Do we really have to “get ourselves back to the garden”?

February 4, 2013
Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people. I’m referring in this post to Goldingay’s volume on Genesis.

In an early draft of yesterday’s sermon, I said something like, “Contrary to popular belief, when God created the world, he didn’t create the world ‘perfect.'” So contrary is this idea to the popular understanding of the Garden of Eden and life before the Fall, I decided that that statement would require more theological unpacking than I felt like doing.

I said, instead, that when God created the world, he deliberately left it unfinished: that God’s intention from the beginning was that we humans would, like God, work in order to share in God’s act of creating. This, I believe, gets at what it means to be made in God’s image, “after God’s likeness.” As I said, we are most “God-like” when we do what God does: in Genesis 1 we see God working and creating. We do likewise as we “have dominion over” and “subdue” (KJV) God’s creation.

One point here is that the sentiment expressed by songwriter Joni Mitchell, among many other thinkers, that the Garden represents some state of bliss to which we have to “get ourselves back to” misses the mark. It’s true that humanity greatly and irreparably (apart from the atoning work of Christ) damaged (but didn’t completely sever) its relationship to God (notice that even in Genesis 4, after expulsion from the Garden, God continues to possess a close relationship with Abel and Cain, as he did with their parents). Nowhere, however, does scripture say that human beings lived in a perfectly harmonious relationship with nature, which we lost through sin. If that were the case, what would be the point of God’s commanding the first humans to “have dominion over” and “subdue” creation? See what I mean?

From the beginning, the world outside the Garden (remember that Adam and Eve lived inside the Garden) might have been as hostile as the natural world is today. There’s no reason to imagine, for example, that earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes didn’t also happen back then—or that had Adam wandered outside the Garden and crossed paths with a lion, he wouldn’t have been eaten!

No, as I read Genesis 3, all that we physically “lost” was the Garden itself (with its access, of course, to “the tree of life”).

I don’t mean to minimize the possible spiritual impact that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had on the natural world. A theologian friend of mine, for example, pointed out that many wild animals sense and respond to human fear. If Adam and Eve, with their perfectly trusting relationship to their Creator, didn’t know fear inside the Garden, then it seems likely that that they would have related to the animal kingdom differently. Who knows?

Regardless, John Goldingay does a nice job exploring these ideas in his For Everyone commentary on Genesis. He believes that the Fall “has become a kind of myth” that sometimes adds to or contradicts scripture. “They did not fall from a state of bliss; they failed to realize a possibility. Human beings ‘fell short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).”[1]

The fall idea goes along with the idea that we live in a fallen world, the idea that originally the world worked in a harmonious way in which there were not earthquakes and lions lay down with lambs. Human sin then spoiled this harmony. But Genesis 3 says only that God cursed the snake and that the ground outside the well-watered garden would henceforth produce thorns and thistles as well as edible plants. Human disobedience (listening to the snake rather than exercising authority over it) meant that the creation was subjected to futility, so that it longs and groans for its redemption (Romans 8:19-22). But Genesis 1, with its commission to humanity, suggests this did not mean the spoiling of its perfection. Rather, whereas humanity was made to move toward a goal, its failure meant it moved away from the goal instead. We do not live in a fallen world; we live in a world that has not reached its destiny.[2]

1. John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 61.

2. Ibid., 62.

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