Friday, August 01, 2008

Postscript to Peter on Genesis: The Expulsion from Eden

Part I: A freaky little book
Part II: A Convergent Conversation / Small Gods
Part III: The Human Face of God / And the LORD saw what He had made…
Part IV: A few things missing
Part V: An Evolving Covenant / The Initiatory Challenge
Postscript: The Expulsion from Eden
Afterward: Why does it matter?

Some readers questioned my describing the punishments of Adam and Eve as "relatively light." Marshall Massey and Tiffany both point out that compared to the easy life in Eden, a subsistence farmer watching his wife die in childbirth has a pretty rough time of it. And yes, I can't disagree, but I was comparing the punishment in Genesis to more modern conceptions of damnation. Take, for instance, this description by Jonathan Edwards:
We can conceive but little of the matter; we cannot conceive what that sinking of the soul in such a case is. But to help your conception, imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, or of a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! And how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you! And after you had endured it for one minute, how overbearing would it be to you to think that you had it to endure the other fourteen!

But what would be the effect on your soul, if you knew you must lie there enduring that torment to the full for twenty-four hours! And how much greater would be the effect, if you knew you must endure it for a whole year; and how vastly greater still, if you knew you must endure it for a thousand years! O then, how would your heart sink, if you thought, if you knew, that you must bear it forever and ever! That there would be no end! That after millions of millions of ages, your torment would be no nearer to an end, than ever it was; and that you never, never should be delivered!

But your torment in hell will be immensely greater than this illustration represents. How then will the heart of a poor creature sink under it! How utterly inexpressible and inconceivable must the sinking of the soul be in such a case!

--Jonathan Edwards,
"The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable"
The punishment of Adam and Eve was not damnation to eternal hellfire in the future; it was nothing more than life as we know it now. Yes, life is hard, and sometimes it's unimaginably hard, and compared to the imagined paradise of Eden it's pretty rugged indeed. But it's still life here on Earth. It's not damnation. (Unless you believe the Aldous Huxley quote: "Maybe this world is another planet's hell.")

13 comments:

Tiffany said...

Thanks for the clarification. I've always considered the expulsion from Eden to be more of a condemnation to, as you say, life more or less as we know it now. I never particularly picked up the idea that the curse of Eden was eternal torment in Hell, but maybe that's more prevalent in denominations other than the one I grew up in.

As for the idea of Hell as Eternal Torment itself: I studied theology at a fairly conservative, evangelical, Christian college, and even in those days (when I was considerably more conservative and evangelical than I am now) I was struck by how un-Biblical the whole idea of eternal damnation is.

Except for the book of Revelation, the closest anyone comes to talking about a "hell" as we think of it is when Jesus mentions being in danger of the fires of Gehenna, briefly, almost in passing. I've heard this described variously as a reference to a literal valley in Israel, a place where the ancient Canaanites used to practice child sacrifice (by fire), making it a disdained, nasty place to be avoided... and also as simply the community trash dump, the place where you put things that are unclean to dispose of them, and where that waste is usually burning. So I think people just fixated on that fire/burning idea, and found it backed up in Revelation, choosing to take one image of a highly symbolic narrative and take it literally. You know, rather than focusing on the real point.

scot miller said...

In case you dn't lookback Peter, I've commented on four of your five Genesis blogs, and I was happy to have read them. I enjoyed your thoughts immensely. As for hell, even the Greek Testement doesn't talk about Hell. The word hell is a transliteration of Gehenna, an ever-smoldering trash heap in the Valley of Gihon outside of the city of Jerusalem where the bodies of disgraced criminals and the poor were thrown with other refuse from the city. The dark netherworld of the Greek Testament is Hades, a very Hellenistic idea and not the Sheol of the Hebrew Testament. The words attributed to Jesus of course are speaking metaphorically, and have been perhaps victimimized by a later theology. As for Jonathan Edwards, you should read about his marriage. He was more of a lover than a hellfire preacher, or perhaps he led a double life. anyhows, you can read about his marrigae in McClendon's Ethics.

Erik said...

The Christian Hell really is a pretty unique construct all the way around, and as we know it today is basically medieval. I'm not sure I've come across anything quite like it, except perhaps in some of the more lurid Buddhist literature.

In Hades, except for the worst or best of people, the souls basically just sort of exist; in the literature it's generally described as a depressing and unpleasant place (rather like a bad goth club). A select few - the worst of the worst - might endure some sort of punishment, and the best of the best get the Elysian Fields... but even there, it's not as good as being alive.

Hellenic religion is not much on pie-in-the-sky here on earth, and even less so when it comes to the afterlife. That's one of the reasons it speaks to me, I think - it seems pretty realistic about the way things are.

