It’s a busy year for Your Humble Godless Doctrine teacher. So I’m posting this lesson as kind of a rough outline, with the intention of filling in the details later. Think of this as the notes that a Gospel Doctrine teacher would walk into class with.
Main points for this lesson
Ask: How is revelation supposed to work?
D&C 8:2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.
D&C 9:7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right,
Answer: Members are expected to work out the problem themselves, and then decide if they feel spiritual about it.
If it’s right, you feel something like dyspepsia, and if it’s wrong, you feel dumb.
D&C 9:8 and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
From the manual:
Why does the Lord expect us to study matters out in our own minds before receiving revelation? (Answers could include that the Lord intends for us to be active, not passive, as we seek revelation from Him. He also expects us to use our agency. We grow as we use the gifts and resources He has provided to help us study matters out in our minds.)
In other words, you’re supposed to use your brain to solve the problem, but then you’re supposed to pretend that the answer came from God. That way, you do all the work, and God gets the credit. But you have an answer that you feel positive about. If it all blows up later, then you can pretend there was some sort of “greater purpose” for you getting it wrong.
This is a good time to review this video from Jeff Holland, in which he arrives at what he admits is an unambiguously wrong answer to prayer.
Ask: What was his explanation for why the Spirit told him to go in the wrong direction, on (in his words) “clearly the wrong road”? Answer: The Lord allowed him to go the wrong way for a while, so that he would know it was wrong.
Ask: How would you ever know if this method of getting answers didn’t work?
With this rationale, there would be absolutely no way to disconfirm this method. Either it gives right answers, or it gives wrong answers that are also right! Either your faith is strengthened, or your faith is strengthened more. This method is a closed circle.
This is also blind faith. An eye that responds the same to light and darkness is a blind eye. Faith that responds the same to confirmation and disconfirmation is blind faith.
Personal revelation in my life
I actually got my testimony of the church by praying about the Doctrine and Covenants, and not the Book of Mormon. I might be atypical in this regard.
I finished reading it, and when I was alone, I prayed to ask if it was true, being well aware of the feelings I was supposed to feel. And I really did! I remember feeling somewhat carried aloft by the swelling, pulsating sensations of the Spirit — or perhaps some other internal organ located near the chest area.
That experience kept me in that church for decades. As with the effect of homeopathic pills, it was never quite effective as it was on the first miraculous experience. But I was sold.
What didn’t occur to me until much later was that the consequences of not having that spiritual confirmation were too terrifying to contemplate. Parents wrong? Entire ontological system a myth? Future plans a waste of time? Setting myself against my family, friends, community, and entire support network? Brain said: Tell you what, endocrine system — it’s make-or-break time. Give him the buzz — he’s already worked up — and we can work out the rest later.
What was Oliver’s gift?
Here’s a rather cryptic passage from D&C 8, written to Oliver Cowdery.
D&C 8:5 Oh, remember these words, and keep my commandments. Remember, this is your gift.
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
Gift of Aaron?
Aaron was Moses’ brother, and his gift was the gift of gab. He did the talking while Moses did the revealing. But that’s not the gift here.
Aaron also had a rod (supposedly) that he could throw down on the ground and turn into a snake.
Exodus 7:9 When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying, Shew a miracle for you: then thou shalt say unto Aaron, Take thy rod, and cast it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.
7:10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
7:11 Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
7:12 For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.
Okay, now things are getting interesting! The association with the rod of Aaron is apt, but even now we’re not on the right track. The rod being referred to here is a dowsing rod.
I just want to give credit where credit is due: I never would have known this without the Joseph Smith Papers, which the LDS Church has published. Unlike some of the church essays, they’re not shy about publishing them online — or even linking to them from a story about Oliver Cowdery. Good on them for putting this out there, even though it’s a little… out there.
So let’s get to the good stuff. What about this rod? Here’s the link.
O remember these words & keep my commandments remember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout
Well, the article is helpful again, because it has a footnote:
In preparing the text of Revelation Book 1 for publication, Sidney Rigdon replaced “sprout” with “rod.” Green, flexible shoots or rods cut from hazel, peach, or cherry trees were sometimes used as divining rods.
