18. Genesis 3:22-24

I.  C. continued

2. God’s Second Intervention: Exile (Genesis 3:22-24)

The second thing God did – in person, as it were – was to exile Adam and Eve from the garden in order to keep them from eating from the Tree of Life. The garden would not have remained a garden for long; it would have gone wild along with the rest of creation. The real exile from paradise had already happened with the words “Cursed is the ground because of you.” The point of the exile from Eden was not to throw them out of paradise – paradise was already gone – but to prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life and living forever as a result.

We must pause here to attempt again to define a term, “eternal life”. I’ve already attempted this when I discussed the Tree of Life in conjunction with the Tree of Knowledge, but it bears some emphasis. What do we mean by “eternal life”? First, eternal life is not simply unending days, immortality; it is not simply freedom from physical death. If you believe in an after-life then you believe we are immortal in a sense anyway; the mere continuation of conscious life, physical or spiritual, is not what we mean by eternal life.  Eternal life should be understood as a different quality of life, not merely a greater quantity of life. Moreover eternal life is not a return to the quality of life Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall. If they had already possessed eternal life there would have been no reason to plant a Tree of Life in the garden. Eternal life, as the term is used in the New Testament, refers to a higher quality of life from any that has ever been possessed by any human being, until the Messiah came. Eternal life refers to a kind of life as much beyond the life of Adam and Eve in Eden as human life is now beyond, say, canine life. It is simply impossible to describe what it means because we are incapable of knowing such things, much as a dog is incapable of knowing the quality of our lives, the beauty of a symphony or the subtlety of a metaphor.

It is not to be supposed that the Tree of Life had the power to reverse the effects of the Fall, to heal the universe from the damage done by Adam’s choice. Before the Fall it would have been a pathway into eternal life from the perfection of life they already enjoyed, and in this way the Tree of Life was a sign of the Messiah’s work, the purpose of His incarnation. But after the Fall, there was no longer an open way into eternal life for Adam or Eve or us because we carried within ourselves the principle of death. Even for dead people, however, the Tree of Life apparently had real power to confer a form of life – not eternal life in our Fallen state, but immortal life in the body. The Tree of Life is described as being able to undo the inevitability of physical death while leaving the principle of death untouched. This was why it was so important that God prevent them from eating it.

Physical death was the least significant aspect of the curse of death. The prevention of death on a physical level could be stopped merely by the power of the fruit of this tree, but dealing with death in the inner being would require all the rest of human history and deeds of wonder and power. In the name, “Tree of Life”, “life” is not to be taken simply as the opposite of death. If the life conferred by the Tree of Life were the opposite of the death incurred in the Fall then it would have been the antidote. If it were the antidote, if just a taste of the Tree of Life would have undone the results of the Fall and we could have gone back to life as it was, if the Fall could have been undone so simply and painlessly, then how would God not have administered this anti-venom to the serpent’s sting immediately?

On the contrary, the life  conferred by the Tree of Life was a different sort of life altogether than Adam and Eve had been created with; it was life in a “higher plane”, life that had avenues of access to God that are unimaginable to us. But while it might grant access to a higher level of existence, it would not have neutralized the principle of death. This principle of death governing us was not a disease that could be cured by plucking some other fruit and eating; it was the kind of condition that could not be cured by any action that we could take in any world with any antidote however powerful.

Eating the fruit of the Tree of Life would have conferred a higher form of life to Adam and Eve, but they would have carryied the curse of death with them into that new realm, and that would only have opened up whole new vistas of suffering and pain that are as unimaginable to us now as the joys of eternal life are. It would have brought them into a realm of suffering and pain such as perhaps only the fallen angels know. In much the same way that a human suffers levels of pain – psychological, mental and emotional – beyond anything borne by an animal, we can’t imagine what pain such a level of existence might hold. Any spiritual discipline that promises a short cut to bliss and bypasses the Messiah is just another way of eating the Tree of Life without being healed. It promises bliss, but it ends only in delivering new and unbelievable realms of pain. This is why the Bible so emphasizes that the occult is to be avoided.

Before He lets us experience eternity God wanted to make sure that we didn’t carry death with us into that new realm. This is what the Messiah would accomplish in bruising the serpent’s head: death and the principle of death would be destroyed. God’s intent has always been that we partake of the Tree of Life, but only when it had been made safe for us to do so, when we had hearts that could bear the weight of eternity. The principle of death that resides in us had to be dealt with before we would be ready for immortality. Thus the afterlife as imagined by the ancients and as pictured in the Old Testament is a colorless world. It is Hades or Sheol, a place where existence may continue in its unending fashion but where the progress of death would be arrested. By exiling us away from the Tree of Life, God was choosing to create Sheol rather than Hell.

It is easy to get the impression that physical death was the essence of the Fall, that if we could just get around having to die that we would have it made. Such mistaken impressions account for people who, several centuries ago, would have gone off looking for the fountain of youth or followed Gilgamesh after some other magical cure for death, or who would in our generation have themselves frozen and stored for a future in which they could evade death waiting for the inevitable progress of medicine.

