This is a follow-up to “The Age of the Earth” post, although I suppose that one was really laying the groundwork for this one. This is where everything comes to a head (like the one shown here). Was there death before the Fall of Adam and Eve? It is a very delicate question, because there are very strong feelings on many sides of the issue, some of which may have tremendous gospel implications as well. So here we will tread lightly, and attempt to not make any dogmatic conclusions. I’m not sure I have any besides. These are simply some first impressions on the subject. Because that is the case, we will ask more questions here than we attempt to answer in any substantial way.
This is a point of presumed doctrine in LDS belief that causes consternation for many members. Similar to the age of the Earth question, it causes cognitive dissonance for some, insofar that some even lose their faith in the Church, and even leave the Church. I perceive that this should not be. There are answers, even if preliminary, to most of these difficult questions. It should also be noted that questions such as these are not necessarily central to the gospel, nor to our salvation, but they do affect some people’s ability to function in the Church because of the cognitive dissonance it causes them.
The belief, as I introduced above, is that there was no death before the Fall of Adam and Eve. No death, period. On the other hand, the world and its legions of scientists of all stripes inform us that there were dinosaurs, dating back 230 million years, with bones scattered in all parts of the world (one of the largest caches is located right here in Vernal, Utah). There were trilobites, perhaps the most common fossil, dating back 526 million years (again, one of the richest quarries is just west of Delta, Utah, where you can actually “farm” for trilobites to take home.) There were ancient forests, plant life, zooplankton, and algae, dating back millions of year, which helped give us the crude oil that powers much of our world today. There are even bones of hominids that used stone tools that most scientists concur died a couple million years ago. Indeed, there are even bones of anatomically modern humans that have been dated to up to 200,000 years old (see the image above).
So something is going on here. There are several options: either the majority of scientists are just plain wrong (which is not likely), or the Church is just plain wrong (which is not likely), or there is another explanation somewhere in the middle. I don’t usually like to side with extremes, as the truth usually falls somewhere in the middle. For these, there must be other answers. But before answers, questions.
First of all, I think we need to parse the question about Adam and Eve a little better, if we have any hope of coming to answers:
- What is death?
- To whom did it apply?
- What is the Fall?
- When did the Fall happen?
- Who are Adam and Eve?
- What was the Garden of Eden?
I don’t propose to have all the answers to these questions, but present them as points of pondering when we come upon this issue. Also notice that most times the conclusion is not simply that there was “no death before the Fall,” but much more specifically that there was “no death anywhere on Earth, ever, in any species of life, animal or plant, prior to Adam and Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit and thereby causing the Fall of all life on planet Earth from an immortal to mortal state, as well as other changes, which happened nearly precisely at 4000 B.C.” There is quite a difference between those two conclusions, but we don’t often talk about it in those terms. So another question could be, which question are we asking; is it the former or the latter? Unless we know the question, it’s hard to find answers. I perceive the latter proposal includes many details that are not part of Church doctrine (e.g. what if we find existence of life on Mars? Did the Fall include other planets in our solar system, or our Earth only?), and there may be interpretations of the former that also have no part of Church doctrine. Factoring these things in, we may be able to come to tentative answers to the question that allows for science to exist alongside faith.
As I noted in my last post, the prophet Brigham Young declared:
In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular… whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:166, May 14, 1871.)
I think this is key, and will come back to it several times. Of course, Brigham Young is not the only one that has said such things, but he did often expound on the relationship between religion and science. “Our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.” That’s a profound statement, and one that should prompt us to search for answers in the present question. In step with President Young we might add this statement by Elder James E. Talmage, which is even carved upon his grave’s headstone:
Within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known. The Gospel is not behind the times, on the contrary it is up-to-date and ever shall be… Believe not those who assert that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in any way opposed to progress or inconsistent with advancement. (“The Earth and Man“)
Of course, we may not know the true facts, but as it stands there is much that we do know to say we have very plausible evidence to support the conclusion that there has been life and death on this planet for a long time, a very long time. But how to square that with the Church?
Let’s start with the dating of the Fall. Do we know when the Fall took place? I conceive that we don’t, and that there is no Church doctrine or revelation that says we know this. If you turn to the chronology of dates in the Bible Dictionary, for instance, you will note that it shows the Fall of Adam at 4000 B.C., but there is a big disclaimer that goes along with it:
For the earliest parts of O.T. history we rely entirely on the scripture itself; but the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint or Greek translation, and the Samaritan Pentateuch do not agree together, so that many dates cannot be fixed with certainty. (Those desiring calculated dates on these events may wish to consult published chronologies.)
