I recently facilitated a theology class at my church focused on the goodness of God entitled A God in Whom to Take Refuge. I’ve read and written quite a bit on this topic over the last couple of years, so it was very interesting (and a deep privilege) to provide leadership in a multi-week discussion on the topic.
Of course, one of the things we worked through at length in the class was God’s purpose in human suffering – how He uses it, why He allows it, how we should respond to Him in it, etc. I’ve written on this too, but as I was praying and preparing the materials for that particular week of class, God advanced some of my thinking about this topic beyond what I had previously written. And then, as if on cue, some people in the class challenged my thinking on a few points, forcing me to do even more work and research on the topic.
Specifically, in class, I made the statement that New Jerusalem (where the redeemed will live with God forever; see Revelation 21-22) will be superior to the Garden of Eden. I drew an explicit contrast between the two by calling Eden (before the fall) “sinless” and New Jerusalem “perfect.” This is the particular point my friends challenged, so I thought I would write down some of what I’ve been learning as I continue to read, study, and interact with God about it.
A few words about “perfection”
First, upon further reflection, I rather regret having used the word “perfect” to refer to heaven, New Jerusalem, or anything else but God Himself.
There is a sense in which everything God makes is “perfect” because God, who is Himself perfect, ensures the proper working out of all His plans and intentions (Psalm 115:3; 2 Chronicles 20:6; Job 42:2). I would call this a kind of “associative perfection,” meaning that all things associated with a truly perfect God are in some sense themselves “perfect.” But to be healthy, this view must focus more on how things will end up than on how they are. Whereas people and everything else in the universe are far from perfect in any sense now, God is sovereignly moving all the universe towards an end which we will declare is perfectly just and right and good (Romans 3:4). So in that sense, looking ahead to our ultimate end, I suppose we could call the world “perfect.” I don’t particularly like this approach, though, because I suspect it’s very hard to hold this view in balance. Instead, it seems likely to foster the temptation to excuse the brokenness we see in our world because of the goodness we imagine God will create out of it. For this reason, I’d rather consider the world to be “purposeful” or “destined to glorify God,” rather than “perfect.”
True- or Absolute Perfection
There is also a sense in which *only* God is perfect, because He is the defining standard and ultimate good by which everything right and just and beautiful in the universe is measured. Nothing can remotely be compared to Him. To show my hand right up front, my preference would be to reserve the word “perfect” only for this usage. God is perfect in holiness and beauty and glory and power and everything else for which we have categories of goodness … and no one and nothing else comes close.
Relative Finite Perfection
The term “perfect” might also be applied to people, if by it we mean to set up a comparison between, on the one hand, how we will be when we have been glorified in heaven and, on the other, any and all other possible states of humankind. So, in that sense, compared to any other “phase” or “season” or “state” of human existence throughout all of human history, including before the fall in the garden … compared to any of that, in heaven we will experience “perfect” human existence. This is how I used the term in class, and which I now regret.
Relative General Perfection
Lastly, if by “perfect” we mean “in comparison to anything else that can be imagined, including God himself,” then I don’t think the term can any longer be applied at all — not to people, regardless of how much sanctification or glorification we undergo, or anything else in creation. Once you include God in the set of things you are comparing (in general, a practice we shouldn’t get into — God is always alone in a set unto Himself, not truly comparable to anything or anyone else), then God is perfect and everything else is not. This returns us to our second category (true- or absolute perfection), in which God is perfect and everything else – whether Eden or heaven or angels or redeemed saints (whenever and wherever we are) – is not.
So, right out of the gate, in a discussion that compares and contrasts Eden with New Jerusalem, I would prefer to use terms like “fully realized” or “best possible” to describe New Jerusalem, rather than “perfect” … just to avoid confusion.
And speaking of that comparison, which is the point of this post, let’s dive in…
Have you ever wondered why God made Adam and Eve in such a way that it was possible for them to sin? As a younger Christian, I was pretty baffled by this, and the more people I talk to about it, the more I think many others are as well. On the surface it seems like God made Adam and Eve weak and breakable, and then (callously?) threw them in the deep end of the pool.
