“The Lord God caused to grow out of the ground every tree pleasing in appearance and good for food, including the tree of life in the middle of the garden, as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:9)
The standard response, which I shall improve upon here, is that God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to give man a free choice to follow or obey Him. They also add that without it, the fullness of God’s character (e.g, His justice and mercy) would not have been displayed. Thus God allowed man to fall, despite foreknowing what they would freely choose, because He had some greater purpose – namely, the greatest display of His love for mankind through the death of His Son. If the fall had not occurred, we couldn’t have known the full extent of His love. Love that loves the perfect is expected, but love that loves the fallen is completely extraordinary.
Any good story is going to have conflict and through that conflict love displays the greatest acts of courage and sacrifice. Sometimes it ends tragically, such as when a LOTR character named Boromir valiantly dies to protect the hobbits from evil forces, but it is a beautiful tragedy because of the extraordinary good that it displays. Furthermore, if the characters in question were born in a world without challenges to themselves, their paradise would be as artificial as a greenhouse. Proper freedom involves self-mastery over one’s choices and character through tests. Since God values freedom and character-building, He tests man with the tree to see if they’ll reject or obey Him – thereby removing the artificiality of the paradise.
Someone may object that by creating the tree of knowledge, God created evil and made it “pleasing in appearance” (Genesis 2:9) which caused Adam and Eve to be tempted. It sounds like God set Adam and Eve up for failure, only to then make himself out to be some hero. What a manipulative self-absorbed prick God is, right? Not so fast. This objection raises an important point that is sometimes missed: what is the tree of knowledge of good and evil? The standard response is that it represents experiential knowledge of making evil choices, but this is completely wrong.
There is something very perplexing about this tree of knowledge. Not only could Eve discern that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, but she also noticed that it was “desirable for obtaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). This is strange. Who, besides someone on LSD, has ever looked at a piece of fruit and thought it was going to give them wisdom? That just never happens! Someone could say, “Well yeah, that’s just part of Satan’s deception. He not only falsely made it look good for food, but he falsely made it look good for wisdom.”
However, this gets the nature of Satan’s deception completely wrong. God Himself said that “every tree” was good for food (Gen 2:9) and that included the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Satan tells Eve, “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). What’s really perplexing is that God confirms that what Satan said was true: “Since man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil…” (Gen 3:22). What the heck is going on here? Everything that Satan said was true!
The Tree’s True Meaning
This seems very perplexing only if we assume the tree of knowledge of good and evil is bad. Quite the contrary, it cannot possibly be unconditionally bad precisely because God assures us that He “knows” good and evil too. If the tree gave experiential knowledge of evil, this would entail that God has experienced evil by committing evil. This cannot be. Rather, there seems to be something genuinely good about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The only question left then is this: why would God command them not to eat from something that was good?
To answer this, we need to go through some passages. As we know, Adam and Eve were created to be rulers over all the earth (Gen 1:26). Solomon asked God something important: “give Your servant an obedient heart to judge Your people and to discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3:9). Notice that good and evil phrase again? It’s very interesting because this tell us that in order to be a good ruler, you must have the ability to discern good and evil. Lastly, look at what Deut 1:39 has to say: “children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil…” It seems then that knowledge of good and evil is a sign of maturity that is associated with rulership.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil therefore represents the power to rule. While Adam and Eve had a divinely given right to rule, they were not mature enough to rule yet. So God commands them not to eat from the tree of good and evil, but Adam and Eve decided to seize power before the proper time.
God intended Adam and Eve to gain knowledge of good and evil by obeying His command not to eat from the tree. Either they’d trust their own judgement over God’s or God’s judgement over their own. Their maturity would have been proven if they had resisted Lucifer’s temptations. But instead man’s right to rule was diminished and their nature became corrupt.
So, far from God creating evil or setting humans up for failure, He was creating the very conditions for their success but instead they freely chose to rebel.