In what sense did Adam, by his fall, become as God, “knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3: 5; see also v22)?
Two trees are named in the Garden of Eden: “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2: 9). Adam was told “of every tree of the garden thou shalt freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest of it thou shalt certainly die” (vs 16, 17, my emphasis). From this it appears that there was no hindrance to Adam eating of the tree of life, but from the moment he fell, access to it was denied (see 3: 22–24). Partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was specifically forbidden from the outset—and to break that rule was to make it, in effect, a tree of death.
Some have argued that if Adam did not know the difference between good and evil, then it hardly seems just to hold him responsible for what he did. This kind of reasoning implies that the first man did not know what he was doing, which is not the case at all. He knew what the will of God was (see 2: 17), he was not deceived (see 1 Tim. 2: 14), and he violated that will (see Rom. 5: 19). The point is that he disobeyed God. There is no indication whatsoever that there was anything essentially good or evil about the fruit of the tree of knowledge—the sin lay in the fact that God had simply forbidden Adam partaking of it, and he chose to flout that will. I might say to a child ‘You are not to go out of this room’ when it might have been all right to do so ten minutes before. The point is not so much the detail of the act, but whether it is in accord with my will. This was the kind of moral test that Adam was placed under. He was put in a position of responsibility, and he failed.
It would appear that the fruit of the tree of life, by some wonderful means, conveyed immortality for God said “And now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever ...!” (Gen. 3: 22). Although Scripture is not explicit on the point, the very name of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil seems to imply that this fruit also conveyed a wonderful quality. Adam’s sin was to disobey God and partake of the fruit; by partaking of the fruit, however, man gained “the knowledge of good and evil”.
So what is meant by “the knowledge of good and evil”—a knowledge possessed by God, and now by fallen man? There is nothing to suggest that this means anything other than what it says. Up to this point, Adam had dwelt in a scene of good. Time and time again, God says of the creation that it was good. Indeed, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (1: 31). Man was unacquainted with evil. He did not have a knowledge of good and evil.
However, when he fell, Adam’s eyes were “opened” (Gen. 3: 7)—he could see things he couldn’t see before. The serpent had said that the effect of this would be that “ye will be as God, knowing good and evil” (v5) and this was unquestionably true, for God later confirms it (see v22). This is not all, however, for Scripture also says of man and his wife that “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (v7). The force of this is seen in the fact that before the fall Adam and Eve “were both naked … and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2: 25, my emphasis). Nakedness speaks of exposure, and man in a state of innocence could have no shame in his uncovered state. His nakedness exposed nothing. The moment, however, that he exercises a will contrary to that of God’s will, he becomes conscious of something to be ashamed of—and his nakedness without is surely but an expression of his nakedness within. Up to this point he was unacquainted with evil; now he makes the terrible discovery that it is part and parcel of him. Not only is he now a sinner, he now has a conscience which tells him what he is. Man now knows good and evil (as does God) but if he knows good, he has not the power to do it, and if he knows evil he hasn’t the power to avoid it. His very nature is imbued with an inclination to evil—hence his awful sense of exposure in the presence of a holy, sin–hating God. There was a likeness to God produced (3: 22: “become as one of us”), but also a difference implied in the fact that God “drove out Man” (v24). The place of communion with a holy God was now barred to him. After this, no more is said of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but the Bible returns again to the subject of the tree of life. In Revelation 2: 7 it reappears, though no longer in Eden, the paradise of earth, but “in the paradise of God”, that sinless realm where Christ is (see Luke 23: 43). Furthermore those who have been cleansed in His blood, whose robes are white, now have a “right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22: 14, my emphasis). Such is the triumph of the Gospel.