BEFORE they sinned, Adam and Eve had no knowledge of good. Good lay all about them, unmixed with evil. Health, strength, honor, and companionship with one another and with God was their constant possession and privilege. Yet they knew nothing of the blessedness of these boons. This we learn from the name given to the tree which bore the forbidden fruit. To many minds it suggests only the knowledge of evil, rather than good. Yet, first and foremost, it was the tree of the knowledge of good.
Thus at the very forefront of revelation we have the principle suggested which is the key to unlock the great problems that most perplex us. It is this: All knowledge is relative: it is based on contrast. The knowledge of good is dependent upon the knowledge of evil. Hence the tree in the garden was not, as we usually think of it, merely the means of knowing evil, it was the means primarily, of the knowledge of good. Adam and Eve had good but did not realize it because they had had no experience of evil.
The perfection of Eden's garden was greatly lacking in the one element most dear to God's heart. Adam did not and could not apprehend God's goodness. There is not the slightest hint of Adam's appreciation or thanks, or worship or adoration. He received all as a matter of course and was quite incapable of discerning or responding even to that measure of divine love which lies on the surface of His goodness. If we should suddenly be transformed into glorious sinless beings and transported to such scenes of sylvan perfection, we would exult and praise the author of our bliss. Not so Adam. He knew no joy, for he knew no misery. He knew no good, for he knew no evil.
This point is most important, and we press it because it seems to be universally ignored and misrepresented. The garden of Eden has become a symbol of perfect bliss, we are always being reminded of its delights, and the happiness of the first pair has passed into a proverb. Yet there is not the slightest reason to suppose that Adam was delighted or enjoyed the bliss ascribed to him.
The mere possession of good does not give a knowledge or realization of it. Even today, when there is so much evil to contrast with the good, many do not appreciate their blessings until they lose them. Adam had perfect health, but what was that to one who never had even heard of disease? He had abundant food, but that was nothing to him, who had never felt a famine. Even pleasure had no appeal to one who had known no pain.
The fatal lack in all the perfection of Eden was the utter absence of any note of praise or thankfulness. Knowing no good, and utterly unacquainted with mercy or grace, Adam's heart was utterly incapable of love or adoration or worship. God's goodness did not receive the least response, because it was unknown. All that He had bestowed on Adam failed to kindle the affection for which He longed, and which is the goal of all His gifts.
How could this grave defect be remedied? There was but one way, and that way was, in the wisdom of God, provided by the tree which He placed in the midst of the garden. Had Adam and Eve known good they would have treasured God's goodness and never would have forfeited it by disobeying His command. Yet, when they did eat of the tree, they set in motion the very forces which would remedy the defect which caused them to do it. What divine wisdom. do we see here displayed! God's blessings being unappreciated, they offend Him by their deed and in so doing pave the way for an appreciation which satisfies both. Love is a marvelous schemer!
Shall we pause here to insist that this primal sin is the archetype of all succeeding acts of sin? We may not realize it now, but there can be no doubt on the part of those who have a mature knowledge of God that sin is now, as then, the fruit of the ignorance of good and evil and the lack of appreciation of God's gifts. Moreover, now, as then, sin itself, in the wisdom of God, sets in operation the very forces which lead to a knowledge of good and evil and the appreciation of God and His love.
Light, then, is nothing, were it not for darkness. Love is lost but for hate. Strength is unknown where there is no weakness. Wisdom leans on folly for its display.
Where is the glory of the stars at midday? Their light is not dimmed, but they have no darkness to reveal their splendor. And we would not appreciate even the sun were it not for clouds, and its daily disappearance. All things are known by contrast. Creature knowledge is not absolute.
God did not plant two trees, one for the knowledge of good and another for the knowledge of evil. In the nature of things these are dependent on one another, and neither can be known without the other. Let us bow to the divine wisdom which planted one tree, so that it was impossible to know good apart from the knowledge of evil.
Having in mind God's great purpose to fully engage the affection of all His creatures, it is evident that the prime ingredient of their response to His love is a knowledge of Him. The process of revealing God is the problem of the eons. If God should be always seeking to reveal Himself He would never succeed in His purpose. Indeed, if infinity were needed to make Him known, then His creatures would always be infinitely short of such knowledge. God never speaks to us in terms of infinity, for we cannot understand it. He has provided a definite period for self-revelation, called the eonian times. When these are past the process is complete, God is All in all, and all the factors (such as sin and evil) which are no longer needed, are discarded.