There is no consensus on these very early dates. They cannot be fixed. There is even a note to consult third-party chronologies to get a better picture. Once we go back that far, dates and times and years all become very symbolic of time periods, eras, and divisions, not of exact years, as we saw in the age of the Earth post. There were not historians keeping precise calendars that we can turn to (or if there were, we have not found them yet). The Fall of Adam and Eve could have taken place in 40,000 B.C. or even 400,000 B.C. for all we know (although that does bring up more questions about genealogical lines and lineages mentioned in scripture). God has not revealed the date of the Fall, as the Bible Dictionary notes, “we rely entirely on the scripture itself.” And the scripture itself we know does not need to be taken at literal face value in these things.
One reason for the 4000 B.C. dating may be the simple fact that we only have recorded history that dates back to about 4000 B.C. But just because we don’t have extant writing from before that doesn’t preclude man’s existence. The scripture we have today, from Adam all the way down until about the time of David, is all very vague and uncertain when it comes to dates and times, and that particular time period supposedly covers about 3000 years of history! How long things took during that time, we just don’t know.
Let’s turn for a moment to the scriptures, those in particular where we believe that we are taught that there was no death before the Fall. Let’s begin by looking at 2 Nephi 2:22-25, probably one of the most cited scriptures on this issue:
And now, behold, 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. (verse 22)
This is the great hypothetical. If Adam had not transgressed, he would not have fallen. That makes sense; it was the transgression which caused the Fall. He would have remained in the garden otherwise. He was kicked out of the garden because of the transgression. Here is the kicker: “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.” That’s quite a mouthful. But what does it mean? Well, as we’ve seen, many have taken it to believe that there was no death before the Fall of Adam. This is an interesting conclusion, however, for a number of reasons. The verse doesn’t talk about life or death. It doesn’t even mention those words. It says that “all things” which were created would have stayed in the “same state” in which they were after they were created, forever.
What are “all things”? And what does “same state” mean? I perceive that there are no clear answers to these questions. All things may be that which pertained to Adam and Eve only, which to them included the Garden of Eden, and nothing more. They knew nothing else. That was their world. It was everything they knew, and which God concerned himself most particularly. Once the creation is completed, it is only the garden we are told about, as the scriptures focus us in. It doesn’t say “all things on the Earth” or “all things in the whole of God’s creation.” Furthermore, what does “same state” mean? There were a lot of things going on in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. It was not a frozen static place. It was quite dynamic, with life abounding (perhaps more than anywhere else on earth since), and Adam and Eve were tending to it, and taking care of it all. So in some sense, being in the “same state” does not include activity, life, and change. Yes, Adam and Eve may certainly have been immortal in that place, for the Fall brought mortality. But was it mortality for them only, or the whole of creation? Where does one thing end and the other begin? We know that God has made worlds without number, so at some point this change from immortality to mortality was confined to a localized region. But we are not told to what, in this scripture. This scripture seems to be only telling us about Adam (and presumably Eve), and what was going on with them in the garden. The garden is what’s on stage.
And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. (verse 23)
Continuing the hypothetical situation presented to us, of Adam not having transgressed, here we learn that Adam & Eve would not have had children in that condition. Procreation, at least for “they,” Adam and Eve, was conditioned on their becoming fallen and mortal; we’re not told why. Again, this seems to be specific to Adam and Eve; we are not told about the procreation of other life, even other life in the garden. Next we are told they “would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” There’s that word “state” again. I wonder if there is a connection to the previous verse of “remaining in the same state,” and if this is an explication of that preceding verse. Perhaps this is telling us what “same state” means; whether this is the full extent of what it means, we are not told. In any case, we are told that Adam and Eve would have remained in a state of innocence, including joylessness, stagnancy, and ignorance.
But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (verses 24-25)
God had a plan. He knew what to do to set things in motion. Adam’s transgression was a necessary step in the plan of salvation to get all the wheels turning. It is because of the Fall that Adam and Eve were able to have children, the posterity of all mankind, and that we might ultimately experience a fullness of joy.
