In my last post I wrote about The Talos Principle (TTP), which asks why, in the book of Genesis, did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden? As I discussed then, TTP's answer to this question is wide of the mark. I tagged in Jonas Kyratzes, one of TTP's writers, on Twitter and he was good enough to respond. One thing he noted is that I hadn't given an alternative reason for the tree, I'd only spoken against TTP's line of reasoning. He's right, and I avoided that in my last post for three reasons.
In the beginning, there was...some confusing stuff.
(Game: Croteam, All screenshots: Chris Knowles)
First, simple length. I'm open that I hope non-Christians will read this blog, and find that Jesus is intriguing and relevant to theirs lives. For that, the blog needs to be accessible, so I think it's helpful if posts aren't too long. The previous post was already the longest I'd published, and was about the kind of length I'd use when preaching a sermon. Second, given the amount of ink spilled in discussing the question over the years, I felt slightly daft making an attempt to settle the matter in a blog post. The third reason is this: the gospel is offensive. It tells us that we're fundamentally evil, and that this is a problem we can't fix by ourselves and we need to be bailed out by Jesus. It offends the human ego. Frankly, if this blog never offends anyone then I'm doing something wrong. However, if my musings on why the tree was in the garden are wrong, or incomplete, and cause offence for that reason, then I've helped no-one.
And there's every chance that what I'd come up with would be wide of the mark, because of the inescapable fact that the Bible simply doesn't tell us why the tree was in the garden. God could have said anything he wanted in the Bible, and that wasn't something he told us. While I was mulling over what, if anything, to put into this post, I was reminded of this. In my progress through Don Carson's For the Love of God, I came to Deuteronomy 29, which ends like this:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.
God has revealed a lot more today than he had to the Israelites before they had even entered the Promised Land. But Carson makes a helpful observation about this passage:
We must frankly admit that some things are hidden from our eyes. We really do not understand, for instance, the relationships between time and eternity, nor do we have much of an idea how the God who inhabits eternity discloses himself to us in our finite, space/time history. It is revealed that he does; we have various words to describe certain elements of this disclosure (e.g. incarnation, accommodation). But we do not know how. We do not know how God can be both personal and sovereign/transcendent; we do not know how the one God can be triune.
Yet in none of these cases is this a subtle appeal to ignorance, or an irresponsible hiding behind the irrational or the mystical. When we admit—indeed, insist—that there are mysteries about these matters, we do not admit that they are nonsensical or self-contradictory. Rather, we are saying that we do not know enough, and we admit our ignorance. What God has not disclosed of himself we cannot know. The secret things belong to God.
Indeed, because of the contrast in the text, the implication is that it would be presumptuous to claim we do know, or even to spend too much time trying to find out—lest we should be presuming on God's exclusive terrain. Some things may be temporarily hidden to induce us to search: Proverbs 25:2 tells us it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search a matter out, to get to the bottom of things. But that is not a universal rule: the very first sin involved trying to know some hidden things and thus be like God. [Hey, there's that tree again!!] In such cases, the path of wisdom is reverent worship of him who knows all things, and careful adherence to what he has graciously disclosed.
— D. A. Carson, For the Love of God, meditation for June 24th
Hopefully this makes some sense of my reluctance to be drawn on a theory of why the tree was there. Some of what Carson says also has a bearing on another question Kyratzes asked me — why God doesn't seem to know what Adam and Eve have done straight away? (Genesis 3:8-13) How can God both be a personal God who walks in the garden and calls to his children to talk with them and the sovereign God of the entire universe? Any conversation between God and Adam and Eve would have been a peculiar affair where God had complete knowledge of where the conversation was going and the humans far less. As any parent asking a small child what they got up to today knows, it's not the purpose of every conversation to extract information, but simply to have a conversation. But even then, why God acted the way he did after Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit and hidden themselves is something we simply don't know.
The search for understanding isn't a bad thing. But we need to accept that there may be some things kept hidden from us.
