When people approach with an honest and sincere question, those questions deserve an open and objective answer. Today, I received the following email from an individual who is asking about my own personal perspective on evolution, and more specifically, on the scientific evidence that there are signs of death among plants and animals. This scientific evidence would seem to contradict the notion of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. What follow is the actual email question and then my response to that question:
From Bennion Redd:
I have read your blog a little bit, and I was curious about your position on evolution. Do you believe there was no death before the fall of Adam? How do you respond to scientific evidence that there was death long before the fall of Adam? I am just curious.
First off, thank you for taking the time to read my blog and taking the time to email me your question as to my thoughts on the idea of evolution and whether or not there was death prior to the fall of Adam and Eve. Secondly, I will address each question respectively in order to provide the best possible answer. Bear in mind that the answers provided for you are my own perspectives and not represented as official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What is your position on evolution?
From my own personal studies on the nature and idea of evolution is quite complex in certain aspects. Take for instance; I do believe that our human development has evolved over the many centuries of our existence. How we relate with one another, communicate, organize, and even socialize. Throughout the ages, there is the idea of social evolution where we adapt to the certain changes that come upon us in our lifetime and in the lifetime of our ancestors. This is quite evident in history and human development. More specifically, technology has evolved from what it used to be to what it is today because of human ingenuity and discovery. Evolution of Medicine is far better today than it has been twenty, thirty, a hundred years prior. Development of other sciences has evolved as we begin to understand certain behaviors. The latter has developed into a more problematic than healthy aspect of society. It seems that today many people blame peculiar human traits on psychosis and psychological factors.
Now, as pertaining to naturalistic evolution, I do believe that species have evolved over time. I do not prescribe over to the Darwinian thought of evolution where all things evolved from one single celled organism. However, I do not discredit the scientific evidence that suggests species evolve within species, and sometimes – due to particular involvements – certain species have developed same type of species within that specific family.
Do you believe that there was no death prior to the Fall of Adam?
At one time, I have held the notion that all things would have remained the same if Adam had not fallen. However, as we develop, learn, increase in knowledge, and grow in understanding, our previously held notions tend to become correct and adapted to newer insights. Thus, there are two aspects to this question. First, it presupposes that death of all things would not have come first until the fall of Adam. Second, it presupposes that if there was evidence for death prior to the fall, then how is it possible that death did not exist until after the fall. Since you have asked this question, and then the third one about the scientific evidence regarding death among plants and animals, I will treat them as separate subject matters.
I first appeal to the account of Genesis, Romans 5, 2 Nephi 2, Moses, and Abraham.
In Genesis, we have the creation of the world, the garden, and humanity. Our Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, gave two very distinct commandments to Adam. The first was that he and Eve would multiply and replenish the earth. The second referred to the partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What is interesting here is that the consequences that would befall Adam would be death.
It is when we come to the scene were Adam and Eve did partake of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, that their eyes were open and they were like God to know Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17). This act of disobedience and transgression of the second commandment given to them by Heavenly Father brought upon them the realization that they were naked, and that they had broken the law of God. Our Heavenly Father even declared that man had just attained the knowledge of Good and evil that he possessed by stating that behold, the man has become like one of us (Genesis 3:22).
The consequence of Adam’s original transgression brought about two consequences. The first being mortal death. The second consequence is spiritual death. We do know that Adam and Eve did not die that instant, physically. However, there was a transformation from immortality to mortality. This is self-evident in the following passage of Genesis on preventing Adam and Eve of partaking of the Tree of Life:
Lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore, the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken (Genesis 3:22b-23)
Adam and Eve were created as physical beings that possessed an immortal incorruptible body. We know this because of the creation account given about Adam and Eve. Thus, their spiritual death was not merely a death where they were subsequently separated from God, but that they also died spiritual in passing from immortal existence to mortal existence. In this respect, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 5 teaches that because of Adam’s transgression and disobedience, death reigned from Adam on down through the ages.
Thus, to answer the question of whether or not death began after the fall of Adam, we have to understand that mortality began with the spiritual death of Adam and Eve because of their transgression. In this sense, and the simple meaning of the answer is that Adam brought about mortal death. The consequences of possessing knowledge of Good and Evil because of the disobedience in partaking of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jewish Scholars, in the Jewish Publication Society Bible, refer to Genesis 2:26-17 as teaching a figure of speech – meaning:
16-17: Knowledge of good and bad may be a merism, a figure of speech in which polar opposites denote a totality (like heaven and earth in 1:1). But knowledge can have an experiential, not only an intellectual, sense in biblical Heb, and “good and bad” can mean either “weal and woe” or “moral good and moral evil”. The forbidden tree offers an experience that is both pleasant and painful; it awakes those who partake of it to the higher knowledge and to the pain that both come with moral choice.