Paul L said...

As the comments have noted, Jonathan Edwards' description of damnation is far from the only (or most compelling) Biblical way to think about the meaning of damnation.

I do think you're underestimating the effect of the exile from Eden. The point of the punishment isn't (or isn't merely) the material difficulty of having to farm or give birth; those were incidental and if that's all there was to it, you'd be right that all the exile means is life as we know it.

The point of the exile from Eden was to prevent Adam and Eve from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life:

"And the LORD God said, 'The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. Gen. 3:22-24.

I've never entirely understood this rationale. Why is the fact that Adam and Eve has become like God, knowing the difference between good and evil, mean that they must not partake of the Tree of Life? The only answer I have been able to come up with is that, by taking the first step into a dualistic world -- God v human, good v evil -- Adam and Eve were doomed to the most fundamental duality of all: life v death.

So it is death itself that is the result of trying to be "like God" and living in a duality. This is why Adam and Eve must not be able to eat of the Tree of Life: they cannot have it both ways.

Note that I'm not talking about the natural life cycle of sentinent beings, the "circle of life" kind of death -- that pretty much had to have existed pre-Fall given the biology of digestion and so forth. I'm talking about Capital D Death: the nihilism, absolute purposelessness, arbitrariness, confusion and disorder, etc. of life that did not exist in Eden but which was introduced by Adam and Eve's wish to be "like God" (this is the "original" sin).

It seems clear to me that Death remains the fundamental fact and problem of life. It is what causes our blood to run cold in the middle of the night. So we have invented philosophies and religion to trick ourselves into thinking we've solved the problem. But the fruit of those efforts is all around us, and it isn't pretty.

So while we got ourselves into the mess, we can't get ourselves out of it, not even with man-made religion. The entire story of God's relationship with humanity is his effort to redeem them from this fate.

Paul L said...

I neglected to add the following to my previous post:

The only solution to the Death problem is to cease trying to be "like God" and to instead learn how to be human in right relationship with God. Then, and only then, will we be permitted to taste of the Tree of Life and live forever.

Peter Bishop said...

"The words attributed to Jesus...have been perhaps victimized by a later theology."

I couldn't have put it better myself!

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Then there's the way that a Pagan such as myself is inclined to read the story of the expulsion, and Peter already alluded to it: as the story of a parent sending an adolescent off to learn a little wisdom for him/her self.

I vividly remember my daughter, at the age of thirteen, explaining to me that she had been raising herself, no real help from me or Peter, for years at that time.

Oh, really, kid? Just who was it who stayed up with you till 2:00 AM to help you finish that cardboard cathedral for your unit on the Middle Ages last fall then, eh?

Kids. Crazy, stupid, know-it-all kids. Some times, you just can't teach them. You gotta let them learn it the hard way.

Now, this is leaving the narrative intention of the writers of Genesis far behind. I think that, in many ways, Genesis's writers have a naive voice as writers, and depicting a god who demands obedience forever and ever just because he says so is morally A-OK with them, though it is not with me.

No--in my worldview, loving parents demand obedience because it is good for their kids, and for no other reason.

And was eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil good for us, or bad for us?

The orthodox answer, and the one I think the authors of Genesis had in mind, was that it was bad for us. In a way, I think Genesis was written simply to be a just-so story, an answer to the question, "Why is life so hard, anyway?" with little or no moral dimension to it. And what moral dimension it had was strictly patriarchal: authorities should be obeyed because they are authorities, and because they say so!

But looking at it a little differently, I come to an unorthodox answer. Would I wish we had not "eaten the fruit"? Would I prefer to be no more able to make moral misjudgements--or, for that matter, to discern moral beauty and greatness--than is my dog, or a wild wolf?

I love and respect dogs and wolves. I know that my dog does many things that I consider to be "bad"--but I also know that he does them with no consciousness of making a wrong choice. He is unhappy to have displeased me, and can learn to avoid certain things (but not others, where instinct is too strong) that will make me angry with him. But he does not have the same moral capacity I do.

He is innocent in a way that I am not.

And though I honor his way of being, I prefer my own. I am glad I am a woman, making mistakes and learning not to. I am glad the fruit was eaten--and doesn't that mean that I choose to eat it, again, myself?

But here's the thing. I am not yet able to hold within me the capacity to know good and evil and to stay fully faithful to God--the God of truth and love, the real deal. But part of the reason for preferring my "fallen" state is the possibility of that reconnection with Spirit. The moments when I feel myself resting against that Presence are so deeply and fully joyful that they really are not describable--but what aren't they worth?

And the possibility of arriving one day at a moral and spiritual maturity, and of how much closer and joyful the communion with God will be on such a day--surely that is something that God wishes as much as do I.

