Nature, Destiny, and the Garden in Eden

[A] Christian view of human nature is more adequate for the development of a democratic society than either the optimism with which democracy has become historically associated or the moral cynicism which inclines human communities to tyrannical political strategies. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr, 1944 (1)
I believed and still believe that human evil, primarily expressed in undue self-concern, is a corruption of its essential freedom and grows with its freedom. Therefore, every effort to equate evil purely with ignorance of the mind and with the passions of the body is confusing and erroneous. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr, 1964 (2)

A central problem in Christianity is represented by opposing views of the Genesis account of the origin of humanity in a special garden. One set of voices looks at the opening chapters of Genesis and shouts “Believe it!” They go so far as rejecting modern science and constructing museums to display early life on earth the “way it must have been.” Another set of voices calls out “Unbelievable!” This extreme often considers Genesis irrelevant and needing serious revision.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures of 1939 challenged Christian theology and ethics in a magisterial review of history and philosophy that restated the Christian view of sin. In the dark days just before the start of World War II – and before the spread of gender inclusive language – he wrote about The Nature and Destiny of Man. For this subject, the Genesis accounts of creation were indispensable but not to be taken literally.

My purpose is to show that arguing over believing or not believing the Garden of Eden misses the continuing and evolving importance of the Genesis story. This account is not theological, but I hope it can point current theology to a more fruitful path – one more in line with the achievement of Reinhold Niebuhr. As a historian, I seek verifiable truth. In this account I hope to illustrate that historical truth goes deeper than determining whether something happened.

Historical truth is not always as simple as “did it happen or not.” The Genesis account of the “Garden in Eden,” for example, did not happen as described, yet it records historical truths about the culture that told the story and its insights into humanity that are relevant today. It is incorrect to consider the second and third chapters of Genesis a non-fiction account of early human experience in a specific time and place; but it is also incorrect to say the story is unhistorical or historically insignificant. In fact, multiple historical disciplines and sciences are finding contemporary uses for the fictional Adam and Eve. Genetic exploration of the human past has found their names convenient when explaining discoveries of early ancestry. The symbolic trees of moral knowledge and eternal life are also being used to explain human distinctiveness and the increasingly transhuman possibilities science is currently exploring. Truth can be found in fictional and non-fictional dress – and the adventures of Adam and Eve provide examples of each in one story.

Some readers may object to the assertion that Genesis is not ordinary history. Some may have negative expectations when historical study is applied to the Bible.  These are roadblocks that must be overcome to appreciate the ongoing historical impact of Adam and Eve – an impact that is increasing as science and technological capabilities give new relevance to insights in the story.

My view is that spiritual depths in scripture are more appreciated when history, science, literature, and other disciplines are used to go beyond traditional interpretations. Historians are not limited to narrow conceptions of truth. Fictional accounts of scientific and historical events can use symbolism, poetry, and evocative prose to communicate deeper levels of meaning than are possible in matter-of-fact descriptions.

The path to understanding the story of Adam and Eve in modern usage begins by putting aside traditional blinkers and reading Genesis without presuppositions. After discussing the story, five questions will guide consideration of modern uses for this biblical narrative.

Examining the story. We begin with two modern translations of chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. The Harper Collins Study Bible (an edition of the New Revised Standard Version annotated by the Society of Biblical Literature) will be used along with The Jewish Study Bible (an annotated version of the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible). Both are products of balanced groups of scholars and contain easily understood commentary in notes.

Both versions show the creation of the universe in Genesis 1 ending in the middle of verse 4 of chapter 2. The grammatical structure may have intended to make two creation stories appear continuous, but the distinction is clear. The first story described how God spoke the universe and our solar system into existence. The crowning achievement was creation of humanity in male and female versions on the sixth day, after which God rested because creation was complete. A fully ordered universe had sprung into being at divine command, reflecting the order and meaning which the creator called good at each stage.

The second story offers a different narrative of human creation and describes behavioral expectations which were violated by the first persons. Before creation of earth was complete, God made a man and brought him to life. God planted a garden “in Eden” and placed the man in it as a farmer to “till it and tend it.” The garden was an idyllic, special hermitage protecting humanity from the normal world outside.

