I enjoy reading the Islamic commentaries and answers to questions at arabnews.com and have posted links to interesting articles previously on this blog. It is also one of the places that I glean ideas of questions that my readers may have about God and his ways, and how to interpret differences in perception among the Abrahamic faiths in the one God. So here is an answer to a question that is nicely explained, and then my commentary.
Q. As children we learn that Adam and Eve were sent down to earth, after they had been living in heaven, as punishment when Eve committed the great sin of disobeying God’s express orders. However, it was God’s will and design that man should live on earth. It is He who created the universe and made the earth suitable for human life. Please comment.
A. Let us clear first the myth that it was Eve, or Hawwa as her name is pronounced in Arabic, that was responsible for that sin and the fall from heaven. The Qur’an does not distinguish between the fault of Adam and that of Eve. On the contrary, in surahs 2 and 7, the Qur’an attributes the sin of eating from the forbidden tree to both of them together. In one instance, the Qur’an puts more blame on Adam: “They both ate of its fruit; and thereupon their shameful parts became visible to them, and they began to cover themselves with pieced-together leaves from the Garden. Thus did Adam disobey his Lord, and thus did he stray into error.” (20: 121)
It is true that it was always God’s design to place man on earth. This is clear in His announcement to the angels about the forthcoming event: “Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am appointing a vicegerent on earth.’ They said, ‘Will You appoint on it someone who would spread corruption and shed blood, whereas we celebrate Your praises and extol Your holiness?’ He said, ‘I surely know that of which you have no knowledge.’” (2: 30)
So, why were Adam and Eve placed in heaven first? We understand that this was all to give them the experience of what may happen when they disobey God and listen to the temptation presented by the Evil One. They were thus equipped to fight temptation. Their endeavors to steer the right way would thus be more successful. This was all by God’s grace who did not wish man to start life on earth without thorough knowledge of right and wrong, and how to do more of the first and less of the second.
First, one must understand that the Bible in the Old Testament contains much more information about the exact same events than is contained in the Qur'an or was revealed to the Prophet (PBUH) simply because the Bible contains details of the shared history as explained to Moses many hundreds of years before either the Christian Gospels (which chronicle Jesus) or the Qur'an were gifted. The Qur'an, everyone agrees, is a book that was given to the descendants of Abraham who became the Muslim people, and that was its purpose. Thus the Qur'an did not attempt to provide more detail of ancient Biblical events in faith history, but rather less material, in order to stay true to its purpose. The purpose of the Qur'an and the Prophet's mission was to gift the people who would believe with understanding that they belong to the heritage of Abraham and to "reintroduce them" back to God, in a matter of speaking, since they lived among pagans and idolaters. Think of Muslims as being descended from a child who was separated from knowing about his or her birth parents and ancestors. The Qur'an was given to the Prophet (PBUH) so that he could understand that the Muslims are part of salvation history, are direct descendants of Abraham, and have a "personal relationship with God." So much of the ancient times are given to the Muslims as kind of "quick recaps" of their shared origins, and not an attempt to either replicate in length what is in the Bible or to provide as much or more detail.
Understanding that, and if you read the Qur'an you recognize its very lyrical and poetic structure, God tends to explain things in simple ways that people can easily understand. Thus Muslim children are taught that Adam and Eve were "with God in heaven before being on earth." This is both true but also a simplification. Adam and Eve were "with God" but that is because God brought what you can think of as a "corner of heaven" or a "piece of heaven" to earth, simply because heaven "travels along with God" where God resides. Eden was Eden precisely because God was "there" on earth with Adam and Eve. (That does not mean, obviously, that he was there in his entirety, because God is constantly throughout all of creation and constantly present in the heavenly realm, even when he is an apparition on earth).
The reason that this is misunderstood is that not being Bible readers, obviously, Muslims do not have access to other examples of what it is like when God is present on earth and "brings heaven with him." People who have read the Bible are able to cite a number of examples, and thus better understand that while Adam and Eve were "in heaven," they were also physically on earth, but living within heaven's grace in its tangible form on earth due to the presence of God. Here is the scripture that explains that God is physically present with them on earth.
Genesis 3:6-11 The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. When they heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God then called to the man and asked him, "Where are you?" He answered, "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself." Then he asked, "Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!"
So you will notice that it is not a matter of Adam and Eve literally being floating up in heaven, and that makes no sense because they were made from the clay and dust of the ground by God in the first place. However, they were in "heaven" in the sense that unlike any humans who ever existed, they actually lived within God's physical presence on earth. God made himself present to the miraculous extent that he even walked as any human would during the cool and breezy time of the day, he used a voice to speak to them, and they could hear the sound of his footsteps. Heaven is God's realm and it "travels with him," so to speak. And thus Eden, being graced by God's actual presence on earth, was a "corner" of heaven that Adam and Eve occupied. They fell from heaven, in the sense of being "sent to earth" as Muslim children understand it, when God withdrew his presence and thus heaven away from the corner of earth that was the Garden of Eden. It's more like the carpet of God's grace was pulled out from under them and removed, and thus they had their feet "on earth" and had to face the hardships of life on earth without being protected and glorified in God's presence as they were originally.
