As choosing creatures, Adam and Eve, representative of all mankind, had a choice between the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Both trees represented spiritual realities of spiritual life and death.
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Created as a human being with capacity for physiological, psychological and spiritual life-function, man is the highest order of creation. Man was created so that he could express the character of God in a manner that no other creature on earth could do. Endued with the life of the Spirit of God within his capacity for spiritual life, man was intended to allow God to influence his thinking, his affections, and his decisions in order to allow the character of God to be manifested in his external behavior to the glory of God. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness... (Gal. 5:22,23) could be evidenced within interpersonal relationships as God was allowed to activate godly behavior in man.
In order for this to take place man would have to exercise the freedom of choice with which he had been created. Only God has absolute "free will" to do anything He pleases (consistent with His character), but only as a choosing creature who could freely determine to receive or not to receive God's character could man have the interpersonal relationship with God and with other men that God intended for man. Man would have to choose to be contingent and dependent upon God in order to derive God's character in his behavior. Man functions by receptivity. He is a faith-creature. He is responsible to choose from which spiritual source He will derive his spiritual condition and behavioral expression who he is, and what he does. That choice of contingency will determine whether man will derive his activation of identity and behavior from the spiritual source of either God or Satan.
God placed the original man that He had created into a garden in Eden (Gen. 2:8). In that garden God caused trees to grow which were aesthetically pleasing to man and beneficial for physical nourishment. Two trees are specifically mentioned and labeled as the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:9). While admitting that these labels are not the botanical designations of class or species, neither do we have to go to the opposite extreme and indicate that these trees are just "myths with a message." These two trees were likely two tangible trees in the garden, designated with particular labels in order to indicate that they represented a dichotomy of choice for mankind, a choice of behavioral expression and spiritual condition. Both trees were located in the middle of the garden (Gen. 2:9; 3:3) in order to focus man's attention upon this choice.
In providing man with this choice God was not being capricious. He was not trying to "trip man up." God was not tempting man. "Let no man say, 'I am being tempted by God,' ...for God does not tempt anyone" (James 1:13). He was giving man the opportunity to function as the choosing creature that He had created him to be, who would have to live with the consequences of his choices. In that sense, God was "testing" man, to ascertain whether man would choose to be man as God intended man to be, deriving all from God. God was giving man "the benefit of the doubt," the opportunity to doubt that he needed God in order to function as intended.
In that ideal and idyllic setting of the garden, man could never blame the frustration of the environment or the exhaustion of his body and soul for the choice that he would make. Man could never say, "But I was so tired, I wasn't thinking straight." There was a perfect freedom in which to choose from the two alternatives.
That God presented two clear-cut alternatives for man's choice is also important. There was not just one tree of prohibition and limitation which provided a "Thou shalt not...or else!" Neither was there a singular tree which represented God's intent, and a choice of man to "Take it or leave it!" The two alternative trees indicated a genuine viable choice for man that was not just a singular, simple "Yes or No" of obedience or disobedience, but a complex choice of one or the other and the consequences thereof. God made it clear what His intent and preference for man was by encouraging man to "eat freely" (Gen. 2:16) from the tree of life, and discouraging man from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil by warning him that the consequences of such a choice would alienate him from the life that He had from God. "From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17).
The "tree of life" is often neglected in theological expositions of the choice that man faced in the garden. Such omission of consideration of the "tree of life" is more than mere neglect, for it seems to stem from theological presuppositions that have posited man's choice as a simple choice of obedience or disobedience either by repudiation of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" or by partaking of the fruit of that tree. Such a law and commandment-based perspective of obedience and disobedience, fails to account for the ontological factors that were involved in the choice that man was to make.
