For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.
In the spiritually symbolic garden that God planted eastward in Eden in Genesis 2—the garden where God placed Adam (a Hebrew word meaning “humankind”), and later Eve (a Hebrew word meaning “life”)—God also planted many trees.
Only two of the trees are specifically named. Their names make it clear that these are not literal trees—like oaks, maples, and hickories—but trees that represent something deeper about human character and life.
On the planting of those trees, some translations read something like this: “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
But that’s not exactly what it says in the original Hebrew language.
Here is the verse in which those trees are planted, in a fairly literal translation of the Hebrew:
And Jehovah God caused to grow from the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And the tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)
Do you notice the difference?
The middle according to God or according to Eve?
The Hebrew makes it clear that the tree of life is in the middle of the garden. But the tree of knowledge of good and evil is just sort of tacked onto the end of the sentence; it’s not clear whether it’s in the middle of the garden or not.
Then why do some translations boldly step in and say that both trees were planted in the middle of the garden?
I think they got the idea from Eve.
Here’s what Eve says to the tempting serpent a little later in the story (once again in a fairly literal translation):
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2–3)
Some of the translations are a bit off in this verse also. They have Eve quoting God as saying, “You must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” But God had said no such thing. Here’s what God did say:
And Jehovah God commanded the man [Adam], saying, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it, you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)
God named the tree. God didn’t say anything about its being in the middle of the garden. That was Eve’s addition.
And by the time Eve was casually saying to the serpent that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was in the center of the garden, the serpent easily tempted her into eating from it. That’s what she was longing to do anyway. Adam quickly followed his wife’s lead . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. (You can read all about it in Genesis 3.)
- In addition to many unnamed trees, God planted two named trees:
- The tree of life in the center of the garden
- The tree of knowledge of good and evil in an uncertain location
- God told Adam (who presumably told Eve) that he could eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
- Eve put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden, because it looked mighty good!
- Both Eve and Adam ate from the forbidden tree, and lost their place in Eden as a result.
In other words, whatever tree we find most desirable, that is the tree we put at the center of our psychological and spiritual garden.
- God put the tree of life in the center.
- Eve and her husband Adam put the tree of knowledge of good and evil at the center.
The meaning of the two trees
What do these two trees mean? And why should we care which one is in the center of the garden, and which one we eat from?
First, the garden is a picture of the spiritual “habitat” in which we live at a deeper level. It is a picture of the inner life of our mind and heart. The animals in the garden—as living, moving, warm-blooded beings—represent our loves, feelings, and emotions. The plants and trees—being “cooler” and more stable and rooted—represent our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.
So the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil represent two contrasting “big ideas,” or overarching principles, by which we can choose to guide our lives.
The tree of life represents the way of genuine spiritual life.
All of our spiritual life comes from God. So if we choose to eat from the tree of life, it means living by the love and understanding that comes to us from God. And since most of us don’t have a direct pipeline to God, this means turning to the sacred writings and teachings of our religion, accepting them as coming from God, and guiding our lives by those revealed insights of divine truth.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil represents a very different approach.
First, it helps to understand that the Hebrew word used here for “knowledge” does not mean theoretical, abstract “head” knowledge. It means knowledge gained through experience.
As a hint to its meaning, in Genesis 4:1, using the same word, it says that Adam “knew” Eve his wife. Now, lest you think this means he had a heart-to-heart talk with her and “grokked” her true nature, it goes on to say that as a result of Adam “knowing” her she became pregnant. This is a very experiential type of “knowing”!
So it should be clear enough that the tree of knowledge of good and evil means trying out and experiencing both good and evil for ourselves, and making our own decisions about what we think is good and what we think is evil. Another way of saying this is that the tree of knowledge of good and evil means deciding what we think is good and evil, true and false, based on what we learn through our five physical senses, and the conclusions we draw from that sensory experience.
To sum up:
- The tree of life means accepting what God teaches us about how to live our lives.
- The tree of knowledge of good and evil means making up our own mind what’s good and bad, and how to live, based on our own sensory experience of life.
God’s way or our own way?
Which tree is in the middle of your garden?
- Are you willing to take God’s word for it?
- Or do you have to try it your own way, right or wrong, and learn the hard way?
Unfortunately for us, we seem to spend most of our lives chomping away at the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We learn an awful lot of our lessons in the school of hard knocks.
It reminds me of a set of product assembly instructions I once saw. In big red letters on the front of the instruction booklet it said:
WAIT! PLEASE TRY IT OUR WAY FIRST!
That could have been God speaking to us in Genesis 2!
Fortunately for us, God has given us a lot of freedom, responsibility, and time on this earth to try things every which way we please. It’s all in the hope that eventually we’ll realize that our own way tends to get us into trouble, and that God’s way was the right way all along.
God is very patient with us, and is willing for us to learn our hard lessons in our own way, in our own time.
Regaining the tree of life
But do you want to hear something beautiful?
