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Question: Can Latter-day Saints have a non-literal view of the creation story, or have a somewhat more mythic view of the first five books of Moses given the Church's teaching of a historical Adam?
Question: Can Latter-day Saints have a non-literal view of the creation story, or have a somewhat more mythic view of the first five books of Moses given the Church's teaching of a historical Adam?
This is an issue that has been a challenge for the Church since the beginning
This is an issue that has been a challenge for the Church since the beginning. It is also an issue that isn't unique to Mormonism (so we can find lots of interesting insights elsewhere). The problems that we have are caused by several distinct issues. So let's outline the three main issues, since every attempt to answer these questions (every explanation of how to understand Genesis) works to deal with these issues in different ways.
1: The philosophy of history
This one is a really important. This idea means that when we approach the "historical Adam" we have to be aware that there are many different ways to understand the material as history. And that our notion of history is very different today from the sense that history had when the Old Testament was written. Even more to the point, what we try to achieve with history, and in fact our sense of "telling the truth" is very different from what the author of Genesis was trying to achieve and what that author believed constituted "telling the truth". This isn't bad except when we try to assert that we should understand the history of the Old Testament in exactly the same way that we understand history now. Or that the notion of truth as we understand it corresponds exactly to the meaning of truth as they understood it. When we do confuse our own understanding for the intentions of the authors of that history, we inevitably also make mistakes in understanding what should be seen as literal or non-literal in a text.
2: The issue of the first man
We all recognize that there has to be a beginning point. We call the first man and woman Adam and Eve. But, there is necessarily something that is entirely different in their beginning than in ours (by definition as the 'first'). In some ways, this creates for a flexible understanding. We want to understand how they are like us, and at the same time try to understand how they are different from us. This goes back to that issue of what the text is trying to tell us. We have a great many interpretations of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve which treat different parts of the story as metaphorical and other parts as literal - and in many cases, two interpretations can choose completely opposite understandings of any specific detail in this way and come up with two very different outcomes. When we come to this as individuals, often we have to make decisions as to how we understand certain elements (more on this a little later), but you can see that inevitably, very, very few people have a completely literal understanding of the Genesis account of Adam, just as very, very few have an entirely metaphorical understanding of the Genesis account of Adam. Most of us sit comfortably in between. Part of the LDS view of Adam comes from this historical figure as a historical figure. But part of the LDS view comes from the ways in which Adam is just like ourselves - and often this comparison, intended by the text, is presented as metaphor.
3: There is always a host of doctrinal concerns
These inevitably occur because of the previous two issues. As a text, Genesis has to be read and interpreted in some way - and there are lots of ways it can be. Some of those interpretations conflict with knowledge obtained from other sources - like scientific knowledge. One of the great debates of the past (and to some extent even the present) is how we place authority in these sources of information (a process we call epistemology). In one view, we try to understand the time period of Genesis literally, and the age of the earth then as being finite (a mere few thousand years) leading to a position known as Young Earth Creationism. This is a popular view among many Christians (and within the Church). On the other hand there are those who recognize that the earth seems to be very old, complete with a long fossil record of life. If this information is weighted accordingly, then the age of the earth is very great, and likewise, the Genesis account needs to be interpreted as being less literal in the sense that it does not intend to provide the age of the earth in a strictly literal sense. These doctrinal issues are often much larger debates that engage the text of Genesis to their own ends - issues like evolution, the age of the earth, the fall of man, the question of death before the fall, and so on.
An Off-the-Cuff Reconciliation of Evolution with Doctrine
It should be noted that it has been revealed that we don't know all things pertaining to creation and that those things will be revealed at the second coming (D&C 101: 32-33). We are also commanded to learn of all things so that we can be more perfectly instructed in things pertaining to the Gospel. Our theology is not threatened by science, it embraces it so that we can better understand what has already been revealed and what might be revealed in the future (D&C 88: 78-79). Thus we should study every scientific theory without fear.
More Core or Non-Negotiable Propositions
There are a few things that might be more essential than others and non-negotiable when working out evolution.
- Adam and Eve being literal historical people (D&C 137:5; 138: 38-39). Here it should be noted that there is virtually no way to locate them in any scientific way. With such a (likely) small population of people among 10-14 other species of humanoid creatures living on the earth at that time, DNA would be virtually impossible to detect. That is, if we can actually locate their remains.
- Adam being the first in a line of priesthood-holding patriarchs (D&C 84:16; Abraham 1:3; Alma 13:7-9; )
- Adam and Eve being the first of God's spirit children (or at the very least the first of a new age of spirit perfection begun by them--they being the latest in a line of ages in which similar processes may have been done by God or other Gods) that lived on the earth (D&C 84:16).
