Death, the Fall, and Darwin: A More Harmonious Reading, Part 1 of 7

DSCN1646‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!’ snarled Voldemort.
‘You are quite wrong.’ said Dumbledore . . .

—————– Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. p. 718

One of the key challenges in defining a post-Darwinian LDS theology is that of the Fall. The Fall is considered one of the foundational pillars of Mormon doctrine (as Bruce R. McConkie has often argued). This because the Fall is what provides the backdrop for the necessity of the Atonement, another foundational LDS doctrinal pillar.

The received view of the Fall goes something like this. The Earth was created in a paradisiacal state in which Adam and Eve lived in a state of innocence. Satan temps Eve to partake of a forbidden fruit. She gets Adam to partake of the same. Sin and death enter the world. It ‘Falls’ into a new state where physical death reigns, where sin is possible, and unless a redeemer fixes the results of this event mankind must remain in this state. Christ provides the role as redeemer and through the atonement conquers both sin and death, providing the opportunity for repentance of individual sin and for a resurrection of all mankind. In this, the entire LDS plan of salvation pivots on the Atonement, which in turn is necessitated by the Fall.

A literalist reading of the Fall suggests that prior to the Fall physical death had no part in Earth life. While such literalisms are widespread within LDS membership, and in much of the unofficial rhetoric of some past church leaders, such a reading seems untenable in light of current understanding about the way that life has unfolded on Earth. Are literalist readings necessary? I don’t think so, but there has been little work in constructing a conception of the Fall that is both true to its doctrinal necessity and current understanding of how life on Earth has unfolded. There is a temptation to resist a scriptural reading informed by science, because science is by construction provisional. However, I would argue that all hermeneutical frameworks, of which science is just one, are provisional and must be renegotiated in light of information, perspectives, and facts that present themselves within the current horizon for interpretation. To not do this is lose vitality and introduce a kind of fragility that ultimately collapses the entire structure for some people.

My task today is to lay the framework for a reading of LDS scripture that is both true to the text and to the world we see unfolding through modern scientific enterprise. Why we should take any stock in the scientific worldview has been outlined in many of my previous posts and I invite you to look at those if you are uncomfortable granting science any relevance to theological interpretation. Here I take for granted that this is a worthy task to attempt to ground scripture in the physical realities that have been uncovered in the last two-hundred years and are robust enough, I argue, that to ignore them can only be called irrational.

Here is what I hope to do in outline. I will begin by exploring the use of the word death in Paul’s letter to the Romans, this will give context to the ways that the word ‘death’ can be used in the scriptures. This will set the stage for reading Book of Mormon Scriptures in 2 Nephi and Alma 12 that explicitly explore the Fall. A useful way to start is considering Badiou’s concept of an ‘event.’ I will then argue with Meillassoux that the typical view of God as absolute is incoherent. In fact I will argue here are no absolutes, including the common Plotinian readings of God as the ‘One,’ or as the ‘Uncaused Cause,’ which are inappropriate for Mormon views. Including the placeholder God in which God is envisioned as a position filled by persons who have acquired necessary attributes to instantiate what is essentially the same structure that plays the same role as the ‘One’ in Neo-Platonic conception of deity, except with holes that have to plugged in with physical persons.

Good Mormon Doctrine seems to be based more on a God that is much more contingent, much more temporal, and as I’ll argue much more emergent than the NeoPlotinic God that some keep trying to slip back into our theology. I will hear draw on Adam Miller’s important new book to show how an object oriented ontology seems more appropriate to Mormonism than classic borrowings from classic Trinitarianism. I will propose a conception of ontology that not only allows for an evolutionary history, but requires it, and which sees the Fall as the entry of the possibility for human agency into the universe and its attendant accidents and opportunities. This suggests a new understanding of Christ’s atonement as an unfolding of a kind of ecological niche construction of grace toward agential behavior.

This is pure Adam Milleresqe Goldberging. I do not offer this as a suggestion of what I believe, but as speculation on directions that might prove fruitful in Mormon Theology that more fully engages with what we’ve discovered about the world. I plan to post about every three days. Feel free to chime in as we go.

Part II: Roman Legions of Death!


  1. “The Earth was created in a parasitical state…” Autocorrect has freudian slips too!

  2. Nice, Steve — I can’t wait for more!

  3. Hi Gary!

  4. SteveP says:

    Ha! Nice catch, binarysearchtree, fixed but somehow the other seems appropriate too!

  5. Any book that is talking about “dumbledore” on page 718(!) worries me just a bit. Is that the fate worse than death?

  6. Peter LLC says:

    I see what you did there with nod to the Egger-Lienz!

  7. Peter LLC says:

    Well, that came out sounding like I’ve yet to master the definite article.

  8. I’m just impressed that you know up front that there will be seven parts to this.

  9. Peter, I was waiting for someone to see that!

  10. If the power of the atonement can be retroactive (applying to those who were born before there was an atonement as the BoM attests) then the power of the fall can be retroactive,

    That throws some monkey wrenches into our concepts of physical actions and time, but we’re already there anyway.

