Falling Forward

The Fall of Adam and Eve
Was there anything to be gained by the fall of Adam and Eve that could not have been gained otherwise?
Recap: Virtually all of traditional Christianity interprets the Fall as being an unintended deviation from a perfect state which God had planned mankind to stay in forever. In such a scheme, the purpose of the Atonement is to return us to that ideal condition.

If it were true that the purpose of the Atonement was to return us to the state that mankind was originally created in, then why would the Lord say, “They who keep their first estate shall be added upon; … and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (Abr. 3:26). In this passage, “first estate” refers to our premortal life,1 and “second estate” refers to our mortal probation on this earth (including the spirit world2). In both cases, moving beyond an estate is called being “added upon.” Mankind’s move from his created condition to a fallen world of pain and temptation was considered being “added upon,” and moving from this fallen world into the eternal glories is considered an even better improvement. Indeed, Brigham Young said, “The first great principle that ought to occupy the attention of mankind … is the principle of improvement. The principle of increase, of exaltation, of adding to that [which] we already possess, is the grand moving principle and cause of the actions of the children of men.”3 Of course, the Fall has undeniably unpleasant aspects, so Orson F. Whitney put it this way: “The fall had a twofold direction—downward, yet forward.”4

All of these statements would lead us to conclude that the Atonement’s purpose cannot be just to return us to the Edenic condition, because there would be no increase. If we come full circle with nothing to show for it, we have not been added upon. It seems that there must have been something lacking in Eden—something that is gained in the process of moving to “estates” beyond it.

Lehi’s Caveat

In 2 Ne. 2:22, Lehi teaches that Adam and Eve’s state in the garden of Eden (1) was free of pain, inconvenience, discomfort, and sorrow, as well as sin and misery, and (2) would have continued that way indefinitely had they not taken the fruit. Other traditional Christians, such as the Catholic priest whom my younger siblings interviewed, would agree with Lehi’s statement so far, and both parties could also agree on our graphical illustration up to this point:

The Fall leads down

However, the priest probably would have been surprised at the doctrines Lehi reveals in the next verse:

They would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. (2 Ne. 2:23)

Here, Lehi teaches that not only was the Eden state absent of negative, unpleasant aspects, but it was also (3) absent of many positive aspects. Not only did Adam and Eve have no sorrow; they also had no joy. Not only did they never sin; they also performed no good. Not only was there no pain in childbirth yet; there was no childbirth at all.5 Thus, the state they were created in lacked many of the characteristics that Christians have for centuries assumed were part of Eden. (My Book of Mormon teacher my freshman year at BYU, Todd B. Parker, emphasized this through a pair of questions on the midterm exam. [1] True or False: Adam and Eve were sad in the garden. [2] True or False: Adam and Eve were happy in the garden. The answer to both, of course, is false.)

This revelation led apostle James E. Talmage to remark, “It has become a common practice with mankind to heap reproaches on the progenitors of the family, and to picture the supposedly blessed state in which we would be living but for the fall.”6 In other words, Eden was pain-free, but it was not the blessed end-all-be-all of existence because it was also joy-free. In this scenario, the Creation cannot be considered a state Adam and Eve were meant to stay in forever. Would the Lord want mankind to be joyless, absent of good deeds, and a dead-ended population of two forever? Of course not. From that fact we must also conclude that the purpose of the Atonement cannot be to return us to the condition in which God created mankind in the garden. The Atonement must lead somewhere better than Eden.

The Fortunate Fall

Latter-day prophets have strenuously confirmed this implication. Many different prophets have repeatedly explained that the Fall of Adam was a necessary step to help us progress beyond the capacities we were created with:

  • Joseph Fielding Smith: “They were placed in the Garden of Eden … , but not under the most favorable circumstances. … They were deprived of certain knowledge and understanding. … Therefore, it became essential to their salvation and to ours that their nature should be changed. … Therefore, Adam partook of the forbidden fruit. … I do not look upon Adam’s fall as a sin.”7“We came into this world to die. That was understood before we came here. It is part of the plan, all discussed and arranged long before men were placed upon the earth. When Adam was sent into this world, it was … in order to bring to pass this mortal condition which we find ourselves in today.”8“When Adam was driven out of the Garden of Eden, the Lord passed a sentence upon him. Some people have looked upon that sentence as being a dreadful thing. It was not; it was a blessing. … In order for mankind to obtain salvation and exaltation it is necessary for them to obtain bodies in this world, and pass through the experiences and schooling that are found only in mortality. … The fall of man came as a blessing in disguise, and was the means of furthering the purposes of the Lord in the progress of man, rather than a means of hindering them.”9 
  • L. Tom Perry: “The Fall was as much a part of the foreordained plan of salvation as the Atonement. It was a necessary step forward in the progress of man.”10
  • Russell M. Nelson: “The Creation required the Fall. The Fall required the Atonement. The Atonement enabled the purpose of the Creation to be accomplished. Eternal life, made possible by the Atonement, is the supreme purpose of the Creation.11

