Garden of Eden

Eve, the Serpent, and Death. Hans Baldung Grien. Death with serpent entwined around Tree, seduce Eve.
Eve, the Serpent, and Death. Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545). About 1510-1515. Oil on panel.
Once upon a time, so long ago that it was very, very near the beginning, but after he had created everything else, God made a nice garden on Earth and put his first human into it. Afterwards, he took one of Adam’s ribs and made him a companion, Eve. They had an easy life and they walked and talked with God himself. They were made by God to be just like him.

In the Garden of Eden story, God told Adam and Eve that they were in charge of looking after Eden, and that they could eat anything they liked, except from either of two trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. He told them they would die if they did.

An honest serpent hold them that wasn’t true. Adam and Eve broke God’s rule and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and were transformed. This sin of disobedience is “original” or “ancestral” (inherited) sin, and led to a moral fall of man particularly among Protestant faiths, thanks to Augustine in the 5th century.

With their newfound awareness, Adam and Eve felt ashamed to be seen naked and covered themselves when God approached.

At a glance, he knew what they had done and cursed them. Worried that they would also eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal and like gods, he threw them out of the Garden of Eden, and set a guard at the entrance to make sure we never got back in.

Since then, humans have been dying in childbirth, toiling in labour, starving in famines, killing each other, and so on, but we have never lost our vision of paradise, nor of immortality and power.

The Garden

Over centuries people have studied the Bible for clues about the Garden of Eden.

The Garden was of unknown size or location—unknown except it was “to the East” and out of it flowed four rivers; two well-known, the Tigris (Chidekel) and the Euphrates (Phirat) in present-day Iraq (Babylon), and two still unknown, the Pishon and Gihon.

It was thought to be somewhere around Iraq, especially near the tip of the Persian Gulf, and if the story is a memory of an ancestral place of origin, it may be under it, because we now know the Persian Gulf was above sea level thousands of years ago.1 Similarly, it may have been near or in the basins of the Black or Caspian seas.

Some imagined it lay much further afield—including the Americas, discovered in the living Faust’s time. When Columbus saw the massive size of the Orinoco river in Venezuela, he thought he might be near that source of all great rivers.

What was Eden’s size? Eden was big enough to be the source of four great rivers, and small enough that God knew where to look for Adam and Eve when he came calling.

The exact date and time of the Garden of Eden was debated, as was the length of Adam and Eve’s stay in their before they got kicked out (days to years). The climate was pleasant and trees were always in fruit.

Is the Garden still there? If it ever was materially there, say as a lost ancestral home, and it wasn’t abandoned or destroyed by a (or The) flood, there’s a good chance it’s paved under a parking lot, or saturated with pollution which has by now spread to the furthest reaches.

No one has returned to the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, once God threw Adam and Eve out, he posted a guard. It may not even be on Earth. Since paradises are always being found and then ruined by people going around telling other people about it, it’s possible we just haven’t heard about it, but the belief in a literal Garden of Eden is pretty much dead. Now it’s “metaphorical.”

We commonly believed in it as a place quite literally existing some place on Earth right up until just past Faust’s time in the early sixteenth century and around the time of the first known Faust manuscripts in the later sixteenth century (give or take). That’s when we knew enough about the Earth that we could question old beliefs and misunderstandings about geography and share that knowledge widely and (more) freely. The work of astronomers like Copernicus and then the early seventeenth century invention of the telescope helped change our concept of the whole cosmos.

More and more metaphor ensued. The retreat to symbols is the retreat to the mind. Religion lives here, and not in the outside world so literality is unnecessary.

People debated details about things like its size and location because they believed it might still exist, but they were also continually trying to suss out more meaning from all parts of the Bible. Since the Bible was assumed to be God-inspired, if not God-given, along with stated truths, the Bible could even have multiple levels of meaning (which inspires kabbalah).

When you consider the intellectual athleticism the search for God involved and the material successes of Western civilization, in large part attributable to Christianity, the Church, and the confidence and motivation that faith provided, it wasn’t a waste. Unity and faith are powerful things, and the Church was the master.

