The Tree of Life
We are told in the Book of Genesis that “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Man is a vessel made of clay, an earthenware pitcher filled with the pure wine of the life of God. That life takes the shape of the vessel, just as wine in a jar takes the shape of the jar. So, though your life is God’s life in you, you are a self-conscious individual with your own distinct personality. You feel that you are separate from God. He is over against you. You can love Him, or hate Him, or even ignore Him. You can think of yourself as God, put yourself in the center of the universe, and attribute everything to your own great and wonderful ego. We all do this at times.
Not so man, when he was first created in those far-away days in the dawn of the world. He was as innocent as a babe in arms. What do we mean by “innocent?” I mean he had no experience of separateness from God. He was consciously aware of his drawing of life from God and his utter dependence on God, just as a baby is aware of his utter dependence on his mother and is happy in that dependent relationship.
Because of early man’s innocence, he lived in Eden, a garden of delight. It was a well-watered garden, producing all he needed for his modest sustenance. And in that garden were trees of many kinds. Literally? Yes, no doubt. And spiritually also. Spiritual trees. What are they? A spiritual tree grows up from the deep sub-soil of our minds, and puts out branches and leaves, and produces fruit. Swedenborg calls it a “perception.” It can be a true perception or a false perception. Those early men had a true perception that their life was not their own but came to them in constant supply from God. This was the Tree of Life. It was in the very center of their spiritual garden, probably on a little mound or hill, with the other trees sloping away from it in park-like beauty. Man (Adam in Hebrew, meaning “mankind”) ate continually of the fruit of the Tree of Life, gladly aware all the time that he was nothing, God was all.
The garden contained plenty of other trees: perceptions of all kinds. Our attention is drawn to one in particular, whose fruit was not on any account to be eaten: the TREE OF KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL. As God said, “in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Why, then, had God planted it there in the first place? Since it was so dangerous and deadly, why didn’t God root it out and destroy it? No, that tree had to be there, for it was man’s sense of free-will or choice. It was his feeling of selfhood, without which he would not have been a responsible human being. It was his capacity to know both good and evil, to choose between good and evil; to cut himself away from God if he wished to, to taste hell if he wanted to. That capacity had to be preserved, if man was not to be a mere puppet on a string. But woe to that man who preferred the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life, who preferred to exercise his own freedom rather than depend on God!
Eve, the woman, started the trouble in Genesis 3. She represents the emotional side of “homo”; that is to say, of each one of us. Even we men have this female characteristic, just as women have certain male characteristics, to make us complete people. In the symbolism of the Bible story, it is the emotional side, represented by Eve, which first gets caught up in the glamour of sense experience. Here is the old serpent of the senses, more subtle than any beast of the field, tempting us to reverse the order of our values, putting lower things above and higher things below. As soon as Eve begins to have dealings with the serpent, the Tree of Life is removed from the central position in the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is put in its place. In actual life it would be a major task to dig up a tree and replace it with another tree, but spiritually this is all too easily done. Eve says to the snake, “Of the tree which is in the midst (middle) of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” Yet in the beginning the tree in the middle of the garden had been the Tree of Life, whose fruit they were commanded to eat! She had switched the trees around.
We are continually doing this ourselves. Children do it when they start fighting their mothers and shouting “I, I, I.” That is when they begin to lose their innocence. Freedom to choose good or evil has become more central than the consciousness of God as all-in-all. Where has Eve put the Tree of Life? It must still be somewhere in the garden, otherwise she would no longer be alive, but it is now on one side, while the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is given the honored position on the mound or little hill. And how she longs to eat of its fruit! Of course, if she had not eaten of it, then no harm would have been done. The mood would have passed, the Tree of Life would have been restored to its central position, and all would have been as before. But her senses, represented by the serpent, urged Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, or “appropriate it to herself,” as Swedenborg would say, “It won’t hurt you,” wheedled the serpent; “on the contrary, it will open your eyes, it will give you new and wonderful experiences, it will expand your mind! You will become like a God, knowing evil as well as good.” Eventually the emotions (Eve) yielded to the temptation, and she easily persuaded her man to join her in the experiment, to exercise his free-will in tasting good and evil. They tried out the new drug together, the hallucinogen. And their eyes were indeed opened, as the serpent had promised them. But what did they see? Beauty and glamour? No. They saw that they were naked and destitute, and for the first time since they were created they felt shame.
Animals do not feel shame. Little children do not feel shame. Shame comes with the loss of innocence. Is shame, then, a bad thing? Not altogether, because at least it indicates that conscience is still alive. There is hope of amendment when there is shame. If acted upon, it can bring us back to a proper relationship with God. But, if shame is not acted upon, or if it only prompts us to make excuses, or to do a “cover-up job,” as Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves to hide their nakedness, then the shame itself soon passes, and we become shameless, which is the state of the devils in hell. The devils know they are spiritually naked, but do not care. This extreme state had not yet been reached by Adam and Eve. They were troubled and confused, so God had mercy on them, and covered them more permanently with garments of skins.
