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The Garden of Eden and Eternity in Time



The Garden of Eden and Eternity in Time

by Dr. Peter Krey

Part I

I just reread Nicholas Berdyaev’s The Meaning of History, (first published in 1936), a book I read and filled with notes in the early 1970’s. I remembered and alluded to some of Berdyaev’s thought in my “Science and the Hidden and Revealed God,” an essay that I just finished and published in Scholardarity. Nicholas Berdyaev, who was born in 1874 and died in exile in 1948, became a Christian existentialist philosopher after becoming disillusioned by Marxism and Russian Socialism. His book provides a unique Russian apocalyptic vision for the course of World History and his Philosophy of History is very relevant to my concern about the Garden of Eden and how it related to the theory of evolution. The theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) characterizes the Biblical story as symbolic, while Berdyaev can interpret the Garden of Eden as an eruption of God’s Eternity in time.[1]

I don’t think Tillich calls the story of the Garden of Eden “merely” symbolic, but I remember my Old Testament Professor Igor Bellah, who said that it was merely a story that explained why snakes lost their legs and had to crawl on their bellies, why people wear clothes, why they have to work by the sweat of their brow, and why women have to go through labor in child-birth. That was all there was to it for him.

In Berdyaev’s philosophy of time and eternity, he writes that “History is the result of a deep interaction between eternity and time; it is the incessant eruption of eternity into time.” (67) His unique perspective provides more than a symbolic significance to the Garden of Eden and further develops a new approach that I am searching for.

Differentiating celestial and terrestrial history, Berdyaev explains that his “Philosophy of history represents a certain spiritualization and transfiguration of the historical process.” (29). “Christian consciousness [conceives] eternity as manifesting and incarnating itself in time.” (67) “The significance of Christianity as it manifests itself in the temporal and historical process lies in its demonstration that eternity or the divine reality can beak the chain of time, penetrate into and appear as the dominant force on it.” (67)

With the help of Berdyaev my take on the Garden of Eden, which I presented in “Science and the Hidden and Revealed God,” will not posit a unified historical process, but will also take into account the memory of eternity in celestial history, instead of viewing evolutionary pre-history as the only reality. To understand his Christian philosophy of history will take quite a number of Berdyaev citations.

In my previous essay I already cited Berdyaev twice: “For just as there exists an afterlife in relation to individual life, so the great historical paths likewise lead us to such a world.” (29)  Accordingly, the way the afterlife of the individual takes place in heaven, so our historical path of the world is also going to end there. Berdyaev writes that “The goal of historical knowledge is not natural but supernatural (29).[2] In this way Berdyaev posits celestial as well as terrestrial history.

I believe I can reevaluate Tillich’s position by means of Berdyaev’s observation that “The symbol is a bridge between two worlds.” (121) With that definition speaking of the Garden of Eden as a symbol makes some sense. Even the creeds used to be called symbols of the church.[3] The symbol participates in the reality it represents and thus the Garden of Eden is not just a story in the Igor Bellah sense, but tells of the in-breaking of an other-worldly reality, i.e., “eternity or the divine reality breaking the chain of time, penetrating” into our time. Thus the story of the Garden of Eden is the human memory of what transpired in the transition between celestial and terrestrial history.

Berdyaev maintains that “There is no such thing in history as progress from good to perfect on a single plane of development.” (166) Thus we do not get to the Garden of Eden by some kind of progress. But I believe that it can be experienced in some marriage moments and in the faith experience of sobornost, (to use that Russian word), when a group of people become transfigured in a beautiful unity that comes over them for a short while.[4] Berdyaev continues, “The Utopia of a terrestrial paradise implies an absolute humanity within the transitory relations of terrestrial history….An ultimate solution of human destiny [cannot take place] within the framework of terrestrial relations [as] a final integration of the three dimensional world. It desires to humanize that absolute perfection and beatitude which can only be attained in the celestial reality and only contained in the fourth dimension.” (165-166) The path of history concludes in the afterlife.