When God breathed into man "the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7), the spiritual being of God, the triune expression of divine life, was present as the spiritual life-function of man. The divine life and being of God was indwelling man's spirit as the potential dynamic of man's psychological and external behavior. The "tree of life" did not represent a "type" of spiritual conversion, for man already had the spiritual life of God which had been inbreathed. The word for "life" used in Genesis 2:7 in reference to the "breath of life" is identical to the word for "life" employed in Genesis 2:9 in reference to the "tree of life." The choice of man at the "tree of life" was not a choice for the initial receipt of God's life, but a choice to be ontologically receptive to the life-being of God expressed in the soul and body function of man's behavior. The "tree of life" could not have represented a choice for regeneration or justification, as some have suggested, but had to represent a choice of deriving God's life in human behavior unto sanctification, being "set apart to function as God intended" by allowing the Holy character of God to be expressed in the behavior of man. It was the choice of "abundant life" (John 10:10) whereby man would be "saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10). The choice presented to man at the "tree of life" was the choice to allow for the divine out-working of the divinely in-breathed life of God in man. Further explanation can be facilitated by referring to the "Life and Death" diagram below.
The spiritual condition of the original man was such that the "personal resource of God's life" was present as the dynamic for spiritual life-function within the spirit of man. God had breathed into man the spirit of His life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The "tree of life" represented the choice to allow for the behavioral expression of God's life in man's behavior, the "prevailing ramifications of God's life." The ontological dynamic of God's indwelling life could become operational in the psychological and physiological life-function of man's behavior. The "law of the spirit of life" (Rom. 8:2) would be activated in order to express the behavioral manifestations of "abundant life" (John 10:10). The free-flow of divine life functioning in man would provide no basis for corruption or mortality, for these are predicated on the absence of the life and character of God. Death is a result of the corruption of sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). Man's choice of the "tree of life" would have allowed for the "perpetual representation of God's eternal life" in man, and he would have "lived forever" (Gen. 3:22), expressing the immortality of God's life (I Tim. 6:16).
Partaking of the fruit of the "tree of life" would have been a choice to assimilate God's life throughout the entirety of man's functionality. Jesus was expressing similar imagery when He spoke of "eating His flesh and drinking His blood" (John 6:53), and thus participating in "eternal life" (John 6:54) in order to "live forever" (John 6:58) and "never hunger and never thirst" (John 6:35). The symbolism is of the ontological life-expression of God within the behavioral function of mankind.
Some have questioned whether the original man might have chosen to partake of the "tree of life" prior to partaking of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." The Scriptures do not indicate that he did so, and further speculative conjecturing of such hypothetical scenarios serve only to dissipate the importance of the choice presented to man by the two trees. In light of the "prevailing ramifications" and "perpetual representation" of God's life indicated by man's partaking of the "tree of life," such prior choosing would seem doubtful. If man had chosen to partake of the "tree of life," he would have been choosing to be receptive to and contingent upon the life of God in a freely-chosen faith/love relationship. The divine life of God in the spirit of the original man was present by creational imputation, so the choice of the "tree of life" was a choice to accept such and allow for the functional expression of God's life in the behavior of man; Deity functioning within humanity as God intended.
The importance of the symbolism of the "tree of life" seems to be verified by the numerous references to this tree throughout the rest of the Scriptures. The wisdom literature refers to the "tree of life" in conjunction with "wisdom" (Prov. 3:18), the "fruit of righteousness" (Prov. 11:30), "fulfilled desires" (Prov. 13:12), and a "healing tongue" (Prov. 15:4), all of which relate to the sanctification process of God's character being expressed in man's behavior. The Revelation pictures the "tree of life" by the river in the middle of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:2), indicating that those who have "washed their robes" in the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5) "have a right to the tree of life" (Rev. 22:14), partaking of and expressing the character of God's life. Such privilege can be taken away from those who reject the realities of God's life revealed in Jesus Christ (Rev. 22:19). The "tree of life" continues throughout the Scriptural record as the symbol of an active and ontological partaking of God's life in order to allow God's character to be expressed in human behavior and thus to function as God intended. The "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," on the other hand, is never mentioned again in Scripture outside of the second and third chapters of Genesis.
Original man was encouraged to partake of the "tree of life" and had the unhindered freedom of choice to do so. The "tree of life" represented the choice to accept God's indwelling provision and the spiritual relationship and identity which that entailed, as well as the choice to depend on God's provision in a contingency of faith in order to derive the expression of divine character in the behavior of man. It was a choice to allow for the divine out-working of the divinely in-breathed life of God in man.
