Latter-day Saints believe that Adam and Eve went into the Garden of Eden to fall, that what they did had the approbation of God and was thus a transgression (a “going across”) and not a sin, and that their fall was as much a part of the foreordained plan of the Father as was the Atonement. We believe in the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith that “Adam was made to open the way of the world” (1:282). Although the Fall was a move downward, it was a move forward in the eternal scheme of things because it “brought man into the world and set his feet upon progression’s highway” (Cowley, 287).
To fail to teach the Fall is to lessen our understanding of the importance of the Atonement. President Ezra Taft Benson 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” (33).
The Fall and the Atonement are a package deal: the one creates the need for the other. We do not appreciate and treasure the medicine until we appreciate the seriousness of the malady. We cannot look earnestly and longingly to the Redeemer if we do not sense the need for redemption. Jesus came to earth to do more than offer sage advice. He is not merely a benevolent consultant or a spiritual adviser. He is our Savior. He came to save us. The following are a few of the principles that may be learned from scripture regarding the effects of the Fall and the nature of fallen humanity:
1. All mankind are lost and fallen. In what seems to be the first reference in the Book of Mormon to the Fall, Nephi taught that “six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world. And he [Lehi] also spake concerning the prophets, how great a number had testified of these things, concerning this Messiah, . . . or this Redeemer of the world. Wherefore, all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer” (1 Nephi 10:4–6; see also Alma 42:6).
Note carefully those two words so descriptive of mortals—lost and fallen. Truly, as Isaiah declared (and Abinadi quoted), “All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6; Mosiah 14:6). The Good Shepherd comes on a search-and-rescue mission after all of his lost sheep. He who never took a moral detour or a backward step reaches out and reaches down to lift us up. We are lost in that we do not know our way home without a guide, in that we are alienated from God and separated from things of righteousness. We are fallen in that we have chosen, like our Exemplar, to condescend to enter a telestial tenement. Because our eternal spirit has taken up its temporary abode in a tabernacle of clay, we must be lifted up, quickened, and resuscitated spiritually if we are to return to the divine presence.
Individuals are lost and fallen in that they are subject to spiritual death, which is the separation from God (Alma 42:7, 9) and the separation from the things of righteousness (Alma 12:6, 32; 40:26). Alma explained to his son Corianton that after they partook of the forbidden fruit, our first parents were “cut off from the tree of life” and thereby “became lost forever, yea, they became fallen man. And now, we see by this that our first parents were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own will.” Alma pointed out that inasmuch as “the fall had brought upon all mankind a spiritual death as well as a temporal, that is, they were cut off from the presence of the Lord, it was expedient that mankind should be reclaimed from this spiritual death. Therefore, as they had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature, this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state” (Alma 42:6–7, 9–10).
2. We inherit a fallen nature through our conception into mortality. God spoke to Father Adam in the dawn of history: “Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55). To say that we are not responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve is not to say that we are unaffected by it. To say that we do not inherit an original sin through the Fall is not to say that we do not inherit a fallen nature and thus the capacity to sin. Fallenness and mortality are inherited. They come to us as a natural consequence of the second estate we call earth life.
Lehi explained to Jacob that after the Fall, “the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents” (2 Nephi 2:21).
Abinadi likewise explained to the priests of Noah that yielding to Lucifer’s temptation in the Garden of Eden “was the cause of [Adam and Eve’s] fall; which was the cause of all mankind becoming carnal, sensual, devilish, knowing evil from good, subjecting themselves to the devil. Thus, all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state.” Continuing, Abinadi points out that a fallen nature is not just something we descend into through personal sin but something out of which we must be extracted through divine regenerating powers: “Remember that he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, remaineth in his fallen state and the devil hath all power over him. Therefore he is as though there was no redemption made, being an enemy to God” (Mosiah 16:3–5).
3. We may be faithful and pure hearted and yet still be buffeted by the pulls of a fallen world. There is a difference between the natural man and the spiritual man who is taunted by the natural world in which he lives. Perhaps there is no better illustration of this in scripture than Nephi, son of Lehi. He was a man who was obedient and submissive, a man who was led and empowered by the Spirit of Almighty God: “My heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.” Now note the words that follow, words spoken by a man who was surely as pure and virtuous as anyone we know: “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:16–19).
The people of Benjamin were described by their great king as “a diligent people in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (Mosiah 1:11). We suppose that they were followers of our Lord and Savior, people who had come out of the world by covenant. King Benjamin delivered to his people one of the most significant addresses in all the Book of Mormon. He announced his retirement and his son Mosiah as his successor. He gave an accounting of his reign and ministry, encouraged the people to serve one another and thereby serve God, and counseled them (in the words of an angel) to put off the natural man and put on Christ through the Atonement. The people were electrified by the power of the message. Benjamin “cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 4:1–2). They cried unto the Lord for forgiveness and deliverance. They were a noble people, a diligent people who viewed themselves in their own carnal state.
The brother of Jared went to the top of Mount Shelem with sixteen transparent stones, eager to have the Lord touch them and thereby light his people’s barges. He presented the stones to the Lord and prayed: “O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2; emphasis added). Then he called upon God for divine assistance.
We can grow in spiritual graces to the point “that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2) and that we cannot look upon sin save it be with abhorrence (Alma 13:12; 2 Nephi 9:49; Jacob 2:5). We can, like Nephi, delight in the things of the Lord (2 Nephi 4:16). But as long as we dwell in the flesh, we will be subject to the pulls of a fallen world.
“Will sin be perfectly destroyed?” President Brigham Young asked. “No, it will not, for it is not so designed in the economy of Heaven. . . . Do not suppose that we shall ever in the flesh be free from temptations to sin. Some suppose that they can in the flesh be sanctified body and spirit and become so pure that they will never again feel the effects of the power of the adversary of truth. Were it possible for a person to attain to this degree of perfection in the flesh, he could not die neither remain in a world where sin predominates. . . . I think we shall more or less feel the effects of sin so long as we live, and finally have to pass the ordeals of death” (10:173).
4. Little children are innocent by virtue of the Atonement, not by nature. Little children are innocent as one of the unconditional blessings of the Atonement because Jesus Christ decreed them so (Mosiah 3:16; Moroni 8:10, 12, 22; D&C 29:46; 74:7).
5. The natural man is an enemy to God and to all righteousness. “There is a natural birth, and there is a spiritual birth,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote. “The natural birth is to die as pertaining to premortal life, to leave the heavenly realms where all spirits dwell in the Divine Presence, and to begin a new life, a mortal life, a life here on earth. The natural birth creates a natural man, and the natural man is an enemy to God. In his fallen state he is carnal, sensual, and devilish by nature. Appetites and passions govern his life, and he is alive—acutely so—to all that is evil and wicked in the world” (282).
The angel explained to King Benjamin that “men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:18–19; see also 1 Corinthians 2:11–14).
The Latter-day Saint view of man—his nature and destiny—is remarkably optimistic. We are the sons and daughters of God Almighty; we are his spirit offspring (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:9). We have the capacity through drawing upon the powers of the Atonement to grow in spiritual graces and in Christlike attributes so as to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). But despite our divine heritage, despite our spiritual potentialities, we cannot save ourselves. We cannot forgive our own sins, cleanse our souls, renew our hearts, raise ourselves from the dead, or prepare a heavenly mansion on our own. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed: “Man unquestionably has impressive powers and can bring to pass great things by tireless efforts and indomitable will. But after all our obedience and good works, we cannot be saved from the effect of our sins without the grace extended by the atonement of Jesus Christ” (67).