From The Archives: Death Before The Fall

jesus_and_the_dinosaursIn light of recent discussion (including and perhaps especially the re-rearing of the ugly head of LDS creationist-fundamentalism), I’m reposting something I wrote a couple of years ago.

Death, Mortality, And The Fall

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.

Evo-Denier: 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 approach 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?

[The comment thread for the original post can be accessed here.]


  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.”

    This is perfect. I’ve always like to say that Christ’s atonement necessitates fallenness, not a fall. Certainly not one that occurs in a single moment of apple-eating, after being tricked by a talking snake. I will admit, though, that there is something literarily nice about having Christ as the anti-Adam (1 Cor. 15:22). In any event, D&C 101:32-33 ought to necessitate our all taking a step back and saying “you know, we don’t know everything yet.” Someday there will be a lecture in heaven or whatever titled “How I Made the Earth,” by Jesus. I’d like to sit and watch the reactions of both Bruce R. McConkie and Charles Darwin.

  2. Why do we dispute about these things? You know, we don’t know everything yet [didn’t I hear that recently somewhere? :-) ] I don’t know how the earth was made, but I do know that the most important things we can learn in this life are faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, and charity in the Lord Jesus Christ. The scripture accounts of the creation are for that purpose of building faith, and I appreciate them for that reason. I hope all of us can be charitable towards others, whether they look on creation scientifically or faithfully. Romans chapter 14 offers a good model.

    If those who espouse the science approach will not attack the faith approach, then those who espouse the faith approach would have to defend against and counterattack the science approach. Everyone can be happy.

  3. Oops! If those who espouse the science approach will not attack the faith approach, then those who espouse the faith approach would not have to defend against and counterattack the science approach. Everyone can be happy, if everyone will be charitable.

  4. Because, you know, you can only look at creation scientifically or look at it faithfully. You cannot do both.


  5. I’d like to zero in on the concept of being comfortable in “setting aside” a particular doctrine or theory.
    If evolutionary theory is correct, and we pursue the following course: study it as appropriate in school, apply it as appropriate in research, etc. and “set aside” any evolutionary implications with regard to what happened thousands (millions) of years ago that we can never know in this life; then what “negative” affect can this have on our lives? We apply evolutionary theory and implications to our studies and seek to apply the observed theory to the world around us. But we don’t go any farther than that in setting the prophets at naught (specifically in an area where something has not been revealed to us). We don’t risk stunting our faith in certain areas. Compared with teaching and apply evolution to a certain degree, but no going “whole hog” and declaring it to have more truth than the teachings of modern day Apostles. I believe this is how the vast majority of rank and file latter-day Saints approach the issue. Frankly, this approach appears to be the most humble approach, accepting the good and observed evidence of evolutionary theory, but also accepting there is a lot we just don’t know about the process of the creation and the fall.

    This approach is not easy to delineate and can lead to misunderstanding that we are anti-evolution and deny science.

    Now, the opposing approach, seems to intentionally engage in a battle with the prophets, pitting observed interpretations of evidence (which are tested and pretty solid) against the words of many prophets and their interpretations of scripture and revelation.

    I don’t think there is a whole lot to be gained, as far as increasing our faith, by telling one of the Lord’s authorized servants that we’re just going to “set aside” what they are teaching based on their interpretations in favor of what someone else is teaching, based on their interpretations.

    This may prove frustrating, because a rock (or dna) is hard physical evidence, while scriptures and revelation are messy. But I see no reason why we can’t walk the middle ground, and refuse to adopt the false dichotomy of studying and finding evolution worthwhile while “setting aside” doctrines of the gospel. (or at least down grading or reinterpreting them for others with absolutely no authority to do so)

  6. I don’t really have anything to add except that I love that picture.

  7. @ #5. kaphor very good.

  8. John Taber says:

    In other words, look for harmony. That’s what I’ve tried to do, especially as my knowledge of “both sides”, if you will, has increased. In fact, I’ve found that easier to do. I’m reminded of my agnostic grandfather (a zoologist) who tried to show one of his graduate students that what’s laid out in Genesis does indeed parallel what geologists and biologists have laid out.