There they were in the garden, naked and blissfully ignorant of evil, camping right next to a big, beautiful tree full of juicy, shiny, red apples (who knows what was actually on the tree) which possessed the power, with a single bite, to destroy the world! AND God made them in such a way that they were able to decide for themselves, in all their frailty and (I’ll say it again) ignorance, whether or not to eat the apple. AND God had made a bunch of angels who broke bad and started a war against Him. AND He let the leader of all these wicked angels – the smartest, nastiest one of the bunch, mind you – take on the form of a serpent and slither around with Adam and Eve in the garden, tempting them to eat the apple. And to top it all off, at least as I read Genesis 1-3, it doesn’t really seem like God does much mentoring of the young couple about the many and varied reasons why they shouldn’t eat the apple. No seminars. No flannel graph lessons. No diagrams showing how thoroughly screwed up everything will be if they disobey. He just says “I command you not to do it!” and then seems to walk away, leaving them in their finitude and vulnerability to be tempted by Satan.
On the surface, this seems like a situation that can’t help but go horribly wrong. If we were watching this unfold in the first few scenes of a movie, we’d be pretty sure we could predict where it was all going by the time we got to Genesis 3:2. I suspect the movie version would seem a touch predictable. Some might even get bored and change the channel. And many of us, if we’re really honest, could say we’re tempted to consider God to be a bit negligent.
Was the fall of humankind part of God’s plan?
Did God intend for Adam and Eve and their descendants to live in harmony with Him and with each other in the Garden of Eden forever? Well, yes, in the sense that Adam and Eve (therefore humankind) could theoretically have done so, if they had obeyed God. But they didn’t (and we wouldn’t have either), and before God created us or them or the first rays of light to separate the darkness, He knew they wouldn’t. When Adam and Eve defied God and ate the forbidden fruit, God was not in any sense surprised. I’ve heard so many people talk about that moment as if He were. They seem convinced that if we could somehow have seen “backstage” right after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, we would have found God shocked and shaken … crying in His Wheaties and madly scrambling to throw together a cosmic backup plan.
But this would imply all kinds of things that simply are not and cannot be true about God…
- That He was careless or incompetent or capricious, unknowingly or unfeelingly setting the first parents up for a fall when He put them in the garden. But the Bible is clear that God knows everything (e.g. Isaiah 40:13-14, 46:9-10; Hebrews 4:13) and loves us deeply (e.g. Proverbs 3:11-12; Exodus 34:6-7; Romans 5:8).
- Or that He was powerless to prevent their actions. But the Bible is clear that God is all-powerful (e.g. Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 44:24; Ephesians 1:18-23).
- Or maybe that He was blind to the possibility of human choices and/or out of control when Adam and Eve made them. But the Bible is clear that God intimately knew the number of my days (Job 14:5) and every choice I’d ever make (Psalm 139:1-6), even when I was still in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16).
- And on and on.
Unless we’re willing to disregard a whole lot of Scripture, I think we have to agree that God knew what Adam and Eve were going to do long before they did it. He knew what He was doing when He created humankind … exactly the way He created us. He didn’t accidentally or carelessly or sadistically overlook our weakness and ability to sin. I don’t think He made us hoping or intending that we’d be one way, only to have His purposes thwarted when we broke bad. The God of Scripture does everything with a purpose (e.g. Proverbs 16:4; Exodus 9:16; Philippians 2:13), and unfailingly accomplishes those purposes (e.g. Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 14:24-27; Job 42:2). And I believe that includes the way He designed humankind from day one…
We are finite – we have to be, because that’s what it means to be created. All beings which are not God were created by God and are necessarily finite.
We are weak – because that’s another way of saying “finite.” Plus, this is clearly, vividly demonstrated when we in any sense compare ourselves to the Almighty God who made us.
We are able to sin – because we are made in the image of God … able to love, and therefore able to choose. And if we’re able to choose the right, we must accept that we are also able to choose the wrong.
Given these integral characteristics of humankind, I contend that the Fall becomes essentially inevitable. And God absolutely saw that coming. If He didn’t, how would He be, in any meaning sense, God?
Then why did He do it?
