Posted by: Thomas Richard | December 20, 2016

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Adam and Eve knew they were wrong to disobey God, but the temptation to eat the fruit was very strong. The evil one, the liar satan, told them what they wanted to hear and needed to hear, to quieten their conscience enough to will and to do the act of disobedience.  The temptation was to be like God! He told them, “No, you will not die; you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a symbol of mortal spiritual danger both at the origins of human experience, and in our current realities in the world today. Knowing good and evil was no arbitrary test for Adam and Eve. No, it would not have just as well been any other test of obedience, such as “Never go into that one little house on the other side of the Garden,” or, “Never eat of that bush with the little red berries.” This test was specific: Never eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What could be wrong with having such knowledge? Today it might seem to us that we need to have knowledge about what is good and what is evil! Is not a major problem we have today, in a modern “post-Christian” world, that we have no clear understanding of right and wrong, of good and evil? Isn’t a loss of Judea-Christian moral principles – replaced by amoral “political correctness” – a grave threat to our culture and society and nation? The Ten Commandments are hardly even suggestions anymore: indeed, they may as well have been written in pencil with eraser attached – forget the stone tablets – so flexible and adaptable they have become.

But no, this one forbidden tree in the midst of the Garden was of great and mythic significance. It carried within itself a test, a temptation, for human persons in every age and generation from the first to the last. The Catechism helps us to understand the importance of this test – and the dangers it presented and presents:

God created man in his image and established him in his friendship. A spiritual creature, man can live this friendship only in free submission to God. The prohibition against eating “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” spells this out: “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17) symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust. Man is dependent on his Creator, and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #396)

This test, in other words, reaches to man’s very center of self-understanding: am I a mere creature under subjection to a Creator? I am drawn toward God; I am called into personal communion with God! I am made in His image and likeness! Does this mean I am a God too – that I should be my own God, a God unto myself? The evil one knew how to tempt Eve: “No, you will not die; you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The evil one covered and obscured the truth at stake in the decision set before mankind. ”Knowing good and evil” is much more than knowing about good and evil – it is much more than knowing merely how to discern good from evil.  The Catechism described well the root of this tree: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust. Man is dependent on his Creator, and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom.” The temptation was and is this fundamental. Man is man, not God.

The temptation can be more easily understood if we consider carefully this tree and its fruit. The “knowledge” offered was to know good and to know evil as only God can, in His complete union with goodness, and His complete otherness and separateness from evil.  This meaning of the temptation can be seen in comparing other uses in Holy Scripture of the verb “to know” when used to describe the intimate, personal, interior union – meant in verses such as:

– Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived… (Gen 4:1, RSV)
– [Then Mary said,] How shall this be, since I know not a man? (Lk 1:34, KJV)
– I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (Jn 10:14-15, RSV)
– He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (1Jn 4:8, RSV)

And so on.  To know good – in the sense intended in the forbidden fruit – would be to be God, who alone is one with goodness itself, who alone is in perfect union with goodness. To “know” in this sense is to possess the reality in one’s own nature, intrinsically and essentially. It is not merely to “know about” as all men are called to do, and to grow in such understanding as creatures of the all-good God ought to do. Jesus in a sense made this distinction when He corrected a man judging goodness carelessly:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. (Mk 10:17-18)

Thus the temptation, to eat of this tree, is to be one’s own God – a God to oneself, free to define good and evil at will.  This temptation is as powerful and deadly today as it was in the Garden of Eden! This is the horror of our times: men want to define good and evil, right and wrong on their own terms, as they choose. And their choices always go from bad to worse, as they grow in arrogance and in distance from truth, and from the one true God.

We see the path of descent toward evil today, in our post-Christian society. Now men define evil as good, and good as evil!  Now men make it legal to kill the innocent unborn, and call it a “right”. Now men define their own genders as they please, and marry whatever they please, and un-marry whenever they please. Now they rob the innocent of all modesty, invading bathrooms and shower rooms and changing rooms as they please. Now men are stripped of masculinity and women of femininity, and they call it “equality.” Now all are stripped of human dignity, and they call it “liberation.” Now the children are robbed of responsible fathers, and of nurturing mothers, and they call it freedom from stereotypes. The children grow up without parents, and we discover a nation with no grownups.

The fruit of sin is death, America. Men who define good and evil for themselves, are following fools. God, who is good, is patient! But He will endure the foolishness of man, only so long.


  1. Thanks so much, Thomas for sharing this insight on the difference between knowing “about” good and evil and the temptation to seek “knowledge of good and evil as God knows good and evil.”

    How very serious this disobedience of Adam and Eve was! How very cunning satan is, deceitfully plotting, and rightly called “the father of lies”! He continues to prowl around today, seeking whom he may devour.

    By God’s Grace and the intercession of Mary, may we stand strong, trusting in God’s Truth and His Will to save us, against the lies we are tempted to believe today. As Christmas approaches may we open our hearts to receive Him Who is our Way, our Truth and our Life.

  2. Great post! Thank you for sharing your insights on this Dr. Richard, I enjoyed seeing a deeper view of good and evil from your perspective of the Garden narrative.

  3. Thanks for the article, but I have to disagree on one thing.

    According to St. Gregory Naziansen, Adam and Eve WOULD have been allowed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge at a later time; they just were not ready for it yet. Thus they were called to trust in God, and for that reason they were tested.

    This honestly makes more sense to me.

    • I would not argue with St. Gregory or you that “they were not ready for it yet,” but the truth remains: they disobeyed God, and for that sin they lost the Garden. This whole event, God worked to the good, since the work of Christ to redeem humanity also enabled the sanctifying grace which would open the door to much much more than the Garden!

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