Immunity From Bodily Death In Paradise?

Anthony Zimmerman
The Priest
June, 2000
Reproduced with Permission

We read in Hebrews that Jesus prayed to be saved from death and that God granted His request. He died bodily nevertheless. What inference must we draw from this? I believe it means that God saved Christ from death by raising Him from the dead.

In parallel with this, I propose that God likewise planned from the very beginning to "save" Adam and Eve from bodily death through their future resurrection. God constituted them originally in a state of holiness and justice; if they had not sinned, if they had persevered in the state of grace, their resurrection to glory would have been guaranteed. Original sin deprived them, and us, of that guarantee. But it is my belief that original sin did not initiate bodily death.

Indeed, Christ prayed ardently to God who was able to save Him from death: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear" (Heb 5:7; the Revised Standard Version is used throughout this article].

Jerome's elegant Latin makes it even more clear that God heard Christ's earnest prayer to be saved from death, and that this prayer was answered:

Qui in diebus carnis suae preces, supplicationesque ad eum, qui possit illum salvum facere a morte cum clamore valido, et lacrymis orferens, exauditus est pro sua reverentia.

Bodily death and resurrection from it were the very core events of Christ's mission on earth. He longed to be baptized with death: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12:50).In Psalm 22, He prayed to be vindicated after His defeat in bodily death by the victory of risen glory, which would empower Him to save His brethren: "But thou, 0 Lord, be not far off! 0 thou my help, hasten to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen.

"I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee" (Ps 22:20-23).

In Psalm 17, His prayer asks God to save Him from "men whose reward is in this present life," while He looked forward to be saved by the Resurrection: "Deliver my life from the wicked by thy sword, from men whose portion in life is of the world" (Ps 17: 13-14).

When Christ told the disciples that He must go up to Jerusalem, there to suffer and be killed, and on the third day to be raised, Peter took Him aside and advised Him to stop this foolish talk. At that, Christ responded with explosive energy: "Get behind me, Satan!" (Mt 16:23).

These passages make it impossible to believe that Christ prayed on the cross to escape bodily death. He told of His agony and recounted the tortures and pains one by one to elicit our love. But He did not pray to God to be delivered from death in the body. He prayed, rather, to be delivered by the Resurrection.

Hebrews 5:7 provides us with a precedent to interpret Paragraph 18 of Gaudium et Spesand Paragraph 1008 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC1008) as delivery from bodily death by an insured resurrection. A sinless Adam and Eve would have died bodily with knowledge that they would rise again. Bodily death would be their window to glory.

GS 18 exhorts us to look beyond mortality to this glory: "For God has called man, and still calls him, to cleave with all his being to Him in sharing forever a life that is divine and free from all decay. Christ won this victory when He rose to life, for by His death He freed man from death. Faith, therefore, with its solidly based teaching, provides every thoughtful man with an answer to his anxious queries about his future lot."

Translation issue

But the English translation of one word in GS 18 and CCC 1008 is faulty. Its correction might be enough to turn our view of bodily death as a punishment for original sin inside out.

The current translation in GS 18 reads, "Moreover, the Christian faith teaches that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned, will be overcome . . " (Flannery edition; the Abbott edition also has the word "immune"). The Catechism, quoting GS 18, states likewise in English, "Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned. . . ."

But the Latin version of both GS 18 and CCC 1008 doesn't state "immune" from bodily death. Immunitas is a very proper Latin word. We should expect the normative Latin to use that word if that is what the Church intends to teach. At any rate, the expected Latin word immunitas is not used here. The word subtractus is used instead: "Mors corporalis, a qua homo si non pecasset subtractus fuisset. . . ." Thatis, "Bodily death, from which man would have been withdrawn had he not sinned.. .."

The Latin allows the meaning, I propose, that God would have withdrawn Adam and Eve from bodily death by raising them back to life. "Salvum facere a morte"(Heb 5:7) is very close to "a morte corporali subtractus fuisset" (GS 18, CCC 1008).

But if I am wrong about this, I submit ahead of time. If the Church teaches data opera ("This is it!"), I will be most happy to agree. In the meantime, I don't think my readers will be scandalized if I prod the Church - respectfully - to sharpen our focus on the depositum in this area of doctrine.