When is the next time that we can describe heaven as being "on earth" in the accompaniment of God? When God appears to Moses and consents to travel with the Israelites. Here is a portion of the scripture that describes how Moses erected a tent that became filled with God in his presence, and thus was also a corner of heaven.
Exodus 33:7-11 The tent, which was called the meeting tent, Moses used to pitch at some distance away, outside the camp. Anyone who wished to consult the Lord would go to this meeting tent outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and worship at the entrance of their own tents. The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another. Moses would then return to the camp, but his young assistant, Joshua, son of Nun, would not move out of the tent.
Here you can see that it is like the tent that is pitched each time the migrating Israelites stopped to rest during their exodus becomes a "corner of heaven" that God chooses to occupy when Moses needed to consult with him. That is the meaning of the column of cloud, demarking that the realm of God is within. Thus the meeting tent is like Eden in the sense that it is a small earthly portion of God's realm by virtue of his presence, but it is not like Eden because it is not designed to sustain humans in grace and glory, since they had forfeited that right. However, Moses was the first and only prophet or patriarch who was able to meet face to face with God and God treated him as his friend. Here are two more examples of how Moses interacted with God, not in a sense of having a dream or vision, but God being physically present and thus bringing along with him a portion of what heaven "is like."
Exodus 33:17-23 The Lord said to Moses, "This request too, which you have just made, I will carry out, because you have found favor with me and you are my intimate friend." Then Moses said, "Do let me see your glory!" He answered, "I will make all my beauty pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my name, 'Lord''; I who grant mercy to whom I will. But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives. Here," continued the Lord, "is a place near me where you shall station yourself on the rock. When my glory passes I will set you in the hollow of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face is not to be seen."
Exodus 34:5-9 Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with him there and proclaimed his name, "Lord." Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, "The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers' wickedness!" Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own."
Exodus 34:27-35 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with them I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." So Moses stayed there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. [Notice that Moses, like Adam and Eve, is totally sustained from any need for food or water when he is in the presence of God. Again, that is accurate to say he is in "heaven" in the sense of being in God's glorified presence and having no earthly needs]. As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the Lord. When Aaron, then, and the other Israelites saw Moses and noticed how radiant the skin of his face had become, they were afraid to come near him. Only after Moses called to them did Aaron and all the rulers of the community come back to him. Moses then spoke to them. Later on, all the Israelites came up to him, and he enjoined on them all that the Lord had told him on Mount Sinai. When he finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses entered the presence of the Lord to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the Israelites all that had been commanded. Then the Israelites would see that the skin of Moses' face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the Lord.
No human has ever had such a personal friendship and relationship that spanned many years on the physical reality of earth as did Moses with God. Moses in a very important way restored the bond and trust that Adam and Eve had broken with God. Yes, Abraham was the cornerstone of restoring the relationship with God that would provide humans with the beginning of their salvation history with God, which is ongoing to this very day. But Moses was privileged to see a physical manifestation of God, and to experience and absorb some of the glory of heaven, as no other has or will. Future appearances of God would be in the form of an angel of God being sent, with two notable exceptions. These are the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, both of whom witnessed a physical presence of God on earth and with, what we are discussing here, the bringing of a "portion" of heaven along with God to earth.
Isaiah 6:1-8 In the year king Uzziah died, [that is known to be 742 BC by the way], I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two their veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" they cried one to the other. "All of earth is filled with his glory!" [These words are repeated, by the way, each time a Catholic Mass is celebrated, in imitation of the angels glorifying God in their own words]. At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. "See," he said, "now that this had touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." [It is from this event, by the way, that Catholics learned to understand that no one can be in the presence of God without being purified using fire from his altar, and that therefore this will happen to all who merit entering heaven, the process of which we call purgatory, from the word "purged."] Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" "Here I am," I said, "send me!"
You can discern reading that passage, which describes the calling of Isaiah to God's service, that God in his power and glory entered into the room of the temple, bringing with him his seat of power in heaven, the throne, the seraphim and "the train of his garment," which is, just as we saw when he appeared to Moses, smoke and clouds. Thus this is another example of God bringing a part of heaven wrapped around his holy presence down to earth. The shouting of the seraphim, heavenly beings, was enough to make the temple shake.
There is a very lengthy description of the prophet Ezekiel's viewing of the glory of God and components of heaven that accompanied him. I have selected here passages that provide the total picture for you.