Man’s first experiment with moral choice was indeed a traumatic experience. He could never be the same again, and his environment had to be adapted to his new condition. It became essential that he should no longer have access to the Tree of Life. Don’t you see that if we, in our fallen estate, were consciously aware of our utter dependence on the Lord, it would result in profanation of the direst kind? Normally a consciousness of God’s presence protects us from sin; but if, despite of it, we deliberately choose to commit sin, is it not best for us to be unaware of His nearness to us? If the Prodigal Son had known, what indeed must have been the case, that his Father was with him, even in that far country where he was wasting his substance with riotous living – (“If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there!”) – would it not have irked and frustrated and angered him beyond bearing? “What! Are you even here, Father, trying to spoil my fun? Can’t I get clear of you?” It is the same kind of motivation that has, in recent years, caused many middle and upper class teenagers to leave their comfortable homes and join the hippies: to be free of parental authority, the hateful “Do this! Don’t do that!” and discover morality for themselves.
Therefore, in our story of Adam and Eve, it became imperative that the Tree of Life should no longer be available to them. They became unconscious of God’s presence, and so lost the delights of innocence. They were driven out of Eden into a far country; and Providence, in the guise of Cherubim with flaming swords, stood guard at the entrance to the garden, to prevent them from approaching the Tree of Life.
There you have the FALL. It is interesting to speculate whether it was inevitable. We do not know for how many thousands of years man had lived happily on earth before he started this mad experiment with evil. Theoretically he might have gone on forever without eating of the forbidden fruit. But in fact, in the course of time, he did eat of it, thus producing hell, and building up all sorts of hereditary evils which have become innate in his descendants. We are fallen creatures. Only briefly in our infancy, before our corrupt selfhood begins to assert itself, do we enjoy a kind of racial memory of those far-off Eden days. Babies, for a few months or a year or so, are completely innocent. But alas, this is only the innocence of ignorance. As soon as they begin to learn things, they feel this urge to experiment, to taste hell as well as heaven, to develop a knowledge of evil as well as good. The Lord has to permit it. If He did not, there would be no “people” at all, only automata or robots.
However, in His loving mercy the Lord provides other ways by which fallen man can, in freedom and according to reason, struggle against the resistance of his corrupt nature. It is true, as the Curse says: “Thorns and thistles shall the earth bring forth to thee; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:18,19). We cannot do anything productive without struggle and pain. The thorns and thistles of our heredity will scratch and tear us as we endeavor to cope with them. Eventually the old selfhood will have to die altogether. But a new selfhood can be built up in its place, which will live forever. This is the process of “regeneration,” necessary since the Fall. The whole of the Bible is concerned with it. It is the main concern of our entire life on earth, this dying unto self and being born again from the Lord. If we succeed in it, we go round full circle, and come back to the point from which our race first started. We return to the delights of innocence; but now it is the innocence of wisdom.
Turn to the closing chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, which describe our final goal, the state of life which hopefully we shall attain to at the end, whether in this world or the next. The holy city New Jerusalem comes down from God out of heaven. It is a beautiful city, and all its measurements are the measurements of an angel. Moreover, God resides in it. Of course, God resides in you, now. But normally, because of the Fall, you are unaware of His presence. Only occasionally do you get a glimpse of His glory in you. You feel a deep stirring, and know He is there. As your regeneration proceeds, these glimpses ‘become more frequent, until in the end you become consciously aware that He is taking control of your whole life. You are then in the holy city New Jerusalem. It is not the Garden of Eden. We shall never get back to the unsophisticated life of the cave dweller, no matter how idyllic it may have been. The New Age is almost certain to be civilized. City life is here to stay; we cannot reverse the huge migration to the cities. But there are cities and cities. Some are like hell, some like heaven. The best cities have a great deal of space given over to parks and rivers and trees. The New Jerusalem is described as a garden city. It is Eden in city form!
The Tree of Life? Sure, it is there! Through the golden boulevards of the New Jerusalem flow the waters of the River of Life, clear as crystal. In the middle of the sparkling stream, and on both banks, the Tree of Life is flourishing. It bears twelve manner of fruits, one each month; and its leaves are medicine for the healing of the nations. “There shall be no more curse,” we are assured. The ancient Curse of Eden is finally annulled. “The throne of God and the Lamb shall be in the city, and His servants shall serve Him, and shall see His face, and His name shall be in their foreheads.” “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the middle of the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7).
The circle is complete. Whereas at the time of the Fall man was driven out of the garden, “lest he should eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life,” and cherubim were stationed with flaming swords to prevent him from eating of it; now he is expressly invited – even urged – to come into the garden city and eat his fill of the fruit of this very tree! But what a story of experiment, trial and error, failure and bitterness and frustration and death, must first be told! Now at last his eyes are fully open, and he sees the Lord on the throne of his heart. The Lord is the Sun in the center of his firmament, the Source of his life. The Lord is his loving heavenly Father. The Prodigal has returned home; the feast is prepared for him. “He was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”
No matter how low you may have fallen, you can rise again. The year passes through four seasons: autumn (appropriately called the fall!) followed by winter, followed by spring, followed by summer. We have a dream and see a bright light; then it goes out and we find ourselves in gross darkness. We stumble and fall, and cry: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, even Jesus Himself underwent those successive states. The Tree of Life was not always in the middle of His garden. He had His wilderness periods when He felt alienated from the Divine, as well as states of glory when He could say, “I and the Father are one.” However bad things may seem with you, do not be discouraged, disappointed or depressed. The wheel will turn and summer will come. Press earnestly forward along the route laid out in His Holy Word, and the day will surely dawn when you will see the golden turrets and domes and leafy tree-tops of the holy city gleaming on the horizon. The threatening Cherubim, originally set to guard the way to the Tree of Life, will have been transformed into beckoning angels; and the royal invitation will resound in your ears:
“Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the Tree of Life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”