Review of The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, Part Five

Immortality and Resurrection: Conflict or Complementarity?

In this final chapter, Barr discusses the line that has divided those who have been proponents of immortality and those who favor resurrection. Those who favor immortality speak of a soul that exists apart from the body and lives on even when the body ceases to live. Those who favor resurrection tend to reflect the modern view that man is a psychosomatic unity, and that life exists only insofar as the body exists.  He observes that these two camps have historically lived in conflict with one another. Barr examines the dynamics that have driven each of these camps and weighed the implications of their positions. His discussion is, as always, thoughful and thought provoking.

Barr concludes that the biblical material does not necessarily support one view over against another. For Barr, the biblical material is inclusive of a number of differing views:

We have seen that the Old Testament and the following period of Jewish thougth left various themes open: immortality of the soul, resurrection of some few, general resurrection, no resurrection at all, ‘eternal life’ earned and enjoyed here and now, and other eschatological schemes. (113-14)

His treatment of the story surrounding the Garden of Eden has sought to legitimize the perspective of immortality in light of the overwhelming emphasis presently (in his day) placed on resurrection.

Immortality, then, was on the biblical agenda from the very beginning, with Adam and Eve. in the Garden of Eden there was the tree of life. The human pair might just have got to that tree, but they did not, because God stopped them; no one was to enter the Garden, and the cherubim with flaming sword stood there to guard the gate. Humanity was not fit to come near the tree. Nevertheless the tree remained there in the garden. Later one came to redeem the defect of humanity. Immortality was brought to light. (116)

Reflections

Barr’s analysis of the Garden of Eden story has both strengths and weaknesses. Barr does an exceptional job of asking the types of questions people often never think to ask of this story. Sometimes, these questions are meaningful and lead to significant observations. In particular, Barr’s understanding of death (chapter 2) contributes significantly to correcting a misunderstanding of the theology of death in the Hebrew Bible. This leads him to reject the Augustinian reading of Paul that interprets the Genesis 3 as an ontological fall. His insight into these issues is particularly keen and worth engaging.

As to the thesis of his work, I remain unconvinced that immortality is the main concern of the Garden of Eden. I do not doubt that immortality is a theme that is not insignificant to the story, but Barr’s concern regarding the conflicting or complementary nature of immortality and resurrection in Scripture seems to have created a somewhat imbalanced reading of the Tree of Life over against the (more prominent) Tree of Knowledge. Much like the five Olympic rings, there are overlapping themes in the Garden of Eden story, none of which can claim to be the central or main theme of the text. Furthermore, it seems to me that the conclusion in Barr’s final chapter can be reached regardless of whether or not immortality is understood as the main concern of the Garden of Eden story. I don’t know how arguing this (instead of highlighting it as a theme in the story) helps him to arrive at his conclusion.

The book will prove an excellent resource for those interested in certain exegetical questions regarding the Garden of Eden story and especially the theology of death in the Hebrew Bible. Those interested in systematic theology will benefit from the discussion in the final chapter.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

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