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I recently posted on the incoherence of the narrative in Genesis concerning Adam and Eve and the eating of the apple. The upshot was this:

Adam and Eve were expected to morally follow the moral proclamation of God in not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil such that they can’t be expected to act morally without having the requisite moral knowledge, rendering the whole story nonsensical.

What was most interesting is that in the thread that followed that post, three Christians delivered three different defences of the criticism, all sort of implying an obvious mischaracterisation and misunderstanding of the Genesis account. The irony is that at least two of these apologists appear to be prima facie incorrect in their own analysis, or at least ignorant of the other claims perhaps. It would be rather a surprise if all three apologetic defences were mutually coherent and worked in unison.

Let’s look at some of the defences.

Some Knowledge but Not All

No. They had a knowledge of good and evil before eating that fruit. They knew that what God commands is good and what He forbids is evil.

Their sin was not just disobedience of God’s injunction,
it was a disobedience in the attempt to MAKE THEMSELVES gods,
to make THEMSELVES the DECIDERS of what is GOOD and what is EVIL. (cf. Genesis 3:5).

Here, we are led to believe that they had knowledge, without explaining what this means. It appears that the commenter thinks the Tree was the “Tree of the Rest of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Stuff that Adam and Eve Didn’t Already Know”. They knew that God’s commands were good and that it was good to obey them, but everything else was presently off limits.

But, taking into account “make THEMSELVES the DECIDERS of what is GOOD and what is EVIL“, it might be worth talking about whether this means that we can become moral arbitrators with simple knowledge of moral philosophy – kind of like not needing God, then, to do and be moral.

Nice rebuttal of the moral argument for God! Otherwise, this is just a rather poor ad hoc rationalisation that I need spend no more time on – the least sophisticated of the responses.

Following Rules

More thoughtful responses looked at the difference between obedience and moral knowledge, as if plain obedience out of moral context, makes any sense, particularly as applied to Adam and Eve (by Verbose Stoic).

The answer to this, though, seems obvious: you don’t need to have moral knowledge — knowledge of good and evil — to follow rules, and we can punish people for not following the rules even if we don’t think they can understand morality, or understand it properly. In fact, we often set rules and punish people for not following them PRECISELY BECAUSE we don’t think they have a moral understanding that would lead them to avoid those actions otherwise. So Adam and Eve can be penalized for breaking the rules even if they didn’t have the ability to make a moral judgement because they could still make a volitional one, and chose to broke the rules knowing that they were, in fact, breaking the rules.

(Note that this isn’t my own preferred interpretation, which is more symbolic and takes it less as a punishment and more as a consequence, but that doesn’t really fit here).

I don’t quite understand the idea of following orders without any recourse to moral reasoning. Commands are, by definition, moral by dimension. You should do something is moral if we are to make any sense of it all. Morality seems, in any version, goal-oriented. We do things precisely because they bring about a state of affairs, whether in consequence, character and virtue, or a unison with God. If God is telling us to do arbitrary things, then God is morally arbitrary. There must be some goodness in doing the command or God is commanding for the sake of it and us doing so merely makes us thoughtless robots.

Punishing for Breaking a Rule but Having  No Moral Knowledge

I want to unpick this position from VB a little more. He states that the original post “is about being able to punish someone for breaking the rules if they have no understanding of morality”. The toddler analogy works here to some degree.

Another commenter added:

I’d like to press back on this a little bit, because in the specific examples you [the previous commenter] probably have in mind (such as swatting a child’s hand away for touching fire) the punishment in question is designed to teach something. It is supposed to prevent behaviors from being repeated. This is clearly not an example like that. The story seems to presuppose a retributive theory of justice.

This is key. An order without any gain to it is utterly arbitrary and would have no rational basis in following it without such. Are we to strip the whole event back to this: Adam and Eve are threatened with death if they don’t follow an order X; but they would have no understanding of death being bad or not following the order being morally bad. In other words, to not follow the order would be a scenario of 50/50 ambivalence. The consequence of doing it or not doing it would have equal moral or consequential value, due to not having the knowledge of good and evil (from the humans’ point of view).

If God is demanding they do not so something and threatens them with a deterrence, then they need to understand the moral value of the deterrence (as well as the action itself, one would hope), otherwise it is all rather pointless.

