It is quite common among Orthodox saints to view God’s activities in the world through the lens “God is love.” They felt this was a non-negotiable truth. If something reported in Scripture does not seem consistent with a loving God, then the issue is we don’t understand the story, how it was written and/or how it is to be interpreted. The fault is not with God but with our limited understanding of the world. There is mystery in the world, and much happens that we simply don’t understand because we don’t have the big picture – we can’t see how God sees the world, and so our interpretation of events and logic are very limited.
These saints were totally OK with moving away from a literal interpretation of a text if the literal interpretation seemed to show that God is not love. Some Patristic writers and Orthodox saints for example interpreted God’s comment to Adam that if you eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge you will die as a loving warning to Adam rather than as a threat of punishment. And they saw death not as punishment but God preventing a person from growing endlessly in evil – terminating life was to stop the negative growth of evil in a person. God thus uses death to stop us from increasingly falling under Satan’s power. As an example, St Isaac the Syrian writes:
“Just as He decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as He showed that (the sin) existed by means of the punishment–even though this (punishment) was not His (real) aim: He showed it as though it was something which (Adam) would receive as repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared, He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at: even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world. Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.”
So though death appears to be a punishment, God was actually hiding his intention. His intention was to give us eternal life, but the way to that end was through death – the death of the Son of God on the cross.
Why can’t we enter heaven without dying? Because sin that clings to us cannot enter heaven – death purges us of sin, we resurrect to a new life free of sin. This is the imagery of baptism as well – we die with Christ and are buried with Him, but then resurrected to the new life free of sin as our sins remain in the watery grave of the baptismal font. St. Isaac continues:
“Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise, He expelled them under the (outward aspect of anger: ‘Because you have transgressed the commandment, you have found yourselves outside (Paradise)–as though dwelling in Paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But inside all this stood (the divine) plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from Paradise, for it is clear that (God) did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, (just) a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that He removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in Paradise forever.”
For St. Isaac, God was not responding to human behavior such as sin, but had a plan in place all along. God knew what humans were going to do, and used human action as the very means for human salvation. This is far from the angry vengeful God portrayed in some forms of Christianity. It is a God who is infinitely loving and who works with us despite our penchant for sin and rebellion. God has not interest in our death or punishment but forever works to bring us to salvation.
“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:
‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’ (AH 5.1.1)
Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.
‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”
And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:8-9)
According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight. As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity. That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ. Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world. And so we Orthodox sing: “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.” So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.
One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:
When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness.
The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you: Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom. (Friday, Tone 3)
The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden. The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.
Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love. They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God. Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God. It was a terribly grave deception.
Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross. They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God. They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.
Christ, however, showed the way. The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans. In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.
For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.
Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will. For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us. Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve. Brock writes:
Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).
The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).
One aspect found in Patristic writings is that the authors always viewed God through the lens of “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). This was considered to be an unvarying, non-negotiable truth, never up for interpretation or revision. So all the passages in Scripture in which God appears to be only just or even cruel or capricious were viewed by them through the lens that God is love. They felt the problem was not God appearing to be different in different bible passages, but our inability to understand God or to read the Scriptures correctly. We are limited, one-sided creatures, and so we write about God and interpret Scripture to mean that God is something other than love. We even have a need for this at times to justify our own actions. These Patristic writers, however, felt we had to hold to the truth that God is loveeven when that truth seems to conflict with what the Scriptures literally say. The very fact that God is Trinity, testified to them all that God is love, for the Three Persons of the Trinity abide in a unity of love. They felt the literal reading of the text was the problem, God remained love no matter how we read the text. So we see St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 389AD) reading the passage in Genesis 3 where Adam is expelled from Paradise and in which death becomes part of human existence. While reading the words of the passage, he still sees the text as bearing witness to the love and mercy of God. He does not see this as a passage about God’s justice and anger, but rather how God limits evil in our lives. Death prevents us from sinning eternally. Death prevents us from moving away from God forever. Death prevents sin and evil from becoming eternal powers in our lives. Thus for St. Gregory, even when God appears to punish, it turns out to be another form of God’s love and mercy.
“This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honored him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law, was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the The Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandments which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from The Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.” (Gregory of Nazianzos, On the Birthday of Christ, p 7)
“Christ defeated the devil using the very same means by which the Evil One had triumphed; he fought him with his own weapons. How is this possible? A virgin [Eve], the wood and death were all sign of the victory of the devil; the wood was the tree in paradise, while death was the sentence imposed on Adam. But the virgin, the wood and death, which were the signs of our defeat, were also those of our victory. Mary took the place of Eve; the tree of the Cross took the place of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the death of Jesus Christ took the place of that of Adam.
