Sacred Space, a new interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam & Eve

In many religions, a tree brings knowledge, wisdom or enlightenment. But the Tree in the Biblical Paradise brings misery instead, and according to current Christian theology, believe it or not, that was even Gods intention. But if God is Love, and He plants a Tree at the heart of His Creation, wouldn’t that Tree be His most important lessen about Love? And isn’t it the highest of times to finally read the ancient story in a new way?

Under the Tree of Awakening the Buddha became enlightened. The Germanic god Wodan received the secret of the runes while chained to the yew tree Ygdrassil. And the Greek supreme god Zeus was happy to make his will known under an Arcadian Oak.

But in the Bible, evil takes root in Paradise, thanks to the Tree that God Himself planted: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God planted it next to the Tree of Live, of all places. In Genesis we read: ‘The Lord God planted a garden in the east of Eden, and in it He placed the man whom He had made. […] In the middle of the garden were the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.’

The common Christian explanation is simply this: God wanted to make people, not robots. The difference is that humans have freedom of choice. In order to be able to choose evil in that otherwise perfect paradise, God placed a jewel of a tree with delicious fruits, with a prohibition sign in front of it: HANDS OFF!

I’ve always had trouble with that statement. Isn’t God cynical? Plant a tree so we can trip over its roots? When I became an atheist, I sometimes compared it to a dog-owner who locks his dog in a room with a piece of sausage on the table. The moment the dog eats it, he enters the room and kicks the animal out of the house.I told my christian friends, that tried to convert me:  ‘God may not have wanted a robot, but He created a dog.’ (My atheism did not make me a nicer person or a better friend. I became fierce and yes… cynical, exactly what I blamed God for.)

Even more important is the consequence of this interpretation for what Evil actually is. In this view, evil is reduced to breaking a rule. ‘Didn’t I say don’t touch it?!’ Sin is still synonymous in many Christian circles with not doing what God tells you to do. 

I wish that was true. But evil goes much deeper than that.

A ban is a reverse order

‘God is Love’, writes Jezus’ favorite disciple, who in the churches of the East is called John the Philosopher. My book Sacred Space is an invitation to read the primordial story in a new way, but on this basis: if God, who is Love, wants to shape his love in people, it cannot not be a cynical stumbling tree in the heart of his pleasure garden. It must be, has to be a Tree of the Knowledge of Love.

The theologian John Calvin said centuries ago: when God forbids something, he commands the opposite. God makes a prohibition against eating from His tree: ‘You may eat of every tree in the garden, but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; If you eat of it, you will die irrevocably.’ Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Son of God, summarizes all God’s commandments in the commandment of Love: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your fellow man as you love yourself.’ Jesus himself explains this interpretation as fundamental for the interpretation of ‘the entire Law and the Prohpets’, so it most certainly also is fundamental for the interpretation of the original story in the first book of the Law, Genesis.

Later, when Jesus has proven himself to his disciples as the Son of God, he himself issues the commandment of love. ‘My command is that you love one another as I have loved you.’ And a little later even shorter: ‘This is my command: love one another.’

Jesus is saying nothing new there, just as his favorite disciple John also emphasizes that he is saying nothing new. ‘I am not writing to you about a new commandment, but about an old commandment, which you have heard from the beginning.’ He calles the commandment of love ‘the message you have heard from the beginning’, and immediately afterwards says that the sin of Cain, the son af Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel, was: lack of love.

Okay. So: Love. But how is that damn Tree of Paradise Love?

And perhaps the question gradually comes to your mind: will this story be the same sweet love talk that you so often hear all around? Do not worry. Or rather: do worry. The fact that te Tree is God’s core lesson about Love only makes it worse. More painful. As God said to Adam: on the day you eat from that Tree, death will inevitably enter your life.