Much more could be (and has been) said on why the Fall of Adam and Eve was so necessary, but I’ll try to keep the scope of this article narrowed on my main point. Knowing that that Fall (1) was necessary, because (2) it made possible a higher state of existence than was available in the Creation, we would finish our drawing thusly:

The Atonement leads to a higher state than the Creation

In other words, the two paths available to Adam and Eve were not “Stay in this perfect state forever” or “Take a needless, completely unbeneficial diversion at the risk of not being able to return.” Rather, the two options were “Stay in this sorrowless but joyless state forever” or “Take a necessary step that has a very unpleasant phase but which is followed by the capacity to become like God and experience real joy and meaningful existence.”


Thus, while passing through this fallen, mortal vale of tears is most definitely unpleasant at times (to put it mildly), one of the most important doctrines that has been restored in the latter days is the fact that it is absolutely necessary for us to become like God. He intended for Adam and Eve to Fall. He wanted them to. It was his will that they partake, and doing so was the only way for millions of God’s children to start on the path that has the potential to bring them into an estate that is better than the one they started with. That potential state, made possible by both the Fall and the Atonement, is not only filled with the eternal life inherent to dwelling in the Lord’s vibrant presence saturated with his living Spirit, but it is also filled with knowledge—of joy and its flip-side, sorrow, and of God himself, for only when we are like him shall we finally “see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). To borrow the imagery of Eden, we will be able to freely eat from both trees, for both were made by the Father and both embody his divine attributes.

This conclusion raises two questions. First, Why are pain and suffering necessary for us to progress? It’s a very important question that goes beyond the scope of this discussion, but Jeff approached it in “Finitude is Not the Answer” and “Sorrow versus Misery.”)

Second, if God intended Adam and Eve to bring mortality, pain, death, and sorrow into the world through eating the knowledge fruit, why did he forbid it (Gen. 3:3)? That is also too big a question to deal with in this post, but there are several helpful statements from modern prophets that address it.12 Perhaps the most import point they make is that “forbid” and “transgression” do not necessarily carry the meanings people often assume they do, especially in passages about the Fall. Saying “Adam and Eve were supposed to eat the fruit” should definitely not be construed to mean that people must disobey God’s will in order to progress (I’ve written a whole series on that called The Path of Sin, beginning with “The Benefits of Sin?“).

The main message I hope to convey through this article is that Adam and Eve were supposed to bring mortality, pain, death, and suffering into this world, because it benefits us by helping us become more like God. We should look upon the Fall as a terrific success in the plan, even though our limited mortal perspective often makes recognizing that difficult.


1. “First estate” might also conceivably refer to mankind’s condition in the garden of Eden before the Fall, in addition to the premortal life.

2. “From these scriptures, we also learn of three phases of our existence as children of God. Abraham calls these phases ‘estates’:

  1. We had the premortal state when we lived as spirit children of God;
  2. We have our “second estate,” which is the mortality we are now experiencing and our sojourn in the spirit worldfollowing death;
  3. And in the future we will have a reuniting of the soul into a state of immortality through the Resurrection. …

We know that we kept our first estate because we are here in mortality, and by receiving our bodies we have been added upon. We further know that the gospel teaches us how we must keep this, our second estate, in order that in the next life, the third estate, we may ‘have glory added upon [our] heads for ever and ever’ (Marion G. Romney, “We Are Children of God,” Ensign, Sep. 1984, p. 3.

3. Brigham Young, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 85.

4. Orson F. Whitney, Cowley and Whitney on Doctrine, comp. Forace Green (SLC: Bookcraft, 1963), p. 287.

5. The fact that Lehi says “would have had no children” raises the question of whether they “could have had no children.” While this particular passage is a little ambiguous, modern prophets have clarified this point. Elder Russell M. Nelson said of Adam and Eve, “In that state of innocence, they were not yet mortal. They could have had no children, were not subject to death, and could have lived in Eden’s garden forever” (“Constancy amid Change,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 33). In that same general conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “When Adam and Eve received the first commandment, they were in a transitional state, no longer in the spirit world but with physical bodies not yet subject to death and not yet capable of procreation. They could not fulfill the Father’s first commandment without transgressing the barrier between the bliss of the Garden of Eden and the terrible trials and wonderful opportunities of mortal life” (“‘The Great Plan of Happiness’,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 72).

