There lingers on the edge of human memory a mood, a notion, a half thought, a vague awareness that once somewhere things were far better than they are now. It is the notion of paradise lost, so deeply textured in the reflections of people of almost all origins. The profoundly moving account of Eden tells the story of a glorious, innocent state in which humans once dwelt in this earth and how that happy condition was lost to them because of their transgression and violation of the holy law of God. We have here in this ancient narrative a vivid and moving explanation of what life is all about, with its lost rapture as a result of rupture and separation from God. Eden, as the ancient Israelites recorded, was an ineffably beautiful place. Lush foliage leapt out of the fertile soil everywhere. Flowers of dazzling beauty blossomed wherever the eye could turn. Cool, sparkling water gushed from subterranean fountains here and there. Luscious fruit hung heavy on countless trees. Brooks sang soft songs which charmed the mind and stilled the soul. Eden was an ineffably beautiful place. The richness of the soil produced grain and vegetables of perfect taste and nutrition. The sun beamed ever so gaily and bright, like perpetual springtime. Eden must have been an ineffably beautiful place.
Through its gracious domain walked the assigned ruler of all this splendor and beauty, Adam, man, and at his side, Eve, woman. You wives might want to remind your husbands and you husbands might want to remind your wives of a lovely old word from Andrew Maclaren, which said that woman was not created out of man’s head to surpass him, nor from his feet to be trampled upon, but from his side to be his equal, and near his heart to be dear to him. At any rate, as the ancient account runs, as man walked the garden no discord jarred the calmness of his spirit. He was innocent and at peace. Tears were strangers, and sighs were unknown. The grim hand of death had never reached forth to touch and wither human life, and sorrow was an unknown alien in this garden. Man was at peace in his innocence. No sense of shame was upon him. There were no plots in his mind and no anger in his heart. It was the age of beauty and innocence.
Does this ancient account explain our plight? If somehow and somewhere the children of men did not know a world in which peace and beauty were supreme, how then can we explain the notion, so deeply embedded in us, that beauty is right and natural? Why do we not take, rather, to ugliness, unless beauty somewhere and somehow was our natural environment? And how else shall we explain the craving for peace in our hearts if war and carnage are the only legacy we have? Ah, no, this old account speaks a deep and persuasive truth.
Something happened in Eden. There was a break, says the old account, between God and humanity. With all of the areas over which the tenants were given control and dominion, there was one forbidden area, one “thou shalt not,” one off limits. Life moves by opposites. Any “thou shalt” implies a “thou shalt not.” For every up there is a down. For every right there is a wrong. Strangely enough, it was that prohibition to which Adam and Eve were drawn. The temptation came in an appeal to a doubt, to uncertainty about the honesty of God and the reliability of the given law. In this simple but searching account, the serpent, the personification of evil, is not at the outset ugly and repulsive. There is a subtle grace and an initial attractiveness about the deadly enemy. There is no out-and-out challenge of the law and justice of God. “Hath God said you shall not eat of every tree in the garden?” The question being raised, the first sinister and subtle doubt being aroused, the tempter goes on to say boldly that such is not the case at all. You shall not surely die. God knows that in the day you eat of that tree your eyes shall be opened and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And so the transgression, the overstretching, the passing of the bounds of limitation, the attempt to be what we are not. Is this the fatal weakness in our humanity? Endowed with so much, we would have more. Made a little lower than God, we would be equal. The age-old lie betrays as it has betrayed ever since. The early beauty passes, and innocence is lost. God appears in the garden, for there is never the power to escape him. There is nowhere to secret oneself from those eyes that follow. Listen to Francis Thompson:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped:
and shot precipitated adown titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
from those strong feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
more instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
So a guilty man and an offended God enact the drama of divine justice and human sin. “Adam, where art thou?” “I was afraid because I was naked,” comes back the answer.
The end of it all is a closed paradise. There is a fateful and ominous sound, a note of doom and the echo of a terrible sorrow. So he drove out the man and woman. The innocence of Adam and Eve had passed. An angel with a flaming sword prevented the expelled sinners from ever returning. They must go through brambles and briars to some future unknown to them, but they cannot go back.
There are many people in this great country of ours who long for America to return to a simpler way, to roll the clock back. This country is no longer primarily a nation of the countryside where everyone knows everyone, dresses alike, to some extent looks alike, and more or less thinks alike. In this country, the old, simple prejudices and preferences will never again work, nor will force of arms bring that day again, for a people who come to rely solely on force become the slaves of that force and might. God has willed a nobler role for this land, has blessed it beyond belief and ordained that it shall bear his bright dream of a family of humankind united to the ends of the earth. Woe to us if we fail him. The longing to get back to some simple Eden is strong, but this is vain. The past is a closed garden. A flaming sword swings to and fro before its gates. We cannot go back. There is only one way now, and it is on into the future with whatever uncertainty there is.
I would point out that Eden is not the last garden in the Bible; it is the first. There are other gardens. Gethsemane is there, suggesting some solemn acceptance of a high and costly road. And on at the end, in the last book of the Bible, there is another garden, a new Eden. Between the two gardens there is a long and arduous way, and the bright presence of Jesus Christ. The last Eden is not built upon a simple and childish innocence, but knowing all there is to know of the world’s ugliness and men’s meanness, there comes a new grace and there comes a new power, a new calm, a new adequacy. Listen: “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits and yielded her fruit every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” That is beyond innocence! We can never go back now. We can never go back to the place where we believe that all people are kind and just. That is the mood of the first Eden. We know better. We can never go back to the simple, innocent Eden when we believed in this country that if only what was wrong was brought to the attention of the nation there was enough good will, enough justice, enough decency to set it right quickly, and in our day and generation it would all come out right. That innocence is gone now. We know now that partisan passion, sectional preferences, and racist prejudices are strong in this land.
We cannot get back to that early innocence, but there is another Eden toward which we can now move. It is founded not upon innocence, but upon faith that there is a power which makes for righteousness. The new Eden is seen by those who have faith that the power of God makes stronger the armies of right than the armies of wrong can ever hope to be, and though often detained by our opposition, God’s truth goes marching on. You and I, most of us, cannot get back ever to the Eden of our innocent childhood. We have gone too far. But by the power of Christ we can come to a new Eden beyond the first one of innocent purity. We can never return to the unwrinkled beauty of childhood trust, but the beauty of the Lord can be upon us. We cannot stand in the Eden of childhood hopes, but we can live in the new Eden of faith in God. We cannot return to the Eden of other years, when we had so much confidence in ourselves. We can go on to that Eden where we believe that the Lord will make us sufficient unto whatever we must face and do.
Of course, this Eden on ahead is real and abiding. It is founded upon mature wisdom and not superficial notion. This is the difference between the first Eden and the last one. The last one is not subject to whim or mood. A man of faith, reflecting upon it in another time, once said, “All things work together for good to them that love the Lord,” meaning that there is a royal purpose in history and in your history. So don’t look back. Look ahead! On ahead the sun is shining. On ahead the flowers are blooming. On ahead the gates of another Eden swing wide.