Understanding the Fall in Mormonism – Part I: Lost and Fallen
This is Part I in a multi-part series exploring the concept of the Fall in Mormon thought. See all parts here.
A unique characteristic of Mormonism has been its re-interpretation of the Garden of Eden narrative. It has been observed that Mormonism tends to depart from the traditional understanding of the Fall as something negative, and instead view it as a necessary part of God’s plan.1 To what extent is this observation accurate? Latter-day Saint explanations of what occurred in the garden can often be confusing. Yet, perhaps a closer examination of the Book of Mormon will provide greater clarity. I hope to present a series of posts the first of which chronicles the doctrine as it is expounded by Lehi and Nephi up to 2 Nephi 2. Part II will continue from 2 Nephi 9.
Lehi on the Lost and Fallen State of man
The earliest account of the fall in Mormonism is detailed in the Book of Mormon. The book opens with a prophetic figure that preaches to the people of Jerusalem concerning the “coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.” Lehi’s succinct message is strikingly sustained all throughout the entire Nephite religious tradition, and unfolds over time as it is expounded by various Nephite prophets. Before leaving for the new world, Lehi’s sons obtain a record of the Jews written on plates of brass which contained an “account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve.” Sometime after obtaining these records Lehi sees vision in which he finds himself in “a dark and dreary waste” and he travels many hours in darkness, following a man in a white robe, finally coming to a tree “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.” Lehi describes the fruit as sweet and white.
Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Happiness
Modern editions of the Book of Mormon unfortunately telegraph to readers in a heading that Lehi sees a “vision of the tree of life” but the heading is premature and does not reflect the actual text. Lehi makes no explicit allusions to the Garden of Eden narrative, nor does he describe the tree as the tree of life. Lehi does not explain that the fruit grants the partaker with immortality, but rather that it filled his “soul with exceedingly great joy.” He says nothing about a cherubim and flaming sword. Rather, Lehi describes an iron rod and a large and spacious building, elements that seem out of place with the Garden of Eden. Lehi is not peering into Edenic history but rather something else.
He describes “numberless concourses of people” seeking to traverse a kind of obstacle course filled with mists of darkness, strange roads, forbidden paths, dangerous waters, and mocking onlookers. Many fail in their attempts and even those who make it to the tree and partake of the fruit, rather than achieve immortality, become ashamed and are lost. Thus, merely obtaining the fruit seemed not to be enough, but the result depended on the individual eating the fruit. Paradoxically, therefore, some react to the tree of life, as Adam and Eve reacted to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, becoming lost and fallen and hiding in shame. Lehi describes a rod of iron that lead to the tree as providing guidance through the darkness.
After relating his vision, Lehi concludes by prophesying that “a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world” and that “all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer.” Therefore, Lehi’s vision seems to parallel an overall salvation narrative, yet the goal is not immortality as much as it is happiness and joy. How mankind ended up in this lost and fallen state would not be explained until Lehi’s group arrived in the Promised Land.
Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Love
In the meantime, Lehi’s son Nephi, desirous to know more, experiences a guided vision in which he is shown the tree by a divine messenger. While neither Lehi or the guide say the tree is the tree of life, Nephi concludes on his own that the tree his father saw was the tree of life, and that the “tree of life was a representation of the love of God.” After seeing his vision, he is bluntly asked by his brothers what the tree meant. Nephi replies “It was a representation of the tree of life” and notes that the wicked are separated from the tree of life.
Nephi’s reference to the “tree of life” is somewhat confusing. It is not clear whether Nephi is referring to the “tree of life” tradition as contained the Genesis account, or whether he speaks of a “tree of life” in some other tradition.2 Indeed, Nephi’s vision is more of a cosmological drama of the struggle between good and evil. He describes the mists of darkness as temptations of the devil, filthy waters as the depths of hell, the mocking onlookers as the pride of the world. The iron rod represents the word of God, leading to the tree of life.
Nephi says little concerning the fruit but rather focuses on the tree itself. He describes it as “exceeding of all beauty” and “exceed[ing] the whiteness of the driven snow.” When Nephi asks the angelic messenger to tell him the meaning of the tree, the messenger shows Nephi a vision of a virgin, who Nephi describes as “white” and “beautiful.” The messenger says: “the virgin thou seest is the mother of God after the manner of the flesh.”3 Nephi sees the birth of the Lamb of God, and from this concludes that the tree represents “the love of God.” Nephi describes the tree as “most desirable above all things” and most joyous to the soul.
Tree of Happiness and Love
These visions do not overtly invoke the Edenic narrative. In fact, drawing the parallel too strongly may lead to awkward readings. While the visions seem to be consistent with the notion that man’s role is to return back to Eden and re-enter the presence of God, Lehi seems to focus not on some final act of entering God’s presence but on the mortal struggles with seeking God in an evil world that mocks the Saints. Lehi suggests that mere partaking of the fruit does not secure happiness. Nephi curiously seems to identify the tree of life with the mother of God, but says nothing about immortality and eternal life. If Nephi is making a connection to Eden, one wonders why the tree of life was specifically barred from Adam and Eve, which would have seemed to have cured their spiritual death. Readers familiar with the Book of Mormon know that later prophets address this very issue, but notably Nephi does not.