There you have it. Oliver was intended to use a divining rod. That makes the following passage make more sense:
D&C 8:8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
9 And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.
What a shame, though — Oliver was rubbish at using it, especially to translate documents. How do you translate with a stick? Probably the same way you translate with a rock in a hat. I don’t know. Maybe that’s because divining rods are complete rubbish. People still use them to try to find water, but no one can do it under controlled conditions. They do try, though. And fail.
Ask: In this video, what evidence do people offer for dowsing? Answer: Anecdotes.
Ask: How do the dowsers respond when they fail? Answer: One man says that a mischievous prankster god is thwarting him for fun. One woman is shattered.
Dowsing is (or was) the most common form of paranormal claim that claimants brought before James Randi’s million dollar challenge. No one ever managed to demonstrate such an ability under controlled conditions.
However, frauds (like Joseph Smith) still try to use them to fleece the credulous. A man named James McCormick sold fake bomb detectors — which were just dowsing rods — to the Iraqi government for $60,000 a pop. They probably were responsible for deaths, as these useless devices were actually being used at checkpoints to detect bombs. McCormick was jailed.
Ask: What kinds of questions are Latter-day Saints encouraged to answer using this phoney method of personal revelation? Answer: The most important questions in life, including whom to marry, what to study, where to live, and what work to take.
Ask: What kind of trouble can someone get into for using fake intuitive methods to solve real problems?
To dismantle the idea that pride causes societal destruction
Now we’re to one of the parts of the Book of Mormon when the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites. How strange! Those dark, filthy, and unenticing Lamanites are actually more righteous than the light-skinned Nephites. That’s certainly unexpected — if you see race as a reflection of righteousness.
Helaman 6:1 And it came to pass that when the sixty and second year of the reign of the judges had ended, all these things had happened and the Lamanites had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith.
When I read this, I feel like I’m listening to Mormons describing non-Mormons as “good people…”. Is it my imagination, or do I hear an “…even though they don’t have the Gospel” in there somewhere?
The hero of this story is Nephi₃. He’s so righteous that God gives him the smiting power.
Helaman 10:6 Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God. Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels, that ye shall have power over this people, and shall smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction, according to the wickedness of this people.
Wow, the power to kill people who do things that God doesn’t like!
Also teleportation, just like Jesus. You’ll remember that he was able to “convey” himself out of the clutches of his enemies. Well, Nephi₃ has this too.
Helaman 10:15 And it came to pass that when Nephi had declared unto them the word, behold, they did still harden their hearts and would not hearken unto his words; therefore they did revile against him, and did seek to lay their hands upon him that they might cast him into prison.
10:16 But behold, the power of God was with him, and they could not take him to cast him into prison, for he was taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them.
Apparently when you’re sufficiently Godlike, it’s a superpower you can unlock.
Nephi₃ sees the wickedness of the people, so rather than let them kill each other, he suggests a famine instead.
Helaman 11:3 And it came to pass that in this year Nephi did cry unto the Lord, saying:
11:4 O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee.
11:5 And so it was done, according to the words of Nephi. And there was a great famine upon the land, among all the people of Nephi. And thus in the seventy and fourth year the famine did continue, and the work of destruction did cease by the sword but became sore by famine.
You might think from this that Nephi₃ is some kind of ghoul. But really, he’s a bit of a softie. God would have taken things in hand himself, and put the big smite on people. But then, what do I know? I’m such a pushover, I probably wouldn’t have tried to kill anyone. I probably would have let them ignore that destructive “God” maniac, and let them get on with living their lives, free of the fear of such a being.
Main ideas for this lesson
This lesson identifies pride as one of the big no-nos for humanity. And a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon is known as the “pride cycle”. Here’s the graphic that appears in the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.
Latter-day Saints see this pride cycle as a real pattern.
The problem is that it isn’t. This is something that has never happened in the history of the world. Nations do not decline because they don’t adhere to religious principles. If they did, we would expect to see the least religious countries become cesspools of misery. Surprise — they’re actually doing quite well.
