I hope I can clearly explain a thought that came to me the other day when reading Genesis. Sometimes I get thoughts which make perfect sense to me, but leave those listening to me scratching their heads in confusion.
During Lent, the Eastern Church leaves the standard devotional reading of one epistle and one Gospel enters into reading the entire book of Genesis, breaking it into daily readings. This is now part of my morning devotional, at least as far as I am faithful to it. Following the liturgical calendar we begin with Genesis 1:1 and work our way through the narrative of the Fall of Man which brought us to the season of fasting and repentance before God.
Towards the end of my first week, this verse was part of the morning reading:
Gen 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
Chapter Three describes an unwanted change which has come upon the first man and woman, caused by partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This, of course, is the well-known story of the Fall of Man. Adam and Eve have disobeyed one simple restriction placed on them. Now their entire ontology has changed, but not in a manner which was intended. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Fathers state that it was the intention of God was that Adam and Eve would eventually partake of the Tree, but only when they had matured to the point of being ready to receive it. Just as certain foods which are perfectly healthy for a grown human being can harm, and even in some cases, kill an infant, the eating of this fruit had a completely destructive effect upon them. For this reason, they must now leave the Garden.
Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) narratives of the Fall present that dismissal from the Garden as punishment. As always, they understand God in this manner:
But is that what really happened? This is the common Western view – God as ever-angry Judge. But what was God really doing? Look at the last part of the verse I posted in bold letters. He is protecting Adam and Eve – and by extension, all humanity – from living forever (the discussion of the word translated “forever” by Bible translators is a discussion for another time) locked into what they had become by their disobedience. Apparently, in the laws of creation relative to the universe (God’s universe created upon certain unchanging laws, such as 2 + 2 always equals 4) this situation, once done, would be have disastrous long-term consequences in which they (and we) would live forever in this condition. So to protect mankind, mankind must leave the Garden. It was for our own good – NOT a punishment!
Here is my point: It was not the will of God that mankind live eternally in a state of sin, death, and separation from Him. If that was the goal for which He creation was done, then why bother escorting Adam and Eve to the garden gate and bidding them farewell? Let them eat of the Tree of Life and be that way forever. At this point, a person reading the Bible for the first time might say, “But what’s so bad about their condition? I don’t see what they have done so wrong that is so horrible.”
It’s not what they did. It is the consequence of what they have become. In Western thought, eating of the forbidden fruit is a crime of the greatest magnitude. It is presented as an act that in and of itself is worthy of death. But that is not the whole story. The real problem surfaces one chapter later when Cain kills Abel. It is the beginning of thousands of years of growth into wickedness. We are scarcely into six chapters of the biblical narrative when the effects are fully seen:
Gen 6:5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Gen 6:11 The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.
Gen 6:12 And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.
Like a fatal disease, the effect of the Fall on man’s nature has become clear. Do I really have to mention the wars, murders, rapes, lies, and a host of other vile behaviors which have shown us the devastating change in human nature? Add to those externals the internal: hatred of God, the plethora of false gods, false religions, and liturgies of human debasement such as ritual baby-killing, cannibalism, and temple prostitutes, all done in the name of false gods worshiped by devotees blind to truth. This hatred of God, of His moral law, of His very existence, the love of everything contrary to self-giving love, spoken of by St. Paul in Romans 1, would be the unending existence of all mankind had Adam and Eve been left in the Garden to eat of the Tree of Life. Immortality in evil. It is a shuddering and terrible thought
Yet this is exactly what the hellists claim is the will of God. According to their eschatology, millions will exist forever in a state of hatred of God, swearing and cursing His name, and if they could, doing as much harm as they could to others in the same condition. The God who did not want us to eternally exist in sin, and thus barred the Tree of Life from us, instead creates His own eternal existence in sin called hell, where sin is enshrined and death continues forever.
I hope you get my point. If this eternal state – promoted with such zeal by the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants – invented out of whole cloth (and terrible scriptural exegesis) was the real desire of God in His creating from nothing (Creatio ex nilho – see David Bentley Hart’s excellent exposition on this in his book, THAT ALL SHALL BE SAVED), then He would have left them in the Garden and allowed it to happen.
Because that is not the goal for which man is created. The telos, as the Orthodox Church teaches, is theosis. It is, as St. Athanasius said, “God became man in order that man might become god.” Genesis three shows us God protecting man from the results of his decision until the time that the cure can be brought forth in Christ. Eternal separation, eternal hatred, eternal death – will not win! Adam and Eve swallowed death, and death swallowed them. Death greedily went to swallow Christ on the Cross and in doing so – was destroyed forever! Glory to God!
Perhaps I am guilty – as are so many others – of reading into Scripture that which I want to see, but it appears to me that this is a very logical understanding of God’s loving parental action after the Fall. Every action is done with the view of an ultimate goal. The goal of expulsion from the Garden was so that not one human being – from the least to the worst – would have to be chained to an eternal state of selfishness and sin caused by the Fall. Not Adam, not Eve, not any of their billions of children yet to be born.
1Co 15:54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
It is the very first hint of Apokatastasis in a book which is all about God redeeming us!
ALL of us!!