The tree of life appears first in scripture in the creation account. In addition to all other kinds of trees that are nice to look at, and nourishing, God makes two other trees: the tree of knowing good and evil (which God prohibits man from eating), and the tree of life (which God does not prohibit).1 After Adam and Eve transgressed and ate of the tree of knowledge, God was true to his threat and made them mortal,2 and also banished them from the Garden so that they would not have the opportunity to eat of the tree of life, and thus gain immortality in their unredeemed sinful state.3
The record in Genesis leaves some unanswered questions. Were Adam and Eve created immortal, only losing their immortality after they sinned? No, God’s warning was that if they ate of the tree they would “surely die.” This seems to indicate that they had the potential to become either mortal or immortal, depending upon their obedience or disobedience to God’s expressed prohibition. They also had the potential to become immortal in their innocent state of creation had they merely chosen to eat of the tree of life instead of the prohibited tree. They were immortable: capable of becoming immortal. This means that human beings had actually two opportunities for immortality: escape becoming mortal by obeying God’s prohibition, or simply taking of the tree of life itself. This was not superfluous. It was merely our gracious God in action, giving his creatures more grace than they deserve.
But why mention the tree of life at all? After all, apparently no one ate from it in the Garden, and we are now banished from going back to Eden. Part of the answer is that, from then on, the tree of life becomes a metaphor for the rewards of righteous, faithful living. 4 Wise and righteous living yields a relationship with God and our neighbour that is as rewarding as returning to Eden.
The tree of life is also a promise of a literal return to Eden. The Prophet Ezekiel speaks of future trees in restored Israel that are watered by a river of life, and are both good for food and healing.5 And in his Revelation, John holds forth the tree of life as a future reality for those who overcome.6 These prophetic images speak of a future immortality for all the redeemed. They remind us that God has a plan for returning humanity to the garden paradise from which he has banished us.
There also seems to be a hint in Genesis of another tree of life that God will offer freely to all his creatures. Through the serpent’s deception, the woman took of the wrong tree and brought death to all who are in Adam.7 But this same woman will give birth to a son who will do battle against the serpent, and will be bruised in the process.8 The Apostles refer to Christ’s crucifixion by saying that he was hanged on a tree.9 Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”10 It is as if God is offering us a second chance at the tree of life if we put our faith in the Redeemer who died on a tree.
So, Moses was not wasting words by telling his readers of a tree in the garden from which no one ate, and to which no one now has access. That tree of life is both the tragedy of humanity’s past and the glory of our future. It told of a potential for immortality that God offered from the very beginning of creation. It is a sad commentary on human nature that – like our ancestors – so many humans are so busy acquiring other things, they do not find time for the most important acquisition of all – eternal life.
That first opportunity was lost. It was restored through Christ, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”11 The gospel is good news because it says that now immortality is available again. We have a second chance at the tree of life.
1. Genesis 2:9.
2. Genesis 2:17, 5:5.
3. Genesis 3:22-24.
4. Proverbs 3:13-18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4.
5. Ezekiel 47:12.
6. Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19.
7. Genesis 3:6, 19; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22.
8. Genesis 3:15.
9. Acts 5:30; 10:39.
10. Galatians 3:13
11. 2 Timothy 1:10.