If they had remained in this state, and as their God-like characteristics developed, they would have been able to fulfill the Creation Mandate as God intended. And they would have built a global civilization that is in fellowship with God and consistent with His will. But Genesis 3 records the “fall” of humanity from this pristine state and consequently God’s original purpose for the human race was derailed. What happened?
Fall of Humanity
In the Garden of Eden there were two special trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Access to the tree of life meant access to immortality. God Himself said eating of this tree would result in living forever (Genesis 3:22). Of all the many trees in Eden, Adam and Eve were prohibited only from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were specifically warned that, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
The phrase “in the day that” simply means “when,” and the warning does not necessarily mean that when they eat the fruit they would die immediately or die as a direct consequence of eating it (see Walton 2001: 174-75). When judgment was actually passed on their disobeying God by eating the fruit, it did not involve immediate death. As it turned out, after they ate the fruit, they were driven out of the Garden of Eden and hence no longer had access to the tree of life, which meant they no longer had access to immortality. In this sense they “shall surely die.” Adam would have to toil to make a living until the day he would “return to dust” (Genesis 3:19). It took 930 years before Adam died (Genesis 5:4). Of course being driven out of Eden also meant they no longer had fellowship with God as before, which can be understood as “spiritual death.”
Being made in the image of God, Adam and Eve had the free will to choose. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil presented to them the option to choose to obey or disobey God. Given their original state the mere presence of the tree did not pose any problem. But without an active temptation to disobey God, their willingness to obey God was not really tested. So God permitted the Serpent to tempt them using a subtle deception. Eve was the immediate target. Even with the temptation, Adam and Eve could still have readily resisted it. For no matter how tempting it was to sin, unlike fallen humanity, they could choose not to sin as easily as choose to sin. Any act of disobedience would then be a perfectly free choice of their perfectly free will. Eve yielded to the temptation because she was deceived into doubting the truthfulness of God’s word and sought to fulfill human desires outside of God’s will, and Adam, who was with her, listened to her.
What is involved in eating the fruit of this tree that it warrants such a drastic consequence? It is clear that eating the fruit resulted in them becoming “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5; cf. 3:22). What then does it mean to have “the knowledge of good and evil”? And how does the mere eating of the fruit result in having this “knowledge”? Firstly, the Hebrew word for “knowledge” does not refer to what we call “head knowledge” but to “experiential knowledge.” In fact the word “know” in Genesis 4:1 goes so far to refer to the most intimate experience or “knowing” between a man and a woman, sexual intercourse. Secondly, though this knowledge is something Adam and Eve did not, and should not, have, it was something that God has. However we understand this “knowledge,” it cannot mean something that violates these two conditions.
The “natural” understanding of the phrase, “knowledge of good and evil,” is that it refers to the “experiential knowledge” of what is good as well as what is evil. It fits in well with Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience, for through this act they came to personally experience and hence “know” what is evil. But this understanding would also mean that God had personally experienced evil by having committed it Himself. So we cannot understand the phrase in its “natural” sense. As Terence Fretheim (1994: 350) points out, “the phrase ‘good and evil’ functions as an idiomatic expression, in which the individual words do not have their normal meanings.” In other words, the meaning of the phrase cannot be derived from the sum of the meanings of the individual words.
An idiomatic phrase functions as though it were one word, as in the English idiom, “know the ropes,” which means know how to do something, and may have nothing to do with ropes. The meaning of an idiomatic phrase, as in the case of a word, can sometimes be inferred from the context in which the phrase is used. For instance, we can infer the meaning of the phrase “know the ropes” from this sentence (taken from the Internet): “The best way to go into a business is to first find a mentor, free or paid, who knows the ropes to teach you.”
There are two other contexts in Genesis (24:50 and 31:24,29) where the words “good” and “evil” are used in an idiomatic expression. These cases not only confirm that “(knowing) good and evil” is idiomatic but also help us determine its meaning. Suffice it here to look at only the first case.
In Genesis 24 we read about Abraham sending his trusted servant from Canaan to his relatives in Mesopotamia to find a wife for his son Isaac. When the servant reached the town he asked God to help him identify a suitable woman for Isaac. That woman turned out to be Rebekah, Abraham’s grandniece. When he asked for permission from her family to take her back to Canaan, he recounted how God had enabled him to identify Rebekah as God’s choice. Laban and Bethuel, her brother and father, replied, “The matter has come from the LORD; we cannot speak to you evil or good” (Genesis 24:50). Obviously “evil” and “good” are used in an idiomatic expression here, since the “natural” meaning of the expression makes no sense. So the New International Version of the Bible interprets it as an idiom and translates the whole clause as, “we can say nothing to you one way or another.”
In this context it is clear what they are saying: since God had already chosen Rebekah, it was not up to them to decide and answer him one way or another. Of course they did later ask Rebekah if she would go; but as for them, they had no say over the matter. In other words, “good” and “evil” are used here in an idiomatic expression to mean the lack of autonomy in decision-making. In this case exercising autonomy would mean usurping the prerogative of God. A similar conclusion can be made from the idiomatic use of “good" and “evil” in Genesis 31.
When we apply the idea of autonomy in decision-making to the phrase “knowing good and evil” we can see that it fits perfectly in the context the phrase is used (Genesis 2-3). For the very act of eating from the tree that bears this name is itself an act of exercising autonomy from God, since He had explicitly commanded them not to do so. This disobedient act then results in experiencing and hence “knowing” autonomy in deciding what is right and wrong. And since only God has the autonomy to decide what is right and wrong, in yielding to the temptation, Adam and Eve yielded to the desire to be “like God” in this forbidden manner. There is a world of difference between deciding what is right and wrong (God’s prerogative) and discerning what is right and wrong based on God’s commandments (our responsibility).
This analysis confirms the interpretation of theologians like Herman Bavinck (2011: 341):
the point of the “fall” narrative in Genesis is the human desire for autonomy from God [emphasis his]. To “know good and evil” is to determine good and evil, right and wrong, by oneself, and refuse to submit to any external law. It is, in short, to desire emancipation from God; it is to want to be “like God.” The issue in Genesis is whether humanity will want to develop [and build a global civilization] in dependence on God, whether it will want to have dominion over the earth and seek its salvation in submission to God’s commandment; or whether, violating that commandment and withdrawing from God’s authority and law, it will want to stand on its own feet, go its own way, and try its own “luck.”
The essence of sin then, and now, is the will to autonomy from God and His commandments. It is rooted in disbelief or lack of belief in God and His commandments. People who want autonomy to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and thus live their life as they see fit, would naturally want God and His commandments out of the way. A convenient way would be to choose to disbelieve even in the existence of God. The Bible considers this folly (Psalms 14). For if God created this world and humanity, He alone knows how human beings should live in this world to make the most of it.
In fact, the book of Ecclesiastes seeks to convince us that to venture out to try our own “luck” in this world without God is disastrous for human beings as individuals as well as a race. The book therefore concludes by calling us to “fear God and keep His commandments,” adding that “this is (the essence of) every man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13); that is, this is what it means to be human (see exposition here).