The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise, and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.
If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.
This dovetails into the other side of the pride cycle — not only do less-religious countries not fail, but religiously zealous countries don’t do better. It’s when the religious crazies take over that countries do the worst. This shouldn’t be surprising, when God himself shows so little concern for people around the globe. Something about yearning for an afterlife seems to be incompatible with improving this one.
If you want to see an example of someone advocating humility and repentance, think of this guy.
“Why do homosexuals murder homosexuals?” he asked. Because, according to Romans 1, “God gave them up to vile passions.” “Violence” and “murder,” he said, are deeply tied to homosexuality.
“What’s the bottom line as we view what’s happening in Orlando today?” he said. “I think it is, again, the Romans 1 scenario, it is that God gives them up.”
The Orlando massacre, Swanson added, shows what happens when God’s “restraints have been lifted entirely and when God doesn’t restrain, people go nuts in their sins.”
Believers think the Book of Mormon sounds entirely sensible, but just try listening to someone who takes these ideas seriously, and who says so. He sounds like a dangerous lunatic. At the very best, his way is unlikely to bring about the model of social cohesion that the Book of Mormon promises.
Enough about nations. Do individual people “dwindle” when they stop believing, as the Book of Mormon says?
Helaman 6:34 And thus we see that the Nephites did begin to dwindle in unbelief, and grow in wickedness and abominations, while the Lamanites began to grow exceedingly in the knowledge of their God; yea, they did begin to keep his statutes and commandments, and to walk in truth and uprightness before him.
My friend Tim on Facebook responds very eloquently. He said I could share this status:
Hey LDS friends and family. One of your leaders said things about me (and others like me) and I’d like an opportunity to set the record straight.
– I did not die spiritually. I feel joy, peace, happiness, and am quite alive.
– I did not lose my testimony. I did not lose anything except for that which I already did not have. I learned a new perspective which gave me new insight to what my religious experiences meant. I don’t value those experiences less, I interpret them in a way that is more consistent with reality.
– Sin / guilt did not cloud my mind as I decided to leave. I felt very enlightened as I decided to journey out of LDS activity. It was a matter of earnest prayer and heartfelt study. If there was anything that tried to cloud my mind, I think it would be church apologetics, something which I now find very deplorable and dishonest. I consistently found that the neutral resources were far more honest and direct than those of the apologetics.
– I don’t hate Mormonism, as a whole. I love aspects of it, and dislike others. I love the people, generally, and I think frequently about participating in some form or fashion, but the organization perpetually demonstrates that it is able to change, but on it’s own timeline, not mine. I’m not willing to wait nor do I care to participate in catalyzing the change from the inside. I see what the church does to those people. I find it deeply disappointing and dishonest.
– It is super frustrating that the LDS church tried to place blame on those who leave. “It’s not our fault you didn’t know this stuff before you committed two years of your life as a missionary / all of your resources to building up our definition of the Kingdom of God”. Huh? Maybe. You certainly made it a priority for me to learn the information that served you over that which may have served me to make a choice. The church tasked me with so many church things, and told me what was important to study; I could never fully complete it. I never had time for the “unimportant stuff”. How much time did you task me with Temple Prep? With Mission Prep? Couldn’t have fit it in, huh? “Oh by the way this painting of Joseph Smith using Gold Plates is a farce it was a rock in the hat”. Couldn’t squeeze it in? :/ The church stigmatized the unimportant stuff. The church excommunicated people for saying that which was true but “not uplifting”. And, the church endlessly invents ways to shift blame to me for any behavior the church finds undesirable. This is sickening and abusive. I reject this line of thought.
Advice to other Mormons: I’m observing the LDS church is continuing down a path which values membership retention above honesty. I don’t think it is looking out for your welfare as much as it is it’s own. This may seem fine, but geez, I implore you to gain the perspective to at least be able to see both sides. A perspective which keeps you in control of your faith.
