Was Adam Immune from Bodily Death?

Anthony Zimmerman
Homiletic and Pastoral Review
August-September 2000
Reproduced with Permission

Editor, HPR: John Young (February 2000) urges preachers to include in their homilies the facts about original sin and its consequences, "including physical death, from which we would have been immune had Adam not sinned." (Emphasis added.) It is not the fault of Mr. Young, but be advised that the word "immune " is not a correct English translation of the normative Latin subtractus fuisset" (withdrawn from). Nor should "homo" be translated as "we." The normative Latin reads: "Mors insuper corporalis, a qua homo si non peccasset subtractus fuisset, ... (GS 18, excerpted in CCC 1008).

St. Thomas, with St. Augustine, held that Adam and Eve were never, at any moment, actually "immune" from physical death. They lived in the mortal state, but, so they wrote, with special benefits from the tree of life.

Augustine: "His body, which required meat and drink to satisfy hunger and thirst, and which had no absolute and indestructible immortality, but by means of the tree of life warded off the necessity of dying, and was thus maintained in the flower of youth...until such time as it became spiritual in acknowledgment of his obedience" (City of God, 13, 23).

Thomas: The tree of life "did not absolutely cause immortality; for neither was the soul's intrinsic power of preserving the body due to the tree of life, nor was it of such efficiency as to give the body a disposition to immortality, whereby it might become indissoluble... Therefore, since the power of the tree of life was finite, man's life was to be preserved for a definite time by partaking of it once; and when that time had elapsed, man was to be either transferred to a spiritual life, or had need to eat once more of the tree of life (Summa Theologica, I, 97,4).

According to the two giant theologians Adam and Eve were never immune from bodily death while in Paradise; never, even for a moment. They would have remained in the mortal state while in Paradise until the end; then in the end, if they had not sinned, they would have been transferred by an act of God to the spiritual state without the intervention of a bodily death. (Note, however, that the Catechism today makes no mention of a tree of life in Paradise. The Liturgy now celebrates the tree as a symbol of Christ. Even these great theologians do not equate the authority of the Magisterium of the Church.

John Young also states that we ourselves would have been immune from physical death had Adam not sinned. Thomas implies disagreement. He states that "even if our first parents had not sinned, any of their descendants might have done evil...For the rational creature is confirmed in righteousness through the beatitude given by the clear vision of God; and when once it has seen God it cannot but cleave to Him Who is: the essence of goodness" I,100,2). The logic of Thomas implies that we, too, would have lived as mortals all our lives, and would have been transferred to the spiritual state by an act of God, but only in reward for obedience.

The Magisterium chooses to use the term "would have been withdrawn from bodily death" rather than "would have been immune from bodily death;" and withdrawn precisely not from a hypothetical necessity of dying but from death itself. Does the Magisterium perhaps remember Hebrews 5:7 that God saved Jesus from death (ek thanatou) in response to His earnest prayer? God saved Him by raising His dead body to a life of glory. Is that a possible scenario which the Magisterium may want to keep open for interpreting withdrawal from death in Paradise? For had no man sinned, all would obtain a life of glory.