What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?

Probably most Christians who have read the first three chapters of Genesis assume that they know what happened in the Garden of Eden. But there is a problem. It is very difficult to approach this subject without a bias. This is because most theological systems, in order to make their systems work, have made assumptions about what happened in Eden that are not found in the Bible. These assumptions are taught in seminaries and find their way into sermons and Christian books without being challenged. In fact, anyone who does challenge them, even with sound biblical support, runs the risk of being labeled a heretic. Well, I am going to run that risk in this article and, in doing so, pop a few balloons full of hot air theology.

Assumption 1: A Probation Period

Almost all Reformed and many other theologians say that God placed Adam and Eve into the Garden of Eden and gave them a limited period of time—a probationary period—during which they needed to prove themselves by obedience.

These excerpts are from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Walter A. Elwell, ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984):

Scripture indicates that God placed the first man in the garden under a probationary arrangement whereby his obedience and loyalty to God would be tested.
(s.v. “Fall of Man” by B. A. Demarest)

Having created man in his own image as a free creature with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, God entered into covenant with Adam that he might bestow upon him further blessing. Called variously the Edenic covenant, the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, or preferably the covenant of works, this pact consisted of (1) a promise of eternal life upon the condition of perfect obedience throughout a probationary period….
(s.v. “Covenant Theology” by M. E. Osterhaven)

Where is the probation period in the Bible? Despite one of these quotes saying, “Scripture indicates that,” the probation period is not found in the Bible. The Bible says or implies nothing of the kind; in fact, what the Bible says is not even close. The Bible says, “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:8-9).

Then, after telling us about the geography of Eden, the Bible tells us, “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17). That’s it. The Bible says nothing about God telling Adam that he had to prove himself by not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for a day or a week or a month or a year or one hundred years. The Bible simply says that God told Adam not to eat from that one, particular tree. No time was specified or implied. The inescapable conclusion is that the probation idea is the fabrication of the mind of a theologian or theologians who wanted the account of Adam and Eve to match an artificially constructed theological system.

Assumption 2: A Promise of Eternal Life for Obedience

An idea directly related to the assumption concerning the probation period is that God promised Adam eternal life for obedience. Theologians say that if Adam had remaining obedient for his entire probationary period, God would have rewarded him with eternal life. The Westminster Confession of Faith used by Presbyterians, in Chapter VII and Section II, states: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” In his commentary on this, Gordon H. Clark writes, “It is also to be noted that the reward of Adam’s perfect obedience was to have been eternal life for his posterity as well as for himself” (Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1965] 86).

Where is this in the Bible? Again, it is not found in the Bible at all. God created Adam and Eve as living souls (Genesis 2:7). There is nothing extraordinary about the Hebrew behind this term. It is also used of the animals, such as in Genesis 1:24, where it is translated “living creature.” It simply means a creature that lives and breathes. But the Bible elsewhere implies that Adam and Eve were created with a life that would not have ended unless they sinned. In Genesis 2:17, God warned Adam that if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. This could possibly mean that if he did not eat from that tree, he would not die. So, we cannot be certain from this Scripture alone. But Romans 5:12, which is speaking of Adam, tells us that by sinning, Adam introduced death into the world: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (see also 1 Corinthians 15:21). So, if Adam had not sinned, he would not have died.

But before he sinned, Adam’s life was not the same as eternal life. I know that this might sound contradictory, but please bear with me. Eternal life is spiritual life. It is a gift from God on top of natural life (Romans 6:23). It is the knowledge of God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3). It is in Jesus Christ (1 John 5:11). Unlike Adam and Eve, who died when they sinned, those who have eternal life can never perish (John 10:28). Adam’s life was merely physical life that, without sin, would not have ended in death. Eternal life, on the other hand, cannot ever end. As I will mention with a little more detail later on in this article, those who have eternal life cannot come under the condemnation of the law. Therefore, they cannot die. That’s why Jesus considered the physical death believers must pass through as not really death; He called it sleep (Matthew 9:24; John 11:11). He said that those who live and believe in Him shall never die (John 11:26). There is a large body of Scriptural evidence to support this, so I suggest reading our booklet, Once Saved, Always Saved? (available to be selected from the linked page).

Some point to Adam and Eve’s relationship with God as evidence that they had eternal life. I agree that Adam and Eve had a relationship with God, but it was physical. They saw and spoke with God in the Garden. But Christians have a spiritual relationship with God; the Holy Spirit is actually dwelling in them (Romans 8:9-11; 1 John 4:13).

