The Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve are often idealized. They are seen with all the glory of heavenly perfection by much of Western Christianity. However, there are difficulties to seeing Eden as a perfect place as well as seeing Adam and Eve as being perfectly made. If everything was perfect, how does sin enter in? If Eden was perfect, how could there be a tempter? If Adam and Eve were perfect, how could they give into the temptation? Wouldn’t perfect people lack the desire for evil? I think there is a better way of thinking about Eden.
Would it intrigue you to learn that the Christian church has not always thought Eden was perfect? Instead, Eden was looked at as simple, primitive, and good. The book of Genesis itself never calls the Garden perfect. It only says it was “good.”
The whole narrative of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is built on the idea of progress. God progresses his primitive creation through the stages (“Days” 1-6) into the shape He desires. This means that the creation did not start off in finished perfection. Let’s take a quick tour.
On “Day” one, there are no humans, no plants; nothing but light. “Day” two comes along, and God furnished his primitive project by adding the atmosphere. On the third “Day” He adds dry land and water. On this same “Day,” he had the “earth bring forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11).
“Day” 4 continues with the growth of the universe. “Day” 5 God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” Again, we have this idea of “bring forth” present. In other words, God let the creation do the work. The water, with God’s supervening activity, brought forth the creatures of the sea. “Day” 6, after the sea creatures developed, God says the same about the creatures on land, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures.” Whether over a short or long period of time, this creative activity is not in an instant.
After much progress (“Days” 1-6) we arrive at the peak of God’s developmental activity, humans. We are not told ‘how’ God did this, but rather just that he did (Genesis 1:27). Chapter 2 gives us a few more details. In Genesis 2:5, it says, “And the trees were not yet on the earth, and every herb of the field had not yet sprung up; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground. In fact, in 2:6 we learn that a spring (or mist) watered the land to help bring forth living things. These verses carry the implication that after God brings forth matter, he works with it (sea, land, etc) to bring about more of His creation.
This brings us back to humanity. In 2:7 we are told that “God formed Adam from the soil (or dust) of the earth.” In 2:8 we learn that God “planted a garden.” The ideas of “forming” and “planting” are not instantaneous. Time and formation are involved.
We have such incredible imaging tools today that it is easy to distort the primitive picture of creation that Genesis originally gave. Instead of every part of creation popping up as if God used a magic wand, we see His more creative and continual power which forms and shapes the natural elements, and even lets the creation participate in furthering new life through time.
I said earlier that a “perfect” garden with “perfect” humans creates some difficulties on the subject of sin. If instead of “perfect” we have a primitive garden with early and simple people, then we can postulate that God clearly knew they were going to sin. God knew humans would sin. By definition they are imperfect. Thus, when Adam and Eve sinned, they could not disrupt God’s plan. Any plan that included humans, would include their weaknesses too. Yet, God used the continual straying of human nature to begin his maturation process. This is not just of the physical creation. It includes the whole human person. God knew from the very beginning he was going to mature humanity to the point where they could taste of the ‘tree of life’ who is Jesus Christ the Lord.