We continue on through our series of objections to my article claiming that evil and suffering in this world are necessary given the fact that God wanted us to fulfill our potential. In this article we consider whether God could have made a “perfect world” based on the fact that the Bible describes Eden in the past and Heaven in the future.
If one needs evil and suffering in a morally good world then what are we to make of Heaven? After all, won’t evil and suffering cease to exist? Furthermore, wasn’t the Garden of Eden fundamentally free of suffering?
[Update 2013-07-17: I just found this interesting interview with NT Wright on a very similar subject.]
Did Eden even exist?
First things first; did Eden exist? Here is where we open the Pandora’s box of Creation / Evolution and all that. Thousands of pages of ink (and electrons on blogger sites) get spilt annually over this subject and the state of mass confusion on the issue within Christianity makes it most presumptuous to suppose that I can answer the question. But I don’t actually think that I need to. I have to admit that my first draft of this article attempted to make some sense of it all. That’s the natural impulse, of course, but I have come to the conclusion that, for the sake of this discussion, it doesn’t matter whether Eden existed or not. I am certain that sounds like the ultimate cop-out, but work with me here.
Broadly speaking we have two options. Either Eden existed or it did not. All the various categories of the origins debate end up bringing us to one of those two conclusions anyway so there is not much point in answering the entire debate when we really only care about this one minor aspect of it. The rest of the debate is irrelevant, we only care about whether Eden existed or not (for this conversation).
Suppose it existed. Well, that makes things relatively easy for the sake of this discussion. We might squabble about how much of the first few chapters of Genesis represent actual events in space-time history and how much may have taken on a mythical flavour over the centuries, but we can presumably trust that the Genesis account of Eden is, by and large, theologically reliable. Through the book of Genesis we have some glimpse into a world none of us have ever experienced; the home that God created for the first humans.
What if it did not exist? This is not nearly so hopeless of a situation as I initially thought. I will admit that this perspective is not one I lean toward, but smarter (and possibly more spiritually dedicated) Christians than myself hold to this position and I have no reason to think they are nutcases or anything. The general idea, as far as I understand it, is that God may have introduced the story of the Garden of Eden not as an account of space-time history, but rather as a frame of reference that would inform the Israelite nation of their place in the world, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and so on. The theory, as I understand it, is that the ancient Israelites never would have understood the Eden story as factual history in the first place, and our reading of it as such would have been laughable to them. The story of Eden, therefore, may have been Jesus’ very first parable, in a manner of speaking. Not all theologians who accept the mythical flavour of Genesis 2-3 go as far as this, but I am considering the extremes here, for sake of argument.
[If I am not representing this view properly, my apologies, but that is my best understanding of it. I do not hold to this view but I want to do it justice nonetheless.]
What that means for our discussion, though, is that the story of Eden (assuming it is theologically motivated fiction) gives us an idea of God’s understanding of a “perfect world” even if it never existed in space-time history. God’s concept of the “perfect world” is all we really need for this discussion. If we can compare God’s idea of a “perfect world” to the idea held by many humans – pure bliss, no pain, all pleasure and no work or challenges of any kind – then we can see how closely the two line up. Whether God actually created Eden, then, is less important than God’s mental concept of Eden. If Eden existed then we can understand God’s concept of a perfect world by looking at what he created; we can probe Genesis 2-3. If it did not exist, we can still probe Genesis 2-3 for insights into God’s concept of a perfect world even though it remains his mental concept instead of his creation. Either way we can actually skip the entire Creation / Evolution discussion entirely which is kind of nice because it usually generates far more heat than light. All we care about is God’s understanding of a perfect world whether he created it or not.
For the sake of the rest of this article I will speak as though Eden existed in space-time history instead of merely in the mind of God revealed to us through a narrative. This is just to make it simpler so I do not need to continuously clarify the two options. It’s just a convention for simplicity sake, but it is one I happen to lean toward. If you do not, then just modify the language in your mind and run with it.
