Why was it wrong to eat the forbidden fruit? Four Views…

Posted by on Apr 19, 2016 in Blog | 4 comments

Ever asked, ‘so what was so bad about Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden?’ Do you remember the account in Genesis 3? A serpent persuades Eve (who in turn persuades Adam) that God’s instruction that they refrain from eating from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was misguided, and would not result in their death, but rather in their being like God, and thus having the ability to differentiate good from evil. Adam and Eve find the argument persuasive, eat from the tree, and in Christian theology this is seen to trigger what is usually called The Fall – the horrendous fall from grace both of Adam and Eve and the entire human race. Not only do they lose their right to live in the idyllic Garden of Eden, but their sin separates both them and their offspring from God – for they were representatives of the entire human race. As if to highlight how great the fall was, shortly after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, we read of the account of their one son Cain, killing their other son, Abel. The impact of the Fall is quickly felt in the most painful of ways.

But back to our original question. What was so bad about Adam and Eve eating this fruit? Was God’s response an enormous over reaction? Here are four common answers to this question… And there are others, but four are enough to start with.

View 1: A deontological answer: Rules are rules

Those who are impressed with rule based ethics (a deontological approach if you remember a post from a while back) have little trouble in answering the question. God gave them a clear order – they were not to eat from this tree. As the Creator of all, God clearly had the right to devise any rule at all, and as the recipient of God’s good grace in creation, it was only reasonable that humanity should obey. True, we could dig a little deeper and argue that God was perhaps testing their love and obedience by giving them a choice (to obey or not) – as without the opportunity to disobey they would have no freedom, and is love love if it does not originate in a setting of freedom? However, this moves beyond the strict mandate of a deontological appoach to this question. In this approach, God issued the order, and God should be obeyed. Any violation of an order from God is an act of rebellion and deserves the consequences that result.

View 2: They were deliberately choosing evil

Think about the name of the tree. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are told repeatedly that after each act of creation, God looked at what was made and declared it good. After the creation of humans the declaration was that they were very good. So Adam and Eve lived in a good/ very good garden. Clearly then the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could not teach them anything about good. They already knew the good, and experienced it on a daily basis. The decision to eat was therefore not motivated from a desire to know more about good, but to learn (through experience?) that which they did not know – evil. The decision to embrace and explore evil is always misguided… And that is to put it mildly. The deliberate choice to explore the realm of evil is evil… No other word for it.

View 3: The act symbolised their desire to stake their independence from God

This is the position that Bonhoeffer argues in the opening chapter of his book Ethics. Bonhoeffer notes that the serpent informs Eve that rather than death resulting from eating from this fruit, they will become like God, knowing good from evil. Why would they want to be like God? So that they would no longer be dependant upon God and could make future decisions without having to consult an external authority. Rather than having to ask God, ‘is this the right thing to do?’  they would know the answer automatically. In essence, they anticipated that God’s use by date could be brought forward by this action, and that in future they could rule the world unaided. God could be thanked and then declared surplus to requirements, and released to a long retirement. In support of this line of thought, we could cite Genesis 11, where we read the account of the Tower of Babel. Again a question begs to be asked: ‘Why was it wrong to build a tower to reach heaven?’ True, the exercise was futile – would a tower in the ancient world reach much higher than 7 or 8 stories – but why react so strongly as to scatter the human race and to divide it by introducing different languages. Talk about an over reaction… Was this God’s mega bad hair day? The answer is a firm ‘no’. In essence, in building this tower, humans were again shaking the fist at God. Their thinking was ‘if we can build a tower to reach heaven, we can get to heaven without God’s help.’  As in Eden, God’s help would no longer be required. God could be declared surplus to requirements and dismissed for an eternal retirement.

In short then, in this view, eating the forbidden fruit is evil because of the underlying desire and attitude it displays. It leads to the Fall because at heart it is the Fall – it is saying, God we don’t want you around any longer.

View 4: The Fall as a positive choice of growth and maturity

Undoubtedly this is the most controversial of the views, and you certainly won’t easily get it from reading the Genesis 3 account. But in one way and another, from Gnosticism onwards, there have been those who suggest that the Fall symbolises the coming of age and maturity of the human race. Advocates of this view who attempt to reconcile it to the biblical account ask why God would place the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the centre of the Garden of Eden if it posed a real danger. ‘Surely,’ they say, ‘it was always only a matter of time until it’s fruit would be eaten. God would know this… And must therefore have approved. Whilst the instruction was “don’t eat”, that was in essence like telling a child not to do something you know they ultimately will – but you want to delay it until they are old enough.’

In this stance, without the Fall, humans would have been perpetual infants.

Hmmm, whilst I think the first three views have merit, this one doesn’t really impress me. I always struggle with those who suggest that the biblical account actually means the opposite of what it says. But lest we throw out the baby with the bath water, let’s acknowledge that at least one good think came out of the Fall.

‘Good coming from the Fall?’ you ask. ‘Surely not.’ Except for this… Without the Fall we would never have fully realised the depth of God’s love for us. That is not at all the same as saying that the Fall was good, but it is a recognition that God has the ability to bring good from even the most broken of situations. It is the insight of Genesis 50:20 when Joseph reassures his brothers (who years before had sold him into slavery) ‘what you intended for evil, God has worked for good…’  And indeed, evil though the Fall undoubtedly was, God has used it to demonstrate that the love of God is greater than our sin, rebellion and evil. God’s love is greater… God’s love is greater… God’s love is always greater.

Nice chatting…

4 Comments

  1. Love your work and words Brian.

    • Thanks Geff. I enjoy writing, so putting the blog together is fun, and helps me to clarify my thinking.

  2. I’ll just throw in this thought I had while reading. In view two it states “They already knew the good, and experienced it on a daily basis.” Could it be that this is only half true? Yes they experienced good on a daily basis but did they really already know good? To them wasn’t it the norm and they had nothing to compare it with, can not knowing evil mean that they really didn’t know good but it was the natural state? I don’t know, just a thought I had.

    • Yes, that is an interesting thought. If you don’t know the opposite, can you really know what you have? I guess they quickly did afterwards…

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