I implore you, READ the “Mormon Challenge”, a document which helps show the “other perspective” on Mormonism using LDS church-approved sources only. It will only help you gain perspective, and you don’t lose anything by gaining perspective:
My only motive and desire for saying any of this is that minds can be free.
“Truth never damages a cause that is just.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson
So why are prophets so down on prosperity? Probably because it puts no money in their own pocket.
President Ezra Taft Benson said: “The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich. The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them; otherwise, the prophet is just giving his opinion — speaking as a man. The rich may feel they have no need to take counsel of a lowly prophet” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson , 138).
As I’ve said before, religion doesn’t have much to offer someone who’s content, happy, and doing well. It has a lot to offer someone who’s desperate for a second chance in life.
The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual is quite set against contention.
• What was the first sign that the short-lived period of humility and righteousness was ending? (See Helaman 11:22.) How did Nephi, Lehi, and their brethren put an end to this contention? (See Helaman 11:23.) In what ways can teaching “true points of doctrine” help us put an end to contention?
Ask: Why would the LDS Church warn against contention?
Having a range of available opinions — with the contention that this sometimes engenders — is actually healthy for discussion and learning. It’s not great for managing a group though. If you’re a cult leader, you want a docile group where everyone listens only to you.
Warning against contention, then, is a way of shutting down discussions in which people might have to face unpleasant facts — like the fact that the religion is wrong.
Rather than avoid contention, we should be engaged in discussion with people we might disagree with. It can be a great way to find flaws in your argument. It might force you to examine and change your views.
To show Joseph Smith’s tendency to plagiarism, and to encourage readers to take time for things that matter.
For this reading, Alma continues his discussion about the Plan of Happiness. That means it’s time for this chart again (taken from the Gospel Doctrine manual). Maybe you’ve seen it.
It’s lovely, isn’t it. As a kid, I always felt grateful that we had the Full Plan of What Life Was All About. And it was as simple as drawing circles on a board! (Which I did many times in teaching discussions to investigators.)
However, as basic as this plan is, it looks like the Book of Mormon contains no trace of it. How about that! Is this a case of God revealing things “line upon line”? Or had Joseph Smith not made it up yet?
Or perhaps Joseph Smith hadn’t yet run into the work Emanuel Swedeborg, a visionary and occult mystic from the 1700s? Swedeborg’s 1784 book Heaven and Hell and Its Wonders has a vision of heaven, and it comes in three flavours.
Swedenborg insisted: “There are three heavens,” described as “entirely distinct from each other.” He called the highest heaven “the Celestial Kingdom,” and stated that the inhabitants of the three heavens corresponded to the “sun, moon and stars.”
A library near the Smith home carried the book, Sibly’s Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences. Historian Michael Quinn has already demonstrated that this book is the likely source for the Smith family’s magic parchments.
Joseph himself acknowledged his familiarity with Swedenborg. In 1839, Edward Hunter, a convert from Swedenborgianism, recorded a conversation with Joseph:
“I asked him if he was acquainted with the Sweadenburgers. His answer I verially believe. ‘Emanuel Sweadenburg had a view of the world to come but for daily food he perished.’” (William E. Hunter, Edward Hunter: Faithful Steward, pg. 316, original spelling).
In fact, Smith’s description of the “Celestial Kingdom” was not only a copy from earlier written works, but also very controversial to the Latter-Day Saints.
The diaries of Orson Pratt and John Murdock from the 1830’s record their efforts to reassure members who questioned the 1832 vision of heaven. The two men described countless excommunications of Mormons, including branch presidents, who denounced “the degrees of glory” as a “satanic revelation.” Even Brigham Young had a hard time with it at first and described it as “a trial to many.”
Why were faithful Mormons choking on this idea of three heavens?
Quinn explains that it’s because members correctly recognized it as coming from the occult. The only other sources of separate degrees in heaven came from occult writers of Smith’s time.
Shoot, they knew Smith had been dabbling in the weird occult stuff.
Plagiarised or no, it’s not like having more circles on your chart makes any more sense. What it all really means is this:
Main ideas for this lesson
No one knows
Alma does his best to explain the resurrection.