So, Adam and Eve were created with lives that would not have ended without sin. But it did not fit the Bible’s definition of eternal life. Their life might best be described as perpetual life. Even so, it was not completely perpetual. It was perpetual only under the condition that they not sin. Some who agree that Adam and Eve did not have eternal life use the word immortal to describe the life they had. I also have used this word, but it is still somewhat confusing. Their lives were simply deathless, or conditionally perpetual, because death had not yet been introduced through sin. Without sin, their lives simply would have gone on as they were. And, as we have seen, the common idea that God promised Adam eternal life for obedience is found nowhere in the Bible. He simply told them they would die if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Assumption 3: Adam and Eve Ate from the Tree of Life

Many theologians hardly even address the tree of life. Of those who do, some assume that Adam and Eve regularly ate from the tree of life before the Fall. For example, on R.C. Sproul’s website, we read, “…it is easy to see why the Lord chose to supply life to His people by means of the Tree of Life while they lived in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9). Apparently, immortality was the gift to anyone who regularly ate the fruit of the tree (3:22) and, as one commentator notes, the Tree of Life was also an early means of sacramental communication between God and His people” (“The Tree of Life“).

But what we read above is easily debunked by the Bible. In this case, not only does the Bible not say that Adam ate from the tree of life, the Bible gives clear evidence that he did not eat of it. After Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken” (Genesis 3:22-23). God was not concerned that Adam would return to the deathless life he had before sinning because that life could obviously be removed, as it was after Adam fell. God was concerned that Adam would gain eternal life, which cannot, by definition, be removed.

So, the life Adam and Eve would have gotten by eating of the tree of life was eternal life. By eating it, they would have gained a life that could not be taken away. After Adam’s sin, the only way we can now have eternal life is through Jesus Christ, who has made full atonement for our sin. God did not want Adam to have eternal life while he was still in his sin. That’s why God blocked Adam’s way to the tree of life.

If Adam had eaten of the tree of life before the Fall, Adam would have had eternal life. But since he died when he ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he obviously had never eaten of the tree of life. He did not, and never did have, eternal life.

We can speculate about “what ifs,” such as, What would have happened if Adam had first eaten from the tree of life and then eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? And, Why did Adam never eat from the tree of life? Personally, I think Adam would not have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil once he ate from the tree of life; and that he did not eat from the tree of life because, having never sinned, he did not see the need and, thus, did not have the will to choose eternal life. But these are only speculations. As far as I know, the answers are not revealed in the Bible. But the Bible does clearly indicate that Adam and Eve did not eat from the tree of life. God kept them from doing so by driving them away from it.

Assumption 4: God Made a Covenant with Adam

This is a very commonly believed assumption that is held by nearly all covenant theologians. We have already seen citations that show this. The teaching is that God told Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that Adam would die if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that he would gain eternal life if he obeyed. This, theologians say, was a covenant of works—reward for obedience; punishment for disobedience.

In his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Robert L. Reymond, under the subheading, “The Exegetical Basis for the Presence of a Covenant in Genesis 2,” writes for his second point of evidence, “Covenant elements (parties, stipulation, promise, and threat) are present” (2d ed., Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998, 430). Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, says the same thing when he writes that “the essential parts of the covenant are all there—a clear definition of the parties involved, a legally binding set of provisions that stipulates the conditions of their relationship, the promise of blessings for obedience, and the condition for obtaining those blessings” (you can read this online here:  http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/covofworks.html).

But there are some fundamental problems with this view. As we have seen, while God certainly did tell Adam that he would die if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God did not promise a reward for not eating from that tree. Adam would merely have continued as he had been. That is not a reward. Thus, one of the major elements that theologians say needs to be in place for a covenant—a reward for obedience—is not there. All God did was tell Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that he would die if he disobeyed. That is not a covenant. It is simply a command.

Something else that covenant theologians try to brush aside is the fact that the Bible never says that God’s dealing with Adam was a covenant. The one proof text theologians refer to here is Hosea 6:7: “But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.” Covenant theologians say that “men” here can also be translated “Adam.” True, but it can just as legitimately be “men.” The Hebrew word for “Adam” and “man” is the same. And there are other possibilities. Notice that after the semicolon, the verse says, “there have they dealt treacherously….” Where is “there”? One answer is that the Hebrew translated “like men” in the King James Version can very well say “at Adam” (a location in the Jordon Valley), or “at Admah” (one of the cities destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah, see Deuteronomy 29:23 and Hosea 11:8). The bottom line is that this verse is simply too questionable to base such a weighty doctrine as the supposed “Covenant of Works” on it.

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Copyright © 2010 Peter Ditzel