The alternative choice to that preferred and intended by God for man was the opposite ontological option. It was not merely an epistemological choice framed in a juridicial context of legal obedience or disobedience based on the rejection or acceptance of this option. The choice of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" also had ontic implications for the spiritual condition and behavioral expression of man. The choice of the "tree of life" was the choice of obedience, to "listen under" God, depend upon God, and derive all from God. The choice of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was the choice of disobedience, to "listen under" a spiritual being other than God, to depend upon and derive functionality from a spiritual source other than God. Thus the "one man's disobedience" (Rom. 5:19) had spiritual and behavioral implications whereby "the prince of the power of the air is now the spirit working in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2).
If man would not choose to be dependent upon God's life at the "tree of life," he would still be a contingent and derivative creature dependent upon a spiritual resource for his function. Man does not become independent, autonomous or self-generative. Those who suggest that man became an "independent being" by his choice of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" do not understand the creaturely function of humanity. They have been duped by the humanistic premise of human self-potential and self-sufficiency. Man is always a dependent and derivative creature.
What, then, does the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" represent? By its label it might appear to be a rather innocuous choice, having only epistemological concern for ethical and moral content. The writer to the Hebrews encourages a maturity for Christians wherein their "senses are trained to discern good and evil" (Heb. 5:14). Why would this knowledge of "good and evil" be encouraged in Hebrews and forbidden in Genesis? This can only be understood by considering the ontological basis of good and evil. Absolute good is an attribute of the being of God. "No one is good except God alone" (Luke 18:19). The expression of such goodness can only be derived from God's being and the activity that expresses such. "The one who does good derives what he does out of God" (III John 11). "The fruit of the Spirit is...goodness" (Gal. 5:23). By partaking of the "tree of life" man would have known and expressed God's goodness in his behavior, deriving such from God. Man would have known "good" as that which was consistent with the character of God, and "evil" as that which was contrary to the character of God, personified in the antithetical spiritual being and character of the Evil One.
The "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" must therefore represent a knowledge of such that is outside of the ontic context of God's intent. This is evidenced by the subtle solicitation of the serpent, representing Satan, the devil (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). The "father of lies" (John 8:44) suggests to the original woman that by choosing to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," she will "be like God knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Was this a lie? After man sinned by choosing "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:22). The question must be asked: "How does God know good and evil?" Only thereby can we ascertain how man could be "like God, knowing good and evil."
God knows good and evil not by relating such to some objective standard of goodness outside of Himself, but by recognizing that goodness is that which corresponds with His own absolute character of good. Evil is that which is not consistent with who He is, and is not the expression of His character. Because God is absolute goodness, and He is independent, autonomous and self-generating in the expression of that goodness, He can "know good and evil" in reference to Himself. Man, being contingent and derivative, cannot be "like God knowing good and evil" by defining such in terms of his own inherent character and self-activation of such. So what the serpent suggested to the original man and woman was a lie. It was a half-truth, which is always a lie. The half-truth was that man could be deceived into thinking that he could be "like God" by determining "good and evil" in reference to his own opinions, preferences, likes and dislikes, etc. Setting himself up as his own standard and center of reference, man could determine that what he found to be right, correct, pleasurable and permissable would be called "good," and what he considered to be wrong, incorrect, unpleasant and impermissable would be called "evil." Thus began all humanly determined standards of morality and ethics, as well as the belief-systems of orthodoxy and unorthodoxy. Religion has been playing this "good and evil" game of self-determined standards of "dos" and "don'ts" ever since. It is all part of the humanistic premise that posits man as his own center of reference, whereby all revolves around his individual or collective determinations. The "father of lies" foisted upon man the lie of independency and autonomy, and persuaded man to align with him in his self-orientation and selfishness (cf. Ezek; Zech)? It was the short-circuiting of God's intent to express His character of love for others through man.
