Blamed for Not Knowing?

As we prepare to celebrate Easter, let's reflect on God's amazing mercy. We all sin, individually, and sin came into the world because of man's choice. Yet God came to earth, in the form of a man, and suffered so we could be forgiven of those sins. That God would go to such lengths is amazing. That doesn't mean His mercy comes to us free of all possible confusions or questions. At times, we get tangled in details or irrelevant questions and miss the clear, main point.

For example, I was recently asked about how God could hold Adam and Eve responsible for their sin in the garden. This person, a sincere believer, was struggling to understand how people in their situation could be expected to react. To paraphrase his words, he asked,

When they ate the fruit, how did they know they were sinning against God? Until they did, they didn't know good from evil or right from wrong. Did they even know what death was, or how it worked? That seems like telling a baby not to stick a fork into the electrical outlet; the baby doesn't know what "electrocution" means or whether it's bad or good. Parents know the dangers, but a child doesn't know right from wrong. Reading the account of the fall, it seems God never gave Adam and Eve examples of the destruction that follows disobedience like He gave the Israelites in following after their pagan neighbors. I'm not questioning God, I just don't understand why the bible isn't clearer on this first act of sin.

We should all sympathize with wanting more clarity in Genesis chapter 3. Much of Scriptures is that way: we get just enough information, but not nearly as much as we'd like. What's important is to handle the information with accuracy. In this case, tweaking how we frame the situation can take a lot of the angst out the passage.

One view of the fall of man would be to compare it to an infant with a fork near an electrical outlet. In that case, the child has no meaningful understanding. They have zero experience or decision-making skills, little to no self-control, and zero grasp of how serious the situation is. It's reasonable to blame the parent if tragedy strikes there, not the child. If that's a fair parallel to Adam and Eve, it would be because they were infantile: lacking control, understanding, and decision-making.

However, the full context of the story shows the infant analogy is not appropriate. Man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). That includes the capacity for reason, rather than pure instinct (2 Peter 2:12Jude 1:19). Man was intelligent enough to be able to name animals (Genesis 2:19). Man was given enough knowledge, decision-making skill, and responsibility to "tend" to the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) and to reproduce and spread over the entire earth (Genesis 1:28). When man sinned, the process involved conversation, reasoning, and intellect (Genesis 3:1–6).

The sin in question did not involve something described as "the tree that allowed man to know the difference between good and evil." There was knowledge involved (Genesis 2:17), but that does not mean the tree, itself, was what gave man moral reasoning.

Christians debate the extent to which death was present before the fall. If "normal" animal relationships existed, man would have already seen what death was. Consider that God barred man from the garden specifically to keep them from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–23). What reason would there be to have such a tree, if there was not death, of any kind, at all? Even if there was no animal death, plants and other lesser creatures would have had to die (Genesis 1:29). And even if Adam and Eve didn't make that association, there's nothing in Scripture saying, "God never told them what death meant."

A more realistic analogy, then, would be a parent telling a teenager, "when you get home from your after-school job, don't drink from my coffee mug or you'll go into anaphylaxis; you can eat or drink anything else, just not that." The teen gulps down what's in the mug, anyway, and ends up in the hospital for an allergic reaction.

Would the excuse, "I didn't know that would happen" change who is responsible? Would saying, "I didn't know the meaning of that fancy medical term" make it the parent's fault? Not at all: even if those claims of ignorance are true, the teen knew very clearly what not to do, and chose to do it anyway.

Satan played a subtle trick on Eve in the garden, one which he repeats today. His ruse suggests everything God tells us is subject to our personal approval and judgment. Satan convinced man that breaking God's clear instructions was "worth it." It wasn't. Picking and choosing whether to obey based on consequences isn't obedience, at all, just temporary cooperation.

We do the same to ourselves, even today. We blame authority figures by saying, "Yes, I broke that rule, but I didn't know the consequences would be so bad." What we really mean is "It's my preference, not your authority, that really matters to me." Or, "unless I sense personal risk, I'll ignore your authority." It would be unthinkable for a soldier to be told "move left," only to move right, then offer the excuse, "but you didn't explicitly tell me there were enemies on the right, so it's your fault I was maimed." When clear authority's clear instructions are clearly disobeyed, assigning blame is not subject to debate. If we know it's wrong to disobey, how deeply we grasp consequences is irrelevant.

We don't know every tiny detail of the fall, but we know enough. So did Adam and Eve. They knew God, directly and personally, as Creator. They knew exactly what they were forbidden to do. They were even given the added incentive of being warned about unhappy consequences. Instead of obedience, they overrode God, inserting their will over His. They said, "I'll be the judge of what I can or cannot do." Then, in typical human fashion, they immediately blamed everyone but themselves for their own choice (Genesis 3:12–13).

God gave Adam exactly one "do not". In broad terms, everything was permissible for Adam but that one thing. Yet, that one thing is exactly what he did. He had everything mankind could ever want, nothing to gain, and everything to lose, but he put his authority above God's and disobeyed. The lesson, further echoed in the Bible and real-life experience, is that no matter how low we set the bar, each of us will fail sooner or later (Romans 7:21–24). God tells us "enough," and we find reasons to disobey anyway.

As it happens, the vagueness of Genesis 3 might be deliberate. Humanity loves to turn details into loopholes. Presenting our first parents' disobedience in the simplest of terms makes it the clearest of lessons: when God says, "do not," then "do not," period. When He says "do," then "do." No further conditions or excuses need be applied. Likewise, when it comes to the more obscure details of His death and resurrection, the primary lesson is clear enough: He is risen (Matthew 28:6), so we are forgiven (John 3:16)!