These are the main scriptures that most point to as evidence of no death before the Fall. As we’ve noted, they don’t necessarily talk about life, death, or what came before the Fall, although they might allude to those things. Specifically, they teach us that Adam and Eve were in an innocent state within the garden, and they would have continued in that state if they had not fallen. But they did fall, and that was the tipping point for the plan of salvation of God’s children to proceed forward.
There are other scriptures on this subject:
And he said unto them: Because that Adam fell, we are; and by his fall came death; and we are made partakers of misery and woe. (Moses 6:48)
Here we are told much the same thing, that because Adam fell, we came into being. Additionally, we are told that by his fall came death. But we are not told to whom death came. It likely applies to Adam and his posterity, as the balance of the verse alludes, “we” are made partakers of misery and woe. But we don’t know if it is more widespread than that.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:21-22)
Here again, we are talking about Adam, and by his becoming fallen he became subject to death, as did we. And it is by Christ that we will be resurrected from the dead to live again. It doesn’t say anything about anything outside of Adam and his posterity.
In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Gen. 2:17; Moses 3:17)
If Adam partook of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he was told that we would surely die. This is true. Note he is told “in the day” he partook, he would die. Again, days to the Lord are not the same as to man, and this is most likely a period of time, or symbolic of a passage of time, rather than a 24 hour day, as I discussed in my previous post. Adam (and Eve) would die, eventually.
And death hath come upon our fathers; nevertheless we know them, and cannot deny, and even the first of all we know, even Adam. (Moses 6:45)
Again, death came upon Adam, and those children who followed after him, because of the Fall. Nothing is told to us outside of that. Nothing is mentioned about the animals, or trees, or plant life, etc.
And now behold, I say unto you that if it had been possible for Adam to have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life at that time, there would have been no death, and the word would have been void, making God a liar, for he said: If thou eat thou shalt surely die. And we see that death comes upon mankind, yea, the death which has been spoken of by Amulek, which is the temporal death; nevertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead. (Alma 12:23-24)
This is a very interesting scripture. It tells us that if Adam had partaken of the fruit of the tree of life (the other tree) that the effects of the Fall would not have taken place, there would have been no death. No death to whom? The scripture continues to say it is because God told Adam that if he partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that he would surely die. So the “no death” in the first of the verse seems to be limited here to Adam, and what he began. Adam, and he only (and perhaps Eve), it seems would not have experienced death. Indeed, in the next sentence we are told that “and we see that death comes upon mankind.” Mankind. Death came upon the men and women that proceeded forth from Adam and Eve. Nothing is noted here about other life on Earth, either before or after Adam and Eve. This is focused within the scope of Adam and his people, his progeny.
There may be other scriptures, but these are most of them that pertain to this subject of Adam and death and the Fall. As you might see, there is nothing really specific here about what was going on with life outside the garden, before or after Adam. We simply are not told those things. They are off stage, so to speak, even in a different sphere of time and space. These scriptures seem to be focused on Adam, and the effects of the Fall on him, and his descendants, only.
It is interesting to note that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden they entered a very different place, with very different rules. There was a significant transition to this sphere. Here they were to till the ground (Moses 4:29; Gen. 3:23), something which they had previously not done. Life was quite different than that which they had experienced in the garden. Cursed would be the ground for their sake, they would experience sorrow, child bearing would become an ordeal, they would encounter thorns and thistles, and by their own sweat would they eat their daily bread (Moses 4:22-25; Gen. 3:16-19). The question arises, what was life like outside of the garden while Adam and Eve were still in it? We are not told. All we know is that the Garden of Eden was a localized space, a region, a place that Adam and Eve could be inside, and then had to leave. There must have been some sort of demarcation, limit, or border to Eden, outside of which was a different world.
What about official publications of the Church which teach there was no death before the Fall? The Bible Dictionary, for example, notes that there was “no sin, no death, and no children among any of the earthly creations,” before the Fall. Additionally, “After Adam fell, the whole creation fell and became mortal.” Furthermore, it notes that death was “introduced into the world by the fall of Adam… 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.” Again, in the Guide to the Scriptures that “The Fall brought mortality and death to the earth.”
These seem to be conclusive on the subject, and we might stop here. But they’re not. In the introduction to the Bible Dictionary it is noted:
[The Bible Dictionary] is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth.
It is a guide, but not a final word. It is not “official or revealed” word. Robert J. Matthews, who was involved in the development of the study aids for the scriptures in the 1970s, said much the same thing:
The new Bible dictionary is not intended as a revealed treatment or official version of doctrinal, historical, cultural, chronological, and other matters found in the Bible. (Robert J. Matthews, “Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition,” Ensign (June 1982), 48.)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie also noted this about the “Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazetteer, 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. (Mark McConkie (editor), Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1989), 290.)