After Genesis 3, the tree of life disappears almost entirely from the Bible story . . . until the very end. In the last two chapters of Revelation, in the promised new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, we once again find that the tree of life occupies a central place:
Between the main street and the river was the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, a different kind every month; and the leaves of the tree were for healing the nations. (Revelation 22:2)
Yes, after all of our struggles here on earth—after we’ve tried it every which way for ourselves, and probably gotten rather banged up in the process—God holds out the renewed promise that in the end, we may once again live in the love and light of God’s presence. We may once again live in a broad-based community of healing understanding and sympathy for one another.
For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”
I really like where you are going with this, Lee. What do we put in the centre of our garden? Great insight. Look forward to reading more from you in the future. Thanks for the follow.
Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed my thoughts. Godspeed in your ministry.
— with the tree of life (Torah) in the middle of the garden (earth) and the tree of knowledge (commandments/laws) of good and evil.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts. I would say, rather that the tree of life is living from God, according to God’s way, whereas the tree of knowledge is living from ourselves and our own ideas of what is right and wrong. However, the latter does lead to the necessity of commandments and laws to keep people on the right path as much as possible.
I appreciate your prompt response.
Your perspective of the Tree in the garden of good and evil is interesting. My concept is God in His infinite wisdom and in mortal terms like a scientist who created this universe and human subjects to test free will to either follow His laws and commandments or choose another path in man’s short life span. Remember that God does not exist in our daylight savings time. God exists in eternity with His time always being now. When He speaks of days, months, and millennia, the reference is to our mind’s perspective of time passing from past beginning to future ending.
The initial test of the first man and woman failed. God simply put temptation (a snake) promising knowledge and ending in their deaths based on His command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
What would our existence be today if they had chosen to ignore temptation? For His reasons, the experiment continues.
Good thoughts. Certainly there is much more to this story than meets the eye. It is really about our mental and spiritual state. And I agree that God is not bound by time as God looks at the doings of us human beings who are embedded in time.
Certainly the story of the two trees is a story of temptation and disobedience. But another layer to the story is that it is the asserting of our own will and self-identity as we grow up and become our own person. Only by becoming our own self can we then have a self from which to choose God’s way instead of our own way. From this perspective, the story of the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is simply one chapter in our development as human beings who are made in the image of God, and who have the ability to grow into the likeness of God after we have broken God’s image in us.
what does revelation 22:2 literally mean?
Thanks for your question. The exact meaning and visual imagery of that verse has always been a little unclear to me—and it has been the subject of much debate among Bible commentators.
In order to give you a good answer, I spent some time looking into the precise meaning of the original Greek. As a result, I have changed the translation used in the article. I am now using the translation found in the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), except that I’ve removed the capital letters from “Tree of Life” as it appears in that translation.
I now think that the usual ways of translating this verse are incorrect, and that the CJB comes closest to what the Greek actually means.
Without going into too much detail, the general idea of the usual translations is that the river flows down the middle of the street, and the tree of life grows on both banks of the river, which is in the middle of the street. So the river would be in the middle, flanked by trees of life on either side, and the street would be split into two lanes running on either side of the river and the trees. There are actual streets like this flanking tree-lined rivers and canals, so it’s a reasonable interpretation.
However, I am now convinced that the original Greek uses idioms influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, which have been missed in the usual translations. The meaning is this:
The tree of life is growing between the street and the river, with the street on one side and the river on the other. So visually, the street and the river each run out from the center. In between them is a green belt (if they run parallel to each other), or a pie wedge (if they run out at an angle from each other), with the tree of life growing at its center. This could be a single tree, or “tree of life” could be used collectively, meaning there are many trees of life growing in the central area between the street and the river.
This translation allows the tree of life to occupy a central location in Revelation 22:2 just as it did in its original appearance in Genesis 3:9.
Aside from the tricky, idiomatic nature of the original Greek, perhaps the reason for the more usual translation is the influence of Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple, with trees growing on either side, as found in Ezekiel 47:1-12.
However, though Ezekiel’s vision is definitely reflected in the imagery found in the book of Revelation, I believe that the original description of the tree of life in Genesis 3 is an even stronger influence than Ezekiel, and that the tree of life remains in a central location rather than at the sides. This is important for the spiritual symbolism of the verse as well.
The meaning of the rest of the verse should be fairly clear—though there is some difference of opinion on whether the tree bears twelve different fruits every month continuously, or a different fruit each month. I’m more inclined toward the latter, and have stuck with the CJB on this point.
Thank you for this insight Lee. In reading Genesis 3:2 yesterday, the word “middle” jumped out at me. So here I am looking to see whether others had/have an opinion on this. Your article was the one that jumped out at me & I was led to read it. Thank you for the clear, concise explanation.
Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad the article was helpful to you!
The tree of life is a picture of Jesus. Jesus is life. He who has Jesus has life. There is no other means by which man can receive life other than faith in Christ Jesus!
