On some level we simply do not know how sin was possible in God’s sovereignly designed, freely created, very good world. Nor is it easy to say, if God created everything, was pleased with everything, and foreknew all things, why Adam was even able to sin. But he was, and he did.
The human creature was the crown of creation—evoking an upgrade from “good” to “very good.” But the appearance of God’s human image-bearer in the garden was not the end of the story. God could have simply left the world in a state of simplicity and comfort—‘very good, forevermore’. But he did not. He placed in the midst of the garden two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
About the first tree we have no recorded words until after the fall except that we are told, in Gen 2:9, that it’s there in the midst of the garden. Then after the fall we read:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:22-24).
Two points from this passage:
First, we learn that if Adam were to “reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat it,” he would “live forever.” It is not obvious how this would work. I do not think the text is saying that the fruit of this tree is magical. But somehow eating the fruit of the tree of life is connected to obtaining imperishable life. Many commentators, including both Augustine and Calvin, say that the tree is a symbol or even a sacrament.
In his comments on Gen 2:9, Calvin reasons directly from the name “the tree of life” to a theology of means or sacraments. In his comments on Gen 3:22, he makes absolutely clear that this is no magical fruit, but a symbol of divine blessing. God has joined, he says, invisible riches—eternal life—to visible means: the fruit of the tree. Calvin says that
man would not have been able, even if he devoured the entire tree, to enjoy life against the will of God; but God, out of respect to his own institution, connects life with the external sign (comm. on 3:22).
But Calvin believes that the tree of life represents only the life that Adam had already received from God; he does not, at least not in his commentary on Gen 2-3, see the tree as offering a greater life than the one Adam already possessed. We do believe that before the fall, Adam was righteous and not subject to death; but his situation was changeable. He could choose death, or life. I believe the life offered was greater than the life he already had. Adam was offered a life of confirmed, unchangeable righteousness, a clear upgrade from original, changeable righteousness. If this is not obvious from the text of Gen 2-3, mention of the tree of life in Rev 2 and 22 make it clear.
Understanding the tree of life as offering greater life and communion with God has led some interpreters to speak of pre-lapsarian grace—undeserved kindness of God, in the garden, before sin. The imperishable life symbolized by the tree of life could not be attained by man without the assistance of God. Pre-lapsarian favor is unmerited; the creature has no claim on any further gifts from his Creator. So this offer of life, this first covenant of life, is a gracious one in that sense. So says Westminster Confession 7.1:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
On the other hand, post-lapsarian grace—divine favor in a context of sin and rebellion—is de-merited, so very undeserved that actually the contrary is due: unbending wrath. Thus the need for vicarious atonement. Understandably, some commentators find this de-merit, and God’s supplying what is owed through the mediation of the Son, so precious and so essential to the concept of grace that they are reluctant to speak of ‘grace’ in Gen 2. But certainly in the garden, the tree of life symbolizes an abundance of life offered to Adam beyond the life Adam already possessed. Just as Adam had received life by a sovereign, creative act of God, so he might receive abundant, confirmed, unchangeable righteousness and life by another sovereign bestowal from his Creator.
Second, God responds to Adam’s transgression by expelling him from the garden, and the way back into the garden is blocked specifically so that Adam will not take, eat, and live forever. So the life that this fruit promises is now off limits. It is prohibited. Clearly then there were conditions on the offer of life, so it seems that the life offered was more than Adam already had. Adam could eat of the tree and receive confirmed, eternal life only if he obeyed (and enforced) the prohibition against eating from the other tree. (Again, Calvin doesn’t see it in precisely this way, truth be told.)
A way forward, toward blessing and life, is set before Adam and symbolized in the tree of life. Notice again that this way is possible, not guaranteed. The bestowal of divine blessing symbolized in the tree is a reward for obedience—but Adam might disobey; and in fact he does. So, symbolized in the tree of life is the ‘genuineness’ of the Creator-creature relationship and the ‘genuineness’ of Adam’s choice. The tree of life is offered to Adam; he can earn it, or he can lose it. Therefore we can say something like this:
The entrance of sin and evil into the world is made possible by the offer of righteous, eternal life with God. The covenant of life in the garden announces the real possibility of transgression.
God created Adam “very good,” but he invites Adam to perfection and incorruptible righteousness. He invites Adam, in other words, to a status of tested-and-confirmed love for and obedience to his Creator and Lord. We do not know how or why sin and evil were possible in the garden. But it seems that the sort of imperishable, incorruptible righteous and communion with God that God offered to Adam included within it, or had as its condition, obedience in the face of real temptation—possible evil. We pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” because, though fallen, we still hope for this fulfillment, and in a fallen world it can only come by gracious divine intervention.
Outside of Genesis 2 and 3, the tree of life is mentioned four times in Proverbs, but we’ll skip straight to Rev 2:7:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
The context (Rev 2:1-7) is a brief address to the Ephesian church in which the Lord first commends her discernment and faithfulness; and then rebukes her for complacency and indifference, calling for repentance and perseverance in faithfulness; and then again commends the church’s discernment. A clear implication is that eating from the tree of life is a reward for discernment between good and evil as obedience versus disobedience, and faithfulness to that distinction in obedience to the law of God. And it is rather easy to see that this must have been precisely the significance of the tree of life for Adam: it was a reward for faithfully discerning good and evil—specifically as obedience versus disobedience—and for both following and enforcing that distinction. Included in the significance of the tree, therefore, are both a call to personal faithfulness and to faithfulness in ecclesiastical administration of the law of God. God’s people are characterized, even defined, by faithfulness to his word. Similarly, mention of the tree of life in Rev 22:14-15 shows that the “right to the tree of life” is the distinct privilege of those who enter the new heavens and the new earth. God’s people are those who receive this right, the right to eat of the tree of life.
The tree of life appears also in Rev 22:1-5. John sees:
the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and fhis servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
In Gen 2, we find a tree of life in the midst of the garden. In Rev 22, we find the tree of life embracing the river of the water of life, bearing a super-abundance of life-conferring fruit—12 kinds of fruit, 12 times per year. The life offered in Genesis 2 has been upgraded beyond measure. The exuberant poetry and symbolism of the Revelation is all we can do to convey the wealth and blessing of consummate life with God. “But the free gift is not like the trespass,” writes the apostle Paul:
For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many (Rom 5:15).
I have disagreed with Calvin in this post. Calvin believes that the tree of life in the garden represents the life that Adam received from God when God created him. I however am convinced that the tree of life symbolizes a greater life than Adam’s original one—immortality, yes, but unchangeable righteousness and higher communion with God. In short, I believe that the tree of life indicates proto-eschatology, the possibility of sin and evil—the failure of the first Adam—and the contingency of Adam’s original state. I think this can be seen in Gen 3:22-24, but it is especially clear in Rev 2 and 22.