Moral agency, moral accountability, and volition of the human will are all tied into the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 2 Nephi delves into the purpose behind why we have moral agency and accountability. Summarizing the lengthy text, we understand this to mean that without the fall of Adam and Eve, they would have remained in a situation of innocence, ignorance, and being naïve about the world around them. They would not have any knowledge about the pains and joys of life. Many evangelical critics counter this stating that it is nonsense to hold such a view. However, it is one of those things that is self-evident.
The cliché example would be that a child does not understand, nor psychologically associate why the parent tells them not to touch the hot stove. What does the child do? Reach out, touches the hot stove, and acquires a painful knowledge as to why the parent had been protective of the child not touching it in the first place. This means, we gain knowledge through our human experiences in this life. Like the child, if Adam and Eve had not reached out and touched the stove (partaking of the forbidden fruit), they would not have known the pain associated with it.
Thus, mortal death did not exist prior to Adam and Eve because it is tied into the fall. Does this mean that death, in a more general sense, did not exist prior to Adam and Eve? The answer is found in chapter 2 of a book titled: Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant. The second chapter of this book focuses on the Creation account as it is recorded in the Book of Abraham. The title of this chapter is Astronomy and the Creation in the Book of Abraham. The subheading that is relevant to this particular discussion is that of was there death among plants and animals before the fall.
LDS Scholar B.H. Roberts held the position that death existed between plant and animal life prior to the fall. This belief and perception is congruent with what your second question is asking. Joseph Fielding Smith (who later became President and Prophet of the LDS Church) disagreed with the notion that there existed death among plants and animals. It was a controversial dispute that was brought before the then First Presidency of the Church and the conclusion was that there is no official Church doctrine in regards to whether or not death existed among the plants and animals prior to the fall.
We then have another great Latter-day Saint apologist – James T. Talmage, and he spoke on this very issue. Being a geologist by profession, made this statement (that is quoted in the text referenced above):
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 on earth … These [plants and animals] lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation. (Original Source: Talmage, "The Earth and Man," 474—75)
Hence, when we answer this question, we have to be specific to reference that Death did exist among the plants and animals prior to the fall. This does not necessitate, nor conclude that Adam and Eve would have died in a naturalistic state of existence. Meaning, death only affected the plants and animals. Adam and Eve were excluded from the effects of natural death because they were created in a different fashion that that of the plants and animals. This is also evident in the creation process (and if one takes the time to read the second chapter, one will find that there are LDS Scholars who hold to a Creation-Evolutionary idea based on science and revelation. This holds to the notion that the Earth was not created in six consecutive twenty-four hour periods, but created over a cycle of creative events that extended unknown amount of years. Some shorter than others, but all were for the duration of the specific creative process and development of life on Earth).
Therefore, death pertaining to Adam and Eve did not exist until after the fall and provided the necessary plan of Heavenly Father’s redemption of humanity to be set in motion.
How do you respond to the scientific evidence that there was death prior to the fall of Adam and Eve?
As previously touched on, death among plants and animals is scientifically established. Latter-day Saints do not hold to the creation ex nihilio position. We hold to the fact and reality that when Heavenly Father, through his son Jesus Christ, created all things, they created things out of existing material. We find this congruent in the creation of man for God created man out of the dust of the ground and woman from the rib of man.
The scholars do conclude that not only death affected plant and animals, but that there is fossil evidence to suggest that there also were diseases among plants and animals prior to Adam and Eve:
Elder Talmage certainly supported the view that among plants and animals there was death before the fall. If there were no death before the fall, it would be very difficult to account for all the fossilized remains of now extinct flora and fauna located in geologic strata all over the earth. In addition, ancient fossil bones show signs of tumors, rheumatic disorders, arthritis, abscesses, and breakage; and fossil plants show spot fungi, burls, and insect galls (Patricia Rich et al., The Fossil Book: A Record of Prehistoric Life, 2nd revised ed. (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1996), 15). All these seem to indicate that death and disease were part of living things millions of years ago.
We have to accept the evidence and interpret it appropriately. Does this mean that God did not create heaven and earth? No, what this means is that there is the natural order of death among plants and animals that predate Adam and Eve, and the fall. Yet, death did not affect Adam and Eve until after the partaking of the forbidden fruit and the acquiring knowledge of good and evil. Death, in this sense, truly does reign from Adam on down through the ages. However, it is through the atonement of Jesus Christ that we are now free from death. Because of Christ, humanity will be resurrected unto eternal life. Regardless of whether someone believes in Christ or not, or accepts the gospel of Christ, resurrection is universal (see Revelation 20)
I hope this answers your question. As previously stated, it is from my own research and understanding of the subject matter. My position is that Creation and Evolution are actually more compatible than creationists and evolutionists realize. This does not take away from the reality of intelligent design, but it does provide a more viable objective option than young earth, no death before the fall, and the differences of opinions on the subject.
Note: This particular article originally appeared at the Mormon Apologetic Research Studies blog as an answer to an email question.