Pilgrims from Paradise:
At the end of the last podcast, I was talking about Satan’s great lie to Adam and Eve that they could become gods by taking matters into their own hands, by disobeying God and then eating of the fruit that he had commanded them not to eat. But I said then that it occurs to me that Satan founds this lie upon some deeper and more essential falsehoods that Adam and Eve at some level must embrace to follow through with the actions that he suggests.
Let’s think about that. What does Satan imply when he tells Eve, “You will not surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4,5)? It seems that at the very least the devil is asserting that God doesn’t mean what he says, which has the subtle implication that God is not entirely trustworthy.
But when I contemplate Satan’s temptation in the light of God’s desire for our oneness with him, it seems to me that his most damaging deception comes in the suggestion that God really does not want us to share in his life. The devil slyly implies that the reason for banning Adam and Eve from the tree of knowledge is that he knows they will become like him if they eat from it. He makes it sound like God is jealous of his superior position and wants to keep Adam and Eve somehow from approaching it.
As I noted earlier, our first parents and all of us for that matter were created to enter deeply into the life of the Holy Trinity. So Satan plays on the holiest, deepest, most intrinsic desire of the human person to be one with God. Thus, the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is much more than a story of obedience or disobedience. The tree confronts Adam and Eve with the choice of uniting with God or severing ties with the source of life and oneness. In the end, Adam and Eve mistake being like God by attempting to appropriate his power and knowledge for themselves for being one with him, by becoming joined to his divine life by exercising in their relationships with him and with each other the divine qualities of humility, obedience, and self-denial.
As we discussed earlier, God’s confrontation with Adam and Eve after their fall into temptation climaxes with the pronouncement of certain curses. In the Western view of the story, these are seen as further punishments for disobedience, responses of a just God to unjust sinners. For instance, God looks at Adam and says, “Cursed is the ground for your sake.” (Genesis 3:17).
Now that certainly sounds like God is saying, “You disobeyed me and as a result I’m going to punish you by making life hard for you.” But when we recognize that the Trinity created every one of us for the sole purpose of participating intimately in its perfect, divine life, it is clear that this cannot be God’s attitude. Instead, God is telling Adam that the struggles he will endure in obtaining his sustenance from the earth will be for his own good. His trials will be for the sake of his salvation.
You see, as soon as Adam and Eve make their terrible choice, God immediately goes into action to restore them to union with him. But that unity can never be real unless it is grounded in the sincere desires and free will choices of the parties involved. Adam and Eve could never return to God, could never find their relationship with him restored, unless they longed for that healing with all their hearts.
So what if God had allowed the earth to continue to pour forth abundant sufficiency for Adam and Eve? Would they have longed from the depths of their souls to see their mistake undone. Or, as the centuries of their nearly millennial existence (Adam lived for more than 900 years), as those years passed effortlessly in carefree comfort, might the sense of what they had lost have faded? Perhaps a long, long life of ease would have become a sufficiently blissful fate to them. The urgent hope of the promised seed for the coming of the One who would restore what was lost in their disobedience may have faded entirely from their hearts and the hearts and minds of their descendants.
The same is true of Eve’s consignment to travail in childbirth. God promises her that one day a savior will come from her womb, or the womb of one of her descendant daughters. But if the coming of that deliverer is to have any affect it will have to be received by hearts wounded with sorrow, hearts waiting, ready, and longing to be freed from the disease of death and sin which fell upon us all in the garden.
So part of God’s promise to Eve is that, even as the birth of each child stirs up hope, the distress accompanying that birth will be a painful but loving reminder of the fall. The struggle in every birth will provide an invitation to regret that we dwell apart from God. It will be an opportunity for submission and broken repentance before the God whose undying love and infinite grace will, through a child, accomplish our restoration to oneness.
Driving Adam and Eve from Eden and placing the frightfully armed cherubim to guard against their return to it, is also an act of love. Remaining in the garden not only may have diminished Adam and Eve’s repentance, but eating of the Tree of Life, once they had sinned, would have immortalized their separation from God. In such a state, Adam, Eve and all of us would have been destined to live eternally with a God who loves us tenderly and infinitely, but whose love we would never trust. Frozen forever in that doubt, all humanity would have been condemned to live an eternal lie, chaffing forever against God’s love, hiding from his presence, lost in the infinite bitterness of everlasting jealousy, mistrust and fear.
So we see that, for one who stands apart from God, death is a blessing, not a punishment. In a world of sin, mortality holds forth the possibility of change, of redemption. The fiery angel at the gate of Paradise stands there for protection&mdashnot for condemnation.
Thus, the state from which human kind must be redeemed is one of brokenness, individuality and death. It is in this place Christ comes to save us. He does not come to a courtroom to rescue individuals on trial for their disobedience. Rather, he descends into a pit of sickness, disease and death in order to heal our race. The Holy Trinity’s desire is not just to make us forgiven individuals. Above all, it desires to raise us up together that we might as one join in its glorious, joyous and communal dance.
This is why, in the Eastern Christian tradition, it is the incarnation of Christ which stands as the preeminent act of God on our behalf. Certainly, the crucifixion and resurrection, around which Christian teaching revolves, are crucial events in the life of Christ. But they are crucial because they are necessary events in the over-arching work of the incarnation. It is in the Son of God taking flesh that our great need&mdashunion with the life of God&mdashis accomplished. We’ll begin exploring that truth next time.