Alma 40:4 Behold, there is a time appointed that all shall come forth from the dead. Now when this time cometh no one knows; but God knoweth the time which is appointed.
40:5 Now, whether there shall be one time, or a second time, or a third time, that men shall come forth from the dead, it mattereth not; for God knoweth all these things; and it sufficeth me to know that this is the case — that there is a time appointed that all shall rise from the dead.
Gee, he doesn’t know very much. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual excuses Alma’s ignorance thus:
• Alma mentioned several things that he did not know about death and resurrection (Alma 40:2–5, 8, 19–21). What can we learn from the fact that Alma testified of the doctrine of resurrection even though he did not know all the details about it? (Help class members see that it is not necessary to understand every detail of a doctrine or event before receiving a testimony of its truthfulness.)
Ask: If someone claims to be a prophet, and have a direct line to God, then is their ignorance really excusable?
In the absense of a reliable source, I’ll go with this, which has the advantage of being observably true.
Alma 40:11 Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection — Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
Wait — an angel told him? That’s what Korihor said.
Alma 40:12 And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.
40:13 And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil — for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house — and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.
This all sounds like Christian heaven and hell to me. Of course, this would later clash with Joseph’s newfangled three-degrees idea — to say nothing of “outer darkness” — so it was necessary to retool this into “spirit paradise” and “spirit prison”. It’s all very clever how things work out in the long run.
Alma 40:14 Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.
Joseph Smith is plagiarising the author of Hebrews.
Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
10:27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
Ask: Freaking heck — did Joseph Smith plagiarise everything?
Alma says that this life is a probationary state.
Alma 42:2 Now behold, my son, I will explain this thing unto thee. For behold, after the Lord God sent our first parents forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground, from whence they were taken — yea, he drew out the man, and he placed at the east end of the garden of Eden, cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life —
42:3 Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit —
42:4 And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.
In this lesson, I gave some reasons why this life being a “probationary” state was a silly and wrong-headed idea. Here’s the short version:
God sent us to earth, having wiped our memory, so already the deck is stacked against us. Then he punishes Adam and Eve for taking a piece of fruit when they didn’t know it was wrong to do so. Or they wanted knowledge of good and evil, which is supposed to be a good thing. God punishes them and all of us by having us born into a fallen system. So already this is a set-up.
Alma 42:5 For behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever, according to the word of God, having no space for repentance; yea, and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated.
42:6 But behold, pit was appointed unto man to die — therefore, as they were cut off from the tree of life they should be cut off from the face of the earth — and man became lost forever, yea, they became fallen man.
42:7 And now, ye 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.
42:12 And now, there was no means to reclaim men from this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience;
Brought upon himself? God set this system up. If he hadn’t wanted it to be this way, he could have arranged it differently. Why didn’t he?
God would “cease to be God”
Alma 42:13 Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.
Would God cease to be God if he did something unfair or wrong? This raises an interesting theological conundrum.
I’m no theologian, but in discussions I’ve had with believers, God’s position seems pretty much set. After all, if he’s the Almighty One and some kind of moral expert, then what standard would we use to say he was doing something wrong? That’s if he’s the one making the rules.
But on the other hand, what if he weren’t? What if there were rules or principles that God had to obey? This is the view we’re taking if we say that God could “cease to be God”.
But if that’s the case — if God doesn’t make the rules, and he’s bound to principles that he has to obey — then why worship him? We could save a step and just worship the principles. Cut out the middleman. Clearly the principles are higher than he is, since he has to obey them.
Back to the first hand. If we’re wrong, and whatever God says goes, then we have another problem. He could declare by divine decree that murder was okay. Or that chocolate ice cream was wrong.
And finally, God gives us a choice: either we partake of the waters of life, or “evil shall be done unto” us.
Alma 42:27 Therefore, O my son, whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds.
42:28 If he has desired to do evil, and has not repented in his days, behold, evil shall be done unto him, according to the restoration of God.
Remember, you’re not compelled — but if you don’t, torment forever. This is God’s idea of a free choice.
