Some Latter-day Saints, including some General Authorities like Joseph Fielding Smith, have tried to resolve apparent discrepancies between scripture and science on the age of the earth by asserting that “we don’t know how long Adam and Eve were in the garden.” The implication is that the while the earth went on existing, potentially for millions or billions of years, Adam and Eve remained effectively in stasis in the garden planted eastward in Eden.
I see three arguments against this view.
First, it makes the traditional strong assumption that the genre of Genesis 2-3 is journalistic history (with a few “symbolic” bits), typically reinforced by its repetition in Moses, Abraham, and the temple. You can see this argument in Richard Draper’s paper, “The Creation of Humankind, An Allegory?: A Note on Abraham 5:7, 14-16.” I haven’t written a response to that per se, but I think he fails to address some fundamental assumptions there. (For those unfamiliar, see my take on the repetition of Genesis in LDS sources here, here, here, and here, and on genre here, here, here). But let’s set that aside.
Second, the various dating methods which demonstrate the earth’s great antiquity rely on decay, on elementary breakdown, on death. But if the earth was created static, with no death, decay, or breakdown anywhere in any way until the Fall, then these dating methods should indicate an earth only 6000 years old (per scriptural “literalism” applied to Genesis and D&C 77).
Some LDS sidestep this further, asserting that dating methods and fossils indicating an old earth are indeed correct, but the oldness is due to the earth being created from remnants of prior planets; in this view, the earth is young, but made from old pieces, which make it look old. This is a misreading of a comment by Joseph Smith, which I don’t address here, but see this old post elsewhere. Moreover, it’s been shot down by a number of LDS using logic. Henry Eyring Sr. told one BYUI science professor
it would take a very fancy shovel to put the earth together in such an organized fashion so that the fossils and ages of rocks are arranged in such an orderly manner with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top.
Third, the strongest argument for me comes from scripture and the temple itself. The traditional assertion is that Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden in order to experience, recognize, and make choices between opposites.
However, the temple and scripture also present the Garden— if you’re paying attention— with opposites already present, recognized, and forcing choices.
For example, there is day and night, which entails light and darkness, two pairs of opposites with all the gradations in between: starlight, moonlight, dawn, the golden hour.
Then there are trees which they eat from. Why do you eat? Why do you need to eat? Hunger and survival. Why do you not eat? Satiety. Is that not an opposite, one based on human need and desire? What would happen if they didn’t eat at all? Would they have gotten hungrier? Would they have died? If not… then why food?
When tempted by the serpent, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food” (Genesis 3:6). This entails judgment or discernment, being able to recognize that some trees are good for food and nourishment, but other trees aren’t. Again, here’s a binary already present in the garden, and Eve has the ability to distinguish the good from the bad, the “feeds me” from the “doesn’t feed me.”
Eve also perceives that the tree was a “delight to the eyes.” This is a judgment of aesthetics, which again implies the presence of binary ends on a scale of beauty, an aesthetic hierarchy, and Eve’s ability to distinguish and judge between those gradations.
Taking all this together, the traditional LDS framing, in which Adam and Eve loiter in a static Garden for potentially millions of years, without any death or decay, and unable to recognize, choose between, or experience opposites because they have not yet eaten the fruit… simply makes no sense. Those things are already present and happening in the Garden, no fruit necessary. Tradition presents an inadequate description of what scripture says and what the temple presents, leaving science out of the argument entirely.
This is one of those aspects where the details of the story are strongly at odds with supposed genre and setting of the story, a clue which suggests we’re misunderstanding it (per my Temple fireside.) Indeed, all of this strongly suggests that approaching Genesis, Moses, Abraham, or the temple primarily as journalistic history, as a kind-of-documentary-but-of-course-some-parts-are-symbolic is misguided, and causing unnecessary problems.
James E. Talmage wrote
I cannot agree with [the] conception that there was no death of plants and animals anywhere upon this earth prior to the transgression of Adam, unless we assume that the history of Adam and Eve in Eden dates back many hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble with some theologians – even including many of our own good people – is that they undertake to fix the date of Adam’s transgression as being approximately 4000 years before the birth of Christ and therefore about 5932 years ago. If Adam was placed upon the earth only that comparatively short time ago, the rocks clearly demonstrate the life and death had been existent and operative in this earth for ages prior to that time.
So where does this leave us?
First, it’s clear we can’t reconcile scripture with science and the age of the earth by asserting a long stay in the Garden. It fails on multiple levels.
Second, barring new revelation— which tends to come after we’ve done our homework— I think our way forward, the homework we need to do, entails recognizing and moving past our 1950s fundamentalism. Again, on numerous occasions James E. Talmage recognized the problem of setting fossilized interpretations of scripture against nature (my italics).
I think we should be very careful in taking what we consider the one and only interpretation or application of a passage of scripture, and sweeping away as utterly wrong all accumulated knowledge that may seem to point to another interpretation…. We have to recognize fact whether it be called scripture or science; and it is unwise to attempt to pass upon demonstrated fact and call it false because it has been brought forth through the labors of trained men in the field of science.
We cannot sweep aside all the accumulated knowledge in geology, archeology or any other branch of science simply because our interpretation of some isolated passage of scripture may seem to be opposed thereto.
I think our pre-revelation homework includes cleaning our interpretive glasses, learning to read scripture literally and in context, and revisiting it for what it actually says. Then we can engage in more integrative work that takes scripture literally and authoritatively and also accounts for God’s revelations written in nature.
And then per D&C 101:32-34, one day God will reveal —or confirm!— our earth history.
If God were to repeat the story of man’s origin He would probably clear away many of the obscurities surrounding the account contained in Jewish scriptures. Doubtless, however, as people become more and more anxious to know the truth, He will supply means for their enlightenment, but no one would care to say whether this enlightenment will come as direct revelation from God or through the researches of science.
– Frederick Pack, LDS geology professor and Chair of the Church-wide Gospel Doctrine Committee, in Science and Belief in God, 1924
- On the Garden and “opposition”
- Evolution and the Fall
- Ten Books for Getting a Handle on the Early Chapters of Genesis
- My Science and Genesis syllabus of readings (I’ve added this post to the syllabus.)
- Revelation, Adaptation, and the Temple: “Everything is a Remix”
As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.