  9. You know, given how intensely segments of the Mormon community adhere to literalism, I’m surprised we don’t have a much larger presence in mathematics. Even beyond the common penchant for strict interpretation, mathematicians and Mormons both have an incredible capacity for pretending something is true for long enough to get them through an otherwise sticky situation. How we haven’t produced a Newton, Fourier, or Godel is beyond me. To the point of the OP, however, I once had a missionary companion earnestly suggest, claiming some GA precedence, that all evidence of death before the fall (e.g., fossilized dinosaur bones) were simply remnants from other planets that had been preserved in the reorganization of matter into this world. So it appears there is another option for those perturbed by evolution vs. the fall & Atonement: bat$#*! crazy.

  10. I’m not convinced that religion and science are diametrically opposed. Science is logical and well defined, the fossil record is pretty hard to ignore and religion has a very poor track record of proving science wrong so I tend to embrace the simpler well accepted areas of science as a given while reserving for things like Newtonian physics to eventually be improved by new knowledge. Religion is largely metaphor with some probable translation error mixed in so to me it is much more malleable. Then I like to look expansively for other possibilities that might fit both view points. For instance what exactly is meant by “die” here? Adam walked and talked with God in some kind of immortal state. Wouldn’t an intimate connection to God (assuming it continued) be immortal even while embodied in a mortal body? Even through a physical death? Might “die” mean to be without an intimate connection to God while you learn what mortal life is about? Doesn’t Christ bring an end to this by having intimate connection with the Father while he was mortally embodied? Doesn’t this serve as an example for us to strive for immortality while mortally embodied by obtaining an intimate divine connection and in doing so don’t we transcend the sting of death that we might be changed in a twinkling of an eye?

  11. One interesting theory I heard once on all this is that the 6 “days” of creation correspond to the “six dispensations” that precede the millennium, and that the seventh day, when the earth was sanctified and Eden began, corresponds to the millennium, so the “no death before the fall” concept (or at least a version of it, anyway) can be reconciled with the scientific record on the theory that death could be present during the creation, but banished from the world and the earth turned into a celestial sphere (paradisical glory and all that) when the Lord sanctified the earth after the creation was complete. So, at the time that Adam and Eve entered the garden, before the fall, there was no death (even though there had been before) so there was “no death before the fall.”

    I’m not sure I buy it, because I frankly don’t feel compelled to accept no death before the fall and therefore no need to reconcile it with anything. But I think it’s an interesting look at one way of approaching the issue creatively. (Not just this particular issue of evolution, but the larger issue of real or perceived conflicts or tensions between science and doctrine).

  12. In the movie THE LIFE OF PI, the boy tells two versions of his shipwreck story – both are “true” but one tends towards MYTH while the other tends towards FACTS – but remember, both are “true”. The MYTH version of the story is very useful for teaching principles and encouraging faith – the FACTS version of the story has no practical utility whatsoever. Maybe that’s the way it is with the scriptural creation account – the MYTH version is “true” and is very useful for teaching correct principles and for encouraging faith in the Lord and can be understood by everyone – the FACTS version is “true” insofar as scientists agree and have been able to discern, but it provides no utility in teaching correct principles or encouraging faith, and cannot be understood except by scientists. Maybe that’s why I like the MYTH version of the creation story better. And as Pi said in the movie, if you have two versions of the story and they’re both true, why shouldn’t one select the version that works best?

  13. kaphor has stated my approach much clearer than I could state it myself.

  14. Ji, I love this example. Myth or fiction is a much better medium for teaching principles than dry fact and explains a lot of scripture that tends to be metaphorical or for which little scientific evidence exists.

  15. Some of my thoughts on this matter may be considered mildly interesting (mabey) at

  16. considering that Homo Sapiens has been around for at least 200,000 years I don’t understand why a Savior came just comfortably just 2,000 years ago. Also, it puzzles me that, Joseph Smith, the restorer of the lost truths, at best, completely ignore to explain the origin of humankind by evolution while, at worst, brought us more scriptures double dipping on the faulty bible narrative

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