Another criticism of Verbose Stoic’s position followed, to which Stoic agreed (apart from the particulars at the end because his own position is actually more symbolic):

All right, let’s backtrack. It seems to me what you’re wanting to defend is the general principle of punishment where punishment in at least some cases has nothing to do with someone’s moral understanding. No one here is really challenging that. The specific details in question are what are crucial in making sense (or not making sense) out of this story. In the case of say, a child’s touching fire against the parent’s rules, this story seems analogous to the parent’s punishing the child by setting him/her on fire and letting the child burn to death. If someone comes along and says ‘the child can’t possibly understand the consequences of coming into contact with fire! He can’t be held morally culpable for it!’ This crazy parent can respond with ‘Who said he was morally culpable? Anyway, he doesn’t have to understand! He just has to follow my rules!’

And this precisely shows why the Adam and Eve scenario makes no sense. There is no scenario where punishing two people, and the rest of humanity forever, for breaking a rule over which they have no moral understanding is in any way acceptable.

If I punish a toddler for doing something which I understand to have moral consequences, but which I think the toddler wouldn’t understand, such as swatting their hands away from a flame, then this absolutely assumes that putting the hand in the flame is a bad thing. In other words, knowledge of morality is a bad thing, unequivocally so. Otherwise, Adam and Eve were being punished for achieving something that was a positive consequence. I can’t really make sense of this.

Moral Research

The problem with the previous defence is that it is not supported by research into morality and human development. If God commands humans to do things without moral reasoning, it hinders development. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong states in Morality Without God (p.110):

That is what we ought to teach our children. Studies of development and education show that children develop better moral attitudes as adults if they are raised to empathise rather than to obey commands without any reasons other than to avoid punishment. To raise children to obey commands just because God commanded them will undermine true caring and true morality.

For further information, see Martin L. Hoffman, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

If God didn’t want morality to be a thing in the universe, then why create the tree at all? More on this in the next section. Now, you could argue that there is a defence here whereby God didn’t want humans to be moral and use moral reasoning so forbade the eating of the fruit, but then we have a very stunted idea of what humans should be. God appears to have wanted humanity to be lacking in any form of morality and love or care. As we can be  seen from the research, humanity benefits in its care towards others when we are taught to morally reason rather than just obey commands.

Did God want us to exist as mere moist robots, going about our business in Eden without morality or care towards each other?

If I was a Christian, I, like Verbose Stoic (VB), would take this story as clearly symbolic, because to take it literally leaves you with headaches at every corner.

Divine Foreknowledge and a Sensible Choice

This leads me onto a further point: if God really did want Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, just put the tree in space.

Job done.

So we can safely say that, unless God is an idiot (no comment), God wanted Adam and Eve to eat from the tree. And then punishes us for doing so.


If we take into account divine foreknowledge of all future events, usually derived from perfect being theology, then God planted the tree there and created the serpent in full knowledge that this would indubitably come to pass. The whole scripted drama plays out like a manifestation of God’s creative story-writing for his own delectation. If God wanted differently, he would have created differently.

I have expanded on this theory and the problems with creating Adam and Ever in “Adam & Eve as Bad Test Cases, and God’s Moral Culpability”.

Indeed, as Verbose Stoic later commented:

As I’ve said above, that’s not relevant to the original post’s argument, which is about being able to punish someone for breaking the rules if they have no understanding of morality. I agree that it is a good question to ask of someone who takes it literally why the tree even existed if no one was supposed to eat from it. Since I don’t, I’m not the person to ask about that.

Which means to me that VB, since the first point doesn’t stand, should accept that the whole story is rather problematic when taken in any way literally.

It’s a Covenant

Christian commenter Jayman claims it is covenantal and this explains things.

The command in Genesis 2:17 is covenantal in nature:

– Hosea 6:7: “At Adam they broke the covenant; Oh how they were unfaithful to me!”
– Sirach 14:17: “All living beings become old like a garment, for the decree [Heb; Gk covenant] from of old is, ‘You must die!'”

