A Mormon Picture of Creation
By John L. Sorenson
[source unknown]
Brigham Young said, in describing other Christian churches: "The religious teachers advance many ideas which contradict facts demonstrated by science. You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not contradict the facts of science. (Discourses of Brigham Young, Deseret Book, 1961, pp. 258-59)

The Duration of Creation

The scriptures available have often been interpreted as depicting two successive creation processes or sequences. The first is termed "spiritual" and the second "physical." Genesis 1:1 through 2:3 are paralleled and supplemented by Moses 2:1 through 3:3 and Abraham 4:1 through 5:3, all telling of the first sequence. Abraham 5:4-21 and equivalents in the other two sources describe the second.

The most plausible interpretation of the reported "spiritual" sequence views the account in a straightforward, literal way. The accounts simply indicate that a conference was held by "the Gods" which lasted through six sessions ("times" or "days").

The nature of the business of this meeting suggests that little time was involved. Clearly decision-making, not action, was going on. These accounts are unequivocally clear that while plans were being laid at that time, none of them were then executed.

How much time was consumed by the subsequent process of "physical" creation? The entire account about the material implementation of the plan which had been worked out in spiritual form takes up very few words. From them we cannot determine at all how long a time was involved. The physical process is essentially described in a mere four verses:
And the Gods came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were formed in the day that the Gods formed the earth and the heavens. According to all that which they had said concerning every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew; for the Gods had not caused it to rain upon the earth when they counseled to do them, and had not formed a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, manís spirit), and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul (Abra. 5:4-7).
All this account specifically says is that, yes, the plan was carried out the way it had been laid out. Not a word conveys positive information about how long it actually took to prepare the earth as manís habitation. Verse 4 does speak of "the day" that the Gods formed the earth and the heavens, but to suppose that the statement could mean a specific unit measure, of whatever length, conflicts with other scriptures. Logically and necessarily the expression refers only to a general period of time of unspecified duration.

Incidentally, these scriptures may be interpreted as indicating that the creation process is still continuing today. Only in the seventh phase was the creative work of the Gods to cease (Abra. 5:2), while they rested. In the sixth period men were to subdue the earth (Abra. 4:28), but that has surely not yet been completed, nor can we suppose that the Gods are resting in regard to this earth. It appears that man continues even today as a "collaborating creator" with God. Our scientists are capable of creating, and are in fact creating, new types of organisms never before seen on the earth. Man also is eliminating creatures and even remaking the face of the earth. To be sure, men are making something of a mess in the process, for the hearts of todayís fathers are insufficiently concerned about the children who will follow us, so that we are leaving them a corrupted physical as well as spiritual inheritance.

Was Adam the First Living Creature?

Certain statements lead some readers to particularly troublesome interpretive problems. Taken in isolation, Moses 3:19-20 and Abraham 5:9 and 20, appear to mean that man was literally the first animal creature on this globe, and that all plants and beasts were brought into existence only after Adam and Eve were alive. When these statements are placed alongside Moses 2 and Abraham 4, however, that interpretation must be ruled out. The plan which has been worked out so carefully in the spiritual phase called for plants to appear, followed by the animals, and then by man. That this original plan really was followed in the physical creation we are assured: "And the Gods came down and formed . . . the heavens and the earth . . . according to all that which they had said." (Abra. 5:4-5) Thus there is no possibility that the order had somehow been rearranged to make Adam and Eve precede all the beasts.

The problem is resolved if we see the first statement in each of the problem verses - "And out of the ground made the Gods to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food," (Abra. 5:9), and "And out of the ground the Gods formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air," (Abra. 5:20) - as referring to the special setting of the Garden of Eden. Each statement simply reviews or recapitulates what verses 4 and 5 had earlier indicated as taking place for the whole globe. Thus we are informed that as far as the special, limited situation in the Garden of Eden was concerned, plants and animals previously brought into existence for the globe were introduced into the special Garden, where Adam gave them names. Any other interpretation is not only unnecessary but raises conflicts with earlier portions of the creation story which cannot be reconciled.