These study aids provided with our scriptures are not part of the scriptures themselves. As Elder McConkie noted, they do not determine doctrine, and there may be mistakes. They are to be used as “aids and helps only.” So even though these statements from the Bible Dictionary and elsewhere may sound conclusive, they simply are not.
What about what is included in the Gospel Principles manual, an official publication of the Church? The Gospel Principles manual repeats, almost word for word, what is found in the scriptures which we’ve already cited. It says that before the Fall, “there was no death.” Interestingly, this is included in the section speaking of the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, it is said, quoting the scripture from 2 Nephi, that Adam and Eve “would have had no children,” and that the Fall brought them mortality and physical death. As we’ve seen above, these things can certainly be true, but mean different things. In another part of the manual it notes that “The Fall of Adam brought two kinds of death into the world: physical death and spiritual death.” Here it says that these types of death were were brought “into the world.” That seems to connote the entire earth again. But again, the scriptures which speak of these things do not talk about the entire earth, but are localized to speaking of Adam and Eve. We are not told, explicitly, about the rest of creation.
In the introduction to the Gospel Principles manual it notes:
Gospel Principles was written both as a personal study guide and as a teacher’s manual… The most important things you will ever teach are the doctrines of Christ as revealed through the scriptures and modern prophets and as confirmed by the Holy Ghost.
It does not say the doctrines are revealed through the manual, although the manual might be used to help us learn the doctrines:
Before you teach from a chapter, study it thoroughly to be sure you understand the doctrine… Teach only what is supported by the scriptures, the words of latter-day prophets and apostles, and the Holy Spirit… Stay true to the scriptures and the words in the book.
I take this to understand that much of our doctrine can be found in the Gospel Principles book, but it isn’t revealed there. Doctrine is revealed through the scriptures, and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles, and through the Holy Spirit.
Ok, so what have prophets and apostles taught us? There have been many things said by Church leaders, mostly by apostles, to the effect that there was no death before the Fall for any living organism on Earth. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and even the First Presidency (apostles), such as President Harold B. Lee, President Marion G. Romney, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and Elder Boyd K. Packer. On this I would simply refer to what the Church itself has said regarding the words of individuals in Church leadership:
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. (LDS Newsroom, “Approaching Mormon Doctrine,” lds.org (4 May 2007) http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/approaching-mormon-doctrine)
The teachings that the individual members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles give us can be considered “personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.” Furthermore, “with divine inspiration, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together to establish doctrine.” Not everything that is said by each of our leaders should be construed to be incontrovertible doctrine, binding upon us as a whole people, as members of the Church. That which is established as doctrine will come as divine inspiration which is agreed upon in counsel together by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and which is found in the scriptures, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Of course, these individuals can expound doctrines that have already been revealed and found consensus, and they often do.
At this point, lets look into some hints that we don’t truly know exactly the order of operations in the garden, or outside of it, before the Fall of Adam and Eve, views which have been forwarded by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as well as trusted Church scholars, which gives us comfort in believing that we do not have all the answers as of yet on this issue. The jury is still out.
First, let’s look again at the scriptures themselves, one of the very sources of our doctrine, as we’ve noted above. Here we find some interesting details:
And I, the Lord God, commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat… (Moses 3:16; Abraham 5:12; Gen. 2:16)
Furthermore, Eve is noted as saying:
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden… (Gen. 3:2; Moses 4:8)
In another place it is noted:
And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food… (Gen. 2:9; Abraham 5:9; Moses 3:9)
And the Gods said: Behold, we will give them every herb bearing seed that shall come upon the face of all the earth, and every tree which shall have fruit upon it; yea, the fruit of the tree yielding seed to them we will give it; it shall be for their meat.