Berdyaev is concerned with the real end of history, while I have referred to wonderful fleeting moments in marriage and to an experience that took place in my ministry. The latter took place among children and counselors of different races in the last field trip of a summer program. After long faith-based struggles to relate, suddenly we experienced a break-through of unity that transfigured a whole activity into something other-worldly as if happening in slow-motion.[5]

In his book, The Destiny of Man, Berdyaev explains that “A moment may lead us from time into eternity… [because] There are two ways to eternity – through the depth of the moment and through the end of time and of the world.”[6] The marriage and field trip experiences represent his first case: going through the depth of the moment. Berdyaev is mostly concerned with the second case: the end of time and of the world.

Distinguishing different views of the historical process, Berdyaev notes that the Hebrew sense of history is apocalyptic. “To the [Greeks] history had no issue, no goal, no beginning even; in it everything was recurrent, eternally rotating and governed by cyclical motion.” (36) Thus the Hebrew sense of history proceeded in a certain direction, had a goal, as well as a beginning and end. The Hellenic sense of history reminds one of Nietzsche and his Myth of Eternal Return, but also of reincarnation, or should I say “recycled” souls, which were held by the Greeks to be capable of enduring an infinite number of bodies without wearing out.[7] If the same soul is in an infinite number of bodies, then the individual, unique, particular person was not distinguished by the Greeks. In the words of Berdyaev: “The particular had not yet been revealed to Plato.” (25)

According to Berdyaev’s Christian Philosophy of History, the story of the Garden of Eden need not be undermined by the theory of evolution because of the complexity of the historical process. Berdyaev notes that, “Historic criticism and science postulate as the only true state of consciousness and self-knowledge one that is very narrow and superficial.” (34) Thus from the Christian perspective, a celestial history was involved on another plane of development from the prehistoric durations of time in the scientific theory of evolution. For Berdyaev, science operates on a superficial layer of consciousness. “[Religious truth] lies rather in the symbolic revelation [that myths and traditions] offer of the deep processes operative beyond the boundaries dividing off the time of our aeon from that of eternal reality.” (79)

When “ecclesiastical consciousness attempted to impose religion as a compulsory science, it adopted a hostile attitude to science and, in this way disarmed religious truth.” (79) But “the religious content of ancient traditions and myths does not constitute a science of objective knowledge. Nor can it compete with the latter. But it does represent the revelation of far deeper truths bearing upon quite different spheres.”[8] (79-80) Berdyaev notes that “the intersection, the meeting point of terrestrial and celestial history, the origin of man’s terrestrial and celestial destinies [should here] be approached both philosophically and religiously.” (80)

Then Berdyaev writes, “The Christian redemption wrought by the coming of the Divine Man, the God-Man, the Man as the Second Hypostasis of the Divine Trinity, [restored] the power of freedom and the image of high divine origin to Man, thus erasing the imprint of slavery and animal origin.” (104) While nodding to the reality of evolution, Berdyaev points to the central redemptive event and its concomitant end and beginning of celestial history. (If the latter term seems too unfamiliar to us, it can also be understood as salvation history.)

For Berdyaev “Mythology is the original source of human history. It is the opening page of a tale about man’s terrestrial destiny, which succeeded his celestial one and the prologue of which was enacted in heaven. The prologue, which had proclaimed man’s intimate relation with God and his freedom and Fall, is followed by his next act in the natural world in the form of a mythological process.” (78)

Rereading Berdyaev makes me take the following standpoint: because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, believers went back to Jesus’ birth and realized that it too had to be special just like his death. Thus we have the resurrection, the cross, and the virgin birth, along with the birth narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew as a result.

Because history is proceeding to a goal, there will be an end to the world. This end will be the Holy City of the New Jerusalem, coming down out of the celestial plane, down to us – like a bride descending from heaven, as in Revelations; from the fourth dimension, as Berdyaev would say.

So the end of the world is an in-breaking from Eternity, from celestial reality and thus going back to the beginning of the world, (analogous with Christians going back from the resurrection of Jesus to his special birth) there is also the celestial in-breaking from Eternity, namely, the Garden of Eden, where we were imprinted with the divine image and our animal origins in evolution were erased.[9]

Thus to say that the Garden of Eden story is “merely” symbolic is to grant reality only to a very superficial layer of our consciousness. “Symbolic” means that the story bridges celestial and terrestrial history, and knowing that a symbol participates in what it represents, also gives us access to it. The eternal broke into time and God formed Adam and Eve, walked with them in the cool of the evening, and launched divine and human history.