"Earth" vs. Garden of Eden

Another statement whose interpretation troubles some Latter-day Saints may be handled in the same manner. Moses 3:7 says "and man became . . . the first flesh upon the earth." Again such an assertion would come into conflict with the sequence of creation planned in the previous chapter, if we insist that "earth" refers to the whole globe. We are instructed by Moses 1:29, however, that there were many "lands" on the globe, and each one of them was called "earth." (In Hebrew one word, Ďeretz, is translated either "land" or "earth" depending on the context.) Thus Adam and Eve could indeed have been "the first flesh" on the "earth" or land of the Garden of Eden. At the same time the globe in general had long since held living creatures developed as part of the overall plan. (If this were not so, why should there have been a special "garden" at all? The whole globe might as well have been the coupleís home.)

Life Created by Natural Processes

The scriptures, as we have seen, are noncommittal about how long it took to ready the earth physically, yet an inference is justifiable that it occupied rather long as men measure time. We can draw that conclusion from the nature of the processes which were planned and described in the spiritual phase. As we shall see below, the plan called for life forms to be developed through the natural action of the planet itself. No single statement anywhere justifies our concluding that these natural actions proceeded at a pace faster than we see in nature at the present; God has plenty of time. That he could have acted faster is not at issue. He might have picked up the Mormon refugees in Missouri and transported then by whirlwind to Commerce, Illinois, but he did not.

The Process of Creation

What action really went on during that spiritual first phase of the creation? Can we understand it all? What does it mean to design an earth?

A possible parallel lies in an artistic project. A composer may be said not yet to have created his composition even though he has worked it out in detail mentally without committing it to paper, or perhaps having it on paper but never having played it.

A more enlightening modern analogy to the process of spiritual creation could be programming a computer. The six active "days" of planning reported in Genesis 1 could be compared to the time for writing a complex computer program and eliminating any possibility for significant error. After that, the operations themselves would remain to be carried out.

Still another analogy by which we can appreciate the process of creation planning might be the coding of growth instructions to an organism inside its cells. Scientists have discovered that fantastically complex growth and functioning patterns are spelled out inside infinitesimal molecules of the chemical DNA which are found in the cells of all living creatures. These tiny "books of life" contain encapsulated chemical instructions which govern how our bodies differentiate and how cells function from birth to death. Chemically (that is genetically) established at our conception, these signal sequences unfold in their planned order without any new information necessarily being introduced from the outside.

God evidently did something to the earth in the creative planning process to ensure that it would progressively unfold as he desired. "And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good." (Abra. 4:21) When it was said "Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass (Abra. 4:11), there was no necessity for the Lord to come down with a shovel or seeds. The language of the text makes it repeatedly clear that the earth itself was prepared to do the bringing forth. "Out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally" (Moses 3:9). Similarly the Gods arranged for "the water" to bring forth life forms appropriate to them, and the earth was organized so that of itself it would eventually develop creeping things, birds, "cattle" and all "the beasts."

Just as God saw that his plan was good for producing the forms of nature, he could plan confidently that certain leading spirit children would become "rulers" at appropriate times, for "he saw that they were good" (Abra. 3:23). Might he not have "programmed" events to govern their appearance at crucial times and places? By knowing the laws of individual and societal behavior, an experienced Planner would also be able to lay out a sequence of times and places for the appearance, flourishing, and decline of peoples and their cultures.

The Meaning of "Create"

On the basis of this knowledge about creation planning, Latter-day Saints are necessarily "determinists" to a degree. We understand that Godís purposes will surely come to pass, for he has fitted his purposes and program within the laws governing the universe and the earth, thus ensuring the general results. Individual men, and even nations, have a certain amount of leeway or freedom of choice, but nothing they do can significantly deflect the main stream of events from its assigned course. (Note Doctrine and Covenants 121:25, 32-33).