We are told the garden was “in Eden” which was “in the east.” It was watered by four rivers, two of which were the Tigris and Euphrates. Outside the garden were territories of Havilah, Cush, and Assur which were also watered by rivers that supplied the garden. The garden was a rare place of extreme fertility where living came easy because the farming was not laborious. Being expelled from the garden was punishment because it meant entering the normal world outside, thereby losing the easy fertility and relative leisure of God’s special place. The story also says that two symbolic trees grew in the garden and God prohibited the man from eating the fruit of just one of them. Violating that command caused expulsion from the garden’s idyllic life.

After making the man, God’s next creation seemed to be a failure. The purpose of other animals was to eliminate the man’s loneliness by finding a suitable “helper and partner” (2:18). God made animals from earth, as he had made the man. The man was given authority over these animals and named them. But none of those creatures were the necessary “helper and partner” – that they were a bust as suitable companions for a male clearly implies sexuality. Then came a third act of creation, an expansion of the original creative act, as part of the man was shaped into a female who was just what was needed. There is humor in God’s initial failure to make a sexual partner for the man. The fact that humans could not reproduce with lower animals shows the distinctiveness of the original creation of life, which was the man; and it was elaborating on that first creation that succeeded in finding a mate for the male.

With the arrival of the woman, attention turns to how the snake stimulated her curiosity about the tree of moral knowledge. After the initial encouragement, her own thinking led to trying the fruit and, good companion that she was, coaxing the man to eat it too. An easy life in the garden had one limitation and they violated it. We are told they suddenly realized they were naked. The garden had not changed. The world outside had not changed. Something inside the humans changed so that “the eyes of both of them were opened.” (3:7) In short, their perception of reality changed because something in them was transformed.

One consequence of their disobedience was a changed relationship with God. The story shows God walking and talking just as before, but the change in the two humans was unmistakable. The snake had been right – they had become more like God because now they experienced a more complex understanding of the world. God described the changed relationship this way: “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” (3:22) Because humans had moral knowledge, God would take protective measures to limit them from becoming more like divine beings.

The story tells of God handing out punishment to change the easy conditions of the life they had known. The woman would suffer by enduring pain in childbirth yet be drawn irresistibly to the husband who would rule over her and keep making her pregnant. The man would no longer have an easy time in farming. The commentary in the Jewish Study Bible noted: “The primal couple have left the magical garden of their childhood and their innocence and entered into the harsh world of adulthood and its painful realities.” (3)

Why were they expelled from the garden? We are told it was to keep them away from the tree of eternal life. God had not mentioned the tree of life to them, but their inner transformation brought awareness of mortality that could lead to curiosity about a second step toward becoming like God. This symbolism implies that, although they were mortal, they lacked awareness of death until they gained moral knowledge. This internal transformation would, therefore, lead naturally to interest in the second tree God had not mentioned to them.

Not only did God expel them, he took protective measures. “He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3:24) Thus God made sure that, however hard the humans may try, they would be unable to return to the sanctuary of the garden or get to the tree of life. Eternal life is therefore linked to returning to the idyllic conditions of the garden.

They were expelled into an ordinary world that had always been there but from which they had been protected. Contrary to old interpretations, the punishment was awareness of death and hardship in life as a result of gaining insight, not death itself. Traditional interpretations speak about the origin of sin, a fall, and a world tainted by human sin as consequences of the garden. None of those views is found in the story itself but were forced on it from outside. In Genesis, there is a tale of disobedience, transformed awareness, and punishment by having to live in an adult world. The garden was a protected area, outside normal creation which functioned as usual beyond God’s special oversight. Disobedience brought mature awareness that forced them into independence from God’s special care. Future dealing with God would assume human independence and new responsibility for their actions.

What a simplistic yet profound story! Is there any better way to explain the joys and burdens of adult experience? Profound truth in the story is seen as each generation watches its children rebel against parental instructions as part of maturing into adult responsibilities.

