Adam and the Tree of Life
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, 14 May 2021
During the forty five years that I’ve taught anatomy and human development to students in dental and medical schools, my students and I have engaged in many enlightening and entertaining discussions, often extending way past the range of anatomy and development alone. Very often, when my students discover that I teach evolution as an integral part of my anatomy and development courses, and that I am an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (I always include my education at BYU when introducing myself, as well as the two years I took off from school to serve a mission to Michigan and Indiana), they ask me how I reconcile evolution and religion. Those discussions are, in part, what prompted me to co-author the book Evolution and Mormonism, and to author two more recent books The Infinite Creation and The Infinite Fall. I usually begin my answer to those students who want to know how I reconcile evolution and religion by asking them the following question: “Were Adam and Eve inherently immortal?” It has been my experience that that question usually gives the students pause, but they soon recover and usually answer in the affirmative. I then ask them to produce a scripture that supports their claim. I even offer a $1000 reward for such a scripture. I have never had to pay.
I point out to my students that Milton has not, as yet, been canonized and, therefore, can’t be used as scriptural support. John Milton (1667) put the following words into God’s mouth: “I, at first, with two fair gifts Created him endowed; with happiness, And immortality: that fondly lost.”1 Milton, however, was not the first to believe that Adam was endowed with the gift of immortality. Pope Gregory I clearly taught the same concept in a letter (c. 600 AD) to Augustine of Canterbury, “For when our first parents sinned in the Garden, they justly forfeited God’s gift of immortality.”2
The fact is, there are no scriptures that state that Adam or Eve were inherently immortal. I still offer that $1000 reward for anyone who can find one. There is no such scripture in the Old Testament; there is no such scripture in the New Testament. It is curious that such a common, long-standing belief – dogma – paradigm – should have no scriptural foundation. In more recent times, some LDS Church members have used 2 Nephi 2:22 to make the argument for no death of anything before the fall. I have addressed that scripture in a separate blog. Suffice it to say here that that scripture refers to Adam and Eve only and only as long as they remained in the Garden of Eden.
Four verses earlier, in 2 Nephi 2:19, Lehi stated, “And after Adam and Eve had partaken of the forbidden fruit they were driven out of the garden of Eden, to till the earth.” Why were Adam and Eve driven out of the Garden of Eden? The next question I ask my anatomy and development biology students is: If Adam and Eve were inherently immortal, what was the purpose of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden? The best answer to that question is found in another father-son discussion. In Alma 42:2-5, Alma tells his son Corianton,
"…after the Lord God sent our first parents forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground, from whence they were taken—yea, he drew out the man, and he placed at the east end of the garden of Eden, cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life—Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit—And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God. For behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever, according to the word of God, having no space for repentance; yea, and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated."3
So in Alma 42:3 and 5 we have the answer. “…lest he [Adam] should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit.” This scripture tells us that even after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit they could have gone back to the Tree of Life, eaten of the fruit and lived forever. Those scriptures are powerful and packed with information, if we take time to ponder them. Furthermore, Alma wanted to make sure we got the message. He said the same thing twice in those two verses. The first thing we learn from Alma 42:3 and 5 is that the Tree of Life had the power to imbue a person with immortality.
17th-century depiction of the tree of life in Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan
Why would God plant a tree in the Garden of Eden that could give the gift of immortality if Adam and Eve were already inherently immortal? It appears to me that the logical conclusion is that Adam and Eve were not inherently immortal. There are no scriptures that make the statement that they were. The idea that Adam and Eve were created with the “gift” of immortality is a philosophy of men – not even mingled with scripture. Indeed, all the scriptures that refer to a Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden argue against the inherent immortality of Adam and Eve. Even without Alma 42, the very name, the “Tree of Life,” suggests such a conclusion.
The next thing we can conclude from Alma 42:3, 5 is that the effect of the Tree of Life was not a one-time event. Adam and Eve were told that they could freely partake of all the trees within the garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.4 We may imply from these verses that Adam and Eve were free to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and probably did so more than once. It is possible that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cancelled the effects of that from the Tree of Life, but a careful reading of the Alma 42 suggests that such was not the case, and that the only outcome of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden and forcefully kept away from the Tree of Life.
