The Garden of Eden
What was life like in the earliest days of the human race? Where did our earliest ancestors live? What did they have to do in order to survive? The earliest ancestors of the human race are often pictured as cave people, making their homes in dark, damp, dirty dwellings. Their lives are portrayed as nasty, brutish, and short, filled with dangers from wild animals, harsh climate, hunger, and violence. This may be how some humans have lived in various times and places, but this was not what human life was like in the beginning for our earliest ancestors.
The first man did not huddle in a cold cave, fearing attack and wondering where his next meal would come from. The first man lived in a place of breath-taking beauty and bounty, the Garden of Eden. God created the entire world very good, and the best place in all that wonderful world was Eden. The scenery was magnificent, the fruit delicious, the climate ideal, the surroundings peaceful. No billionaire’s estate today could compare with the luxury of Eden. No national park could surpass the splendid surroundings and the diversity of animal life in Eden. No vacation resort could top the pleasure and refreshment that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. No church could match the sense of God’s nearness in Eden.
It’s important to know what the original man was like and what his original home was like. The common idea that man evolved from animal origins is wrong. It undermines human dignity and obscures humanity’s unique place in God’s plan. The common belief that the first humans started out in a hostile world where they had to scratch and claw for survival, is wrong. It denies God’s generous and loving provision of a delightful home for his dearest creatures. Knowing the truth about how God originally fashioned humanity, and how God personally planted the Garden of Eden, enhances our knowledge of ourselves, our place in the world, and our relationship to God.
The First Man
In Genesis 2 the Bible describes the making of the first man and his garden home. This description comes after the grand overview in Genesis 1 of God creating all things in a six-day sequence. Genesis 2 focuses not on the world in general but on humanity, providing important details that aren’t in Genesis 1, jumping from scene to scene without concern for sequence or timing, assuming we already know the sequence from chapter 1.
“When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,” says Genesis, “no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the ground” (2:4-6). At one time there were no crops or trees planted in field or garden, no rain to water them, no people to care for them. But a lack of such things was no problem for God. Without seeds he created plants. Without rain he watered the ground. And without anything but dust, he made a man. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (2:7).
The first man was a combination of earth and heaven, common dust and God-breathed life. Human bodies were originally created from the same dust as animal bodies, and human anatomy has some similarity to animals. But although humans and animals are made from the same dust and have some similarities, anything they have in common is due to a common Designer, not common ancestry. The Lord made each major kind of animal from dust, without ancestry in a different kind, and God made the first man directly from dust, without any animal ancestor.
Is that really true? Doesn’t science prove that humans evolved from more primitive primates? Not at all. The website www.answersingenesis.org and the best-seller The Answers Book offer helpful insights from Bible-believing scientists. The theory that humans evolved from animals not only denies God’s truth, but it’s based on flimsy arguments.
One flimsy argument for evolution focuses on fossils of alleged “ape-men.” Some of these, such as Piltdown man, have been frauds. Others, such as Australopithecus, may be classified as extinct apes that walked somewhat differently from other apes but were more similar to pygmy chimpanzees than to humans. Still others, such as Neanderthal man, are now considered by many to be fully human. Their bodies were like those of people today, and their brain capacity was within the range of today’s humans. They were sometimes stooped, but was this because of kinship to apes? No, it’s now believed that this was due to poor diet and disease (such as rickets), and that Neanderthals were fully human: artistic, religious, and able to speak. These so-called cavemen were descendants of the first man, Adam, but they no longer had the health and perfection with which Adam started out. In short, fossils indicate that there have been apes, and there have been men, but there have been no ape-men. An evolutionist seeking fossils to link humans with sub-human ancestors said, “If you brought in a smart scientist from another discipline and showed him the meager evidence we’ve got he’d surely say, ‘forget it: there isn’t enough to go on’.”
Some argue that human DNA is similar to chimp DNA. But so what? We’ve always known that human bodies have many similarities to primate bodies, so we’d expect the DNA to have similarities. In fact, all living things have considerable similarities in DNA. If they didn’t, eating would be a problem. If every animal and human had totally different biochemistry, we couldn’t be nourished by the same plant kingdom. The God who created different things wisely designed us with many biochemical similarities so we could live and eat in the same world. This doesn’t prove evolution; it just proves God’s wisdom. Even if human DNA were 96% similar to chimp DNA, the genetic difference would still be the information equivalent of about 12 million words, or 40 large books of information. Chimps and gorillas are wonderful creatures of God, and they are more similar to humans than most other animals are, but they don’t have the same ancestry as humans, and they don’t bear the image of God.
Other long-used arguments for evolution are in even worse shape. For a time it was commonly taught that human embryos go through various stages of animal evolution. But that idea was found to be based on phony drawings and has been trashed. The more we know about embryos and genetics, the more we see clear differences between humans and animals. French scientist Jerome Lejeune said that genetics students who could not tell the difference between a single cell of a human embryo and a chimpanzee or gorilla cell should flunk.