Wait a minute! If God is all powerful and predicted the rebellion of humankind – with all the horrors we have subsequently perpetrated on our fellow creatures throughout history – then why did He create us the way He did? Why did He set us up for a fall?
For years I’ve been giving the same answer to this question: “So that we could be with Him.” We can’t avoid finitude if we’re going to exist at all. How can God create another infinite being like Himself? That wouldn’t make any sense; it isn’t possible. Just as a square circle is not possible. It would make no sense. Any created being, by definition, must be finite, as we are. But also, being made to rationally and meaningfully and consequently choose means that we possess a fundamental prerequisite for meaningful relationship with Him. So, God made us in this way – in His image, able to choose – that it might be possible to intimately relate to Him. In other words, our finitude and our freedom of choice are integral to our existence. It couldn’t have been any other way, not if we’re going to fulfill the purpose, at any rate – which is to be sons and daughters of the Most High God. And that means we had to be “setup for a fall.”
To be finite and able to choose means to be fall-able (fallible).
The Rest of the Story
But there’s a deeper implication to this that God has been impressing upon me over the last few months. Yes, God created us and put us in the garden, but He did not intend for us to remain there. God created us to start in the garden, but then it was His plan for us to fall down so that He Himself might pick us back up again (1 Peter 5:10) … and set our feet upon a rock (Psalm 40:2). This wasn’t an accident or an oversight. It wasn’t a rebellion God failed to suppress. Satan didn’t get one past Him. And we don’t have to wonder if tomorrow something else might happen in the universe over which God doesn’t manage to retain control. Instead, we must face the difficult truth that we were made to be humbled so that we could then be exalted (c.f. Luke 14:7-11). In Eden, we were servants who tended the garden (Genesis 2:15) and named the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). But we failed to be good servants and got ourselves booted out of paradise. Now, in this world, we are strangers and aliens in a foreign land (1 Peter 2:11). But God is redeeming us. And someday in heaven – what Scripture calls “the holy city, the New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2) –, having been resurrected and glorified, we will be adopted sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:3-6). Then we will be what we cannot now imagine … what we, frankly, couldn’t have imagined even if we had remained sinless in the Garden. In heaven, we will be true children, receiving our inheritance from our Father (1 Peter 1:3-5) and reigning with His Son (2 Timothy 2:10-13). We may have started this journey in a beautiful garden, but we will end it in the holy city, which is better by far.
This “journey narrative” should sound familiar. It’s the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). It’s the story of the nation of Israel – in the exodus and the exile, and the promises of God which were fulfilled through and only after great suffering. And most importantly, it’s the story of Jesus (Philippians 2:1-11). It’s the story of my life – so often unable to humble myself, God in His love and mercy presses down on me until I cry out to Him to be rescued, and then He lifts me up. And then, when I look back, I realize I’m standing on a cliff far above where I started, looking down over a valley and grateful for all God has taught me by bringing me through it – down one side and up the other. The vertical gap between the plains far in the distance on the other side of the valley and my new lofty perch up on the next plateau is what Scripture calls “sanctification.”
And I don’t see it as a stretch to apply this pattern in general to redemption history. We see it throughout the Scriptures. It isn’t just Adam’s story or my story or Jesus’ story, it’s the story of the whole human race. This is the phenomenon that theologians have labeled “the two-fold pattern of redemption.”
So, the Garden of Eden was good, but it wasn’t perfect. It was a good place for us to start, but God fully intended to improve us … to “perfect” us in the crucible of sin and brokenness and redemption. The garden was never God’s intended destination for humankind … even before the fall. It was the first step in a long, very well planned journey, ultimately leading to glory (Romans 8:29-30).
How can you say the Garden of Eden wasn’t perfect?