The fall / Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the Garden of Eden
by Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883)
Such an event is unprecedented in scriptural history. No other object on the planet has ever had an armed angelic guard placed on it by an act of God. That must have been one powerful tree and the temptation to go back and eat the fruit must have been much more than Adam and Eve could have resisted (c.f. 1 Nephi 3:7). All of this information leads me to conclude that continued access to the Tree of Life was necessary for immortality to be experienced by Adam and Eve. The fruit of the tree apparently held off the aging process.
I have heard people argue that the presence of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden requires that we invoke some sort of supernatural explanation for its existence and subsequent, eventual disappearance. That seems a bit overly dramatic to me. We are told that, “In that day [of the Lord’s coming] an infant shall not die until he is old; and his life shall be as the age of a tree…”5 Medical science is already making some remarkable progress in that direction. We have systematically, through the wonders of science, and the tenacity of scientists, overcome a large number of diseases that have previously shortened human life. Human life expectancy increases nearly every year. Clearly, there are global humanitarian problems that need solving, but for many industrialized countries, it is our eating habits and the way our food is produced and processed that seem to be our greatest challenge now to advancing human life expectancy.
Maybe the Tree of Life was some sort of hybrid, super citrus tree producing buckets-full of antioxidants whereas the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil produced huge quantities of corn syrup. If we, as simple-minded mortals can discover many of the secrets of longevity, isn’t it just possible that an omniscient God might know a little more about them – without having to resort to magic? What does God know about fruits and antioxidants that we have yet to discover? Plenty, I’m sure.
The third thing we can conclude from Alma 42:3, 5 is that eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil did not cause some irreversible change in Adam and Eve’s physiology, such as causing “blood to course through their veins.” Interestingly, that paradigm does not have a scriptural foundation either, but is another of the philosophies of men. Suffice it to say here that if the change had been inherently irreversible, such as some total physiological overhaul, going back to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life wouldn’t have made any difference - making a lie of Alma 42:3, 5..
Now let’s consider another aspect of no death before the fall. All of the early speculation about no death before the fall (i.e. Pope Gregory I, Milton, etc.) dates from a time before humans knew anything about the cellular basis of life. So to them, the only death they knew was death of the whole body. But what about cellular death? The death of a single cell, from a biological perspective, is little different from the death of the entire organism, yet cell death is an absolutely necessary part of life.
Without cell death there would be no enamel on our teeth; we would have no hair, we would have no finger nails; we would not even have the outer, protective layer of our skin. Without cell death, Adam and Ever would have looked horrific. They would have had no hair, no fingernails, only stubs of teeth, and bloody, red skin. The only living cells of a hair are in the root, embedded in the scalp. As cells leave the root, they die, forming the shaft of the hair. Nails and skin are formed in a similar fashion. The cells that formed the enamel of our teeth died as the teeth erupted. This reasoning, however, leads to even bigger questions – do spirits have hair? Do resurrected beings have teeth? Just because one question leads to another, as it should, that sequence should not deter us from asking the first questions and going as far as we can into the others.
Furthermore, during embryonic development, cell death, called apoptosis, plays a critical role in sculpting our bodies. Without cell death we would have no fingers, but rather, we would have awkward, flat appendages, with no axilla (arm pit) and no elbow, and which would end in a flat paddle, with no fingers. Cell death not only sculpts the axilla, elbow, and wrist, but it also removes the tissue between the fingers, freeing them to form individual digits. The absence of this cell death between the fingers results in a birth defect called syndactyly (fused fingers). If we are created in the image of God, which I believe we are, then God must have fingers (the brother of Jared even saw one of them), and cell death plays a critical role in making our fingers like his.
9-Week Human Embryo from Ectopic Pregnancy
photo by Ed Uthman, Houston, TX, USA
Note that the hand is showing fingers with apoptosis
between them (darker areas), whereas the foot remains
a "foot plate" with no toes.
