In the Garden, prior to eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were not self-aware. They did not possess a conscience. Instead they were intensely aware of the Presence of God and entirely reliant upon Him to determine the right course to take. Eating of the Tree resulted in separation from God and the need for what it provided, which is self-awareness and the knowledge of what is good and what is bad.
This is proven in the Genesis passage by the fact that the first couple was unaware of their nakedness until after the fruit was eaten at which point they sought to hide from the Presence of God. What is more indicative of self-consciousness than how we feel when we are naked. This is more than worry about what others think. Nudity, once one gets beyond early childhood, to a point in life corresponding to the “age of accountability,” is a state that intensely heightens self awareness.
Further, the term used for “conscience” in the Greek New Testament points to the same idea. “Suneidesis” is defined in Liddle and Scott’s lexicon first as “self-consciousness.” In Thayer’s lexicon it is first “the consciousness of anything,” then “the soul as distinguishing between what is morally good and bad, prompting to do the former and shun the latter, commending one, condemning the other.”
This Greek word is used 32 times in the New Testament always referring to the human conscience. Examples are:
“Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day’” (Acts 23:1, NASB).
“… by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1st Timothy 4:2).
“To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15).
The most instructive example is contained in Paul’s theological epistle to the Romans.
“…in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (2:15, NASB).
In this passage the Apostle is seeking to demonstrate that the Gentiles have a moral law written within them, which they elect either to follow or rebel against. It is this natural law of the conscience that will determine what happens to those who have not been exposed to the truth contained in the Bible on the Day of Judgment.
I propose that what we know as our conscience came about when Eve and Adam ate the fruit from the tree. It prepared the human race for life without the Presence of God. Myriads of moral/ethical decisions would have to be made. How does one know what is right and what is wrong? What is the standard? How do we know? We know. The conscience speaks.
However, like the Law of Moses, the natural law of conscience is weakened by human sin. We rebel against it, seeking to do whatever pleases us, and in so doing scar the conscience. This begins to happen at a young age. As the result, every society makes laws for citizens to follow. When the citizenry rebels against good laws, or when lawmakers become corrupt and make unrighteous laws, societies crumble. This happened to Rome. It is happening to America.
The concept of conscience I have briefly developed here has far reaching implications.
1- It answers the question of what happens to those who are without God’s special revelation found in the Bible, most importantly those who do not have the knowledge of Jesus Christ. They are without excuse because each person will be judged by the light of his or her conscience (as well as the revelation of God found in nature). They will be judged according to the light they have received.
2- This perspective also answers questions about what has been called original sin and how it is passed on from Adam and Eve. We are born with the curse and blessing of self-awareness and it’s companion, the conscience. This came into the human community when the first man and woman ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Without God, self-awareness results in self centeredness, which has been described as original sin. This selfishness has corollaries: pride, rebellion and unbelief.
3- This also answers the question about the essential nature of humankind. Are people inherently evil, or basically good? The answer is yes, and no. Apart from God, humankind is inherently self-centered. Thus, the idea of total depravity espoused by Calvin is only true insofar as it relates to humankind’s natural relationship to God. Apart from the Presence of God we fall hopelessly short of what we were intended to be. It does not mean humankind is utterly depraved and without goodness. The law of God is written on the conscience, and that continues to guide many. The Enlightenment concept of the noble savage is erroneous also. Civilized or uncivilized, human beings are capable of, and have committed, great evils. Motives have been money, power, self-righteousness, but it comes back to those in power looking after their own interests at the expense of others.
We need to be saved from our condemning self-consciousness through Christ. It was Jesus who said, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.” The cross puts an end to self-centeredness. The Holy Spirit replaces the scarred conscience. God-consciousness replaces self-consciousness. Egocentricity gives way to Christo-centric living. All I have to do is make a choice to stop believing in myself and start believing in God as He has revealed Himself in His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
“I have been crucified with Christ and no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live on in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave His life for me” (Galatians 2:20).
“You died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).