Getting Back to the Garden or Moving Into the City

Artist rendition of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Artist rendition of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

If there’s one thing my wife and I respectfully disagree on its the preferred place of our home. Both of us grew up in similar environments out in the country, reasonably far away from anything resembling an urban or even suburban environment. The interesting thing that happened is that I ended up with a desire to move closer to the city while she wanted to stay in the country. I was okay with a smaller house and a small yard if that meant I could be within walking distance of the store and any number of things that living in an urban environment can bring. She preferred to be further away from urban life to have a bigger house, bigger yard and potentially enough space to keep horses. She is definitely country and I am most certainly rock and roll.

Now, this is not a post about my marriage and where we’ve chosen to live, but it got me thinking about something I read a bit ago in The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight. In the book, he highlights the story of Scripture in trying to get Christians to move beyond “salvation” as the end game of the Gospel but to see the Gospel and our salvation in light of the story of Scripture. One of the ways he illustrates that point is the transition scripture makes from a garden to the city. Scot writes:

“God originally placed Adam and Eve in a garden-temple, but when God gets things completely wrapped up, the garden disappears. Instead of a garden in Revelation 21-22 we find a city. The garden, in other words, is not the ideal condition. The ideal condition is a flourishing, vibrant, culture-creating, God-honoring, Jesus-centered city.”
Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel p. 35

Like the push and pull between my wife and I, it seems like the church struggles with a pull back towards the innocence of the Garden in Genesis and a push to the developed City of God in Revelation. I know that my experience in church always seemed to have this “pull” back towards the Garden of Eden. We believed that the Garden was the default condition and that since the Fall, humanity had moved away from God’s plan in the Garden. The goal then was to get back to Garden and that Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed for the movement back. The concept that God wanted to “pull” us back into the Garden state, however, had a few issues. Any move “forward” was perceived with a healthy (and potentially unhealthy) dose of skepticism. Bar codes were the precursor to the “mark of the Beast” and even grocery loyalty discount cards were considered a slippery slope in that direction. Science was the enemy of faith as each new discovery could be considered an attack against God. Higher education was a place for losing ones faith if not properly grounded. On and on it went with a wary eye towards anything that moved someone away from the original, “innocent” state in the Garden. This resistance, also called conservatism, attempted to slow the push of society towards what was considered a dark future. The ideal was in the past and we needed to try and get back to that ideal as much as possible.

What this focus on the Garden misses, and something that Scot highlights, is that God seems to have created us to move forward. The Garden may have been the original state but that does not mean that it was to be the final state as well. God seems to have given humans the capacity to grow, develop, create and build. God gave Adam and Eve the responsibility to work and tend the Garden (actually, the whole Earth) and I imagine they would have devised more efficient ways to work, would have looked up at the stars and wondered how to reach them and might have even wondered how these God-given bodies of ours actually work. There seems to be a push towards new discoveries and development.

The dark side of the push forward was displayed fully when the story tells us that the curious and inquisitive nature of humanity caused Adam and Eve to choose to eat the fruit. Why would they have chosen to eat it without wondering what would actually happen if they did? The temptation of the push towards the city is further hammered home in the Tower of Babel story. Here humanity defies God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” and to spread out over the whole Earth. Instead they choose to settle down, build their own city with a tower that will reach the heavens so that they might be famous. The God ingrained push towards development and growth can be distorted when it becomes about making a name for ourselves rather than for the sake of humanity, community, respecting the image of God and bringing honor to God. Babel is a rejection of God’s push towards a healing, community building city. Babel is a narcissistic, dominating, and distorted image of the city God wants to move humanity into. Like Scot pointed out, Revelation 21-22 gives us the image of the city God desired for humanity to grow into.

“Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”
Revelation 21:25-26 (NRSV)

“Then the angel showed me 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. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Revelation 22:1-2 (NRSV)

The city that God wants to bring us to will welcome and honor the diversity of nations rather than return us all to an innocent and homogenous state. It’s gates will never be shut, never be threatened and will be open to all who wish to enter. The tree of life exists in the City of God but it is not only for the giving of life, but it is for the defeating of death and the healing of nations. Death will have no power and can no long be used as a threat. The city will be a community gathered for the glory of God to be the people of God.

In a small way, this is what the Church should look like.

So, do we dream too much of the Garden and refuse to move into the City? Are we always trying to “get back” into Eden while missing the promise of the City of God?

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