The Tree Of Good And The Tree Of Evil
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of good and the tree of the evil. The LORD God took Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and put them in the Garden of Eden. And the LORD God commanded them, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they became evil, and they realized they were filled with sinfulness. And the LORD God said, “They, and by implication, all of their descendants have now become inherently evil. They should have eaten from the tree of good, but since they did not I am powerless to do anything other than to condemn all humanity, by default, to eternal conscious torment.” So the LORD God banished them from the Garden of Eden and sent them to hell as punishment for their evil identity. As an after thought, God came up with a plan B that he would implement in a few thousand years through which people who believed that Jesus died for their sins could be pardoned.
Something seems amiss with our first story, doesn’t it? For those who haven’t already figured it out, this is an abridged and adapted version of “The Fall of Man”, found in Genesis 2 & 3. I took some creative license to inject some popular christian doctrines into the story. I may be biased, so let’s take an explanations of these beliefs from a more doctrine-friendly source:
“Original sin is the doctrine which holds that human nature has been morally and ethically corrupted due to the disobedience of mankind’s first parents to the revealed will of God. In the Bible, the first human transgression of God’s command is described as the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden resulting in what theology calls the Fall of mankind. The doctrine of original sin holds that every person born into the world is tainted by the Fall such that all of humanity is ethically debilitated, and people are powerless to rehabilitate themselves, unless rescued by God.” http://www.theopedia.com/Original_sin
This is, of course, followed with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in Hell:
“Hell exists because of the justice and holiness of God. If the slightest sin is infinite in its significance, then it also demands infinite punishment as a divine judgment. Though it is common for all Christians to wish that there were some way out of the doctrine of eternal punishment because of its inexorable and unyielding revelation of divine judgment, one must rely in Christian faith on the doctrine that God is a God of infinite righteousness as well as infinite love. While on the one hand he bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace.” http://www.theopedia.com/Hell
Which is followed by:
“Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.” http://www.theopedia.com/Penal_substitutionary_atonement
Finally we end with the doctrine of exclusivism (or exclusive salvation)
“Exclusivism (in Christianity) refers to the fact that orthodox Christian doctrine maintains only faith in the Jesus Christ of the Bible leads to salvation or heaven…If a person in a remote area has never heard of Christ, he will not be punished for that. What he will be punished for is the rejection of the Father of whom he has heard and for the disobedience to the law that is written in his heart.” http://www.theopedia.com/Exclusivism
You might have notice by now that all of these doctrines are primarily concerned with how evil we (humanity) are and why we deserve to go to hell for never-ending torture in infinite flame. There is an out for us in this narrative, but the theme is clear. God demands perfection, and you are not perfect. God is unable to accept you through any means short of perfect human torture and sacrifice.
However, recall that I modified the Genesis story to discuss these doctrines. The real Genesis story actually discusses two totally different trees.
The Tree Of Life And The Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The LORD God took Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and put them in the Garden of Eden. And the LORD God commanded them, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done? The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
In this case I have only abridged the text of Genesis. Now I’m sure that you, my brilliant reader, have picked up on the divergence between these two stories. So lets explore the trees that were actually used in the Genesis allegory.
Let’s consider the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil. My first impression: this sounds a lot like our narrative about “The Tree of Good and The Tree of Evil”. Hmmmm, quite the plot twist within the first couple pages of the Bible. Now, the allegory indicates, the wrong choice would be the knowledge of good and evil. That just seems crazy, right? If we knew both what is good and what is evil, that knowledge should enable us to make good moral decisions. We would even be able to come up with a rule book containing mandates and prohibitions, a religious law, so that everybody would do what is good and not do what is bad. This seems like a positive system…or maybe we should say it is “pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom”.
Sidetrack –> Whenever we read an allegory we should always let it simultaneously read us. As a christian, for years I read this story and didn’t understand how the characters would have been so easily convinced to eat of a cursed fruit. The realization I just expressed made their folly applicable in my life.
Back on track –> From now on let’s use the phrase “religious law” to refer to what we, as humanity, construct out of the knowledge of good and evil. Let’s not just take the genesis story at its word that the religious law is the wrong system to live under. We mentioned some of the good possibilities that it can bring to our worldview. So what could be the problem? Well, with any religious law we will need to develop a list of actions and people that we can label as good or evil. Then we need to start judging ourselves according to these criteria to determine if we are good or evil. Notice that this is the first thing that happens when Adam and Eve taste the forbidden fruit. They assign a label of evil to their nakedness. Immediately they are consumed by shame and guilt. Their shame causes them to hide and alienate themselves from the one who loves them unconditionally. After we are done condemning ourselves, then it’s time to judge others in the same manner. When Adam feels the shame of his new label of evil, he seeks to share his new-found guilt with his wife. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Eve passes along the favor to the serpent. Misery loves company. Once we have chosen to live under religious law, judgement then becomes a part of our relationships and our identity. We paint the world with a broad black and white brushes. We make lists of the naughty and nice, just like God and Santa Claus do. In my opinion, doctrines like original sin, eternal conscious torment, penal substitutionary atonement, and exclusivism would evolve from living under a religious law such as this.
Jesus even addresses some of the harmful side effects from living under this system:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
A 2007 survey was conducted by the Barna Group regarding public perceptions of christianity. According to the results most non-christian 18-29 year-olds felt that christians were judgmental (87%) and hypocritical (85%). This may be an indication that we, like Adam and Eve, have chosen the wrong tree. (For more on this study, get the book unChristian)
Fortunately there is another tree, the tree of life. I would propose that Jesus contrasts the two trees in the Sermon on the Mount. In so doing he reveals what the metaphor means.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Are we catching the pattern yet? First he quotes from the religious law, then he implies it is insufficient to deal with the heart of the issue. In other words, it’s the wrong tree. Religious law may be enough to temporarily control and manipulate behavior. You can threaten or bribe somebody into doing what you want for a while, but it does nothing to address the motivations and relationship issues that cause the harmful action. There simply aren’t enough carrots and sticks in the world to fix the problems humanity faces.
Notice how in each law that Jesus addresses, he redirects a cold legal regulation into a personal and intimate question. The religious law asks “Are you guilty of committing this crime?” Jesus asks “Do you love your neighbor?” “Do you love your wife/husband/partner?” “Do you love enemy?”
And then he announces how we are able to find life, freeing us from the perpetual conflict between good and evil.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The tree of life, revealed in Jesus, is unconditional love. It can fulfill what rules and regulations could never accomplish. This is one of the most subversive concepts to ever enter theology. Jump back for just a second to the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell which dictates God’s holiness won’t allow him to forgive his enemies: “While on the one hand he bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace.” This concept is also recycled in penal substitutionary atonement when it asserts that God can only forgive or love his enemies if a perfect human sacrifice occurs. In conflict with these doctrines, Jesus teaches that God is perfect not because he refuses to accept the imperfect, but rather because he does accept the imperfect.
As always I welcome your questions, comments, and respectful dissenting opinions.