Truman G. Madsen—a BYU professor known for his love of history once wrote: “Religious literature, ancient and modern, is replete with images of a tree of life that is to be planted in a goodly land by a pure stream. Some typologies regard it as the link at the very navel of the earth—the source of nourishment between parent and child—and place it at the temple mount in Jerusalem, where heaven and earth meet. The fruit of this tree is most precious.” (Truman G. Madsen, “The Olive Press”, Ensign 1982.) The tree of life is a recurring image both within Christianity and around the world: The Norse had Yggdrasil—a great ash tree that is central in their cosmology. Taoist legend tells of a tree that produces a immortality-giving peach every three thousand years. Images have been found in Central America depicting a tree of life, such as the Mayan sarcophagus shown below.
Such trees usually have to do with the interconnectedness of the universe as well as the granting of immortality. While such examples could go on (and perhaps will be the subject of future posts), my main focus is to take a look at some Mormon views of the tree of life.
The Book of Mormon has a few significant references to a tree of life. The most noted and dramatic of these is perhaps the vision that was shown to Lehi and Nephi in 1 Nephi. In describing the tree, Lehi said that he: “beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit of thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy” (1 Nephi 8:10-12).
What could this tree mean? Later, Nephi was given the opportunity to have a angelically-guided tour through the same vision. He stated that the tree his father had seen was the tree of life (see 1 Ne 15:21-22) and that its “fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits; yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God.” (1 Ne 15:36.) In turning elsewhere to find what has been suggested as the greatest of all the gifts of God, we turn to the Doctrine and Covenants and read from a revelation given to Joseph Smith that: “eternal life… is the greatest of all the gifts of God.” (D&C 14:7.) Elder Bruce R. McConkie—a member of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles during his lifetime—wrote that: “The scriptures set forth that there were in the Garden of Eden two trees. One was the tree of life, which figuratively refers to eternal life; the other was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which figuratively refers to how and why and in what manner mortality and all that appertains to it came into being.” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith , 86.) This brings the two together—eternal life (a term used for the fullness of salvation) and the tree of life.
Next to look at, then, is what is involved with reaching this tree of life? We find answers in the scriptures. In the verse just mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants, we read “If you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.” (D&C 14:7.) Alma the Younger concluded one of his great discourses by saying: “Come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life” (Alma 5:62). From the Revelation of John we learn “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. “ (Rev 2:7, emphasis added.) Next, in Lehi’s dream, he “beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which [he]stood.” (1 Nephi 8:20) Because of the difficulty of the way, those who did not “press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (1 Nephi 8:30) were lost. Nephi, in explaining what an angel had taught him to his brothers explained that the rod of iron “was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish” (1 Nephi 15:24). So, from these few verses, we learn that heeding the word of God, keeping His commandments, baptism, enduring to the end and overcoming are what lead us to partake of eternal life.
Turning elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, we read the words of a prophet named Alma. In a great discourse on faith he compared the word of God to a seed, springing forth to a tree of eternal life. He said: “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me…. And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit…. [And] if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst. Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.” (Alma 32:28, 37, 41-43.)
Now, let’s stop and think of the description given the fruit of the tree of life: “most precious, which is sweet about all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure” (Alma 32:42); it is “precious above all…, most desirable above all things… Yea, and most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:9, 22-23.) In connection with it, the Lord, through a messenger to John the Beloved said that the blessings include “power over the nations… I will give him the morning star… [and] To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” (Revelation 2:26, 28; 3:21.) On another occasion, Christ described this condition as a “fullness of joy” (3 Nephi 28:10). It truly is the greatest gift we can be given—the most delicious to the taste and the most desirable thing anyone could ever think of.
As great as it is, though, there are requirements to reach this tree and to partake of its fruit. As a proverb I once heard said, “there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” The next post will be on the difficulties of reaching the tree from a scriptural perspective as well as some deeper symbolism of the tree in relation to Christ.