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I agree that the tree of life is a picture of Jesus Christ–especially for Christians. For non-Christians, it is an picture of God’s presence in our lives. Christians believe that Jesus is God. And there is only one God. So even if people call God by a different name, they are still believing in the same God, who is the Lord God Jesus Christ. In other words, from a Christian perspective, faith in God is faith in Jesus, even for those who use different names for God. (“Name” in the Bible also means the character of the one who bears that name.)
For more on this, see these articles:
If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?
Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
Do the knowledge-tree and life-tree represent spiritual trees ? If so, how did Eve take the fruit from the knowledge-tree,ate it and gave it to Adam,who also ate it ?
Hi Debajyoti Sarkar,
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.
These early stories in the Bible were never meant to be taken literally. They are spiritual stories of the early ages of humankind.
The word “Adam” in Hebrew means “humankind.” Adam and Eve are figures that represent the early community of human beings. It’s similar to how Americans speak of “Uncle Sam” as a figure representing the entire nation of the U.S. We commonly represent whole groups of people poetically as single figures.
If we read these early stories in Genesis as symbolic stories of God’s relationship with the first humans on earth, and the spiritual stages those early humans passed through, they make much more sense.
What actually happened was that the early culture of human beings represented by Adam and Eve moved away from their close relationship with God by choosing to rely upon their own senses (represented by the serpent) and their own judgment, thus symbolically eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil–which as I say in the article, represents relying upon our own judgment and experience rather than accepting the teachings of God.
For more on the story of Adam and Eve, see the article:
Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?
I very much appreciate the understandings and the effort that you’ve put into your website. Your words speak to me.
You are most welcome. It is my pleasure and my joy to offer you what help I can along your spiritual path.
the tree of life is Christ which you can only access to by doing perfectly the word of truth in your heart. as many that disobeyed or break the truth are with tree of death or Satan ruling in his or her heart. Tree of life is a living heart but tree of knowledge of good and evil is a death heart or harden heart.
Hi King Adebusuyi Thomson,
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.
I would only say that I don’t see where the Bible says that we can access Christ only by doing perfectly the word of truth in our heart. Jesus does say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). However, I read that as marching orders for something Christians are meant to aim for and aspire to, not as a requirement for being a Christian and having access to Christ. I do not find anywhere in the Bible any statement that says that if we’re not perfect, God will reject us. In fact, the Bible says just the opposite: that God is merciful, and loves us even when we are sinners, forgiving our sins and calling us to new life.
Also, the Greek word commonly translated “perfect” has the sense of “being complete” or “not stopping halfway, but going the full distance” rather than “perfect” as that word is usually used in English. Jesus is telling us to run the full course of our spiritual journey; don’t stop partway down the course and say, “That’s enough for me.”
I do agree with you that the tree of life means having a living heart—which is a new heart given to us by God (Ezekiel 36:26)—while the tree of death means having a hard, stony heart, which is spiritual death.
Welldone for the insight….from the scripture we could see that Eve ate the fruit first before giving her husband to eat. And you talked about the knowledge gained from experience. Also you talked about Adam knowing his wife in chapter 4…From all these above, who knew Eve first? Is it the Serpent or Adam?
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question.
“Knowing” is used in Genesis 4:1 as a euphemism for Adam and Eve having sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, in Genesis 3 the serpent is not said to have “known” Eve at all. It simply says that he spoke to her.
One thing I’m a little unclear about, regarding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is how that tree can be at the center of our spiritual lives and still, occasionally, result in good choices. You described it earlier as essentially the school of hard knocks, where we rely upon our material sensory perception so as to determine what’s good and bad, but apparently that can occasionally be correct?
To continue with the analogy of fruit, sometimes, when gazing upon a piece of fruit, our sensory perception tells us that it is full, and flavorful, and juicy, and sometimes we happen to be right. Other times, our sensory perception misleads us into thinking something is savory that just turns out to be harsh and bitter. A mushroom can look delicious to us that turns out to be poisonous. And so on.
I ask because eating from this tree, so to speak, is supposed to lead to spiritual death. Shouldn’t all its fruits be spiritually bankrupt? Or are the good choices we think are picked from this tree really just the fruit of The Tree of Life, which is still present but off to the periphery of our gardens?
Also, if you can, can you describe for us how this reliance on sensory perception to determine good and evil plays out in our daily lives? It is *the* basis for The Fall, so should it account for the basis behind all sinfulness? How does the Tree of Knowledge bear itself our in, for example, doing things that we know are sinful? We’re not trying to determine good or evil, on the contrary, we *know* it’s evil and persist in it. How does that tie into this original sin (in the sense that Swedenborg describes it as such)?
That’s a very big and broad question. I’m not sure I can do it full justice, but I’ll at least begin an answer, and you can follow up on this further if and as you are so inclined.
First, the common Hebrew word for “knowledge,” which is used in the name of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, does not connote what we today would think of as intellectual knowledge. Rather, it is more akin to what we today would call experiential knowledge.
As an example of the concreteness of this term, the same word is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse in the common Hebrew turn of phrase, “and [male name] knew his wife [female name], and she conceived and bore a son.”
