Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

BoM Lesson 11 (Goodbye, Nephi)

“Press Forward with a Steadfastness in Christ”

2 Nephi 31–33

LDS manual: here


To point out the way in which believers disparage and threaten non-believers


This is the last reading from the putative Nephi. After this reading, it’s Jacob, Omni, Himner, and Just-Make-Uppa-Name-from-Local-Geography.

I’ll say this: Nephi was a self-righteous pain in the ass, but he knew how to tell a good story. In this, he was quite unlike other Book of Mormon writers. So let’s us unbelievers send him off — not with the same finger he gives us in this reading — but with a vote of thanks. All those in favour signify with the uplifted hand.

All those opposed.

Hey, you’re not supposed to oppose.

Main ideas for this lesson

Why does God use language?

God, if he exists, has all power. He can do anything. He can communicate through our thoughts and our emotions.

But when it’s time to officially convey his perfect message to humankind in a book that could never be mistaken as something that a regular person would say, what does he use? Human language, just like a regular person of the the time would say. Nephi explains.

2 Nephi 31:3 For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

That’s right — God could communicate clearly, but when it’s time to write the Book of Mormon, God decided to use a stilted form of Jacobean English — just like a person of the time. Because he communicates to us after our manner of understanding.

This is kind of stupid. With all the tools at his disposal, why would a god use human language? Don’t get me wrong — it’s a great tool. But it’s ambiguous and imprecise. It changes meaning with time, and the problem gets even worse over long distances. In either case, you need people to translate and interpret the holy writings, and that introduces more ambiguity. And some things will be incomprehensible anyway, to people who don’t share the context.

Let’s also remember: this is a god who cares so much about being clear to us — and yet when we ask believers why he allows evil, they tell us how incomprehensible his ways are.

Okay, the believer might respond, but what else could an all-powerful God use to communicate, if not language? Possibly telepathy. Maybe something else. I don’t know. But an all-knowing god would know, and yet he chooses to communicate poorly, vaguely, and ambiguously to humans.

Again, I love language, but this is not evidence of a transcendent being. This is a being that is indistinguishable from people. And a god that’s indistinguishable from a person is probably a person.


Isn’t baptism kind of weird? Dunking yourself in water to join a group. Does it actually do anything cosmic? Or is it just to show that you’ll do something foolish to show the group that you’re a member?

Nephi says it’ll help you to speak other languages.

2 Nephi 31:11 And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.
31:12 And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.
31:13 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism — yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.

Sounds a bit like that speaking in tongues to me.

But there’s a catch. If you join, don’t ever leave.

2 Nephi 31:14 But, behold, my beloved brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me.

I’d put it a bit differently: After you’ve been a member, and done the secret handshakes and all that jazz, it’s better to get out immediately than to waste five more minutes in that silly group.

But members HATE that! They’ve got to make it so that being an ex-member is worse than being a non-member.

Ask: Why do members fear ex-members so much?

Possible answers:

  • For occult religions (occult meaning “having hidden doctrines that are only revealed to initiates”), ex-members are sources of inside information about the inner workings.
  • Non-members may have no particular knowledge about the church, but ex-members do.
  • When you know the game, it’s easy to explain the problems.

Keep on grinding

But for Nephi, baptism isn’t all.

2 Nephi 31:19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
31:20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

“Enduring to the end”, or timing your church burnout to coincide with your death, is a priority for church members. But the use of the word endure does raise some eyebrows. It’s not the most appealing way to describe church activity, is it?

Even some church leaders have taken issue with the use of the word endure.

This was something going around my stake just before my deconversion. My stake leaders (great men, some of them) recognised that the call to simply “endure” church membership was not very appealing, and they encouraged us to “enjoy to the end!”

Somehow this was not very convincing. Enjoy hours of repetitive meetings? Enjoy hours of arcane and repetitive temple sessions? Enjoy needless behavioural restrictions? Enjoy unnecessary sexual guilt? Enjoy ugly and dehumanising underwear? Enjoy forcing family members into an unrealistic structure? Enjoy misogyny? homophobia? cleaning the buildings for a church that bills you 10% for the pleasure?