Trent's detour

The fathers of the Council of Trent, when wrestling with the problem, finally decided to strike the term "bodily death" out of their definition. By so doing, Trent backed away, with full knowledge, from defining that original sin initiated bodily death.

The protocol of the Council of Trent (CT) presents a number of alternative drafts and formulas, in two of which death of the body, as well as of the soul, is mentioned (CT V, p. 198). The council fathers now had to choose. On Tuesday, June 8, 1546, after a preliminary reading of the draft proposed by the legates, discussions followed on that day and were continued the next morning.

In the summary of the interventions, Massarellus, who kept the protocol, reveals a significant development: Many of the fathers had requested that "death of the soul" be substituted for "death of body and soul" - "Cui pro poena debetur utraque mors etc.,multi petierunt dici quod mors est animae"(CTV, p. 208).

By this sentence in the protocol, Massarellus makes it clear that "many" of the fathers asked that "death of the body" as a punishment for original sin be excluded from the definition. Their intervention prevailed. This indicates that the Council of Trent knowingly avoided a definition that death of the body is a punishment for original sin.

Nevertheless, in Canon Two, Trent made reference to the common belief that death of the body is a punishment for original sin. By an adroit use of words, the definition says neither yea nor nay to this common belief. Can we go one step further today and state forthrightly that bodily death is not a punishment for original sin?

No immunity from bodily death

Today we have a better understanding of Genesis than the one which Augustine and Thomas Aquinas had. The Catechism states repeatedly that Genesis uses symbolism (nos. 375, 378, 390, 396). Bygone interpretations of Genesis took symbols too literally. We now seek to test the meaning of Genesis in the light of its symbolism.

We see all around us that God did not design our planet for immunity from bodily death. Adam once lived on our planet, both before and after his sin. There are typhoons and droughts, earthquakes and Mount St. Helen eruptions, poisonous snakes and man-eating lions, epidemics of flu and mad cow disease.

And we age with the years. The soft creamy collagen in joints and tendons at infancy turns hard and yellow with age. Osteoporosis eats away calcium from our bones.

Damage done to the DNA inside the mitochondria by free radicals accumulates. Telomeres shorten. When a cell divides, the DNA replicates, but it cannot copy itself quite to the very end. Telomeres form the caps of the DNA at the ends at the chromosomes. Each time a cell divides, it loses about 15 of these telomeres, which keep the chromosomes from sticking together. When the telomeres reach a critically short length, the cells can no longer divide. "Aging occurs in some fashion even in young cells from old people," as reported in the National Geographic Society book Exploring the Human Body.If we don't die from illness, we shrivel up and finally collapse from age.

The Catechismviews the "tree of life" as a symbol (cf. no. 396), no longer as an elixir to prevent aging, as Augustine and Aquinas held. How, then, would we prevent aging in a sinless world?

Augustine's influence

Trent studiously ignored Canon One of the non-ecumenical Council of Carthage in 418. That Council had declared explicitly, surely under the influence of Augustine, that bodily death is a punishment for original sin. His canon reads as follows:

1. "All the bishops established in the sacred synod of the Carthaginian Church have decided that whoever says that Adam, the first man, was made mortal, so that, whether he sinned or whether he did not sin, he would die in body - that is, he would go out of the body not because of the merit of sin but by reason of nature - let him be anathema."

Apparently, Pope St. Zozimus (417-418) made a precedent for Trent by not authorizing that canon (Denzinger-Schonmetzer [DS], no. 101).

Augustine himself had noted a puzzling statement in Genesis: Adam was to die on the day he ate the forbidden fruit. But he didn't die bodily on that day. Augustine devised an ipse dixitsolution: Adam died the death of the soul on the day of the sin; later, in Genesis 3:19, the Lord God also sentenced him to death of the body: "But though we suppose that God meant only this death (death of the soul when it is deserted by God), and that the words, `In the day ye desert me in disobedience, I will desert you in justice,' yet assuredly in this death the other deaths also were threatened, which were its inevitable consequence. For in the first stirring of the disobedient motion which was felt in the flesh of the disobedient soul, and which caused our first parents to cover their shame, one death indeed is experienced, that, namely, which occurs when God forsakes the soul.... But when the soul itself forsook the body, corrupted and decayed with age, the other death was experienced of which God had spoken in pronouncing the man's sentence, `Earth thou art, and unto earth shalt thou return'" (Gn 3:19) [City of God,13:15].

