What did the tree of life confer? There are three basic interpretations. Let’s run through them by process of elimination
According to the eschatological interpretation (favored by redemptive-historical theologians like Vos, Kline, Alexander), partaking the tree of life glorifies the consumer. They justify this interpretation by appealing to Revelation, with its eschatological references to the tree of life.
However, a basic problem with their interpretation is that it’s clearly premature, anachronistic. For it confuses the type with the antitype.
Yes, the tree of life in the Garden prefigures the tree of life in the New Jerusalem. But it’s a basic principle of biblical typology that the antitype is something over and above the type, and not merely a recapitulation of the type.
According to this interpretation (favored by John Walton), the tree of life prevents aging as long as you partake. But you have to keep eating the fruit to stay young. It’s a maintenance regime.
However, there are some basic problems with that interpretation:
i) It makes tree itself is the source of what it signifies. That’s a chemical property of the tree. A natural supplement. Keep going back to replenish a natural deficiency. Immorality as pharmacopia.
But the pattern in Scripture is not to treat physical objects as the immediate source or cause of such effects. Rather, God assigns a particular blessing to some concrete token. Take the Pentateuchal example of the bronze serpent. It has no inherent healing properties. It was just a piece of metal. Its curative significance was purely emblematic. The snakebite victims were healed by God, not the bronze serpent. The serpent was just a sympathetic token.
ii) It’s hard to see how Walton’s interpretation comes to terms with the nature of the death penalty in Gen 3:22.
a) The wording of Gen 3:22 indicates partaking the tree would transform Adam and Eve, thereby changing the status quo ante. If, however, they already partook, then eating again couldn’t very well effect a new condition. Rather, it would confirm their condition. Make them immortal sinners.
b) The adverb (“also”, Heb.=gam) is another textual clue of a novel, additional transaction. Something they hadn’t done before.
c) Before they fell, there was no urgency about partaking the tree of life. Even after the fall, Adam aged very slowly.
But when they fell, when they faced the forbidding prospect of divine exile from the safety of their gated garden, then the neglected value of the tree would suddenly assume a new urgency.
On this interpretation (favored by scholars like Barr, Currid, Hamilton, and Waltke), one bite conferred immortality. Youthful, ageless immortality. So they died because they were banished from the garden, and thereby blew that unique, irreversible, and unrepeatable opportunity.