Mormonism on the Fall

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(Originally published online 24 June 2004.)

It is increasingly common to hear of Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as being “just another denomination.” But I would suggest that this is a misperception. One very clear difference between Mormonism and Christianity resides in their respective views of the fall of Adam and Eve. Biblically speaking, the actions of Adam and Eve, in partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, can in now way be understood as virtuous. Not only did they act contrary to the expressed will of God (Genesis 2:17; cf. 3:3), later biblical authors describe Adam’s action as “sin” and “transgression” (Romans 5:12ff). They also describe Eve’s actions as resulting from a deception (2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:14). The action of God in exiling Adam and Eve from his presence in the garden illustrates divine disapproval in no uncertain terms.

But even given this biblical portrait of the fall of Adam and Eve, as resulting from actions of disobedience, Mormonism promotes Adam and Eve as exemplars of virtue. This strange perspective on the fall is illustrated in two works commonly available to Mormons; and both of these works bear some official sanction by the Church.

M. Russell Ballard is one of the twelve apostles leading the Mormon Church. In his popular book, Our Search for Happiness: An Invitation to Understand the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Books, 1993) – a book often recommended by Mormon missionaries – we read this about the fall:

“Indeed, we honor and respect Adam and Eve for their wisdom and foresight. Their lives in the Garden of Eden were blissful and pleasant; choosing to leave that behind so they and the entire human family could experience both the triumphs and travails of mortality must not have been easy. But we believe they did choose mortality, and in so doing made it possible for all of us to participate in Heavenly Father’s great, eternal plan” (87).

Yes, Ballard says that Mormons “honor and respect Adam and Eve for their wisdom and foresight.” Wisdom and foresight? I would suggest that nothing of that sort could be gleaned from any biblical passages describing Adam and Eve and their actions that lead to their expulsion from the garden. But Ballard believes that Adam and Eve made choice to leave the bliss of the garden behind. Implicit in these comments is the belief that Adam and Eve actually sacrificed their privileges for our sakes.

Behind these ideas resides the LDS (Latter-day Saint) belief that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve could not procreate, possibly due to the supposition that they wouldn’t have perceived each other’s nakedness (see Genesis 2:25; 3:7, 10, 11). In addition, Mormons assert that God provided Adam and Eve with two conflicting commands, the command to procreate and the command (read, prohibition) to eat of the tree. Without doing the latter, they would not be able to do the former. And if they obeyed the prohibition, then they would have lacked the ability to procreate. Thus, according to LDS theology, God placed Adam and Eve in a catch-22: there was no way for them to exist except for breaking one or the other of these commands (cp. 1 Corinthians 10:13). I would suggest that this implies that while we may see the serpent as the tempter, he was merely an accomplice: it is God who initiated the temptation in creating a situation in which sin was inescapable (cp. James 1:13).

But Ballard’s is no idiosyncratic perspective. Rather, this very teaching can be found in the LDS Sunday School curriculum. The Teacher’s Guide to the study, Preparing for Exaltation (found online at www.lds.org), presents the following material:

“The decision of Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was not a sin, as it is sometimes considered by other Christian churches. It was a transgression – an act that was formally prohibited but not inherently wrong.”

Of course, the claim that Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree “was not a sin” explicitly contradicts what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:12ff. (And this despite the regular Mormon claim that they believe the Bible to be God’s word!)

The LDS Sunday School material does not stop there.

“Their choice did not come from a desire to disobey the Lord, but from a desire to gain wisdom. Because of this choice, we have the opportunity to come to earth and learn, as Adam and Eve did, how to choose good over evil. Express your gratitude for Adam and Eve and the choice they made.”

Here we find an allusion to the positive result of the fall. Mormon theology teaches that human beings first exist as spirit beings in a “preexistence.” They were born to God and one of his wives. (Yes, traditionally, Mormons have understood God to be a polygamist.) But the only way humans can progress toward their own godhood is to face the triumphs and travails of mortality. Adam and Even needed to violate the prohibition to eat of the tree both in order to enter mortality themselves, as well as to pave the way for every other human to enjoy progression through a mortal life. Thus Mormons see the actions of Adam and Eve as laudable. Thus Mormons are encouraged to be thankful for Adam and Eve and their decision to eat from the forbidden tree.

To cap things off, the teacher of the course, Preparing for Exaltation, is enjoined to the following:

“Encourage class members to follow Adam and Eve’s example and choose good over evil.”

Now, the theory behind the Mormon view of the fall is one thing, but it is quite another to find that sinful, disobedient Adam and Eve are held up as examples to be followed, their sin to be emulated. Their evil actions are redesigned as virtuous. How much further could one depart from biblical teaching? Actually, quite a distance; but that’s a discussion for another day.

In the meantime, one important truth must be grasped as we ponder the relationship between Mormonism and the Christian faith: Mormons use our vocabulary but not our dictionary. Keeping this first principle in mind will aid you in seeing through the Christian veneer of Mormonism.