So the very name of the tree of knowledge of good and evil connotes not just intellectually grasping the concept of good and evil, nor even being able to conceptually distinguish between good and evil. It connotes, rather, experiencing both good and evil, and gaining a direct grasp of their nature through that experience.
This concrete nature of the Hebrew word for “knowledge” used in the name of the tree is one of the bases (but not the only basis) for Swedenborg’s interpretation of it as turning to sensory experience to attempt to learn what is good and evil.
Second, a key element of Swedenborg’s account of the structure of reality in general, and of the human being in particular, is that there is a hierarchy of levels, one above or within the other, and that it is in accordance with the divine design for the higher levels to rule, and the lower levels to serve the higher levels.
Here is Swedenborg’s schema of the three primary levels of reality in their proper order:
When human life is in its proper order, we look first to God, seeing God as the primary object of love and the primary source of life and truth. We look secondarily to spiritual reality as the highest human expression, both individually and collectively, of divine reality. And we see material reality as a reflection of and servant to both divine and spiritual reality, to be both perceived and used in light of and in service to those higher realities.
The basic error embodied in the act of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is to reverse this order, putting material reality as perceived by our senses first, and making spiritual and divine reality secondary as sources of reliable knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to be used in guiding our life.
In the story as told in Genesis 3, Eve, and also Adam, explicitly disobey God, and eat from the tree of knowledge of evil because it looks good for food, and pleasing, and desirable for giving wisdom. The meta-story is that Eve trusted her senses over a direct divine command—which can be thought of as divine and spiritual information, or truth.
In short, it is not the senses and material reality themselves that bring about sin. Rather, it is our human inversion of the proper order—placing material reality above spiritual and divine reality as a guide to truth, understanding, and the determination of good and evil—that brings about evil and sin.
I would say that your final statement hits it on the head.
The tree of life is the Lord’s presence with us, and within us. And though humanity, starting with Eve, has pushed it to the periphery, it is still there, even if its influence is not as direct and conscious as it would be if we had eaten from the tree of life instead of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
That indirect influence flows through sacred writings, priests, prophets, shamans, ministers, parents, teachers, and so on, providing us with a moral and spiritual framework, however diaphanous or faulty it might be, that we refer to as we learn in the sense-oriented, tree-of-knowledge school of hard knocks instead of consciously and intentionally following the tree of life.
So it’s not the tree of knowledge, or our senses, that bring about the learning as we do many stupid things and a few smart ones. It is the presence of the Lord within, working through the moral and spiritual teachings we have imbibed from the aforementioned sources, that causes us to contemplate the results of our actions and consider whether perhaps some of the things we are doing are wrong—yes, of course, prompted by the pain and suffering that results from them, without which we probably wouldn’t pay any attention to the tree of life at all.
Another way of saying this is that external, sensory experience will not, by itself, lead to any moral or spiritual improvement. For example, if we enjoy promiscuous sex, we’ll just keep engaging in promiscuous sex, even if it leads to disease and death, if someone hasn’t informed (taught) us about that connection between promiscuity and disease. Perhaps we do make a few obvious connections ourselves. But most of what we know about the results of various actions comes from the accumulated knowledge of the society around us.
Another term for that accumulated knowledge is God’s presence teaching us and leading us toward better and healthier and higher things.
Yet another, more abstract way of saying all this is that inflow always flows from the top down and the inside out, and never from the bottom up or the outside in. Divine reality flows into spiritual reality, and spiritual reality into physical reality—and never the reverse.
This means that despite appearances, physical, sensory experience never teaches us about moral and spiritual goodness, still less about the nature of God. It is always God and spirit flowing into our physical experience and providing us with spiritual and divine truth using that physical, sensory experience as a foundation on which to build.
As a physical example of this, people commonly think that sight involves light rays flowing into the eye, and from there into the brain and forming a picture there that we see. But that’s not at all how visual perception. Yes, light flows into the eye and strikes the rods and cones on the retina at the back of the eye. However, from there on it is an active process of the brain reaching out through the optic nerve into the structures within the retina, collecting that raw data, and building it into a perceptible image. So sight is actually a process of the brain, or mind, building a picture based on the raw data it gathers from the eyes. The raw data received is not a picture, and would only look like a fuzzy, amorphous jumble if the brain were not actively processing it.
Parallel to the process of visual perception, in Divine Providence (I can look up the reference if you wish), Swedenborg makes the odd assertion that the Lord is the only teacher; that everything we learn does not come from the Bible or preachers or teachers, but rather comes from the Lord teaching us from within. What we get from the Bible and preachers and teachers is not actually teaching, but rather raw materials that God uses to teach and enlighten us from within.
So no, the tree of knowledge and its fruit of sensory perception and hard experience do not provide us with any moral or spiritual understanding or betterment. Rather, the Lord from within reaches out and forms the raw materials of our experience into patterns in our mind and heart that we then perceive as “learning from experience.”