Alma 42:13 Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.
This is a funny sort of expression. It doesn’t seem to come up anywhere else in my experience. And whenever that happens, it makes me wonder if that was an idea that was floating around at the time Joseph Smith was working on the Book of Mormon. This is the same thing I found when I investigated the Mormon teaching that Jesus “bled from every pore”. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for more about that.)
So let’s investigate. We’ll do a quick Google Ngram search for “would cease to be God”. Here’s the chart.
Wow, look at that spike in 1820! This was clearly an idea that people were writing about in Joseph Smith’s time. No wonder it found its way into the Book of Mormon.
And if we zoom in on some of the books, we find a discourse about — what a coincidence! — the state of the soul after the dissolution of the body.
The full text:
And this one:
Again, the full text:
I have no idea if Smith or his friends would have had access to these books. But the idea that God could “cease to be God” if he did something wrong was clearly going around. The Book of Mormon is not a product of pre-Jesus Central America. It’s very much a product of 19th-century frontier-American theology. Whatever they were talking and writing about, that’s what got in.
Joseph Smith was a kind of cultural magpie. He borrowed whatever was at hand to construct an increasingly elaborate — and at times, contradictory — theology.
Wickedness never was happiness
Here’s a very popular verse.
Alma 41:10 Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.
41:11 And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are pin the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.
The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual says this:
• Alma explained that Corianton could not be restored from sin to happiness because “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Why can’t wickedness bring happiness? (See Alma 41:10–13; Helaman 13:38.) How would you respond to the argument that some people seem to find happiness in activities that are against the commandments?
Latter-day Saints are in a strange position. They claim that the Gospel makes them happy, while they more or less admit that actual church is kind of unenjoyable. And so they tolerate the unnecessary and self-inflicted strictures, while gazing enviously at those on the outside.
They have to invent some kind of narrative to explain this, and very often, it’s that other people aren’t “really happy”. Glenn Pace made that the title of a General Conference talk.
When our children were younger and we would be on our way to Sunday church meetings, occasionally we would pass a car pulling a boat. My children would become silent and press their noses against the windows and ask, “Dad, why can’t we go waterskiing today instead of to church?”
Sometimes I would take the easy but cowardly way out and answer, “It’s simple; we don’t have a boat.” However, on my more conscientious days, I would muster up all the logic and spirituality available to a patriarch of a family and try to explain how much happier our family was because of our Church activity.
I first realized I wasn’t getting through when on a subsequent Sunday we saw a family laughing and excited as they loaded their snow skis onto their car. One of my teenage sons said with a sly grin, “They’re not really happy, huh, Dad?” That statement has become a family joke whenever we see someone doing something we cannot do. When I see a teenager driving a beautiful, expensive sports car, I say to my sons, “Now there’s one miserable guy.”
It’s funny in that Mormon Dad way, but it’s also kind of tragic. How many hours did we spend in meetings, instead of having great times together? How many hours did we spend away from home in Stake Meetings, propping up a system that wasn’t true? How much money and effort did we expend on something that didn’t really matter? Were we really happy doing so? Or were we putting up with it so we could have happiness in the “next life”?
President Ezra Taft Benson said: “While [people] may take some temporary pleasure in sin, the end result is unhappiness. . . . Sin creates disharmony with God and is depressing to the spirit” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1974, 91; or Ensign, Nov. 1974, 65–66).
This from a person who made a living from creating unnecessary guilt for people who were doing normal things.
Here’s a chart you can refer to when you need to understand the Mormon logic surrounding this area.
When they said that living a secular and responsible life was “wickedness”, when they denigrated it as simply “fun”… they were wrong. As they were wrong about everything else.
I think it’s important to call this what it is — sourness — and reject it.
Listen to this performance of Roderick Williams singing George Butterworth’s song ‘Bredon Hill’ (from A Shropshire Lad).
Ask: How do you think he felt when she ignored the church bells and stayed with him? Have you had the opportunity to have a lie-in with someone wonderful on a Sunday morning? How did it compare to sitting in church? Which gave you a better opportunity to feel like you were enjoying what life was really about?
