“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” – Genesis 1:31, ESV
God, by definition, is the greatest possible Being. If He was deficient in any way, He would not be God, but a lesser being. Not only is He the greatest possible Being, but He is Being itself: all of reality gets its source from Him. He is the Being that truly creates, all of Creation is the result. It seems to follow that if the greatest possible Being were to create a world, it would be the best possible world. It would not be deficient or lacking in any way, but instead be the best possible conception of a reality, any reality.
In the beginning, we get a sense of this from the Creation account in Genesis. At the end of each day, having created some new aspect of reality, God looked down upon it “and saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, ESV). In the Garden we get a glimpse of the pinnacle of such a reality, the perfection of perfection even: a place set apart within the good Creation. However, placed in Paradise, standing side by side with their Creator, inhabiting a physical and spiritual existence that was without want, what did our ancient parents do? They found it all wanting.
In the Garden, walking beside Him in the cool of the day, Adam lacked something in his relationship with God, still inhabited a distance from God that is closed in the Incarnation. Adam and Eve disobeyed the one commandment given them, planting sin in their hearts and the hearts of their offspring while reaping the judgment of expulsion from the Garden and all that it entailed. Yet, being under the Providence of God, this was all a part of His plan. He did not create sin, He abhors it, and upon His Second Coming He will eradicate it completely, but it was the introduction of sin into the world that necessitated His First Coming in the first place.
Adam and Eve were not created righteous robots, unable but to obey. Neither were they determined to sin, with evil being a divine tool wielded by the Almighty. Instead we see a world, the best possible world, created with free inhabitants, free to adhere to the Divine Command or engage in the opposite. Man imitates his Maker; and yet while God creates ex nihilo, moving outside Himself and it was good, Man’s first creative act, in a move inward towards himself, is evil. “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” (Augustine, Enchiridion 8.27) Although Man’s disobedience brings about the fallen world we now inhabit, yielding the death and disorder that occurs anywhere outside of God, the early Church Fathers still considered it a felix culpa, a “fortunate fall.”
How can the Fall of Man be considered fortunate? It seems in the best possible world, the greatest created reality, God saw fit in His Providence for His Image to be expelled from its planted pinnacle. The phrase “getting back to the Garden” has been used in theological discourse. I would like to argue that not only is this a flawed goal to aim for, but that God Himself did not intend for us to remain in the Garden from the outset. Without generating it Himself, leaving man to freely make his choice of obedience, God’s Providence was not surprised by sin, nor was it one plan of many depending upon possible outcomes of the serpent’s temptation. Only God could create man truly free, allow his disobedience without any culpability Himself, and yet have everything occur exactly according to His Divine plan.
Utopia means “no place,” and there is indeed a sense of the Garden as a place that is hard to comprehend: a place where God and man existed alongside each other. But as Dostoyevsky puts it “[if man] should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes, and busy himself with the continuation of his species, even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick” (Notes from the Underground). Perfection is not paradise. True paradise is the Presence, the complete indwelling of God within us. The fall from the first Paradise was the genesis of a future unity with God, a relationship to be envied even by those who inhabited that first perfection, making it not an end in itself, but a fortunate means for a subsequent unity with the Divine, accomplished through the work of Christ.
While it is easy in this fallen world to pine for the time when God and man walked together in harmony, Christ Himself tells us that the least in the Kingdom is greater than the greatest man born of women, let alone the first man who brought disharmony with the Divine down upon us. Divinely inspired, Paul and the other New Testament authors explain in detail what Christ first tells us directly: not only was the disobedience atoned for, but even the initial creation situation is made new: God no longer walks beside the believer, but enters into us. We do not know what the Incarnation would have looked like in a world without the Fall, but in this world we inhabit we are told that only One can reverse that felix culpa, and He does so by inviting us to feast on Him that humbled Himself to the point of death in His effort to unite us with Himself.
Throughout Scripture we see evidence that the Garden was never supposed to be our final destination. Israel is given a garden, a “Promised Land flowing with milk and honey,” only to be thrown out of it time and again, out into the tyranny of manmade civilization due to disobedience, and yet it is the city of God they are constantly called back to, directed to rebuild, and to look forward to a Heavenly City. While sharing much Garden imagery, it is a New Jerusalem that is described at the end of all things, not a new Garden.
The most important event in human history is an even tighter retelling of human history as a whole. Christ’s Passion begins in a Garden, yet He is forcefully removed from it. Even as He is thrown into civilization, brought into the city, He is an outcast: toil and burden are His reality as He bears His Cross before it increases to the actual suffering upon it. Its culmination is not a return to the Garden proper, rather a Resurrection from a garden tomb before an Ascension to God Himself.
Adam without want still wanted something extra. Jesus, in the wilderness without, chooses the Father. God kept something away from Adam for his own good. Jesus kept something away from Himself for our own good. We can never return to the Garden; God places the angel to guard its entrance specifically because to return would not be good for us. To eat of the tree of life in our fallen state would have been eternal damnation, and God had something even better than our initial existence planned for us: not earthly immortality, but spiritual sanctification. God did not lead our first parents into temptation, but He did from the outset plan to deliver them from evil and further. Rather than simply walk beside us in the cool of the day, He became one of us incarnate, in order to unite us with Himself.
God now has a Body, glorified, but a Body nonetheless. The least in the Kingdom of Heaven are greater than the greatest man born of women, let alone Adam, first of sinners. God humbled Himself to become Man and walk among us amidst our suffering, actively partaking in it sinlessly while still taking the penalty for sin, all to provide us with a connection, a ladder between heaven and earth not found in the Garden. So I say do not look back to the Garden seeking to return to it, for you shall find only pillars of salt. Plow ahead and seek to enter the City by the Narrow Gate, for indeed the Kingdom of God is at hand.