So yes, it is always the tree of life, not the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that teaches us and guides us toward heaven.
About persona and the Sabellians (modalists), I have often thought that the Trinity of Persons is really just a variety of modalism, despite trinitarians’ vehement rejection of Sabellianism. How else can three “Persons” each of which shares the same divine “essence” be conceptualized? The Trinity as commonly thought of today pays attention only to the Persons, and not to the Essence. But at root, the doctrine is modalist to the core.
That is why I find it so ironic that trinitarians commonly accuse Swedenborg of being modalist. On that, see: “What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?”
Hi Lee, thanks so much for you reply (and happy new year!). Hope your holidays were pleasant ones and that you can hit this blog feeling refreshed.
I was hoping to attach another question related to the larger scenario of the one I had just asked, if you have room for another brain bender in your life:
If our evil impulses come from hell, where did the first impulse to sin come from before there was hell? Human beings always had free will, but they were also always connected to the Tree of Life, so despite being morally imperfect beings, they always chose to use their free will for good. So where did those first pangs of pride come from?
Hi again Lee, just to add to this, it is also reported that even angels can and do sin, and that sin always seems to be the sin of pride, and so they find themselves knocked down a peg or two so they can learn the additional lessons needed so as to grow as angels.
But I also understand that Heaven is completely insulated from hell, and if evil impulses come from hell, how do angels sin?
I would not say that angels in heaven sin. Sin is the actual committing of evil. Merely contemplating evil is not sinning. However, even angels are not perfect beings, so they do sometimes contemplate things that are not good, and when that happens, there are various correspondential indicators of that, the greatest of which is falling temporarily out of their heaven until they come to their senses.
This can happen when they start to think things that aren’t true (i.e., false). One of those false things is that they live from themselves instead of from the Lord. And when that sort of falsity starts to invade their mind, they may find their surroundings growing dull and discolored, or they may find themselves falling right out of their heavenly home into one of the lower parts of the world of spirits.
However, this doesn’t mean that they actually sin. Only that imperfections that remain in their character periodically assert themselves in their minds, and this causes them to stumble and fall until they realize their error, learn (or re-learn) the truth of the matter, and accept it. Then everything brightens up again, and they can return to their life in heaven.
About pride, I would say that pride itself is not the sin. Rather, acting from pride is the sin. All of us have a certain amount of pride in ourselves. If we didn’t, we would probably never do anything at all, especially when we first start out. But when we start to act as if we’re better than everyone else, and even better than God, then pride becomes a sin in action, whereas before it was just something in our mind.
When considering what is a sin, it is always good to turn back to the Ten Commandments, in both their literal and spiritual meanings. There are many things that are considered sins that really don’t rate as significant sins, if they are sins at all. But the Ten Commandments give us a practical guide as to what the key sins are that we commit.
Though human beings had access to the tree of life, they didn’t actually eat from it. Not as recorded in the story in Genesis chapters 2–3. Instead, they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which they also had access to. And at that point, they could no longer eat from the tree of life.
About hell, keep in mind that hell is simply the aggregate of all human beings who have chosen evil over good. There were no previously existing devils who tempted those first human beings. The serpent represented the Devil, but as with everything in the Garden of Eden, it existed as a reflection of some aspect of the spiritual character of the people who lived in the (symbolic) Garden, who were represented by Adam and Eve.
Further, the appearance of the serpent was not the beginning of the Fall, nor was the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil the beginning of the Fall. This is a common error made by traditional Christians, who think that everything before Genesis 3 was “very good.”
In fact, the beginning of the Fall happens, not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 2:
After God pronounced everything “very good” in Genesis 1:31, and after an initial presumed-good second Creation in Genesis 2:4—17, the second half of Genesis 2 deals with what unfolds after the first “not good” thing happens. That “not good” thing is that the man is “alone.”
Traditional Christianity has generally glossed over that “not good” because on the surface, it looks like this is just a matter of God preparing to create woman. And everything is assumed to still be good. But the text says that something is not good, leading to the forming (not creating) of woman out of man.
In fact, woman had already been created in Genesis 1:26–27. “Adam” (humankind) already included both male and female. So what is happening in Genesis 2:18–26 is a separation between man and woman, who had formerly been together as one. Woman is symbolically created out of “man,” but the Hebrew here is adam, humankind, not ish male human being. So what is actually happening is that woman is being separated from man, and placed on a different standing from man. Previously, in Genesis 1, both were created in the image of God, and both were given the same charge, to tend to the garden and keep it, and to have dominion over everything in creation. Now, in the second half of Genesis 2, woman is separated out from man and placed as “a helper suited to him.” I.e., woman is now placed in a lesser position in relation to man.
All of this is based on its being “not good” that the man (humankind) was “alone.”
However, this, too, is a reflection of the spiritual state of the people represented by Adam, not some absolute thing.
In Genesis 2:9, God places the tree of life in the center of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in an unspecified location. But by the time Eve is talking to the serpent in Genesis 3:2–3, she has placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden.
