The association of the fallen state of humanity with the biblical story of expulsion from Eden has deep and varied Christian roots. While Original Sin might be a notion primarily associated with the theological traditions of Catholicism (and perhaps Eastern Orthodoxy as well), Protestants too view the redemptive work of Christ as the antidote to the problems of human sinfulness as embodied in Adam’s fall from grace. I have no idea the extent to which the problem of physical death figures into these Christian anthropologies (though I assume that the at least some connection between Adam and Eve’s transgression and our collective mortal nature is implicit in most if not all Christian traditions). But my sense is that the link between physical death and the Fall enjoys a unique theological focus and valency in Mormon thought.
It isn’t just an idiosyncrasy, either. Mormon scripture — particularly certain passages from the Book of Mormon — ascribes our mortality to our fallen nature, and our fallen nature to our first parents’ expulsion from God’s presence in the Garden. And there is also a nice conceptual symmetry involved, with Christ’s Atonement offsetting the effects of Adam’s estrangement from God. According to this model, through Adam, physical and spiritual death came upon humanity. Through Christ, those obstacles are overcome. Physical death — the separation of an independently existing spirit from a flesh-and-bones body — is overcome through Christ’s power to resurrect. Spiritual death — estrangement and separation from God — is overcome through the restorative power and grace of Christ’s atoning power. Plus, as Mormons we claim a distinctively positive, non-suspicious attitude toward bodies. We believe in an embodied, human-like God and that filling the measure of our creation — becoming God-like ourselves — necessitates the presence and possession of an immortal but unquestionably physical, tangible body of flesh-and-bones.
Analysis of Mormon relationships with and theologies of the body could fill dissertations. I’d like to limit the discussion here to one specific Mormon understanding of bodies and death, as it tends to generate particularly interesting consequences in terms of our relationship not only with traditional Christians but with science, modernity, and the wider world in general. My sense is that, when and where it is encountered, Mormon reticence toward biological evolution — particularly toward the evolutionary origins of human beings — is grounded less in literalist or fundamentalist understandings of creation stories (i.e. “it only took 6 days!” or some such) than in a particular understanding of the Fall. If I understand correctly, the logic is as follows:
—Adam’s Fall introduced death into the world.
—Evolutionary theory requires widespread and persistent death for millions of years into the past — indeed, makes death an inseparable part of life.
—Therefore, since there could be no death before Adam introduced it with the Fall, Evolutionary theory simply has it wrong.
Actually, that’s more like Mormon Evolution-Rejection lite. There is a more robust version of the preceding formula:
—Fall introduces death.
—Evolution=death before Adam.
—Christ’s Atoning sacrifice saves us from the consequences of the Fall.
—Therefore, Evolutionary theory removes Christ’s power to save by making death something that pre-exists the Fall.
In other words: Evolution=No Atonement.
It seems to me that this more robust theological proof rises out of a problem with Evolution-Rejection lite. Namely, the ability of Evolution-non-deniers to simply set aside the belief that the Fall first introduced death. Here’s a conversational version of what I have in mind:
Evo-Denier: It is a widely held, scripturally attested truth that there was no death before the Fall. Evolution claims otherwise. So evolution clearly contradicts this important truth.
Evo-Accepter: Well, granted that several well-placed and outspoken men have made that argument, but I guess I’m just comfortable, in the weight of overwhelming scientific evidence (e.g. fossils), setting aside that particular doctrine.
ED: Ah, but you can’t. You see, the Atonement saves us from the consequences of the Fall. If evolution is true, then the Atonement can’t save us from death. You’re not just setting aside the doctrine of the Fall; you’re setting aside the power of the Atonement and Resurrection.
Thus we have two distinctly Mormon and closely related theological arguments against human evolution, one grounded in the Fall, and one that presses the first into the service of an argument about the Atonement and Resurrection. In the interests of consumer protection, I should disclose that, while I personally find both arguments wholly unconvincing (about which more below), I find this line of reasoning much more compelling and interesting than, for example, a stubborn, from-my-cold-dead-hands attachment to a literal, 6-day reading of Genesis 1. That said, I offer 2 objections to this line of thinking.
1. This arises from a problem of definitions. Biology and Mormon theology define death in very different terms. When “death” carries a salvific or soteriological connotation it means the separation of the physical body from the spirit. Biology, on the other hand, defines death in, well, biological terms. This is actually far more complicated than it might appear at first glance. There is no perfect, clear definition of what constitutes biological life or death, but something like the presence of both metabolic and reproductive activities would be a good starting point. Death, meanwhile, in purely biological terms would probably mean something like the permanent cessation of metabolic processes along with the onset of decomposition. Furthermore, death is a reality and fact not just at the level of complex animal organisms, but also plants and even (perhaps especially) at the cellular level.
If the verses or authoritative statements about the relationship between death and the Fall carry the former (soteriological as opposed to biological) meaning, then they are not at all problematic for those who accept Evolutionary theory. They simply assert that no biological organism that was conjoined with a pre-existent spirit had ever been uncoupled from that spirit (at least in this world) before Adam and Eve experienced the cognitive, dietary, lifestyle, life-history, and ecological changes associated with expulsion from God’s presence. And, assuming that Adam and Even had, say, hair and fingernails, then we know with certainty that death existed on at least a cellular level (to say nothing of all that digested fruit which they freely ate…).
Bringing up the question of cellular death is not hair-splitting either, as it gets directly to the larger question. If we’re inclined to think that death at the level of a complex organism is more significant in the grand scheme of things than the death of a single cell (or that human death is more significant than the death of fruit) it is precisely because we more ably conceive of complex, human organisms as having spirits (I recognize this is an oversimplification in a religion that claims Orson Pratt and Cleon Skousen as influential thinkers, but whatever…). Saying that the Fall introduced for humankind the insoluble problem of spirits severed from bodies is both good logical sense (since there is no mention of infusing a physical body with a spirit before the story of Adam’s own creation), and has nothing whatsoever to do with the claims that evolutionary theory makes about biological death.
2. Even if you set aside objection 1, I have a really hard time with the logic that makes evolution into a disavowal of the Atonement. That argument rests, as far as I can see, on one crucial yet wildly absurd axiomatic claim: that Christ has power over death only if death came about as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s choice. If death is merely an omnipresent, inescapable fact of life, of existence in the universe, then somehow Christ’s power over it means less than if it is a mere aberration, an unfortunate outcome of particular, contingent events, that is really the exception to the rule. Purveyors of this argument accuse those who do not ignore the fossil record or the basic facts of modern biology of sapping the power of the Atonement. In reality, their own argument saps its power by limiting its scope to the specific consequences of specific human choices. The Savior on whom I rely for exaltation does have power over something as universal and inescapable as death, even a death whose own power is not limited to the probationary period initiated by that fateful choice Adam and Eve made (and we all make) to transgress the boundaries of their innocent, static little paradise.
Although it seems like it, this post is not really about human evolution. It is an effort, using worn out anti-evolution arguments as a foil, to examine some of the central elements of Mormonism in light of the ever increasing and illuminating knowledge furnished by modern science. What do we mean by “death” when we assert that Christ’s power to resurrect means overcoming it? How do our biology and biological history — which determine so much of who and what we are — fit into the great plan of happiness, into our notions of divine heritage, of atonement, and of exaltation?