Evolution is a blind and mechanical process, which technically and from a materialistic perspective makes human beings accidents of a blind process. Therefore, according to Berdyaev, “The purely evolutionary doctrine denies that [human] destiny can be a theme of history.” (74) Berdyaev argues that “to admit the manifestation of [human] destiny in world history, it is also necessary to admit pre-world existence; that [human] destiny originated and was determined prior to the establishment of that world of reality where occur all those processes of evolution and development by which the evolutionary theory tries to explain both [our human] origins and [our] further development. [To Berdyaev], such a view can only prove the negation of human destiny”[10] (74-75).

To affirm human destiny, Berdyaev writes: “This primal drama and mystery of Christianity consists of the genesis of God in [the human being][11] and of [the human being] in God.” (59) And “History is, indeed, not only the revelation of God, but also the reciprocal revelation of [the human being] in God.” (59) Destiny for Berdyaev is the Orthodox hope of humans becoming divine. The old Orthodox adage is that for 2,000 years Christians contemplated the significance that God became a human being. Now we need several millennia to fathom the significance of human beings becoming divine.

In other words, a life in God, a touching of the earth by celestial history, providing the human relationship with God, is the beginning point in the Garden of Eden, while the center of all history is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of history will be the Holy City of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse.

Interestingly enough, Berdyaev notes that not only is the crucifixion historical, “Indeed history owes its existence entirely to the presence of Christ at its very heart.” (61)[12]

Where one can go wrong then is to either see only the terrestrial plane of history or to give evolution the deepest layer of historical reality in the historical process.[13] According to Berdyaev, another plane of history has touched the terrestrial one and it is not the superficial layer of consciousness described in science and the evolutionary theory, but the deepest reality, coming out of Eternity, directing the course of our history, from salvation’s beginning until its end.

Part II

Berdyaev’s Philosophy of Time

Berdyaev has a unique Philosophy of Time that very much conforms to his Christian theology. He conceives of time as mechanical or organic. Time can be negative and contain the principle of death, where the future devours the past or when the past blocks the future. In Hegel’s false infinite, time and eternity exclude, are outside, and are hostile to each other.[14] Thus time disintegrates into the past, present, and future. This division of time that we now accept as reality is very different from the mindset of the ancients. Berdyaev writes, “Earlier religious myths and traditions offer no sharp demarcation between eternity and time; and this constitutes one of the greatest difficulties in the way of apprehending ancient religious life.” (78-79)

For Berdyaev, time is not merely phenomenological and peripheral, but noumenal and ontological as well.[15] Time is not merely an internal precondition of perception, as Kant argued, but according to Berdyaev, it is ontological, because “it forms a part of that reality which penetrates into the inmost depths of being[16]….It permeates the interior reality and the core of being.” (64) There is good time and bad time. It is good when time is part of eternity and participates in it and then it contains the principle of life. Eternity brings about the holistic recovery where the past becomes reborn in the future without time-dividing events.

Given Evolution, what is the Fall?

Evolution does not seem to be compatible with the Christian doctrine of the Fall. Thus in following the evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin, I failed to integrate the Fall with the evolutionary perspective. For Berdyaev the Fall is from celestial reality to the terrestrial one and from his standpoint, the Garden of Eden happened prior to the world process (75) and it represents the human memory of celestial history before the terrestrial historical process.

To underscore Berdyaev’s insight once again, evolution erases our sense of human destiny, which can only exist if human beings are children of God and not of the world. (75) Thus where the Fall takes place from celestial history to the terrestrial one, remembered as being driven out of the Garden of Eden, with the angel’s fiery sword preventing reentry; on the terrestrial plane, evolution actually represents the earthly ascent of human beings through all life’s stages until the origin of our species. Darwin entitled his second book, published in 1871, The Descent of Man. His using the word “descent” played into what was experienced as a Fall from the stature of being God’s creations to the latest stage in a blind biological process.

