This past Sunday I taught my 14 year old SS class about the Atonement from 2 Nephi 2 (we’re a week behind). A strange thought occurred to me after class concerning the possible effects of a non-literal or symbolical reading of the Adam and Eve story on the way we (or at least I) understand the Atonement.
One of the things I taught my class stems right from my missionary days, namely that the Atonement directly undoes, in effect, two outcomes of Adam’s Fall: physical and spiritual death. I’ve learned much about the Gospel since my mission and many of my views from the time have changed, but I’ve always retained this basic truth.
The reasoning is thus: because of Adam’s choices all mankind has become subject to physical and spiritual death through no choice of their own. This unfair situation is corrected by the Atonement and is explicitly taught in 2 Nephi 2.
8 Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
10 And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.26 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.
The emphasis is mine but the point is clear. All men are resurrected and brought back into the very presence of God to be judged, a complete overcoming of the Fall for every individual. Neither is said to be conditional (though remaining in the presence of God is said to be very conditional).
Now for the problem. As my previous posts have shown, I’m often not a literalist when it comes to reading the scriptures, especially the OT. For example, I do not read the Flood story literally, I think that it happened but has been blown out of proportion. I read the Creation account very symbolically and I personally hold to the belief that science gives us today about the age of the Earth and how it was formed. I believe that God began or put life here but I also believe that our findings about the evolution of animals over the millenia also reveals to us about how our current animals got to their present forms. A non-literal reading of the Creation allows me to believe the Bible and our science.
However, I stop short on Adam and Eve and the evolution of man. The only official statement by Church leaders on the issues of creation and evolution that I am aware of (Origins of Man, I think) states only that man did not evolve. I struggle personally to understand exactly how we fit into the whole scheme of things, having not yet found an answer that I find satisfactory in addressing both science and faith. So as of right now I’m a fence-sitter.
On the other hand, many of my fellow LDS friends are not. They read the Adam and Eve story completely symbolically. For many of them, it is a metaphor of the awakening of mankind to consciousness. Adam and Eve were not historical figures in any way. While I am not nearly ready yet to join them in their beliefs, I can see their points and try to consider them seriously. I’m not about to hash them all out here as this is not the direct point of my post but this view point has a direct effect on my understanding of the Atonement and the Fall.
It is not at all difficult once a non-literal or non-historical Adam and Eve are accepted to view the Fall in the same light. The Fall becomes an explanation for the difficult state of mortal life and our separation from God.
Fair enough, but this does considerable damage to our understanding of the Atonement as I explained above. If there was no Adam to explain the cause of our fallen and mortal state then the Atonement does not undo those effects. It may still undo physical and spiritual death but what then are the causes of those great obstacles? I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard anyone offer a satisfactory explanation for them beyond the traditional Fall story.
What I have heard is that the Fall story is necessary to extricate God from any wrongdoing in the Creation of man. After all, God could not possibly be the creator and cause of this miserable life we suffer through, right? I know that sounds sarcastic but the truth is that I honestly pose this question myself. This world is imperfect, we are imperfect, and things are decidedly unjust. Traditionally, that is why God let Satan do what he did. What are we to understand about Satan, the third of the hosts of heaven, or anything from our premortal existence? And this is really just one area in which our theology gets a serious hit if the Creation and Fall are not literal.
If it is true that God did not require an Adam to Fall to curse the world and bring about the conditions that we experience (as 2 Nephi 2 avows) then I will have to seriously reevaluate my view of God, his nature, his character, and that of the universe. And I’m not unwilling to do that but I definitely would need some serious reasons for undertaking that endeavor.
Our current explanations of these events take care of most of the problems a non-literal reading presents. It’s not perfect but they are not without great merit and support. And I think that anyone trying to convince others to understand Adam and Eve as non-literal entities (or at least have us take them seriously) has a lot of explaining to do. In fact, they have a huge chunk of theology to rewrite, theology that our scriptures and prophets have purported and supported forever.
Is anyone willing to take up the gauntlet? I find myself in the position of being just outside mainstream understanding on many similar issues (like the ones I mentioned at the start of the post) because I am willing to think about other view points and non-traditional stances seriously. But at present, I do not find such a stance to be tenable. It brings into question too much of what I already hold to be as close to the truth as I’ve found without offering enough in return to make up for what it takes away.