What does the story tell us about the culture that produced it? The Garden in Eden tells us more about the culture that produced and circulated the story than it does about God. Events happened in the Middle East in a fictional setting approximately near the border of contemporary Syria and Turkey – the same general area in which Noah’s ark would land in another story from Genesis. The story assumes that farming was the man’s occupation although the leisurely conditions of the garden indicate memories of the hunter-gather mode of life. It was a male dominated culture, for creation of the male came before other life forms and he ruled over animals and wife. In fact, the story centers around the male to the extent of suggesting that men were the central point of creation. No organized societies were mentioned in Genesis until after Noah’s experiences, so the account of Adam and his children indicated agricultural life at the base of later cities and empires. The story of Cain and Abel in chapter 4 indicates the rivalry of settled farmers and nomadic herders in early Mesopotamian times.

This story circulated in Mesopotamian and Fertile Crescent areas of the Middle East for a long time before it was recorded. No one can say how old the story is. A male-centric point of view, which is endorsed by the authority of God, is also characteristic of early Mesopotamian times.

The culture in which the story emerged was most likely after the beginning of agriculture 12,000 years ago and before the emergence of complex societies with writing about 7,000 years ago. Male dominance associated with agriculture had replaced the general equality of hunter-gatherer family life. The Middle Eastern setting of the story also indicates that the earliest human beings were assumed to look like Middle Eastern peoples today, who usually have skin of darker hues than most people of European descent.

The view of humanity’s relationship with divinity is simplistic. God’s motives are not described. Creation of a living man and satisfying the needs of the man were foremost. An oddity of many theological interpretations is how they generalize about God based on a story in which the first man is center stage as God seeks to build a world around him.

Where, when, and under what conditions did early humans live? Modern knowledge of early human history confirms the fictional nature of the story while also showing that Middle Eastern imagination was not far off the mark in understanding the experience of early ancestors at a time of significant transition.

Historical and scientific disciplines confirm that early humans did live in a sort of garden in relatively idyllic conditions. Furthermore, they left, or perhaps were forced, from their early abode after a transformation that allowed them to survive and multiply in harsh conditions of all global environments.

Archaeology, anthropology, and now genetics place the earliest humans in the East African part of the Great Rift Valley. This geological formation extends about 3,700 miles, from the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon (which is just south of the fictional location of Eden) to Mozambique. The East African Valley, where earliest fossils have been found, extends through modern Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Human origins are more complicated than in Genesis, for earlier branches from the Great Apes preceded Homo sapiens. Remains of Neanderthals and Homo erectus indicate these cousins of Homo sapiens also left Africa to populate Eurasia and were still around when Homo sapiens arrived in non-African locations. We also know our early Homo sapiens ancestors had tremendous advantages over other Homo relatives that set them apart from all other living beings.

Genetics has expanded our knowledge of historical versions of the fictional Adam and Eve. Spencer Wells, who directed the Genographic Project for the National Geographic Society, explained genetic findings in The Journey of Man. There were two original human beings who came about in the East African Rift Valley. Genetics is limited in what it can say about the original Homo sapiens because genetic diversity is necessary to form a trail that can be traced backward. The stopping point thus far for genetics is 150,000 years ago with a female in East Africa who is the ancestor of all present-day human females. She is identified through mitochondria which mothers pass to daughters, thus the earliest female common ancestor has been called Mitochondrial Eve. A similar trail exists for males in the Y-chromosomes that fathers pass to sons. A stopping point was also discovered in a Y-Chromosome Adam who lived about 59,000 years ago in Africa – 91,000 years after Eve. These genetic versions of Adam and Eve were not the original human beings, just the earliest ancestors whose lines of descent survived into current times. (4)

Our African ancestors began migrating eastwards out of their native continent in multiple waves. Some migrant groups died out and others survived as they spread across the planet leaving new trails of genetic diversity. Branches in the migrations show differentiation of Y-chromosomes allowing the dating of new Y-Chromosome Adams for various parts of the globe. It is this level of detail that allows commercial ventures like to inform contemporaries of their genetic connections to past migrations.

The archaeological and genetic picture of earliest humans in Africa changes assumptions in the Genesis Eden story. African origin suggests the earliest Adam and Eve would have dark brown or black skin. However, the darker color found in modern Africans resulted from later migrations of Bantu speaking populations. Wells suggests the earliest humans probably looked more like the San peoples, previously called Bushmen, whose brown skin is not as dark as the later Bantu peoples.