And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, behold, we will give them life, and also we will give to them every green herb for meat, and all these things shall be thus organized. (Abraham 4:29-30; Gen. 1:29-30; Moses 2:29-30)
All of these scriptures seem to make it clear that there was food in the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve to eat, even the fruit of trees and herbs (likely including vegetables). Indeed, they could, and likely did, partake regularly of the fruit of the tree of life. The odd thing is, we don’t understand how this eating could have happened. Today, when we eat of fruit or vegetables, that flesh dies within our gut, so that it may be broken down into its life-sustaining parts, and absorbed by the physical body. Fruits and vegetables cannot live through the digestion process, inasmuch as we understand it. So the big questions are, did the fruit and vegetables die that Adam and Eve were eating within the garden before the Fall? Why did they need to eat if they were immortal? Why did Christ show he could eat fish and honeycomb after his resurrection (if there were any other reason than showing his corporeality)? Do immortal beings still eat, and if yes, why, how, and what do they eat? Did the fruit trees and vegetable plants continue to produce fruit and vegetables unending in the garden, or did new fruit trees and vegetable plants (especially in the case of vegetable plants where most of the plant is destroyed in order to be eaten) grow up in their place to continue to provide food to Adam and Eve? If Adam and Eve were eating them, then it sounds like the plants would need to procreate to continue to make as much in the stead of the eaten ones.
So what about procreation? Consider these scripture:
And I, the Lord God, planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there I put the man whom I had formed. And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man… And I, the Lord God, planted the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and also the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Moses 3:8-9; Gen. 2:8-9; Abraham 5:8-9)
These are very agriculturally-oriented verses of scripture. It sounds like God came down, and went to work planting seeds in the ground. He didn’t make the trees to suddenly appear, but allowed them to grow, even “naturally,” suggesting that there was a lengthy process involved. It should be noted that the word “naturally” is an addition in Joseph’s revelation of the Book of Moses, and is not present in the Genesis record, nor in the Book of Abraham. Were these seeds, and their subsequent plants, immortal? Or could they multiply (i.e. procreate)?
And the Gods said: Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass; the herb yielding seed; the fruit tree yielding fruit, after his kind, whose seed in itself yieldeth its own likeness upon the earth; and it was so, even as they ordered.
And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth grass from its own seed, and the herb to bring forth herb from its own seed, yielding seed after his kind; and the earth to bring forth the tree from its own seed, yielding fruit, whose seed could only bring forth the same in itself, after his kind; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed…
And the Gods said: Behold, we will give them every herb bearing seed that shall come upon the face of all the earth, and every tree which shall have fruit upon it; yea, the fruit of the tree yielding seed to them we will give it; it shall be for their meat. (Abraham 4:11-12, 29; Gen. 1:11-12, 29; Moses 2:11-12, 29)
Trees yielding fruit yielding seed sounds like procreation. Indeed, all of creation is told, nay commanded, to multiply, be fruitful, and fill the earth (Gen. 1:22; Moses 2:22; Abraham 4:22). But the jury is still out in what this means, for Adam and Eve were also told they could also multiply, be fruitful, and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:28; Moses 2:28; Abraham 4:28), but this was before they had fallen, so they could not have children, as discussed above. All of these questions have answers that have not been revealed, but the questions are present nonetheless, which allow much room for varying belief.
Where there is no revelation, there is no doctrine. It is my current opinion that there is no official doctrine that outlines in precision all the details of whether there was no life and death before the Fall of Adam and Eve. There are no definitive answers to the questions presented above, in the gospel, in the revelations that have heretofore been given. This means that there is a range of belief that is allowed within the gospel plan as we currently have it. One of the things that is perhaps the most comforting in all of this is that there has been significant disagreement even among the highest counsels of the Church on these issues. What does that tell us? As we learned above, it is only where the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together with divine inspiration and there is consensus that they can establish “doctrine.” Issues where there is not a consensus among the brethren may often “represent a personal, though well-considered, opinion” of that Church leader.
Some time ago, there was a debate between Elder Brigham H. Roberts and Elder Joseph Fielding Smith on the subject of “pre-Adamites,” and part of their discussion also focused on whether there was death before the Fall. It was brought to the attention of the First Presidency, who asked Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to give a talk in the Tabernacle on the subject, entitled “The Earth and Man,” on a Sunday, August 9, 1931, was published in the Deseret News in 1931, and as a Church pamphlet in 1931, and later re-published again several decades later in The Instructor in 1965-1966. I highly recommend this talk to those who may be interested in these issues. In it, Elder Talmage asks many of the same sorts of questions as I have above, indicating as I have that we do not have their answers. Elder Talmage also addresses some of the questions I talked about in regards to the age of the Earth. But as to the present subject, Elder Talmage gave his opinion on the matter, over the pulpit, even in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, as an apostle and under the direction from the First Presidency: ((It should also be noted that Elder James E. Talmage is the only individual to my knowledge who was granted to write a book while inside a temple, even Jesus the Christ, while working in a study room in the Salt Lake Temple, a book which is still seen as one of the best studies into the life of Jesus Christ.))