Any remotely fair reading of the text would assume Adam and Eve understood what God was saying to them. The back-and-forth conversation with the serpent implies understanding on Eve’s part (Genesis 3:1-5). Eve even believes the forbidden fruit “was desirable for making one wise” (Genesis 3:6), implying she had some understanding of wisdom. Pearce simply assumes Adam and Eve have no knowledge of morality at all or that they don’t understand the terms of the covenant.

The nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is somewhat mysterious. In order to make the story incoherent, Pearce takes it to be the means to gaining moral knowledge of any kind. But I think eating the forbidden fruit is better understood as an act of moral autonomy. Victor P. Hamilton explains:

“What is forbidden to man is the power to decide for himself what is in his best interests and what is not. This is a decision God has not delegated to the earthling. This interpretation also has the benefit of according well with 3:22, ‘the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.’ Man has indeed become a god whenever he makes his own will the center, the springboard, and the only frame of reference for moral guidelines. When man attempts to act autonomously he is indeed attempting to be godlike. It is quite apparent why man may have access to all the trees in the garden except this one.” (The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 1990, p. 166)

The proper way to obtain moral knowledge is through the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7).

Even if one disagrees with my understanding of the tree of knowledge of good and evil I think we should try to understand it in a way that makes sense of the narrative.

Note the mysterianism, there – often the fudge when things don’t make sense (Holy Trinity, anyone?). So it was an agreement between God and Adam and Eve, thus implying that they understood in order to agree. I don’t think so. I think this is a declaration, not a covenant. I don’t think Adam and Eve were in any way capable of disagreeing, most certainly morally dissecting the idea of God, the idea of his command and so on, precisely because they did not fully understand everything. That’s like me drawing up a contract with a toddler about the house they live in. They wouldn’t have a clue what was going on, certainly not enough to make an informed decision.

As for the proper way to obtain moral knowledge being through fear, I cannot think of a worse way, and this also goes against the moral research findings.

Piaget, Kohlberg and Rosen have shown that this kind of psychology is “stage 1” (respect for power and punishment) for human development. In Moral Development: A Psychological Study of Moral Growth from Childhood to Adolescence, William Kay states of the work of Beatrice Swainson:

In the stage of infancy, Swainson found that the most powerful sanctions would love and self-regard. This is not unexpected. They represent the twin elements in the tension between self and society from which morality emerges. Then follow the law and fear, as equally powerful sanctions. Again, this is entirely predictable. The fear of consequences is a prudent attitude and respect for law reveals the authoritarian orientation of infant morality. Lastly, came, religion, but it will be remembered that this remained in the background until children began to attend school and only then emerge as a feature of infant morality.

In the second stage of childhood there is an almost complete reversal in the order of these sanctions…. Right at the end of the list. Now comes ‘fear’ and ‘self-regard’, both of which are inappropriate to the conduct of a healthy child whose extrovert courage and sense of adventure, leave little place for fear and personal prudence….

Finally, during the last years of adolescence, love emerges as a dominant motive for moral conduct. This is confirmed by many researchers.

In other words, fear is one of the least effective drivers of moral development.

Either God or the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know their moral psychology.

I’m not sure the covenant reasoning is helpful at all to Jayman. What about moral autonomy? I can’t really understand this point, either. How can you have knowledge of morality but no moral autonomy? This sounds rather like a prison to me. This harks back to my previous point on God wanting us to be automatons in some prison-like Eden. Great!

The only understanding of this is that God did not want us to be autonomous.

So if I ever here the free will argument and theodicy being used by these same people…

This is always what happens in the use defences of theological and biblical points. As I have mentioned before (most recently in my podcast interview), it becomes like a conman with a pea under one of the three shells. God, or theological defences, gets moved around every time a criticism is shown. But the con artist forgets that one theological defence might not cohere with another theological defence used previously. God (or theology) gets moved around so much that, in the end, no one knows where God is or what God is, or no one knows what a universal theology could actually be. Nothing is coherent.

If free will is to be a good thing and an idea that is used to explain away at least a large amount of suffering in the world, then how can it be a bad thing that God gives us moral autonomy, which is surely connected to free will, in obvious ways.

Anyway, I hope I am not too much of a dog with a bone here; I have used several avenues to explore the defences are Christians have used to explain away the incoherence of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. As ever, let me know what you think.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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