Mormonism and science/Death before the Fall

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Mormon perspectives on the concept of death on the entire earth before the Fall of Adam

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The existence of these animals is indisputable, for their remains have been found in rocks all over the earth. What eternal purpose they played in the creation and early history of the earth is unknown. The scriptures do not address the question, and it is not the realm of science to explore the issue of why they were here. We can only conclude, as Elder Talmage did, that “the whole series of chalk deposits and many of our deep-sea limestones contain the skeletal remains of animals. These lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation.” (“The Earth and Man.”)

—Morris S. Petersen, professor of geology, Brigham Young University, "I Have a Question," Ensign (September 1987) off-site
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Question: What does the Church teach on the subject of death before the Fall of Adam?

Lehi said that "all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created"

The LDS Bible Dictionary states that, "Latter-day revelation teaches that there was no death on this earth before the Fall of Adam. Indeed, death entered the world as a direct result of the Fall (2 Ne. 2:22; Moses 6:48)." 2 Nephi 2:22 describes how Adam and Eve became subject to physical death, when 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?

The second scripture referenced, Moses 6:48, describes how "spiritual death" entered the world:

Behold Satan hath come among the children of men, and tempteth them to worship him; and men have become carnal, sensual, and devilish, and are shut out from the presence of God.

Current Church manuals take a cautionary approach to interpreting 2 Nephi 2:22

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.

Some of the changes to the Gospel Principles manual reinforce this cautionary approach. The 1979 edition stated that Adam and Eve were "the parents of the human race," while the current version states that they are "our first parents." In addition, the statement about Adam and Eve learning to "control the earth" was completely removed.


Question: 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

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). [1]

This interpretation has been shared by many Church authors, including President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie.[2] Consequently, the concept of no death before the Fall on the entire earth has made its way into many Church instructional manuals. For example, the LDS Bible Dictionary, which was included as an addition to the LDS edition of the King James Bible in 1979, includes the following statement that "death entered the world" as a result of the Fall:

The LDS Bible Dictionary states that, "Latter-day revelation teaches that there was no death on this earth before the Fall of Adam. Indeed, death entered the world as a direct result of the Fall (2 Ne. 2:22; Moses 6:48)."


Question: What was the state of things on the Earth prior to the placement of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

The "period of our planet's creation and preparation as a dwelling place for man" is excluded from the period of the Earth's "temporal existence"

The following is from the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, (2002), 167–171, "Section 77 Questions and Answers on the Book of Revelation." off-site

D&C 77:6–7. Why Was the Book Sealed That John Saw?

“‘The book which John saw’ represented the real history of the world—what the eye of God has seen, what the recording angel has written; and the seven thousand years, corresponding to the seven seals of the Apocalyptic volume, are as seven great days during which Mother Earth will fulfill her mortal mission, laboring six days and resting upon the seventh, her period of sanctification. These seven days do not include the period of our planet’s creation and preparation as a dwelling place for man. They are limited to Earth’s ‘temporal existence,’ that is, to Time, considered as distinct from Eternity.” (Whitney, Saturday Night Thoughts, p. 11.) (emphasis added)

The manual specifically excludes the "period of our planet's creation and preparation as a dwelling place for man" from the period defined as the Earth's "temporal existence." Nothing is implied or stated regarding "death before the Fall."

Question: What changes have been made to the Gospel Principles manual regarding the question of death on the earth before the Fall of Adam?

Question: Is the concept of no death before the fall on the entire earth Church doctrine?

Elder Jeffery R. Holland notes that there was no human death on the earth prior to the Fall of Adam

Elder Jeffery R. Holland, at the April 2015 General Conference, stated,

[T]here was an actual Adam and Eve who fell from an actual Eden, with all the consequences that fall carried with it.

I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that, but I do know these two were created under the divine hand of God, that for a time they lived alone in a paradisiacal setting where there was neither human death nor future family, and that through a sequence of choices they transgressed a commandment of God which required that they leave their garden setting but which allowed them to have children before facing physical death. [3]

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

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.

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." [4]

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." [5]

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. [6] 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. [7]

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. [8]

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. [9]


Question: Did procreation exist on the earth before the Fall of Adam?

Whether other forms of life passed through procreation and death before the fall is not an issue on which the Church doctrine provides any official stance

The scriptural evidence indicates that Adam and Eve did not have any children or understanding of procreation until after the fall. This is indeed what is taught in church. However, whether other forms of life passed through procreation and death before the fall is not an issue on which the Church doctrine provides any official stance.

