Mormonism and science/Did Adam and Eve really exist

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Belief in a literal Adam and Eve

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Question: Can Latter-day Saints have a non-literal view of the creation story, or have a somewhat more mythic view of the first five books of Moses given the Church's teaching of a historical Adam?

This is an issue that has been a challenge for the Church since the beginning

This is an issue that has been a challenge for the Church since the beginning. It is also an issue that isn't unique to Mormonism (so we can find lots of interesting insights elsewhere). The problems that we have are caused by several distinct issues. So let's outline the three main issues, since every attempt to answer these questions (every explanation of how to understand Genesis) works to deal with these issues in different ways.

1: The philosophy of history

This one is a really important. This idea means that when we approach the "historical Adam" we have to be aware that there are many different ways to understand the material as history. And that our notion of history is very different today from the sense that history had when the Old Testament was written. Even more to the point, what we try to achieve with history, and in fact our sense of "telling the truth" is very different from what the author of Genesis was trying to achieve and what that author believed constituted "telling the truth". This isn't bad except when we try to assert that we should understand the history of the Old Testament in exactly the same way that we understand history now. Or that the notion of truth as we understand it corresponds exactly to the meaning of truth as they understood it. When we do confuse our own understanding for the intentions of the authors of that history, we inevitably also make mistakes in understanding what should be seen as literal or non-literal in a text.

2: The issue of the first man

We all recognize that there has to be a beginning point. We call the first man and woman Adam and Eve. But, there is necessarily something that is entirely different in their beginning than in ours (by definition as the 'first'). In some ways, this creates for a flexible understanding. We want to understand how they are like us, and at the same time try to understand how they are different from us. This goes back to that issue of what the text is trying to tell us. We have a great many interpretations of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve which treat different parts of the story as metaphorical and other parts as literal - and in many cases, two interpretations can choose completely opposite understandings of any specific detail in this way and come up with two very different outcomes. When we come to this as individuals, often we have to make decisions as to how we understand certain elements (more on this a little later), but you can see that inevitably, very, very few people have a completely literal understanding of the Genesis account of Adam, just as very, very few have an entirely metaphorical understanding of the Genesis account of Adam. Most of us sit comfortably in between. Part of the LDS view of Adam comes from this historical figure as a historical figure. But part of the LDS view comes from the ways in which Adam is just like ourselves - and often this comparison, intended by the text, is presented as metaphor.

3: There is always a host of doctrinal concerns

These inevitably occur because of the previous two issues. As a text, Genesis has to be read and interpreted in some way - and there are lots of ways it can be. Some of those interpretations conflict with knowledge obtained from other sources - like scientific knowledge. One of the great debates of the past (and to some extent even the present) is how we place authority in these sources of information (a process we call epistemology). In one view, we try to understand the time period of Genesis literally, and the age of the earth then as being finite (a mere few thousand years) leading to a position known as Young Earth Creationism. This is a popular view among many Christians (and within the Church). On the other hand there are those who recognize that the earth seems to be very old, complete with a long fossil record of life. If this information is weighted accordingly, then the age of the earth is very great, and likewise, the Genesis account needs to be interpreted as being less literal in the sense that it does not intend to provide the age of the earth in a strictly literal sense. These doctrinal issues are often much larger debates that engage the text of Genesis to their own ends - issues like evolution, the age of the earth, the fall of man, the question of death before the fall, and so on.


Question: What is the Church's position on Adam and Eve?

The Church consistently insists that there is a historical Adam

What does this mean? Some members take this to mean that the narrative in Genesis should be understood in some way as a literal history. For others, it means that there is little more than the assertion that in all of God's creation over a very long period of time (early members at the time of Joseph Smith speculated that it could be billions of years) there is a certain point when we have the first man (as a child of God). Whether that man was created directly by God (one view in Mormon speculation), or whether there was some other divine or natural mechanism (there are several different views in Mormon speculation here), all of them come to the conclusion that there is this person Adam who represents the first of God's children on the earth, and that he and his wife Eve existed at some point in time and gave birth to all of humanity.

Beyond the existence of a historical Adam, the rest of it can be understood literally or metaphorically, or more commonly as a mixture of these extreme positions

Most members of the Church employ some combination of all of that. Consider, for example, this comment in the Ensign in 1994:

This concept is further solidified by the description of the creation of woman as being formed from the rib of Adam—a rib being a metaphor for a person corresponding to Adam. Modern prophets have taught that the creation of woman from the rib of the man is to be taken figuratively. (See Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, Mar. 1976, p. 71.) [1]

Most of the leaders of the Church have understood the use of Adam's rib as a metaphor and not some literal history

Most of the leaders of the Church have understood the use of Adam's rib as a metaphor and not some literal history - even while the same leaders would assert that other parts of the narrative of Adam and Eve should be understood literally. For those who take different approaches, it is simply an issue of assigning more parts of the narrative as being mythical or metaphorical and fewer as being understood literally or the other way around. For us as individuals, as we find the approach that resonates with our own understanding and our own spiritual witness, I think that as long as we try to answer the question of what the scriptures are trying to teach us, we will do reasonably well. It is only when we try to assert something through the text that was never intended that we run into trouble.


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.


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. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4]

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.


Notes

  1. "I Have a Question: What does it mean when the Lord said he would create for Adam “an help meet for him”? (Gen. 2:18.)" Ensign (January 1994) off-site
  2. First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7.
  3. James Edward Talmage, Personal Journal (7 April 1931) 29:42, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (emphasis added).
  4. 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