I have always found the concept of Heaven to be fascinating. One of the first questions I asked myself as a kid was,
"Will I like Heaven when I get there?"
As the underlying motivation behind Christianity, it was an important question to consider.
Immediately I found problems with the Christian view of Heaven. The qualifications for deciding who should get to Heaven seemed a little dubious. The Catholic idea of being judged by our consistency in performing certain rituals sounded a little shallow as criteria for eternal like. And the protestant view that nothing is taken into account except submission to Christ, seemed like a very fuzzy proposition as well.
The first issue I had was with the apparent uniformity of Heaven. Here was a place that everyone inhabited, with all their differences and uniqueness, and yet for each Heaven is the epitome of bliss.
A perfect Heaven, with no moral choices, no contrasting views or conflict between individuals, didn't seem like a place which I would find very interesting.
Of course, I could do without the hate and deceit and unfairness that we experience on a daily basis, but the Heaven described in the Bible speaks only of harmony, love - and of course praise and worship. There was no celebration of the individual, or personal achievement, or learning or growing as a person.
Overall, the bible appears to suggest that, once stripped of evil and sin, the human spirit is also stripped of its individuality.
This didn't seem right to me. I had always felt so unlike others around me, and I found it difficult - and disheartening - to think those differences represented all that was evil about me.
I also didn't think much of the idea that I'd be spending eternity singing praises to God. For one thing, I can't sing to save my life, and always hated that part of Church. As well, most of my own personal pleasures had nothing to do with God. To exchange those personal pleasures for something I really didn't care to do anyway did not appear to make for a very satisfying afterlife.
But since I still felt I needed a better understanding of Heaven, I examined the only specific example of a physical, literal, Heaven-like place described in the Bible: The Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.
In the Book of Genesis, the Bible tells us that in the beginning the world was “good". And the Garden of Eden was chosen by God as Man's dwelling place. Little else is said about this world God had created for Man, aside from the obvious about dominion over animals and to go out and multiply and so forth - but all that sounded pretty much like the world now, so it didn't help me much in understanding Heaven.
So, instead I examined the event that is at center of this story: the casting out of Adam and Eve by God for eating the forbidden fruit. I decided the key to understanding Heaven must lie in this act which gets them banished from it.
Genesis mentions two specific trees that exist in the Garden of Eden. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Only the Tree of Knowledge, which stands in the center of the Garden, is given a location.
Whether you believe Genesis is talking about literal trees and fruit or not, I think the most significant question to ask is why such a forbidden tree was in the Garden of Eden in the first place. If the Garden was God's perfect vision, and the closest we've ever gotten to Heaven, why was it there? And should we expect a similarly nefarious surprise upon entering Heaven?
The only other tree mentioned in the Garden, the Tree of Life, was obviously not touched by Adam or Eve, although it doesn't seem to be forbidden to them.
We know this because in Genesis 3:22, it tells us this:
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. "
From this verse I think we can conclude two things: 1) eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a significant step in becoming like God, and 2) the final step toward Man's godhood would be eating from the Tree of Life, granting Man immortality.
The most surprising thing to me is that the happy couple chose the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which was forbidden, over the fruit of the Tree of Life, which granted immortality. After all, immortality would have given them plenty of time to come up with a better plan for sneaking some fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The fact that they made such an obvious mistake makes it clear that the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge not only bestowed a knowledge of Good and Evil, but a capacity for rational thought as well.
In fact, I'll bet the first thought they had after eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was, “Shit! We should have eaten from the Tree of Life instead!"
Imagine how different things would be if they had. . . But let's skip on from this regretful thought, to examine the sin itself.
In Chapter 2, verses 16-17, God tells Adam and Eve:
"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. "
Even at this early stage, it is made clear that death is the threat which motivates obedience. But two things stand out for me about this statement. First, if Adam and Eve had never experienced death, how was this an effective deterrent? But even more peculiar is why God uses the threat of death in association with the Tree of Knowledge. Wouldn't that have been better served as a punishment for taking from the Tree of Life?
Shouldn't the punishment for taking from the Tree of Knowledge be spending an eternity as a blithering idiot? . . . oh, wait. They already were.
It becomes apparent that God was actually lying to Adam and Eve about the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit. They would most surely die, but not as a consequence of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It would have been more truthful to say that they would gain an understanding of their own mortality, which would have been scary enough for someone who had never encountered death.
We know that this is true because of God's words as quoted in Genesis 3:22. Here he reveals not only that the Tree of Life would grant Adam and Eve eternal life, but also that they had not yet eaten from it. Neither had he forbidden it.
If Adam and Eve became mortal as a consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, then they must have bee immortal prior to committing the act.
But this can't be true when considered with the mention of the Tree of Life. Why would it be mentioned, and why would God express concern about them eating from it if they had already been immortal?
Therefore Adam and Eve were mortal before they had eaten of the forbidden fruit, in which case “death" could not have been the consequence for taking from the Tree of Knowledge.
The final step in our journey to understand Heaven, is to examine the sinful act itself.
Defining exactly what sin Adam and Eve were actually committing will give us an idea of what will not be permitted in Heaven either, bringing us one step closer to a truer picture of that elusive place.
On the surface, the sin is obvious: disobedience. But, as our legal system knows, motive is 90% of the crime. And there is only a single motive they might have had for stealing the forbidden fruit.
Before the eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve had no concept of Good and Evil. Therefore they could not have had any evil motivations. Or, if they did, they could not have been aware that they were evil.
Basically, their sin was about as complex as a baby who reaches out to touch a hot stove even though mom or dad had told them not too.
Adam and Eve's terrible sinful act was simply one of innocent curiosity.
With this in mind, God's terrible anger and punishment seems just a little overreactive.
But when you think of it, is it really that surprising? It has been a tradition for millenia of large religions to crush individual curiosity as a threat to doctrine. Killing heretics, dissenters and basically anyone that had the tenacity to ask questions about religious truths that did not make sense to them.
Even more interesting is how this brings us full circle to our initial investigation into Heaven.
Heaven's missing ingredient is personal individuality. And what else is the ultimate expression of individuality than personal choice? And what drives our personal choices? Curiosity.
But is this really that surprising? The history of the Christian Church, the Jewish faith and plenty of secular doctrines have shown us that the first
Since they had yet to eat of the fruit, they could not have any concept of what that knowledge would be, so they could not have had any clear intentions. In fact, since evil enters into the situation only after they partake of the fruit, their motives could not be as complex as an intention to show God up by disobeying him.
No, without possessing evil or the understanding of it, the only possible motive they could have experienced would be innocent curiosity.
Eric W. Austin has been considering the question of Christianity for more than twenty years. Founder and creator of the immensely popular but controversial The Need for God Blog , Eric continues to rock the boat and bring new ideas and questions to the subject of God's existence and the meaning of Reality.