Enjoy the cognitive dissonance of having to believe things that were manifestly untrue?

What exactly was the enjoyable bit again?

No, I think the word endure was well-chosen. Enduring is what long-term members have to do, if they’re going to stay in it.

And the way that members speak about this is rather strange. I have heard people say, “Hang on to your testimony! Don’t let it fade!”

But when something is true, you don’t need to keep pumping yourself up to keep believing it.


Activity: Think of a scientific idea that you learned once — perhaps something you studied in school — but that you haven’t thought about for a long time. Do you still believe it? How is this different from a religious idea that you haven’t thought about for a long time?

For me, I haven’t thought of continental drift for a long time. It’s been literally decades since I studied it. Yet I still believe it’s true. My belief in this idea has not faded with time. How can that be?

Well, it’s simple — continental drift is supported by evidence (the last I heard), and I haven’t heard a better theory, so I still believe it. And if I wanted to pick it up again and remember more about it, I could do so — but this wouldn’t make me any more devoted to the idea.

Contrast this with religious ideas which have no evidentiary basis. If I ignore them, they become less credible because either contrary evidence pushes in, or the artificial pumping-up of faith loses its effect. Good! That’s what should happen.

Ideas need advocates, but only fake ideas need constant propping up against the tide of reality.

Distinguish Reality From Fiction

What Nephi says about unbelievers

I’ve given some answers as to why people stop believing. But Nephi has some different answers. Instead of blaming the bad ideas (like I’ve done), he puts the blame on the unbelievers. And the way he does this looks a lot like what Latter-day Saints say about unbelievers.

They don’t ask sincerely.

2 Nephi 32:4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
32:5 For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.

Once there was a guy named Jeremy. He had questions about the church, and he decided to ask them to an authority in the Church Education System. But he didn’t just ask them in private. He turned his questions into an open letter. It’s informally called the CES Letter.

Since then, many people have read the CES Letter, and have decided to make the break from the LDS Church. And Jeremy has been threatened with excommunication. (The hearing has been indefinitely postponed.)

Think about this for a second. Jeremy asked, and got no answers. He got threatened instead.

A member could raise the objection — as the fictional Nephi might have — that in putting together his letter, Jeremy wasn’t asking sincerely, and was just trying to make the church look bad. I’m not a mind-reader, so I don’t know. But consider this: the church could have stopped the CES Letter in its tracks by providing answers to his questions. Instead, they chose to threaten him. Which suggests to me that they have no answers.

They don’t pray

2 Nephi 32:8 And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.
32:9 But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.

As I’ve said in an earlier lesson, prayer does nothing. Is an evil spirit telling me this? Or is it just long years of mumbling to the ceiling?

They have hard hearts

2 Nephi 33:1 And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
33:2 But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught.

This is blaming the listener when the speaker doesn’t make any sense.

So what to do with unbelievers? Predictably, threaten them.

2 Nephi 33:10 And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.

I don’t think these words are from anyone called Christ. I think someone sat down and wrote them. What evidence can someone give?

2 Nephi 33:11 And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye — for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.

Boy, then you’ll be sorry!

This is known as the argumentum ad baculum, or argument from threat.

I love this one! Members use it all the time. “You’re going to be in big trouble if you don’t mend your ways,” said a long-standing member to me.

“I don’t like being threatened,” I said.

“It’s not a threat,” he responded. “It’s just a simple statement of what’s going to happen.”

Get that? I’m not threatening you; I’m just telling you what my invisible friend is going to do to you if you don’t believe like I do.

It’s a threat all the same.

Additional lesson ideas

Inadvertent trinity

We’ve seen that the author of the Book of Mormon was a pretty solid trinitarian, and here’s another scripture where he steps in it.

2 Nephi 31:21 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.

One in purpose! Harrumph, harrumph.

See you next week.


  1. Your blog is hands down consistently the best Mormon writing online. Keep up the good work.

  2. Your argument re: god not using language reminds me of Paine’s similar arguments in ‘Age of Reason’:

    The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration, are of themselves evidences that the human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the Word of God. The Word of God exists in something else.
    [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason]

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