‘I never go there’

The old brother Johannes (John), priest and Trappist monk in the Dutch abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven, gave me the key to a new way of reading. After a long and personal conversation, he showed me ‘his’ monastery. We walked through the cloisters around the central courtyard. That garden, I knew, is the symbol of Paradise in monasteries. And the tree in that garden symbolizes the tree from the Garden of Eden. I supposed brother Johannes would often be in that garden. ‘I never go there’, he answered. And when he saw my surprise: ‘That garden is the sacred space of God.’ 

That was the key.

I immediately new – although I didn’t know exactly how at the time. And even though I have now written a first book about it, my thinking about it is still developing. But in the meantime, this insight has changed everything, everything.

The Sacred Space of Love

Once, half a lifetime ago, I started studying Dutch Language and Literature at Utrecht University. I wanted to learn to analyze poems and stories. I did that again now, with the Paradise story. Take off old glasses, put on new. All over again from scratch. That led to the next four steps. It turned out to be almost embarrassingly simple and basic. Point by point:

  1. The tree in the Paradise story stands at the heart of Creation. And in literature, an enclosed space (a house, a room, a garden) is a classic metaphor for ‘the world’. So this tree must be dealing with the core of the story. 
  2. The core of the story is love. ‘God is Love.’ Whether you read Genesis as a literary story or as some other form of reality, I cannot think of any other reason for creating the world than love. After all: love wants to be fruitful, to grow, become more, be shared…
  3. So the Tree must be the universal lesson of love. Only then does it make sense in this story for God to place that Tree there, in the middle of the Garden in the middle of the World. The Tree must be the heart of God’s love. 

Are you still with me, reader? Are you following this? Then, finally, the question is what that Universal Lesson of Love is. 

  1. That Universal Lesson is: everyone has their Sacred Space. God, who is Love, too. The pinnacle of Live is when that Sacred Space can be shared. But the condition is: that the other person does not enter that space unless invited. 

That insight changes everything. But of course God does not punish the world so mercilessly for violating a single arbitrary rule! On second thought: God doesn’t even punish at all! He simply says: this is the core lesson of Love: do not cross the boundaries of other people’s Sacred Space unless wholeheartedly invited, because if you do, everything will be destroyed. If you do, death literally enters life. 

That is exactly what people feel when others invade their Sacred Space. Or when they realize that they themselves have infringed on someone else’s Sacred Space.

Sin is not about rules

At the same time, it is now clear that Calvin was right: this commandment also finds its fullfillment in the reverse. Adam and Eve should have joyfully expanded the Sacred Space of the Tree. Mowing the lawn around it, lifting seedlings. Just as people were created to expand each other’s Sacred Space. After all, the more someone becomes his own free self in that Sacred Space, the more you discover of God in that other person. The more you discover of Gods image in your fellow human.

At the same time it is now clear why sin is so deadly. No one dies from breaking a role. But sin is at its core, lack of love.

We, humans, harm each other through a lack of love, not through breaking the rules. If you drive through a red light, you are breaking a rule. But that is not a sin. If you are unlucky, you get caught, and fined. But once you have paid it, you are free – and your conscience will never plague you with it. But your SIN is what happens to that father behind that traffic light, who was just able to hold his little daughter back. She stepped onto the road because her light turned green. You drove through a red light. Wat is your sin? That you didn’t have the love to keep the world safe for that girl. And sin, lack of love, cannot be redeemed with a fine. The girl was shocked and has lifelong fear. The father is shocked and may even start a lawsuit against you – in which you will eventually have to pay money or go to jail, but damages never ease the pain. A sin out of lack of love cannot be undone.

Not even in you, cardriver. Because you now know who you are, what you are capable of. 

Every human being on this earth walks around with unpayable debt. Love guilt. And with irreparable damage. Love damage. That is what the church means, when it speaks about sin and the need for forgiveness. And when she realises that the vicious circle of guilt must be broken from outside. And that breaking the circle of guilt requires superhuman achievement.

