Why did God impose the death penalty for sin?
The question is some times asked: Why did God impose the death penalty, not only on Adam and Eve, but also on the whole human race, just because they ate a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden? Surely that was a very small thing to incur such a huge penalty? The answer lies in our having a correct understanding of what was involved in this event, as well as of the holiness of God.
In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam everything needed for his enjoyment, with one significant restraint. ‘And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis 2:16–17).
Why this one restraint?
It is not hard for us to see this as a test of man’s love for God. There was just one thing that Adam was forbidden to do—to partake of one tree, and that because God purposed to make a simple test of man’s obedience. Man was thus given a choice, which showed that he was a free moral agent before God, and which would also show, when exercised, whether he was prepared to trust and obey God and reciprocate His love, or go his own way. In short, Adam was on probation.
Was it fair of God to do this?
Yes, indeed it was. The Creator has every right to set the rules, not only for Adam and Eve, but also for us as well. God chose to make them free moral beings but, if they had been able to do as they pleased in every respect and had not had right and wrong laid down for them, they could not have been free moral agents. In their case they were told not to eat of ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. Notice that it was not called ‘the tree of good and evil’; nor was God the author of evil. But it was called ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. Our first parents were not to experiment with evil to see what it was like. They were clearly warned of the penalty if they did so. They had the power to make a choice. This choice was otherwise unlimited and so they were not short of food. And they should have trusted that God, who made them and all things around them, would know better than the tempter what was in their best interests. God’s best is always only available through faith and obedience.
But was it just for such a very small offence to have carried such a huge penalty?
Yes! So small a command presented the best test of their obedience, and it showed that God had the right to make demands of Adam and to expect to be obeyed. Had the sin been some base crime, this would have drawn our attention away from the act of disobedience to the terrible character of the sin. ‘Big’ sins could then be regarded as the only sins. And the penalty attached to the command shows that Adam was not left in ignorance of its meaning or importance (Genesis 2:17). Furthermore, if God ordained such a severe penalty for what some may say was a minor offence or a mere peccadillo, how seriously then does it show that God regards all sins, including those that we label ‘big’ ones?
The motive for Adam and Eve’s disobedience was not appetite, but the ambition to be as God (Genesis 3:5). It is clear, therefore, that sin is essentially rebellion against God’s revealed will.1
A matter of the will more than of the hand, sin is an act of rebellion, revolution, and anarchy against God’s righteous government. As such it is an affront to the holiness of God. The measure of God’s wrath against sin is the measure of His holiness. And the measure of the penalty—death—is the measure of the enormity of the offence.
In the event, Adam and Eve (to whom Adam must have communicated God’s command) chose to disobey God. They ate the forbidden fruit and the consequences followed. There were at least three:
1. Guilt. The first consequence of their disobedience was a feeling of guilt: ‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden’ (Genesis 3:7–8).
Their guilt expressed itself in two ways—shame and fear. As a result of their sin, Adam and Eve experienced the accusations of a newly awakened faculty—conscience. They had wanted to be as gods, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5), but what they experienced was not the glory of deity but the shame of fallen humanity. When Satan promised them enlightenment, he had left out a vital part of the truth: that they would be reminded of good without having the power to do it, and that they would know evil without having the power to avoid it.
Why did this shame manifest itself in their desire to cover their nakedness with fig leaves?
Before they ate the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve had committed no sin and so there was nothing to cause them shame, either regarding their bodies or anything else. Indeed, it is just possible that in their innocent state their bodies exhibited a beauty of holiness or radiance like that of Moses’ face when he communed with God on Mount Sinai.2 Now, however, the innocence and the beauty of holiness which they once had were gone and their awareness of their physical nakedness was also evidence of their awareness of their awful spiritual nakedness before God. God had wanted them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, but now ‘their children would all be contaminated with the seed of rebellion, so that their feeling of guilt centred specially on their own procreative organs. The result was that they suddenly desired to hide these from each other, and from God.’3
The second consequence of their guilt was fear of God, whom they now dreaded to meet. As they thought about God and His holiness, His glory which once had been their delight must now have seemed to them more like a fire which they could neither endure nor escape from.4
God’s two questions to Adam, ‘Where art thou?’ (Genesis 3:9) and ‘Hast thou eaten of the tree …?’ (Genesis 3:11), might have been for the purpose of encouraging Adam and Eve to confess their sin and repent of it, as God in His omniscience already knew the answers. Instead Adam blamed Eve and in the process managed to suggest that it was God who was responsible(!)—‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (Genesis 3:12). Eve, in turn, blamed the serpent—‘The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat’ (Genesis 3:13). Both were guilty, but both tried to shift the responsibility for their sin to someone else.
2. Then came condemnation. First the serpent was cursed. Eve was then condemned to sorrow and subjection. Last of all Adam was dealt with—the ground was cursed for his sake—with the result that his life from then on would be one of sorrow, hardship, and toil. Spiritually he died immediately. Ultimately he would die physically, too.
