In the hymns for the prefeast of Christ’s Nativity, Jesus’ birth heralds a return to paradise. The Messiah is born and the gates of Eden are opened. The Savior comes and the tree of life blossoms.
Paradise is not a place on the map. It is a condition of spirit. When a person knows God and lives in communion with Him, this is paradise. When a person does not know God and lives in communion with his own nothingness, this is death and hell, the “land of forgetfulness” (Ps 88: 11-12). Only the person who knows God really lives. Jesus Himself says so: “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3).
The biblical story of paradise says that in the Garden of Eden two trees were growing that had particular significance. One was the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” the other was the “tree of life.” In the scriptural story, the Lord tells Adam and Eve that they may eat the fruit of all the trees of the garden except that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were told that if they partook of the fruit of that tree, if they even touched it, they would surely die. God did not say that He would kill them. He said that the act itself would kill them, like a participation in poison.1
In the Church tradition there are many interpretations of this eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Although all interpretations agree that the act was destructive for us, and that it was committed through disobedience, mistrust, pride, lack of gratitude, and, ultimately, lack of love for God on the part of His creatures, there is a variety of understandings about the act itself.
Saint Gregory Nazianzen, for example, thinks that the communion with the tree symbolized an advanced state of spiritual union with God for which Adam and Eve were not ready. He thought that God would ultimately have let them partake of the tree when they were sufficiently mature. Their sin, therefore, was one of presumption. The idea is that we have to grow up in our relationship with God. We have to mature and develop. We have to achieve illumination, contemplation, and union with God through a long spiritual process. We cannot jump into it before we are ready. If we do, it destroys us.2
Father Alexander Schmemann had another idea about the meaning of Adam and Eve’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Man ate the forbidden fruit. The fruit of that one tree, whatever else it may signify, was unlike every other fruit in the Garden: it was not offered as a gift to man. Not given, not blessed by God, it was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself.3
Most interpretations of the story, however, simply say that Adam’s sin was the actual experience of evil, the act of breaking relationship with God, of coming to know the difference between good and evil by the realization of wickedness. It does not matter what the deed was, in this understanding. The story is not about one or another specific transgression. It is about transgression itself. It shows what happens when human beings commit any kind of evil, any kind of sin, any kind of transgression or infraction of the will of God.
God’s placing of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the garden is not done as some sort of ethical or spiritual test. It is not an “exam.” It is an inevitable reality. The possibility of sin always stands in the midst of the garden. It has to be there. It cannot be otherwise. We are free. God therefore tells us: The tree is there. Don’t taste it don’t even touch it. But it was seen to be “good for food’: and “a delight to the eyes,” and “was to be desired to make one wise.”4 And Adam and Eve could not resist. They partook. And they died.
But there is also in the midst of the garden another tree, the “tree of life.” This symbolizes for all churchly interpreters the actualization of communion with God; of obedience, of truth, of life itself. It is the image of what the New Testament writers call the “kingdom of God” which, in the teaching of the apostle Paul, “is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). And the fruit of this tree, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). It is the knowledge of God by actual experience. It is wisdom and understanding. It is clarity and insight. It is the knowledge of good but not of evil. For knowledge in the biblical sense always means experience: tasting and touching, communing and partaking.5
~Adapted from Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season
1 See Gen 2:15-3:7.
2 See Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 39, On the Ho/y Light! or Epiphany 7; Oration 45, Second Homily on Pascha, 8.
3 Father Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 16.
4 See Gen 3: 6.
5 The word for knowledge in the Bible is used for the sexual intercourse between man and woman; e.g., “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Gen 4: 1). This indicates the experiential and communal understanding of knowledge which is anything but abstract or theoretical.