The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Crana...
The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Peter 2.14 is hardly the sum total of the doctrine of theosis, but it is what gives us a sound start and finish when we begin to explore it. St. Athanasius puts it like this, “God became human so that humans can become divine.”

What if this was God’s plan all along? That we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 2.14)? Indeed, if one starts in Genesis 2 and then goes to the last few chapters of Revelation, we see a great cosmic plan, ]], that does not merely recapitulate itself, but has this circle of life that prepares us for something else. Let me explain.

In Genesis 2, we are told there are 2 trees in this Garden. The Garden should be seen as the cosmic temple, and I believe if you know your Book of Kings (x2) you will immediately understand why I suggest this. In this Garden, God gives the first covenant — this is yours, he says, except for this one tree. What tree? It is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was one that related to more than moral information. It included a valued knowledge that would be necessary in order to have the ability to make a clear distinction between what was beautiful or ugly, helpful or harmful, approved or disapproved. Knowledge is obtained from instruction, but what is done with that information can be either good or evil. Putting knowledge into life requires the ability to discriminate between the two.

The ]] says the same thing. The merism of “good and evil” is meant to represent not merely the extremes, or opposites (good v. evil) but everything in between. But, it goes deeper. Good and evil are not merely right and wrong. Knowledge is not merely the intellectual understanding of right and wrong, either. It is, rather, the knowledge that comes from experience.

I know that a red burner means the stove is hot. I know that if I touch it, I will burn my hand. However, I know this two ways. One, I was always told that. Two, because I did not listen, I touched it and it burned my hand.  This is experiential knowledge and understanding.

Growing up, one reads the great love stories. We even “fall in love” throughout our adolescent years. We fantasize what it would be like to be loved. Why? Because we have read about it and believe it is necessary to our existence. But, we know only of it by word of mouth. Perhaps we see it too, with our parents or caregivers. But, we do not really know love until we experience it ourselves. (And because love is so elusive, we may not really know it then!)

Returning to good and evil for a moment, Bonhoeffer captures well what it is meant here. He writes,

Good and evil, tob and ra, thus have a much wider meaning here than good and evil in our terminology. The words tob and ra speak of an ultimate split in the world of humankind in general that goes back behind even the moral split, so that tob means also something like “pleasurable”  and ra “painful”  (Hans Schmidt). Tob and ra are concepts that express what is in every respect the deepest divide in human life. The essential point about them is that they appear as a pair, that in being split apart they belong inseparably together. There is no tob, nothing that is pleasurable/good/beautiful, without its being always already immersed in ra, in that which is painful/evil/base/false. And what is painful/evil—in this wide sense—does not occur without a glimmer of desire for pleasure, which is what makes pain so completely pain. That which is good, in the sense of tob, is for us always only something that has been torn from evil, that has passed through evil, that has been conceived, carried, and borne by evil. The luster of the pleasurable/good is its origin in evil, in its overcoming of evil, to be sure, but in the same way that a child overcomes the mother’s womb, that is, in such a way that the good is enhanced by the greatness of the evil from which it has torn itself. To us Ignatius is ‘greater’ than Francis, Augustine is greater than Monica, Hagen is greater than Siegfried.

Good and Evil can be the same as pleasure and pain, wealth and woe, joy and hurt. This is a phrase, I contend, for the sum total of human experience. This is what it means to be human, to experience everything — individually and corporately.

But, did it have to be that way? I do not wish to step into the realm of the mystery of suffering, or theodicy, but maybe it did have to be this way.

Perhaps God wanted us to be more than human. If humans had stayed only in the Garden, we would not know the beauty of the rest of the world. If we had never lost, we would not know gain. If we had never hated, we would not know love. If we as a species had never warred, we would not know peace — if we had never killed, we would not know the value of life. Again, I speak not about an intellectual understanding, but that knowledge that can only come from having experienced it.

St. Justin Martyr said, “…but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves…yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve.” (Trypho, CXXIV)

Perhaps it was God’s plan to always have us become partakers of the divine nature, to be more than human. Surely, the divine has experienced all of the things we do. As Christians, we believe that the suffering of Christ was not limited to the suffering of the physical body. Does God grieve with us when we grieve? Is God joyful when we are? Think about the wide range of experiences God shares with us (as mentioned in Scripture). Then, remember that what Scripture mentions is not the total of the Infinite.

When the command is given, followed by the prohibition of “you shall surely die,” remember, the opposite — unsaid of that command — is, “but you will surely life.”

If this tree is meant to represent the totality of what it means to experience everything (good and evil is a merism), does that mean that at some point that experience will be over? Perhaps that is why we no longer see that tree at the back of the book (of the Christian canon). The only tree remaining is the Tree of Life (Revelation 22.2) and it is for all nations to gain healing.

If we look at Christian Scripture as a great cycle, or circle, we begin with a tree that promises to reveal what it means to experience everything, continuing with a goal from God to become sharers in the divine nature, and finally ending with that tree no longer there but with the hope of life from eternity. Or, we see that the human experience is necessary to achieve, through Christ, the chance to become a sharer of the divine nature. Indeed, this view must transform what the Incarnation means as well.

Genesis 2 begins with a covenant and Scripture continues to build on that covenant until the final consummation, when we are simply with God. How is this achieved? As the Fathers knew, it is achieved only through Christ.