The prime reason why people become atheists may be the existence of evil. Many cannot believe that a good God would allow it, especially once they are personally affected. Another reason is the desire to not have to follow any rules and live however you feel with no regard to consequences, especially in an afterlife. This is particularly true concerning what is understood as outdated Christian values and convictions, such as the belief that there is a devil. But, the whole point of Biblical faith is that the spiritual realm is real, and evil is a necessary aspect of divine justice and objective truth.
The Bible tells us that evil existed from the beginning because of the presence of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. God gave Adam a command not to touch the tree or eat of its fruit because if he did, he would die. It is not clear if this referred to physical death, spiritual death, or both or if Adam and Eve were already mortal. What is obvious is that the knowledge of good and evil enables you to knowingly choose evil. This understanding leads to guilt if one commits a sin and, if unrepented, can cause spiritual death, which is the separation from God forever. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said,
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were in a state of innocence, which ended when they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The snake that tempted Eve was said to be more “shrewd” than the other wild animals (Gn 3:1). Two other translations of this word are “subtle” and “clever.” The sense conveyed here is that he was sneaky, a word derived from the word snake. In transliteration the word is ’arum and this is the only appearance of it in the entire Bible. In the verse just prior, Genesis 2:25, it specifically tells us that after Eve was created, “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” The word “naked” is ’arom and has the same root has “shrewd.” This might be a play on words because the snake’s shrewdness changes how Adam and Eve understand their own nakedness. It goes from unawareness, just like children or animals, to something they felt “shame” about. God instantly knew that they had eaten the forbidden fruit because they knew they were naked (Gn 3:11). This awareness was the result of having knowledge of good and evil, which distinguished humans from the animal kingdom and first highlighted the new realization of sexual sin.
How did the snake convince Eve to go against God? He told her she would not die, contradicting what God told her. But did she believe the snake before God or did she give into the temptations of what the tree had to offer? Genesis 3:4-6 reads,
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
Adam and Eve had everything they needed in the Garden, so what was the real lure? A significant word in the above excerpt may be what is translated as “wise.” This is not the usual word for “wisdom,” which is chokmah in Hebrew. In transliteration the word is sakal, which means to have insight and comprehension. Translating it as “wise” tends to give it a positive godly slant, which is in line with the snake’s argument that Eve would be “like God, knowing good and evil.” However, wisdom (chokmah) is a divine attribute which brings you closer to God. Considering Proverbs chapter 8 it is also my belief that Lady Wisdom is another epithet for the Holy Spirit. This kind of wisdom refers to more than just knowing good and evil and includes discernment of why something is good and why something is evil. If gaining godly wisdom was so tempting that she would disobey God to get it, that presents an inherent contradiction. And if it was, why was chokmah not used instead of sakal? For this reason, “wise” may not be the best translation.
There is another meaning of the verb sakal, which is “to have success” or “to prosper.” This might be what Eve thought the knowledge of good and evil would lead to. When the devil tempted Jesus one of the enticements was to be prosperous in a worldly way. Matthew 4:8-11 says,
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.
The devil tried the same trick with Jesus as he did with Eve. He offered power and vast prosperity. Perhaps the temptation to know about good and evil was not the real appeal for Eve, but rather prosperity and power. These are not in and of themselves bad, but they often lead to even greater temptations for sin such as abuse of power and vanity due to worldly praise and comforts that so often lead people away from God. Humans easily become attached to these things and place them above their Creator. Jesus addressed this when he said that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:23-24). The difference between Jesus’ and Eve’s encounter with the devil is that Jesus resisted what Adam and Eve did not. Jesus thus conquered evil and death.
Although Genesis does not describe the snake as Satan, this identification comes from a prophecy about the devil being a serpent (nahash) in Isaiah 27:1 as well as the Book of Revelation 12:9, 20:2. John specifically declares the devil to be identical to “Satan” and the “dragon.” The word “satan” means “accuser” or “adversary.” It is sometimes used that way in the Hebrew Scriptures with no relation to the devil, but this is his character traits. He is the persecutor and prosecutor of humans. The devil, and his demons, can also possess people and animals to perform evil deeds (Mk 5:12-13, Lk 22:3, 8:30-31, Jn 13:27). This is how Satan can be understood to have used the shrewd snake that tempted Eve.
So, why was the devil inside the Garden of Eden? In Luke 10:18 Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” This suggests that Eden and heaven are one and the same place, and that God likewise banned the devil from the Garden. Satan falling from heaven is also another way of saying that he is the king of this world, while Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).
