Q & R: Adam and Eve dying “on that day?”

Here’s the Q:

I just read A New Kind of Christianity for the first time. I want to reread it but would really
like you to help me understand one point. God told Adam and Eve that if they ate the fruit they would die. Did He change His mind after they ate it? Or was their consequence to die in a gradual manner? I need some help to understand this from your point of view.
I enjoyed the book very much and found that it has stimulated more thought and discussion in my Christian life than most other such books.

Here’s the R:

Thanks for your question. Your question points to the often-underestimated role interpretation plays in every serious engagement with the Bible. Many who say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” would be more honest to say, “The Bible says it, I interpret it, I believe my interpretation, and that settles it.” From its first few pages, the Bible presents us with fascinating – but often vexing – challenges like this one.
As you know, a common interpretation of the passage in Genesis is to say that on that day, Adam and Eve died “spiritually.” That interpretation, as I interpret it (!), assumes that a dualistic body-spirit/matter-energy/forms-appearances model of the universe is divinely revealed (even though that is the model of the ancient Greeks, not the ancient Jews).
Others might say that on that day, it was inevitable that they would die – although that is not what the text actually says.
Here are two other possibilities. Both assume that Genesis (at least its earliest chapters) is not intended to be interpreted literally as historical fact, but that it is rather a poetic or metaphorical story that conveys an actuality of meaning that doesn’t depend on the factuality of every detail. To modernist readers, the latter approach seems inferior, but I think to both pre-modern and post-modern readers, the latter approach is actually richer and more valuable.
These possibilities (among many others) are not mutually exclusive, but suggest ways of taking the text more seriously than a literalist approach.
1. The character named “God” or “the Lord” in the text is not necessarily the real God in whom we trust. (In a similar way, we might say that a talking snake is not necessarily the real problem in the world.) In this approach, the character named “God” in the text represents a developing concept in the story … and the truth about God is revealed, not in simply in character named “God” or “the Lord” in the text, but in the unfolding of the story itself … which reaches a grand climax at the end of the book, as Joseph makes a profound observation about God’s intentions and agency in the world.
2. The point or meaning of the story is that God is again and again more merciful than a simple mind would expect. A simple mind says Adam and Eve must die, but God transcends and shows them mercy. A simple mind says Cain must be killed for killing, but God transcends and shows him mercy and even protects him from revenge. A simple mind says the earth will be destroyed, but God mercifully saves a seed of creation to be replanted after the flood. A simple mind says Babel should be destroyed, but God mercifully decentralizes it rather than destroying it. A simple mind would say Jacob was a deceiver and impossible for God to work with, but God mercifully matures Jacob through the experiences of life. And so on.
Again, there are many other possible approaches – but those are two to consider for starters. As you go back and re-read the book, you’ll see that in almost every chapter I try to model a reading of a Biblical passage with this approach that values actuality of meaning over factuality of detail. Whether or not you find this approach attractive, I hope you’ll see that whatever our approach, we are all involved in interpretation, and the process of interpretation is both rich and fascinating. There is no meaningful reading without interpretation.