When Adam and Eve decided to do things their own way, they left the Garden where God had provided and protected. I don’t think they believed they would die, but the life they lived was certainly gone. I think they thought they could have both God’s blessing and their own will. But the Lord had warned them and they listened to the lie of the serpent and they chose poorly.
God called the tree “the knowledge of good and evil.” That has puzzled people for a long time. What does it mean to know evil? I would suggest that it means they knew evil intimately. They lived in it. They explored it. They wrestled and played and embraced with it. Just as they had lived immersed in good, they now found their existence immersed in evil.
And many of them turned their hearts and thoughts away from the Lord to explore this new existence. In fact, it seems that the normal, the natural, path for people to take after the Fall was away from the Lord. So universal was this that, by the time of the Flood, the Lord’s observation of man was that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” All they thought about was evil.
But evil is lonely. Inherent in evil are things like mistrust, greed, abuse, and hatred. Emotions like fear, anxiety, jealousy, sadness, anger, and confusion flooded the human soul. Nothing was right and nothing was easy. How were they to live without God? They had turned away from the source of good, but evil provided a cruel world. What were they supposed to do?
Apart from God, they developed a system of living that made sense to them. Based on trial and error, cause and effect, they began to see that certain actions brought certain responses or consequences. As life went on, they began to remember the system and teach it to their children. The system became part of their lives, part of their world. It became so integrated with their daily lives that Paul would later refer to it as “the flesh.”
The flesh is a strange mixture of things learned from the world, from parents, and from the individual’s own experience. It consists of evaluation and judgment of these experiences. Apart from God’s guidance and in the realm of fear and death, the flesh offered the only survival tool available. The fact that it rarely worked only served to cause people to look deeper and work harder.
Fear seemed to be the primary motivation, but greed/lust and isolation were close behind. The reasoning is familiar to all of us because it was there at the beginning of our lives as well. Why do more people admit to a fear of public speaking than to a fear of death? Because exposure makes one vulnerable and vulnerable people are used and abused by others. This is what the flesh learned. But some learned it differently. They learned that those who hold back exhibit vulnerability, so they grab attention and opportunity before others can get it. But those who grabbed the attention and those who avoided it both still felt vulnerable and afraid.
The human heart focused on meeting its own needs and developed a way that seemed right. In fact, it seemed like the only way. But it organized and learned to cooperate within a spirit of fear and mistrust and built systems of politics and morals and laws to mitigate the evil. The strong ruled because they needed to be on top and the rest allowed it because they were afraid. Morals were based on what was good for society and what pleased the strong. But at least there was a system that attempted to lessen the pain and suffering of being alone and without God.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. Proverbs 14:12
The real need was still not met. The real fear came from inside. The emptiness of the human soul could not be filled by any system of government or morals. A person might survive, but still feel dead inside. There was a longing for God that would never be met apart from Him—but they tried. And there was an instinctual knowledge of judgment that entered the heart whenever death was considered. How could they face death apart from God?
Religion was designed by humans to meet the spiritual emptiness of their souls. The act of worship made them feel connected to something bigger than themselves. The responsibility of obedience made them feel better about their hearts. It didn’t seem to matter what they worshiped or who they obeyed. Some worshiped animals, some made idols of wood or stone, and some created gods much like themselves. Religion became a part of their system of flesh.
But then they connected their plan to God’s plan.