In addition, in Ezekiel there is a prophecy that parallels the king of Tyre with Satan and describes what happened in Eden. Ezekiel 28:11-19 reads,
“Moreover the word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, carnelian, topaz, and jasper, chrysolite, beryl, and onyx, sapphire, carbuncle, and emerald; and wrought in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared. With an anointed guardian cherub I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you. In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you. By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries; so I brought forth fire from the midst of you; it consumed you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more for ever.’ ”
The devil is a created divine being, not a mortal human, who turned on his Creator. Ezekiel says that he originally had godly wisdom—chokmah—(Ez 18:12) and became corrupt because of vanity about his own beauty and splendor, teaching us that the most prominent can fall: Satan was in Yahweh’s inner-circle just as Judas was in Jesus’. Narcissism was the devil’s downfall and his pride kept him from repenting and according to prophecies he never will. There is also the concept of reaching a point of no return regarding sin (Mt 12:32, Mk 3:29, Lk 12:10, 1 Jn 5:16). Satan went from living on the mountain of God, as high up as you can get, to falling as low as possible and he now roams the earth. All this happened “in the beginning,” suggesting that after becoming corrupt, but before his fall from Eden, he managed to tempt Eve in the form of a snake. Or, perhaps he had access to do so after his fall.
So, Ezekiel prophesied that Satan fell from grace and his own anointed guardian cherub drove him out of Eden. Jesus also claimed he saw Satan fall. This indirectly suggests that the devil also ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil before he tempted Eve. Alternatively, God created him, and other divine beings, with the ability to know the difference between good and evil. Jesus possibly hinted at this when he said that Satan was a murderer from “the beginning,” and the father of lies in whom there is no truth (Jn 8:44).
The word “garden” refers to a fenced area. Following Adam and Eve’s disobedience Yahweh banned them from Eden to prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life. Tasting the forbidden fruit introduced the presence of sin to Eden and you cannot live forever with God without having consciously repented and rejected sin. The reason for the boundary between Eden and the rest of the world was by all indications to keep evil out.
The location of Eden includes known rivers in the middle east (Gn 2:10-14). But, as we know, Paradise is not there anymore. The Tree of Life, however, obviously cannot be destroyed and in the Book of Revelation we learn that it is situated in the middle of the new Jerusalem in heaven. Once you get there you can freely eat of it because you have gained access to spend eternity with God.
In the Book of Revelation, the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil is not mentioned because the consequences of tasting it have played out. We do not know whether Eden and the new Jerusalem are one and the same place or if Eden ended and the Tree of Life was moved to the new Jerusalem in heaven. But we do know that the border that was around the Garden of Eden still exists to protect the Tree of Life.
Heaven is where you live with God because there is no sin between you. Only then can you see God face to face. While we are on earth evil and good dwell together. Not as one, but as competing forces. Living amid these two powers is what it means to live outside the Garden of Eden. It is not just the fall of Man that brought evil into the world, but the fall of Satan. Because of free will, Satan can tempt us in what is a constant battle for our souls. Matthew 18:7 reads,
Jesus said, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!”
Faith is not worth much if it is not tried. Jesus himself is the tested stone. If you fall for temptations, it is far worse for you if you then lead others down the wrong path. This is what the devil did with Eve, and it is his all-consuming goal for everyone.
Following the Fall, the rest of the Bible describes how to find your way to eternal life with God. The alternative is eternity without Him. Jesus told us the requirements: repent of sin, ask for forgiveness, receive the Holy Spirit, confess Yahweh as the only true God and that Jesus is the Messiah. You must consciously choose good over evil, meaning God’s will versus your own when they clash. What it comes down to is the sin of placing yourself above your own Creator. This is the reason for God’s first Commandment to put Him first (Ex 20:3, Dt 6:5).
The story of the Garden of Eden tells us why evil exists in our world. Goodness cannot exist if there is nothing evil to measure it against—like light to darkness—and love cannot exist if you cannot freely choose it. If you put a lid on one, you must put a corresponding limit on the other. In sum, if free will exists, so does evil. In Isaiah 45:7 we read, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things.” “Woe” is also the word for “evil.” This does not mean God is evil, but by creating all that is good (Gn 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) He creates a dichotomy between good and evil and free will dictates that we can chose either option once we are consciously aware that they exist.
So, when people ask why God allows evil, the reason is that love cannot exist without free will and God is love. But there is hope: The Bible also tells us that the devil’s power will end. Prophets have told us about the “Day of Yahweh” when divine justice will be executed once and for all. The Book of Revelation is likewise about this day when evil will be defeated for good. The first humans chose the path we are on and the world without evil is not the one we get to live in here. For now, choosing good over evil will not be easy. Jesus said this in Matthew 7:13-14,
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Freedom is key. With this and the knowledge of good and evil comes the capability to decide for yourself what is good and evil and make up your own “truth.” In this sense you become your own god, following your own rules in direct opposition to faith in Yahweh as the one true God.
The Biblical meaning of true freedom is freedom from sin. The good news is that this is achievable outside the gates of Eden by trusting in God in what He defines as true and right. We can keep evil outside our hearts, just like it was kept outside of Eden. As Jesus proclaimed in John 8:31-32,
“Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ “