Question: What is the Knowledge of Good and Evil and why is it spiritually lethal? (Gen. 2:17)
Suppose we break down the identity of the Tree a bit.
The first part of the clause is the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good." But the first couple already possessed that knowledge. Therefore, perhaps we might safely characterize the Tree: the Knowledge of Evil? So, what is that, precisely?
After all, the first couple spent an indeterminate amount of time in the Garden without clothing and apparently had no awareness of their nakedness. And, the two were not blind, so what happened to profoundly alter their innocent perspective?
Perhaps the reason they initially had no concern about such things is that they shared a common ethereal identity, a spiritual consciousness in which they were at one with God, one with each other, and one with their surroundings. This suggests that before their transgression Adam and Eve possessed a superior supernatural awareness; they had no sense of ego, but were united both intellectually and spiritually in a state of bliss.
However, after they had eaten of the Tree, it seems that this undifferentiated perfection was shattered; they at once became disassociated with one another into self-identities. Our original parents were no longer one with God, each other, or their environment. They became separate and distinct -- spiritually and psychologically detached. Their disobedience deprived them of their blessed, shared consciousness replacing it with selfish, personal identities. And, with an intense recognition of self, there is an awareness of what one does, of what can be done to them, and of what one can do to others.
There is a profound vulnerability associated with individuality. It is the instant recognition that a person is alone in their thoughts about themselves and their surroundings. The “self” presents great restrictions because an intense responsibility arises with individual awareness: we are capable either of acting in accordance with God’s wishes or of behaving contrary to His expectations and thus committing malevolent acts.
Through this individual identity, we entertain evil thoughts and intentions, theft, coveting, lust, cheating, envy, murder, strife, and so on (Mk. 7:21-23). All that defiles us as human beings originates from our sense of self – our Pride – a soul spiritually adrift from all others. Author C.S. Lewis once wrote about this dilemma:
The natural life in each of us is something self-centered, something that wants to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. And especially it wants to be left to itself: to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than it, anything that might make it feel small. It is afraid of the light and air of the spiritual world, just as people who have been brought up to be dirty are afraid of a bath. And in a sense, it is quite right. It knows that if the spiritual life gets hold of it, all its self-centeredness and self-will are going to be killed and it is ready to fight tooth and nail to avoid that. (Mere Christianity, "The Obstinate Toy Soldiers.")
Indeed, the self is the very foundation upon which we become our own god, blinded by our own narcissistic ambitions. Everything else becomes incidental as a means of gratifying the insatiable self. When we reflect on our very early years as children under the age of four or five, we had not yet formed any defining sense of personhood. We were largely unaware of the world and of all that it represents, often oblivious to our surroundings: we might easily step directly in front of oncoming traffic. Generally speaking, we lived a quasi-heavenly existence, at relative peace with ourselves and everything else: We had not yet eaten of the Tree.
There seems to be a distinct parallel between the effects of consuming the forbidden fruit (disobedience) and our own awareness, beginning around the age of four or five. Prior to that, we really have little consciousness of our vulnerabilities. By five years or so, we too begin to understand the difference between right and wrong. We start to recognize that we have disobeyed our parents and are conscious of our guilt – just as if we too had partaken of the same deadly fruit. Once we become fully aware of ourselves as uniquely separate individuals, we have become thoroughly unrighteous beings (although children are not accountable at such an age). Note what Christ has to say, and think about why He said it:
Matthew 18:1-4: At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
Christ has just proclaimed that humility, the absence of pride, is what exalts us. If that is true, then the opposite must also be true: Pride is that which demeans and diminishes us, and it always has ever since the Garden. Adam and Eve's child-like innocence was that which obscured their nakedness as well as the evils that would soon plague the world through their disobedience.
This may be why most of us are unable to remember much about our enchanted formative years. Many understand that it is only when we finally reach this age that we suddenly feel a desperate need to clothe ourselves. Although Adam and Eve were full-grown adults, we do not know how long they had existed at the time of their great loss. But it seems at least plausible that they too may only have lived for four or five years; the evidence from the biblical record is inconclusive.
Personal identity is not a blessing; it is a curse. It is being consumed by an intimate recognition of the evils with which one is capable, in stark contrast to the harmony one experiences before this individuation occurs. This may be precisely what happened to Adam and Eve. Although they formerly possessed a conscious awareness, they did not possess a self-conscious distinctiveness, one overwhelmed by feelings of detachment and isolation.
Such a condition, common to us all, instantly reveals our nakedness, along with all the ills that plague humanity.