In my own humble opinion, one of the most enticing and yet aggravating concepts of all Scripture is that of Eden.
What must it have been like to walk with God in the garden? For Adam specifically, what must it have been like to be alone with your Creator for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years on end, walking and talking and laughing and working? We do not know how long Adam was in the garden before Eve was introduced, but if he successfully named each animal before recognizing there was no suitable companion for himself, it surely must have been some time. What was it like to spend such an extended period of uninterrupted intimacy with the Lord, to wake up every morning with knowledge of His presence and go to sleep each night knowing that He would be there to meet with you next day?
What was it like to be free from the burden of sin? What was it like to walk openly amongst the plants and animals, naked and unashamed? What was it like to see things in their true beauty, untainted by man’s fallen blindness? What was is it like to taste the fruit from un-cursed ground, to drink from streams purified beyond any form of natural purification? What was it like to see animals in harmony with one another – no death, no disruption, but just peace? What was it like to dream? Were dreams mere reflections of the reality around you, or was every dream a nightmare when compared to the magnificent world in which you lived?
What was it like to fall? Imagine the days, the years that followed man’s first transgression, how distraught he must have been in knowing that He had tasted freedom and had willfully abandoned it? Was the burden of earth’s curse immediately noticeable, could he feel it in his very flesh? If our fallen conscience is heavy after we sin, how must it have felt for an untainted mind to transgress for the very first time? What did it feel like to be separated from your Creator for the first time ever?
These are the questions I ask when I think of Eden. When you immerse yourself into the story of Scripture, it isn’t hard to let your mind stray towards thoughts such as this. In our world filled with corruption and delightful evil and knowing transgression and eager, willful sin, the utopic idea of Eden, that Garden of Earthly Delights, seems like a mere fable, a distant reality that is true only in the fondest of our daydreams. But if we are to take the story of Scripture at face value, we see that Adam’s tale is not fable, but reality. Not story, but history. There was a man once untouched by the burden of sin, and despite fully knowing and experiencing the delight of living in the Creator’s presence, He willfully transgressed. This is something we must accept.
What are we to do with this information? For many, the logical response is to await eagerly the time when either Christ returns or calls us home, upon which we can once again dwell with our Savior on the golden-paved streets until eternity, never to experience a death to do us part. For many, heaven or eternity is the place to which we must go when we consider things such as Eden, for surely heaven is the only place in which we could dwell in such intimacy with our Lord, to walk with Him and talk with Him and feel Him day and night without ceasing. Surely, this is to where we are to look.
That is what most would say, but not me.
No, I do not think that Eden must begin in the afterlife. I think Scripture makes it quite clear that the kingdom of heaven is not something to merely experience once these broken vessels have faded away; if this were not the case, why would the Lord punish His children by leaving them on earth once they accepted His call? If eternal bliss were to begin only in the afterlife, would not the known character and grace of God seem to suggest that at the moment of salvation (if, indeed, salvation does take place at a particular moment) we would be slipped away, much like Enoch and Elijah were? Why would the Lord punish His children by making them endure the hardship of this world when they have answered His call of persistent discipleship?
The argument could be made, I guess, that salvation does not change the fact that we are fallen creatures who sin on a daily basis, and so even though we have accepted the Lord’s call we cannot yet enter His kingdom, but I think this is to miss the point. Yes, we are still fallen creatures who continue to sin (though we daily strive to avoid such iniquity), but the Bible makes it also quite clear that those who may call the Lord their Father are declared righteous in His sight, so that even though they stray He looks at them through the lens of an unblemished lamb, thanks to the sacrifice of His only begotten Son (Rom 5). So while we must still endure this life on earth, would it not be expected that the Christian’s life would have some sort of benefit over that of the nonbeliever? When Christ speaks of an abundant life (Jn 10), surely He does not refer only to the afterlife so often associated with eternity. No, in fact Christ makes it quite evident that the physical and spiritual benefits of salvation will come to fruition in the believers’ life in this present age, not simply the one to come (Lk 18:29-30). Mainstream Christianity has taken two polar opposite approaches to this knowledge, and both are dangerous. On one side there are those who have forsaken it altogether, speaking of heaven as if it is the chief end to all our hopes and ambitions, and on the other hand there is the prosperity preachers, who speak of worldly, material gain as the primary thing to be achieved in following Christ, something so contrary to the truth that it shames me to see men such as these standing at our pulpits.
Instead, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Heaven will be our eternal home, but it does not begin once we take our last breath. Contrarily, material wealth is not the object of our faith, but that is not to say that there is nothing to be gained. No, Christ promises that the kingdom of heaven is here in our very midst (Lk 17), and that through this kingdom we will have a life that is overflowing. The overflowing nature of this life, however, does not lie in monetary wealth, possession-laden excess, or motive-driven success, however, nor does the heaven in which we can live in now manifest itself as fully as it one day will, once we have passed on into eternity.
No, the heaven Christ speaks about is freedom, and through freedom in this life we can experience a taste of that utter bliss we will come to know in the next. Through the freedom provided in Christ, we can experience what it must have been like to walk with God in the Garden so many millennia ago, even if we are destitute and living in a cardboard box under the freeway. Through freedom in Christ, we truly can experience Eden while here on earth. And we can help spread it.
What does it mean to experience freedom in Christ? I would say that there are various different aspects in which this concept can take form – faith, hope, and love, to name a few (1 Co 13:13) – but all of them lie in a single word: communion. Not the communion of bread and wine that often splits denominations, but instead the communion to which the bread and the wine point to: unashamed intimacy with Christ Himself, who came down to earth for us, lived for us, suffered for us, died for us, resurrected for us, continues to reign for us, and will one day return for us so that we may physically be joined together. We often think of the Holy Spirit as an abstract concept, the often-forgotten third member of the Trinity – but He is key in understanding the freedom provided by Christ. If it is Christ who gives the freedom, it is through the Holy Spirit by which that freedom is brought.
You see, the Spirit is that binding force which ties us to Christ, the advocate who teaches us all things and reminds us of the things given to us by Christ (Jn 14:26). It is the Spirit dwelling in us that sets us apart from those who are apart from the faith, the Spirit dwelling in us that give us a new name and a new identity, the Spirit dwelling in us that at last allows us to experience the freedom granted to us by Christ, who overcame the world.
It is by this Spirit that we commune with Christ and so achieve Eden.
Is it surprising that this world is so filled with darkness when the Spirit is often forgotten behind both Father and Son? It is the Father who wills it and the Son who does it, but it is the Spirit by whom it is carried out, so how can we expect actual change when the Spirit is but a foreign stranger whom we know nothing about? Adam knew God so intimately that he could recognize the mere sound of God walking through the Garden. Can you say the same for yourself? If we truly want to experience the kingdom of heaven here on this earth, mustn’t it be necessary that we grow to know the Lord with such intimacy?
And if Christ is enough – if He truly is the joy of our salvation – by not coming to know Him with such intimacy, aren’t we forsaking a truly abundant life and so missing out on a large portion of the gift?