Sense and Nonsense: The Garden of Evil

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A gentleman in Sought Carolina recently recalled hearing Professor Ronald Nash (Western Kentucky University) speaking at Hillsdale College. Nash had received a copy of my book The Praise of “Sons of Bitches”: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men. He quipped that on receiving the book, he immediately hastened to its index to see if his name was mentioned. Since I did not know Nash when I was writing the book, naturally his name is not mentioned. I am still not sure whether Nash was pleased or disappointed.

I bring this up because I give a lecture on the fall in Genesis in one of my classes. On a midterm exam, I received the following analysis of the situation: “The main point…of the Book of Genesis is that in the Garden of Evil [sic] something went wrong not because someone was lacking but because they experienced free will.” Such an answer makes one wonder what one is doing in academic life.

But aside from the duly marked grammatical error—”someone… they”—and the amusing reference to the “Garden of Evil,” the student was close to the right answer, give or take a few clarifications. And no one will know why the name given to that garden was funny unless he already knows its proper name. Laughter requires some education, some seeing of relationships.

Students today have read little or nothing of the Bible. So I was certainly not surprised when a young Muslim student from Bangladesh told me that she had not read the Bible. She was pleased to have a chance to do so. But I am frequently astonished that so many Christian or Jewish students know little of the basic structure of the Bible. A student who has never heard of the Garden of Eden might well think he had heard me call it the Garden of Evil. And actually, the confusion is logical, for the account of this famous garden does have something to do with evil.


What about the mention of “lacking” and “free will” in my student’s response? What was it that this student heard about this famous Garden of Evil? What was the main point of the Genesis account? What went wrong?

The Genesis account of creation and the fall is enormously insightful. The book is designed to counteract an ancient thesis about the origin of the cosmos—namely, that the world was created by two gods, one good and the other evil. The good god was supposed to have created spirit, while the evil god created matter. Thus, if we wanted to be “spiritual,” we would have to withdraw as far from matter as possible. In the Genesis account of creation, God looks on each thing He has made and sees that it is good. At the end of the account, everything is said to be ((very good.” Material things, though finite and not themselves gods, remain good.

Moreover, when human beings are created, they are placed in this garden, not of “Evil” but of Eden—which means “delight” in Hebrew. Thus, the reason for the fall cannot have been that Adam and Eve lacked anything they needed or even wanted—so the student had this part of it right. In other words, they could not blame anyone else, especially not God, for putting them in some dire straight that would excuse their revolt. To put it more graphically, the source or cause of evil was not outside themselves but within—in some faculty or source that was itself good but could go wrong.

Thus, when the student said that the Garden of Evil had to do with the experience of free will, this point was also correct. Adam and Eve had free will from the beginning. It did not come about as a result of the fall, though their free will made the fall possible. Our first parents did not have to choose as they did.

Why, then, did they so choose? We must examine what the text tells us. They were given a test, not to eat of the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Their temptation was to declare themselves the cause of the distinction between good and evil, to make their own laws or rules, as it were. Every subsequent sin bears some mark of this initial fall; somewhere within every sin lies the claim to do one’s own will as if it were itself the cause of the distinction between good and evil. This is the point of the Gene¬sis account: All things are good, but free creatures can reject this goodness or reorient it to their own definition of what is good and what is evil.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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