Good Ignorance: Handling the Knowledge of Evil
April 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
“Knowledge is power,” a thought popularized by Sir Francis Bacon,(1) is echoed by humanity as a whole. People have always placed a high value on knowledge. We laud intelligence and academics, and God Himself regards knowledge, having given us a brain with which to learn and reason together.(2) Still, I’m convinced that there is a certain level of ignorance people, particularly Christians, should have. I think it’s clear that there are some things we simply should not learn, and those things are for the most part represented in the knowledge of evil.
The Bible describes the beginnings of evil on earth in Genesis 3. After Satan lied to Eve about the consequences of sin, he told her a very significant truth about the fruit of the aptly named Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “…for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5) After Eve and Adam had both sinned, “the Lord God said, ‘Now that the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'” (Gen. 3:22) Adam and Eve knew good from their creation, but from this we see that Adam and Eve knowing about evil fell outside of God’s original plan.
Why did God want to preserve our ignorance of the presence of evil? We learn best by doing, which was the case with Adam and Eve, and it’s also true with us. But at least some knowledge of the act of original sin preceded the act. Eve was tempted, but ultimately she made a free will decision to do what God had said not to do. Disobedience was evil. Knowledge led to the act of sin, which in turn led to an awareness that there is the choice to do evil as well as good. That is the specific knowledge that we would have been better off without. (See also How Could Adam and Eve Sin Before ‘Knowing Good and Evil’?)
It’s true that now that sin is in the world, there are certain evils we have to know about in order to protect ourselves, our families and to help others that may be struggling with the same evil. Lawyers, counselors, law enforcement officials, therapists, doctors, pastors, teachers and others would not be able to battle evil and equip others to do the same without knowledge of it. Really, any human being is irresponsible without some knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong with the world—a parent needs to know how to protect their children, and every individual needs to guard their own heart. But some knowledge of evil is useful only because others have sinned and experienced evil, not because there is anything inherently good in evil—that would be an absurdity. Knowing some evil is simply a necessary evil.
How do we treat knowledge that is only there out of necessity? Carefully. We should either value the knowledge of our own experience with evil, or intentionally educate ourselves about evil, with a great deal of caution. Real world examples are the dangers of sexual abuse, teaching our kids prudence around strangers, the hazards of drugs and alcohol, wisdom with money and relationships and the reality of temptation. Always on the other side of teaching the good things we should do in the world are the ways those efforts could go horribly wrong. When self-educating about evil, the best approach is a minimalistic one, learning only what we think we need to know and no more—until we find we need to know more to protect ourselves or help others. Then we can move forward, but again with caution. It’s foolish to think that the evil we study to better equip ourselves and others will never ensnare us because of the knowledge we have about it. This reality is played out all around us, and I can think of many times I would have avoided a fall simply if I knew less about sin and evil.
Christians are called to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”(3) There’s a balance we need to maintain between beneficial knowledge and harmful knowledge. Paul writes in Romans 16:19, “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.” John Wesley paraphrases this verse: “But I would have you – Not only obedient, but discreet also. Wise with regard to that which is good – As knowing in this as possible. And simple with regard to that which is evil – As ignorant of this as possible.”(4) I think Paul is cautioning us not too be too well versed about evil, to be ignorant to a certain extent.
What does this look like in our real world experiences? Consider a couple more passages from the Bible.
“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. (1 Cor. 10:23)
“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8)
Does this warrant thinking through many of the entertainment choices that we assume we can “handle”? To consider that it may be “permissible” for a Christian, but ask ourselves if it’s “beneficial” or “constructive”? Thinking of the amount of violence or vulgarity we tolerate in some movies, is it outweighed by the nobility, rightness and purity found in it? Does exposing ourselves to knowledge of evil acts honestly serve a higher purpose? Of course the Bible itself is violent in parts (i.e. war, Jesus’ crucifixion, etc.). On that we can argue for a “beneficial” and “constructive” aspect of scriptural depictions of violence because it turns us toward an awareness of God, specifically His holiness and His sacrifice for us in response to the introduction of sin into the world. Violence in entertainment is harder to similarly justify.
Apart from Biblical revelation about our tendencies toward evil, we can look to secular scientific research to find links between knowledge and harmful behavior. We know of an undeniable link between violent video game play and violent, uninhibited behavior.(5) We also find strong evidence for a preoccupation with pornography leading to pedophilia.(6) There’s no doubt that in many cases, thinking leads to doing in terms of deviant behavior.
A common Hebrew verb for sex is yada, which literally translates as “to know” (“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived…”, Gen. 4:1).(7) Knowing sexually is both good and bad depending on the context: Are the participants husband and wife? So obviously who and what we are seeking to know makes a difference on whether it’s good or bad to know it. I don’t believe there is much benefit at all for a Christian to study up on sex in preparation for marriage, at least in great detail. On the other hand, a lot can go wrong if he does. God made the process a pretty simple one without any real need for advance training.
I’ve wondered if it’s problematic to have certain honest discussions on the subject matter of sex. Is it beneficial or constructive for a Christian author to discuss the question “Can We ____?”, as Mark Driscoll does in his book Real Marriage on the topic of sexual practices that many married couples consider deviant? (8) I don’t mean to unfairly judge the book as I’ve only read 2 chapters from it, one being the one mentioned above. There may be circumstances where the question is necessary (past experience with sexual abuse, for example), but I think the question “Can We ____?” always needs to be accompanied with “Why do we need to know?” Wisdom and caution in how much we know about certain activities is called for and whether the knowledge is needed. Curiosity by itself is not sufficient reason; Eve was curious about the fruit of the tree, and that didn’t end well. Talk of sex can make us blush or feel uncomfortable. Those responses may be a way our God-given conscience telling us that now is not the right time to pursue particular information. Depending on the information, the right time may never come.
While it is by knowledge that humanity has survived, flourished and known God, knowledge may also lead to a fall. We need to be careful about what we allow into our heads because what we know can obviously harm us. Christians have a guide in God’s word to seek balance and a principal that says at least some ignorance of evil is a good thing. Life experience corroborates that. The knowledge of evil that we do seek out should be by way of a conservative, careful approach, realizing that we should only know enough to help us avoid it. Avoiding evil, after all, is a calling against which few can argue.(9)
1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Francis Bacon (http://www.iep.utm.edu/bacon/)
2. Proverbs 18:15 “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge…” Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” Isaiah 1:18: “Come, let us reason together…”
3. Matthew 10:16
4. Explanatory notes upon the New Testament, Volume 2 by John Welsey (http://bit.ly/Jm6sp0)
5. ISU study proves conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids. Study by Craig A. Anderson, PhD (http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2010/mar/vvgeffects)
6. A profile of pedophilia: definition, characteristics of offenders, recidivism, treatment outcomes, and forensic issues. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17418075)
7. Lexicon Genesis 4:1 (http://www.blueletterbible.org/search/translationResults.cfm?Criteria=knew&t=KJV&sf=5)
8. Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, by Mark & Grace Driscoll (chapter 10)
9. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 “Avoid every kind of evil.”