I’m glad you asked. There are several reasons actually…
Argument from language: Good vs. Perfect
The original languages in which Scriptures were written – the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek – don’t support calling the Garden of Eden “perfect.” I’m certainly no expert in the Biblical languages, but I did do some research and can at least offer a layman’s perspective…
When God created the world, He called it “good,” not “perfect” (or equivalent). The Hebrew word used seven times in Genesis 1 to describe God’s work is טוֹב (“good”). There are other words translated “perfect,” such as תָּמִים (without blemish, complete, full, perfect, sound, undefiled, upright, whole) or תָּם (complete, pious, coupled together, perfect, plain, undefiled, upright) or כָּלִיל (whole, complete, full), etc. These words refer to things like the sacrifices to be brought to God (e.g. Leviticus 22:21), cities (e.g. Ezekiel 27:3-11), finishing tasks (e.g. throughout the book of Ezra), and of course to God Himself (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:4, 2 Samuel 22:31, etc). They are not used to describe Eden or God’s unfallen creation.
In Greek, there are also a few words that are typically translated “perfect,” but none of them are applied to the Garden of Eden. The adjective τέλειος is the primary Greek word for “perfect” in the Scriptures, occurring 48x in one form or another in the GNT (Greek New Testament) and 66x in the LXX (the Septuagint; the primary Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, created in the 1st or 2nd century BC). When these terms are used, the vast majority of the time, they are translated “perfect” or “complete,” and refer to God Himself, to God’s will (e.g. Romans 12:2), to God’s expectation of our righteousness (e.g. Matthew 5:48), as an abstract concept of perfection (e.g. 1 Corinthians 13:10), etc. But to my knowledge, it is never used to describe Eden or human existence.
Admittedly, these words aren’t used in Scripture to describe heaven or New Jerusalem either. Neither are they used to describe us as people, fully redeemed or otherwise. But remember that we, who are saved in Christ are united with Him, and sanctified and ultimately glorified in Him. And He absolutely is perfect. So, when we share in His righteousness (see 2 Corinthians 5:21) and inheritance and glory (see Romans 8:12-17), we also share in His perfection. Therefore, by nature of an intimacy in New Jerusalem which will far surpass anything we’ve ever known in the church age, in the garden, or otherwise, we will become as close to “perfect” — as I said, I prefer terms like “complete” or “fully-realized” or “glorified” — as a finite human being can ever hope to be.
Taken all together, I see little justification in the language of Scripture for viewing the garden of Eden as “complete” or “perfect” … but rather as “good” (in Greek: καλός, meaning “beautiful, handsome, fine” or “someone, good, useful”; in Hebrew: טוֹב, meaning “merry, pleasant, desirable, pleasing, usable, beautiful, kind, etc.”). This supports the conclusion that there is not an equality between Eden and New Jerusalem. The former is “good,” but the latter is far better, more complete, glorified. Again, even about heaven I’d be hesitant to use the term “perfect.” And this disparity is inherent to the nature of these two places, not a result of the Fall.
The biblical language of perfection in Scripture is entirely oriented around “completeness” and “maturity” and the “end of a journey” (heaven), not its beginning (Eden).
Argument from Augustine: Able vs. Unable to Sin
In the Garden before the Fall, according to the great 5th century theologian Augustine of Hippo, humankind was simultaneously “able to sin” (in the Latin, “posse peccare”) and “able to not sin” (posse non peccare). In New Jerusalem, we will still be “able to not sin” (posse non peccare) as we were in Eden, but also “unable to sin” (non posse peccare). This will be a totally new reality for us. Having been fully redeemed and reconciled to God, we will also fully realize the new nature we share with Christ. Anyone who has committed her life to the Lord has this nature, and is growing / being sanctified in this life. But not until God raises us to new life in heaven will we fully realize this new nature. And when we do, we will be “locked in” to our righteousness, in some respects similar to the angels, although this really isn’t the right comparison to make. It would be better to say that we will be united with Christ and share so totally in His nature that sin will be no more conceivable to us or within our reach than it is for God Himself. (Parenthetically, those in hell will be locked in to their depravity as well, in some respects similar to demons.)
This doesn’t mean that we become God, or even “gods.” It means we share in the nature of God as we were destined to; the flip-side of the coin which depicts Jesus, in the incarnation, taking on the nature of man. Nor does it mean that God will take away our freedom; rather, He will be fulfilling our destinies and our deepest desires as those who have “chosen sides” in this life. This isn’t a loss; it’s a gain. Not a suppression of freedom, but the ultimate, true freedom to be who we were made to be in the first place: children of the Living God. So, as residents of God’s holy city, we will enjoy the freedom to live sinless lives.