…for by the scriptural record itself we learn of stage after stage, age after age of earth processes by which eventually this planet became capable of supporting life — vegetable, animal and human in due course…
But this we know, for both revealed and discovered truth, that is to say both scripture and science, so affirm — that plant life antedated animal existence and that animals preceded man as tenants of earth.
According to the conception of geologists the earth passed through ages of preparation, to us unmeasured and immeasurable, during which countless generations of plants and animals existed in great variety and profusion and gave in part the very substance of their bodies to help form certain strata which are still existent as such. [This was written before the introduction of radioactive isotope dating techniques.]
The oldest, that is to say the earliest, rocks thus far identified in land masses reveal the fossilized remains of once living organisms, plant and animal. The coal strata, upon which the world of industry so largely depends, are essentially but highly compressed and chemically changed vegetable substance. 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.
This is profound. Here is an apostle, even a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, knowing everything about science and the gospel as he did, who believed that there were plants and animals who lived and died, age after age, before man ever was placed on the Earth. Indeed, he speaks of the creation of simple forms of life before more complex ones. Furthermore, Elder Talmage agreed as Brigham Young did, that science cannot be diametrically opposed to the gospel:
In due course came the crowning work of this creative sequence, the advent of man! Concerning this all-important event we are told that scientists and theologians are at hopeless and irreconcilable variance. I regard the assumption or claim, whichever it be, as an exaggeration. Discrepancies that trouble us now will diminish as our knowledge of pertinent facts is extended. The creator has made record in the rocks for man to decipher; but He has also spoken directly regarding the main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts can not be fundamentally opposed; one can not contradict the other; though man’s interpretation of either may be seriously at fault.
This is also fascinating. Do we have irreconcilable differences between science and religion? Elder Talmage doesn’t think so. It is not irreconcilable or hopeless! Those who believe as much are exaggerating. Discrepancies will diminish as our knowledge is extended. The records in the rocks and the records given by inspiration through prophets cannot be fundamentally opposed, they cannot contradict each other. But, man’s interpretation of either (the scientific record, or the revelations given through prophets) may be seriously at fault. We may not understand the science, or we may not understand the revelations. One of these is the source of the dissonance, or perhaps a little of both.
Elder Talmage notes that the scriptures are not meant to be a scientific text book, as I also noted in my previous post:
Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we can not explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science.
Elder Talmage also makes some comments about evolution as well, but that is outside the scope of this present discussion. Again, I highly recommend his talk to anyone who wants to delve deeper into these subjects, or who may be struggling to reconcile these issues. Elder Talmage was one of the best scientists the Church has had in leadership, and his thoughts on these subjects are worth studying, as are all Church leaders before and after him.
A year after this talk, Elder Talmage wrote a letter in which he again explained his views:
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.
These are some of the same views we’ve explored in this post, views with which Elder Talmage, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was quite comfortable.
At the time Elder Talmage made his remarks, the First Presidency issued this instruction 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.” (First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7. Emphasis added.)
Elder Talmage upon receiving this memorandum 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. (James Edward Talmage, Personal Journal (7 April 1931) 29:42, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (emphasis added).)
A more recent survey on the subject was presented by Church scholar Hugh Nibley, who is considered one of the best scholars of the Church in the past century. He once wrote a paper on “Before Adam,” which you would do well to read, in which he gives some of the same perspectives as Elder Talmage:
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.
One of my family, who strongly believes there was not any kind of death anywhere before the Fall, framed the issue very well, I think, and is a view I wholeheartedly agree with.
I don’t need to know the “How” of creation right now. What processes of life took place before the Fall I do not know, but I do believe that those processes were different before the Fall than after the Fall otherwise there was no Fall. I choose to believe that there was a Fall and important processes of life changed after the Fall. I believe if I am true and faithful to the principles of the gospel that I do know I will someday be allowed to know the “How” of the things I don’t know.
While we may not need to know the particulars of “how” the creation took place, it is good to know that the gospel may in fact “not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.” These two views, sometimes which appear so diametrically opposed to one another, will someday be completely at one, and we will understand perfectly how it all fits together.
(Thanks to FAIR for providing many of the references used in this post.)