But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that
you eat thereof you shall surely die.
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Ambrose of Milan
What is the difference between saying 'ye shall die' and 'ye shall die the death'? We ought to point out that there is nothing superfluous in the command of God. Here is my solution. Since life and death are contradictory ideas, in unaffected language we say 'we live in life' and 'die in death.' But, if you wish, since life causes life, to double the force of the two concepts, the phrase 'he lives a life' is found in legal documents, and, since death causes death, there is the statement: 'He shall die the death.' [ Ezek 33:14-16 ] These expressions are not redundant, for life is related to death and death to life, because everyone living no law of this kind are a law unto themselves. They show therefore, four categories: to live in life, to die in death, to die in life, to live in death. Since such is the case, we should put aside prejudices due to use and custom, for usage prescribes that the act of dying should be said without distinction of him who dies by death and of him who does so by his life. Accordingly, the Lord selects two of these four distinctive phrases so as to say that the living live, with qualifications as to whether well or ill, and the dying die, without a seeming difference between a good death and a bad one. There is no precise difference in fact between the kind of life or death here referred to. It could include that of irrational creatures or of tiny infants.
Putting aside, therefore, conceptions due to common usage, let us reflect on the meaning of 'to live in life' and 'to die in death' and also 'to live in death' and 'to die in life.' I believe that, in accord with the Scriptures, 'to live in life' signifies a wonderful life of happiness and that it seems to point toward an experience of life's natural functions joined and, by participation, mingled with the grace of a blessed life. This concept, 'to live in life,' means 'to live in virtue,' to bring about in the life of this body of ours a participation in the life of blessedness. On the other hand, what does 'to die in death' mean if not the disintegration of the body at the time of death, when the flesh is devoid of its customary function of carrying on life and the soul is unable to partake in life eternal? There is also the person who 'dies in life,' that is to say, one who is alive in body but, because of his acts, is dead. These are the people who, as the Prophet says: 'Go down alive into hell,' [ Ps 54:16 ] and she of whom the Apostle speaks: 'For she is dead while she is still alive.' [ 1 Tim 5:6 ] There remains the fourth category, for there are those who 'live in death' like the holy martyrs who give up their lives so that they may live. The flesh dies, but what is good does survive. Far from us, therefore, be the thought of living as participants in death. On the contrary, we should face death and thus become sharers in life. The saint does not desire to be a participant in this life of ours when he states: 'To be dissolved and be with Christ.' [ Phil 1:23 ] This has been much better stated by another: 'Woe to me that my sojourning has been prolonged,' [ Ps 119:5 ] in grief certainly that he is limited by the fragility of this life, since he hopes for a share in life eternal. Wherefore I can, on the other hand, state that, although 'to live in life' is a good thing, 'to live for life' would be of doubtful benefit. One can speak of 'living for life,' that is, for the life of eternity with its struggle with the life of the body. One can also speak of 'living for life' in another sense. Anyone, even a pious person, can have a desire for this corporeal life of ours. We can take the example of one who thinks that he ought to live so virtuously as to arrive by his good actions at a ripe old age. Many people who are in weak health, but who still find life a pleasurable thing, are in this category.
Now that we have examined the meaning of the phrase, 'to live for life,' let us now turn attention to the significance of the phrases, 'to die for death' and 'to live for death,' for it is possible to conceive of people who 'die for death' and who 'live for life.' For the person who 'dies for or to death' is one who so lives as to live for the sake of his own soul, because he is not subject to death. We mean by this one who has been loosed from the bonds of grievous death and one who is not bound by the chains of death eternal. He is dead to death, that is, he is dead to sin. He is dead to punishment for whom living is contrary to punishment, that is, when a person lives for punishment he lives for death. Again, one who dies for punishment dies for death. There is also the case of one who, although placed in this life, dies for life. Such was the situation of the Apostle who said: 'It is now no longer I that live, but Christ in me.' [ Gal 2:20 ] To sin he is dead, but he lives for God, that is, death in him is dead, but living in him is that life which is the Lord Jesus. Good, therefore, is the life of those who live for God and wicked the life of those who live for sin. There is also a middle course of life, as in the case of other living creatures, for which we may cite the Scriptural passage: 'Let the earth bring forth the living creature in its kind.' [ Gen 1:24 ] There is also the life of the dead: 'The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,' [ Exod 3:6 ] because 'He is not the God of the dead but of the living.' [ Luke 20:37, Mark. 12:26 ] There are those who partake somewhat in both lives, that of the living and of the dead, of whom the Apostle speaks: 'If ye have died with him, ye shall also live with him.' [ 2 Tim 2:11 ] The same Apostle has said: 'For if we have been united with him in the likeness of death, we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection also. For we know that our old self has been crucified with him, in order that the body of sin may be destroyed, that we may no longer be slaves to sin, for he who is dead is acquitted of sin.' [ Rom 6:58 ] Just as we have said that there are many forms of life, so, too, we may discover many forms of death. An evil death is recorded in the words, 'The soul that sinneth, the same shall die.' [ Ezek 18:20 ] The usual meaning of death appears when we say that a person lived so many years and was laid among his fathers. [ Acts 13:36 ] There is the meaning of death as we have it in the sacrament of baptism: 'For we were buried with him by means of baptism into death.' [ ] Elsewhere we read: 'For if we have died with Christ, we believe also that we shall live together with him.' [ Rom 6:4,8 ] You see how the word 'death' is subject to manifold interpretation, but that this life here is ours to contend with.