[By the way, if anybody tries to suck this discussion into a Creation / Evolution debate in the comments I fully intend to ignore that rabbit trail. I only cover it here because it is a hot-button issue and I wanted to explain why pursuing it is irrelevant to this subject.]
So, back to the original question; wasn’t Eden free from any hint of difficulty, challenge, hardship or pain? Let’s take a closer look at the Biblical data. In Genesis 3:16 Eve is told that God is going to “multiply” her pain at childbirth because of sin. The word for “multiply” that is used there (Strong’s H7235) conveys the idea of “increase, enlarge, make great.” Well one can only increase something that already exists! It is, interestingly, the same Hebrew word used when God instructed Adam and Eve to be fruitful and “multiply,” a command that would have made no sense to issue before they existed. They must exist in order to multiply, and so must pain exist in order for God to multiply it. That punishment would have meant nothing to Eve unless she already understood what pain was. In other words, in some form or another giving birth was already an unpleasant experience. It would have been far less unpleasant at that time than it is these days, but we are still led to believe that it wasn’t the kind of experience that Eve would have looked forward to.
Adam and Eve were also told that they could eat from pretty much any tree in the Garden (Genesis 2:16). But wait a minute! That means they needed to eat. If they needed to eat then we should naturally ask what would have happened if they didn’t eat? Would they have felt hungry? Could they have starved to death? If nothing else it seems reasonable to expect that they would have experienced some kind of unpleasantness if they waited too long between meals; that discomfort would motivate them to eat. It seems rather pointless to provide food if there is no need for food.
But if there were two forms of unpleasantness (birth and hunger) why should we conclude they were the only forms of unpleasantness? That would seem pretty odd. It seems far more likely that various forms of unpleasantness existed, though they would have been a far cry from the anguishing pain that is possible these days.
Furthermore, God did not create them, plop them in a Garden and introduce them to the game of shuffleboard. And card games. And the Wii. On the contrary, he put them to work. They were told, in Genesis 1:28-30, to subdue the earth and that God had provided food for them. Again, though, they had to work for their food. Notice how the food did not float effortlessly from Heaven; they had to harvest trees and other plants. That required work which they were expected to do for themselves. God would provide sun and rain; they did the rest.
Indeed, the entire paradigm of Creation is that God worked – which makes the Sabbath rest (a major theme in the Old Testament) meaningful – and we are to imitate him. Work is not a result of the Fall, but is an example that God set and expected us to mimic even within the Garden of Eden.
So Eden had pain, it had hunger and it required work to keep it running. We do not have a very detailed picture of Eden – just enough for the theological purposes that God had in mind – but even these snapshots paint a picture of Eden that is a far cry from the “effortless pleasure” concept of a perfect world that many people these days seem to carry around with them. Even in the Garden of Eden character building opportunities abounded, though hardly to the same degree that we have them today.
What else is important, though, is that Eden had within it the potential to unfold into the world we see today. Indeed, God seemed to set up the circumstances in such a way that our present reality was an unavoidable product of one key ingredient that he introduced into the human spirit; free agency. He gave us the ability to make morally free choices. He did not create sin, but he made sin possible; the question was whether we would use our freedom to create it. As I described in my original article free agency is the only logically possible way for his creatures to fulfill the potential he endowed them with. We could create vice, yes, but we could also create virtue.
But surely he should have known it would go poorly. Surely he would have known we would sin. In fact I think he planned for it from the beginning. To follow the logic, I think that if Adam and Eve had not eaten the forbidden fruit, their obedience would have surprised God and ruined his entire plan! Consider this, what happened when they sinned? They were kicked out of the Garden.
But wait! That means that the rest of the world was already more or less like our present world. Eden was not a description of the state of affairs in the entire cosmos, merely the state of affairs in one relatively tiny, insulated, pocket of real estate on Earth. Everything else in the universe, it would seem, looked quite different; like what we see today. The consequence of sin was not that the Garden of Eden fell into shambles, but rather that humanity was kicked out of their little bubble and forced to deal with the “real world.” Eden remained perfect, humanity was simply evicted.
