Satan’s encounter with Eve in the Garden is fascinating and very important for us to understand. His temptation of Eve, recorded in Genesis 3, represents several firsts:
It is the first instance of an epistemological alternative to God’s design. Satan offers to Eve a different way to have God-like knowledge. Satan argues that God is actually deceiving Eve into ignorance by keeping her from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan’s plan was both clear and appealing: Be like God by the assertion of your own will, and be free from God’s restrictive design. Declare your independence from God by doing it your own way—the result will be the same.
Satan’s temptation of Eve is also the first instance of a hermeneutic alternative to God’s design. Satan’s temptation of Eve was the first recorded instance of a non-literal interpretation of God’s word. Satan asks Eve, “Has God said … ?” and then proceeds to distort what God had actually said (3:1). In contrast, Genesis 1-12 represents roughly 2,500 years of history, and during that time, of the roughly 31 references to God speaking, this is the only instance (besides Eve’s fumbling in response to Satan’s challenge) in which God’s word isn’t taken at face value.
These two firsts are hugely significant for how we think, how we know, and how we understand God’s word. But there is another important first: the dialogue between Satan and Eve represents the first denial of God’s judgment. In Genesis 2:17 God had warned Adam that if he ate the fruit from this particular tree (all the rest were permissible, but Adam was not allowed to eat from this one) in that day (Heb., b’yom) he would die. Well, we know the rest of the story: Adam and Eve ate, and Adam lived to be 930 years old before he died (Gen 5:5). Did God mean what he said, or was Satan actually right?
According to Paul in Romans 5:12, through Adam death spread to all (Gr. pantes) men—even those who are still alive and have not yet experienced physical death. The death promised in Genesis 2:17 was not physical death; that was promised in Genesis 3:19 (“to dust you shall return”). The death God promised Adam is the same death Paul described in Romans 5. The condition of that “spiritual death” is that we were enemies of God (Rom 5:10) who were condemned (Rom 5:18).
Satan simply and straightforwardly denies what God had promised: “You shall surely not die” (Gen 3:4), Satan said. But what happened? Romans 5 explains that all died “spiritually” (meaning they became enemies of God and were condemned), and Adam and Eve did indeed die physically, as God directly intervened to ensure that fate (Gen 3:22-24).
Through the years there have been echoes of Satan’s denial of God’s judgment—most recently by men such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Rob Bell. These men deny God’s right to judge through the consequences of hell, because it is outside of their expectations for God’s character. The essential premise of these contemporary denials is simply that a “good” God could not possibly condemn a person forever. But we find many examples in Scripture where God makes judgments that just don’t generally match what we might tend to do. So we have a choice. We can argue that God must fit our own moral sentiments, or we can take Him at His word, and discover who He describes Himself to be.
Before presupposing (based on sentiment) that God shouldn’t have a hell, perhaps it would be better to avoid the Satanic temptation to deny God’s prerogative and promise to judge. God did promise death. Not only that, but He promised a second death—the lake of fire (Rev 20:14-15, Gr. limne tou puros). This concept was first discussed in the final verse of Isaiah (66:24), and was later reiterated by Christ Himself in Mark 9:47-48 (where the Gr. gehenna is used).
Satan’s epistemology was a lie. The knowledge Eve gained by following it brought only death. Satan’s hermeneutic maneuver was a lie. It didn’t bring clarity to God’s word, instead it brought deception and confusion. Likewise, Satan’s prescribed personal eschatology—his claim about Eve’s future—was also a lie, and was disproven directly by God’s own actions. Satan’s lies are just as destructive today as they were then.
Of course the biblical teaching of hell, death, judgment, and condemnation are awfully distasteful if we misunderstand God’s sovereign rights as the Creator—when we so disregard His holiness that we feel He has no right to make demands of that which He has created. But let’s look at things from God’s point of view (i.e., the view He revealed in Scripture) and we draw a different conclusion—a conclusion, by the way, He never asks us to like, but one He demands we understand.
In so doing, we can understand the great power of His grace, His love, His compassion. As Jesus said, “he who is forgiven little loves little.” We need to realize of what great offenses we have been forgiven, and the kind of love with which we ought to respond, and what is really at stake in our lives and the lives of others.