Knowledge of Good and Evil

by Philip Sudworth.

We all owe our lives, and the lives of those we’ve loved, to the existence of death. If there were no death, none of us would have been born; Earth would have been full up long ago. If the story of Adam and Eve were literally true, our first parents actually did our generation a great favour. But is that particular creation story really about humanity being banned from Paradise or about a wrathful God sentencing humanity to a life with difficulties, pain and death? If we suggest that a boy starving to death in sub-Saharan Africa or a girl dying from cancer in a local hospice are reaping God’s anger against Adam’s disobedience, what kind of a God are we proclaiming? 

An alternative understanding sees the story as more about the implications of growing knowledge and insights, both as a human race and as individuals. Young children have their needs met and, in their innocence, happily run around naked. We grow out of the of childhood, towards self-consciousness, self-reliance and responsibility.  The need to earn our own living and provide for our families is a natural development. Growing self-awareness and socialisation bring an awareness of good and evil, together with a conscience, a sense of shame, and of justice. As we transition into independence, we take responsibility for our actions and mistakes. Self-awareness means we understand life brings danger, suffering, grief, and death. 

Traditional Christianity suggests that Eden provided for all human needs and was safe. It was how the world was meant to be; it’s how the world will be when Jesus returns. Yet life can lack a sense of purpose, unless there’s some challenge. Is paradise really the absence of danger, suffering and death? Without danger there’s no courage; without shortages, no generosity; without struggle, no achievement; without hurt, no compassion; without uncertainty, no hope or faith. Without the deep feelings that can lead to grief, we’d never be able to enjoy the intimate love of those with whom we’ve shared joy, fun and companionship. Without freedom to act wrongly, there’s no virtue. If everything were perfect, there’d be no possibility for development, progress or vision.  Without death, there’d be no future generations. Perhaps the world isn’t “fallen” through humanity’s fault, but the original intention of God. Such a worldmay be a necessary condition for spiritual development. John Keats wrote, ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul.’

This causes problems for traditional understandings of Adam’s sin, the inherited sinfulness of humanity, and the need for an act of atonement. Consequently, many Christians insist on the historicity of Genesis despite the genomic evidence, despite contradictions of observable science, despite discrepancies within Genesis and despite other differing creation accounts in the bible. Others take a hybrid position, acknowledging that Genesis 1 is poetry rather than science, but still insisting that Adam’s disobedience brought death and pain into the world. It took the Catholic church 300 years to acknowledge that Galileo was right. How long will it take the modern church to reconcile Christianity and evolution? Or to acknowledge openly that the small 3-tier cosmos of the bible is a pre-scientific image, which bears no relation to an expanding universe which is 93 billion light years across and contains 125 billion galaxies?

In the 13th century, John Duns Scotus maintained that the incarnation of Jesus wasn’t a response to a problem but was always the intended plan. Franciscans have understood that Jesus didn’t come to complete a divine transaction that would enable God to forgive humans; he came to change the way humans thought about God.  It was always a matter of love and freedom rather than divine justice. This fits the view that true love and forgiveness cannot be conditional on anything that is thought, said or done. We can’t earn grace; it is a gift. Repentance rituals are perhaps helpful for those who harbor a sense of guilt and sinfulness and find that such rituals help them to put the past behind them and mark a transition to a new start. To suggest, however, that those rituals or a set of beliefs are essential, and that God cannot forgive people until they have jumped through those hoops is not only to place barriers between individuals and God; it diminishes God. We end up with a God that is too small for the present age.

11 thoughts on “Knowledge of Good and Evil”

  1. The disobedience of Eve (literally or figuratively) was redressed by the obedience of Mary, so that the sins of Adam (literally or figuratively) could be atoned by the righteousness of Jesus. God’s gift of grace was, and still is, the best Christmas present we could ever hope for. All we have to do is accept it willingly, receive it gratefully, and treasure it eternally.

    ‘Once in royal David’s city,
    Stood a lowly cattle shed,
    Where a mother laid her baby
    In a manger for his bed;
    Mary was that mother mild,
    Jesus Christ her little child.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 114)


  2. Oh thank you Philip! I have long argued that the mythical first woman Eve was the first scientist – the archetype of all those who say ‘yes, but’ and ‘what if?’. We owe our development as human beings to those who QUESTION and WANT TO KNOW.

    Mary was subversive too in her turn, as we heard in an excellent sermon in my church yesterday. Not just meek and unquestioningly obedient, but also the singer of The Magnificat, which turns human values on their heads. And where did Jesus get his controversial ideas from if not at his mother’s knee?

    Certain early Christians had the reputation of turning the world upside down, too…….


  3. Thank you Philip for putting into words a position that makes so much more sense to me than a wrathful, judgmental God. As I understand it God’s love is unconditional and surely within that context we have amazing opportunities to show love, grow and become even more mature in this world of duality.


  4. ‘As with gladness men of old
    Did the guiding star behold,
    As with joy they hailed its light,
    Leading onwards, beaming bright,
    So, most gracious God, may we
    Evermore be led to Thee.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 121)


  5. ‘O come, Thou rod of Jesse, free
    Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
    From depths of hell Thy people save,
    And give them victory o’er the grave.

    O come, Thou key of David, come
    And open wide our Heavenly home;
    Make safe the way that leads on high,
    and close the path to misery.

    Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
    Shall come to Thee, O Israel.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 85)


  6. I am not sure about repentance in a religious setting. It implies a personal deal with God in which we receive “salvation” if we repent of our “sins”, so it is conditional. On the other hand forgiveness is an act of love, a gift from God, it is grace, and unconditional. The thought comes to mind that repentance is a secular matter, admitting our guilt, trying not to repeat the offence and trying to rebuild the broken relationships. Forgiveness on the other hand is the amazing gift from God that helps us to put the past behind us and make a new start. I think this distinction between conditional and unconditional is important. It gives me a means of identifying the exclusive and judgmental parts of the creed that bring about harmful Christianity.
    Furthermore, as you say, we end up with a God that is too small for the present age.


  7. ‘How silently, how silently,
    The wondrous gift is given!
    So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessing of his Heaven.
    No ear may hear his coming;
    But in this world of sin,
    Where meek souls will receive him, still
    The dear Christ enters in.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 113)


  8. ‘Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
    Born to set thy people free,
    From our fears and sins release us,
    Let us find our rest in thee.

    By thine own eternal Spirit
    Rule in all our hearts alone;
    By thine all-sufficient merit
    Raise us to thy glorious throne.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 81)


  9. ‘God rest you merry gentlemen,
    Let nothing you dismay,
    For Jesus Christ our Saviour
    Was born upon this day,
    To save us all from Satan’s power
    When we had gone astray,
    Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
    Oh tidings of comfort and joy.

    Now to the Lord sing praises,
    All you within this place,
    And with true love and brotherhood
    Each other now embrace;
    This holy tide of Christmas
    All anger should efface,
    Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!
    Oh tidings of comfort and joy.’

    (Hymns and Psalms 103)


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