- The perfection of the God(s) that made us. Some would challenge the view that evolution can be compatible with religion given some of the vestigial structures that humans have inside of them. It has been observed that humans carry structures within their bodies from past generations of hominid species that don't perform observable functions. This is used as evidence against God. If the design of humans is imperfect, some critics suggest, then it suggests an imperfect designer. It's important to carefully identify what is being criticized. The perfection of God comes from his overall moral goodness that he exhibits towards his creation. This is moral goodness that he has exhibited from perhaps eons past and will most likely exhibit in eons to come. The perfection exhibited in God comes from the ability that he has to sin but his continual resistance to doing things that aren't moral. If he weren't tempted, then he wouldn't really need our worship. We don't worship rocks for being rocks. We wouldn't worship God if there wasn't a possibility of him sinning. We worship him because he has that chance but he never takes it. That is moral perfection. Now, if these vestigial structures were vulnerable to a lot of disease in some time in the past or if they are vulnerable to disease now, and if God is the one to have directed evolution, then couldn't that call God's moral goodness into question? By giving his children the means to become diseased and not have the opportunities for happiness in this life that others might have without disease? It does. It's a valid question. Perhaps the best line of reconciliation would be to suggest that God initiated the creation sequence of humans a long time ago. We can say that at this point, there was no capability of disease. God could allow the natural evolutionary processes to happen and intervene at times that it would have been ultimately necessary to intervene for the furthering of creation. Thus the chaotic elements are the ones to mutate, evolve, and become corrupted and thus God wouldn't be the source of evil and his perfection would be retained. The origin of Adam and Eve's bodies could have happened in any of the ways listed below. Ultimately, all human beings will receive glorified, resurrected bodies of flesh and bone and all will be saved in one of the Three Kingdoms of glory.
Less Core or More Negotiable Things
- How Long Ago the Fall Happened - There is a common belief among Latter-day Saints that Adam fell close to 6000 years ago based upon a scripture in D&C 77:12 which may be interpreted as stipulating that Christ will return 6000 years after the fall of Adam. However, there are a couple of problems with this reading. The biggest of these is that another revelation in Doctrine and Covenants states that we don’t know when the Savior will come and won’t know until he comes (D&C 49:7). Thus the seven thousand years of D&C 77 must be interpreted as idealized blocks of time that only have figurative relevance to answering the question of when the Savior will come.
- The Order of the Events of the Creation - The creation accounts don't agree fully in their division of creation events and the periods of time needed to complete each event. This is okay, since the ancient writers never meant to give a scientific explanation of the cosmos. Yes, this is even the case with the Book of Moses and Abraham. If the writers of Genesis didn't intend to provide a scientific explanation for the history of the earth, shouldn't we expect the same for the author(s) of Moses and Abraham? The Encyclopedia of Mormonism is most instructive on this point:
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)
This assumption that the order of creation events must align with science is called "concordism" and is not necessitated by scripture.
- Death Before the Fall and Procreation Before the Fall - on both issues the Church is neutral. As a suggestion, it may be easier to accept the scientific evidence of death before the fall.
- How/When Adam and Eve received their Spirits - The First Presidency gave three possibilities in a statement on the subject back in 1910:
Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.
How one views the origin of Adam and Eve's body will affect their views of the Adamic Language, how Adam and Eve supposedly entered the Garden, the purpose and nature of the Godhead, and how Adam and Eve's DNA mixed with extant populations after leaving the Garden.
- The Adamic Language - we've mentioned on this article that Biblical scholars believe that the early chapters of Genesis concatenate two separate creation accounts into one--one that speaks to the origin of human life and the other for the Adam who covenanted with God. Where to place the "pure language" may be placed anywhere among this timeline. It is certain, however, that Latter-day Saints believe in a pure language. Where to place the Adamic Language may be difficult depending on which theory one subscribes to for the origin of Adam's and Eve's body. If they were transported from another sphere, then believing how God gave the Adamic language is fairly simple. If the body developed through supernatural processes on earth, over time, and without experiencing death— controlled and preserved by God’s power, then this is also fairly easy to understand how the Mosaic language would be preserved. If the body was born here in mortality, as other mortals, one would simply need to ask how they were given such an Adamic language and how that language was not corrupted by the mortals the people were born to. Perhaps once the bodies reached adulthood, the spirit that previously possessed the body of Adam and Eve (along with the knowledge and light that that spirit possessed) was removed and replaced with Adam and Eve’s spirits. We have theological evidence that such an occurrence is possible.
- How Adam and Eve Entered the Garden - We learn from scripture that no unclean thing can enter God's presence in scripture (1 Nephi 10:21; 15:24; Alma 7:21; 11:37; 40:26; Hel 8:25; 3 Ne. 27:19; Doctrine and Covenants 94:8; 97:15; 109:20). We also learn that God is perfect (Matthew 5:48; 3 Nephi 12:48). We also learn that all good things come from God— suggesting that God is good (Alma 5:40; Moroni 7:12, 13, 16). If this is all true, then the way in which Adam and Eve enter the Garden may be important. If the origin of their bodies is option 1 or 2 given by the First Presidency above, then they naturally would be perfect and clean as the scriptures seem to require. If they developed through mortal processes and were born of mortals, then their bodies would need to be cleansed and perfected before going into the Garden.
