds of years later.
David B.
Most of us have never seen someone actually get hit by a car yet we all understand the consequence of not looking both ways before we cross the road.
John W.
I have been struck constantly by the significance of Adam being given the task of naming the creatures God created. There are so many levels to it and this article points to a central factor. Adam understanding what God was demonstrating. All who choose to walk with the Lord will know that He teaches by both speaking and demonstrating. When He spoke of death to Adam He would not have left any room for doubt. Adam would have known the truth in the sense of the Hebrew word for truth which effectively means experienced or 'walked through', rather like the splltting of the animal carcasses in the covenant ceremony He would perform thousands of years later. Adam could have had waking visions or dreams that brought this experience. Just as God taught Adam that he was the only human being in existence, with no ancestors or prototypes through the naming event, so that he was not only seperate as a kind of creature but also as a spiritual creation, so God would be utterly clear on the issue of sin and death. Just as He has constantly pleaded through His people to the whole of humanity throughout history 'See I lay before you life and death. Now choose life.'
rodney A.
Mankind is a speaking spirit, that's what -HUMAN -means, that is also a difference between man and animals, no monkey was ever a speaking spirit, they were creatures of flesh, and instinct. whereas man is -in the image of GOD-, father son and-holy-spirit, man is, body, soul and spirit, and only spirits can speak, if Adam had a language - as we know he had-, and his spirit-at that time was undefiled-, he knew exactly what he was doing, so did Eve.
Brian B.
All of us understand the concept of hell well enough to know we don't want to go there, though we have never been there nor seen someone who has.

My daddy was a pastor and as a young child he took me visiting with him. I heard him share the Roman road so many times I had it memorized by age 4, though I didn't know what the verses meant. But one night not long before I turned five, God woke me out of a dead sleep and said, "Brian, you need to be saved." And immediately I knew I was lost, i was a sinner, that Jesus had died for me, and that he wanted to save me. I believe when God said "death" to Adam, "the entrance of his word brought light."
Eddie B.
There is a much simpler answer to whether Adam knew what death was. An animal was slain to make clothes for his back. He wore the consequences of his death on his body - as we still do today.
Shaun Doyle
However, Adam needed to understand that the consequence of death was dire before he sinned, otherwise God's command in Genesis 2:17 would've been pointless. Why warn someone of a dire consequence if they couldn't understand that the consequence was dire without a demonstration?
John H.
I would think his desire to have a partner (Eve) would also be a good example. He'd never seen or experienced a companion, but obviously knew what that was.
Jack L.
Excellent article with flawless logic that I enjoyed reading. Keep up the great work.

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