Tree of Life Post 2: The Tree and the Fall

In part 1 of this series of posts, the topic of the Tree of Life was introduced and a brief summary of its meaning within Mormon theology was given. Today, the focus will be on the Fall and the Tree.

Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden

As established before, the Tree of Life symbolizes eternal life or the fullness of salvation. Ultimately, it is our goal to receive these blessings. Unfortunately, it’s not just a cakewalk to get to the Tree of Life and partake of the fruit. There had to be opposition. Lehi the prophet taught his son Jacob: “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad…. And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by one or the other.” (2 Nephi 2:11, 15-16.)

I have pondered over which of the fruits was supposed to be bitter and which was supposed to be sweet. The conclusion I have come to is that at first glance the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil seems sweet but turns out to be bitter while tree of life may seem bitter, but it turns out to be sweet above all else.

When Adam and Eve partook of that forbidden fruit, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden—the location of the tree of life—and the Lord “placed at the east of the Garden of Eden, cherubim and a flaming sword, which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” (Moses 4:31.) As a result of their choice, death came upon them in two senses—physical and spiritual. At some point, their body would decay—being subject to weakness and infirmity—and their spirit would depart from it. That is physical death. If this death was permanent, and “this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more… our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.” (2 Nephi 9:7-8.) That’s somewhat of a bitter thought.

A study for the Garden room in the Salt Lake City temple

Then, there was spiritual death: being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” (2 Nephi 9:6) and dead “as to things pertaining unto righteousness” (Alma 12:16). Often in the Old Testament the Tree of Life was a representation of God’s presence, and the Garden of Eden was a place where God’s presence was—the first temple, if you will. When they were removed from the Tree, they were simultaneously removed from the presence of God. This was passed on to us and because of the Fall, we inherit physical death and separation from God, and through our own sins become dead as pertaining to things of righteousness.

Now, if this spiritual death was unyielding, our souls would be as a tree that could not heal from the cuts inflicted upon it. We would suffer from a condition similar to some of the aspen trees had at a scout camp I worked at which we called scout cancer: the boys would cut the trees or break branches, etc, leaving them marred and injured. Without redemption and healing, our souls would be everlastingly marred and injured like those trees. We would be bound and could make no progress forward—only backwards, for “when we break a law, there is nothing left over from prior obedience to satisfy the demands of justice for that broken law.” (Richard G. Scott, “He Lives! All Glory to His Name!” Ensign May 2010.) Ultimately, as we continue to make mistakes, we would slip into the unyielding grasp of the devil—the pure embodiment of evil—“and our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself” (2 Nephi 9:9). That is the exact opposite of the fullness of joy described on the other path.

In the vision of the Tree of Life, Nephi noted that there was a river, which was explained to be “an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God…. It was a representation of that awful hell, which… was prepared for the wicked.” (1 Nephi 15:28-29.) That awful gulf is a very apt description of the effects of spiritual death. There’s a gulf, a separation, cherubim and a flaming sword separating us from our end goal with a host of obstacles before we even get there. Sensing the futility of overcoming physical death, a ruler of a group of Nephites pointed out to Alma the cherubim and flaming sword guarding the tree of life and said “And thus we see that there was no possible chance that they could live forever.” (Alma 12:21.)

The question could be asked—if God intends for us to partake of eternal life (figuratively speaking, the tree of life), why did he drive Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden to keep them from partaking of it? Some people have accused God of not wanting competition with other immortal beings that know good and evil. From what we know of His character, however, that would not be the case. What was His purpose, then?

To the Nephite leader’s question, Alma had a ready answer: “Now, if it had not been for the plan of redemption, which was laid from the foundation of the world, there could have been no resurrection of the dead; but there was a plan of redemption laid, which shall bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, of which has been spoken…. But God did call on men, in the name of his Son, (this being the plan of redemption which was laid) saying: If ye will repent, and harden not your hearts, then will I have mercy upon you, through mine Only Begotten Son; Therefore, whosoever repenteth, and hardeneth not his heart, he shall have claim on mercy through mine Only Begotten Son, unto a remission of his sins; and these shall enter into my rest. And whosoever will harden his heart and will do iniquity, behold, I swear in my wrath that he shall not enter into my rest.” (Alma 12:25, 33-35.) That was the answer planned from the beginning to overcome the Fall—to send God’s Only Begotten Son as a sacrifice to shatter the bands of death and allow a remission of sins through repentance and faith on his name.

The Atonement and the Fall must be understood together.

One must understand the Fall to understand the Atonement and one must understand the Atonement to put the Fall in perspective. President Ezra Taft Benson (13th president of the Church, lived 1899-1994) observed: “just as a man does not really desire food until he is hungry, so he does not desire the salvation of Christ until he knows why he needs Christ.

“No one adequately and properly knows why he needs Christ until he understands and accepts the doctrine of the Fall and its effect upon all mankind.” (A Witness and a Warning (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988), p. 33.)

Likewise, without the full effects of the Atonement in view, the Fall is nothing but tragedy—death and sin. With the understanding of the Atonement, however, our view changes and we see it in the same light as Elder Orson F. Whitney (Member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Lived 1855-1931) when he taught: “Adam’s fall was a step downward, but it was also a step forward—a step in the eternal march of human progress; and it is by means of this everlasting Gospel, and our own individual efforts in making use of the powers that God has given us, that we lay hold upon eternal life, and go on to perfection” (Conference Report, April 1908, 90).

We know how it was a step downwards, but how is it a step forward to eternal life? Well, with the Atonement available, men “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…. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:26-27). We are able to step forward through the Atonement. As we prepare for eternal life, we are able to gain experience and learn from mistakes as well as from good experiences. Brigham Young taught: “Darkness and sin were permitted to come on this earth. Man partook of the forbidden fruit in accordance with a plan devised from eternity, that mankind might be brought in contact with the principles and powers of darkness, that they might know the bitter and the sweet, the good and the evil, and be able to discern between light and darkness, to enable them to receive light continually” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], p. 39). The fallen world then becomes a learning zone where we can be born and find out why we want to seek eternal life through experiencing both the bitter and the sweet.

This was the purpose, then, of expelling Adam and Eve from the garden so they would not partake of the Tree of Life at that time—they were not ready for it and God had other plans. A scholar and apostle named Elder James E. Talmage (1862-1933) wrote the following on the subject: “By transgression our first parents acquired a knowledge, which in their condition of pristine innocence they had not possessed—the experimental knowledge of good and evil. The result of their fall could have been of none but ill effect had they been immediately brought to a condition of immortality, without repentance, without atonement” (Articles of Faith, 42nd edition [1967] p. 66, see also Alma 42:3-5). It is God’s will that we eventually partake of the Tree of Life, gaining immortality and eternal life, but He has blocked us from it to give us a chance to repent and to gain experience before we do so.

Since it is the Atonement of Jesus Christ that puts the Fall in perspective and bridges the gulf to the Tree of Life, next week, the discussion will shift to a more pure focus on Christ’s relationship with the Tree.

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