When people contemplate the absurd notion that there was no death before the fall, they need to realize that they are contemplating a world very different from the one we know. In fact, the world would have remained the barren, rocky planet that existed in the beginning, with no vegetation or animal life of any kind. Without death before the fall, rocks would have been broken down by the action of water and wind into sand, but the process would have gone no farther, the earth would look much like the surface of the Moon. There would have been no organic matter, which more complex plants require to grow. Therefore, there would have been no Garden of Eden. Without cell death, stems, leaves, and trunks could not have formed. Without the death of plants, no complex animals could have formed – and without cell death, animals would have had no shape anyway. Life, at best, would have consisted of jelly-like blobs floating in the oceans, and little more.
Alternatively, if Adam and Eve were in some magical way created before there was any death, yet with magical hair, nails, teeth, and skin, and placed into some magical garden where there was no death, yet there was magical organic soil where magical trees could grow with magical bark – yet without cell death, then I think we are forced to accept the teachings of Gosse. We are forced to believe that God created the illusion of structures such as teeth, nails, hair, and fingers, which in the world today, require death to exist. We are forced to believe that God planted a garden with rich, organic soil, which today requires the death of hundreds of plants to produce.
Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) lived at a time when people could contemplate Adam’s navel without bothering with the formation of his nails, hair or fingers. Gosse, as a naturalist, recognized the problem of a tree forming bark without cell death. Gosse’s logical conclusions, based on his refusal to accept the concept of death (or reproduction) before the fall, pushed him into a corner, which produced his book Omphalos (navel). He was forced to conclude that God had to have created a magical world where nothing was as it seemed, where trees were growing in soil that had the appearance of plant decay, where none had occurred, and where trees, “…would display the marks of sloughed bark and fallen leaves, though it had never borne those leaves or that bark.”6 Yet, even Gosse’s contemporaries, scientist and clergyman alike, realized the absurdity of his position.
I am stunned that in the twenty first century, when we know so much more about biology than did the people of Gosse’s day, people can hold to the absurd notion that there was no death before the fall. Do people today no longer garden? Or perhaps they just don’t think while they are gardening, or even contemplating gardening. Maybe it’s because we buy all our garden soil in bags from Home Depot and believe that somehow someone makes it in some factory. Where do they think the soil they are digging in came from? Don’t people wonder when they cut their finger nails or hair why their nails and hair don’t bleed? The question of “Was there death before the Fall?” goes way beyond contemplating just Adam’s navel.
In relation to Gosse’s Omphalos, an unidentified creationist website author has stated,
"Gosse probably wondered why people stopped inviting him to social events after his idea got out. But the problem with his view, and this is why he got little if any support from Christians, is that a belly button on someone who had no mother implies deception on God's part. And the Bible says that it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). So despite Philip Gosse's [sic; even though Gosse’s first name was Philip, he went by Henry] best intentions and respect for the Bible, his idea — theologically — doesn't stand up to scrutiny. God wouldn't have created trees with growth rings, and He wouldn't have created Adam and Eve with navels."7
This creationist, apparently, does not appreciate the absurdity of his or her position. “God wouldn't have created trees with growth rings...” Is he or she honestly proposing that the trees in the Garden of Eden had no growth rings – like some giant stocks of broccoli? What about the bark? He or she seems to have dodged that issue entirely. What about the ground in which the trees were growing? What about the hair, the teeth, the nails, the skin on Adam and Eve? Adams’ navel is the least of the so-called creationists’, or anyone else who dismisses death before the fall’s, problems. Are we actually living among people who are so caught up in a (scripturally unsupported) paradigm that they have lost all common sense?
1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XI, The Argument, 1667
2. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD; translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, p. 82-84, 1955, 1990
3. Alma 42:2-5
4. Genesis 2:16-17
5. Doctrine and Covenants 101:30
6. Edmund Gosse, The naturalist of the sea-shore; the life of Philip Henry Gosse, William Heineman, London, p. 278, 1896
7. creationtips.com, last updated: 30 July 2015; no specific author listed