Now, contrast this with the first parents’ lives as a resident of Eden. They enjoyed freedom as well, the freedom to live in accordance with their nature. But that nature was such that they may or may not sin at any given moment, depending on how the mood struck them. In heaven, our new nature in Christ will be fully realized, and we will also be completely free to live according to it … always and only choosing what glorifies God. Put another way, we will always want only to do right, have the power to carry it out, and then will actually do it. No more conflict, internal or external. No more struggle. No more rebellion. Awesome!
It seems obvious to me that, if these are accurate portrayals of New Jerusalem and Old Eden, that I’d much rather have New Jerusalem. Wouldn’t you? And if so, then I think you’d agree with me that New Jerusalem is vastly superior to Old Eden. The τέλειος (perfection, completion, maturity, fulfillment) of our new natures, purchased by the blood of Christ, is vastly preferable to the inevitably-temporary, fundamentally-coincidental sinlessness Adam and Eve experienced in Eden.
Argument from vocational role: Workers vs. Family
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were with God in a beautiful garden, and that sounds pretty great. But what kind of experience did they actually have? What kind of language is used in Scripture to describe their experience and their interactions with God in that place?
- God creates them and gives them their vocation: to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:7).
- God blesses them (Genesis 1:28a), commands them (1:28b; 2:16-17), and provides for them (1:29).
- God pronounces judgment over them. He declares, “You are good” (Genesis 1:31).
- God gives Adam work (Genesis 2:15) and gives him dominion over animals (2:20)
- God notices Adam’s needs (Genesis 2:18) and, again, provides for him (2:21-23).
This is good and interesting and beautiful stuff, and no doubt Scripture paints a “luxurious” (what the word “Eden” means) picture of the garden. But I don’t think it’s the best stuff. Contrast this portrayal with how Scripture describes our being with God in New Jerusalem…
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:2-4)
Or how about…
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
I put it to you: Which experience do you want with God? What kind of relationship are you looking for? The Genesis 1-2 experience (created and well-cared-for servant) or the Revelations 21 / Ephesians 1 experience (beloved wife and adopted child)?
Argument from typology: Garden vs. Temple
And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. (Revelation 21:15-16)
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:22ff)
Note that New Jerusalem is a cube and there is no temple. That’s interesting. Are these actual physical dimensions and descriptions of the buildings that will or won’t be on main street? I don’t know; maybe. But I would ask this instead: What’s the only other cube in the Bible? Give up? It’s the holy of holies in the tabernacle, then later in the temple in Jerusalem. For this reason, D. A. Carson sees this (TGC article | Interview with John Piper) as symbolically expressing that we will be united with Christ and dwell intimately with God in heaven forever. I tend to agree. The other language in Revelation supports this too. For example, there is no sun or moon, because God will directly be our light (Revelation 21:23), where there was definitely a sun and moon in Eden (Genesis 1:14-19). Or, consider that nothing unclean will ever be in heaven. This can’t be said to be true of Eden, because God permitted the serpent (who is Satan) to be there and to tempt Adam and Eve. Well, that and mosquitos, but I have no biblical reference to support that claim. Etc.
I know these are just a few examples, but I think they’re reasonably representative. And whatever else these differences mean, they are painting a picture in which we are much closer to God in heaven than the first parents were in Eden.
Conclusion / Putting it Together
My intention is to make two points. First, the Garden of Eden wasn’t the best possible condition or context for humanity. It was a starting place, not a destination. And second, that God’s plan was from the beginning that humankind would fall and that He would redeem us.
Heaven will not be a return to Eden. It will be a serious upgrade … a whole new world … a final, intimate, best possible, all-surpassingly glorious, not-just-sinless place which God intended for His children from before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). I don’t think God made a mistake or overlooked something or failed to get His way in the fall of humankind. I think, instead, that the fall was part of the plan … a means of “perfecting” us and this world in which we live … a plan to move us through humiliation and suffering to redemption and glory, not just to leave us in a beautiful garden.