Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 1: Immortality and Eternal Life

Between reflecting on Mack Wilberg’s choral piece “The Tree of Life,” preparing for the Book of Mormon Come Follow Me curriculum, and studying the Revelation of John the Divine these past few weeks, the tree of life has been on my mind. I thought I might share some reflections on the subject by highlighting possible meanings of the tree of life and its fruit in a series of posts, including immortality and eternal life, the presence of God, and Jesus the Christ.

Immortality and eternal life are two of the possible meanings of the tree of life.  In the Hebrew Bible, the tree of life is one of the two most notable trees in the Garden of Eden—alongside the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Genesis 2:9).[1]  When Adam and Eve transgressed, the Lord God noted that if they happened to “take also from the tree of life, and eat” that they would “live forever” (Genesis 3:22).  This ties the tree of life explicitly to immortality.[2]  We see a similar meaning in the Book of Alma, where Alma preaches about the resurrection of the dead and is challenged to explain the resurrection in light of the tree of life being protected by cherubim and a flaming sword, which his opponent interprets to mean that “there was no possible chance that they should live forever” (Alma 12:21).  Alma responds that “if it were possible for Adam to have partaken of the fruit of the tree of life at that time, there would have been no death,” and thus there would be no probationary period of testing in mortality with God’s judgement waiting at the end.  Since the plan of redemption demanded this probationary state, “if it were possible that our first parents could have gone forth and partaken of the tree of life they should have been forever miserable, having no preparatory state; and thus the plan of redemption would have been frustrated” (Alma 12:26).  In this conversation, both Alma and his opponent use the tree of life to represent immorality, and not necessarily the type of immortality that involves heaven.

While we differentiate between immortality and eternal life (or exaltation), other commentators have indicated that the fruit of the tree of life also represents eternal life.  When Nephi saw the tree, he noted that “fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits; yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36).  It is striking the Doctrine and Covenants used identical language when it states that: “eternal life … is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7).  Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, Alma seems to have tied the fruit of the tree of life to eternal life when he 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).  In contrast, he stated later on that those who do “will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life” (Alma 32:40).[3]  We also read in the Revelation to John that: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God“ (Rev 2:7).  The promises to those who conquer (overcome) are summarized elsewhere in the same book as follows: “To the one that conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with the Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21).  From these scriptures, it would seem that partaking of the fruit of the tree of life can be equated with being granted eternal life and exaltation.

Modern Church members have also equated the tree of life to eternal life.  For example, Elder Bruce R. McConkie 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.”[4]  Likewise, Camille Fronk Olson (professor and chair of the Department of Ancient Scriptures at BYU) wrote that when Revelation speaks of being permitted to “eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7), it “means everlasting life.”[5] If we take their word on the subject, the tree of life becomes the embodiment of the paradise or everlasting life.

It is an interesting idea that Adam and Eve were driven away from the tree of life with the goal of preparing to return and be given that fruit in due time.  As God explains to Moses: “This is my work and my glory–to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39), things that the the tree of life and its fruit symbolize.  Being driven from the tree only to return parallels the idea of us being sent away from heaven (in a premortal state) with the goal of returning.  The time away from heaven is meant to train us and prepare us to not only receive immortality but to use it wisely.  Mortality is, after all, “the time for men [and women] to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32).  While I have often read that statement with the sense of impending doom due to a threat to the wicked that follows in the text, it can also be a positive affirmation that mortality is a time where we can be shaped and molded into something better and more prepared for exaltation.

I am reminded of Dallin H. Oaks’ parable of the wealthy father.  This wealthy father (who represents God) told his son: “That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself.”[6]  The father tells his son that he has a training plan to help him become like himself and that only when he achieves that goal will he receive his inheritance.  That is the purpose of God’s commandments in the plan of redemption.  The Prophet Joseph Smith taught this very plainly when he wrote:

God has in reserve a time, or period appointed in His own bosom, when He will bring all His subjects, who have obeyed His voice and kept His commandments, into His Celestial rest. This rest is of such perfection and glory, that man has need of a preparation before he can, according to the laws of that kingdom, enter it and enjoy its blessings. This being the fact, God has given certain laws to the human family, which, if observed, are sufficient to prepare them to inherit this rest.[7]

Our probationary period away from heaven is a time of testing and a time to shape us into people who are better prepared for heaven.

In a way, then, each one of us becomes a figurative Adam or Eve. We are driven away from the tree of life when we enter a fallen world as mortal human beings.  Yet, the goal of coming to live as mortals on earth is to prepare us to return to paradise and receive immortality and eternal life.  Thus, in a way, we all are seeking to return to Eden and receive the fruit of the tree of life.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Note that the New Revised Standard Version is used for biblical quotations here.

