Question: "Did Adam and Eve know what death was when God commanded them not to eat from the tree of knowledge?"
Answer: When God created the first man and first woman, He placed them in the Garden of Eden where they lived in a state of innocence, without sin. God freely gave them the fruit of every tree in the garden but one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Do not partake of that tree, God said, “for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). Some people reason that Adam and Eve’s punishment for disobedience was overly harsh, because, before they ate the forbidden fruit, they could not have had knowledge of good and evil; not having that knowledge, they couldn’t really tell right from wrong.
In response, we would first point out that the Bible never says that Adam and Eve did not know right from wrong. In fact, Genesis 3:2–3 is clear that they did understand the difference between right and wrong; Eve knew God had instructed her and Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit (cf. Genesis 2:16–17). To take the name of the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), to mean that Adam and Eve had no understanding of good and evil is a misunderstanding. In the Bible, the word knowledge often means “experience.” It is true that, prior to the fall, Adam and Eve had no experience of evil. But they understood the concept of good and evil perfectly well, or they would not have known what obedience to God’s instructions meant. The point is that Adam and Eve had not yet sinned until they ate from the tree, and their sin was the gateway to firsthand, experiential knowledge of the difference between good and evil.
Adam and Eve knew the difference between right and wrong, because they were created with that understanding; it’s just that they hadn’t experienced it personally until they sinned. Their lack of experience doesn’t excuse their actions. God gave a simple, straightforward instruction to Adam and Eve. They both had the understanding and the ability to obey, but they disobeyed anyway.
Second, it could be that God gave Adam and Eve an explanation of why they weren’t supposed to eat from the tree, other than “you will certainly die.” There is no such explanation recorded in Scripture, but we should not assume that one was never given. Of course, even if God never fully explained why eating from the tree was wrong, Adam and Eve could still know that it was wrong. The extra information was not necessary to make a moral decision. We can know with great confidence that murder is wrong, without necessarily being able to explain why it is wrong. And even if we can’t explain why murder is wrong, we should still be held accountable for an act of murder we commit. Adam and Eve’s not knowing the exact reason they were forbidden to eat the tree’s fruit has nothing to do with the fact that they clearly knew and understood eating it was wrong.
Third, death exists in the world today because of sin, not because of Adam and Eve’s lack of knowledge (cf. Romans 5:12). In other words, God did not punish Adam and Eve with death for simply “not knowing” something but for acting against what they already knew to be right. Death was a consequence of their disobedience, not their ignorance. Likewise, Adam and Eve did not need to have seen death or experienced death firsthand to know that disobeying God’s command was wrong. It’s easy for us today to look at the ugly, horrific nature of sin and death and conclude that such a perspective might have made Adam and Eve more reluctant to disobey God than they were. But that’s speculation. Whether or not such firsthand knowledge might have affected their choice, there is no denying that Adam and Eve directly, intentionally disobeyed a command of God. And, as we read in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”
Another observation. When people ask how God could punish Adam and Eve (and the rest of us) so harshly for doing something they could hardly have been expected to know was wrong, they seem to assume that Adam and Eve had no more moral intelligence than the average toddler. Thinking of Adam and Eve as harmless, totally naive children certainly makes God’s response seem overblown, like a father who has lost all patience with his kids. Wouldn’t a reasonable God have at least given His beloved children a second chance? Or at least rid the garden of the tree before they could encounter that danger? Why sentence your own creation to death for one “innocent mistake”?
Thinking about the sin of Adam and Eve as a naive mistake is off base. Innocence is not the same as ignorance. Consider what we actually know about the first couple: they were created in a perfect world and given dominion and freedom over the entire earth; they knew and spoke face to face with their perfect, loving, and good Creator God (Genesis 2:22). It is difficult to imagine the goodness and benevolence of God being any more fully on display for Adam and Eve to behold.
Yet, in spite of all of their blessings—in spite of God’s creating them and providing for them and loving them—Adam and Eve listened instead to the serpent, who directly contradicted what God had told them (Genesis 3:4–5). The serpent had done nothing to provide for Adam and Eve and nothing to love or care for them, and his words only contradicted the goodness of God they had experienced up to that point. Adam and Eve had no reason at all, as far as we know, to trust what the serpent said. Yet trust him they did, even though it meant rejecting what they did know about God’s provision and loving care. Indeed, their reason for rejecting God’s command was not an innocent mistake: Genesis 3:5–6 demonstrates that Adam and Eve saw the fruit as an opportunity to become “like God.”
This is truly shocking. Adam and Eve—grown adults, rulers of the earth, perfectly capable of understanding what it meant to obey or disobey the loving God who had given them everything they could possibly need—rejected that same God, in favor of the false promise of a serpent, who had given them not a single reason to trust him over God. This is not the mistake of a child in ignorance; this is the willful, intentional rebellion of the created against the Creator, a mutiny against the rightful Ruler of the universe. Adam and Eve were not artless babes misled into a regrettable choice; they were God’s own intelligent, morally accountable creation committing treason against Him. They knew what they were doing was wrong, and they did it anyway. It is hard to imagine an offense against a holy God that would be more deserving of death than this.
In the end, we must come to think of Adam and Eve the way Scripture portrays them: as responsible, comprehending adults who rebelled against the authority of their Maker. They knew and understood that they were disobeying God, yet they ate of the fruit that was “a delight to the eyes, and . . . desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6, NASB). This was not an accident or a mistake; it was a choice. And that is the reason that God was justified in sentencing them—and us—to death.
What is even more amazing is that, in spite of the defiance displayed by His own creation, God responded to their disobedience with a promise to redeem them. Genesis 3:15 contains the first expression of the gospel in the Bible, and it comes during the sentencing of the guilty in the garden: to the serpent, God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The good news of the gospel is that God has made a way for us to be restored through the work of Christ on the cross. Despite the tremendous evil displayed by Adam and Eve—and that which all of us have displayed ever since—God has reached out to us in love. That is very good news indeed.