Is his interpretation forced? "Earth thou art" is more obviously a pointed reminder to Adam that he was earth from the beginning. He could never be a god. God had constituted him from dust, which falls apart. The sentence is not a new imposition of bodily death but a reminder to Adam that he had always been mortal.

Scriptural references

Does holy Scripture state that original sin initiated bodily death? If so, GS 18 and CCC 1008 should cite passages. GS 18 does this in footnote 14 (cf. Wis 1:13; 2:2324; Rom 5:21; 6:23; Jas 1:15). Note the "cf." - Genesis is not mentioned. [N.B. For clarity, the author has re-edited the next paragraphs from the original text in The Priest.]

The Catechismmade significant changes when incorporating the GS citations of the Scripture passages. In the Catechism the passages refer first of all to some kind, but not specifically to bodily death. Wisely so. All the texts of Scripture cited in footnote 14 of GS 18, when read in context, point to spiritual death of the soul, rather than to death of the body. The following italicized parts are the verses as cited by GS 18. The non-italicized parts add the context. The contexts shift the meaning to spiritual death rather than to bodily death. Wisdom 1:13: "God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living."Context (Wisdom 1:11-12): "A lying mouth destroys the soul. Do not invite death by the error of your life, nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands." Obviously, error of your life is sin which results in spiritual ruin.

Wisdom 2:23-24: "For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity - but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it."Context (Wisdom 3:1-2): "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction." We draw this meaning from the entire passage: Only those who belong to the devil die. Therefore the passage refers to spiritual death.

Romans 5:21: "So that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."Sin reigned in spiritual death though the body was alive, as we can see below where the entire context is quoted.

Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."Context (Romans 6:22): "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life." The context points to death from sin, to life from virtue.

James1:15: "Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death."Death of the soul, yes. But we do not fall over and die bodily whenever we sin.

CCC 1008 departed from GS 18 to make the passages it chooses point to death of some kind, but not necessarily to bodily death. The Catechismalso added references to Genesis and a reference to Canon One of Trent, which are not in GS 18. The Catechismadheres to Trent's definition that original sin caused death of some kind in Adam, without specifying that this was bodily death.

The Catechismalso changed the reference from Romans 5:21 (which was in GS 18) to Romans 5:12 and made some other changes. Only the last sentence of CCC 1008 mentions bodily death at all, and continues that man would have been withdrawn from it - taken back from it again - (subtractus)if he had not sinned. I think it points to the guaranteed resurrection if man had not sinned.

Conclusion: The Catechism teaches, like Trent, that Original sin caused death of some kind to our first parents, just as God had threatened; but it does not specify that this was bodily death. Furthermore, the Catechism does not teach immunity from bodily death in Paradise, but withdrawalfrom it.

Read with me, finally, the entire passage of Romans 5:12-21, in which I insert the words "spiritual" or "spiritually" (in italics) in each reference to death. I believe it reads very well that way. Several priests, who have read it that way, love it:

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and spiritual death through sin, and so spiritualdeath 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 spiritual 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 spiritually 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, spiritualdeath 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. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in spiritual death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The translation of GS 18 and CCC 1008 should not read "immunity from bodily death" but "withdrawn from bodily death." That can be interpreted to signify resurrection after bodily death even if Adam had not sinned. The Church chose the Latin word meaning "withdrawn," and the translation ought to be faithful.

The Council of Trent backed away from defining that original sin initiated bodily death. It defined, however, that original sin brought spiritual death. The council also mentioned an existing belief that the sin caused bodily death. To that belief the council said neither yea nor nay. Hence the question today: Does it belong to the depositum?

If I am not mistaken, the annotations of the Catechism point ever so gently away from teaching that bodily death is a punishment for original sin. Rather, they point back to the Council of Trent, which did not define that original sin brought death of the body upon Adam and us.

Is this an indication that Rome is pondering the matter and may study the problem data opera? Ihope so.

Ratio is lonesome and pines breathlessly for a tryst with fides.