Good and Evil
Let me make a guess. The last movie you saw, book you read, or song you heard dealt with good and evil at least to some degree.
Was I correct? Did the medium of communication speak about or platform something good that was done or did you see an admirable character quality displayed? Did the form of media you engaged with speak about someone who was hurt, sad, or lonely?
Now, I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, I am simply highlighting the prevalence of good and evil in our lives. That was just an external illustration, but we know there to be an internal reality as well (cf. Gal 5:16–26).
Having said that, it wasn’t always this way. What I mean is this, before the garden there was no evil. Evil as we know it did not exist. The omniscient God knew evil was coming, and it is part of His plan to receive the utmost glory (cf. Rom 11:36; Eph 1:11; 1 John 3:20). However, evil was not eternally manifest. It has a beginning.
The words good and evil appear in 55 verses in the Bible. Some notable examples include Prov 15:3, “The eyes of Yahweh are in every place, Watching the evil and the good.” Is 5:20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” Amos 5:15, “Hate evil, love good…,” Matt 5:44–45, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good…,” you get the idea.
Those words appear in frequency nearly once per book of the Bible, together in a verse. Yet, there is an expression that exists far less frequently in the Bible that I want to give a view towards in this article. It’s the expression of “good and evil” in that particular order. That line only occurs seven times in the Bible and is linguistically distinct from other usages. I think we would all do well to see the progression on display and the God-intended connections that should be made back to the Garden of Eden.
The phrase “good and evil” is used four times between Gen 2–3 in the garden. The first appearance is seen in Gen 2:9, “And out of the ground Yahweh God caused to grow every tree that is desirable in appearance and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God created everything out of nothing which included the world and the trees that fill it. Notice how this is worded, God made the trees in the garden in a desirable way. God wants His people to delight in what He has made, not so that glory would be robbed from Him, but rather to bring Him glory. When Adam would eat the mouth-wateringly delicious fruit in the garden it would be a reminder of the oh so good God who made it. When eaten rightly, God will be glorified (cf. 1 Cor 10:31).
We also see that in the garden is “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, then you are likely familiar with how the first chapter ends. Gen 1:31 reads, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” Does God’s very good creation include this tree here? Yes, it does. The tree isn’t inherently evil, it’s inherently good. The only thing that could make this tree a conduit for evil would be if God, say, gave a command to enjoy everything but this tree for food, and then if His creation sinned against Him… doing evil instead of good.
Which brings up the question: what is good and what is evil? After all, we are looking at various passages that speak about each, so let’s define our terms. The simple definition of good is this, that which accords with who God is. How can I say that? Let’s give a view to the beginning of the conversation that Jesus had with the rich young ruler. In Matt 19:16–17, we read, “And behold, someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” How does Jesus define goodness? God. It’s that simple.
Our Triune God is goodness (cf. Ps 100:5). Any goodness that occurs in this world is a reflection of the One who is the substance of what good is. So if that’s what good is, that which is in line with God, then evil is that which is not in line with God. Evil is that which goes against God. That’s a basic definition of sin as well.
This brings us to Gen 2:15–17, “Then Yahweh God took the man and set him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. And Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may surely eat; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat from it; for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’” God tells Adam to work unto Him, and to enjoy the produce that He made with one exception. Adam cannot eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for in the day he eats it, he will die. In Hebrew, the word death is written twice at the end, conveying the idea of surely, guaranteed, no questions about it, it will occur. There’s even some suggestion given the wording that the expectation is that Adam will do evil. The word “כִּי” which is translated as “for” in Gen 2:17 is most often translated in a resultative or causal fashion (eg., because of). It seems to be implied that because or since Adam will eat of the tree that he will die. God knew it would occur.
While Adam lived longer than the day in which he ate the fruit, he would die spiritually that very day in their being separated from God which he had never experienced before. In addition, every day subsequently would be a day of dying moving toward his physical death. Adam is in the very good garden, with God, and lacking nothing aside from a wife (cf. Gen 2:18). God would provide the wife for Adam in Eve. Everything is very good, this provides the appropriate backdrop and weight for the committal of evil.
Then, in chapter 3, Adam and Eve do commit evil against God. Gen 3:1–5 reads, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which Yahweh God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God said, ‘You shall not eat from it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die.’’ And the serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
The serpent is Satan (cf. Rev 12:9). Before Satan fell with the desire to be like God, (something that Adam and Eve already were, in being made in God’s image) all he knew was goodness (Ezek 28:13–18; Is 14:12–14). Satan’s temptation to Eve then is him providing what he discovered through sin… evil. You’ve likely heard the expression before that misery loves company. That’s the idea. The fellow angels were not enough, he wanted everyone and everything to be against God (Rev 12:7).
