The Garden of Eden paradox

This post should be filed under “it seemed like a good story at the time”. I’m referring to the fall of man that allegedly took place in the Garden of Eden. There are many good reasons why this story should be taken figuratively, rather literally. One of them is a paradox concerning sin and the knowledge of good and evil.

The paradox arises when the following assumptions are made about the story:

1. Adam and Eve first became capable of sinning when they ate the apple. Prior to their forbidden snack, they were only able to do good things.

2. It is a sin to disobey God’s commands.

In the Garden of Eden story, God commands Adam and Eve to avoid eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet Adam and Eve made a deliberate decision to disobey this command before they actually ate the fruit. (Indeed, it was their decision to disobey God’s command that led them to eat the fruit.)

By Assumption 2, then, Adam and Eve sinned moments before taking their first bite. Yet, according to Assumption 1, Adam and Eve were not able to sin before eating the apple.

Can we fix the problem? We could try to relax Assumption 1: allow Adam and Eve the ability to sin prior to eating the apple. But now we have a situation in which Adam and Eve are able to sin, but they are unable to recognize which of their actions are good or evil, and therefore have no way of knowing which actions to avoid. It would therefore benefit all concerned for Adam and Eve to munch an apple as soon as possible, in order to gain the knowledge they need to moderate their behavior.

But this is also problematic, because God has expressly forbidden them to eat the fruit. We must ask, then, why God would allow his two human creations to sin without any knowledge of what they were doing. This simply doesn’t make sense. The only way in which the command to avoid the fruit is meaningful, is if Adam and Eve are, as Assumption 2 requires, unable to sin prior to eating it.

We therefore have a rather troubling paradox in the story, and I’m not sure it can be avoided even by taking a liberally metaphorical view. Unless the sin of disobeying God’s command can be eradicated entirely, the paradox remains.

Let’s see what happens if we try eliminating the breaking of God’s command. This could be done either by having God condone Adam and Eve’s discovery of the knowledge of good and evil, or by having Adam and Eve refrain from eating the apple in the first place. The latter possibility is clearly false, since Christians do, in fact, claim to know the difference between good and evil, so the apple must have been eaten.

We must therefore pick the first option: rather than forbidding them to eat the fruit, God would have offered it to them freely. But why would he offer them the knowledge of good and evil if they had no use for it – if they were perfectly good beings all of the time? Surely he would only offer them this knowledge if they were already sinners, and needed it to moderate their behavior? And if they were already sinners, then why does the Bible offer the Garden of Eden story as an explanation for the fall of man when in fact they were fallen before the story even begins?

As I suggested at the beginning of the post, stories like the Garden of Eden seemed plausible several thousand years ago, but it’s obvious to (most of) us now just how foolhardy it is to take them literally and, in many cases, figuratively too.


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