Thus was the devil defeated by the very instruments of his victory. At the foot of the tree in paradise, the devil had overthrown Adam; on the Cross, Christ had trampled down the devil. The wood of old forced humanity into the abyss; that of the Cross led mankind out from it. Through the first wood, man was thrown, bound and naked, into darkness; by the second, the one that had defeated mankind was conquered, stripped of his weapons and offered as a spectacle for the whole universe. The death of Adam came also to his descendants; the death of Christ gave life even to those that were born before him.” (St. John Chrysostom in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, p 170)
“I should like to present a lengthy citation from the part of the Commentary on Genesis which forms the basis for discord over the continuity of Theodore’s [of Mopsuestia] earlier and later work. Theodore writes:
“I have heard some inquire, if God had foreknowledge of Adam’s disobedience, why did he give him through his commandment occasion to disobey [him]?
For this reason, I answer, that God knew very well, that mortality was of use to human beings. If they remained immortal, they would sin incessantly. In addition, because it is useful for them, that in the annihilation of the body in death the [body] of sin is also annihilated. He did not give the best to humanity immediately, in order that he [his dignity] might not be violated. He first of all gave the commandment, which he knew would not be observed. He wanted to show thereby, that human beings, promised immortality for their obedience, had so little trust in their creator and benefactor, that they hoped, through their disobedience, to obtain not only immortality, but even to attain to the stature of divinity. If their body had possessed immortality, how much easier they would have believed it possible themselves to become gods through their disobedience! [God] first of all showed through issuing of his commandment, and through the disobedience of Adam, that mortality is useful. Therefore, he endowed this mortality [upon humanity]. That he has equipped humanity for mortal existence is shown by their male and female forms, which we can recognize as making possible the production of children from the very beginning. Therefore, the structuring [of the human being] was fitted to suit mortal life.” – Theodore of Mopsuestia.
As can be seen, the fragment denies that humanity was created immortal, instead positing immortality as a reward for obedience, and insisting that human mortality was considered by God a useful instrument. If humanity had been immortal, then it would not have had any incentive not to sin, because, as sin consists of a desire to be like God, our possession of immortality would have made it far easier to countenance sinning, as our being like God would have been seen as an even more realistically achievable end.” (Richard Paul Cumming, St. Vladmir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 56, Number 2, 2012, pp 186-187)
That humanity becoming immortal is contingent on human obedience to God, makes the life and death of Jesus Christ ever more meaningful to us. We come to understand why we need Christ and are indebted to Him for our salvation – we did not, and could not have achieved salvation on our own. The Law could not bring about the obedience needed for our salvation. In fact the Law, though given as a gift for salvation, showed how disobedient we were as a people.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
In Christ being obedient to the Father in dying for us on the cross, Christ opens the doors to Paradise and to immortality for all of humanity. In Christ’s obedience, we all are given eternal life. This is not so much punishment for sin, but true filial obedience out of love. Christ does what humanity has failed to do. Adam and Eve were disobedient unto death, Jesus Christ is obedient unto death. The first Adam’s disobedience brought death to us all, while the new Adam’s obedience means life for us.
“Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)
“If we turn to the second creation account, in the second chapter of Genesis, we can now see new depth in its narrative. Taken from the side of the man is the woman, who is led to the man as his bride, with these words:
‘For this reason shall a man leave his father and mother and join himself to his wife’ (Gen. 2:24).
Intriguingly, these words have scarcely, if ever, been practiced in human history: in most cultures, from the earliest times into modern times, it is the bride who is brought into the husband’s home and family, and bears his name.