Another popular argument also lies in ruins: the useless organs argument. Some have claimed that many human organs aren’t useful and that this shows we evolved from animals which once needed such organs. This argument has two fatal flaws. First, it’s impossible to prove an organ is useless. We may not yet know its value, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. The tonsils and appendix were once alleged to be useless vestiges of evolution (and it is possible to survive without them), but these things are now known to enhance health. In fact, more than 100 things that were once considered useless to the body have been shown to be valuable after all. But just suppose some body parts did lose their original use? Here we see the second flaw in the argument: useless organs would show devolution, not evolution—going down, not up. If certain body parts did lose their original usefulness, it would not prove animal ancestry. It would only show that our bodies have gone downhill from the perfect body God gave Adam. Evolutionary theory isn’t helped by saying organs have deteriorated from their original purpose. The question is how all those organs began to exist in the first place!
The Bible says, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (2:7). That statement clearly excludes evolutionary theories of human origins. It also shows that God invested more of himself in making man than anything else he made. When God made plants and animals, he simply gave a command and each unique kind sprang into being. But when God made the first man, he didn’t just give a command. The Bible pictures God getting personally and intimately involved, carefully molding a splendid body from ordinary elements of dust, then personally breathing God’s own life into the man. This is how God made the first man in his own image. The Bible, in another place, even calls Adam “the son of God” (Luke 3:38).
Beauty and Bounty
God created Adam and gave him a great home. Genesis says, “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:8-9). The Garden of Eden was a place of beauty and bounty, a place of worthwhile work, and a place of decision.
Let’s focus first on the beauty and bounty. Today when we speak of a garden, we might mean a flower garden that is valued as a place of beautiful sights and smells, or a fruit and vegetable garden that is valued mainly for its fresh food. The Garden of Eden combined the best of both types of garden. It provided a feast for the senses and for the stomach. The sights, smells, and sounds were delightful, and the fruit was delicious.
As physical creatures, we need food for our bodies. And as beings imaging God, we need a sense of splendor to nourish our spirits. It’s not enough to live in beautiful surroundings if you have no food. And it’s not enough to have plenty of food if your surroundings are drab, dismal, and depressing. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam more than enough bounty to feed the body and more than enough beauty to flood the spirit.
Where was the Garden of Eden, and what made it flourish? The Bible says, “A stream flowed in Eden and watered the garden; beyond Eden it divided into four rivers. The first river is the Pishon; it flows around the country of Havilah. (Pure gold is found there and also rare perfume and precious stones.) The second river is the Gihon… The third river is the Tigris… and the fourth river is the Euphrates” (2:10-14 TEV).
We can’t be sure exactly where Eden was. No rivers today are called Pishon or Gihon, and we can’t even be sure that the rivers in the Middle East known as Tigris and Euphrates are the same ones that flowed near Eden. Those rivers may be named after the rivers mentioned in Genesis 2 without being the same rivers. The worldwide flood described later in Genesis may have changed many geographical features, making some rivers disappear and cutting channels for new ones. After the flood, the people who survived may have named newly formed rivers in new locations after older rivers that no longer existed. So the locations of rivers today may be different from what they were in Adam’s time. It’s possible that Eden was near the location of today’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but it’s by no means certain.
What is certain is this: the Garden of Eden was watered by a marvelous river that branched into four rivers; and gold, perfume, and gemstones were abundant in the region downstream from Eden. If even areas beyond the outskirts of Eden had the wealth of palaces, how splendid the garden itself must have been! The home God prepared for Adam had the best of everything. It was a place overflowing with beauty and bounty.
The Garden of Eden was also a place of worthwhile work. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Adam had a job to do, a joyous job, maintaining the garden and expanding it to include more and more of the earth. Soon Eve would join him, and together the two of them would receive God’s blessing to have children, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over other creatures (1:28). God gave them a mandate to work and rule on God’s behalf, turning more and more of God’s good earth into a garden paradise. God gave them a head start by placing them in a garden which perfectly modeled what the whole earth could become if they and their offspring obeyed God and ruled earth well.
Nowadays many of us tend to think of work as a necessary evil, but that’s because the curse of sin has made work much harder and more frustrating than it was in the beginning. Work itself is not evil; it’s good. Work was part of the original joy and honor of being created in God’s image and given authority to work as God’s appointed rulers of the earth. Even today, though work is no longer the perfect delight it was originally, it can still be good. Science, art, agriculture, mining, manufacturing, construction, technology, and other kinds of work can, when done rightly, add to the beauty and bounty of our earthly home.
God did not design the earth to reach its ideal on its own. God made everything very good, but designed it in such a way that it needed man to rule it and bring it to its fullest flourishing. It is a huge honor and responsibility to be God’s appointed caretakers of the earth. The Bible says, “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to man” (Psalm 115:16). But let’s not think that because the earth has been entrusted to our care, we can do anything we please with it. The Bible also says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it… for he founded … and established it” (Psalm 24:1). So even though earth is in one sense ours, it always remains God’s, and we are always accountable to him for the impact we have on our fellow humans, on other creatures, and on the earth itself.