Male domination so prominent in Eden may not have been the case in African populations or early migrants out of Africa. Early human beings lived by foraging and hunting as opposed to farming. This mode of existence often required more cooperative relationships than the male dominance that emerged with settling down to farm.

We know that earliest humans lived in a sort of garden from which they migrated to all parts of the earth. Why did they leave? Climate changes or over population may have caused numerous waves of migration over many years. About the time migrations began, early humans experienced a dramatic change that may have played a role in causing the African exodus. Archaeological and anthropological evidence proves that migrating Homo sapiens demonstrated new capacities in their travels. Their general direction was eastward, often hugging the Eurasian coastline where temperatures were closer to their African home. Along the way, they wiped out Homo cousins because of superior organizational skills and improved tools.

What changed about the time humans left the garden? History and science confirm that early Homo sapiens experienced a dramatic change in understanding about the time they began world-wide migrations. As they encountered varying environments and Homo cousins, their tools gave them superiority to opponents and local conditions. They also made drawings in caves which show levels of mental sophistication beyond earlier Homo relatives.

Modern scholarship recognizes a transformation of our species but has not agreed on how to characterize it. In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond called it a “Great Leap Forward,” adopting a term once used by Mao Tse-tung for a radical effort to advance his revolution in China. Unlike Mao’s political and social efforts, this change was founded in biology as humanity jumped to a higher level of understanding along with increased technological and adaptive capabilities. Other terms have tried to capture the dramatic nature of the change – sociocultural big bang, human revolution, creative explosion, or dawn of culture. (5)

Diamond was dismissive of claims from genetics based on mitochondria and Y-chromosomes. Robert Klein, a noted anthropologist, acknowledged the likelihood of a genetic change underlying the transformation of Homo sapiens but, he said, evidence for it is circumstantial. Direct evidence is found in datable remains testifying to the “dawn of culture,” which he believes is “the most significant prehistoric event that archaeologists will ever detect.” (8) After documenting the external evidence in The Dawn of Human Culture, Klein turned to an internal explanation at the end. The sudden and notable change in human behavior, he argued, must have been caused by modified brain structure – development of the neural capacity for speech (6).

Spencer Wells believes the radical transformation of humanity resulted from DNA changes prior to leaving Africa. Internal changes were evident through new tools, art, and ability to form cooperative social networks. He agrees with Klein that the internal changes included developing the mental and physical capacities for complex language, along with expanded short-term memory. Wells concluded these changes brought the origin of complex social organization and produced cultural change through adaptation to new environments.

The historian David Christian, who coined the term Big History, applies the term “collective learning” to the overall effect of internal and external changes of humanity after the great transformation. The culture that humans began to shape used new linguistic and mental skills to gain, communicate, and transmit learning.  “Whatever happened, our species seems to have been the first to cross the linguistic threshold beyond which information can accumulate within communities and across generations.” (7) That ability has grown because of alphabets, printing, and now digital methodologies. The result is data, knowledge, and insight into the past and present that are mounting at logarithmic speed. Digital storage and computer analysis have turned collective learning into a vital tool for the present and improved the ability to transmit it to future generations.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari referred to the change in humanity as a Cognitive Revolution resulting from changes in brain function due to a genetic change he called “the Tree of Knowledge mutation.” Capability for language beyond that of other animals was part of the change, especially a distinctive mode of thought Harari calls fictive language – “the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.” (8) Henceforth social organization around mental constructs like God became possible as people responded to mental inventions without a physical correlation in ordinary life.

Harari’s insight appears to be a sarcastic dismissal of religion. Human experience of the tree of knowledge, he said, led to the creation of God. It also led to collective identities on small and large scales – our tribe, town, region, nation, or religion. He could have said the breakthrough in thought led to discoveries of unseen realities, but there is greater shock effect when an author argues that human minds invent and believe in non-existent things.

