A question arises: is the death that follows the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil a penalty? The language used in the law—he shall surely be put to death, or the like—is not used here. The same emphatic verb doubling is used but the form of the verbs is different. In Genesis, the simple action is recorded. In the detailing of the law in Exodus and Leviticus (ex. Ex. 21:15-17, Lev. 20:10-16), it is the passive causative form. For example, “eat” would be the simple form; the causative would be “cause to eat; feed”; and the passive causative “be fed.” The different translations we have for these phrases—shall surely die (simple), or shall be put to death (passive causative)—do accurately reflect the differences in the Hebrew.
It also isn’t what God does. He does not put them to death. It isn’t even said that the man and woman are cursed. The serpent is cursed. The ground is cursed for man’s sake. The work that they had been given in the world is now made hard, child-bearing is painful, they are cast out of the garden and cut off from the Tree of Life. Even so, the ground doesn’t only bring up thorns and thistles; it also gives the blessings of bread, wine, and oil. Child-bearing is not merely a painful burden, but the hope and salvation of the world—the restoration and reconciliation of all things, and the crushing of the serpent—comes through the seed of the woman. The blessing of God and the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it are still on them and he provides covering for them—here at last is a physical death. Animals are killed to provide this covering; God makes atonement by the shedding of blood.
When Paul talks of this event in Romans 5, he also doesn’t set it in terms of crime and punishment, but in terms of the contraction and spread of a disease. Sin entered the cosmos by the one man, and death came in through the sin. Death spread to all men, wherefore (ἐφ᾽ ᾧ) all sinned. The fear of death shackles all in bondage, in slavery to sin. This seems to be a rather fundamental principle upon which prison or concentration camps function. The inmates are kept in check, even though they may outnumber the guards 10 to 1. So Sin reigns as master through death, until the Christ comes to set us free—we who are slaves of sin under the fear of death.