But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
— Genesis 3:4-5
A Salesman of Death -or- selling coal to Geordies
In Genesis chapter 3, we hear of how the Serpent, or the satan, slithered up to our primordial parents to tempt them into rebellion and death. His sales pitch was based particularly around three offers, as he said, ‘For God knows that when you eat of it 1) your eyes will be opened, and 2) you will be like God, 3) knowing good and evil.’ For some sceptics with a wry sense of humour, this makes the devil the first teacher of critical thinking, the hero of the piece. For some Christians of a more anti-intellectual persuasion, it means that the knowledge of good and evil—maybe even knowledge in general—is always under suspicion as perhaps being of diabolical origin. If Satan talks about it like it’s a good thing, it must be a bad thing.
That understanding may make sense, until a surprise comes in the New Testament, when we see each of these things being alluded or referred to as positive. In Ephesians, St Paul writes about his prayer that the Christians there would ‘have the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened’ (Eph. 1:18), that is, he prays that their eyes would be opened. In his second epistle, St Peter says that through God’s precious and very great promises, we ‘may become partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). That is, Peter says one of the great things about becoming a Christian is that you will be like God. Finally, the writer to the Hebrews rebukes his letter’s recipients, saying that they are living on spiritual milk, when ‘solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.’ (Heb. 5:14). That is to say, you are supposed to know good from evil.
The devil makes three promises, but is selling coals to Newcastle. Each time, he promises Adam and Eve something that the Christian now receives in Christ. I suggest that we may therefore safely say that God had always planned for humanity to have their eyes opened, to be like him, and to know good from evil. The sin of Adam and Eve was not so much in the desiring of those three things, but in the means by which they wanted to attain them—to take, rather than receive. The devil doesn’t have his own clay, as the saying goes, all he can do is try to pervert our usage of the gifts of God, so that we misuse or abuse them instead of receiving them with thanksgiving. There is no such thing as evil, it is only the privation of good.
What is the knowledge of good and evil?
In the light of Hebrews 5, we know that some way of knowing good and evil is desirable, a sign of maturity and a manifestation of the power of discernment that comes from knowledge of the word of God and from serious reflection upon it. Maturity, I think, is the key word here, and the knowledge of good and evil is a sign of our passage from infancy into maturity. In Galatians, Paul locates our passage from infancy into maturity as being our passage from the law into the spirit. Those under the law are sons under a schoolmaster, immature and awaiting their full adoption into sonship and their liberation from the elements of the world. It is the movement from an external law to the internal law, written on the heart by the Spirit, fulfilled in love.
We also see from the former prophets that the knowledge of good and evil (2 Sam. 14v17; 1 Kings 3v9) is connected to kingship and to judgment. This too is the work for which the church has been called and is being prepared: ‘Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?’ (1 Cor. 6v2). This alerts us to the fact that it is something we ought to desire.
The ‘Knowledge of Good and Evil’ seems to be, simply put, the maturity and wisdom to live after the heart of God, making correct moral decisions as we live our lives individually, in our families, churches, and communities. Given the fact it is described as a good thing later in Scripture, the property of kings and mature sons, I think we can say with a reasonable confidence that Adam at some point would have been able to eat from it, that God would have declared all foods clean to him. The sin was a premature attempt to attain that which had been neither earned nor bestowed.
Will we be able to sin in the new creation?
This is an FAQ that I have heard fretfully asked far more often than I have heard it satisfactorily answered: will we be able to sin in the new creation? After all, we know that there is a tree of life in New Jerusalem, but there is no tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why is that? Did the Almighty finally realise that bad things happen when you give people too much choice, and so just take the temptation away? That problem grows if you argue that God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden because genuine love depends on free will and the ability to reject God. Then, we are forced to say that God has settled for mindless robots worshipping him the second time around. Is the whole new creation simply the Trinity’s Plan B, this time with no chance of sin because there’s no chance of freedom?
But there is a way out of that dilemma: the reason that there is no tree of the knowledge of good and evil in New Jerusalem’s central park is because humanity will have reached its destiny: the knowledge of good and evil.
Here, it becomes important to distinguish between two types fo perfection. The Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, even Jesus himself, at first, were perfect in one of these ways. Jesus Christ, over time, became perfect in both, while the others, over time, became perfect in neither. The first type of perfection is a kind of moral perfection, the second is a kind of teleological perfection (there may be more correct terminology I’m unaware of as a mere hobbyist — my apologies). All things were created ‘very good’, unspoiled and unstained, and yet incomplete. Of course everything in Eden, including humanity, was perfect in the sense of there being no sin, but none of it was perfect in terms of having fulfilled its potential. Had it already reached perfection in that sense, Adam wouldn’t have been given any work to do — no improvements could have been made. Even maintenance would surely be an unnecessary task in a land where the effects of sin have not yet begun to move things towards disorder.
The writer to the Hebrews, as well as praising the knowledge of good and evil, also says that Jesus had to be ‘made perfect’, learning obedience through suffering (Heb. 2:10; 5:9). It cannot be that Jesus had any moral imperfections, but there was a sense in which Jesus Christ had to be fitted for his purpose — perfected — which was not a process of removing deficiencies, but of gaining virtue (i.e. we say he learned obedience*, rather than unlearned disobedience; cf. Luke 2:52, Jesus increased in wisdom, but did not repent of foolishness).
When we reach the blessed state of the new creation and the beatific vision, we will not sin. Not because we will have been robbed of our freedom, but because we will finally have attained it, not because we will have become slaves, but because we will finally have been revealed as sons. The good things Satan promised were things God had been planning on giving us all along. In some sense, the devil was right all along about how humanity would end up: when the second Adam makes all things new, at last our eyes will be opened, we will be like God, and we will know good from evil.
* I think this is to say that the Son of God did not meaningfully have to submit or obey, being of one will with the Father, before his incarnation. He had to ‘learn obedience’, since he had never had to do it before.