Ask: How does he feel at the end of the song? Why is it important to spend time with those you love?
Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sonnet from his Tony acceptance speech.
Ask: What are we promised in this life? Why is important to not waste one day?
We can live good, ethical, responsible lives as unbelievers. It’s the only life we know we’re getting. Let’s not waste a single day on unreason or smallness of spirit.
To show the scriptural sanction for some of the hostile attitudes that Mormons have toward ex-members.
Last time, we saw that Ammon (etc.) converted a lot of former Lamanites. Having gotten a taste of the Jesus, they don’t want to fight anymore. Which is contrary to a kind of creeping Christianism we’re seeing in the US Armed Forces.
Whether Bibles are kept at registration desks or inside rooms may not seem all that big a deal. But the human stakes are higher in another religious-military row that erupted last month, when an atheist airman at a base in Nevada was denied the opportunity to re-enlist because he declined to say the words “so help me God”. In an older air force regulation, it was laid down that those four words could be omitted on grounds of conscience; but this waiver was removed from a new rule issued last year—you either invoke the Deity or you cannot take up your responsibilities to the nation.
In Mr Weinstein’s view, that change in the rules is a symptom of a new form of religious intolerance that has gained ground in the armed forces to the dismay of mainline Christians, among others. He calls the new religious mentality “dominionism”—a pejorative term for forms of Christianity that want to build religious principles into earthly power structures. One sceptical definition of “dominionism” describes it as “a theocratic view that…heterosexual Christian men are called by God to exercise dominion over secular society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”
Other signs of that mentality? An increasing number of cases where service personnel are bullied or denied promotion because they refuse to conform to the religious beliefs of their superiors.
Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the U.S. military by a Michigan company, an ABC News investigation has found.
The sights are used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers. The maker of the sights, Trijicon, has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army.
U.S. military rules specifically prohibit the proselytizing of any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan and were drawn up in order to prevent criticism that the U.S. was embarked on a religious “Crusade” in its war against al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents.
One of the citations on the gun sights, 2COR4:6, is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament, which reads: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
I guess Jesus affects people differently.
Be that as it may, the group decided that they needed a name. And did they come up with a doozy.
Alma 23:16 And now it came to pass that the king and those who were converted were desirous that they might have a name, that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren; therefore the king consulted with Aaron and many of their priests, concerning the name that they should take upon them, that they might be distinguished.
23:17 And it came to pass that they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies; and they were called by this name and were no more called Lamanites.
Remind me not to let them pick my band name, because it would probably suck. I was going for Sea of Dudes, but apparently it’s taken. 🙁
Why would they be anti Nephi or Lehi? Well, there have been many explanations. Cue the gymnasts!
If anti is a transliteration, it might come from the EGYPTIAN relative marker nty (Coptic ente) meaning “which is,” which can be nominalized as “that which is”. Since the gentilic of the term is used in the plural, if it were pluralized as EGYPTIAN it should be ntyw. This would mean something like “those who are Nephi-Lehi”.
If anti is a translation, the meaning could be “facing Nephi-Lehi,” from the HEBREW word that means approximately “anti,” (neged), i.e., “facing, opposite, etc.” (HWN).
Hugh Nibley suggested to one of his classes that anti might come from Arabic inda which, like Greek anti, means “opposite”. Since this root is not found in other Semitic languages, it may actually be a borrowing from Greek.
Aren’t they creative? It’s easy to make things up when there’s no way you can be proven wrong.
Name aside, the most distinctive thing about them is that they decide never to fight again. Their king says:
Alma 24:12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
24:13 Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.
24:17 And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.
Alma 27:21 And it came to pass that the chief judge sent a proclamation throughout all the land, desiring the voice of the people concerning the admitting their brethren, who were the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
27:22 And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea, which joins the land Bountiful, which is on the south of the land Bountiful; and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance.
27:23 And behold, we will set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren, on account of their fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin; and this their great fear came because of their sore repentance which they had, on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness.