‘It has been said, but I say…’

Here is exactly why Christianity does not preach a cheap love sermon. Mere Christianity is never sappy. It is precisely the paradise story – so different from all those other Sacred Tree Stories in other religions – that offers the sharpest analysis of what is going wrong in the world. O yes, in his phenomenal speech that has become known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus delivers his beloved ‘beatitudes’: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will find mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are those who bring peace, for they will be called children of God.’

But only a little later Jesus sharpens it as sharp as the sword that in the original story preserves the entrance to the violated paradise: ‘You have heard that it was said to the ancients: You shall not kill. But I say to you that everyone who is evil against his neighbor will be delivered up to judgement. You have heard that it was said: You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at another with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Then you will become children of your Father in heaven.’

Does Jesus exaggerate? I do not think so. A lot has happened in the short time since the book Sacred Space was published in the Netherlands. Not only the church turned out to be a place of (sexual) sin, but also the world of media, athletics, dance, theatre and so on, have shown to be worlds susceptible for abuse, transgressive behaviour. Worlds that have long be considered paragons of (neo)liberal achievements, turned out to be unsafe.

In the city I was born, Utrecht, devices were placed that echo men with the same filth that men think they can shout after women. How intimidated those men feel! In Spain this year a law has been passed that says that in sexual intercourse only a real yes is a yes. ‘Mutual consent’ has shown to be a deceptive dogma. The boundaries of Sacred Space are paper thin, once the hormones kick in.

And the damage is killing. Death enters life. 

Oh yes, and there is a dirty war going on within Europe. In which women are raped and people are murdered indiscriminately. Also his own people: Putin’s self-confidence is largely based on the fact that he can kill endlessly more of his own men than his opponent can. And so he does.

Jesus is not exaggerating. He rubs it in. He forces us to face it. Perhaps what is most telling is that the abuse scandals first came to light in the chuch. Because thats’s where they hurt de most. 

It does not get any easier when you start listening to Jesus. For then you must enter the abyss of your own heart and actions, and come to the recognition that things are also going wrong in you, that you are not only damaged by the lack of love in others, but that others are also damaged bij the lack of love in you.

What’s wrong with the world?

No. Love is not a sugar verb. At least not in the Bible. Mere Christanity is a razor-sharp analysis of what is wrong in the world. When a journalist once asked Mother Theresa what’s wrong with the church, she replied: ‘What’s wrong with the church?! You, sir, and I.’ What applies to the church, applies to the world. What’s wrong with the world? You. And I. We are what is wrong with the world.

In the Paradise story, it is God who, after Adam and Eve violated His Sacred Space, survives in love. He walks into the Garden of Eden and says: ‘Man, where are you?’ And then it turns out that he is not only the Creator because he created the world, but that Creator is who he is. He is the initiator from the beginning. We humans are in a spiral of lack of love. Even when we belong to God, of try to belong. Belonging to God means admitting that you are not succeeding. That you can only pronounce the word love with the mud of lovelessness on your face. Every church is a loser’s church. But also: the church is a community of wounded people, who do not have to pretend that they are not injured. 

And who pin their hopes on the Beginner of Paradise. The One that planted another tree next to the Tree of Knowledge of Love: the Tree of Life. After lovelessness has sset in, with all its consequences, God sends man away from paradise. By doing so, he prevents humans from also eating from the Tree of Life. Because Life, real Liefe, is written with the L for Love. And now that we have become so very miserable as it comes to love, eternal life would be eternal death. We are destroyed by (our own) lack of love. But thank God not forever.


We do not know whether our interpretation of the Paradise Tree holds up. Other theologians will have to judge that. But we do know, that seeking, expanding and sharing the Sacred Space (of God, of others and of yourself) is the Universal Lesson of Love.

What would happen if the world learned this lesson? That we no longer have to claim our own Sacred Space, fight for it and defend it? That everyone is out to expand one another’s Sacred Space, because someone else who blossoms in Sacred Space will show you more of who God is?

Then something happens that is surprisingly similar to Paradise. ‘Turn around’, says Jesus. ‘Start thinking differently. For the Kingdom of God is so close.’

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