Is morality the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

apple on tree

This past weekend, I got to hear my favorite podcast preacher Jonathan Martin live for the first time at Renovatus Church, preaching a sermon about the Garden of Eden titled “Playing God.” He made a number of provocative claims, one of which was basically to say that morality is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

A lot of times when Christians talk about Adam and Eve’s sin, they reduce it to an abstract disobedience of God’s command, as though the nature of the fruit that God prohibited Adam and Eve to eat is completely irrelevant. The forbidden fruit isn’t from any old tree; it’s from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So why haven’t we considered whether the sin of Adam and Eve is one we might be repeating every day: the need to have all the answers about good and evil? Specifically, if what we take away from reading the Bible is an entirely comprehensive, stand-alone moral system that is perfectly clear and self-interpreting, then we don’t need a living, personal relationship with Jesus because we’ve replaced Him with our morality, a.k.a. our knowledge of good and evil, which is precisely the fruit that Adam and Eve ate.

Let’s step back a minute to notice how completely counterintuitive the Garden of Eden story is. I’ve written about it several times, but I’ve never noticed this dimension to it. Doesn’t gaining the knowledge of good and evil seem like the most worthy purpose for reading a sacred religious text? You would expect the Bible to begin with some kind of positive statement about the knowledge of good and evil; instead it begins by saying that it’s the very fruit that is the basis for humanity’s fallen state.

Whoa, wait a minute! Don’t we argue all the time that the purpose of the Bible is to give us the knowledge of good and evil in the form of “Biblical principles” for better marriages, parenting, financial management, workplace leadership, etc? A vast majority of the Christian publishing industry is devoted to selling the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

If it weren’t part of Adam and Eve’s story, it would be absurd to have a negative connotation of this fruit. We might even use it as a marketing phrase in our advertisements about the Bible: “This book contains all the fruit you will ever need to be filled with the knowledge of good and evil.” To have the knowledge of good and evil, and act on this knowledge is about as basic a definition as you could provide for what it means to be a moral person. So why in the world would morality itself be the evil fruit that is the basis for all sin? There could not be a more oxymoronic-seeming claim about the nature of morality.

But maybe sin and immorality are two different things. They are at least two different ways of conceptualizing problematic human behavior. I’m not so interested in and I can’t entirely remember the technical definitions that philosophers use to distinguish morality from ethics (one has to do with character and the other with relationships, I think). What I’ve found is that in its popular usage, morality frames behavior as a question of correctness. To be immoral is to do something that is incorrect according to a particular moral code. It only works to view human behavior in terms of morality or immorality if you believe in a finite set of rules that are the extent of your responsibility to God and other people.

Sin, on the other hand, means “missing the mark.” It doesn’t necessarily require breaking a specific rule; it means that you didn’t excel perfectly at loving God and loving your neighbor which no human has ever done besides Jesus. To say in a prayer of confession to God, “We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart,” is incomprehensible to a person with a moralistic understanding of human behavior because if you have done all of the proper things that have been explicitly spelled out for you, then it’s irrelevant whether or not love was a part of the equation. You have behaved morally if you have fulfilled the expectations satisfactorily according to their explicit specifications. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were precisely like this: meticulously moral people who utterly lacked genuine love for God or other people. They were sinful because they were moral as a substitute for being humble and merciful.

The Great Commandments to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself are infinite commandments. No one can possibly live up to them, and it’s not because people are utterly immoral or our concept of goodness apart from Christ is infinitely nihilistically corrupted, or any of the other tough-sounding but Biblically unsupported claims of the fundamentalists. It is simply the case that love can be perfected ad infinitum. We will always miss the mark because the mark is forever retreating before us into infinity. Now the interesting thing is that people who are immoral in terms of correct behavior can actually be better lovers of God and other people than their moralistic neighbors, which is basically what Jesus said when he said to the Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).

Insofar as it reduces human behavior to a finite set of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” morality creates people who do a very good job of staying out of other peoples’ business and avoiding any behavior that can be criticized. But it cannot create a Good Samaritan who stops to help a bleeding man on the side of the road on the way to Jericho. Only mercy can create a merciful person. And here’s the thing: mercy is a much better catalyst for loving behavior than a supposedly exhaustive knowledge of good and evil.

Our mercy is awakened when we receive undeserved kindness from others, particularly and chiefly when we understand in our hearts and not just as a matter of correct doctrine that we stand only on the mercy of God. Mercy cannot be awakened if we are meticulously focused on making sure that we deserve only respect and kindness from others because we have acted and spoken perfectly. When we do have mercy, our morality goes far beyond a perfectly correct fulfillment of explicit expectations, because we are motivated not by a love of our own correctness but by a need for the other person to feel God’s love as deeply as we have, which is an abyss of endless potential.