The development of fictive thought and language, in my view, is an insight into deeper layers of internal human transformation. Another way of describing the capacity for fictive thought would be awareness of layers of reality beyond the senses. The name of the tree itself – “the tree of knowledge of good and bad” – points to non-sensory rules that were unappreciated before the internal awakening. Discovery of the possibility of God matched up with internal awareness of moral rules.

Other discoveries came with fictive understanding – logic, mathematics, conscience and a sense of moral law behind important fictions like human rights and justice. Though not directly present in the sensory world, these fictive realities became goals for human activity through laws, judicial processes, and technological application of mathematical or logical discoveries. Furthermore, the capability of collective learning multiplied the impact of fictive thought by transmitting it orally, then by writing, now by digital means. A staggering accumulation of knowledge has resulted in accelerating speed in discovery and invention, along with consequent hyper change in culture.

Clearly something dramatic happened to our ancestors in their African garden that was described symbolically in Genesis as eating from the tree of moral knowledge. Scientific and historical studies point to biological changes that became manifest in tools, social organization, and adaptation to new environments. Yet the picture of human transformation is incomplete without the Genesis model of discovering self-awareness. Childlike humans disobeyed their only authority, an act of self-centered willfulness and declaration of independence recognizable today in children and adults. With rebellion came awareness of self, described as recognizing nakedness. Growing self-awareness is easily recognized in children emerging from being toddlers as they seek privacy in the bathroom and when dressing. Punishment for disobedience brought responsibility and struggle that come with independence, along with estrangement from the open and easy reliance on the authority figure being supplanted by adult understanding.

Fictional tales like the Eden story provide depths of insight into an internal transformation that aren’t captured by non-fictional descriptions of biology and behavior. Comprehensive understanding of the radical transformation within human beings in the African garden would be incomplete without the issues and symbolism connected to that transformation as told in the story of the Garden in Eden.

It should be clear by now that a variety of historical and scientific disciplines understand the messages of the Garden in Eden story as historically significant. The symbols in the story – disobedience, transformed awareness, the tree of knowledge, and the tree of life – are often more helpful explanations of our transition to humanity than analytical terminology.

What is the meaning of the tree of life? Discussion of the Garden in Eden usually emphasizes the tree of knowledge, but our technological age is paying increasing attention to the tree of life. It grew just as the tree of knowledge did and was accessible to the human couple, yet there was no inclination to check out the tree which was not forbidden. Once the couple had their eyes opened, God became concerned they would taste the tree of life and never die. In short, there was no awareness of mortality until the cognitive revolution brought awareness of death and the shortness of life. Crossing the threshold of moral knowledge brought interest in eternal life.

Medical knowledge has been at the forefront of scientific and technological progress in modern times. Combating epidemics and decreasing risks of chronic diseases have extended human life spans. Diseases that are more common with aging – cancer, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s and heart diseases – are being targeted for cures. Extending the quality of life that comes with mobility and independence have also become important medical goals for an increasingly aging population. In some medical and technological fields, even more extensive plans are being developed for gaining access to the tree of life.

In The Future of the Mind, the physicist and popular science writer Michio Kaku described possibilities emerging from a range of scientific studies of the brain. He noted that public awareness of benefits of the Human Genome Project led to a comparable project to study the brain under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. The BRAIN Initiative website says the project intends to “produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain” to assist treating and curing brain disorders and “provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”  (9)

Kaku sees broader implications of “deciphering the intricate neural circuitry of the brain” – especially the discovery of how to transfer the content of human brains to media outside the body. “This decoding also makes it possible to create a copy of the brain, which raises philosophical and ethical questions. Who are we, if our consciousness can be uploaded into a computer?” (10)

Making digital copies of individual brains raises questions about mortality. There is a growing feasibility of forms of life that combine people and computers so that life forms with human memories become transhuman machines. These forms may not die but thinking mortality has been surpassed is most likely a delusion.

The late physicist Stephen Hawking became an example of how technology could extend productive functioning in the face of debilitating and incurable disease. An outspoken atheist, he became increasingly pessimistic at the end of his life. Playing with immortality and artificial intelligence poses hazards far more difficult than daily matters that human beings are incapable of keeping in balance. Hawking’s statements in a BBC interview were warnings of the dire possibility of human enslavement by our immortal creations. At this point the story of Eden merges with Pandora’s box, for the tree of life may turn loose forces that will destroy life as it has previously existed on earth.

