I received the following question:

Have you studied life before the fall and flood? What was the purpose of the tree of life before the fall? I am questioning some of the interpretations I have grown up with on the topic of physical death versus spiritual death at the fall.

I would say that it is inherent in physical bodies that they can be damaged. That is, just because a body does not have sin and death working in it so that it would never wear out or grow old, does not mean that a sharp enough blow could not break bones, and so forth. The tree of life, then, would have promoted rapid, proper, and complete healing to any damage a human body might have taken.

As for spiritual death versus physical death, I think the LORD’s words in Genesis 2:17 provide a clue as to what the tree of life would have done.

17. 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.” (New King James Version)

The words “you shall surely die” are literally in Hebrew “dying you shall die.” (see Young’s Literal Translation, “dying thou dost die.”) The scholars will say that this is a Hebrew figure of speech expressing the idea of “surely die.” Yet I would argue otherwise. The phrase as it stands in the Hebrew seems to be completely accurate. What happened the day Adam ate the fruit is that it poisoned his body and started death working within him. Whereas until he ate from the tree, he had had only life working in him, from the moment he ate the fruit, death was working in him as well. In other words, from the time he ate the fruit, he was dying. Eventually, the activity of death would overpower the activity of life within him, and then he would die, death having come to its culmination within him.

If you know much about dead bodies, you know that once life has gone out of a body and stopped fighting against the processes of death working within it, that death quickly takes over, and the body rots away. Christ was an obvious contrast to this, having been three days dead in the warm climate of Israel, and yet not having seen corruption. Death was not working in Him, even when He was dead! (We are only able to have delayed funerals in our day because they do various things to preserve the body. They drain the blood, for one thing. And the relaxing of the muscles of the face that gives a corpse the peaceful look that comforts many at funerals is reversed after a week or so by the tightening up of tendons and muscles to contort the face into a horrible grimace. They have to cut these ligaments when a funeral is delayed so the grieving relatives won’t be left with the picture of their loved ones with a face contorted like they were looking into the pit of hell! At any rate, back from that sidetrack…)

When we translate Genesis 2:17 literally, we see that the LORD only said that the process of death, of dying, would start on the day Adam at the fruit. Yet, dying he would die, but only the dying began that very day, not the culmination of dying, the actual death.
As for spiritual death, this seems to be an attempt to explain Genesis 2:17, which I think becomes unnecessary when we translate it correctly. Yet it is true that on that day Adam and Eve became sinners, and their relationship with the sinless God was broken. God moved to re-establish that relationship, or that would have been the end of them. As sinners, in a real way we are “dead to God,” that is, cut off from the relationship we were made to have with Him by our sins.

That said, I don’t know if I would define this as “spiritual death.” I am not really sure what “spiritual death” is supposed to be, actually. This is one of those things that I don’t think has a very clear definition, even with those who actively teach it. I find that this is generally true of things when people start attaching the word “spiritual” to them. One witty person has called words like spiritual “Mother Hubbard words.” This is after a women’s dress of olden days that was famous for hiding everything and revealing nothing. This is pretty much what the word “spiritual” does. It really is a word that has little if any definition in modern usage, and when it is used it hides what the speaker means more than it actually reveals thoughts. It is a nebulous word that can be brought in to fit any context the speaker wishes to insert it into without conveying any real or meaningful information. Sadly, when the Scriptures use the word, we are likely to give it no more value than it has in modern speech, when really I think the word can and should yield much information if we would really search the Bible to find what is the use God has made of it and what information He intends to convey by using it.

That said, my point is that I really don’t know much about spiritual death, and I think those who teach it don’t really know much about it either. We can read certain truths into it, like becoming a sinner and losing our relationship with God or being lost, but how this makes it “spiritual death” is not explained, nor do I think there is a good explanation for it. As long as what exactly it is is left undefined, men can make a lot of vague claims about it without having to be tied down to actual explanations and real teaching. This is the advantage of using Mother Hubbard words, but it is not really very helpful in the search for truth, for one who is really concerned with that.

Well, those are some of my ideas, anyway.