The great purpose of God during the eons is to provide a background for the display of His love. What would be the simplest plan to produce this? Shorn of details, all that is needed is that each of His creatures should have, according to his capacity, such an experience of evil and its fruits as will enable him to appreciate the good which God will provide after the eons are past.
Thus we have established the necessity and utility of evil in God's universe for the period of the eons. We will now consider the details of the divine operations in connection with the sinner. The groundwork of the plan is very simple. The sinner experiences evil that he may know good. He knows good that he may love God, the giver of good. The result is intensified by making the evil, not only calamities and misfortunes over which mankind has no control, but by making evil the result of the sinner's sins, and by hedging him in with law, leading to transgression, and by giving sin a quality which offends the feelings of God.
No one can, or will, object that God should be good to His creatures after the consummation--the real beginning of the perfected universe. But that goodness would all be lost on creatures who know no evil. Hence no one will question the justice of any plan for making that goodness effective by filling their hearts with gratitude to God, and in satisfying His heart by their response. So that God is just--far more than just--in sending each one of His creatures into a world of sin and sorrow, grief and pain, and in using any means which impresses upon them the lesson taught to our first parents in the garden. All must digest the knowledge of evil ere they can enjoy the knowledge of good.
The process through which God is putting mankind, in preparation for their place in the consummation, is very complex. We can best understand it by grasping first the grand outlines and leaving the dimmer details for later contemplation.
We have said that all that would be absolutely necessary for the realization of God's purpose would be the introduction of each of God's creatures into the sphere of unmixed evil for a limited time, away from God. Yet practical experience teaches us that such a method would demand a very long period and produce comparatively meager results. It lacks that great force which is the prime factor in the acquisition of all knowledge. Evil alone lacks contrast. It must be seen in the light of good. Wrong must be viewed in the presence of right. Hence the eonian existence of every man is divided into three stages characterized by destruction, judgment, and salvation. He glimpses evil in the world by the feeble flicker of conscience or human justice until it involves him in death. In resurrection he sees evil in the light of God's justice. In the consummation, he contrasts it with God's salvation. These three grades completely equip each one for the enjoyment of God's goodness and love.
It is necessary to pause at this point to vindicate God's justice in His dealings with those who are not saved until the consummation. If all mankind should die in sin and should stand before the great white throne to be judged and none saved until the consummation, the righteousness of God's way with them could readily be justified, on the grounds already set forth. The very nature of endless bliss is such that none can quaff the cup who have not drained the dregs of evil. Sin is an essential precursor and preparation for endless happiness.
But strong objection has been raised to the length and intensity of suffering as unwarranted and severe. This may be met in two ways. The difficulty depends upon an exaggerated, unscriptural impression of the length and terrors of judgment and a failure to see it in its proper proportion to the bliss to which it leads.
The happiness into which the eons usher mankind will be endless. While absolute infinity is practically outside the sphere of human knowledge, any mathematician can tell us something of its relative value in such a problem as that which is before us. We will, to fully cover every possible period of time, suppose that the sinner suffers during the whole course of the eons, though even Adam could not suffer so long, for he did not come on the scene until long after the commencement of the eons. And we will, for the sake of definiteness, give the eons a length of twenty-four thousand years. To us this seems interminable, yet, in comparison with the period after the eons, it is, literally, next to nothing. To God, a thousand years are as a day is to us, when it is past. To Him, the whole course of the eons is but as a month to us when it has gone by.
In the light of eternity, no period of suffering, whatever its limits, can be deemed excessive. But no sinner suffers for twenty-four thousand years. It is not at all probable that the average sinner will suffer for fifty years, including his life on earth and the judgment period. So that the period which we have reduced to zero, in comparison with infinity, is at least five thousand times too long. As, however, we cannot divide zero by five thousand to any advantage, we will let it rest at that.
We conclude, then, that the period of the sinner's sufferings, instead of being excessive is absurdly short in comparison with the boundlessness of bliss. In this degenerate age we connect all value with money. If an investment of a dollar should produce a million dollars no one would say the initial sum was excessive. Everyone would gladly pay it, even if the outcome were not absolutely assured. No one would question the right of it even if the dollar were lost. The right amount to receive for a dollar is about six cents a year, according to human standards. All above that is more than right.
We must acknowledge, then, that God is transcendently just in His dealings with all His creatures, and that He would be warranted in making their term of suffering much longer without impairing His justice.
The severity of suffering is so varied that it is not wise to say much concerning it at this point. It belongs, rather, to the discussion of the degrees of judgment, and the varied glories of the elect. Yet we must not overlook a merciful provision which tempers the severity of sin. Evil makes men callous and obdurate. If they had the supremely sensitive nature which will be theirs in vivification for the enjoyment of good, the slightest touch of evil would make them shudder. Their loathing of sin would be unbearable. Now they almost enjoy, in a way, the bitter burden that they bear.
