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Was There Death Before Adam?


In this essay, Elder Jones shows how death before Adam makes sense from a scrip­tur­al sense. He is not nec­es­sar­i­ly say­ing that evo­lu­tion of man is true or untrue.

Steven E. Jones, BYU Pro­fes­sor

Many LDS stu­dents face a dilem­ma: ani­mal fos­sils and oth­er evi­dence seems to show that death occurred hun­dreds of thou­sands of years ago. Yet the Book of Mor­mon and oth­er scrip­tures speak of the fall of Adam as intro­duc­ing death into the world. The appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion trou­bles many. Nor is the tim­ing of death’s entry into the world a minor point, for it strikes at the cen­tral doc­trine of Christ’s atone­ment, as Elder McConkie suc­cinct­ly stat­ed the issue:

“Now if Adam did not fall and bring death into the world, there would be no need for the aton­ing sac­ri­fice of Christ. If there were no atone­ment to ran­som fall­en beings and crea­tures from the effects of the fall, there would be no res­ur­rec­tion, no immor­tal­i­ty, no sal­va­tion, no eter­nal life; and if all these things should van­ish away, we could dis­card God him­self, and our faith would be vain.” [B.R. McK­onkie, Mor­mon Doc­trine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 254.]

“Death began, as far as this earth is con­cerned, after and as a result of the fall of Adam. There was no death for man or for any form of life until after Adam trans­gressed. (2 Nephi 2:22; Doc­trines of Sal­va­tion, vol. 1, pp. 107–120).” [Ibid., p. 185; see also Alma 42:9 and Moses 6:48]

Now, anoth­er schol­ar and defend­er of the faith states:

“On the oth­er hand, to lim­it and insist upon the whole of life and death to this side of Adam’s advent to the earth, some six or eight thou­sand years ago, as pro­posed by some, is to fly in the face of the facts so indis­putably brought to light by the researcher of sci­ence in mod­ern times, and this as set forth by men of the high­est type in the intel­lec­tu­al and moral world.... To pay atten­tion to and give rea­son­able cre­dence to their research and find­ings is to link the church of God with the high­est increase of human thought and effort.” [B.H. Roberts, “The Truth, the Way, the Life.”]

Are these views real­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry as they seem to be? Can we rec­on­cile the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence of ancient life and death with scrip­tur­al procla­ma­tions about Adam’s fall and the atone­ment? Or must we choose between them?

I think there is a way to rec­on­cile the fos­sil evi­dence with the scrip­tur­al evi­dence regard­ing pre-Adam­ic life and death. But before exam­in­ing this idea let us first con­sid­er three mod­els which evi­dent­ly fail.

One faulty mod­el is that of so-called “sci­en­tif­ic cre­ation­ism,” which posits that all liv­ing things were cre­at­ed ex nihi­lo approx­i­mate­ly six thou­sand years ago. As B.H. Roberts cor­rect­ly observed, this notion flies in the face of estab­lished sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence for liv­ing things on the earth mil­lions of years ago. Fur­ther­more, the notion was emphat­i­cal­ly reject­ed by Joseph Smith, the LDS prophet:

“You ask the learned doc­tors why they say the world was made out of noth­ing; and they will answer, ‘Does­n’t the Bible say He cre­at­ed the world?’ And they infer, from the word cre­ate, that it must have been made out of noth­ing. Now, the word cre­ate came from the word bau­rau which does not mean to cre­ate out of noth­ing; it means to orga­nize; the same as a man would orga­nize mate­ri­als and build a ship. “Hence, we infer that God had mate­ri­als to orga­nize the world out of chaos ... The pure prin­ci­ples of ele­ment are prin­ci­ples which can nev­er be destroyed; they may be orga­nized and re-orga­nized, but not destroyed. They had no begin­ning, and can have no end.” [Teach­ings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 350- 352.]

The state­ment about “pure prin­ci­ples of ele­ment” being capa­ble of reor­ga­ni­za­tion but nei­ther destruc­tion nor cre­ation, presages the mod­ern notion of con­ser­va­tion of mass-ener­gy, which became accept­ed in physics some years after Joseph Smith’s 1844 state­ment above. Clear­ly, his state­ment is a point of depar­ture from our Chris­t­ian friends who espouse “cre­ation­ism”, or cre­ation from noth­ing about 6,000 years ago. We don’t believe it.

A sec­ond hypoth­e­sis was advanced by B.H. Roberts, who posit­ed that all life pri­or to Adam was destroyed from the earth, and that Adam and oth­er liv­ing things were then trans­port­ed from anoth­er world. The geo­log­ic record does show cat­a­clysmic destruc­tion of the dinosaurs, for exam­ple, but this did not destroy all life, and in any case took place mil­lions of years before Adam. In short, the geo­log­ic record does not sup­port B.H. Roberts’ the­o­ry.

