“Knowing Good and Evil”
Epistemology and Ethics

According to Scripture, when God created man, He gave to Adam two tasks which both required the development of knowledge. Adam was required to “dress” and “keep” the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15); i.e., to till it and to guard it. Man had to develop knowledge of horticulture and agronomy, and to realize that fruit trees and vegetables had to be protected from even unfallen animals if they were to produce. Again, Adam was required to name or classify the animals, a scientific task, so that again the development of knowledge was required (Genesis 2:19,20). Man’s calling under God thus required the development of a body of knowledge. Because Adam was not then a fallen creature, it did not occur to him to doubt the validity of his sense impressions or to distrust whatever God said. The question, “Can we know?,” did not trouble him; he was too busy acquiring knowledge.

The tempter, however, raised an epistemological question, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Genesis 3:1). You have assumed, he declared, the validity of all your knowledge because you have assumed the absolute trustworthiness of God. How can you make so great an assumption? Your premise involves an unjustifiable act of faith. Declare your inde­pendence of God. Certainly, God is very powerful, and He perhaps can do what He chooses much of the time, but this is not necessarily so. “Ye shall not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). It is possible that you may, but that is not necessarily the case. By declaring your independence from God, you declare war on Him, and you risk reprisals. But, God’s claims to the contrary, God has no eternal decree; there is no absolute predestination of all things by an absolute and sovereign God. You too have being as well as God. You can decree that tomorrow you will pick fruit, and it comes to pass. God does the same: He brings a greater and a senior power to bear on His determination of things, but it is not a necessary and absolute determination. God knows this and wilfully prevents you from having a true knowledge of your situation, and with good reason: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Every man can be his own god, knowing or determining for himself what constitutes good and evil. To know good and evil “signifies the right or authority to exercise independent discrimination between right and wrong.” This means that “man was induced to take divine prerogatives in his own hand and set his own moral order.”[1] Having done this, man thus sought to know all reality apart from God. If God’s interpretation of good and evil is false and is grounded on a desire to prevent man from knowing the truth, then God’s interpretation of all reality is equally untrustworthy. Facts, instead of having been created, determined, and constantly governed by God, are then simply facts which equally confront God and man. God’s superior ability to govern facts does not mean that man cannot govern them also.

According to Scripture, the tempter offered to mankind a new epistemology, a way of knowing divorced from God. First, the tempter denied the truth of God’s word, “Yea, hath God said . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1). Truth was divorced from God and given a separate existence as something God (or man) might or might not say, but which is separate and distinct from God. Scripture declares of God, that “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17), and “Thy law is truth” (Psalm 119:142). When Nebuchadnezzar believed in God, he declared Him to be “the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment (or justice),” Daniel 4:37. By separating God from truth, the tempter made God irrelevant to epistemology. God, like man, is in the position of seeking to know an alien world and to comprehend it by means of reason.

Second, the tempter denied the eternal decree of God. All things are not under the total control of a predestinating God. “Ye shall not surely die” (Genesis 2:4). God, because of His superior posi­tion of power, can no doubt take effective reprisals against you for your declaration of independence, but there is no certainty about His threats. No ultimate and primary control rests in God’s hands. An essentially free and open world of factuality is the product of chance and amenable to control by God or man, and it is up to free and autonomous man to take control. Man may die, but there is no eternal decree of God to require it. Death as a consequence of sin is not a necessity, and death as an aspect of life is open to scien­tific conquest. Man by his reason, having freed himself from God, can take control and abolish in time all the deterimental factors in his environment. He can take a world of brute factuality and impose upon it his own decree of determination or predestination.

Third, by your declaration of independence from God, “ye shall be as gods (or, as God), knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). As Kuyper pointed out, to know good and evil “signifies the right or authority to exercise independent discrimination between right and wrong.” Man was “induced to take divine prerogatives in his own hand and set up his own moral order.”[2] Since reality is neither God’s creation nor determined by His decree, and since truth is not identical with God and His word, then man is free to impose upon a world of brute and meaningless factuality that order which most pleases him. Man thus determines what constitutes good and evil, truth and falsehood, and then imposes that concept on the world around him. Man’s word concerning these things is as valid as God’s word.

This is the meaning of the temptation and of original sin. Man has opposed to God’s word his own word, and to God’s law, the law of man’s imagination. Man refuses to submit to anyone save himself or to know reality except in terms of his own fiat reason.


Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Word of Flux: Modern Man and the Problem of Knowledge, Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1975, pp. 5,39. Order from Chalcedon.

[1] Lester J. Kuyper, “To Know Good and Evil,” in Interpretation, A Journal of Bible and Theology I, 4 (October, 1947), p. 492.

[2] ibid.