I’m posting this here because I value the critiques I’ve received of my other theological arguments in the past. I want to pressure-test this theory:
In Genesis 3, Satan begins his subterfuge by asking Eve, “Did God actually say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”
In my experience, evangelicals almost always interpret the strategy here as follows:
- Call into doubt the goodness of God’s rule and/or provision.
- Get Eve to rebel against what she sees as oppression.
- Profit! (Eve dies)
This sounds plausible on a very superficial reading, because Satan begins by overtly doubting the goodness of God’s rule and/or provision. He seems to be explicitly questioning God’s kindness. But surely reading him this way makes him the opposite of shrewd (v. 1); it is not subtle to overtly question God’s goodness in order to get someone to rebel. It is ham-fisted. This kind of “trick” would not even work on a child. Try to convince my daughter that I am an oppressor by asking her, “Did Dad actually say you can’t eat anything in the kitchen?” Only a socially handicapped moron would expect that strategy to be effective. Rather than making me look like an ass, it makes the questioner look like an ass—while giving my daughter a chance to explain the goodness of my provision, the kindness of my generosity.
Let’s assume that Satan is not a socially handicapped moron. Let’s assume that he understands how people work, and that his first question to Eve was calculated to get the exact response that it did get. What was that response?
It was not, “Yeah, isn’t it strange to put us in an orchard and deny us all the fruit?”
I was, “No dummy, we can eat anything we want except this one tree.” Eve speaks God’s kindness, and in the process, that kindness becomes solid to her.
(It’s true that she also adds a fence to the the law at this point, which no doubt aids in the deception, since touching the fruit doesn’t end up killing her and therefore presumably makes the transition to eating easier. But this isn’t relevant to Satan’s overall strategy.)
Has Satan succeeded in casting doubt on God’s kindness?
No, of course not—he has achieved the exact opposite. God’s kindness is now more real in Eve’s mind than when the conversation started. She doubts it less. She does not feel oppressed; she feels blessed.
Since Satan is shrewd, and not a moron, this was presumably his intent. Why?
Because by focusing Eve on God’s kindness and provision, he creates an implicit contrast with God’s severity and prohibition. Implicit contrasts, when they are not made explicit and examined, feel like dichotomies or contradictions.
Hence he can say, “You will not surely die,” and it sounds plausible to Eve because she is primed to think, “God is so kind. Why would he prohibit anything? And why would he punish so severely?”
Satan follows up his lie by substantiating it with an authentic explanation of what the tree will do. Eve thinks, “We are supposed to be like gods. We are supposed to be the counterparts on earth to the divine council in heaven” (cf. Ps 8:5; 82:1, elohim). She knows that she and her man are made for dominion; to represent God’s kingly rule on earth. She knows that the knowledge of good and evil is the paradigmatic skillset of a good king (cf. 1 Kings 3:7–10; 2 Samuel 14:17; Hebrews 5:14). She knows that God is kind and generous and wants them to have all good things. And she checks out the tree and sees that its fruit is beautiful and looks delicious and will make them wise (v. 6).
In light of all this, she is able to disbelieve in God’s severity. She is able to disbelieve that he would really impose difficult prohibitions on his children—or harsh punishments.
In other words, Satan does not trick Eve into thinking that God is keeping something from her, but rather that he would never keep something from her. His strategy is the very opposite of what evangelicals seem to assume: he is not calling God’s kindness into question, but rather his severity.
Why it matters
Aside from the obvious importance of understanding Scripture rightly, I think it is critical to ask if evangelicals tend to invert this passage, because it is paradigmatical, prototypical, for temptation in general. We are under intense pressure from the culture to capitulate and compromise on all manner of prohibitions which God has given. We are under intense pressure to believe that God will be nice, that he will deal agreeably with us, even when we defy his rules. We are under intense pressure to deny that he is serious about denying us or severe in judging us. We are under intense pressure to do all this because we are under intense pressure to go along to get along; to accept what God does not; to avoid the shame of disapproving the approved doctrines and practices. We are conditioned to think that loving our neighbors means being good at having fun with them.
Are we not currently engaged in reassuring ourselves that God does not punish severely, that he is not really serious about prohibitions—because he is so kind, and wants only our ease and happiness and harmony?
If we don’t clearly understand the original temptation, how will we anticipate and resist derivative temptations? If we are so naive about Satan’s strategy, and our own psychology—if we know neither him nor ourselves well enough to anticipate or resist—how will we stand? Indeed, if we have fundamentally flipped the way temptation comes, if we are on guard for exactly the wrong things, if we are warning each other about the very things we are least in danger of, that is when we are most likely to recapitulate Eve’s foolishness and sin, and fall headlong into judgment.
I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads my bond-servants astray so that they commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. (Revelation 2:19-23)