“Paradise” Lost

*Posted by Barry Creamer

Adam and Eve lost paradise for mankind when they were expelled from Eden after eating from the forbidden tree. It can be argued (in some cases correctly, in others incorrectly) that mankind lost paradise through disobedience, through the knowledge of good and evil, through the inherent imbalance of intellect and will, or through the inevitable realization of divine decrees. Arguments proceed ad infinitum (or ad nauseum, depending on the mood of the listener) about which explanations are best.

There is, though, an interesting observation to be had about the loss of paradise from a different perspective entirely. The normal perspective of the discussion invites questions about what actually happened and what was therefore actually lost. A different perspective, and one which might help clarify conclusions drawn from the normal one, invites questions about the perception of what was lost in the fall. That is, it should not be surprising for fallen men in a fallen world to misinterpret exactly what the negative consequences of that fall are.

There are undoubtedly many areas where men believe wrongly about what paradise was, and what it would have been had there been no fall. In this case, the mistake involves the concept of work. What God says to Adam is often taken to imply that work (in the sense of toil) is the curse: the ground is cursed because of you; you will eat from the ground in pain as long as you live; it will produce thorns and thistles for you; and you will eat plants from the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread until the day you die (Genesis 3:17b-19a).

But the presumption that work (even unpleasant labor) is the curse is wrongheaded. That presumption indicates at least two errors about paradise.

The first error is the presumption that paradise is a place of perfect leisure. Adam simply reclines on the ground while plants grow above him and then drop such soft fruit into his relaxed, open mouth that it does not even require chewing. The idea that leisure is paradise is wrong. Genesis does not depict it as such. In Genesis 2, before the fall, God puts man in Eden in order for him to work and keep the garden. The purpose of the work in that case is to demonstrate mans role representing God in the world by exercising dominion. But because of that purpose, the work itself has value. It is, in fact, evidence of virtue. People were made to be productive before the fall. Work is about productivity. The moral standard by which man is judged is his nature before the fall, not his nature afterwards. So the perfect world for human beings, paradise, is not a world of sloth but a world of work.

The second error might be harder to notice. It should be easy to accept the idea that work in terms of productivity is a good thing even in a perfect world. But it is a bit more challenging to separate the goodness of work from its pleasantness. That is, the second error regarding work and paradise is the presumption that even if there is work in paradise, it would be pleasant in and of itself. So perhaps Adam in paradise does have to go out to the field to harvest figs, but he enjoys every moment, whistling as he picks them and skipping between trees. Such would not have to be the case, even in paradise.

Fallen or not, people are made to love one another and God. Real love is not simply a promise pronounced or an emotion experienced, but a commitment kept. In every case, the keeping of that commitment is an act of serving the other person. So, as John says it, love is not in word and talk, but action and truth.

Those observations provide one way (not necessarily the way) to explain why even irksome work could be present in a paradisiacal world. Consider this scenario: God creates the world to be filled with human beings in an unfallen state. People still have differences, making relationships and society more beautiful and complete than the existence of a sole individual. (There are no leaps of imagination to this point, since Adams existence was completed only when Eve was added.) But with differences present between individuals, some people are undoubtedly better at some things than other people are, leading to specialization. Or it may simply be the case that mutual benefit leads to specialization. That is, Adam and Eve could agree in a given setting to do something different from their neighbors (who would, of course, also be their descendants, by the way.)

But the thing they agree to do need not be pleasant to them, even in paradise. Why should it be? Their purpose, after all, is not simply to obtain pleasure. Their purpose is to serve others. So Adam could choose to work beyond his pleasure in a given circumstance solely to benefit his neighbor.

Indeed, in the light of mans most basic commandment in scripture, it makes sense that God instills altruism in his nature. And there is no reason for altruism to take a back seat to mans egoistic nature. And there is no reason why, even in paradise, the two could not at times (or even constantly) be at odds with each other. No sin or evil would be implied by such a divergence. And on a day in which Adam harvests figs for his neighbor rather than idly reclining beneath his soft-fruit dropping shade tree, there is no reason to believe he would be suffering or that his greater desire, the desire selflessly (and even without personal pleasure) to serve another, would not have been fulfilled in that service.

The desire to serve others is at least as fundamental to mans intended nature as the desire to please self. Arguably it is greater. That being said, it should be obvious that mans perfect expression of work does not need to include personal pleasure in the work itself. Instead, the mans desire to serve another could provide complete justification for whatever toil or sacrifice is involved in it.

There is much more to say, but it will have to wait for another day: e.g., the fact that work can be both unpleasant and essential to serving others is why a just society in a fallen world requires not only moral equality for every person (in the economy and under the law) but also virtue (self-control and humility), and the fact that even an unfallen world could have produced self-sacrificing virtue.

But the point here is more direct. In this world, a Christians call is to serve others. People indicate what they want (and for service, want rather than need is sufficient to make the point) by their willingness to pay for it. So when a Christian clears a drain or makes a product for others, he is serving them. (The payment for that service does not neglect it as service, by the way, for several reasons, including the nature of economic exchanges.) Whether the Christian takes pleasure in the toil itself is inconsequential to its value as his contribution of love and service to others.

So paradise is not about personal pleasure, and neither is work. Paradise is about the perfect fulfillment of purpose. But purposes do not die with paradise. And this purpose, of loving and serving, is approached by people in this world right now every time they take up the labors they would not have chosen for themselves, but which others deem valuable enough that they are willing to pay for them.

Work, work, work. Not really such a bad thing.

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