Did the trees get transplanted?
Perhaps. But more likely, it was Eve’s (and by extension, Adam’s) changing perception of where the center of the Garden was. Previously the tree of life had been the center in their minds, as God had created it. But now the tree of knowledge is the center in their minds. In other words, it was a matter of perception on the part of Adam and Eve. Before their focus had been on the tree of life. Now it was on the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And whatever we focus on, that is the center for us.
That’s also what was happening with the perception of being “alone.” Prior to Genesis 2:18, Adam/humankind is not “alone.” He had God for companionship. But now that companionship with God feels like “aloneness.” In other words, humanity’s focus was no longer on God; humanity’s eye was roving around for something else to focus on.
This, and not the serpent, was the beginning of the Fall of humankind. It was when humans no longer had their primary relationship with God, but wanted some other primary focus in their lives, that we began to fall away from the initial “very good” state in which God created us.
So to answer your question, the first impulse to sin came from within human beings themselves—and it is humans who are ultimately the source of evil. It was when humans started looking elsewhere, and ultimately outward to material, sensory things (represented in the next chapter by the serpent and the enticing nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) that evil and sin entered in.
God created Eve from Adam symbolically in order to give Adam something better than mere physical desire and pleasure to look to instead of to God. Now, woman would no longer be fully one with man, both together looking to God. Instead, man would look to woman (not God) as his “helper,” and woman would be in a secondary position, helping man not to focus on his own pleasure, but to focus instead on the wellbeing of someone else—his wife.
However, that turned out to be a stopgap measure, and ultimately it was not enough to stop humankind’s downward plunge. Before long both Eve and Adam had fallen headlong into outright sin in disobeying God’s explicit command not to eat from or even touch the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
So ultimately, sin was the “fruit” of the impulse to look somewhere else besides God for our primary meaning and fulfillment in life. That first led to a separation of man and woman such that they no longer had their original oneness and equality in their relationship with God and with Creation. But then it kept going to the well-known story of Genesis 3, leading to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and all of the other effects that evil and sin have in our lives when we indulge in them.
For more on the precise events of the two Creation stories in the context of the relationship between man and woman, see these articles:
Thank you so much for such a detailed answer. I think I was just under the impression that all evil came from hell. And certainly, from both my readings of Swedenborg and the content that you post here, there *is* an influx of hell into our lives, right? At the same time, as you point out, humans are, first and foremost, the source of evil.
So is there a difference between the impulses that spring from within us and the whisperings of hell into our hearts? And is it correct to say that *we* are the source of our own temptations, and that we must bring our material selves under reign of our spiritual selves so that our lives are properly ordered in the way you described earlier?
Yes, evil comes from hell. But hell is not a different thing than the evil within ourselves. Hell is the evil within ourselves, and collectively, within everyone else as well. Hell in the spiritual world is the collection of all people who have chosen evil over good. And it is the evil within them, and expressed in their words and actions, that makes it hell. There is no hell separate from human evil. Human evil is hell.
So yes, hell does flow into us. But it flows into the evil in us, and corresponds to it. So there is a mutual relationship between the hell that exists in the spiritual world and the hell that exists within us.
None of our thoughts, good or evil, are really are own. They all come from the spiritual world. But that is also an expression of the reality that our spirit is a part of the spiritual world. Like hell, the spiritual world as a whole—heaven, the world of spirits, and hell—has no independent existence of its own. Without human beings and their spirits and characters, there would be no spiritual world. (Of course, it is also all maintained by God flowing in from within and above, but that’s another topic.)
So whether we say that evil comes from within our own spirit (the evil part of it) or whether we say evil comes from hell, we’re really saying the same thing. The only difference is that in one case we’re talking about the microcosm of our own spirit, and in the other case we’re talking about the macrocosm of all human spirits put together, or in the case of the hell of the spiritual world, the spirits of all evil people put together. And even the remaining taint of evil in good spirits is still part of hell, not part of heaven.
Now, the microcosm is embedded in the macrocosm, and has no life apart from it, any more than we humans can (realistically) live as humans without any contact with other humans. Even people who become hermits came from human community, and they still hold that human community in their mind—which is another way of saying that spiritually we are always in community even if physically we may not be at times.
Having said all that, yes, it is ultimately our responsibility (from God’s power, of course) to bring our material selves under the reign of our spiritual selves. Both heaven and hell are continually flowing into us—heaven into the good parts of us, and hell into the evil parts of us. It is our job to decide for ourselves which will reign in us. If we choose heaven, then our life becomes a heaven. If we choose hell, then our life becomes a hell. And as I’m sure you understand, that choice is not just an abstract one made in our heads, but an embodied one made in the way we live our lives.
Think of your spiritual life as a see-saw or a tug-of-war that is evenly balanced on both sides. Heaven is on one side, and hell is on the other side, always exerting equal force in opposite directions, since God ensures that we remain in freedom between heaven and hell. In that scenario, whichever side you put your weight on, that’s the direction it will go. So despite having huge spiritual forces bearing upon us from either side, neither of which we could resist if it were just us against hell or us against heaven, since those opposing forces are equally balanced, we remain in freedom to choose which direction we, personally, will go.