Without guidance from Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saints would be as ignorant as most other religious people about the meaning of the word "create." Many Bible readers still suppose that this term means "to make from nothing." Joseph explained in 1844 that such an idea is unreasonable. Equally erroneous is the notion that Adam was formed instantaneously from a pile of dust. Parley P. Pratt once scoffed at the idea that man was made "like a brick." It is unworthy of the LDS understanding of God to see him, as some of us still tend to do, as a kind of super-magician performing tricks. Of course he carries out some acts which we call miracles due to our limited experience, but they are remarkably few compared with the number of his acts which even humans can discern as fitting the laws of nature.

Our understanding of the process by which Adamís body and our bodies were created is enhanced if we examine the scriptures closely. Abraham (5:7, compare Moses 5:7), tells us that "the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground." Furthermore, the formative mechanism was the same as that by which other living creatures were brought into being, for chapter 5 verse 20 states in parallel language that "out of the ground the Gods formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air," just as had been planned when "the Gods prepared the earth" (Abra. 4:24) to bring them forth. Trees likewise were made to grow "out of the ground (Abra. 5:9), the earth previously having been prepared to that end (Abra. 4:11-12). All these organisms were made "out of the ground" or "out of the dust," just as was manís body. And God not only planned that this would take place, he saw that it was good.

"Man" Before Adam

Note that on some points we must work out in our own minds (D&C 9:7-8) some of the meanings of the scripture where little is said. One uncertain point is the precise relationship of Adam as an historical individual to the other creatures of his day who appear to scientists to be "men." Adam is termed by the scriptures "the first man," but the Lordís definition of "man" involves a spiritual criterion which scientists have no means to detect. We know that man-like creatures inhabited the earth long before any time when Adam might have lived in his special setting.

Orson Hyde said:
"The world was peopled before the days of Adam, as much so as it was before the days of Noah. It was said that Noah became the father of the new world, but it was the same old world still, and will continue to be, though it may pass through many changes." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, October 6, 1854, p. 75-87)
What we do not know is how to apply Godís definitions to those creatures. Perhaps instead of "men" they are to be classed as a form of "beast." But unless we arrogate to ourselves the power to tell God what he meant, we cannot be confident in these matters. Meanwhile there is no necessary conflict between the meaning of the scriptures on the one hand and the findings of scientific investigation on the other.

Summary

We see that when we consider the revelations of the Lord about the creation fully and carefully, a consistent, understandable picture emerges. The main points are these:

1. The scriptures assert that God planned the form and process of the earth and manís career on it most carefully.

2. The planning effort is described in some detail, but no statement is made about the time involved in completing the plan. There is reason to suppose that it was short by any measure.

3. After the plan was ready, it was implemented over a period of time which is wholly unspecified. There is reason to suppose that the time was long. Inasmuch as our human experience with the natural processes involved in creation implies that a very long time was required, and since the scriptural statements do not contradict this inference in any way, we might suppose that the eons which geology and paleobiology indicate as the duration for the development of earthís life forms were in fact involved.

4. Living things, including man, originated in their present form ("out of the ground") by the normal process of reproduction. The scriptural language leaves completely open the possibility that a process such as natural scientists speak of as evolution was involved.

5. The setting called "the Garden of Eden" was unique, and whatever special symbolic events are spoken of as occurring there were quite foreign to what was in process on the rest of the globe, which was following natural law.

6. The same planning process which prepared the natural world was also employed to lay out the influential factors which would govern the course of mankindís history on the planet. Godís knowledge of those factors is sufficiently accurate and comprehensive that he could ensure the overall result without eliminating the significant measure of freedom of individual persons to choose their actions which is termed "free agency."

7. The earth is still being created by processes for which man himself bears some responsibility.

I submit that this picture is unique among religious groups in that it generally accords with the findings of science yet was already present in religious writings made public well before scientists had arrived at anything like their modern picture of earth and man.

Before 1844, when Joseph Smith died, his sacred writings contained the essential elements of a "naturalistic" picture of the development of man and manís earth which, had it been taken seriously, would have eliminated most of the tedious argument between "science and religion" which occupied three generations of some of western civilizationís best minds.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
Home / For Latter-day Saints