The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Often times it’s easier to ridicule the beliefs of someone you disagree with rather than actually engaging with their arguments. In terms of logical argumentation this is called an ad hominem attack. This is an incredibly popular form of argumentation, but I have rarely seen it employed as often as it recently was against Peter Atterton the author of a recent New York Times opinion piece questioning the moral perfection of God. Atterton raised a perennial objection to God’s goodness based on God’s omniscience. If you haven’t read the article here is a sample of the argument, “…if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.” This is a perfectly reasonable objection to a belief in God’s omnibenevolence or his “all goodness” but many people, including several that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, took to twitter to ridicule the authors philosophical skills rather than engage with his arguments.

Thankfully, I keep a running list of possible blog post topics and at the top of that list was the belief that God’s knowledge encompasses human temptation and sin, and at the heart of this topic is the garden of Eden. Growing up I always thought that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it would give them an understanding of what is right and wrong, but there’s a fundamental problem with that belief. If God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, that means they already had the conceptual knowledge that to eat from the tree was wrong or evil, and to not eat was right or good. The “knowledge” they gained, then, was not the conceptual understanding of right and wrong, but the experiential knowledge of committing an act that is evil. Directly following this act of disobedience comes one of the most cryptic verses in all of scripture. Genesis 3:22-23 states, “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.”

Atterton raises a legitimate question about how God can be morally perfect if his knowledge encompasses the experiential dimension of good and evil. This is far from a shallow or amateur philosophical question, because it is directly linked to a question raised in one of the greatest works of modern literature known to man. In the Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character Ivan proclaims that even if he would have the opportunity to understand the purpose behind all good and evil and join with humanity in eternal bliss, he wants God to know he rejects that invitation, because the suffering of one child would not be worth it. This is a chapter that breaks the back of every attempted philosophical theodicy, and the chapter that gives a voice to Dostoevsky’s admission that his faith was born out of insurmountable doubt. God’s knowledge encompasses all our temptation, our sin, and our suffering. As the apostle Paul said this is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.” It is something Christians believe in faith despite the philosophical stumbling blocks.

I think the human imagination is a key to understanding this paradox. It seems to me that there is a real way for men and women to come to a full knowledge of good and evil without actually gaining that knowledge through the personal enactment of evil. This is a crucial element in Perelandra, the second book of the Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. The main character attempts to help another Eve use her imagination to overcome the temptation to gain the knowledge of evil through experience. The conversation between Ransom, Eve, and the “unmanned one” is one of my favorite parts of the trilogy. I admit this is a difficult topic for me to understand because I was more than willing to gain quite a bit of knowledge through experience as a teenager, but it is something I think about often as an adult. I think about these things in an effort to prevent myself from making mistakes that could potentially destroy the relationships I have with my wife and children. Dreams, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and deep states of meditation are all ways, that people have gained experiential knowledge without experiencing the acts themselves. It is my hope that as a culture we find better ways to gain knowledge that prevents us from making mistakes that lead to the suffering of broken relationships.

I try to keep my blog posts short but if you’re interested in more of my thoughts on this topic you can also read two previous posts of mine, I Feel What You Feel and Beware the Bitter Fruits.

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