[2] Parallels of trees representing life and immortality can be found in the myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  One example is in the epic of Gilgamesh, where the titular character seeks to achieve immortality and learns of a boxthorn-like plant that can make him young again.  After retrieving it from the bottom of the sea, however, it is stolen by a serpent and his opportunity for immortality is lost.

[3] Note that Alma does seem to believe that the resurrection comes to all humankind, both good and evil, as stated in Alma 41.  That being the case, the fruit of the tree of life is likely not used in these sermons to represent the resurrection to an immortal state.

[4] Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (SLC: Deseret Book, 1985), 86.

[5] Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (SLC: Deseret Book, 2011), 639.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” General Conference, October 2000.

[7] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 163-164, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-13?lang=eng.

2 comments for “Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 1: Immortality and Eternal Life

  1. Adam
    January 13, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for this post! I love this topic.

    It’s worth pointing out that in 1 Nephi 15, prior to the verse you quoted, Nephi’s brothers ask him what the tree in Lehi’s vision was. He says it is “a representation of the tree of life.” This has at least two implications. First, since the vision represents getting to partake of the tree’s fruit as the goal of keeping the commandments/walking the straight and narrow path/forsaking the world, it further reinforces the idea that the purpose of mortality is to get to the point where partaking of the fruit of that tree won’t become a calamity.

    Second, in Nephi’s vision explaining his father’s dream, he learns that the tree is “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.” If partaking the fruit is receiving eternal life, then this understanding of the tree supports the idea that God’s love is what motivates the plan of salvation.

    However, in the dream, people fall away after partaking of the fruit. They become ashamed and wander off, hearkening to taunting voices. I’m not sure that’s a thing that would happen after receiving exaltation, or even immortality. At least, not if we accept that these things come after/in tandem with the final judgement. It seems more likely to me that the fruit in the dream is simply a decision to embrace the love of God. It is spiritual conversion, while the path leading to it is the process of arriving at that fully converted state. This ultimately leads to exaltation, yes, but only if you stay at the tree after partaking of the fruit. The immortality part applies to everyone in Latter-day Saint theology, even those in the great and spacious building. So the tree, as represented in Lehi’s dream, as interpreted by Nephi, can’t simply be immortality. But it does fit with the idea that God’s love “sheddeth itself abroad,” instead of staying just in that one spot (by the trunk of the tree).

    It also draws a distinction between the influence of the tree and the fruit of the tree. Maybe it’s deciduous, and the leaves scatter? Maybe we can just see the light of it from a long way off? Maybe there’s just not a perfect metaphor and I’m over analyzing.

    Another thing this conceptualization of the tree gives me hope for: if the fruit is exaltation, but people can still fall away afterwards, that means we continue to have agency after being exalted. We can actively choose between good and evil. That some of the presumed-to-be-exalted choose evil implies that some of the others can still choose good, even after resurrection and immortality. That makes the promises of the temple to those with family members who reject the gospel seem much more possible. I love the idea that even if this life is a probation of sorts that determines our state in the next one, we may be still be able to make better choices hereafter, when perhaps we will see through less dark a glass, and still receive some measure of increase thereby.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    January 13, 2020 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks Adam. Those are some great thoughts on the subject. I feel like the tree of life is a symbol that has different meanings to different people at different times, even within the scriptures. To me, that is part of why it’s difficult to pin down one specific meaning to the tree. My feeling is that Lehi and Nephi see the tree as being tied closely to the Atonement of Jesus Christ (and partaking of the effects of that Atonement through spiritual conversion as you suggested) than to the end goal of immortality and/or eternal life. Meanwhile, the tree is tied more closely to immortality in Genesis, while other authors look at it as being eternal life or a symbol of being in the presence of God. Alma the Younger seems to shift back and forth between whether it means immortality or exaltation depending on the people he’s addressing. I may be wrong, but that’s how I make sense of how it’s talked about in the different books of scriptures. I still enjoy seeing if it can all be brought together and make sense of it as one thing, but it is difficult to reconcile the tree of life in Nephi’s writings with the one in Genesis.

    If it is a symbol of eternal life in Nephi and Lehi’s vision, like you mentioned in your last thought, it brings up some interesting ideas. This is complete speculation off the cuff, but it could be that people people who have received the Atonement into their lives and been converted are accepted as exalted-to-be and that acceptance endures as long as they remained in a redeemed state (though what the parameters of a redeemed state might be would be a matter of debate, I’m sure). If they stray from the gospel and/or faith in Jesus the Christ, though, they would no longer be in a redeemed state and thus no longer considered exalted-to-be individuals (thus straying after partaking of the fruit). That’s a pretty big stretch on my part, though.

    I like your idea of still having agency after receiving exaltation better, even if it is difficult to reconcile with the idea of a final judgement. It opens the door to both progressing towards the celestial kingdom if we weren’t ready for it at first (and regressing away from it if we start making poor choices).

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