The original man's act of disobedience (Rom. 5:19) and sin (Rom. 5:12,16) in choosing to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was a derived behavioral expression. There is always an ontological spiritual derivation for the expression of every human action. Man is not an independent self. He does not self-generate his own behavioral activity. He is not the cause of his own effects, or the energizing origin of his own activity. The behavioral activity of man always expresses the nature and character of the spiritual being who generates such activity. The deception of Satan is to deceive man into thinking that he is self-generative, and that when his behavior expresses character other than that of God's character that man is generating his own sinful and evil behavioral expression. Then reacting with blame and shame man will masochistically berate and beat himself trying to generate something better, and all the while the destructive intent of the Destroyer is achieved. Man is not inherently evil. He is not an individualized devil who can generate sinful and evil activity in and of himself. He does, however, have freedom of choice, and is responsible for the decisions he makes concerning the spiritual being from whence he ontologically derives his behavioral expression.
The "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" represented the choice that the original man had to ontologically derive the character expression of the Evil One who relates everything selfishly to himself. It was a choice to be receptive to the behavioral out-working of a nature and character that was contrary to the character of God. God relates all to Himself, but His absolute character of goodness, righteousness and love always flows outward in expression for the good of others. Satan's character is that of self-centeredness which relates all things to himself in order to benefit himself, and it is that character that Satan sought to activate in man's behavior, and was allowed to do so by the choice man made of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil."
Did man really have a choice? Some would emphasize the statement of God in such a way as to imply that everything was so foreordained and predestined by God as to be inevitable. God said to man, "In the day that you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). This is not necessarily a statement of divine necessity. Was the fall of man necessitated so that God could redeem man by a predetermined plan set down "before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8)? Does God's statement imply pre-purposing or foreknowledge? The statement may indicate nothing more than a warning of the spiritual consequences that would occur within man if he exercised his freedom of choice to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." As such it would be a simply "If...then" statement: "If you eat, then you shall die."
What did God mean by this threatened death? The Satanic serpent contradicted God's statement, saying, "You surely shall not die" (Gen. 3:4). To what extent could Adam have known what death involved? He knew what life was, for he was a participant in physiological, psychological and spiritual life-function. Death would be the deprivation and absence of a particular life-function. Perhaps he had witnessed death as the animals ate the plants and killed other animals for food, and perhaps he had done so also. The concept of spiritual death, however, could only be perceived by Adam as the deprivation of the life that he had received by the inbreathing of God's Spirit (Gen. 2:7).
Did Adam die as God had warned, when he chose to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil"? At first it may have appeared that the serpent was correct when he said, "You surely shall not die" (Gen. 3:4). Adam was still physically alive, and lived for many years afterwards tilling the ground and fathering children. He was also quite psychologically active, thinking, feeling, and making decisions that allowed for derived behavioral expression in the activities of his body. The spiritual death that occured within Adam when he ate of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" may have been almost imperceptible. "The natural man cannot understand spiritual things" (I Cor. 2:14). God was correct; Satan was the liar. In the day that man ate of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," he died spiritually.
What is the prerequiste for spiritual death? What is necessary for a man to die spiritually? A man cannot die on a particular life-function level if he is not previously alive on that life-function level. The prerequisite for death is preexistent life. One cannot die spiritually if there was no spiritual life, which serves to verify that the "breath of life" breathed into man by God (Gen. 2:7) was indeed the spiritual life of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When man died spiritually as God had warned would be the consequence of choosing to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," he experienced the deprivation and absence of the spiritual life of God in the spirit of the man.
Can God's life die? No. God is eternal life. The life of God did not cease to exist; rather it was simply withdrawn from indwelling presence in the spirit of man. God moved out! He would not remain as an unwanted resident in man, though He remained the sovereign, living God of the universe.
Human misconceptions of death often paint a distorted perception of spiritual death. If death is defined as termination, annhilation or cessation of function, then the spiritual death of man implies either that the life of God was obliterated and God ceased to be, or man ceased to be man with all three levels of physiological, psychological and spiritual function. Neither is true. God was still God, and man was still man. If spiritual death is defined only on the basis of relationality, and explained as separation, estrangement or alienation from God, then it might appear that man is capable of functioning independently of any spiritual relationship. Impossible, for man is a dependent, contingent and derivative creature. Spiritual death is the absence of the presence of the spiritual life of God in the spirit of the man. The ontological indwelling and spiritual union of God with man is severed. But this does not leave man as a "hollow man" with a "spiritual vaccuum" waiting in "dormancy." Man's spirit is not a "throneroom without a king," the "unoccupied territory" of a "container without contents," as some have referred to the spiritual condition of fallen man. Man cannot exist and function independently, so in spiritual death there was the severance of ontological dependency on God and transference to ontological dependence upon Satan for the derivation of spiritual condition and identity. It might be said that a coup d'etat took place in the spirit of man: God moved out and Satan moved in. The "prince of the power of the air" was now the "spirit" who was "energizing in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). Spiritual death is not spiritual non-function, but is rather the absence of the spiritual function of the life of God in the spirit of man and the spiritual function of the satanic spirit in man's spirit.
