In Part One, I proposed we should not talk about “what Scripture says” about a given topic by assuming all the authors spoke with a unified voice. Instead, to answer any given question about scriptural teaching, we need to look at what each individual author wrote. Only then can we start suggesting some tentative answers to those questions. In this part, I am going to apply that methodology to answer questions about what Scripture says about the origin of death.
Going back to the beginning means starting with Genesis chapters two and three. For this discussion, I largely draw on David P. Wright's “Sex and Death in the Garden of Eden.”1 Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
When we try to look at Genesis as Genesis, it becomes unclear whether the one of the story's purposes is to describe the origin of death. The text does not clearly say this and could actually be read both ways. Some scholars, including Wright himself at one point, have concluded the story does talk about the origin of death.2 Since this is the most common position, we need not dwell on it. Instead, we will look at the evidence that points in the other direction.
The Genesis story, in many respects, is about how humans became differentiated from the animals. Some of the questions it seeks to answer include: Why are humans more intelligent than animals? Why are humans able to act beyond mere instinct? Why do humans use clothing? Possibly, why do humans engage in non-reproductive sexual activity?3
Obviously, the fact of death does not make humans different from animals. Since there is no reason to suspect that animals can't die before the Fall of Adam, there is also no reason to suspect that Adam was not already subject to death. If the story was meant to be about how death in general came into the world, the failure to mention the animals leaves a huge gap in the story.4 If the story was intended to only show how humans became mortal, that still leaves us with the implication that animals were already subject to death.
Curiously, this hole remains when we look at other texts about the origin of death. Certainly there are passages that could be construed to say that Adam's transgression brought death on animals as well as humans (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:21). However, those passages are so human-centric that we are not forced into that conclusion.
It is hard to make sense of the threat of Gen. 2:17 without assuming death was already a factor in the Garden of Eden. If death was not already a factor, then Adam would have no conceptual basis on which to fear such a penalty. Instead, the force of the threat lay in stressing premature death (“in the day that you eat of it you shall die,” emphasis added).5 This implies that even for Adam, death was natural. Notably, Eve only eats the fruit when the threat of immediate death is removed.
Finally, what can we make of the Tree of Life?6 On could argue that so long as they had access to the Tree of Life, the humans could have staved off death—potentially forever. The sequel in Gen. 3:22-24 seems to have this implication. Fearing the humans would eat from the Tree of Life, God expels them from the Garden and places a guard on the tree. Let's explore the implications a little further.
When God gave the humans permission to “freely eat of every tree” except for “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” (Gen.2:16-17), by implication they were permitted to eat of the Tree of Life. One could suppose they were freely eating from it, and that it was keeping them alive until no longer had access to it. However, there are some indications that, even if it was permitted, Adam and Eve did not eat from the Tree of Life.
The whole point of the sequel is to prevent the humans from taking “also from the tree of life” (Gen. 3:22). Though it is by no means conclusive, the passage seems to say that Adam and Eve had not yet eaten from this tree. If so, then the Tree of Life did not account for their alleged immortal state before eating of the Tree of Knowledge. In other words, they were mortal from the beginning.7
Moreover, if Genesis chapter three is a story about the origin of death, this would be a strange way of telling it. If the humans' continued immortality depended on eating from the Tree of Life, then that implies they were subject to death without it. To tell a story about the origin of death by implying Adam and Eve were already mortal turns the story into complete nonsense.
Finally, we should consider the parallelism between the Trees of Life and Knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge conferred a once-and-for-all benefit: knowing good and evil. We would expect that the Tree of Life does the same. If this is so, then Adam and Eve would not need to continue eating from the Tree of Life in order to have immortality; once would be enough. This would explain why God was so anxious to prevent the humans from accessing the Tree of Life and further usurp divine prerogatives.8
To summarize, the Fall story in Genesis may not be about the origin of death after all. Even when we try to read the story while setting aside later interpretations, we can't fully be sure whether the author meant to tell the story of how death came into the world. With this in mind, we can take a stab at answering some of the questions that were raised in Part One.
To the question of whether there was death in the world before Adam ate the fruit, we can only say we don't know if that is what the author of Genesis meant. As far as Genesis is concerned, a range of answers is possible. The author could have meant there was absolutely no death before the Fall; he could have meant only Adam and Eve weren't subject to death before eating the fruit; he could have merely assumed that death was already present in the garden.
The lack of certainty opens up some options. One could say that if there is any question about what the author of Genesis meant, then Paul and Joseph Smith settle the matter. The answers to the other questions will tend to fall in line.
If we can't be sure whether the Fall story is talking about the origin of death, it is a moot point whether physical or spiritual death is meant. More than likely, a strict division between “physical” and “spiritual” death is a concept that simply did not exist yet.9 So the best answer in our terminology is both. Barring access to the Tree of Life effectively condemned humans to physical death. Expelling them from the garden meant they no longer had direct communion with God. That is pretty close to what we moderns would call spiritual death. Of course, later writers would also wind up saying both (e.g., Hel. 14:16). As long as we are careful not to press this is as the author's intent, it is a valid approach to read the story of the Fall this way.
I have no problems whatsoever in regarding the Tree of Life as symbolic. I would, however, shy away from one-to-one correspondences; the Tree of Life may be symbolic, but it is not allegorical. Symbols often bristle with meaning, no one of which should be considered the “correct” one. In this sense, the meaning of a symbol can go far beyond what its creator meant. This having been said, equating the Tree of Life with the Atonement would probably be very anachronistic if imposed on the author of Genesis.
The question of whether Adam felt guilt over his transgression is not answered by Genesis. As far as we can tell from Genesis, after being expelled from the garden, Adam and Eve simply went on with their lives. This really should not be very surprising. The author is not very interested in exploring the inner thoughts of the characters. He seemed content to allow the readers to read between the lines based on what the characters say and do.
1 Sunstone, June 1998, 33-39.
2 Wright, “Sex and Death,” 33. See especially notes five and six for arguments that the story of the Fall is about the origin of death.
3 This last question is a bit shakier. It assumes the line “yet your desire shall be for your husband” in Gen. 3:16 is a reference to non-reproductive sex and the author was not aware of any animals that engage in non-reproductive sex.
4 Wright, “Sex and Death” 33-34.
5 In this sense, Abr. 5:13 reduces the immediacy of the death threat by changing “in the day” to “in the time.” While this may indicate Adam was conceived as immortal before eating the fruit. Nevertheless, to say “if you eat the fruit you will die someday” is not much of a threat. Since the Book of Abraham remains unfinished, it is impossible to say what direction the parallel story to Genesis 3 may have gone.
6 The following argument tracks Wright, “Sex and Death,” 35-36, but I'm also elaborating on it.
7 Wright, “Sex and Death,” 36.
8 See also Wright, “Sex and Death,” 35-36.
9 That discussion is beyond the scope of these posts, however. For such a discussion, see Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).