Are good and evil relative terms? Is there really a difference between the two?
In answering these questions, I think that it is instructive to note that every language extant on this planet has words for designating good and bad. In other words, among humans, the concept of differentiating between good and evil is universal.
To be sure, there are significant differences attached to how these concepts are interpreted, but the fact that the concepts of good and evil are widely accepted cannot be denied. Although the Judeo-Christian view of good/evil is very different from the Buddhist view of them, both religious traditions see the tension between the two as central to their belief system.
Indeed, even the more scientific discipline of Psychology observes a differentiation between the two. In a recent article for Psychology Today, Dr. Steve Taylor sees good/evil in humans as directly related to the degree of empathy present in an individual and argues that empathy can be acquired or learned. ("The Real Meaning of 'Good' and 'Evil'" originally published in Out of Darkness, 26 August 2013)
This blog obviously approaches the subject from a Judeo-Christian perspective. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the subject of good and evil finds early mention in our Scriptures.
In the book of Genesis, we read that God "planted a garden eastward in Eden" and placed the first man and woman within it. (Genesis 2:8) Continuing, we read: "And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." (verse 9) What was this mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil?
Whatever it was, it is obvious that God considered it to be very important and potentially harmful to humans. Notice: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.'" (Genesis 2:16-17)
The Hebrew word translated here into English as "knowledge" can also mean perception, discernment, understanding and wisdom. (Strong's Exhaustive Concordance) Hence, the tree could also be seen as representing the intellectual act of differentiating between good and evil. Indeed, such an interpretation is supported by the subsequent verses related to the story of this tree.
We all know the story. The man and his wife did not obey God's instructions about the tree. They ate the forbidden fruit, "and the eyes of them both were opened." (Genesis 3:7) Indeed, we are told that the Serpent enticed them into trying the fruit with the statement: "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5)
Later, we read: "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man (human) has become as one of us, to know good and evil." (Genesis 3:22 The Hebrew word translated in these verses as knowing and to know can also mean to learn to know, to perceive, to discriminate, to distinguish, to recognize and to consider. (Strong's) Thus we can see that Adam and Eve acquired the ability to discern or differentiate between good and evil by eating the fruit of the mysterious tree.
Why would that be a problem for God? Isn't it obvious that God wanted to reveal to them what was good and what was evil? Nevertheless, Adam and Eve chose to take to themselves the task of differentiating between the two. In other words, the humans chose to decide for themselves what constituted good and evil. That is the real significance of the mysterious tree and mankind's "fall from grace!"
How about us? Are we more concerned with our own definition of right and wrong or good and evil than we are with seeking God's will in the matter? In the final analysis, isn't the way that God distinguishes between the two the only thing that really matters?