When God placed the man in the garden, he was what we call innocent. He was simple. Man didn’t really know anything, he just did as he was created to do. He tended the garden that had been made for him. In many ways he was like all the other “living beings”, the animals. Sure, he was God’s representative, and he had authority over the animals. And he was made in God’s image, unlike the other animals. So he had a relationship with God unlike the other living beings.
However, one major thing that set man apart from the other living beings, was the Rule. We have that pithy phrase that says that rules are made to be broken, but the truth is that what makes a rule a rule is that it CAN be broken. More importantly it can also be FOLLOWED, obeyed. A rule represents a choice. And that is what man was given uniquely in all of creation.
In a sense, the tree and its fruit are incidental. People speculate what this tree must have been like. What was its fruit like and what magical properties did it have? For God’s purposes, though, it might have been just one of many similar trees—a particular apple tree, for example to highlight a common misconception. The key is that this tree—whatever it was—was the one that God told the man not to eat. The fact that it was designated as the forbidden tree is what made it important. The properties of the fruit are not what would change man and condemn him to death. It was the choice to reject God’s rule that would change humanity. The sin was the choice, not the fruit.
“What if?” That is a dangerous game. We can’t really know what would have happened had man followed God’s rule and chapter three had never happened. C. S. Lewis proposed the idea that this would have been a temporary arrangement. God would have eventually showed man what it was like to be good and not merely innocent, but it would have happened in God’s time and God’s way. God wants man to be good by choice and not just innocent. But, we don’t know what it would have been like had man chosen God instead of sin.
In the end we will end up with a humanity that choses God, but it will take sin, death and a Gospel to get us there. And, even though we know that this was God’s plan from before time began, it does NOT mean God set man up to fall. Man had the choice to obey from the start.