The first thing to remember is that God does not—cannot—lie (Titus 1:2). Neither does He contradict Himself. His Word is sure and reliable (II Peter 1:19). It is man—led by the father of lies (John 8:44)—who endlessly contradicts God's reliably true Word (Genesis 3:4; Acts 13:45; Hebrews 7:7; 12:3) and will continue to do so until Satan is permanently put out of commission (Revelation 20:7-10).
The second thing to bear in mind is this: God's Word clearly reveals that there are two deaths—the first and the second (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). All men are subject to the first, but it is the second that we are to fear and to avoid—by the grace of God (Matthew 10:28).
Keeping these things in mind, Genesis 2:17 says, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
A study of the various usages of the key phrases "in the day" and "thou shalt surely die" reveals that, in this instance, a good paraphrased translation might be:
- "for in the day that you eat thereof you'll be as good as dead," or
- "for in the day that you eat thereof you're a dead man," or
- "for in the day that you eat thereof your death penalty will begin."
God did not lie! Nor was He speaking figuratively. In the day that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, like two condemned criminals, their death penalties began. By the way, because of our own sins, not Adam's or Eve's, we are all subject to that same death penalty.
How can we be sure of this interpretation? Quite simple: by letting the scriptures interpret themselves. Some basic questions:
What is sin? "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4). Sin is the transgression of God's law. God gave Adam clear, advance warning that if he sinned—if he broke God's perfect law (James 1:25)—he would die.
Before the day Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had not yet sinned, and thus were not as yet subject to the automatic death penalty. But as soon as they ate the fruit, they sinned—they broke God's law. God's automatic death penalty immediately kicked in.
Would Adam and Eve have lived for ever if they had not sinned? No. Why not? Because they were physical human beings, and "it is appointed for men to die once" (Hebrews 9:27). Even though they lived very long lives by modern-day standards, their bodies—probably the most physically perfect specimens that ever existed—were still physical and transitory, not spiritual and eternal. Their physical bodies were subject to normal physical decay (or "corruption" as it is termed in I Corinthians 15:53-54) and they eventually gave out.
We might compare this idea of the supposed deferral of God's automatic death penalty with the antithesis of death—birth! More specifically, we will consider the deferral of fully inheriting eternal life until Christ's Second Coming. When we are baptized and receive God's Holy Spirit, we are "born again" into His Family (John 3:3-7; I Peter 1:23). On that day, our spiritual life begins, but we are not immediately changed into spirit—we are only spiritually born at that time. From that moment, we begin growing spiritually "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13; see also Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 3:18; II Peter 3:18), and we continue to do so until our eventual inheritance of the Kingdom of God as full spirit beings—children of God and siblings of Jesus Christ—at the time of our resurrection (or change) at His return (I Corinthians 15:50-54; I Thessalonians 4:13-17).
In a similar way, once a person sins, God's automatic death penalty kicks in, but the actual execution may not be carried out immediately. This so-called deferral of the death penalty has two major effects: First, it gives opportunities for the wise to repent. Second, the unwise erroneously believe that, because God does not send a lightning bolt immediately after their sin, they assume that He does not see what they are doing, and they feel free to continue doing it (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Thus, the period between the sin and its ultimate penalty allows the sinner to prove the true state of his heart to God.