6. James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1913), p. 70.

7. Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” 25 Jan. 1955, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, p. 2; cited in Doctrines of the Gospel, p. 21.

8. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:66; cited in Doctrines of the Gospel, p. 21.

9. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:113–14; cited in Doctrines of the Gospel, p. 21.

10. L. Tom Perry, “Give Heed unto the Word of the Lord,” Ensign, Jun. 2000, p. 22.

11. Russell M. Nelson, “The Atonement,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, p. 33.

12. Let the following two quotes from Joseph Fielding Smith suffice for the time being:

“Now this is the way I interpret that: The Lord said to Adam, here is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you want to stay here, then you cannot eat of that fruit. If you want to stay here, then I forbid you to eat it. But you may act for yourself, and you may eat of it if you want to. And if you eat it, you will die. I see a great difference between transgressing the law and committing a sin” (Joseph Fielding Smith, “Fall—Atonement—Resurrection—Sacrament,” in Charge to Religious Educators, p. 124; cited in Doctrines of the Gospel, p. 20).

“Adam partook of the forbidden fruit, forbidden in a rather peculiar manner for it is the only place in all the history where we read that the Lord forbade something and yet said, ‘Nevertheless thou mayest choose for thyself.’ He never said that of any sin. I do not look upon Adam’s fall as a sin, although it was a transgression of the law.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” 25 Jan. 1955, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, p. 2; cited in Doctrines of the Gospel, p. 20).


  1. For the last several years I’ve thought that the best Satan’s plan could offer (assuming that it could work in theory) was a terrestrial glory. He said not one soul would be lost, which we assume means that he would “save everyone” (even though that’s not what he said). But what type of salvation would it be? He never said anyone would be exalted. That was only possible through God’s plan.

    Lehi’s description of Eden (no joy/no sorrow) sounds like the best I can imagine Satan offering (no damnation/no exaltation). Eden was a terrestrial world. Perhaps that’s why Adam and Eve were initially placed in a middle kingdom. I imagine God’s justice could not place them in a celestial sphere which they did not merit, nor a telestial one which they did not deserve. Among other things, I think the Fall allowed them to enter the necessary telestial sphere without God unjustly placing them there.

  2. That is a great point—I’d never thought about the fact that Lucifer never claimed that he would save anyone; only that he would not lose anyone. And if gain and loss are both eliminated, becoming “compound in one,” then it’s technically true “that one soul shall not be lost.” I guess he couldn’t be convicted of false advertising.

    You did it again, Matthew. 🙂

  3. I like your chart showing the Creation, Fall, and Atonement. It has three distinct levels (shown by the horizontal lines). I see these levels as Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial.

    Looking at the chart, the Fall placed us in mortality (our current Telestial sphere), the Creation placed Adam and Even in Eden (which was a Terrestrial sphere, as will be the Millennial earth), and through the Atonement we can attain exaltation (which will be a Celestial sphere).

    The Atonement actually makes all 3 levels possible, as without it there would be no resurrection, forgiveness, or pardon, and no possibility of any glory.

    To me, there are two main principles involved in God’s plan: Agency and Redemption.

    If we had Agency without Redemption, it would be like 2 Nephi 9 which says we could never be resurrected and would be captive forever. There’s only one outcome, damnation.

    With Satan’s plan, there is no Agency but he said all would be Redeemed, therefore there’s no damnation (but also no exaltation). There’s only one outcome, a mediocre salvation.

    With God’s plan, there is Agency and Redemption available, therefore all glories are possible. There are four main outcomes available, and Exaltation becomes possible.

  4. Nathan—

    I’ve very much enjoyed your recent series of posts. You have a gift for explaining complex concepts with clarity and simplicity, and consistent with the teachings of the scriptures and modern prophets.

    With respect to the comments by yourself and Matthew Andreasen, I agree with the general drift of the points you are making and wanted to let you know of an article Ronan Head and I authored that goes into more depth on this subject:

    Here is one excerpt relevant to the discussion above:


    A close examination of the answers to these questions will reveal difficulties with some of the commonly accepted assumptions and will set the stage for further exploration of the events surrounding the Fall and Satan’s strategy in the Garden in the next section.