In his latest book The Future of Humanity, Michio Kaku anticipates a determination to carry our species into the universe and the changes in humanity that will make it possible. Life forms that can stand decades and centuries of space travel are needed. Strategies to accomplish this will range from discovering how to slow down or minimize aging to placing the content of human brains in other forms of life. In addition to the BRAIN Initiative, he mentions the Human Connectome Project and Human Brain Project as significant efforts now underway. A connectome would be a person’s mind inside a computer using external robots to do what we now do through our bodies. Kaku asked some important questions:

If we die and our connectome lives on, then are we in some sense immortal? If our mind can be digitized, then is the soul just information? If we can put all the neural circuits and memories of the brain onto a disk and then upload it into a supercomputer, will the uploaded brain function and act as the real brain? Will it be indistinguishable from the real thing? (11)

Another line of development enhances the human body, in ways similar to the movie character Iron Man, to produce transhumans. Out of this could emerge a “brain net” as a next generation form of internet, allowing human beings to communicate memories and sensations directly to one another through a digital medium connected to our brains. These developments lead to post-biological intelligence, as noted by physicist Paul Davies who is quoted by Kaku.

I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe. If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature …. (12)

Humanity’s growing concern with the tree of life is also recognized in Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He thinks immortality will become a serious goal in the twenty-first century because “for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.” (13) Harari anticipates the emergence of two new forms of religion, techno-humanism and data religion, based on transformed capabilities.

Techno-humanism, he maintains, will be a conservative effort because it “still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values.” Data religion, on the other hand, argues for “passing the torch” to new entities developed by technology. Techno-humanism also believes normal humanity has run its course and should use technology to transform itself into “Homo deus – a much superior human model.” (14)

Statements like these from Kaku and Harari are turning Stephen Hawking into a modern Jeremiah whose warning was ignored at the cost of Babylonian destruction.

Conclusion: What About Sin? There has been a long theological tradition of connecting sin with the original couple’s act of disobedience and their consequent transformation. Theological doctrines of “the fall” of creation through “original sin” have been emphasized. In Romans 5:12-20, Paul referred to the disobedience of Adam as the universal cause of sin, brought on by one historically significant individual, to set up his explanation of a universal saving act by Christ, the Second Adam.

Belief in moral laws and sin as violation of them permeates all forms of Christianity. Moral awareness is considered an essential human capacity, pointing to the existence of a moral law backed by a creator God even though neither of them are attested by definitive evidence.  For the British scholar C. S. Lewis and the American historian Robert Wright, innate human recognition of a moral law is proof that God exists. (15) Judeo-Christian thought in the Bible tended to follow that line of reasoning as ethical living was emphasized more than theological beliefs. The story of the garden, therefore, is a foundation for the moral emphasis in the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though it provides no guidance for ethical living.

It should be clear that neither apples, sin, nor fall of creation are mentioned in the Eden story itself. Eating fruit brought punishment. Sex and fruit were not connected because the story clearly implies that sexual function was an expectation of companionship at the time of creation. Sin is implied by an act of disobedience against authority. Motives and consequences of an act of disobedience lead to theories about sin. The story does not speculate on the nature of sin, but clearly lays out enduring consequences arising from it. There is no indication the garden itself lost its special nature, for the humans were expelled and measures were taken to keep them from returning. When they left, they found themselves in a world that already existed from which they had been protected. Therefore, much of traditional speculation about original sin and a fallen creation was off the mark.

What was sinful about eating from a forbidden tree? It was a willful, self-centered act of disobedience of a rule established by an authority figure. The act was preceded by questioning the motive behind the rule, which the authority figure had not fully explained. We have all seen children do similar things to defy parents, hoping to avoid discovery. For Eve and Adam, the consequence of disobedience was expanded awareness that could not be undone. A light bulb turned on that could not be extinguished. Disobedience was an act of independence, a rebellion that unintentionally broke down the wall of dependency. Like it or not, their punishment – which could also be called a reward – was perpetual independence. Childhood gave way to adult maturity.