So, at this point, all Eve knows is goodness. Right? So what is the temptation then? I realize you will likely say “to be like God.” Yes, that’s true. But functionally, the temptation is to know evil. Satan doesn’t word it that way. Like a shady salesman, he disguises and conceals what he desires. What Satan is really saying is, “Eve, all you know is the goodness and sweetness of your loving God, don’t you want to know evil, betrayal, heartbreak, pain, sickness, and death too?” That wouldn’t sell as well. So, he positions pride. “If God knows about that which is against Him and what will come about, don’t you want to know too?” With this temptation, he is leading Eve by the hand toward the death of Jesus. If she falls, then Jesus the Son of God must die. If she moves forward, then evil will truly enter into and corrupt the creation, beyond certain angels.
Pause with me for a moment. Think back with me to Gen 2:9. God’s produce is inherently desirable, He made it so. They had so much to enjoy. But here’s what temptation does, it makes that which is bitter appear sweet; it is perfume on a corpse; it’s lipstick on a pig. Gen 3:6 reads, “Then the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, so she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” What is the effect of committing and now knowing evil? Verse 7, “And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” They go from being unashamed before God to ashamed (cf. Gen 2:25). Sin brews concern for self over concern for God. They hide from God. Their relationship with God is broken and dead.
God shows Adam and Eve the error of their ways and the consequences which would now come. He explains that because of their sin, the Seed of the Woman would now be bruised on the heel. Since Adam and Eve sinned, Jesus would die. Man needed a substitute. But there is also the expectation built-in that He would one day bruise the head of the serpent (cf. Gen 3:15; Rev 13:8). Right there, in Gen 3 is a brief explanation concerning the death of Jesus and His subsequent victory over Satan, which implies that He will be raised from the dead.
Toward the end of Gen 3, we see the last example of the phrase “good and evil” in the books of Moses. Thus far God used the phrase, then Satan, and now God does again. Gen 3:22–23, “Then Yahweh God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us to know good and evil; and now, lest he send forth his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever’—therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.” Because of evil, that which mankind now knew in sinning and eating of the tree that would reveal evil, man was now moved east of Eden. Humanity would continue to move east of Eden not only geographically but spiritually as well. By Gen 6:5, that which was very good, “was only evil continually.” Even still, amid the devastation that lies in the wake of the phrase, “good and evil,” there is some hope as well.
But, at this point, what I want you to grasp is that we can never go back to the garden. In this life, we will never be in a place where we only know “very good.” Those days are gone with the wind. The highest level to which we can rise in this life is to the point of the original temptation to sin. What I mean is this, there is no such thing as only good, now the best is that we would be like God in knowing good and evil, and acting like God in our response to it––doing good. It’s a bit ironic. This is as good as it gets for us as those that live east of Eden (until glory).
We have three final pit stops along the way. The first is found in 2 Sam 14:17. After Absalom, King David’s son fled after murdering his half-brother, Amnon, David was broken up inside. Terrible family events and sins had taken place. David missed his son who had been gone for three years (this was before Absalom sought to steal the kingdom from David and have him murdered), yet to bring him back after the sin he committed would cause a stir in Jerusalem. But Joab, knowing the king well, saw this as an opportune time to scale up the ranks in the king’s book. So he sent a woman from Tekoa to David, with a plan to bring Absalom back for his selfish gain.
Within her story, we see the line of 2 Sam 14:17, “Then your servant-woman said, ‘Please let the word of my lord the king be a resting place, for as the angel of God, so is my lord the king to listen with discernment through the good and evil. And may Yahweh your God be with you.’” The woman of Tekoa, motivated by Joab, takes us back to the garden. Again, this phrase is distinct. She asserts that she trusts David and that he would be discerning good and evil like an angel of God. Originally, who knew “good and evil?” Only God. Then who knew “good and evil?” Satan and the angels. And then who knew “good and evil?” Humanity and creation (cf. Rom 8:18–22).
Notice the change here though. She commends the king, not as one who simply knows (דַּעַת) “good and evil,” as we saw in the garden, but one who discerns (שׁמע), or hears and weighs between “good and evil.” What was once a curse for man in knowing “good and evil” because all man knew was good, now is the highest order we can rise to, particularly in discerning between “good and evil.” The righteous are not those who only know good, rather the righteous are those who out of a love for God discern between good and evil and walk in the paths of goodness.