The point being that God already had the “real world” in place, waiting for them. Sin was inevitable, therefore God created Eden as a temporary holding place until humanity degraded exactly as he foresaw they would; a reality that he not only anticipated, but made specific provisions for right from the very first “Let there be…”
In fact, it could be argued, this present reality was what God really had in mind from the beginning, and Eden was just a temporary phase that humanity needed to pass through. And pass through it we would. He knew it would not last; he never intended it to! Why else would he create the rest of the world outside the Garden?
Of course that raises a whole series of subsequent theological questions about why God would bother with Eden at all; questions that are well worth considering, but none of which really have a lot of bearing on this discussion.
The New Earth
We are given hints in the Bible that “Heaven” will be broadly modeled on what the Garden of Eden looked like. But before going any further, we ought to clarify that humanity will occupy the “New Earth” which is distinct from “Heaven” (Revelation 21:1). The reason this is somewhat important (rather than splitting theological hairs) is because we sometimes conceive of God’s ultimate destination for us as being something fundamentally different from the present Earth. It will be very different in one sense, but remarkably similar in another; it will still be “Earth” in some broadly similar form. We will not float around on clouds strumming on our harps, for instance; we will walk on streets, eat from trees and the nations will go about their business.
Because the New Earth will be similar to the Garden of Eden we should not be surprised to learn that it will contain at least some challenges and probably some minor discomforts (at least relative to anything this world throws at us). Just as we were expected to work in the Garden of Eden the book of Revelation (21:24-26) describes a world within which there will still be nations going about their business and generating “riches” (or “glory and honour” – Strong’s words G1391 and G5092 ). Of course the book of Revelation is highly metaphorical so we should be careful not to draw too many detailed conclusions (i.e. Capitalism vs Communism vs some other economic system) but it seems clear that it intends to convey the idea that there will be broad similarities between the basic framework of this world and the next. There was work in Eden and there will be work in the New Earth.
What about pain? If pain existed in Eden we should expect something similar in the New Earth. Indeed much of what makes life in this earth rich and significant involves a good challenge and even a little pain at times. Conquering a mountain. Sailing around the world. Aerobatics in an airplane (a dream of mine!). C. S. Lewis in “The Problem of Pain” in the chapter on Hell explores the idea that there may be “pleasure” in Hell and even “pain” in Heaven – I put those words in quotations to remind us that they will be vastly different from our present understanding of the words – and he considers what those realities might mean. Frankly I find his thought process persuasive and I encourage you to read his book.
In other words, if you were hoping to float gently in the clouds for all eternity, strumming a harp with not a care in the world, then the New Earth will be something of a disappointment for you. However, if you have developed any real character during your life on this Earth you will realize the inherent beauty of a fruitful and productive life. The New Earth will introduce unimaginable glories that were never possible in this lifetime as we labour with the Creator himself!
[I can already see the careful reader noticing that Revelation 21:4 very specifically says there will be no more pain in the New Earth. Very little investigation reveals that the Greek word used there (Strong’s G4192 – only used three times in the New Testament, always in the book of Revelation) means something more like “anguish” then anything resembling “minor discomfort.” It’s like the difference between a gently stubbed toe and having one’s toes slowly removed with a rusty pair of pliers. God assures us of a total lack of the latter but I see no reason to doubt the existence of the former in the New Earth.]
Nobility in the New Earth
The book of Revelation makes it clear that there is a break between the old way of things and the new way of things (Revelation 21:1-4) but how far does that separation go? Does that mean we will have no recollection of our lives on earth? Will we wake up one day and have no clue of who we are, where we are or how we got there? A major part of the entire process of hero-building is that our heroic nature is something which grows with time and experience. If the former time and experience is completely stripped from our memory (and, consequently, our nature) then so is the entire hero-building process. We are back to square one – innocent as infants – which would make this entire Earthly experience rather pointless.
