The Tree Of Life

I find myself needing to say more about the imagery in the movie The Fountain (reviewed in my previous blog entry). Although I am a religion professor specializing in Biblical studies, I tend to have more to say about other subjects on my blog – perhaps because I have so many other forums and outlets for expressing myself on things to do with the Bible.

Apart from in my class on The Bible, in which we discuss the creation stories early in the semester, the other context in which the tree of life comes up most frequently is in discussion with young-earth creationists, primarily because this is a point at which their system of beliefs is radically out of sync with the Bible. In the Garden of Eden, the fundamentalists claim, there was no death – death only came into the world as a result of the fall, turning T-Rex into a carnivore. This is nonsense, not only scientifically, but Biblically. In Genesis 2-3, the tree of life is the means of preventing death, which is the natural state of things, the end which Human (I refuse to call him ‘Adam’ as though that were a name in Hebrew, this being one of the things that misleads those reading in English into thinking this is a story about two literal, historical individuals in the past) will come to without the tree. And of course, that is what happens – the “death sentence” is not immediate, but being excluded from access to the tree is, with the result that he will eventually die. In this Genesis creation story, therefore, death is natural and immortality is unnatural, a free gift that counters the natural way of creation.

What is most striking about the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures is that there is no time spent lamenting the loss of access to immortality presented in Genesis 2-3. Instead, death as the end of life is taken for granted in every piece of Hebrew literature up until the Book of Daniel, which not only reflects contact with Persian and Greek thought, but also the crisis of martyrdom in religious persecution, which raised problems of theodicy that the Jews had not encountered before in anything like the same extent or to the same degree.

The modern obsession with immortality and afterlife has led to a number of profoundly unsettling consequences, few if any of which I think those who developed the doctrine could have foreseen or even imagined. First, there is the negation of the goodness of the creation, in particular but not only its bodily component. This outlook (which I am ashamed to admit I once held myself, in my teenage years) is responsible for, and/or a consequence of, the viewpoint that the world will soon pass away and be replaced by a perfect spiritual existence. “Don’t bother polishing the brass on the Titanic” is a slogan many fundamentalists will be familiar with, and it is applied to being concerned for the environment or in any way showing concern for ongoing human history. The Earth is a sinking ship, and the fundamentalist Christian is looking forward to getting off, confident in his lifejacket.

There is also an egotism that is typical of American culture, which American Christianity plays upon but merely projects into the future. Whereas the origins of the doctrine of the afterlife are to be found in a conviction that God would change the fortunes of the poor who suffered throughout this life, and would reward the martyrs who were killed precisely because they persisted in obeying God’s laws, in an American context it is about “mansions over the hilltop”, in which the rich of the earth will get to inherit the greater riches of heaven. Such an inversion of a Biblical worldview is a travesty.

I am not opposed to God granting us eternal life. It would be a pleasant surprise, and not at all out of keeping with God’s character. But to focus on it in an American context leads to too many warpings of fundamental Christian values. Some Christians may find this suggestion ludicrous, but I would argue that they are the ones who cannot imagine doing something for God, much less giving one’s life, unless they are going to get something out of it personally. In essence, I hear echoes of the character of the Satan in the Book of Job asking about Christians, “Sure they are generous and put others first – they are assured they will get it all back and more in the afterlife! Do Christians serve God for nothing?” In short, afterlife-centered forms of Christianity insert an inherent contradiction into the Bible, between a focus on rewards as motivation for doing the right thing, and the challenge of the Book of Job that we must be tested to see whether we will do the right thing even if we do not get anything out of it.

That tree of life is a symbol, and this symbol reappears in the Book of Revelation. There the Greek word for ‘tree’ is the same one at times used in reference to the cross. And so as this last book in the Christian Bible takes up an image from the first book, it transforms it in a provocative way. The message is not merely that the cross has become the source of life, but that the meaning of eternal life is to be found in self-sacrifice. As the Rush song “You Bet Your Life” puts it, whatever we live and die for, “the stakes are the same.” The question is whether we will give our lives for institutions and gain, or whether we will give our lives cherishing the value of the lives of others, the moments spent with them. The challenge from Biblical sources is not that different from the challenge posed to us by the film The Fountain: Can we live in the present in such a way that, should God decide to grant us life that transcends the grave, the sorts of lives we live would be ones worth bestowing this gift upon?

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  • Great post James,For all the lip service fundamentalist give for their “love for scripture” (which seems more of an idolatry of their world view to me) I can not imagine embracing such a sterile and out of context view of the biblical creation story by mistakenly reading it as literal historical narrative through a modern/western lens. Even without a background in deep bible scholarship I can see that these stories are far richer when understood as being told through divinely inspired imagery of ancient symbolic mythology. I appreciate your extensive knowledge and your posts on these things; just because I don’t embrace these stories as literal doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot we can get out of these stories as followers of Jesus. Thanks for your insight about the tree of life and its implications on a gospel message that is greater than just “how does one get into heaven”. I want to lean into the way of life of the kingdom now and let the next life take care of itself.Peace,James

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  • Michael Wilson

    The tale of the tree of life is not intended to be the establishment of a problem that some as of yet unwritten chapter of the bible is supposed to solve but merely an explanation of the immutable facts of existence that absolves God from responsibility for the loss of the “Dreamtime” and the establishment of mundane existence. In the Old Testament worldview, the stars in heaven are eternal, and all on the face of the earth destined to return to dust. It is true that Christianity has often taken that an egocentric immortality awaits the true believer, but I think that it is possible to interpret Paul and early Christianity as expressing immortality as identification with God, with those unchanging stars. In this case when one dies, they end their life as John Doe, and begin again or return to total union with God so that we can say that the dead remain with us so long as God exist. I don’t know if that is what they really had in mind, but I wonder if it could be interpreted that way.