Not surprisingly, then, this passage was taken by the Apostle Paul as referring to Christ and the Church, the Son who leaves his Father’s side in heaven to join his spouse (Eph. 5:31-2). Tertullian develops this insight, saying: ‘As Adam was a figure of Christ, Adam’s sleep provided a shadow of the death of Christ, who was to sleep a mortal slumber, that from the wound inflicted on his side might be figured the true Mother of the living, the Church.’ The Church which came from the side of the crucified Christ – pouring out as the blood and water when he pierced (cf. Jn 19:34) – is foreshadowed by the formation of Eve from the side of Adam when he was asleep, the sleep which foreshadowed Christ’s own sleep in death.” (John Behr, Becoming Human, pp 86-87)
This is the 22nd blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (IV). In the next few blogs we will explore another dimension of being human: God created us to as beings who have relationships with God, with one another and with all of the rest of the created order. Some Orthodox authors also note that if we humans are in the image and likeness of God, then we are in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity – and somehow humanity is to reflect the perfect love of the Three Persons of the Trinity. We are designed to live communally with others; in Genesis 2:18, God says, “it is not good that man to be alone.” This is the first time in Genesis that God sees something in creation that is not good. [And stands in stark contrast to Genesis 1 in which all creation was good in God’s eyes]. So in Genesis 2 God creates more than one human being, with all others being decedents of the first human. So from the beginning, after the creation of ‘Adam’, all other humans are related to the first human and all are to live in relationship with all others. Additionally, each human is created to be the relational mediator between the Holy Trinity and the rest of the created world. No human is an island unto himself or herself but all are organically and genetically related. The Christian Apologist Lactantius (d. ca. 325AD) argues (living within the context of the rigid Roman culture of social stratification) that ultimately all humans, whatever their social ranking are to be considered precisely as humans.
The hierarchical nature of society and even the tendency for males to dominate females was generally by the Fathers seen not as God’s original intention but all a result of human sin which destroyed the natural order God created. In Genesis 1:27, we read: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”Fr. Andrew Louth, Orthodox theologian, comments:
“However, this verse from Genesis (1:27) does suggest that we are not to consider human beings as individuals, but as bound together within the unity of humanity, a unity that is embodied in the communities to which we belong. The doctrine of the image of God embraces this aspect of what it is to be human, too, for if being in the image means that we have an affinity with God, that entails, too, that we have an affinity with one another, on the basis of which we find some kind of togetherness. And if the Church is the community embracing those who, in Christ, have set out on the path to the restoration of fallen humanity, then the community of the Church should give us some sense of what a true human community should be. Nevertheless, the Church is part of the fallen world, so we should not expect to find in any unambiguous way the ideal human community in the Church.” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1752-58)
Genesis reveals to us what God planned for human relationships, but the relational nature of humans was based in the human potential to deny the self and to love the other. This potential was not realized as from the beginning humans instead of practicing the self-emptying love revealed to them by God instead opted for self-love and self-preservation – in so-doing damaged their God-intended relational nature, reducing humans to competing, alienated individuals. Roman Catholic biblical scholar Elliott Maloney says:
“In this biblical tradition, God created Adam and Eve to begin a great family of human beings who could enjoy a loving relationship with a beneficent God (Gen 1:26-28). This aspect of their being the progenitors of a great clan of humans is very important, because in ancient thinking everyone’s personal reality was deeply embedded in their identity as a member of a group.” (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 368-71)
So in the biblical texts persons are identified by their genealogies and by the tribe or nation to which they belong. “Who are your people?” identifies who you are as a person. Thus, in the Prophecy of Jonah, Jonah attempting to flee from God, hides as an individual on a ship and when discovered must reveal who he is.
Then the ship’s mariners said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?”
And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:8-9)
While today, we might begin answering these questions by talking about our occupation and identify ourselves in economic terms, Jonah’s self-identifying response makes it clear first and foremost to what tribe/people he belongs and what he and those people believe about God. Scholar Elliott Maloney says the biblical understanding of “self” is different from our modern self-identification which is clear in the writings of St. Paul.
“In Paul’s day people did not think about themselves as individuals, nor did they consider their personal characteristics and limitations as making them ‘different.’ All thinking and moral choice was geared to and dictated by one’s position in a group, be it family, religion, or clan. The accomplishments and failures of the clan head were visited on all the clan members in a way that identified them and conferred on them their reality as human beings. Paul’s explanation of the origin of sin, what we call ‘original sin,’ is based upon this presupposition.” (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 373-77)
Why Adam’s sin has consequences for us all is not because God is visiting His punishment on all of Adam’s descendants but because as head of the clan of human beings, Adam’s behavior and actions have consequences not for himself alone, but for everyone in his clan. This is considered natural since in the bible all humans are thought of as belonging to some social group. As a relational being, Adam has a moral obligation to act in a way that took into account the interest of everyone who would ever be in his clan. The clan leader is responsible for the clan and the entire clan is always affected by the moral decisions and behavior of the clan leader. His actions thus have repercussions on all who share his humanity. Adam’s failure to protect his clan and to engage in activities of merely self-interest thus have consequences not only for Adam but for all humans.