Darwin used the word “descent” in the sense of lineage and not in the sense of lowering human beings into animals, from which in fact he theorized an ascent. When considering evolution and the duration of time in which it took place, it could be considered the womb, in which God created all life as well as Adam’s, i.e., man and Eve, i.e., the mother of all the living. In primordial human consciousness, time could not be separated from eternity (and was not separated, given Berdyaev’s ontological conception of time). Thus the prologue of the Fall from celestial history to mythology, the original source of human history, transpired in heaven (78) and is remembered in the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Paradise of Innocence and the Paradise of Maturity

In the last chapter of Berdyaev’s book, The Destiny of Man, entitled “Paradise: Beyond Good and Evil,” he argues that to place Paradise into the future or hold it as part of the past, keeps our conception of it on this side of eternity. The latter does not divide time into the past, present, and future. “The paradise at the end of the cosmic process is quite different from the paradise at its beginning.” (286) According to Berdyaev, a paradise of innocence presented freedom and the choice of good and evil to humanity. The Fall took place because evil was freely chosen in place of the good. But in the paradise to come, beyond good and evil, people will have freely chosen the good and brought about victory over evil, by the creative regeneration of the wicked.

Berdyaev presents some definitions in this book. Paradise is “the creative transfiguration of the everyday world.” (287) “Paradise is theosis, deification of the creature.” (287) (The finite creature can be filled by the infinite Creator.) Placing our torment with time into eternity makes us feel as if eternity would be filled by static boredom. But on the other side, that is, in eternity, there is a quality of creative dynamism, a movement and striving far more fulfilling that the striving anxious torment of time experienced on this side of eternity.

Berdyaev becomes quite heterodox in some of his statements at the end of his The Destiny of Man. “There can be no individual salvation or salvation of the elect,” (294) because “everyone is responsible for everyone else and [individualism] rejects the essential oneness of the created world.” (293-294) He does not seem to grant an eternity to Hell, although just a short experience of it might seem like one. “Hell is precisely the transference of the life on this side into eternity.” (295) But in eternity, the victory of life vanquishes evil and brings about the ultimate redemption of the wicked. Thus Hell cannot remain standing beside Heaven.

The cross and the crucifixion enter into the bliss of paradise. The Son of God and the Son of Man descends into hell to free those who suffer there. It is through the cross that the ultimate redemption of the wicked takes place. “The Good appears in a new aspect: it does not condemn “the wicked” to eternal torments but suffers upon the cross.” (292) This is Luther all over again: “The only trouble with heaven is that you have to go through hell to get there.”[17] That’s the paradise paradox filled with failure for those who try to break through. The only way through it is through it and it is impossible without amazing grace and plenty of redemption.

By means of his Christian philosophy of history and his philosophical description of eternity in time, Berdyaev helps to attain a new approach to the Garden of Eden, beyond the merely symbolic and mythological interpretations that the theory of evolution seemed to make necessary. In Berdyaev’s describing the historical process in the light of eternity, a myth is not just a story, but an entry into history with the memory of what transpired in heaven. In order to present other realities that eternity brings into time, Berdyaev distinguishes between celestial and terrestrial histories, succeeding in securing the divine destiny of humanity from one that shuts eternity out of time and the memories of both. The Incarnation, that is, the Word become flesh to dwell with us; the original Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem, all represent eternity entering into time in such ways. Berdyaev, in his second book, distinguishes the Garden of Eden or paradise of innocence from the one of maturity to come, where the ultimate victory over evil takes place, where evil is overcome and converted into good by the eternal love of God in eternity, which is beyond good and evil.[18]



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[1] Nicholas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, Translated from the Russian by George Reavey, (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1936), page 68. Henceforth, numbers in parentheses refer to pages in this book.

[2] “Supernatural” is not a Lutheran word: Berdyaev comes from the Orthodox Tradition. One problem with the word is that it relates more to nature and substance rather than to history and relationality.

[3] “Symbol” in this sense means bringing together articles of faith, as well as meaning the expression and confession of faith.

[4] Often the story of the Garden of Eden is called a myth. More concerning the topic of mythology versus history will follow. History deals with particular unique events, while mythology can be understood to happen over and over again. It could be said that these moments come over us. See a song about dying and anticipating paradise that I translated from the German for my mother’s funeral. It is the last item on the page: The Paradise Song

[5] The slow motion picnic scene in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” I believe, tried to represent such an experience. The experience that I allude to, took place in a vacation church school and day camp, where on the last day the children played king of the mountain in the sand dunes of Jones Beach and their motions – suddenly, it seemed to take place in transfigured slow motion.

[6] Nicholas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, (New York: Harper & Rowe Publishers, 1960), page 290.