    1. What Did Satan Mean When He Proposed to “Redeem All Mankind”?

    Describing the contrast between Lucifer’s proposal and the plan of the Father that was advocated by the premortal Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith taught:

    The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the Devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the Devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him.

    The most common understanding of this statement is that it implies a difference in the consequences of the two plans for mankind in general. In other words, it is generally supposed by Mormons that, according to the plan advocated by Jesus, only the righteous would be saved, whereas in the Devil’s plan, “all generations of man … would be returned into the presence of God.” However, if we can trust the accuracy of a retrospective summary of a discourse by the Prophet from the journal of George Laub, the controversy highlighted in this statement more specifically concerned the fate of the “sons of perdition”:

    Jesus Christ … stated [that] He could save all those who did not sin against the Holy Ghost and they would obey the code of laws that was given.

    Laub’s version of the statement emphasizes specific limits of the guarantee of salvation promised by Jesus Christ. While, of course, allowing for the possibility of exaltation for the obedient, its burden in context was to lay out the major differences with Satan’s proposal. The statement implies that Jesus’ atonement could only provide absolute assurance of a minimal form of salvation, namely, that all men, except those who sinned against the Holy Ghost, would be, in the words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “resurrected to [at least] a telestial glory, escaping the second, i.e., spiritual death.”

    Satan, on the other hand, was reported in Laub’s recollection of the Prophet’s statement to have countered with an absurdly unconditional proposal:

    Send me, I can save all, even those who sinned against the Holy Ghost.

    Apparently trying to do away with the need for an atonement, Satan is here portrayed as having “sought … to redeem … all in their sins.” Following the logic of Laub’s account, this option presumably would have been most appealing to those spirits who would stand to benefit most from it; namely, those who had already manifested a proclivity toward the unpardonable sin—and, preeminently, Satan himself.

    2. By What Means Did Satan Seek to “Destroy the Agency of Man”?

    The book of Moses states that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man.” The means by which this would have been accomplished have not been authoritatively explained. However, the common LDS assumption is that, as part of the Devil’s premortal proposal, an element of compulsion was required—the idea that Satan advocated “the assertion of raw power to coerce moral sanctity from humanity.” For example, in an article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Chauncey Riddle writes: “Lucifer’s plan proposed to ‘save’ all of the Father’s children by forcing each to obey the Father’s law in all things.” Similarly, Victor Ludlow states that: “Lucifer … wanted to modify our agency so that there would be no opportunity at all to sin, thus enabling all God’s children to return to their celestial existence.”

    Yet, at least insofar as an analogy can be drawn between what was contemplated in this proposal and life on earth today, LDS theology seems to preclude the possibility that such a plan could have succeeded. Drawing a distinction between “agency (the power of choice)” and “freedom, the right to act upon our choices,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a Mormon apostle, argues that though it is possible for our freedom to be curtailed, “no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality” Moreover, even if there were a way that people could be continually compelled to “do the right things,” Elder Oaks argues that they could not qualify to enter God’s presence without a concomitant transformation of their natures. McLachlan insightfully observes: “There is a strong sense in LDS doctrine that Satan’s coercive plan is a lie from the beginning because it is a rejection of reality itself which is based on the agency, creativity, and co-eternality of intelligences”

    In light of these considerations, should the element of compulsion as the central feature of Satan’s premortal proposal be assumed without question? It is difficult to imagine that the Devil could have won so many followers in the premortal world on the basis of a supposed plan that seems, on the face of it, to be so thoroughly unworkable, if not impossible. Perhaps there is another way of looking at the situation. Our examination of the account of the Fall below attempts to provide a reasonable alternative to the traditional view on the nature of Satan’s efforts to “destroy the agency of man.”


    In the article, we explore these questions in more detail.

    Thanks again for your posts!

  5. Thanks for the kind words, as well as that excerpt and link! I’ll have to look closer at it when I have a moment to digest it.

    I’ll try not to gush, but let me just say that I’m thrilled that you came across something I wrote. I have voraciously read every article you’ve had published on Meridian about Adam and Eve, and I’ve been waiting for the time when I have enough leftover income at the end of the month to finally purchase your book. I’ve even toyed with the idea of writing a historical fiction story of Adam and Eve, and your writings have been my primary resource. Thank you for all the fantastic research you’ve done on the topic.

  6. I’ve finally had the chance to read the excerpt Jeffrey Bradshaw posted.

    I completely agree with you that we should not assume “destroy our agency” means Satan would force people to do what is right. (I discussed this in my post “Astronauts without Planets,” as did Jeff, my co-author, in his post “Law and Moral Agency“.) I find it equally (if not more) plausible that Satan would like to have abolished law in some way, so that there were no consequences. I don’t think, for example, that Satan was planning on coming to earth and keeping the law of chastity.