For a moralistic person, “Thou shalt not steal” just means don’t take anything that obviously belongs to somebody else. For a merciful person, “Thou shalt not steal” means that you chide yourself every time you find out that somebody else needed something that you could have given to them even though there was no moral obligation for you to do so. A merciful person doesn’t need to flip open to a chapter and verse in the Bible every time they face a moral decision because God’s covenant has been written into their hearts as He promises to do in Jeremiah 31:33.

So we should not be pursuing the knowledge of good and evil when we read the Bible; that’s eating the same fruit that Adam and Eve ate. Instead we should be reading the Bible to discover the love of God that makes us more loving. Sadly, too many Christians want knowledge rather than love because knowledge gives us a feeling of power. It makes us think we can be like God, exactly what the serpent tricked Eve into believing. But knowledge itself, even perfect knowledge of good and evil, has no power to make us like God at all. It is love that makes us like God, and only God can be the origin of love; we can only be its recipients and conduits.

32 thoughts on “Is morality the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

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  4. This is a hugely interesting post and there is a great deal to contemplate and explore in it. But what do you make of Gen 3:22: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil”?

    • Ah… I dealt with that in my follow-up piece. Read the one I wrote about doctrine and love. Yeah Genesis 3:22 is a huge scandal.

      • I’ve just read that one tonight. I’m not an inerrantist but I’m not sure about explaining it away as you did (I hope that’s not being unfair to you) – I feel there must be a deeper answer although I don’t know what it is. I’m going to discuss that with one or two friends I think. Anyway, you’ve given me your answer so thanks for that, and you’ve given me more food for thought.

  5. Very thought provoking… The mediating term that I’m missing, though, is virtue. As I see it, the rules of morality are simultaneously a crude expression of the outlines of the virtues and a framework for learning the virtues. The virtues themselves and the character containing them are fruits of the Spirit.

    Or, to restate the old conundrum between the Law and the life of grace in the Spirit: how does a Christian *pray* Psalm 119?

    • Actually I did that once: Going through Psalm 119 completely changed the way I read the Bible. I don’t know how to explain what the difference is, but to me, it’s not an “owner’s manual” you flip through in order to find an “answer” in response to a particular life situation. It’s rather poetry that you’re engraving into your heart continually so that your “Biblical” living is organic and instinctual. The more deeply that I have “ordered my steps in God’s word,” the more that I live Torah, again not as a propositional/deductive process but as an intuitive breathing out of truth into my life rhythm. Maybe I just like saying it in a way that sounds “hippie” and mystical, but I think there’s a substantive difference. I’m just trying to learn how to articulate it.

      • I would agree with you on your perspective and how we read. And, again, I think that “virtue” and “character” are a significant part of the answer. I don’t think that Paul’s adoption of Stoic categories, or those that influenced the author of 2 Peter should be overlooked, and these were primary concepts for them.

          • No, I’m referring more to the importance placed on character and the acquisition of virtue as a key component of the moral/ethical life.(The sarx/pneuma duality does appear at times in Stoic language but tends to be deployed differently from the Platonic model that denigrates the physical. The Stoic use is a moral judgement while the Platonic is usually more of an ontological statement.) The rhetorical figure of the climax “ladder” in the Greek) and its use in 2 Peter and in Paul is a classic example of Stoic ethical teaching; see 2 Pet 1:5-7 in its setting of the larger discussion (2 Pet 1:1-11) of faith as gift/grace/power from God. Likewise, see its use in the same kind of context in Romans 5:3-5.

            Furthermore the idea of the imitation of models of life was ethical patterns is quite big in Stoic circles—see Seneca’s letter 11 as an example; this grounds Paul’s exhortations that Christians imitate him and, in doing so, imitating Christ. Why imitate? So that we might take on the same character and virtues of him whom we imitate. Thus, Colossians 3:1-17 is a classic statement of the Stoic vision connected with Christian proclamation. While it does use the earthly/heavenly duality, the point is not on the denigration of the physical or material but rather states of moral worth.

  6. Wow, another rocking good post. Lots to chew on here. And I guess I really should get around to listening to one of Jonathan Martin’s sermons.

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  8. When you know God loves you, not just believe in it, or repeat words about it, but know it, you know immediately and forever that sin is simply anything that would lessen that knowledge. You don’t need a list. Being good is just what you do because you are so changed by the knowing. When you know God’s love, wanting disappears, because God’s love is the everything. So the challenge is not to memorize the rules, but to seek God’s love more and more, and in real life that means loving other humans, and the universe they see, more and more. When you practice that love you know God’s love.

    The Good Samaritan got more from helping the beaten man that the beaten man did. When he left the injured man he felt God’s love so fully that it was as if he was walking on air. The Good Samaritan was making love in the real sense of those words.

    The father of the prodigal son had the best night of sleep in his life after sharing the vastness of his love to his older son, and feasting with his forgiven son.