[7] Eric H. Warmington and Philip Rouse, editors, Great Dialogues of Plato, translated by W. H. D. Rouse, (New York: A Mentor Book, New American Library, 1956), pages 492, 495.

[8] Berdyaev, coming from the standpoint of philosophy and religion, reminds me of the evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould’s two domain theory, sometimes called NOMA, the Non-Overlapping Magisteria of religion and science.

[9] St. Paul writes of the rebirth of creation: that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now (Romans 8:22) how the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (8:19). That could also spell a new Garden of Eden. A favorite Christmas hymn of mine speaks of the way the Incarnation has unbarred the gates of Paradise. The name of the song in English is “Let All Together Praise Our God” and the verse states: “[Christ] is the key, and he the door/To blessed Paradise; / The angel bars the way no more. / To God our praises rise.” In German the song is called, Lobt Gott ihr Christen Alle Gleich and the verse: Heut schleusst er wieder auf die Tür / zum schönen Paradeis./ Der Cherub steht nicht mehr dafür./ Gott sei Lob, Ehr, und Preis.

[10] The position evolutionists take against orthogenesis, which is defined as evolution proceeding straight toward a fixed objective such as the human being, illustrates the theory’s negation of human destiny, supporting Berdyaev’s argument. Even Teilhard de Chardin, who has a theology of evolution, thought that evolution proceeded by groping its way forward. Theodosius Dobzhansky, The Biology of Ultimate Concern, (London: Rapp + Whiting, 1967, 1969), page 117-118.

[11] Berdyaev wrote “man” before we became sensitive to sexist language.

[12] Once when Prof. Igor Bellah had shown in a lecture how everything in Christianity was not unique and had been the content of many a previous religion of many a civilization, the dumbfounded class of seminarians asked him if there was anything unique in Christianity. He thought for a minute and answered, “Only its sense of history.”

[13] Evolution is pre-history in a terrestrial sense, while Berdyaev takes the Garden of Eden as primordial in the celestial sense, relating it to human destiny, instead of a meaningless, biological process, swallowing up our little piece of terrestrial history in aeons of evolutionary durations of time.

[14] A false infinite is limited by the finite. The true infinite includes the finite.

[15] Berdyaev argues that a victory of the temporal over the eternal, separates both from each other and brings death, while “the final transition of the temporal to the eternal would mean a severance from the historical process. Thus a third approach, a third principle, exists which sums up the very essence of the struggle between the eternity of life and the mortality of time. It is the principle of founding the eternal on the temporal.” (68)

This principle is very interesting, because it also reflects the position held by Martin Luther that the finite is capable of containing the infinite, (finitum capax infiniti) from Mother Mary being the Theotokos or bearing the God-Child and indeed the Incarnation itself, where the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, dwelt among us mortal and finite creatures. Those who oppose this principle, holding that the finite cannot contain the infinite, as rational and unparadoxical as that sounds, if they were consistent, would have to deny the Incarnation. Indeed, they do deny that the body and blood of Christ are in, with, and under the bread and wine of the sacrament. The infinite permeates and penetrates the whole finite, because otherwise it would be shut out from the finite, making it a false infinite, according to Hegel’s way of thinking. Berdyaev also alludes to this insight of Hegel. (68)

A little poem expresses infinitum capax infiniti quite well: “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of the hand and eternity in an hour.” William Blake (1757-1827)

[16] Like time inside being, history is couched in eternity as well. “What we call time in our world historical process, in our world reality, which is a process in time, is a sort of interior period, a sort of interior epoch in eternity.” (65) Berdyaev argues that a deep reality possesses its own celestial and divine time. And with that “the very time process itself, which is a world, historical process occurring in time and in our world of reality, has its origins in eternity.” (65)

[17] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), pages 142 .

[18] At the end of Luther’s Bondage of the Will, he writes of the light of nature, the light of grace, and the light of glory. What cannot be understood in the light of nature can be resolved in the light of grace and what cannot be understood in the light of grace can be resolved in the light of glory. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), page 316-317. Berdyaev reasons that the problem of evil will not only be understood, but also overcome. Heaven will be all in all and Hell will be no more. Luther would place those convictions of Berdyaev into the light of glory. See Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, page 291 or the Weimar Edition, Vol. 18, ca. page 787.



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