King Solomon knew this. The greatest gust of wind in the sails of man in this life, to navigate it well, is seen in being able to not only know good from evil but chart the course to live in goodness, to live in God. 1 Kings 3:5 reads, “In Gibeon, Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream at night; and God said, “Ask what I should give to you.” How would you answer that question? I imagine the world would answer it in one of four ways. The first is this, “I ask for three more questions like this one,” so as to procure more things for oneself. The second, third, and fourth, would be for items that are prohibited for the kings of Israel in Deut 17:14–17. I had a professor in seminary (Paul Twiss) who used to refer to the big three sins here, in his elegant British accent, as “girls, gold, and giddy-up.” That’s what the world would request… family (spouses or offspring), treasure (cash, gold, stocks, Bitcoin–maybe for some of you), or other earthly possessions (horses, cars, houses, etc).
Solomon asks for none of the above. Solomon fears the Lord, and as he says in Prov 9:10, “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.” We see Solomon’s response in 1 Kings 3:8–9, “... Your slave is in the midst of Your people which You have chosen, a numerous people who are too many to be numbered or counted. So give Your slave a listening heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this glorious people of Yours?’” What does Solomon ask for? He asks for the ability to rightly approach the door that the fall opened. What is the purpose that he asks for this request? He wants to help the people of Israel. In order to help them, he needs the ability to distinguish between good and evil himself, and then he will be a gift that keeps on giving to others. God grants Solomon his request for “discernment to listen to justice (cf. 1 Kings 3:11).”
God’s summary statement of the reality of the garden is significant. What if we read this back for a moment? “The tree of the knowledge of justice (Gen 2:17),” “you’ll be like God knowing justice (Gen 3:5),” and “for as the angel of God, so is my lord the king to listen with discernment through justice (2 Sam 14:17).” I don’t want to read too much into this, aside from the fact that in eating from the tree, justice was now needed, and the call is now to be of a just mind–in light of the existence of evil.
The call for justice is precisely what we see as we leave our second pitstop and transition to our final one. After speaking about Jesus Christ as our high priest, unlike that of the Levitical priesthood, in Heb 5:14 we read, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern both good and evil.” Why does this come up? Well, there’s a lot to say about Melchizedek and Jesus’ priesthood, but the Hebrews cannot bear it because they were not grounded in the basics of the faith. They should have been teaching others, but they needed another lesson in the essence of the gospel, that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ who is our righteousness. That leads us to see that solid food is for those who are mature and built up in Christ, those who are pursuing Him and not backing away. It’s for those who have practiced (“γυμνάζω” is the word from which we get our English word, “gymnasium”) and exercised spiritual muscles, so to speak, such that they can discern between good and evil in life.
The call upon every one that loves the Lord is seen here. It’s the culmination of this phrase from the garden. We have moved from knowing good and evil, to discerning good and evil, to being mature and trained in our discernment of good and evil. The last category is where we are to stand. We are to mature in the faith, by the Spirit of God at work in us, who through training enables us to discern good and evil. For the mature Christian, this kind of discernment and judgment should be as natural as possible. We’ll never live in the good of the garden but via discernment we can live as close as we can to Eden in living for good.
From the fall, the highest call upon mankind is that we would, out of a love for God, live in this world full of good and evil in a manner that glorifies Him. While the world has an understanding of good and evil (cf. Rom 2:15) and chooses evil (cf. Rom 3:11), we are to be those of whom Ps 34:14, “Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it.” We are to be those that Amos 5:14 speaks of in this way, who “Seek good and not evil, in order that you may live.” We are to be the good guys (... and girls).
But here’s the kicker, and this is so important. We do not seek good, simply for goodness sake. Do not miss that. We seek good because we seek after God. The motivation for goodness is the love of God poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5). It’s because we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good that we can discern effectively between good and evil (cf. Ps 34:8). We live in the manner that we do because of the gospel. It is out of our abounding love for Christ that we seek to live like the One that we love who is the essence and definition of goodness. And if you love the Lord, we have such a hope because we know and understand that one day evil will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 19:20–21; 20:10, 14–15). We know that we will not be corrupted by evil or sin any longer because we will, as 1 John 3:2 says, “... we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” Oh how my heart yearns and longs for that moment and I trust yours does as well, seeing Jesus… seeing goodness forevermore.
I hope this trip to the garden and back helps your understanding of good and evil. My prayer is that this short study causes you to cling to and live for our good God all the more in this world that is full of evil.