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). 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. 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). 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
 Note that the New Revised Standard Version is used for biblical quotations here.
 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.
 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.
 Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (SLC: Deseret Book, 1985), 86.
 Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (SLC: Deseret Book, 2011), 639.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” General Conference, October 2000.
 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.