There are two primary reasons for questions about procreation before the Fall. One arises from a curiosity about whether or not Adam and Eve had any children in the garden before the Fall. The second reason arises from a hypothesis entertained by some church members about pre-Fall procreation of animals being necessary for organic evolution. (Since evolution requires reproductive success, lack of reproduction rules it out.)

Children before the Fall?

Concerning question source one: The Book of Mormon teaches us that Adam and Eve were innocent, and as long as they were in the Garden, "they would have no children" (2 Nephi 2:23). This is also strengthened in the Bible. Children are not even mentioned until after the fall (see also Genesis 3:16).

Irenaeus[10] said that both Adam and Eve "had no understanding of the procreation of children."[11] He also mentioned that Eve was a virgin in the garden three different times. He went on to say that after the fall, Adam "had lost his natural disposition and child-like mind."[12]

Thus, there is evidence from Biblical, Book of Mormon, and early Christian sources that Adam and Eve did not have children prior to the Fall. The records are silent about whether other living things had offspring.

Life and death of non-human animals before the Fall?

Concerning question aspect two: Although the church has no official position on the occurrence of evolution (other than the creation did not occur ex nihilo), strong opinions have been expressed on both sides of the question. Some have hypothesized that God, being bound by natural laws, used evolution to create what we see now in the fossil record. In order for this to have occurred there logically would have been procreation and death among plants and animals before the fall of Adam.

Some LDS members and leaders have argued that there was no death anywhere on earth prior to the Fall, and such a position also assumes—if only implicitly—that there was likewise no procreation. (See FairMormon Answers article on Death before the Fall.) Other members and leaders have held that, as Elder James E. Talmage said, "life and death have been in existence and operative in this earth for ages prior to [Adam]."[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17]


Question: How does the Church explain the existence of human-like beings on the earth prior to Adam?

There has been a great deal of controversy among Church members over the issue of pre-Adamites

When studying the creation, how do we deal with the evidence of creatures that looked a lot like man, who lived and made tools, painted paintings, etc., all before what could be the existence of Adam? How do we answer who they were? Are they like animals? We clearly have evidence that they have lived here on this planet.

There has been a great deal of controversy among Church members over the issue of pre-Adamites. Some general authorities accepted their existence, while others completely denied it. The most famous disagreement was between Elders B.H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith. Following this debate, the First Presidency wrote to 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. [18]

Elder James E. Talmage noted in his journal:

...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. [19]

Hugh Nibley: "Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God's affection or even a right to exaltation"

Probably the best approach is the one taken by Dr. Hugh Nibley:

Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God's affection or even a right to exaltation — for our scriptures allow them such. Nor am I overly concerned as to just when they might have lived, for their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared. God assigned them their proper times and functions, as he has given me mine — a full-time job that admonishes me to remember his words to the overly eager Moses: "For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me." (Moses 1:31.) It is Adam as my own parent who concerns me. When he walks onto the stage, then and only then the play begins. [20]

The science has advanced substantially since Nibley's article, and so its scientific claims should no longer be considered current. However, his theologic and historic perspective is still useful.


First Presidency statement (1931): "Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research"

The First Presidency said in 1931,

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.

—First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931.


Statements by Church leaders and publications related to "no death before the fall"

Summary: A number of statements have been made by Church leaders and published in Church manuals indicating that there was not death before the Fall of Adam. We compile these statements in this article.

Age of the Earth

Summary: Do Latter-day Saints believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old? Why does Doctrine and Covenants section 77 say that the history of the earth covers only seven thousand years?

Notes

  1. LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "Death,", 655. off-site direct off-site
  2. For a representative sample of the non-official statements made by Elder McConkie and others from a variety of perspectives, see here.
  3. Jeffery R. Holland, "Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet," April 2015 General Conference.
  4. 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.
  5. LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "Introduction,", 599. off-site
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7.
  9. James Edward Talmage, Personal Journal (7 April 1931) 29:42, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (emphasis added).
  10. "Irenaeus," entry in Wikipedia.
  11. Irenaeus, "Adversus Haereses," in III.22.4 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:455. ANF ToC off-site This volume (circa A.D. 165)
  12. Irenaeus, "Adversus Haereses," in III.23.5 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:457. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  13. 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.. See also 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
  14. 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.
  15. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  16. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007)
  17. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
  18. First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7.
  19. James Edward Talmage, Personal Journal (7 April 1931) 29:42, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (emphasis added).
  20. Hugh W. Nibley, "Before Adam," in Hugh W. Nibley, Old Testament and Related Studies (Vol. 1 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986),82–83.GL direct link off-site