“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 of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16b, 17).

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; … (Genesis 3:7).
One of the major issues involved in discussions about the existence of God is the issue of morality. In recent years there have been several books by atheists trying to suggest that “You don’t need God to be good,” and that theme has been posted on bus panels and billboards in various cities around the world as we have reported in this journal (see “News and Notes” March/April 2011). Atheists argue that morality is a survival issue because, “If I don’t want you to murder me, then I must not try to murder you.” That oversimplification simply points out there can be a motive for morality that does not involve God in any direct way. The Christian response to that atheist view may be to point out that “survival of the fittest” in humans may in fact demand murdering someone to avoid the possibility of that person being a competitor in the future.

On the other side of the ledger we find atheists ridiculing the biblical account of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit as a fairy tale that has no essence of truth, and makes the whole issue of morality a trust in a controlling God who simply pulls strings. Atheists will also argue that Christians throughout history have shown they are no more moral than anyone else, with an endless string of infidelities and killings done or sanctioned by Christian leaders.

There can be no question that the hypocrisy of human beings weakens all arguments that can be made in the minds of people. However, fair-minded people will realize that human weakness does not validate or invalidate any position. The question has to be what the system actually teaches and how it works. How humans became humans in a moral sense is an important question, and one we can think about and investigate. We have had articles in this journal in the past about whether a confirmed atheist can really have a moral system (see “The Moral Impossibility of Naturalism,” May/June 2011; “Making Choices: An Apologetic for Christianity,” January/February 2010; “How Do We Make Decisions?” May/June 2007; “Atheistic Explanations of Morality and Common Sense,” November/December 2006). What we would like to do in this article is to look at the biblical account and see what it actually says and whether it makes sense.


Before eating the forbidden fruit, the first humans were what anthropologists call “gatherers.” The description that the Bible gives is that man could “eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 2:16). After the fall man was told “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food …” (Genesis 3:19). After the flood the expanse of man’s foods seems to be much larger as God says to NoaAdam & Eveh, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). Also at this point a clear moral statement is made, “… from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man’ ” (Genesis 9:5, 6).

Before the fall mankind did not have a moral code as such. If you do not have knowledge, you cannot have morality. The tree in the garden was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” When God speaks about man after the fall His words are, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Someone could argue that since they had been commanded not to eat of the tree before the fall that there was in fact a moral code. But we must not confuse the ability to obey rules with morality. There is no understanding or morality necessary to obey a rule. A small child or an animal can obey a rule without being morally responsible, and in fact would obey the rule even if the rule was immoral. When Adam and Eve were given a rule it was not the establishment of morality.


After the fall, Cain murdered Abel, and a number of changes in man’s situation took place. First, man apparently began eating meat. Genesis 4:2 – 4 tells us that Abel kept flocks and “brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” This would suggest butchering and thus the eating of meat. When Cain killed Abel, God’s testimony about the murder was, “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). There was no moral code involved, but a clear suggestion that murder of one’s brother is condemned by the Creator in a natural way. Atheists will argue that things like murder are naturally wrong, yet male lions and bears kill their own offspring, and cannibalism is seen in many life forms. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they suddenly gained an awareness of good and evil. They were sentient beings. They then had the capacity and knowledge to make moral judgments. Interestingly enough, the first judgment was nudity. God’s response (Genesis 3:11): “Who told you that you were naked?” He immediately asked them the rhetorical question, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” As we Adam &
      Evehave already pointed out, verse 22 finds God saying that man has become like God, knowing good and evil.

Instead of looking at the significance of this process, people have tended to focus on the tree and the fruit. The drug culture has tried to suggest that it was LSD or marijuana or some exotic, drug-laden elixir. Some children’s books have said it was an apple. The list of speculations about the forbidden fruit is endless. Genesis 2:9 simply tells us that there were two unusual trees in the middle of the garden, one being the tree of life and the other the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Neither of those trees exist in the physical world today, just as there are no places where there are cherubim east of the Garden of Eden with “a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). Mankind misses the point by looking for physical forms of these sources of life and knowledge in today’s world just as he does in looking for the Ark of the Covenant as in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


As militant atheism has taken over the twenty-first century, one of its major efforts has been to maintain that religion has nothing to do with morality. They even go so far as to deny that good and evil exist! Richard Dawkins in his book River Out of Eden ([New York: BasisBooks, 1995], page 133) wrote, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Connected to such a view is the idea that man can intellectually form his own moral code and live by it, and that people will adhere to it because they see the advantages to them personally in doing so. Along with this view is the attempt to invent such a code. Situation ethics, existentialism, and the like are such attempts. Carried to a totally naturalistic conclusion such views run into inherent problems. If there is no uniqueness to man of the nature the Bible describes, then all living things have equal rights and animals have the same moral protection and restraints as humans. This has resulted in animal rights groups striving to protect, in a human way, the rights of not only primates, but dogs, cattle, and in the famous case with PETA’s complaint against President Obama — flies (June 16, 2009). On the other side of the ledger this view has led to people like Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer advocating the destruction of humans who have mental or physical disabilities.

The point is that without an absolute, proven standard that is not the product of scholarly opinion, all you have is human guesses as to what will work. When you look at what has happened when these human constructions are tried, what you see is failure and atrocities. The list of examples includes Hitler, Cambodia, Sadam Hussein, Mao Tse Tung, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson — all reminding us of human systems that simply failed.

The Bible portrays the human capacity to know good from evil as a unique attribute bestowed by God. We are not told how the forbidden fruit produced this attribute, but we are shown the results. The entire Old Testament is a witness to man’s repeated failures to follow God’s rules for moral conduct. When we come to Jesus Christ and the New Testament we see the perfect moral law of God enacted and supported. It is difficult to read Matthew 5 – 7 and deny that such a system would work if it were followed. As people have followed the Christian system, incredible benefits have come to mankind. Women’s rights, the abolition of violence, the beauty of marriage and commitment on a personal level, and the value and precious nature of children are just a few of the things that have grown out of God’s perfect moral system as taught by Christ. (For more on this read How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt.) People claiming to be Christians have lived in rejection of what Jesus taught as exemplified by the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Ku Klux Klan; but the system itself is beyond criticism.

Chaos in the world will continue as long as we refuse to live as God called us to live. Christ shows the importance of living God’s moral code when He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, …” (Matthew 25:34 – 35). Our moral choices live on into eternity, but our theories about why we have morality and moral choices will die with us.
--John N. Clayton

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