Another understanding encountered in the Talmud draws on two images. The first is the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; and the second is the serpent who tricked Eve and Adam into eating of the fruit of the Tree.
Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree. As the story opens we find Adam and Eve living in the relative bliss of innocent ignorance. They are not quite human yet. Even though they have free will, they lack the knowledge necessary to exercise it in a meaningful way. All they can do is obey God because God said so. They are unable to make a mature moral choice on their own. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the missing element of the humanity of Adam and Eve; the capacity to discern between good and evil.
In many cultures of the Middle East the serpent was symbolic of wisdom. Thus, the serpent gives them the wisdom necessary to achieve full humanity, though at the cost of the intimate child-parent relationship with God. Humanity was now capable of making mature decisions. We were capable of directing the course of our lives to a certain extent. Evil here is an ambivalent figure.
The other way to interpret the story is to focus on the shattering of our ideal relationship with God, nature and one another. By rejecting a direct order from God we prefer our will to that of God. Assuming that God desires what is best for us, if our choice is different from God then we are choosing something that is not good for us.
When we suffer as a result of our choice, our suffering is the direct result of our disobedience and not God’s punishment. In contemporary terms, if we live in a delicately interrelated ecosystem and then pump pollution and poisons into the atmosphere, we are throwing this delicate ecosystem out of balance. We may be asserting our ability to decide for ourselves but at what cost?
Christian thinking on evil developed in a different direction from its Jewish origins and was influenced a great deal by the conflict myth. Early Christians believed that the war with Satan had been won. In the decisive battle Satan thought that God had been defeated when Jesus was murdered on the cross. However, when Jesus rose from the dead, he defeated death itself and roundly beat Satan. There may still be a few mopping up operations going on but the greater part of the war itself was over. The Book of Revelation is seen, from this perspective, as a telling of the coming end, with frequent references to Roman power as a locus for resistance to God’s rule. As a locus of resistance to God’s work, the empire can be seen as evil.
Major developments in Christian thinking about evil occurred with Augustine. He has many influences weighing on his understanding of human evil. Before he was a bishop and saint, Augustine was a well respected professor of rhetoric and philosophy at Milan. Thus, the influence of Plato and Aristotle is evident in his thinking. Like Aristotle, he understands evil to be privation. That is, evil had no substantial reality in itself. However, the lack of good is experienced as evil.
Aristotle taught that in life there are certain things that have inherent good; such things as truth and beauty, friendship and knowledge. These things bring happiness because they are good in themselves. Aristotle believed that every human wanted to be happy. He felt this was achieved by living the optimal life, which held everything in balance so that the good could be experienced. If one acted in an evil way, it was the result of poor reasoning which was probably because the person acted out of ignorance. If they had known better, they would have pursued the better course of action. We tend to attract such goods into our lives through the practice of virtue.
Augustine drew upon the Book of Genesis to argue that God created the world good. However, there was a difference among goods. He suggested that there is a hierarchy of being with spiritual realities at the top of the hierarchy and material creation at the bottom. The further up in the hierarchy the greater the range of divine attributes are manifest. Thus, being near the top implies the most divine qualities being apparent. This isn’t to imply that material creation is bad but only that it is toward the bottom of the hierarchy of being. That which is near the top is a greater good than that which is near the bottom, though both are good.
As with Aristotle and his theory of evil being a lack, Augustine saw evil as the lack of virtue and a privation of the good. So, the person who gave himself over to evil was someone who chose the lesser good. Over time such a person builds up a habit of choosing the lower option over the one that is higher, of choosing emptiness over substance. He may have the capacity to function at the top of the hierarchy of being but instead he chooses to function near the bottom.
While ignorance may be involved, Augustine argued that the biggest influence was the simple fact that we are fallen creatures as a result of Original Sin. God made humanity perfect and good. Original Sin warped human nature. Our ability to perceive reality was distorted to a tremendous degree. This distortion is what made us see the lesser choice as the preferable one. Original Sin also distorted our appetites; so that we want the lesser over the greater, that which kills us over that which brings life and healing. The result is that we must wrestle with our desires. The cure for this desperate situation is faith in Christ to guide us through this difficult maze and self-discipline in the practice of virtue along with the grace of Christ.