We live in a world of comparison. We compare lives on social media, even though we know they are carefully curated versions of our lives. We compare polarised political parties, choose Team Sussex or Team Cambridge, and even take a stand on movies (Barbenheimer anyone?). But sometimes comparisons are a good thing because they tell us something.
When we compare Eden in Genesis with heaven in Revelation there are immediate connections and similarities. Genesis 1 and 2 are the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created (Gen 2:4) while John in his revelation sees a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away (Rev 21:1). In Eden, we are told that God is walking in the garden (Gen. 3:8) and in Revelation, God’s dwelling place is among the people (Rev 21:3). Eden is God’s place where he lives with his image bearing creation, his chosen people, before sin exists in the world. The new heaven and earth are where God dwells with his people after the final completion of God’s salvific plan and Jesus has come again to judge the living and the dead – it is where sin no longer exists.
There are some key differences though. Eden is a garden that has geographical anchor points (Gen. 2:10-14). Heaven is a city with no geographic markers, and which is shaped like a cube reminiscent of the proportions of the Holy of Holies. The former describes a real place, God first “promised land” where his people dwelled with him. The latter is an apocalyptic style of writing which provides us with biblical truths embedded in symbols and visions, but it is still God’s place where his chosen people abide with him under his perfect rule.
There is a one key comparison though that is worthy of further consideration and meditation. In the middle of the garden of Eden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 1:9b). In Revelation, the tree of life stands on each side of the river of the water of life (Rev 22:2) – but there is no tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, we can’t say that it wasn’t there. After all there must have been more than one tree in the vision of heaven that John saw. But it is not mentioned when this is a critical marker in Eden and so it’s’ absence in the description of heaven is striking.
Given that sin is dealt with, and Jesus has returned to judge the living and the dead, there would be no reason for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to be in this new heaven. The old order of things will have passed away and there would be no evil to cause death’or mourning or crying or pain (Rev. 21:4) and no longer will there be any curse (Rev. 22:3).
This begs the question: Why was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil needed in Eden, when it is not needed in heaven? We must surmise that the Fall was always part of the outworking of God’s salvific plan. Jesus was not a response to something that went wrong. The entire arc of the Bible, including the Fall, was the plan.
This is not a great revelation but let’s follow the thread to identify the truth and beauty of what that means.
God created humans in his image to honour, praise and worship him (cf. Is. 43:21, John 4:23, Romans 12:1). For that worship to be true, he created us with an ability to choose him and bestow on him our love deliberately and unreservedly. Created beings with no will or agency cannot bestow true love and any worship is fictitious and false. But in creating us with an ability to choose him, he created us with an ability to reject him – which he knew that we would. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil provides the foundation for that sinful choice.
God knew we would choose poorly. God knew this would be a long journey to bring us full circle, matured, wise and saved. God planned this millennia of effort to shape us so we would know and love him, freely and fully. Our adoration of him would be based on knowing him and what he has done. Our praise would be based on a depth of wonder and gratitude that we could never have known in the garden.
Our call to the promised land, our rebellion in the wilderness, the exile, the remnant – all planned to demonstrate God’s might and faithfulness. Jesus’ particularity (that is, the particular manner of his coming in the time and place that he did), minutely planned to demonstrate God’s power, love and justice. And even now, God’s patience means salvation (2 Peter 3:9). We could never have known this without the historical journey God has led us on. This is an awe-inspiring and spiritually deepening knowledge. This is unfathomable greatness.
So, as we read Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22, we can marvel at the completion of God’s plan. But we can also revel in the detail and beauty of it. We can wonder at our God who wants the real nuanced love of his chosen, and not the false automated love of created beings of no will. We can yearn to be in his presence on the final day knowing that we will eat from the tree of life, but that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has served its purpose. We can praise him in true love, bestowed on him freely thanks to his immeasurable power and glory.