There are still deluded individuals who imagine that unlimited life in this world would be a good thing, but anyone who is thinking clearly can see that physical death is a mercy more often than not. The life in this world is one that is inevitably filled with pain and misery of various sorts, and an unlimited time spent in this world would be unbearable. No one in his right mind really wants to die, but the alternative is always eventually worse. Of course there are people who lead fairly nice lives, who are lucky enough to get all the breaks and enjoy good health and prosperity and good friends and live in a relatively peaceful time and place. But such luck can’t last more than a few decades and eventually the luckiest would find themselves in the same plight of suffering as the rest of us. Physical death seems harsh when it ends a relatively good life, or when it separates us from those we love. But if we can keep a biblical and realistic perspective on it, we know in our hearts that facing death is preferable to facing life in this world and even a tragic death hides a darker secret it is better not to know.

Hence it was an act of mercy that God prevented unending physical life in this world because the other aspects of death are the ones that are the real problem. Escape from physical death alone is no escape from decay of the soul; to be always decaying, to be always rotting away on the inside and unable to die, to grow more and more tired, more and more twisted, year after year forever, the horrible prospect that we could become zombies such as the worst horror movie fails to depict, really is a fate worse than death, and that is what God moved to prevent. It is the dread of sliding down just such a spiral of decay with no hope of stopping the descent, that drives so many mistakenly to suicide.

For physical death does not lead to non-existence. The only way we can cease to exist is for God to quit calling our names. It is His Word that brought us into existence and only His silence can make us vanish. We have no power over it. This is our plight: to be caught up in a kind of spiritual quicksand which only pulls us deeper into decay and which only physical death can arrest – at least we think it does – and which no power in this world can reverse. It is important to see how every word spoken by God, and every act taken by Him in response to the Fall, was done out of mercy, seeking out ways to mitigate the consequences of Adam’s devastating choice. There was no thought of punishment here, only the effort to limit the consequences. God was not expressing His anger over Adam’s choice; He was arranging a path that would lead to deliverance. The wrath of God is nowhere visible in these chapters.

Where, then, is the concept of hell in the story of the Fall? It isn’t there. If in God’s mercy He was unwilling that we spend unlimited days suffering in this world, would He then turn around and create a new realm of endless torments as punishment? Indeed, unlimited life in a world like this one would have been more severe a punishment than God was willing to inflict on any evil-doer. There is no need for eternal flames; this world would serve perfectly well. If God wants a hell, all He has to do is to keep us going forever right here.

I think the Tree of Life is mysterious on any other interpretation. Why did God plant a Tree of Life in the garden when there was no death to require it, only to deny it to us when death did arrive? If what I said above is more or less correct, the mystery of the Tree of Life is the mystery of the Incarnation, for the Tree of Life is nothing less than a symbol and promise of the Messiah. He is the Tree whose fruit brings healing to the nations, in whose branches all the nations will come for shelter. The Tree of Life means that all along, before the Fall, and regardless of whether the Fall had occurred or not, the Incarnation was part of the intent for Creation. When God said “Let there be light”, He wasn’t just making a toy He could admire and play with; He was making a home He would inhabit. The Fall did not make the Incarnation necessary, it only altered its role in history.

The cherubim, with the sword that turned in every direction, guarded the way into Eden to make sure we would never find our way back in by that path. But he only guarded the east entrance to the garden. Are we to imagine that there was a wall of some kind encircling it on the other sides? Or that unmentioned angelic guards covered the other sides? Or perhaps Eden was removed from this universe entirely, connected only by a “wormhole” guarded by an angel, and perhaps now even this pathway has been severed entirely? Once serious people  discussed other dimensions only in science fiction, but now strange numbers of dimensions have made the leap, at least tentatively, into real science and have a bit of respectability. The point is (and we should always remember this one) that we don’t know much about the universe we live in, much less what is possible and what is not.

The Scripture is as silent on the nature of the cherubim as it is silent on the nature of the serpent. Interestingly, “cherubim” is not a Hebrew word but seems to have originated earlier, in even more ancient times. The sword held by the cherubim is described in an obscure way, either as a sword in constant motion or as a sword pointing in every direction at once. Perhaps it was something that moved so quickly that it did point in all directions simultaneously, but perhaps it is described this way to mean that it covered access to the garden from any direction, any physical direction or any non-physical direction, from any of the dimensions we know and from any dimensions we don’t know.

If this discussion seems to be getting a bit far out at this point, I suppose it is; but this is just another way of asking whether we believe Eden was a real place or not. If Eden was a real place, and I believe it was, where is it now? My intent with the preceding remarks was to point out that biblically and logically, there is no reason to suppose that the Tree of Life and the remains of Eden are still located geographically in this world at all, even archaeologically speaking. But though the Tree of Life is a metaphor, I take it to have been at one point a literal tree as well. Perhaps it is still planted and growing in whatever other dimensions exist, still waiting for us when a new path into the garden is finally opened. Or perhaps Eden went wild along with the rest of creation, and the Tree that symbolized the Messianic work was no longer necessary in that form. Perhaps it gradually became an ordinary tree, and the angelic guards dispersed when there was nothing else to guard.

Or you could imagine Eden as a mere fiction; and the world would become all the less interesting for it. If we don’t believe there was a real paradise in the past, then it is difficult to believe in any paradise in the future either. If we don’t believe there was a real paradise in the past, then it is difficult to believe in any wonderful thing even in the present. Puddleglum was right.

 

One Comment on “18. Genesis 3:22-24”

  1. godanalytics Says:

    Eating the fruit of the Tree of Life would have conferred a higher form of life to Adam and Eve, but they would have carryied = carried?


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