  11. “and in much of the unofficial rhetoric of some past church leaders”

    Excuse me while I provide two dozen quotes from church leaders and manuals that prove such rhetoric was, in fact, quite official.

  12. SteveP says:

    Casey, We will not be playing my general authority can beat up your general authority here. I’ve debated that over at my blog often enough, but I want to move beyond that and try to explore reconciliations. At BYU we are mandated to teach the science of evolution as it is understood in its full scientific glory. We have one of the finest evolutionary programs around. The monkey gallery that continues to try to cast faithful scientists as unfaithful because they are evolutionary biologists do tremendous harm to students and who wish to study modern biology. If you want to ignore science that is your business. As a last word I will provide the entry on evolution in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism which was approved by President Hinckley show that the church has no stance on Evolution (and which has been abundantly communicated to the BYU Biology faculty). After this any attempt to turn this into a discussion about the evils of evolution as evidenced by cherry picking quotes from the past will be moderated.

    See this page in the original 1992 publication.
    Author: Evenson, William E.
    The position of the Church on the origin of man was published by the First Presidency in 1909 and stated again by a different First Presidency in 1925: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity…. Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes (see Appendix, “Doctrinal Expositions of the First Presidency”).
    The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again (D&C 101:32-33). In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, then consisting of Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter, and concluded, Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to 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….
    Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: “Adam is the primal parent of our race” [First Presidency Minutes, Apr. 7, 1931].
    Evenson, WIlliam E. Review of Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, by Edward J. Larson; Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding, by Trent D. Stephens and D. Jeffrey Meldrum with Forrest B. Peterson. BYU Studies 45:1 (2006):182-189.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    If the power of the atonement can be retroactive (applying to those who were born before there was an atonement as the BoM attests) then the power of the fall can be retroactive

    Kaphor, that is a very interesting concept. Thank you for contributing it – you’ve stretched the boundaries of my thinking.

  14. Fwiw, I read the Fall narrative as a mythological tale of the War in Heaven and its on-going consequences – so, in that sense, I see the Fall as a process of events that made atonement possible. (not just necessary, but possible) In that sense, I also see it as retroactive.

  15. Looking forward to this.

  16. Leonard R. says:

    I look forward to this. While I tend to look at the Fall as representative of our own transition from immortal spirit to mortal flesh, I think there remains value in framing it within the “global” origins of the physical and living world.

  17. As a good Darwinian and a reasonably good Mormon, who could leave the Fall as a Trojan horse? I am really interested in your take.

  18. My apologies if I struck a nerve; I was trying to be funny. Trust me, I am the last person who enjoys reading lengthy lists of GA quotes in support of this or that position, and I look forward to your take on the matter!

  19. Jake Cox says:

    I think John Walton’s recent book, “The Lost World of Genesis One,” is a must-read for anyone seeking to figure out the relationship between Bible-believing religions and evolution. Walton’s thesis is that Genesis 1 is not really about material creation at all, but is a narrative designed to demonstrate that the earth is God’s temple (i.e., among ancient Israelites and others in the ancient near east, the only place a god would ever “rest” — as He does on Day 7 — is in a temple). I don’t have enough knowledge of biblical Hebrew or ancient near eastern culture to know whether Walton’s position is tenable or not, but it gave me a lot to think about.

  20. SteveP says:

    Casey! Yea. You’d be surprised how much of that I actually get.

  21. SteveP says:

    I love Walton’s book. I did a talk at the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology Conference once on it. And yes, I think everyone interested in evolution and Genesis should read that book. Jared* at LDS Science Review does a nice job of reviewing it.

  22. BHodges says:

    looking fwd to this

  23. “In particular, Eagleman, who drapes himself in science by declaring to ‘have devoted my life to scientific pursuit,’ might think of each extant religion as an experiment. Followers of many religions have looked for direct evidence of their beliefs, but (by Eagleman’s own assessment) systematically come up dry. And, crucially, statisticians have shown decisively that a collection of failed efforts weighs more heavily than any single failed effort on its own. The same thing happened, of course, when scientists looked for phlogiston, and cold fusion, too. Nobody has proven cold fusion doesn’t exist, but most scientists would assign a low probability to it because so many attempts at replicating the original have failed. Any agnostic is free to believe that his favorite religion has not yet been completely disproven. But anyone who wishes to bring science into the argument must acknowledge that the evidence thus far is weak, especially when it is combined statistically, in the fashion of a meta-analysis. To emphasize the qualitative conclusion (X has not been absolutely proven to be false) while ignoring the collective weight of the quantitative data (i.e., that most evidence points away from X) is a fallacy, akin to holding out a belief in flying reindeer on the grounds that there could yet be sleighs that we have not yet seen.”


    Admire you ambition, Steve, and will read your work avidly, but don’t really understand the point. Additionally (for what it’s worth) if evidence is found on earth or elsewhere for a second genesis, we’re back not just to square one but square zero, a completely new ball game.

  24. Thanks Ben S. How did I miss that? Very nice discussion in the comments following too!

  25. JasonU says:

    I am interested to see how you utilize am object oriented ontology within a Mormon framework. I do not know much about OOO but I was planning to read Adam’s book, so I am excited for your series to help me figure it out!

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