So what can I usefully say, if anything? It's not every day someone actively asks me to discuss Christian things, after all. Aside from family holidays and Christmas, the reason this post has been a long time in the making is because I've been wrestling with the question of what to put in it. Ultimately, what's important is not what I have to say, but what the Bible says. And if the Bible doesn't take the time to answer the question directly, we need to tread carefully. And while pondering the things left mysterious in the Bible could be helpful, I think it's worth pointing out that although God allowing evil into the world is a very surprising thing, it's not the most surprising thing about him. It's not even the most surprising thing in that chapter. The real surprise of Genesis 3, and the thing I think it would be much more profitable to dig into, is that God doesn't wipe out Adam and Eve on the spot. Sin brings us under God's judgement, because he won't pretend that evil doesn't matter, and the next few chapters of Genesis show that our rejection of God rapidly leads to great evil. We only have to get to chapter 4 to find two murderers, Cain and Lamech.
No, the real surprise is God's continuing kindness to humanity. There's arguably the first mention of a coming saviour in Genesis 3, addressed to the serpent:
"And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
— Genesis 3:15
Although Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden of Eden, before he gets round to that God makes clothes for them in verse 21. It was only the vulnerability and potential for harm brought about by their sin that made them want clothes in the first place, but here is God meeting their need.
God then sets in motion a grand salvation plan that runs through the entire Bible. Just by sheer volume of words we can see that this is the thing God wants to communicate most centrally, the thing he really wants us to focus on. He chooses Abraham, and promises to make his descendants into a great nation, through whom "all peoples on earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:1-3), a promise fulfilled in Jesus. He rescues Abraham's descendants (and all of Egypt) from a great famine through Joseph, and then rescues them again centuries later from slavery in Egypt and gives them a land of their own. Time and time again they reject him, but when they turn back to him he rescues them from oppressors and invaders. Even when he's warning them that their rebellion against him means they'll be exiled, there are promises of hope and restoration. The first few chapters of the book of Hosea are a painful but powerful picture of how God's people treat him. Hosea is told by God to marry a "promiscuous woman", who carries on with other men and eventually leaves him. Despite this, God sends Hosea after her to bring her back, which he does. This is a picture of God and his people — despite their unfaithfulness, God goes after them to bring them back to him, to live under his blessings. We're so familiar with the idea that God is willing to forgive that we lose sight of how massive that is. The rest of the book is eleven solid chapters almost entirely filled with descriptions of the sins of God's people and the punishment (exile) that is coming. Chapter 4 begins like this:
Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed."
— Hosea 4:1-2
This sets the tone for what's to follow, and it's pretty much unbroken until we get to chapter 11:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the Lord.
— Hosea 11:8-11
And then the final chapter, 14, is a picture of God tending and nurturing a restored people. Although Israel, and later the southern kingdom of Judah, did go into exile, the Israelites were not totally wiped out, and they were eventually able to return to Jerusalem and the surrounding country. But this is all preamble to God's final rescue plan, which was sending Jesus. He came to deal with sin by dying, by taking the punishment we deserve on himself — sin is punished and therefore justice is fulfilled, but we are rescued from bearing that punishment ourselves, and so our relationship with God can be restored. Jesus himself laments the stubbornness of God's people down the centuries:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."
— Matthew 23:37
Despite all the evil we do (and a quick glance at any news website will give you a rundown of where we're currently up to in our boundless inventiveness in that area) God still wants to rescue us, and have a relationship with us. This is the central, recurring theme of the Bible, but it's also its biggest surprise. Not because it isn't explained, since God's love, mercy, patience, and determination are all shown over and over again, but because it is totally undeserved, and because of the price God had to pay to achieve it. Grace — God treating us better than we deserve — is the greatest wonder in the universe. If we're going to spend our time meditating on a Biblical truth that we can't fully get our heads around, this is the most wonderful one we could pick.