    Here’s my take on the apple metaphor: God loves us so much that God is even willing to allow us to freely disobey Him, injuring nobody but ourselves. God knows that the acts of our disobedience and God’s willingness to love us despite those acts (what we call grace) are the things that will teach us best about Him.

    Two observations about the story that are telling to me. One is that God tells A&E that if they eat from that tree they will die. Now, maybe God meant that eating this would turn them from immortals to mortals, that they would die eventually on account of these funky apples. But I always read it as if it was an apple full of strychnine. Take a bite and you will drop on the spot is how I saw it. And when they don’t die immediately I wondered why. To me it says this, Humans do lots of disobedient things, bad things, for which we should probably all be killed, but God doesn’t kill us.

    He must actually really love us.

    The second thing is this: I always interpreted the things that happened after we ate the apple (I mean A&E ate the apple) as God getting angry at us. But I don’t see it that way anymore either.

    This apple is the metaphorical symbol of our evolution from animals with no prefrontal lobes to animals with prefrontal lobes. We evolved, reflecting the nature of God, to the point where the quantity of our grey matter changed the quality of our being. We are the fruit of God’s universe, made in God’s image in that we can know him because of how far we have evolved. While we gained a new relationship with the source through this evolution, we also gained new capacities for pain and sorrow.

    Ignorance was bliss. Once we lived up to our evolution, that version of bliss was gone. God’s lamenting our banishment from the Eden of bliss is simply a statement of what is, not a curse. Now you will know that you are mortal. Before we found out we never thought about it. Monkeys don’t think about their death. Who is better off? We are, because Monkeys can’t sin and so can’t be forgiven. They can’t know God’s love at that higher level.

    We struggled as predicted until it was time again for quantity to reach the stage of change in nature.

    We call that moment Christmas.

    Christ came to tell us that it was time for the new way to begin. Like the first flower of God’s human evolutionary chain in a world of leaves, Christ came and told us, and tells us still, that we are all ready to flower if we are willing. We are God’s love flowers if we want to be. If we are ready to love and forgive we can be his human blooms.

    We had to struggle forward from Adam and Eve to the appearance of Christ to become prepared for that way. This is why Jesus says those truly perplexing words, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

    • Love this comment! Thank you. I do agree that I don’t experience myself having a list of commands that I actively contemplate as I consider how to obey Christ. It is more of an intuition that I live in according to the level of focus in my meditation on God’s love for me.

  9. I always considered morality to be a man-made concept, where as love and mercy are the fruit of the Spirit and therefore to be accorded to all our neighbors. Good post.

  10. Wow. What a thought provoking essay. Another good one.

    Consider adultery…is it wrong because of the law, or is it not committed, no matter how we might yearn for someone else, because we know it will cause hurt to another?
    And what of the Commandments? Do we try to follow them because they’re the ‘law’? Or do we respect them because we love God?

    Morgan, sometimes I get so frustrated with you I want to turn away. Iron may sharpen iron, but sparks will fly.
    But then you write something like this one. Thank you.

    • Don’t ever turn away. I need some sparks to fly from my rusty iron. I desperately need as many people who have patience to be the non-amen chorus in my conversation as I can have. If you ever need to go off on me and you don’t want to publicly comment, shoot me an email and tell me how it is. I can handle it. Thanks for sticking around!

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  12. Unless I’m mistaken, scripture indicates that the law taught us what sin is. Not saying we didn’t learn something from the garden, but the written law points out sin and the new law of Grace only adds to the written law as it moves the responsibility from a check list to matters of the heart.

    • First, my most valuable readers are those who push back and help me to nuance and dial back the provocative claims from which I start. Thank you for speaking up. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between what might be called reading the Bible for the sake of a relationship or for the sake of knowledge. I think we need to explore why Genesis 3 makes the knowledge of good and evil a bad thing. It’s bizarre and it should not be overlooked. Clearly being somewhat trained about how to act is not a bad thing. It seems like its more a question of how we hold into what we know about good and evil. If we think that ultimately what we have is a system (Torah) rather than a savior (Jesus), then that’s a bad thing insofar as the first is substituted for the latter. Torah isn’t bad if its mediated through a dynamic, living relationship and there’s a recognition that we do not own it but its always beyond not only our ability to obey perfectly but also to understand perfectly.

      Obviously we need to organize in our minds what we learn that our savior has taught us. He says if you love me you will keep my commandments. The question is whether we can have enough humility and openness not to make His teaching into *our* knowledge that we use to exalt ourselves and claim power over others like the Pharisees. There is of course a fake “openness” which is actually cynicism and rebelliousness. I generally feel like I should be most skeptical about my “openness” when I’m faced w something very direct that God is telling me to do while I should be most skeptical about my “certainty” when I’m looking at what I think God wants other people to do. Does that seem like a good rule of thumb?

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