[And it should be noted that in Orthodox Christianity at least, Adam and Eve are not commemorated mostly for their ancestral sin and its negative effects on all humans. They are most noted in our hyms for being those first saved by Christ. At Pascha, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, perhaps the most common icon of the Feast shows Christ descending into Hades to rescue Adam and Eve. The salvation of Eve and Adam is celebrated in the hymns of Pascha and throughout the year. On one level Adam and Eve are responsible for the deaths of all humans (mass murderers!), while on the other hand, they are forgiven and saved as the forefathers of the human race. Christ undoes all the evil Adam initiates, including bringing about human mortality, and Christ’s restoration of humanity and salvation stretches back in time to the first human as well as forward in history to the last humans who will walk on earth. Even the devastating sin of Eve and Adam which results in the death of all humans is not an unforgiveable sin in our theology! Adam and Eve are saved, forgiven and restored to a proper relationship with God! This is the sign of God’s grace, mercy, unwavering and unconditional love.]
Elliot Maloney continues:
“The truth is that humans are relational beings: they are naturally oriented toward obedience and loyalty to a higher power (Rom 6:16). As we have seen, the way Paul sees it is that human beings were created to be in a loving and obedient relationship with God—nothing less than that. The authenticity and fulfillment of their lives therefore required them to honor this intimacy and thank God for the invitation to share in God’s own being. But since their minds were darkened by that first denial of the sovereignty of God, the offspring of Adam and Eve continued to make wrong choices—from Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the petty injustices of the village marketplace where dishonesty became the acceptable norm.” (Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 456-61)
The consequences of ancestral sin thus spread to all humans. So St. Paul offers us a theological understanding of Adam and Christ:
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)
Christ restores fallen humanity to its rightful relationship with God. Now we humans need to understand how to live in this graceful situation created by Christ. We are to live in love for one another – we are not to imitate Adam, Eve and Cain who rejected love for one another and practiced only self-love. We are to follow the way of Christ who emptied Himself and loved the kenotic, self-denying love of God. St. John Chrysostom, ever the moralist, writes:
“God made both you and the other person, and gave you everything in common and in equal measure with them. How then do you spurn them and rob them of the regard given by God, not allowing it to be in common but making it all yours, rendering them bereft not only of money but of good name? God granted every person one nature; he regaled them with the same position of eminence, the same process of creation. That statement, ‘Let us make the human being,’ is shared by the whole human race. How then do you deprive people of their inherited being, consigning them to utter insignificance, and appropriating to yourself what is common to all?” (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, pp 46-47)
We come back once more to the biblical scholar Elliott Maloney who in commenting on Romans 12 says:
“Christians must be transformed by a new way of thinking humbly about themselves (v. 3). This means always considering oneself as part of the community and acting for the sake of the others, because “we, who are many, are one body in Christ” . . . . Notice the use of the plural in Paul’s instructions. True discernment can occur only in the communal context, for the Spirit dwells in the Body of Christ, made up of many members. Individualism is a product of the flesh with its tendency to self-reliance and self-protection, as if the ego were the only guardian of one’s life. The Spirit provides the righteous orientation to make God and one’s fellows the center of meaningful action. As the action of the Spirit in believers conforms them more and more in the image of Christ, their own spirits are “transformed into the same image (of Christ) from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).” (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 2018-25)
“Not only did God not make death, but He hindered it from happening. However, as He had created man as a living being with free will, He could not prevent it without destroying His creature by taking away the freedom He had given. Nevertheless, in His wisdom and goodness He found a way to keep man from death while preserving his free will. How was this to be achieved? As soon as He had formed man and brought him to life, He gave him a counsel that would make him immortal. To establish this instruction very firmly from the beginning, He made it His commandment and proclaimed it openly, emphasizing that to break this life-giving precept meant death, not death for the body at this stage, but death for the soul.
He told the man and the woman, our ancestors, ‘In the day that you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will surely die’ (cf. Gen. 2:17). Notice that He did not say the imperative, ‘Die when you eat it.’ By His orders everything that exists was made, He commanded and all things were created (Ps. 33:9). But He did not give the command for death, although He forewarned that is would result from transgressing His commandment, telling them not to eat of the tree, for on the day they ate they would die. This He did so that they might follow His counsel, escape disobedience, and not encounter death. It is obvious that He was referring at that time to the death of the soul, not of the body, because they did not die physically on the day they ate from the forbidden tree.” (The Homilies, pp. 243-243)