Commenting on the Garden of Eden, John Calvin said that we possess what God gives us on the condition that we use it wisely, without excess or waste, and that we leave the land better off than we found it. “Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated… let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses.” If we are biblical and godly, we will prize clean air, clean water, fertile fields, and flourishing forests. For God’s glory, for the wellbeing of future generations and of all creation, humans must work and rule the earth well. With our God-given powers and position, we can’t avoid having an impact; the only question is whether the impact will be for better or worse.
We’ve seen that the Garden of Eden was a place of beauty and bounty, and a place for worthwhile work. Now for a third major fact: it was a place of decision. When Adam was put in the garden, says Genesis, “the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die'” (2:16-17). Adam and Eve faced a decision. Would they decide to accept God’s gifts and believe his warning? Or would they decide to go against God’s Word?
God was obviously generous. He gave Adam complete freedom to enjoy the fruit of any tree but one. Even the tree of life was freely available to Adam. He could eat from it and live forever. Amid so much freedom and blessing, the only forbidden fruit was the fruit of defining what’s good or bad on our own. Even with that one restriction, Adam had free access to more nourishment and pleasure than he could ever take in.
The one forbidden tree was a reminder that though Adam and Eve were God’s image, they were not God. They had brilliant minds, but they must not think they knew better than God. They were royal rulers, but they must obey the King of kings. They were rich beyond measure, but they faced a decision: would they be content with God-given riches, or would they seize the one thing God prohibited? Would they trust and obey God and find satisfaction in him, or would they seek happiness in sin?
They chose to disobey God. The decision was theirs, and the fault was theirs, not God’s. Adam and Eve were not recently evolved primates without the capacity to know what was right or without any awareness of the consequences of wrong. They were not cave dwellers who seized forbidden fruit because they were desperate for their next meal. They were not trapped by animal urges or driven by a bad environment. They were fully responsible. God was more than generous in giving them the glorious Garden of Eden, and he was more than fair in telling them the deadly result of disobedience. But they decided that they wanted to be like God themselves (3:5).
Their choice affected all of us. Adam was the head of humanity, and his rebellion involved all his offspring in sin. We are sinners by nature and by choice. We may not have the mighty intellect of Adam or the bounty of Eden, but even so, we must take responsibility as sinners, rather than blaming heredity or environment. And we must seek someone besides Adam to be our head, someone who can obey where Adam disobeyed, who can undo what Adam did, who can bring life instead of death, who can bring us to a new paradise, a new river of life, a new tree of life.
Jesus is the new and better Adam. “The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47). Adam did not exist until God made him from dust, but Christ existed forever as the divine Son of God even before he left heaven to become human in the womb of a virgin. Adam failed a painless test of obedience in a pleasant setting. Jesus passed a painful test of obedience in the most miserable, foul circumstances. Jesus grew up in a poverty-stricken, sin-infested place but rejected Satan’s most intense temptations. The greatest test of Jesus’ obedience to his Father occurred not in the comfort of the Garden of Eden but in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane. There Jesus prayed and agonized and sweat blood as he decided whether to face hell for the sin of Adam’s race. But even facing such horror, he obeyed God to the point of being nailed to a wooden cross. That terrible tree of crucifixion, which for Jesus was a tree of death, became a tree of life to all who look to the resurrected Jesus for salvation.
Adam began in a perfect world where only one tree could bring death. We, his offspring, are in a fallen world where only one tree can give life—the tree on which Jesus bled and died. Eating from the wrong tree drove humanity out of paradise and into the jaws of death. But now eating from the right tree can save us from death and bring us into a paradise even better than Eden—more bountiful and beautiful, and certainly more permanent.
How do we eat of the right tree? By faith in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and life-giving Spirit. In faith believe God’s promises in the Bible, and count completely on Christ. Express this faith and nourish it by eating and drinking the tokens of Jesus’ body and blood, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord says, “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good… hear me, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55:2-3).
God doesn’t tell us about the Garden of Eden to teach a bit of trivia or to make us wish for what once was. He describes the Garden of Eden to show us our Creator’s generosity in giving our first parents such a home, to show us humanity’s lofty calling to tend God’s garden and take charge of the earth, and to show us the horror of our decision to rebel and its effects on ourselves and our world. We should grieve the loss of Eden and our own continuing participation in Adam’s sin.
God tells us of Eden to remind us of paradise lost but also to lift our minds to paradise regained. The first chapters of the Bible describe the original creation, and the last chapters of the Bible envision the new creation, a paradise resembling Eden and even surpassing it. In that final paradise, those who trust Christ will live forever, having been perfected beyond any possibility of disobedience. In that final paradise, there is no tree that can bring death; there is only the tree of life, watered by the river of life. In that paradise, gold and precious stones abound. Our Lord and King will share with us the palace he has prepared, and we live and reign with him forever.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.