3. Finally there was separation of Adam and Eve from the garden and from fellowship with God.
We should not think that these consequences were arbitrary or something that God thought up in a fit of angry disappointment. Rather, they spell out what it means for man to put himself out of fellowship with God. Consider a deep-sea diver who feels frustrated at the restriction imposed on his movements by the hose that connects him to the air pump in the boat at the surface of the water and cuts the line … So Adam cut his spiritual lifeline to the One who is the source of all peace and goodness and life, and found in the process that all of creation was against him. Sin is always a perversion of God’s best and brings all of life under judgment—the judgment of futility and death.
Dying you shall die
How do these consequences compare with the penalty that God had previously announced: ‘… in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis 2:17)?
It is sad that some Christians have made shipwreck of their faith in the reliability of God’s Word and the faithful interpretation of Genesis in particular, because of the wording of this verse as it appears in most versions of the Bible, including the KJV. These people point out that Adam did not die on the day he ate the fruit, but lived for 930 years (Genesis 5:3–5). So was God speaking the truth when He said they would die, or was Satan when he said they would not (Genesis 3:4)?
Two things need to be said. First, a literal translation of the Hebrew of Genesis 2:17 is, ‘in the day you eat thereof, dying you shall die’. The second is that in the Bible the concept of ‘death’ in the spiritual sense has the meaning of separation from God rather than of annihilation.
In the Garden of Eden, on the day that they sinned, Adam and Eve were no longer innocent and holy. They now had a sinful nature. Their former fellowship with God was broken. There was a very real separation of their souls from God, and because of this, on that day, spiritually they died. They continued to live physically, but from that day on their human bodies began to die—a process which continued until the day that there was a separation between their souls and their bodies in physical death.
Therefore, on the day that they ate the fruit, literally, ‘dying they died’!
Good news and bad news
The Apostle Paul, writing about this event, tells us that there is both good news and bad news! The bad news is that Adam’s sin was imputed, reckoned and imparted to every member of the human race (Romans 5:12). Adam stood as the representative of the race; indeed he was the human race, and all future generations were in him. The result is that we have all sinned and are under the judgment of God (Romans 3:19,23). We were born into the world spiritually dead and, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, we must be born again (John 3:3–6).
The good news is that if we repent and believe the Gospel, Christ’s death on the cross fully paid the penalty for our sin and appeased God’s holy wrath against our sin. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and we are reconciled to God (Romans 5:17–21). God’s holiness is thus not compromised in our salvation. He can justly forgive us our sins because the penalty for them has been paid in full by Jesus. As the Apostle John affirms, ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9).
Notice that word ‘just’.
This then leads us to one other reason why God imposed the death penalty for sin on the human race. If mankind was immortal, we would all be cut off from God for eternity. However, because of Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection, if we repent and have faith in the atoning work of Christ for us, our physical death then ushers us into the glorious presence of God in Heaven to be united with him for eternity. How wonderful of God that death, which was the ultimate penalty for sin, should be the very means whereby believers are restored to God and to beautiful holy perfection forever!
If Adam were to have been some form of ape-man which God zapped to form the first human when He breathed into him the breath of life, as some theistic evolutionists require, several faith-destroying conclusions would follow.
If the text of Genesis cannot be trusted to mean what it says, then the Genesis account of sin is a mere human myth, and the trustworthiness of the Bible is invalidated right at the beginning. If that is the case, then how are we to know that the account of the redemption unfolded in it later on is not a myth too? Again, how did sin originate, if not according to the Genesis narrative? Likewise, the restriction on Adam’s eating the fruit of a certain tree would then appear to be ridiculous in view of the probability that Adam (a great survivor) could well have spent his life up until then in killing and eating his fellow hominoids. If Adam were to have been the product of millions of years of death and bloodshed in the survival of the fittest, human death as the penalty for disobeying God would have no meaning. If human death is not the penalty for human sin, then Christ’s death on the cross cannot have been the atonement for human sin (1 Corinthians 15:21).
The historical and faithful view of the Genesis story is the only one that shows the true meaning and purpose of God’s plan for mankind. It explains the need for and basis of our salvation, it exalts the Word of God, and it glorifies the Name and Being of God.
‘For of Him, and through Him, and unto Him are all things: to Him be the glory forever. Amen’ (Romans 11:36).
- The idea expounded by some popular preachers that sin is a lack of self-esteem of ‘not having faith in yourself’, and that Jesus: died ‘to change us from negative thinking to positive thinking’ is clearly contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible. Return to text.
- ‘Moses wist not that his face shone while he talked with Him’ (Exodus 34:29). Return to text.
- Dr Henry Morris, The Genesis Record. Master Books. El Cajon, California, 1976, p. 115. Return to text.
- Cf. Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 6:15–16; 20:15. Return to text.