Was There Death Before Adam?
Steven E. Jones
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 succintly 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 greathed 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 fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness 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.