- Hierarchy of Gods v Infinite Regress of Gods - For any option one must deal with what God was doing with the Pre-Adamites that existed in tandem with Adam and Eve. One must accept death before Adam entered the Garden of Eden. Thus, one must ask where the Pre-Adamites (over the millennia that they lived and died) fit in the plan. In each case, it would tie into the discussion about Hierarchy of Gods v Infinite Regress of Gods in Latter-day Saint theology. Both sides could produce an argument.
- How Adam and Eve's DNA Mixed with Extant Populations After Leaving the Garden - Once Adam has been formed, received the priesthood, and been expelled from the garden they could have done one or both of two things: 1) They and their descendants could have simply intermixed with contemporary populations—thus explaining the presence of dormant vestigial structures and neanderthal DNA present in humans today AND/OR 2) it is possible that they shed their perfect bodies in order to be given less perfect bodies that were developed from evolution.
- The Literality/Order of Events of/in the Garden Narratives - How the events in the garden are to be understood is quite flexible since the accounts differ between Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the Temple. For why, see the statement above from the EOM. We have no evidence from the Lord that he intended all of the creation accounts to line up, in fact, we have evidence to the contrary in D&C 101:32-33. Biblical scholars have long posited that the creation account in Genesis is the combination of two accounts, both with a different interpretative/rhertorical intention. Restoration scripture offers us a bit more that might have happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden. The Book of Moses describes them being repenting and being baptized. The temple describes them receiving special knowledge from God. These can easily be fit into the narrative depending on preference.
If God did indeed create a literal Garden, the Garden would have to be perfect since he himself is perfect. But there doesn't seem to be any requirement for us to believe that God created a literal Garden. There only seems to need to be a place where Adam and Eve dwelt as perfect beings in the His presence.
- The Physical State of the Earth at Creation. Some have had questions about statements about "Peleg" in the scriptures. That is answered elsewhere on the wiki.
- Adam's age/ How long he lived for. The flexibility comes because it is in debate as to how to best interpret the ages of antediluvian patriarchs.
Some may object to the areas of flexibility and more rigidity claimed by the author, basing their assumption of the Book of Moses and Abraham needing to be restorations of scientific fact. In neither case do we have historical evidence from either Joseph or the Lord that the Book of Abraham and/or Moses represent pristine, scientifically accurate, word for word restorations of lost urtexts from the prophets.. If they were written by the original prophets, we would expect God to speak to them as he did to other ancient authors such as those that wrote Genesis (2 Nephi 31:3).
Thus, the scenario might play out that God created the world (2 Nephi 2:13) and that he did it over any period of time. The creation may have included death, disease, and procreation of different species prior to a time when he chose to elect or send the first of his Spirit children to the earth, Adam and Eve. They lived for a time (exactly where we're not sure). They perhaps lived in an Edenic setting where death may or may not have been limited to the Garden (there was likely death outside of it). They may have been tempted by the Devil (D&C 29:36,40), partook of fruit (29:40), and they fell sometime around 7000 years ago. They may have been taught repentance and redemption (29:42), they may or may not have been baptized (again we don't know who the author of Moses 1:1 is--a pseudepigraphical writer or Joseph Smith and we don't know if they are attributing the words to Moses pseudepigraphically or literally; Moses 6:64-66) and were given the priesthood that they passed onto their children--the record of which passing of authority we likely do not have a complete, detailed account of. They mixed with other extant populations (or were given bodies of that extant population) and with each relationship began to bring God's children into the world, thus being "the father of us all". Thus, the creation accounts are treated something similar to "historical fiction" in genre since we have real characters and some real events but also (potentially) some other theological goals to accomplish and thus many non-historical, non-literal aspects of them.
This reconciliation comes from the best interpretation of the author of the article and is only meant as to help put interested readers in a helpful direction but does not represent the official view of the Church. The author has attempted only to summarize those things made explicitly clear in scripture and provide direction for those passages may cause some trouble for members of the Church dealing with the question. Readers are free to disagree and offer what they might feel would be better interpretations or reconciliations of the matter with official, properly interpreted revelation. If improvements can be suggested, please send them to FairMormon volunteers.
- William E. Evenson "Evolution" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (ed.) Daniel Ludlow, (New York, NY: MacMillian Publishing, 1992)
- Editorial (unsigned) [Joseph F. Smith as president of the Church and Edward H. Anderson were editors], "Priesthood Quorums’ Table," Improvement Era 13 no. 4? (April 1910), 570.
- See "Sample of Pure Language, between circa 4 and circa 20 March 1832" <https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/sample-of-pure-language-between-circa-4-and-circa-20-march-1832/1#facts> (accessed 3 April 2019)
- Matthew Roper has gathered a lot of evidence supporting the Book of Moses that is pseudepigraphical. The difficulty in deciding what the Book of Moses truly is comes from the first verse where we don't know A) If the author of the verse is Joseph or another ancient writer and B) whether they meant to attribute words to Moses pseudepigrahically or record the literal words of Moses. With such ambiguity, we are free to choose our position on the matter. The Book of Abraham does not have to be a pristine urtext from him to be authentic either.