The Eden Dilemma and the Question of Evil — Part 1

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm


                If we try to imagine life in the Biblical Garden of Eden, we run into a major problem.  Adam and Eve are depicted as living in a paradise of Godly perfection.  Until the appearance of the serpent, there is no evil: no violence, no corruption, neither illness nor death.  The inhabitants can look forward to an eternity of constant goodness.  But they are also both ignorant and naïve, and purposeless.  Adam is apparently given the task of naming everything in the garden, but why?  Is it just busy-work?  He is incapable of failing at the task, because there are no standards against which to judge his efforts.  Making a mistake is impossible, because a mistake would suggest that there are ”better” or “worse” choices; but this is Eden where there is only good.  But what does “good” mean without anything else to compare it to?  And what of Eve?  Except to provide companionship for Adam, she has no purpose at all.  And what sort of companionship can she provide?  What will they talk about?  There is no point in discussing the names Adam is giving the animals, because there is no basis for discussing them.  After Adam says that this animal is a “sheep,” for instance, and Eve acknowledges the name, what more is there to discuss?  It is impossible to ask whether it is a good name, because it must be.  She can’t even ask “why,” because there is no particular reason for any of it.  And if there were reasons they would all be good reasons.  It is an endless, eternal cycle of unrelenting “goodness.”

Except for three important details.  There is forbidden fruit, there is the ability to make a choice, and there is a possibility of desire.

Without knowledge of good and evil, choice becomes meaningless; and without choice there is no point in knowing about good and evil.  So Adam and Eve must have been given the ability to choose.  They must have had free will.  Otherwise, there would have been no reason for God to deny them access to the Tree of Knowledge, because they could not have chosen to eat from it anyway.  But the ability to choose requires that there be a choice to make.  What choices did Adam and Eve actually have?  They could choose to go to this place or that within Eden, but all places were equally perfect.  They could choose to eat any of the fruit from any tree in the garden, but all fruits were equally perfect.  They could interact with any of the animals in the garden, but all animals and all interactions were equally perfect.  Without the forbidden fruit, without a choice, free will had no meaning.  So how could they choose?

In the absence of reason as a basis for choice, we have to have desire.  If it is equally good to eat a peach or a fig, then perhaps we simply need to desire one or the other.  “I think I would like a peach today,” doesn’t require us to denigrate the choice of a fig, only to recognize a momentary preference.  If we do not think about our preferences, but simply respond to them, act on them, then knowledge of good and evil is only necessary if there is the possibility of evil in a choice we might desire.  This is the real meaning of the serpent.  The serpent doesn’t make Eve aware of the choice – she already knows that the fruit is forbidden – the serpent’s role is to convince Eve that she desires the fruit, so that she has a reason to choose it.  And the fact that the fruit is forbidden is an argument in favor of desire, because unless the thing is desirable, there is no reason to choose it, and consequently no reason to forbid the choice.

But there is still a problem.  The forbidden fruit gives Adam and Eve the knowledge that there is both good and evil in the world, but it doesn’t give them clear knowledge of which is which.  This they have to figure out as they go along.  They quickly understand that things have changed; but they have no solid basis for judging those changes.  They find that they are naked, and become ashamed by the knowledge.  Why?  They have been naked all along in Eden, and Eden is perfect, so why should nakedness be shameful?  Apparently, it is the knowledge of their nakedness that is shameful, not the nakedness itself.  Things get topsy-turvy pretty quickly after that.  In Eden, there is no death.  The lion and the lamb lie down together and both eat grass.  Adam and Eve eat only fruit.  But after they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and know that they are naked, Got clothes them in animal skins.  They learn that not only are the animals now killing each other for survival, but that they must also kill in order to survive.  Before the fall, God had created a world in which killing was not possible; after the fall, the descendants of Adam and Eve kill each other – beginning with Adam and Eve’s first born sons – in order to have the things they need and desire;  and even more than that, they kill other animals, make sacrifices, to honor God.  So is killing evil, or good?

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are ignorant of sex.  There is no need for sex, because there is no need for procreation.  In fact, procreation would be a problem, because there is no death.  There is no desire for sex, because there is no knowledge of sex.  Knowledge of sex would be a problem in Eden unless procreation was impossible, because if sexual activity is a choice, then desire may lead us to choose it, and in the absence of pregnancy prevention, choosing it would inevitably lead to procreation.  But is sex, therefore, evil?  Is procreation?  Is everything that did not exist in Eden before the fall evil by definition?  Note that eating the forbidden fruit doesn’t creategood and evil, it simply allows Adam and Eve to know that they exist.  It allows them to see the possibilities for good and evil in the choices they might make, and to consider those possibilities as they choose.

Thus, the lesson of the Garden of Eden becomes not the emergence of evil, or original sin, but the attainment of knowledge, and with it full humanity.  It is, after all, our ability to choose and to give meaning to our choices that makes us human.  Why would God set it up that way?  Perhaps because if good is the direction of God, then maybe God wants us to choose it; to go toward God consciously; to know what it is we are doing.  And we cannot always know which choice is the “good” one because life is more complex than that, and because the experience of life is, itself, essential to understanding the choices.  If it were easier, it wouldn’t mean so much.

An old folk song praises the day that Eve got Adam to eat the apple, because without that we wouldn’t be here at all.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge, in Eden, was the only fruit (other than eternal life) that was not to be eaten.  Now it is the only fruit we must eat.  We must not go ignorantly or accidently toward God (except of course in the case of children or other innocents), but must eat daily of the fruit of knowledge and then choose.

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