Mormonism and science/Death before the Fall
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This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
The Church teaches that there was no death prior to the fall of Adam, and that after the Fall that Adam and Eve became mortal and subject to death. Does LDS doctrine hold that there was no death on the entire earth before the Fall of Adam?
Some LDS leaders have interpreted LDS scripture to teach that there was no death prior to the Fall of Adam for all plants and animals. Others have seen pre-Fall death of plants and/or animals as compatible with LDS doctrine, with the doctrine of "no death" applying only to Adam and Eve within the garden, and not the wider physical creation.
There is no official doctrine on the matter, and members in good standing have held both positions.
What does the Church teach on this subject?
The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi taught that
if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. (2 Nephi 2:22)
Because this is the only scripture that indicates this, it is difficult to interpret the meaning of "all things." Does it mean "all things in the garden", or "all things on the entire earth", or something else?
Current Church manuals take a cautionary approach to interpreting this verse by considering only how it affected Adam and Eve. For example, from 2010 Gospel Principles manual, page 28:
When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, they were not yet mortal. In this state, “they would have had no children” (2 Nephi 2:23). There was no death. They had physical life because their spirits were housed in physical bodies made from the dust of the earth (see Moses 6:59; Abraham 5:7). They had spiritual life because they were in the presence of God. They had not yet made a choice between good and evil.
Adam and Eve were not yet mortal. In this state, "they would have had no children" (2 Nephi 2:23). The statement "there was no death" applies to the Garden of Eden, which is what the paragraph is describing. There is no statement in the manual that there had been no death anywhere in the entire world. There has been a difference of opinion among Church leaders on the extent to which immortality affected God's creations before the Fall.
Was there no death on the entire earth before the Fall?
There is overwhelming archaeological evidence of death having occurred on the earth for many millions of years. For example, oil deposits are formed from the decomposed remains of ancient plants and animals. This is where Church teachings appear to contradict science, since many Latter-day Saint leaders and Church manuals have taught that there was no physical death on the entire earth prior to the fall of Adam. For example, this view is taught in the LDS Bible Dictionary:
Latter-day revelation teaches that there was no death on this earth for any forms of life before the fall of Adam. Indeed, death entered the world as a direct result of the fall (2 Nephi 2:22; Moses 6:48).
This interpretation has been shared by many Church authors, including President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie. Consequently, the concept of no death before the Fall on the entire earth has made its way into many Church instructional manuals.
Is the concept of no death before the fall on the entire earth Church doctrine?
The important point to remember is that the question of the scope of "death before the Fall" does not affect our salvation, and is simply an academic exercise. That being said, some LDS authors have not seen the scriptures cited by the Bible Dictionary as referring to all periods of time and all situations prior to the Fall, but merely describe the effect of the Fall upon humanity when Adam and Eve were put out of the Garden. Note that the current Gospel Doctrine manual does not explicitly mention the "entire earth," but simply states that there was "no death" prior to the Fall. The Bible Dictionary stance is not the only one which leaders of the Church have advanced.
Bible Dictionary editor Elder McConkie pointed out—the Bible Dictionary is neither infallible, nor an arbiter of Church doctrine:
[As for the] "Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazeteer, and the maps. None of these are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only."
The Bible Dictionary itself also cautions against assuming that its contents reflect "an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth."
One must also not overlook an earlier debate on the issue of "pre-Adamites" between Elder Brigham H. Roberts of the Seventy and then-Elder Joseph Fielding Smith was brought to an end at the instruction of the First Presidency. Part of the debate centered around whether there was death prior to the Fall. At the request of the First Presidency, Elder James E. Talmage gave a talk in the tabernacle, entitled "The Earth and Man." In it, he spoke of fossilized animals and plants and said:
These lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation.
With the approval of the First Presidency, this address was published in the Deseret News, as a Church pamphlet, and later in The Instructor. Clearly, then, a universal lack of death prior to the fall is not a necessary belief within the Church, since leaders and members have held both positions.
Elder Talmage's position was made quite clear in a letter he wrote in response to a question about these matters:
I cannot agree with your conception that there was no death of plants and animals anywhere upon this earth prior to the transgression of Adam, unless we assume that the history of Adam and Eve dates back many hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble with some theologians—even including many of our own good people—is that they undertake to fix the date of Adam's transgression as being approximately 4000 years before Christ and therefore about 5932 years ago. If Adam was placed upon the earth only that comparatively short time ago the rocks clearly demonstrated that life and death have been in existence and operative in this earth for ages prior to that time.
The First Presidency eventually instructed the general authorities:
Both parties [i.e., Elders Smith and Roberts] make the scripture and the statements of men who have been prominent in the affairs of the Church the basis of their contention; neither has produced definite proof in support of his views… Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored Gospel to the people of the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church. We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion to which reference is here made, but on the contrary are certain that it would lead to confusion, division and misunderstanding if carried further. Upon one thing we should all be able to agree namely, that presidents Joseph F. Smith, John Winder and Anthon Lund were right when they said: "Adam is the primal parent of our race.
Reflecting on this episode, Elder Talmage wrote in his diary:
...Involved in this question is that of the beginning of life upon the earth, and as to whether there was death either of animal or plant before the fall of Adam, on which proposition Elder Smith was very pronounced in denial and Elder Roberts equally forceful in the affirmative. As to whether Preadamite races existed upon the earth there has been much discussion among some of our people of late. The decision reached by the First Presidency, and announced to this morning's assembly, was in answer to a specific question that obviously the doctrine of the existence of races of human beings upon the earth prior to the fall of Adam was not a doctrine of the Church; and, further, that the conception embodied in the belief of many to the effect that there were no such Preadamite races, and that there was no death upon the earth prior to Adam's fall is likewise declared to be no doctrine of the Church. I think the decision of the First Presidency is a wise one in the premises. This is one of the many things upon which we cannot preach with assurance and dogmatic assertions on either side are likely to do harm rather than good.
The Church does not take an official position on this issue
This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:
- Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
- When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
- Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.
- —J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:
- All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
- I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer. (Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.))
This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):
- Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
- —LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007) off-site]
In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:
- Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
- Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility. — Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
- [note] LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "Death,", 655. off-site direct off-site
- [note] For a representative sample of the non-official statements made by Elder McConkie and others from a variety of perspectives, see here.
- [note] Bruce R. McConkie, cited in Mark McConkie (editor), Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1989), 289–290 (emphasis added). ISBN 0884946444. ISBN 978-0884946441.
- [note] LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "Introduction,", 599. off-site
- [note] James E. Talmage, "The Earth and Man," Address in the Tabernacle, (9 August 1931); originally published in the Deseret News, 21 Nov 1931; subsequently published as a pamphlet by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1931; later published in The Instructor, 100:12 (December 1965) :474–477; continued in The Instructor 101:1 (January 1966): 9–15. FAIRWiki link
- [note] Talmage to Heber Timothy, 28 Jan. 1932, Talmage Papers; cited in Richard Sherlock, "A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Responses to the Darwinist Legacy," Journal of Mormon History 4:? (1975): 45–69.
- [note] First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7.
- [note] James Edward Talmage, Personal Journal (7 April 1931) 29:42, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (emphasis added).