Were God to let mankind live in sin until they learn its lessons, it would take a long and weary life, and might never reach the desired result. Hence He guarded the way of the tree of life, lest Adam and his descendants should live on in the accumulating effects of sin. They would become old and decrepit, weak and blind, driveling and idiotic, and live on, a living corpse of corruption. Imagine what a sickening world this would be if all our progenitors still lived with all their constantly accumulating senility and disease! Can we not see the marvelous wisdom that provided that evil should make men mortal? Evil that results in death is sufficient to teach the lesson. Death is not only the result of sin. It is the intermission between one lesson and the next. It is the divine method of impressing upon the sinner the sinfulness of sin, and is the necessary prelude to the resurrection, which introduces the sinner into an actual experience of God's power and justice.
The judgment of the sinner at the great white throne deals with the evil with which he is acquainted in a twofold way. By contrast with the right its true nature becomes apparent. By a just sentence the evil itself will be counteracted. No one should confound judgment with "punishment," in its usual acceptance. Men "punish" in the crudest fashion, with the single thought of discouraging a future repetition of the act. A child is "punished" for poor lessons at school by being kept in at recess, when fresh air and exercise are the very correctives which are needed. We must not charge God with such silliness.
God's judgments, as are manifest from those that have already taken place, impose penalties which rectify the cause underlying the offense. Thus, Adam's offense was the result of his lack of appreciation of God's gifts. Flowers, fruit, and food fell into his hands without effort. Hence he is doomed to toil and discouragement in tilling the ground so that he may be duly thankful for God's sustaining love. This principle is always present in divine judgment. It is, in fact, inherent in the very term, for judgment is that which rights the wrong.
If this were not so, it would be difficult to account for God's motive in such a tremendous exhibition of power as is involved in the resurrection of the dead, and such a marvelous display of judicial force, in assigning their sentence. In each decision the sinner will gain such a knowledge of evil, by contrast with its corrective, as would be impossible in any other way. The judgment of his own sins and that of all the rest will be the school in which his knowledge of evil will immensely increase.
The final consummation of the knowledge of evil is always found in bringing it into close contact with the supremest form of good. The salvation of mankind at the consummation is the final lesson in good and evil. The lessons of the latter which have been learned by experience are now enforced by the realization of a good for which their sufferings have prepared them. The God Who had been their Creator and Judge now becomes their Saviour. They are ready to enjoy His love and give Him the response, which is the basis of eternal bliss. In this light we can see how God is just in dealing thus with His creatures, and His creatures are justified, eventually, as regards their sin.
Thus far we have kept to the most elementary principles in outlining God's dealings with mankind. The subject of salvation has hardly been touched, especially the subject of eonian salvation, for the unbeliever has no salvation during the eons. His does not come until their close. Before taking up eonian ("everlasting" or "eternal") salvation, it will be necessary to inquire a little into the nature of the salvation of the unbeliever.
Our first inclination, when we learn of God's grand purpose to save all mankind (1 Tim.2:4), is to substitute their sufferings for those of Christ. We have been told that He bore our punishment, and we surmise that they have their own, hence need no Saviour.
But this is far from the truth. Judgment may correct the sinner, but it does not give him the power to undo his sins toward other men or toward God. The murderer may be taught the utmost horror of his crime, but he cannot restore the life he took. The blasphemer may have learned to abhor his sin, yet no amount of suffering on his part will efface his offense. If the judgment made it possible for all men to right their wrongs then it would not be followed by, or rather, include, the second death. Mankind fully learns the lesson of evil, yet in learning, finds itself the helpless victim of death. Indeed, this is the climax of evil. This, shows the exceeding sinfulness of sin. The sinner, though raised from the dead, finds that he is unfit to live, on the ground of justice.
Here is where the need for a Saviour arises. He needs to be One Who can do far more than bear the penalty of sin. If He had simply become a "substitute" for men and had taken their sins upon Him, then He must not only die, but, like the denizens of the second death, there could be no return to life except through another Saviour. Christ is no mere "substitute" to bear the "punishment" in "the room and stead" of the sinner. He died for, or on behalf of the sinner. He turns his sins into acts of righteousness. This is justification. He recalls the murderer's victim to life, restores what the thief has stolen, and harvests good from their evil.