The Genesis description of life outside the garden was about the difficulties of adult life, not about the fallenness of the world. Rather than presenting the hardships of life as newly invented, the story describes punishment as banishment from a world immune to ordinary reality into life as it always was outside their hermitage. To the extent that sin is found in the story, it is in the disobedience itself rather than the consequences. The result of disobedience was the knowledge that was expected, but a lesson from life is that the desired outcome brings unanticipated problems and losses to balance out what was gained.

In the first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr described sin in a way that makes a clear connection to the Eden story, current directions in brain science, and also current political events.

Man is insecure and involved in natural contingency; he seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness. Man is ignorant and involved in the limitations of a finite mind; but he pretends that he is not limited. He assumes that he can gradually transcend finite limitations until his mind becomes identical with universal mind. All of his intellectual and cultural pursuits, therefore, become infected with the sin of pride. Man’s pride and will-to-power disturb the harmony of creation. (16)

As we have seen, the transformation within humanity made possible greater social coordination which produced complex societies. This aspect of human awakening is not covered in the Genesis story. Likewise, Protestant Evangelicals are more concerned about individual sin than social forms, assuming too often that converted souls produce a moral society.

Niebuhr’s work encourages Christians to pay more attention to social manifestations of disobedient humanity. The human wish to be God that underlies disobedience can give way, according to Niebuhr, to social movements in which the group becomes God.

A distinction between group pride and the egotism of individuals is necessary, furthermore, because the pretensions and claims of a collective or social self exceed those of the individual ego. The group is more arrogant, hypocritical, self-centered and more ruthless in the pursuit of its ends than the individual….

The political history of man begins with tribal polytheism, can be traced through the religious pretensions of empires with their inevitable concomitants of imperial religions, their priest-kings and god-kings, and ends with the immoderate and idolatrous claims of the modern fascist state. No politically crystallized social group has, therefore, ever existed without entertaining, or succumbing to, the temptation of making idolatrous claims for itself. (17)

The simple yet profound story of losing innocence in Eden is an expression of imagination, not a factual account; yet it challenges historians, scientists, philosophers, and theologians in our time because it represents dimensions of truth relevant to their fields. Moreover, the pair of trees in the garden represent dilemmas of human life that become ever more challenging as our knowledge and technological capabilities increase.

One important conclusion from our discussion is the peril of ignoring wisdom from our Judeo-Christian heritage as found in stories like the Garden in Eden. Our industrial-capitalist mode of civilization is undermining life on planet earth as we strive to achieve immortality and even to play God by transforming human existence as we invent what we think are superior forms of life. An important lesson of Eden is the toll of unanticipated consequences following prideful actions.

Another conclusion is that Christians must go beyond talking about believing or not believing in traditional interpretations of the Bible and resulting doctrines. We should draw on biblical insights and strive to go beyond dedication to splinter issues that turn good causes into idols. Its time to find encouragement in scripture to speak to difficult scientific, ethical, environmental, and political issues with the backing of wisdom found in the Judeo-Christian tradition.


  • Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense, Introduction by Gary Dorrien (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), xxxiv.
  • Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, Vol. I. Human Nature, Introduction by Robin W. Lovin (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), xxv.
  • Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society, TANAKH Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 17.
  • Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017), 14-60.
  • Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal (Harper Perennial, 2006), 32-58; and Robert G. Klein and Blake Edgar, The Dawn of Human Culture: A Bold New Theory on What Sparked the “Big Bang” of Human Consciousness (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 261.
  • Klein and Edgar, 270.
  • David Christian, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (Little Brown and Company, 2018), 174.
  • Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 21 and 24.
  • National Institutes of Health, The Brain Initiative Homepage,
  • Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind (New York: Anchor Books, 2015), 7.
  • Michio Kaku, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth, Large print edition (New York: Random House Large Print, 2018), 325.
  • Kaku, Future of Humanity, 350.
  • Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 22.
  • Harari, Homo Deus, 357.
  • C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (MacMillan, 1952); and Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (Back Bay Books, 2010).
  • Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, Vol. I, 178-179.
  • Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, Vol. I, 208-210.


About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Dr. Simmons then became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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