While the New Earth will certainly entail a new order of things, it will not represent a full existential departure from the Old Earth. In 1 Corinthians 15:35 – 44 the apostle Paul describes how our resurrected bodies will be to our present bodies as a plant is to a seed. Distinct in one sense, but the New arises from the Old and both includes it and fulfills it. I suspect the New Earth will be much the same; a fulfillment of this Earth rather than scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch with a completely different form of reality. In the New Earth we will be the same people we grew to become in this life, only we will have become purified and perfected from our corruption. But our heroism will survive death perfectly in tact. After all, God only wants to get rid of the bad, not the good.
But could the differences between this Earth and the New Earth prove problematic? No more evil. No more suffering. This raises so many questions. First, how is this possible; are we not prone to sin? Even if God makes it perfect won’t we mess it up again like we did in Eden? Second, how is nobility itself possible in a world without challenges (wasn’t that the entire premise of my argument…)? Let’s look at the second question first.
As I already mentioned, the New Earth will, in a manner of speaking, grow out of the soil of this Earth. The evil and suffering of this Earth will be part of the story of the New Earth. It will make up part of the furniture in the room, so to speak. There will be no new instances of either, but the many examples of evil and suffering that we have endured in this life will have become part of our story, our character. If I board a train in Edmonton, Alberta and ride it all the way to Miami, Florida, it will always be the case that we passed through Edmonton on our journey, no matter where else our journey leads us or how long the journey is. If I remain on that train for all eternity then for all eternity my journey started in Edmonton. Because there is a connection between this world and the next the New Earth will always, by definition, “include” evil and suffering; those instances from this Earth. Nobility remains possible in the New Earth because of the suffering of this Earth.
A war veteran remains a hero many years after he has put down his rifle. If he never stands on the front lines again, his retirement in no way detracts from his heroic character and he continues to be honoured for his service as long as he lives. He has proven himself and he has earned his rest. The New Earth merely takes that concept of “rest” to a whole new level. We remain the heroes we became on this earth as we engage in the delightful work of the New Earth; a form of permanent semi-retirement. And during that time we remain eternal heroes because of our choices on Earth.
Can the New Earth remain perfect?
I said something previously that I wonder if you noticed. I wrote, “God created Eden knowing full well that the perfect world could not possibly remain in that state.” That should lead the astute reader to ask how the perfect world could possibly remain perfect the second time around when it obviously failed the first time around. That would seem to be a natural question to ask.
While there will be substantial overlap between Eden and the New Earth, one significant difference separates the two; this Earth. What we will have in the New Earth that we completely lacked in Eden is life experience having passed through a world steeped in evil and suffering. Life experience under such circumstances produces character, and the combination of previously built character and continuously being in the presence of God makes it possible for morally free agents to retail their freedom while simultaneously maintaining their moral purity. God will make us pure of past sins through Jesus’ sacrifice, and God will work with our developed nobility to ensure that we remain pure into the future.
It has been said (and I wish I could remember the source) that the older one gets the easier it becomes to resist temptation. What would have immediately trapped a young man or woman is a petty and easily resisted temptation for the elderly because our life experience helps us better understand the ridiculousness of succumbing to temptation, even if it remains tempting. As our lives extend into eternity the ability to resist temptation ought to become that much easier. This is likely a component of God’s means of allowing free agency in the New Earth while ensuring that there is no more sin. Innocence is prone to failure, but experience more readily stands firm.
As I have pondered all this, one startling realization emerged. The New Earth that God actually designed humanity for is only theoretically possible if humanity passes through something like this Earth. While some people may think of this Earth as an unfortunate breakdown of the bus on the road to future glories, I have come to think of this Earth as some combination of a training ground, like a boot camp, and the refiner’s fire. On the one hand this Earth is a necessary environment for character formation, and to give humanity a legitimate, relatively unimpeded, opportunity to become who they will be (whether good or evil). It is also a necessary refiner’s fire; adversity often being the means of whittling away laziness, a lack of empathy for others and a wide range of other vices.
Naturally I am not proposing that admission into the New Earth is a product of human effort (I have read the Bible, after all) and God plays the necessary role in making it possible for us to ever be in his presence. While God makes it possible for us to enter his presence, our response to life’s hardship plays a substantial role in forming the character of the person who enters God’s presence.