The answer to the question of why we die is one of fundamental importance to Christianity. Death can only be correctly understood when traced to the first sin of man in the garden of Eden. Beyond this, it is necessary to determine the relationship that death has to individuals–whether it falls on men as a personal penalty or as a natural consequence.
The Physical Results of a Spiritual Sin
Adam and Eve had a conditional physical immortality. They were immortal only because there was no principle of death operating in the world. Since human beings were the only nexus of the physical and spiritual creation, only the sin of a human being could bring the principle of death into the physical world, changing the very laws of nature so that everything in the universe grows old and decays. As long as they did not sin, Adam and Eve were not subject to physical death, and so they were conditionally immortal.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–
Just as sin came into the world through one man, death came into the world through the sin of one man. Notice that sin and death are said to have come into the world, and not only to have come into mankind. Sin cannot morally taint a material body or a material world, but the temporal curses upon the race because of sin were a physical corruption of the material world–and one of those curses was mortality (the principle of death).
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“…cursed is the ground because of you;…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…” Undeniably, this describes a dramatic change to the surface and environment of the entire earth. The perfect, fertile soil was now corrupted. ”…in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; …and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread…” Here is introduced into the former paradise of earth the new reality: pain, sorrow, sweat and toil. No longer could man continually live by gathering perfect fruit from trees. Now, surviving would require sweat and toil–much effort and work–to try to grow enough food to survive. Along with these, pain and death are introduced. “…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Here is more evidence of a fundamental change to all of creation. The principle of death here described brought with it all that is involved in mortality: pain, sickness, injury, fatigue, and aging. Man was the crowning achievement of God’s creation, and God said that what He had created was “very good.” But now, because of the fall, man would grow old like a garment and pass away into the dust. However, this principle of death was not restricted to only man; it pervades the entire creation to include every creature and even the earth and heavens…
Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will change them, And they will be changed.
This creation was not always subject to such laws of deterioration, but had at its beginning a glorious perfection. Sin and death corrupted the world, but that perfection will be restored on that Day when all believers will be glorified…
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redempti0n of our bodies.
The whole creation was subjected to futility and put in bondage to corruption–and this condition will remain until the sons of God are revealed in glory, their bodies finally redeemed. Just as the physical bodies of believers will be resurrected to reclaim every last thing that sin corrupted and took away, making victory over sin and death complete, the entire creation, heavens and earth, will undergo a fiery purging and resurrection into a new heavens and new earth…
2 Pet. 3:7-13
But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Since even the heavenly bodies–planets, stars, galaxies, etc.–will be involved in the fiery destruction of the old creation and rebirth into the new, it is clear that sin’s curses of death, futility and corruption affected the whole universe. But at the Day of the Lord, all these things will be redeemed from the effects of sin and death. Until that Day, the consequences of Adam’s sin will continue to fall on the race in the form of these natural conditions.
We Sinned as a Race, We Suffer as a Race
Adam’s sin is imputed exactly as it was committed within substantial reality–racially, not individually. The only individual involved in Adam’s sin was Adam, and so he is the only individual to ever bear the weight of eternal condemnation and wrath for that sin. The rest of us committed Adam’s sin while yet within Adam, and so we committed it not as individuals but as a corporate, spiritual whole. God holds individuals eternally accountable for their individual deeds (Rom. 2:6; Ps. 62:12; Mat. 16:27; Prov. 24:12; Rev. 20:12-13; Ezekiel 18:20; Deut. 24:16). Since Adam’s sin was not my act as an individual, then neither am I individually condemned for it; but I do suffer consequences for it, as a member of the race that committed it.
These consequences of racial imputation fall on the race in such a way that individual merit or demerit have no bearing. This racial imputation falls on the race, of which I am a member. It does not condemn any individual, but neither is any individual freed from its consequences in this life. Though Christ has propitiated God in behalf of believers, and atoned for our sin, we still must suffer these consequences of the racial imputation, since they neither affect our standing before God nor are affected by our standing before God. Although Christ died in our place, we still must die. The imputation of Adam’s sin to the race sees no one as an individual, changes no individual’s standing before God, and cannot be changed by any individual.