    There are other things in your excerpt I’ve never thought about and which I find intriguing—the close reading of alternate accounts of Joseph’s statements, the connection with sons of perdition, the exploration of what exactly Lucifer was proposing and why it would seem so alluring. I am definitely going to read the whole paper. Thanks again for posting it!

    By the way, everyone, part 2 of the spiritual death series will be posted on Monday, and part 3, on the Monday after that. Thank you for being patient!

  7. I finished reading the whole article. It’s fascinating. I wish there were a way to post comments about it on your site. I’m curious about one thing: is the idea that Adam and Eve might have also been prohibited from the tree of life crucial for your thesis? Because there are reasons I’ve always thought of them as having free access to the tree of life. I think you make several profound insights, and I need to think through them to see if they can be reconciled with the view that the tree of life was available to them in their innocent state.

  8. Hi, Nathan. Sorry to be slow in replying.

    You are very courageous to have made it the whole way through the article. 😉

    For the reasons mentioned in the article (and for additional reasons discussed in the books), I am quite wed to the idea that Adam and Eve did not have access to the Tree of Life while they were in the Garden. I would enjoy hearing more about your thinking on the subject.

    P.S. If you will send me your email address, I’d be happy to make PDF versions of the books available to you.

  9. I’ve sent you an email, and I’m wiping the drool off my copy of Adobe Reader. 🙂

    I think I’d always assumed they could freely eat of the tree of life because I’d heard it explained that way in my early years—by a Sunday school teacher or a seminary teacher, I don’t remember. You’ve probably heard that view before: “We assume they could because they weren’t specifically prohibited from it. We suppose that in their innocent state, it had no effect on them. Only after they had knowledge of good and evil did they need to be guarded against partaking unprepared.” Now I think about it, that’s about all the rationale I have.

    But I think the reason it stuck is because I began to think of the fruit of the tree of life as analogous to the sacrament. You’ve probably heard this, too: The tree in Nephi’s vision can be interpreted to represent Christ (“Believest thou that thy father saw the tree? … [Then] thou believest in the Son of the most high God”). Christ’s greatest “fruit” he produced would be the Atonement. In the dream, people partake of the fruit over and over again by repeatedly eating something small and white; we partake of the Atonement by weekly eating small, white pieces of bread in the sacrament.

    Well, since we’re supposed to think of ourselves as reenacting Adam and Eve’s journey, I began to think of how Adam and Eve in their innocence interacted with the tree of life as analogous to how little children in their unaccountable state interact with the sacrament. That is, little children can freely partake of the sacrament. It does them no harm, since they are sinless and alive in Christ, but it also doesn’t exactly benefit them, since they’ve made no covenant that they can renew. So the sacrament doesn’t really do anything for them, but neither are they “drinking damnation to their souls.”

    Like Adam and Eve, though, once little children gain knowledge of good and evil and become accountable, they are still invited to “eat the fruit of the tree,” but now only under certain conditions—entering the path through the gate (baptism), a covenant relationship, worthiness, etc.

    I know it’s not the most rigorous rationale; it’s just the way I’ve made sense of it in my head. So when your collection of great insights involved abandoning that rationale, I’ve had to pause and think through it first.

  10. Thank you Nathan for this great article. When I finished reading this, I clapped. Then as I read the comments, my hand went over my mouth in awe—and then with a desire to chew—Did Adam and Eve have the opportunity to partake of the tree of life? I have thought the same as you concerning the sacrament and tree of life and the idea that they could partake in the garden of Eden and it would not have made any difference.

    I am grateful I stumbled across your articles on the plan of salvation today. What a great fall it has been!

  11. Ha ha, you’re witty! 🙂

    Interestingly enough, after I wrote this article, I was talking with Jeff Bradshaw about that idea (that perhaps Adam and Eve could, pre-Fall, freely eat of the tree of life, to no effect). He interprets the story differently; he strongly believes that they did not have access to the tree of life before the Fall, even suggesting that the tree of knowledge formed a sort of hedge blocking the way.

    Very interesting possibilities to consider. You can read more of Jeff’s ideas about Adam and Eve in his fabulous book In God’s Image and Likeness.

    Also, to give due credit, I think I got the idea of comparing the tree of life fruit (pre-Fall) to the sacrament from Todd B. Parker.

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