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

Is morality the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? August 13, 2013

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.

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