A third hypoth­e­sis sug­gests that the earth was orga­nized from pieces of oth­er, old­er plan­ets, so that the fos­sils derive from them. This inter­est­ing pic­ture breaks down when we con­sid­er the empir­i­cal evi­dence for geo­log­ic times on our earth, includ­ing cool­ing from a molten state and sub­se­quent con­ti­nen­tal drifts. Stra­ta of fos­sils and coal fields also argue for an earth bear­ing life (and death) many mil­lions of years ago. [See William L. Stokes, “Joseph Smith and the Cre­ation,” for fur­ther crit­i­cism of this notion.]

Now let us exam­ine what sci­ence and the scrip­tures each mean by “death”. For sci­ence, death implies a ces­sa­tion of regen­er­a­tion and chem­i­cal activ­i­ty of a phys­i­cal organ­ism. Although some may wish to chal­lenge the sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods of dat­ing fos­sils, coal deposits, and so on, to me it is clear that this kind of death occurred many mil­lions of years ago. There is no need to deny or ignore the fos­sil evi­dence.

But death in the scrip­tures has a dif­fer­ent mean­ing than used gen­er­al­ly in sci­ence, mean­ing a sep­a­ra­tion of the spir­it from the body rather than a ces­sa­tion of chem­i­cal impuls­es. [Matthew 27:50; Alma 11:42.] Sci­ence has noth­ing to say about the pre- mor­tal exis­tence of spir­its and their place­ment into phys­i­cal bod­ies, since this dis­cus­sion goes beyond what can be seen. And reli­gion affirms that this is the way things should be dur­ing earth-life: we must walk by faith. For those of us who accept the scrip­tur­al truth that each per­son­’s spir­it is a child of God, and that a major rea­son for com­ing to earth is to obtain a body, then the idea that death is a tem­po­rary sep­a­ra­tion of spir­it from body is under­stand­able and con­sis­tent. “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” is one of the beau­ti­ful scrip­tures trans­lat­ed by the prophet, Joseph Smith. [2 Nephi 2:25]

Con­sis­tent with this def­i­n­i­tion of death, LDS scrip­tures define the soul as the com­bi­na­tion of spir­it and body: “the spir­it and the body are the soul of man.” [Doc­trine and Covenants 88:15.]

Now we are ready to think about the Adam as the first “soul” or the first “man” on earth: “And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spir­it (that is, the man’s spir­it), and put it into him; and breathed into his nos­trils the breath of life, and man became a liv­ing soul.” (Abra­ham 5:7) “And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nos­trils the breath of life, and man became a liv­ing soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also; nev­er­the­less, all things were before cre­at­ed.” (Moses 3:7)

We see that a body had been pre­pared — we are not told in any detail how this was done — and that Adam’s spir­it was placed into this body which had been pre­pared, so that Adam was in the scrip­tur­al sense the first soul or man on the earth.

But what does the scrip­ture mean, “nev­er­the­less, all things were before cre­at­ed”? [Moses 3:7] It sounds con­tra­dic­to­ry. What I am now sug­gest­ing, is that the bod­ies for man and oth­er liv­ing things were indeed cre­at­ed or orga­nized from the dust of the earth over eons of time before Adam, but that inde­pen­dent spir­its were not placed into the bod­ies until Adam. Thus, Adam was in fact the
first liv­ing soul on the earth, and his trans­gres­sion brought death into the world, that is, a sep­a­ra­tion of spir­it from body. [Moses 6:48] Christ’s atone­ment was then need­ed to over­come the effects of the fall, so that the body could be restored to the spir­it, “and spir­it and ele­ment, insep­a­ra­bly con­nect­ed, receive a full­ness of joy; and when sep­a­rat­ed, man can­not receive a full­ness of joy.” [D&C 93: 33–34.]

Do I posit that plants and ani­mals lived and “died” on the earth before Adam? In the sci­en­tif­ic sense of death, yes, but with­out sep­a­rate spir­its so that death did *not* occur in the scrip­tur­al sense. I invite you to re-read the accounts of cre­ation from Gen­e­sis, Moses, and Abra­ham (and lis­ten to the tem­ple account) as I have done, and deter­mine for your­self whether this notion does serves to clar­i­fy these accounts and to har­mo­nize the scrip­tures with the tes­ti­mo­ny of the rocks, which after all have the same Author.

Now, an appar­ent weak­ness in this hypoth­e­sis from the LDS point of view is that spir­its may be need­ed to ani­mate any life forms. But notice the lan­guage used in describ­ing the cre­ation before Adam:

“And the earth was with­out form, and void; and I caused dark­ness to come up upon the face of the deep; and my Spir­it moved upon the face of the water; for I am God.” [Moses 2:2; com­pare Gen­e­sis 1:2] “And the Gods said: Let us pre­pare the waters to bring forth abun­dant­ly the mov­ing crea­tures that have life...” “And the Gods pre­pared the waters that they might bring forth great whales, and every liv­ing crea­ture that moveth, which the waters were to bring forth abun­dant­ly after their kind; and every winged fowl after their kind And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good. And the Gods said: We will bless them, and cause them to be fruit­ful and mul­ti­ply, and fill the waters in the seas or great water; and cause the fowl to mul­ti­ply in the earth.” [Abr. 4:20–22]

These scrip­tures indi­cate that the Gods, through that Spir­it which moved upon the waters, caused the beasts to be fruit­ful and mul­ti­ply, etc., before Adam. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, spir­its were formed in a pre-mor­tal exis­tence for all liv­ing crea­tures. These process­es took six peri­ods of unspec­i­fied length to accom­plish. When bod­ies were pre­pared after their kind, that is, match­ing the spir­its pre­pared sep­a­rate­ly in anoth­er realm, then these indi­vid­ual spir­its were placed into the bod­ies, begin­ning with Adam.