Sweet in Opposition to Bitter
Lehi first details the creation story to his family in a blessing to his son Jacob, who was born while Lehi’s family traveled in the wilderness. Here, the doctrine of the resurrection appears for the first time in the Book of Mormon. Lehi focuses on resurrection, redemption and judgment. It is important to note that Lehi is attempting to expound a theory of existence in which
“all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.”
In a sense, existence comes into being through a kind of division of opposites. Lehi begins by arguing that all men will be judged of God and will either receive punishment or happiness—“punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed.” Lehi then borrows the Garden of Eden narrative in order to illustrate his theory of opposites, not necessarily the other way around.
Lehi explains that there is a God and he “created our first parents” and placed two trees in Eden, “even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.” Thus, the two trees become opposite entities. The Eden narrative originally speaks of a tree of life and a tree of knowledge, but Lehi focuses on their antithetical properties. Lehi had previously described the fruit in his vision as sweet. If this is the fruit of the tree of life in Eden (and it may not be) then this would seem to make the forbidden fruit the bitter one.
All Men are Lost Because of Transgression of Parents
As to the Eden story itself, Lehi explains that a fallen angel tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, which Adam and Eve partook, and they were driven out of the Garden of Eden to bring forth “the family of the earth.” As a result man’s state became a “state of probation.” At this point, God “gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents.” Lehi is clear that “all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state” but tells his son that redemption “is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free.”
Redemption of Human Choice
What does Lehi mean by free?
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
Lehi explains that through the fall of Adam all mankind became lost and fallen, but through the redemption of the Messiah, man is given everything necessary in order to put him back in to a state where he can act for himself—just as Adam was able to act for himself before the fall, man is put back into this condition despite living in a fallen world. In a sense then, a portion of Eden is reclaimed for man through the Messiah, not a final redemption of being brought back into the presence of God, but redemption of man’s ability to choose for himself.4
Lehi on the Garden of Eden
On the other hand, Lehi’s description of Eden is interesting in that it is not described as a place of joy, happiness, and eternal repose. While Eden seems like paradise from the perspective of fallen man, a place where toiling is unnecessary and fruit grows spontaneously, Lehi chooses to describe Eden from the perspective of Adam and Eve before the fall, a move that seems unprecedented. From a myth perspective, the creation narrative seems to function as an explanation for why death, disease and painful childbirth exist, and why man must work to survive. The Garden of Eden myth suggests that this was not always so; that once upon a time things were good. Lehi offers an alternative view.
For Adam and Eve, Eden is a kind of limbo—an in-between world where they are neither miserable nor happy; doing neither works of evil nor works of righteousness.
Lehi’s theory of opposites clearly informs his understanding of the Garden of Eden.
[I]f Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
Lehi continues: “And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” Under Lehi’s understanding, Adam and Eve have no knowledge good and evil and therefore their existent is in a state of inertness.
It is only when Adam and Eve obtain knowledge of good and evil are they able to experience both misery and joy. Indeed, Lehi famously quips: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Therefore, Lehi concludes “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” suggesting that God’s plans were not thwarted by the fall of man.
Lehi never says that the fall was inevitable or required or positive. Rather, the thrust of Lehi’s blessing to Jacob, given shortly before Lehi’s death, is that God can turn tragedy into blessing, a truth culled from the creation narrative, which Lehi eloquently illustrates with Jacob’s own life experience: “thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.”
Despite Adam and Eve’s transgression in listening to the lies of the fallen angel, God would consecrate their afflictions. Despite bringing death into the world, God would prolong the days of man so they may repent, and provide for them a Redeemer. Despite becoming lost and fallen, God would even mercifully reinstate their freedom to act, which freedom would have been lost but for the Messiah. Here, Lehi does not describe a deliberate decision by Adam and Eve to fall in order to propagate the human family, but rather Lehi’s focus is on the unfathomable mercy of God, and the “wisdom of him who knoweth all things.”
1. See Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). 75-81.
2. It seems more likely that Nephi is referring to some tradition other than the account in Genesis as there seems to be only a remote connection to the tree of life in Eden. Some commentators suggest Lehi and Nephi are invoking the tradition of the tree of life found in wisdom literature. “She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.” Proverbs 3:18; See Peterson, Daniel C. “Nephi and His Asherah.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25.
3. 1 Nephi 11:18. The 1830 original manuscript and printer’s manuscript read “the mother of God.” Joseph Smith added “mother of the Son of God” for the 1837 second edition. See Skousen, Royal. The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). pp. 29, 748.
4. In Christian theology, this is known as prevenient grace. This doctrine is perhaps best understood by considering the implications of the fall. If man becomes lost and fallen and “no good thing [could] come unto” him, then man essentially loses free will and lacks even the capacity to move towards God, as doing so would go against his nature. Thus only God can act, and man can only be acted upon by God either to be saved or damned. If God chooses a man to be saved he will be, and if God doesn’t choose a man to be saved, he won’t be. Human will is completely extinguished and salvation is essentially predestined. Previenient grace is a theological solution that preserves free will but still accepts the realities of a fallen world.