Immortality and the Tree of Life

Tree of Life

In the midst of the street thereof, and on both sides of the river, was the tree of life, bearing twelve fruits, yielding its fruits every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Apoc. 22:2).

In Paradise, Adam was given a command by God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death” (Gen. 2:17).

Of every other tree Adam was told that he should eat. One of those trees was the Tree of Life: “And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of: the tree of life also in the midst of paradise . . . And he commanded him, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat . . .” (Gen. 2:9, 16).

The fathers of the Church have taught that the fruit of Tree of Life conferred bodily immortality, incorruption, and integrity (perfect health) on our first parents.

With their Fall and their subsequent restoration to grace, had Adam and Eve been allowed to remain in paradise, that Tree would have continued to give them and their children immortality. But this could not be because they had been warned by God of death for the sin of disobedience and that sentence was delivered by God as punishment for their sin, for themselves, and for all their descendants, even though Adam and Eve did repent. The guilt was forgiven in mercy, sanctifying grace restored, but the punishment for the crime was exacted in justice.

The fathers and doctors see the Tree of Life as a figure of the Holy Eucharist: “To him, that overcometh, I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of my God. . . . Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb: that they may have a right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city” (Apoc. 2:7, 14)). Could the Eucharist be the Principle of our own immortality in a glorified body after the general resurrection? Father Feeney thought so. Indeed our Lord’s own words to His Apostles at the Last Supper can be interpreted to refer to a “Holy Communion” in heaven: “And I say to you, I will not drink from henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father” (Matt. 26:29). “New”! — that is to say, in a glorified body, in eternity. The meaning of the words could be symbolic, which is to say that the drinking of the “fruit of the vine” may mean the joyous heavenly camaraderie of the saints. Or, it could mean the Holy Eucharist under the species of wine.

I have a question. It is speculative, but worthy of consideration by those who know better than I.

What if Adam had not sinned? Would his children and all men have needed to eat of the Tree of Life to preserve their immortality?

There are several things to consider here.

There would always be saints and, even without original sin, there would presumably also be sinners. Though all would have been conceived in grace, through the just seed of Adam, all would not necessarily have persevered. Would sinners also have had bodily immortality from the fruit of the Tree? The answer, I think, is yes.

Would the Tree of Life have granted immortality forever? No. At some point, even with the gift of the Tree of Life, each man would have been called to render an account; life on earth, the trial, would be ended, although not through the separation of body and soul. The just would be taken to heaven (purgatory perhaps for most) and hell would be the lot of unrepentant sinners.

The Franciscan theologians traditionally held that even if Adam had not fallen that there would have been an Incarnation of the Son of God. And there would have been a sinless Virgin Mother of the Incarnate God. His Name would still have been Jesus, for He would still be “Savior” to the blessed, but He would not have been a Redeemer, for there would have been no original sin. The Dominicans, on the other hand, held that there would not have been an Incarnation. They employ, to support their opinion, the scriptural references concerning Christ’s redeeming mission. the angel said to Saint Joseph that Christ came to forgive sins by His redemptive suffering and death, “And she {his wife] shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name JESUS. For he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). And Saint John the Baptist proclaimed in testimony of Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

In the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas teaches that the Tree of Life would have conferred immortality with or without Adam’s fall:

“It is written (Genesis 3:22): ‘Lest perhaps he put forth his hand, and take of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.’ Further, Augustine says (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19 ‘A taste of the tree of life warded off corruption of the body; and even after sin man would have remained immortal, had he been allowed to eat of the tree of life.’” (Prima Pars, Q. 97, Art. 4)

Saint Thomas likewise teaches that the power of the human soul in grace before the Fall would have preserved the body’s integrity from corruption, but neither this power nor the Tree of Life would have absolutely preserved immortality, for only the resurrected body will be “living without corruptibility.” In other words, all bodily things are finite by nature, and must come to an end, even if that end be not death. With the renewal of the earth, however, after time is at an end, the material universe will endure in a prefect state and be forever at rest.

Here are some other accentuating points made by Saint Thomas in the same article, Question 97:

“The tree of life in a certain degree was the cause of immortality, but not absolutely. To understand this, we must observe that in the primitive state man possessed, for the preservation of life, two remedies, against two defects. One of these defects was the loss of humidity by the action of natural heat, which acts as the soul’s instrument: as a remedy against such loss man was provided with food, taken from the other trees of paradise, as now we are provided with the food, which we take for the same purpose. The second defect, as the Philosopher says (De Gener. i, 5), arises from the fact that the humor which is caused from extraneous sources, being added to the humor already existing, lessens the specific active power: as water added to wine takes at first the taste of wine, then, as more water is added, the strength of the wine is diminished, till the wine becomes watery. In like manner, we may observe that at first the active force of the species is so strong that it is able to transform so much of the food as is required to replace the lost tissue, as well as what suffices for growth; later on, however, the assimilated food does not suffice for growth, but only replaces what is lost. Last of all, in old age, it does not suffice even for this purpose; whereupon the body declines, and finally dies from natural causes. Against this defect man was provided with a remedy in the tree of life; for its effect was to strengthen the force of the species against the weakness resulting from the admixture of extraneous nutriment. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 26): ‘Man had food to appease his hunger, drink to slake his thirst; and the tree of life to banish the breaking up of old age’; and  ‘The tree of life, like a drug, warded off all bodily corruption.'” (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19)

“Yet it did not absolutely cause immortality; for neither was the soul’s intrinsic power of preserving the body due to the tree of life, nor was it of such efficiency as to give the body a disposition to immortality, whereby it might become indissoluble; which is clear from the fact that every bodily power is finite; so the power of the tree of life could not go so far as to give the body the prerogative of living for an infinite time, but only for a definite time. For it is manifest that the greater a force is, the more durable is its effect; therefore, since the power of the tree of life was finite, man’s life was to be preserved for a definite time by partaking of it once; and when that time had elapsed, man was to be either transferred to a spiritual life, or had need to eat once more of the tree of life.”

Finally — pardon me but my mind is wandering beyond the pale now — If Adam had not sinned and all men had a need to eat of the Tree of Life to preserve their immortality, how would that have been achieved, for the children of Adam would have been dispersed far beyond the Garden of Eden?

Well, who can imagine what kind of world it would have been without the Fall? Adam lost his gifts of wisdom, infused knowledge, and science. For one to travel from California, let us say, to the Garden of Eden, in a world untainted by the dullness of being “damaged goods,” would have been an effortless walk in the woods, or a speedy flight through the air by means of little strap-on, CO2 emission-free, turbo-rockets. Perhaps it would have been no problem at all, perfect weather, as well, along the way. Immortality would make the journey well worth the cost. And it need only be made once, or twice, God permitting. Now I surely disgress.