I do not believe that God wants humanity returned to pre-fall innocence, but to reconciled maturity. And I believe that She has given us the tools for it, and helps us as She can... always keeping in mind that adolescents are prickly, stupid, and hard to help.

Hey, some kids grow up with relative grace--within the garden, if you will--and perhaps the intention was always (I'm flying in the face of Genesis' writers here, but never mind) for God to hand us the fruit of the tree, when it was time. We jumped the gun, like stupid kids who take the keys of the car and go joyriding. Having taken willfully what would have been granted willingly, now we're stuck doing things the hard way, the way some kids do. Tough love, letting them figure stuff out for themselves more than we'd like, and so on.

But God packs us a sweater on our way out of Eden, and keeps an eye out where She can.

As I've said, I don't think this was what the original authors had in mind. But it feels right... this I can reconcile with the Spirit I encounter on First Day mornings. (And with the joy I feel when I talk to my adult daughter, woman to woman, meeting at eye level in a way that we could not, yet, during the years when she was defiantly declaring her independence from and equality with me.)

And it fits with the Pagan wisdom tradition that first brought me to be open to spiritual understandings in the first place: Wicca. It's part of the Wiccan initiation--the recognition that "you must suffer in order to learn." (The connections of love, suffering, death, and rebirth are also acknowledged there.)

In a Wiccan view of Eden, then, it's not so much that we gained the knowledge of good and evil and were then thrust from the garden as punishment. It's that, having tasted the fruit, only with punishment could that knowledge ripen into wisdom, into anything resembling real moral maturity.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Sorry--that last sentence should read:
"It's that, having tasted the fruit, only with suffering could that knowledge ripen into wisdom, into anything resembling real moral maturity."

Yvonne said...

I think some Christian traditions do take the view that we were meant to eat the fruit eventually, when we were ready.

Personally I prefer the Gnostic take on the Eden myth.

GraceHead said...

Hello.

at the risk of sounding nit-picky ...

Hell (as a place of unending torment) is a teaching, like purgatory, that has no basis in scripture. It is a tradition that has become orthodox, but scripture as in most cases runs contrary to traditional viewpoints.
Consider John 3:16 ... "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that as many as believe in Him may not PERISH but have Eternal Life."

Life is a gift ... we are not owed life, but we each have it for a time. But it is inherently TEMPORARY ... having a beginning and an end. The doctrine of hell depicts no end ... no "PERISHING" ... but continued and unending conscious torment.

In reality, to accept the very Life of God is to be made alive by His life ... a Life that is unending and unbeginning .. .ETERNAL. To reject that Life is to remain temporal ... having no Eternal destiny.

To perish is to be UNFORMED to nothing .. and those that receive the second death to be made "no more" will have no thoughts to realize they have received it or not. Thoughts perish with the perishing

The serpent said: "You shall surely not die." ... and the church has been repeating the refrain, even when such teaching goes against the most popular verse ... John 3:16.

Perish means perish.

Consider this:
1/14/06 - From God the Father
...Shall I, even I, torment My beloved, they who are tormented continually by he who is, and has, torment in his vesture? Satan is the tormentor. ... Become, again, a child of God, and learn to walk uprightly, leading others into love, by love, not fear.MORE of this letter about unbiblical "hell" HERE

18 reasons why in a single verse

Theological Myth - Unending conscious torture

Anonymous said...

Once more, I think Cat is right on. The story is a "coming of age" myth in which the attitude is primarily regret at having to leave childhood, but mature reflection would indicate a preference for that maturity. The illustration I always use is the reaction we all have to seeing a 25 year old with the mind of a 3 year old. We seem to be primarily sorry to see that the person will never reach full capability, no?

In His Love,
Nate Swift

Bright Crow said...

"The punishment of Adam and Eve was not damnation to eternal hellfire in the future; it was nothing more than life as we know it now."

Yes, yes, yes.

And I basically agree with Cat's reading, too.

The dilemma for us humorous beans is that we don't want to suffer or die...even though we see that every other living thing does.

We can understand how a G-d could have created us to suffer and die. To us that seems like "evil."

Of course, we can only imagine G-d in human terms, with "infinitely expanded" human traits... so the whole effort to account for what we don't understand about G-d is doomed from the start.

As Cat suggests, it is when we mature into an awareness that suffering and dying is just part of the whole business that we get closer to "wisdom"...and to G-d.

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow

Bright Crow said...

Oops....

This sentence,

"We can understand how a G-d could have created us to suffer and die. To us that seems like 'evil'."

should, of course, have read,

"We cannot understand...."

[typing too fast]

:-\

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