There is a dis­tinct and empha­sized change with Adam, for “in the Gar­den of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” [Moses 7:32]. I sug­gest that at the time of Adam, inde­pen­dent spir­its were for the first time placed in the bod­ies that had been formed; man now had his agency and no longer was there a need for God to “order” or “cause” growth of the crea­tures. Before that, the life and progress of liv­ing things was guid­ed by God, evi­dent­ly through the Spir­it [Moses 2:2].

Note also that the scrip­tur­al lan­guage indi­cates that the waters and the earth were pre­pared “to bring forth” the crea­tures. This may pro­vide some insight into the mech­a­nism by which the Gods brought forth liv­ing things. I see noth­ing here out of har­mo­ny with sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tions based on fos­sil evi­dences.

Now I has­ten to say that I am not here try­ing to har­mo­nize the scrip­tures with notions of the the­o­ry of organ­ic evo­lu­tion or of nat­ur­al selec­tion pro­posed by Dar­win. In fact, many sci­en­tists includ­ing B.H. Roberts found prob­lems in this the­o­ry. It seems point­less to try to rec­on­cile scrip­ture to a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry which is itself in a state of flux as more data comes to light.

On the oth­er hand, there are obser­va­tions of fos­sils that show unequiv­o­cal­ly that plants and ani­mals lived well over 20,000 years ago, that is, before the time of Adam. If there was a pro­gres­sion of life on earth toward greater com­plex­i­ty, as the fos­sils show, I have no prob­lem accept­ing the tes­ti­mo­ny of the scrip­tures cit­ed above that this progress was ordered and caused by God. More­over, this pic­ture seems con­sis­tent with our sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of the laws of nature, that is, an intel­li­gence can cause sys­tems to go “uphill”, improv­ing from low­er forms of life to much more com­plex forms, with­out vio­lat­ing the Sec­ond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics. LDS sci­en­tist Hen­ry Eyring puts it this way:

“I might say in this regard that in my mind the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion has to include a notion that the dice have been loaded from the begin­ning in favor of more com­plex life forms. That is, with­out intel­li­gent design of the nat­ur­al laws in such a way as to favor evo­lu­tion from low­er forms to high­er forms, I don’t think the the­o­ry holds water.” [Hen­ry Eyring, “Reflec­tions of a Sci­en­tist.”]

I have re-read the state­ments of the First Pres­i­den­cy (J.F. Smith, J.R. Winder and A.H. Lund) regard­ing “The Ori­gin of Man” and do find that the hypoth­e­sis here advanced in no way con­tra­dicts that defin­i­tive doc­tri­nal state­ment. Their cen­tral point was “The Church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, bas­ing its belief on divine rev­e­la­tion, ancient and mod­ern, pro­claims man to be the direct and lin­eal off­spring of Deity. ... By His almighty pow­er [God] orga­nized the earth, and all that it con­tains, from spir­it and ele­ment, which exist co-eter­nal­ly with Him­self.”

The details of the phys­i­cal cre­ation are not giv­en in scrip­ture. Indeed, why should they be? The Lord gave us the tes­ti­mo­ny of the rocks and bids us read. [Moses 6:63, D&C 88:77–80]

The Lord said that “all things are cre­at­ed and made to bear record of me... things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.” [Moses 6:63] If this is true, do not the fos­sils in the earth also tes­ti­fy of their Cre­ator? I find it so.

To me, the fos­sils speak of a God who caused the earth to bring forth bod­ies for us over mil­lions of years. This seems like a very long time to us now; but God views time dif­fer­ent­ly. [Psalms 90:4] No doubt this same “nat­ur­al-law” pat­tern was also used for oth­er worlds like earth. Mean­while, our spir­its lived in a sep­a­rate sphere for eons of time with our Heav­en­ly Par­ents. Final­ly, when all was ready, inde­pen­dent spir­its of all liv­ing things were placed in those bod­ies to under­go an earth expe­ri­ence, begin­ning with Adam. This view gives an appre­ci­a­tion for the prepa­ra­tion of our bod­ies and their great impor­tance in God’s eter­nal plan for our pro­gres­sion and hap­pi­ness. We do in fact find a sud­den appear­ance of high intel­lec­tu­al skills such as math­e­mat­ics (way beyond sim­ple count­ing) about 6000 years ago, but we are not shown the hand of God in such a way that we are over­whelmed. After all, we are here to be test­ed. We must walk by faith.


One comment for “Was There Death Before Adam?”

  1. Did you real­ize this is the 911 ther­mite guy? Inter­est­ing to see a dif­fer­ent side of him.

    Posted by JenX | September 16, 2015, 7:49 am

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