Ezekiel 1:1-4 In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month [Jewish scholars know this to be July 31, 593 BC], while I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens opened, and I saw divine visions. On the fifth day of the month, the fifth year, that is, of King Jehoiachin's exile, the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the Lord came upon me. As I looked a stormwind came from the North, a huge cloud with flashing fire [enveloped in brightness], from the midst of which [the midst of fire] something gleaned like electrum. 13. In among the living creatures something like burning coals of fire could be seen; they seemed like torches, moving to and fro among the living creatures. The fire gleamed, and from it came forth flashes of lightning. 22. Over the heads of the living creatures, something like a firmament could be seen, seeming like glittering crystal, stretched straight out above their heads. 23. Beneath the firmament their wings were stretched out, one toward the other. [Each of them had two covering his body.] 24. Then I heard the sound of their wings, like the roaring of mighty waters, like the voice of the Almighty. When they moved, the sound of the tumult was like the din of an army. [And when they stood still they lowered their wings.] Above the firmament over their heads something like a throne could be seen, looking like sapphire. Upon it was seated, up above, one who had the appearance of a man. 27. Upward from what resembled his waist I saw what gleamed like electrum; downward from what resembled his waist I saw what looked like fire; he was surrounded with splendor. 28. Like the bow which appears in the clouds on a rainy day was the splendor that surrounded him. Such was the vision of the likeness of the Lord.
Ezekiel 2:1 When I had seen it, I fell upon my face and heard a voice that said to me: Son of man, stand up! I wish to speak to you. 22. The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he said to me: Get up and go out into the plain, where I will speak with you. 23. So I got up and went out into the plain, and I saw that the glory of the Lord was in that place, like the glory I had seen b the river Chebar. I fell prone, but then spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and he spoke with me.
This is not only a detailed description of this appearance of the Lord God, but notice that the appearance of God and the accompanying part of his glory of heaven that he brings with him is actually moved from one place to the other. God first appears to Ezekiel by the river, and then when God instructs him to get up and go to the plain, Ezekiel witnesses that the entire tableau of God's presence is now there. Further, a year later, in Ezekiel 10, God with his angels, whom Ezekiel now recognizes as cherubim, appear again in glory again, this time near where Ezekiel lives at the Temple. This has been dated as being on September 17, 592 BC. Again God appears with his throne in the firmament, and is thus another example of God "bringing" a part of heaven "with him" in a sense when he makes these visitations of his glory to earth, rather than when elsewhere in the Bible he sends an angel, such as an Angel of the Lord (an angel through which God directly speaks) or a representative who speaks for God, such as Gabriel.
There is another example of God opening up the boundary between earth and heaven and that is described during the martyrdom of the first Christian, St. Stephen.
Acts 7:54-59 When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them"; and when he said this, he fell asleep [died].
To wrap up, let me point out a few things. Notice that it is only during the time of the ancient Israelites, and the time of Adam and Eve of course, that God actually appeared on earth in his glorified form, bring with him the actual "firmament" of heaven. God did not do the same thing during the time of the Christians, having sent Jesus Christ to represent him, and making his voice and his will known as described on several occasions in the Gospel, and God did not do the same thing when he gave the Qur'an to the Prophet (PBUH). We only have in those "modern" times the example of St. Stephen peering upward and seeing into heaven to view God as Stephen is dying. This is why it is important to read all of sacred scripture and not select out passages, looking for a quick "description" or "answer." There is a huge amount of insight to ponder by looking at all of these four examples (Adam and Eve, Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel) of how God chooses to present himself and in what form. For example, I've been dismayed and in fact angered when I realized that some "new age" unbelievers like to extract the Ezekiel visitation by God and use that to "justify" that "aliens visited earth in flying saucers." When one reads the entire Bible and comprehends what one is reading, rather than trying to have a dark agenda, it is obvious that God is the only one who is electing to visit humans on those occasions and specifically his original chosen people. It is impossible to read the entirety of God's relationship with Moses and then jump around the Bible "looking for evidence of flying saucers." That is, of course, what cultists seek to do even with the Muslim faith, where I know that some try to twist the story we started this discussion with, how Adam and Eve started their existence in heaven, as making that a warped case for "Adam and Eve were aliens who flew down to earth on flying saucers." The souls of innocent children who have had to listen to "elders" who are unbelieving idolators and pagans have been damaged, and I cannot describe to you how many and how serious a crisis this has been, and remains. That is another reason, other than my usual reason of wanting to enlighten and spread the glory of God, and witness to him, and praise him, that I spent so much time on this subject this night. I am constantly having to purify and purge the garbage that many have fallen into by providing proper instruction in divine matters. I only pray that this does some good and that I see the fruits of the labor someday soon.
Many Christians are fascinated with the last chapter of our New Testament, called Revelation or Apocalypse. The only reason I do not mention it in this posting is because it does not fit our criterion of discussion, which is instances where God appears as himself, in the fullness of his glory, bringing some part of heaven's firmament with him. In Revelation St. John is taken to heaven; God does not come to earth to reveal to John, it is as simple as that. Revelation 1:10 I was caught up in spirit on the Lord's day and heard behind me a voice as loud as a trumpet. 4:1 After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpetlike voice that had spoken to me before, saying, "Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards." 2. At once I was caught up in spirit. A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian.
I hope that you have found this helpful.