Hi again Lee,
About the imperfection of angels: is the continuing spiritual growth of each angel marked by occasional setbacks, then? Even angels themselves have lingering imperfections, and since no being- mortal or spiritual- will ever attain perfection, do all angels undergo an eternity of ups and the occasional down?
Yes, angels do go through what Swedenborg calls “changes of state,” or what we might call emotional ups and downs, throughout eternity. That is part of being created human beings who are still in progress. Although we are always moving toward perfection (meaning toward God), we never fully achieve perfection. And so we keep making progress and then falling into another aspect of our remaining imperfection, or back into the same one in a different way, as we continually face and overcome the remaining shortcomings within our soul.
The overall motion is forward and upward, but it happens through a whole series of emotional and spiritual ups and downs.
Although I’ve gone on and broken my response up into three posts, I hope you’ll find this short and simple enough for you to go ahead and address them in just one shot.
When accounting for the origin of evil, I keep coming back to the same problem: if humanity, while not morally perfect, was nevertheless in direct communion with God, then why would they have chosen to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Humans had free will, and they were under the direct guidance of God, so why didn’t they use their free will to make the right choice?
This same question has come up within more traditional spheres of Christianity: Adam and Eve were very good, so wouldn’t a very good being make the right moral choice?
I know i’m missing something, but I just can’t seem to get my head around the relationship between goodness and free will as it results in humanity having chosen evil.
First of all, the text of the Bible doesn’t say that Adam and Eve were very good.
In the first creation story, on the sixth day, after God has finished creating everything, it says that God saw everything he had made, and it was very good. That, of course, includes the creation of male and female human beings.
However Adam and Eve show up in the second creation story in Genesis 2—and shallow and sloppy traditional Christian readings of the first three chapters of Genesis to the contrary notwithstanding, Adam and Eve are not the same as the male and female humans created at the end of Genesis 1.
About the most we could say is that Adam (humanity) as created in the first part of the second creation story is a continuation and development of the male and female human beings created on day six of the first creation story. Adam (humanity) encompasses both male and female, as I said in a previous reply to you here.
By the time we get to God forming (not creating) Eve out of Adam’s rib while he slept, the text has already explicitly said that something is not good, as discussed in the aforementioned reply. So once again, in the flow of the story, Adam and Eve come into existence as separate beings when something has already become not good.
Based on all of this, it isn’t accurate to say that Adam and Eve were very good. Rather, they represent a time when humanity had already started falling away from the very good state in which God had originally created us.
To most traditional Christians this probably looks like irrelevant nitpicking. But in fact, it is critically important to understanding the origins of evil. Traditional Christianity focuses on Eve listening to the serpent and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil against God’s explicit commandment. And that is indeed the beginning of sin.
But it is not the beginning of evil.
The beginning of evil comes in Genesis 2:18, when God says that it is not good for Adam to be alone. This, spiritually understood, is when Adam (humanity) was no longer content to be alone with God—i.e., to focus first on God—but wanted to focus on something else besides God.
In general, what we look to when we don’t look to God is to ourselves. However, that commonly manifests in looking to external things around us—since we live embedded in an earthly world—and then relying upon ourselves to decide what is right and wrong, good and evil based on what we see and sense in the world around us.
To put it in Swedenborg’s Latin terminology, which is sometimes used by Swedenborgians as quasi-English, evil results from our proprium, or sense of self and of self-ownership. When we begin to think that we, not God, own ourselves, and that we, not God, are the arbiter of what’s good and evil, that is when we fall into evil, and ultimately, commit sin.
That’s because the fact of the matter is that it is God, not us, who owns us, and it is God, not us, who is the arbiter of what’s good and evil. Whenever we depart from that fact of reality, we fall into error, and ultimately into sin. It would be like thinking that the earth, not the sun, is the source of our heat and light. If we were to live and act according to that false belief, we would inevitably make all sorts of mistakes.
So in the second and third chapters of Genesis there is a progression from turning away from God toward ourselves and our material surroundings as apprehended by our senses, and from there to the committing of actual evil by acting contrary to the truth as it comes to us from God.
Ultimately, the free will we have here on earth is a choice between being led by God and being led by ourselves. The early humans represented by Adam and Eve chose to be led by themselves rather than being led by God. That very choice was a falling into evil—and actual sin was the inevitable result of it.
However, another less negative and more holistic and psychological way of looking at this is that as human beings created to be distinct from, though still connected with, God, it is necessary for us to assert our independence and develop our own proprium, or ego, in order to ultimately come into freely chosen relationship with God.
Think about young children, who, when they are two or three, come into a “no” phase. When we first begin to be aware of ourselves as beings distinct from our parents, we also begin to assert our independence by saying “no” to many things that our parents tell us to do. We want to do it our way, thank you very much, even if our parents are older and wiser and probably have a better idea than we do of the best way to do things.