Thus far we have confined ourselves to the contrast between good and evil, and the basic principle that both are necessary to the knowledge of either. The same principle of contrast is used over and over again in the complex process which prevails during the eonian times. As, in nature, power and passivity qualify the one universal substance so as to produce the infinite variety which we see in the world, so good and evil are used in endless combinations and contrasts to bring out the vast variety of God's wisdom and the limitless resources of His love.
All of the eons are characterized by the presence of evil, which was not ere they began and will not be once they end. Yet the eons themselves are divided into two classes, some of which are evil, while others are comparatively good. The next eon, in which the millennium occurs, holds evil in check, and the succeeding one, the last eon, segregates and banishes it. In contrast with these, the present eon and that one before the flood are evil eons. The secret of the difference is not far to find. In the former, Christ is absent, or, when present, is crucified. In the latter He is at the helm and evil is suppressed.
The question arises, how can God be absolutely impartial in His dealings with mankind when one person finds himself in Sodom and another has the privilege of hearing the Lord Himself? The answer to this lies in the equity which will characterize God's judgment throne. It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for the cities visited by our Lord during His earthly ministry. Judgment will be tempered by consideration of opportunity and circumstance.
The gravest problem, to some, is the fact that God, in His mercy and grace, selects some for eonian salvation, so that they do not enter the judgment at all. Is it just of Him to favor them and pass by others no more undeserving? Why should some sorry sot secure salvation and eonian glory when a pure and pious philanthropist (Christ unknown) passes on to judgment?
Even from the human side the justice of it is apparent. Shortsighted though we are, we must not let this contrast destroy the conclusion already established that, first of all, the philanthropist is not to be the subject of any injustice. In the judgment he will get his due deserts, and in such a fashion that he himself will acquiesce and acknowledge their equity. More than this, in the consummation, he will be unutterably thankful, in his measure, for the judgment of his pious sins. He will have no charge to bring against God in that day. Then why should we, with a beam in both our eyes, seek to remove a seeming speck in God's?
God is not satisfied, nor is it sufficient for His purpose to reveal the excessive depths of His love, to save all men at the consummation. The contrast is not great enough. The distinction is not sharp enough. Such a course would leave depths unexplored, recesses unrevealed. So He proposes to compare the good with the best. The righteousness of such a course is manifested by our Lord in His parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Right demands the payment of a just equivalent. Yet this does not debar God from giving freely when He chooses.
God will be more than just to all. It is only the lurking impression that He is not just to unbelievers the non-elect, which suggests that there is an element of partiality in His favor for the few. God, having provided for a full accounting with all His creatures, which is good, proposes to display the riches of His love, which is better, and for the exceeding riches of His affection, which is best. In fact, it is this last which has been His aim in all the rest, only it takes a pyramid of love to rear its highest pinnacle.
First of all, by what process does God save men now? Is it not, in essence, the very same process as that which will save the unbeliever in the future? They are brought into the presence of the great white throne and learn God's judgment on their sins. We are brought into His presence at Calvary and learn the same lesson through Him Who suffered there. No scene in all the universe of time or space will ever expose the hideousness of sin as does the cross of Christ. Even the great white throne with its exposure of the sins of myriads of mankind, will not equal it. We know what sin is, not merely by our own sad experience, but by the place it gave Him. He was the Highest of heaven. It made Him the lowest of earth. He was the life and the light of all. It put Him into the darkness of death. That pole on which He was nailed is the real tree where we may gain the knowledge of good and evil. Knowing that, what need is there for us to enter into judgment?
But the cross reveals far more than the judgment. The evil is eclipsed by the good. The vivid and appalling contrasts between the limitless love of God and the wretched wickedness of man makes it both the judgment and the consummation for all who gaze upon it. He is our Judge and our Saviour all at once, and we enter into a foretaste of this bliss which will finally embrace all.
In God's dispensational dealings we see the vast value of contrast, in order to pile up a pyramid to give expression to His grace. God did not call all nations, but chose one as the special object of His favor. With this as a background He turns to the despised aliens when His chosen people apostatize. By showing the highest horrors to those who deserve the least, He has at last succeeded in producing an object lesson through which not only mankind, but the celestial spheres as well, may learn and luxuriate in the lavishness of His love.
God Himself planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the garden of Eden. As both were combined in a single tree, it was impossible for Adam to know good, apart from evil. The contrast between the two is the only means the creature has for the realization of God's goodness and the appreciation of His love. For this cause evil and sin have invaded the universe for a season. Their presence is appalling, but their stay is brief, and their ultimate effect, not only the knowledge of good, but the enjoyment and adoration of the God of all good.