Refer again to the "Life and Death" diagram below which contrasts the implications and consequences of the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil."
When the original man chose against partaking of the "tree of life," he chose to reject the "personal resource" of God's life in the spirit of the man. When he chose to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," he chose to receive another "personal resource" of spiritual indwelling and identity. Man's spiritual function was now dependent upon "the one having the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb. 2:14). Paul explains that "death reigns" (Rom. 5:17) in fallen mankind. This is not a static spiritual non-function, but the "personal resource" of the "spirit of the prince of the air energizing in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). Man was spiritually dead in his "trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13) and "transgressions" (Eph. 2:5), but such spiritual death is quite functional and active in its ontological identity with and energizing of the spirit of Satan.
The "personal resource of death" expresses his diabolic character and nature in the "prevailing ramifications of death" through the behavior of the soul and body of man. The "power of sin" manifests himself in the behavioral "presence of sin" as character contrary to the character of God becomes derivatively operative and is enacted in man's behavior. The "law of sin and of death" (Rom. 7:24; 8:2) is operative. "The one committing sin derives what he does from the devil" (I John 3:8). The behavioral manifestations are devoid of the life and character of God. They are "dead works" (Heb. 6:1) which "bear fruit for death" (Rom. 7:5) and "bring forth death" (James 1:15). The accumulated "dead works" of sinful expression become the collective death manifestations of the "world-system," governed by the "god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4).
As the "personal resource of death" functions in man's spirit and soul, the corruptibility of death take effect in his body, leading to physical death. When God warned man of the consequence of eating of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," He said, "In the day that you eat from it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). More literally the Hebrew text might be translated, "In the day that you eat from it, dying you shall die," for there is a repetition of the Hebrew word for "death." Apparently God intended to indicate that spiritual death would lead to other forms of death in the life-function levels of soul and body. Degeneration sets into man's behavior and begins to affect his physiological function also. Paul explained that "the outer man is decaying" (II Cor. 4:16). Some have identified this as consistent with the "second law of thermodynamics" in science which attempts to explain the degeneration and entropy within the universe. Having died spiritually, the original man later died physically (Gen. 5:5), and those death consequences have extended to all the human race. "It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Heb. 9:27).
When the "power of sin" has effected the "presence of sin" within an individual, and that person dies physically while in a condition of spiritual death, then the "penalty of sin" is meted out in the "perpetual representation of death" apart from the eternal presence of the life of God. This is a perpetual ontological identification with the devil and his destiny in that "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41), the "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) of "darkness forever" (Jude 1:13) in everlasting death.
After man made the choice to partake of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," and God confronted him with the consequences of so doing (Gen. 3:16-19), God hustled him out of the garden "lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" (Gen. 3:22). God "drove the man out; and...stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. 3:24). Why was it so important to keep man from partaking of the "tree of life" after he had partaken of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil?" Apparently some of the factors of the "tree of life" such as "incorruptibility" and "perpetual representation" would have combined to render man a perpetual sinner who would "live forever" in his fallen condition without any possibility of redemption and restoration of God's life. God graciously and mercifully removed man from such a possibility, knowing already what He intended to do to restore His life to man by His Son, Jesus Christ.
Whereas the "tree of life" is referred to numerous times throughout the Scripture, the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" is never mentioned again in Scripture outside of the second and third chapters of Genesis. Why is that? Once that choice was made by the original man, and the effects thereof permeated the entire human race, the choice of that tree was never necessary again. Mankind had fallen and would remain in the consequences of death until they individually received the life of God that would be made available again to man in Jesus Christ.