This is all part of our process of “individuation,” to use contemporary psychological language. We must assert our independence from our parents in order to become a person in our own right and not just an extension of our parents. This is a necessary part of our growth toward independent, self-responsible adulthood. Those parents who continue to run every aspect of their children’s lives are doing their children a grave disservice, such that we have many young people in today’s world who are physically adults, but psychologically they are still children dependent upon their parents.
So another way of looking at Adam and Eve thumbing their nose at God and doing it their own way is that this was a part of our human assertion of our own self-ownership as a way of distinguishing ourselves from God, so that ultimately we could (if we so choose) come into relationship with God as distinct beings.
It’s all very tricky, because in reality we have no life independent from God. Even our ability to assert ourselves comes from God. And yet we must have a sense of self-ownership (proprium) or we would simply be an extension of God, and no real and full relationship between God and created humans would be possible. If we were simply programmed to say “I love you” to God, it would have little or no meaning.
This is why God created us with free will in the first place.
For us to be beings distinct from God, we had to have our own agency. We had to be able to decide for ourselves who we would be, and whether or not we would be in a relationship with God. This means that God had to create us with the ability to choose not to be in relationship with God. Or to say the same thing in a different way, God had to create us with the ability to choose evil over good. After all, God is everything good, and everything good is God. So in order to choose something that is not God, we had to be able to choose something that is not good—i.e., evil.
This, in a nutshell, is why God created us with the possibility of choosing evil. Or in biblical terms, this is why God planted both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden.
Now to be clear, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is not evil. God did not create anything evil. Rather, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is simply not meant to be used for food. It is eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that is evil, not the tree itself. It is like eating the poisonous fruit of an ornamental tree. The ornamental tree is not evil. In fact, it is beautiful. It just isn’t meant for human consumption.
Another way of saying this is that the ability to choose between good and evil is not evil; it is good. Without it, we would not be human, and we could not be in a freely chosen, and thus real, relationship with God. Rather it is actually choosing evil that is evil.
And yet, though we theoretically could have recognized that it wasn’t a good idea to eat from the wrong tree, and intellectually made a decision in our minds not to do so, that’s just not how we humans work. God created us not to live only in our heads, but to live with our whole selves, head, heart, and hands. So in order to make that choice between good and evil, we had to actually experience evil. And Hebrew name for that tree could easily be translated, “the tree of experience of good and evil.”
So although theoretically we could have eaten from the tree of life instead of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, given our humanity and the process we must go through to come into a good and freely chosen relationship with God, it was in some sense inevitable that we would choose to experience evil for ourselves. That’s the only way we can make a truly informed choice between good and evil.
Once again, it’s similar to young children refusing to do what their parents tell them to, and doing what their parents tell them not to. Although it’s frustrating for parents, and can sometimes be dangerous or even deadly, our young selves need to find out for ourselves whether there’s really anything wrong with what our parents say is wrong. So we try it out even though they have told us not to, and we experience the consequences of it for ourselves.
Unfortunately, some of us rather like those consequences. Some of us continue to do things that are wrong and destructive because we derive pleasure from it. Consider smoking as an example. Nobody would do it if there weren’t some pleasure and satisfaction in it. Unfortunately, smoking is highly damaging to our health, and if we don’t quit at some point, it’s likely that it will ultimately kill us.
Back to evil (and sin) in general, our parents’ (and God’s) hope is that we’ll realize in time, through experience, that living in this way is not such a good idea and leads only to pain and sorrow, and that ultimately we’ll make the choice to live in a good way instead.
The difference is that then it’s our choice, not something imposed upon us from the outside. And when it’s our choice, it becomes an essential and settled part of our own character rather than something from outside of ourselves that isn’t really ours, or us. Only things we choose in freedom become a permanent part of our self and our character.
It is on this basis that ultimately we can choose to engage in a good, healthy, satisfying, and real relationship with God. Because now it’s not God choosing for us. It’s us choosing for ourselves to be in a loving relationship with God.
In Secrets of Heaven (Arcana Coelestia) Swedenborg expresses this as growing from a hellish proprium to a heavenly proprium. In other words, though we may start out with a sense of self that is focused on our own pleasure, power, possessions, and standing in and in relationship with the world, through finding out that this is ultimately unsatisfying and painful, we can replace that sense of self with one that focuses on and most values our relationship with God and our desire to love and serve our fellow human beings, and to be in a good and constructive relationship with our fellow human beings for their sakes, and not just for our own advantage.
This means that even the highest angels have a sense of self, or identity. It’s just that their identity no longer has to be in opposition to God or their neighbor, but now is felt to be in their relationship of love and truth with God and the neighbor.
So although in turning away from God and toward self and the world, Adam (humanity) veered into evil and sin, it is on the basis of experiencing evil as well as good that we humans can ultimately choose good over evil. And that is the real purpose of our life here on earth.