As for splitting hairs, it can be important. For example, should we look at the Garden of Eden story and celebrate our special status with God and our semi-divinity (and understand why no human could be subordinate to another),2 or should we focus on our ancestral sin, and on repentance, forgiveness and salvation? Is perfection within us, or are we degenerate?3

Christians saw it as a story about our special promise and closeness to God until the fifth century when Church father Augustine convinced us that we had inherited that original sin, and it was ours as well, and we should be ashamed of ourselves. This followed a lot of detailed analyses of the Bible, including looking for hints that God treated sins as inheritable or not.

Evolution killed the Garden of Eden. So did geology. The discovery that fossils were the remains of organisms from far earlier than thought possible, and the growing evidence of evolution and genetics showed that the world was far older than thought, and that humans and the animals Adam named didn’t just appear fully formed by God and placed in a garden. The literal Garden of Eden was not possible.

We had hoped to be able to rediscover it one day, though the idea of a possible paradise in the afterlife and not in this life is supposed to be the focus of good Christians. In Faust’s time, people were already considering that we could build our own Gardens of Eden through progress: forward-looking and relying on science and technology to get us there or die trying.

Utopias are hard. Humans are difficult to live with, are stupid and short-sighted and self-serving. We can’t blame God for refusing to let us back into the Garden of Eden. We’re not worthy. Christians assumed that every generation since the golden age when Adam and Eve walked with God became more corrupt and sinful, but through progress we may overcome. Maybe irrationally, we can use the Tree of Knowledge to make a false Tree of Life which will make us “like” gods.

It’s a Faustian bargain. Progress with its attendant consumption and pollution almost ensures that any true paradise will be destroyed, necessitating an artificial one. Materialism and rationalism moves us further from God.

For the traditional Christian, the true reality and true paradise is the spiritual one of God. There is always a suspicion that such paradises are illusory, the work of the devil.

It would be evil indeed if the false illusion of a worldly paradise would cause us to stray from God as it killed the one true Eden. That would be a Faustian tale for the times. We would watch everything good die at our hands, and finally, when we were fully in the depths of despair and confronted with our sins and guilt, would die ourselves.

The end of times is fundamental to Christianity. Jesus died and he will return in that battle of good against evil after which the world ends and we are all called up for final judgment.

Hence the Christian emphasis on salvation and sinlessness and the evil of the devil subverting human destiny; and in their faith in God’s plan is their fatalism and passive indifference; and in his message of Edenic stewardship, their justification for pillage. Was Augustine right about our sinful nature?

As Faust battles with the Devil for his soul, between Eden and Armageddon lies the battle for humanity’s soul and when the devil claims his due, the final battle begins.

The story of Faust becomes the story of Christian Western Civilization abandoning God and turning to the devil for the sake of progress and a gradual diversion from the Garden of Eden toward a false utopia. That in turn, becomes the story of the End of Times, and the ultimate battle of good over evil.

Or could it be the story of a triumphant escape from the shackles of superstition to self–realization, and a new world; a return to a new Eden and to our biblical duty of responsible stewardship?

One of the demons who haunt this place, Malthus (Malphas?), says from a biological perspective, that’s all metaphoric and hand-waving. Humans exhibit the same population and resource dynamics as other species with expanding resources. We consume, we over-grow, we pollute and die. There’s no need for stories or beliefs. It’s just nature and we are part of it, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Except that we ate from that Tree of Knowledge, and anyway, that’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a demon to say.

Selected References

  • Delumeau, Jean. History of Paradise: the Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition. Continuum, 1995.
  • Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Random House, 1988.

  1. Re: Persian Gulf — “Global sea levels were about 120 m (390 ft) lower around 18,000 BP and rose until 8,000 BP when they reached current levels, which are now an average 40 m (130 ft) above the floor of the Gulf, which was a huge (800 km × 200 km (500 mi × 120 mi) low-lying and fertile region in Mesopotamia, in which human habitation is thought to have been strong around the Gulf Oasis for 100,000 years. A sudden increase in settlements above the present water level is recorded at around 7,500 BP.” — []
  2. Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Random House, 1988. []
  3. Or should we be proud of choosing knowledge over God? And why did the God of truth lie, and the serpent tell the truth? []