27:24 And now behold, this will we do unto our brethren, that they may inherit the land Jershon; and we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies.
This is actually interesting: there’s some scriptural justification for Mormons to either be pacifists, or protect pacifists.
Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, knows that Mormons are not pacifists, but he thinks we should be. Writing at Rational Faiths, he contends that “resort to violence” is incompatible with “worship of the Prince of Peace.” Most interestingly, he claims that the Book of Mormon—full of warriors heroes like Mormon and Captain Moroni—is actually a pacifist text hiding underneath a thin veneer of failed militarism. Is it? Does the Book of Mormon teach that pacifism is always superior to defensive war?
… Mason’s central argument is that the apparent approval of defensive war in the Book of Mormon contradicts Christ’s teachings. Mason stipulates that—if we are careful in our reading and analysis—we will see that the Book of Mormon text itself undermines its own superficial sanction of violence. After all, writes, Mason, “it’s difficult to conceive of a text more poignantly testifying to the utter futility and folly of violence” than the Book of Mormon.
Religion is a shape-shifter. It teaches whatever believers want it to teach; all they have to do is cherry-pick the scriptures they like, and construct an apologetic to fill in the gaps. But it’s sort of nice that some Latter-day Saints are taking this lesson from the Book of Mormon, when there are so many worse messages they could be getting.
A scene ensues. The attacking Lamanites descend on the ANLs, hack their way through a few of them, and then — WTF? — they recoil in confusion as their victims refuse to fight back.
Alma 24:20 And it came to pass that their brethren, the Lamanites, made preparations for war, and came up to the land of Nephi for the purpose of destroying the king, and to place another in his stead, and also of destroying the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi out of the land.
24:21 Now when the people saw that they were coming against them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword.
24:22 And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.
I know religion is supposed to be comforting, but no, you don’t know that.
And then the attackers have a change of heart. They join the ANLs, and make up the sudden deficit in their numbers.
Alma 24:23 Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword —
24:24 Now when the Lamanites saw this they did forbear from slaying them; and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done.
24:25 And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them.
24:26 And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.
24:27 And there was not a wicked man slain among them; but there were more than a thousand brought to the knowledge of the truth; thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.
The writer is glad because more people have joined than were killed. I know this is fictional and everything, but damn — that’s a really statistical view of things.
Main ideas for this lesson
Never really converted
In this reading, the Book of Mormon shows a really terrible attitude toward ex-Mormons.
Here’s something I’ve been told at times: I left the church because I was “never really converted”.
Alma 23:6 And as sure as the Lord liveth, so sure as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preaching of Ammon and his brethren, according to the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, and the power of God working miracles in them — yea, I say unto you, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away.
Ask: Why do members need to believe that ex-Mormons were never really converted? Answer: This comes from fear. It can be threatening for a Mormon to encounter someone who has left and doubtless now thinks that church is a collection of lies, fables, and foolishness. I know that, as a younger member, I might have felt that way to meet a former member, and I would probably have been horrified to learn that one day I would become one. It would have meant a forfeiture of family, money, time, and what I thought would be my eternal future.
In short, I might have tried to find any way I could to prevent myself from thinking that I could become “like that”. And that can mean blaming the ex-member for a perceived lack of sincerity (which missionaries routinely do with investigators who “neg” them), or a perceived lack of integrity (you didn’t “endure to the end”). When really, I finally recognised that it just wasn’t true, and it was my sincerity and integrity that took me out of the church.
If you want a demonstration that Mormons really do believe these things about ex-members, look no further than the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.
a. They “were converted unto the Lord” (Alma 23:6). Why is it essential that Jesus Christ be at the center of our conversion? For what other reasons might people be drawn to the Church? (Answers may include the personalities of missionaries, the influence of friends, or the appeal of social programs.) Why do these things alone fail to bring about true conversion?
I don’t know what “true conversion” means. I think they just mean “lifelong membership”, in which case any of those three things can get you there. I never hear a problem with those things when they get people into the font. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw anyone get baptised on my mission simply because they read the Book of Mormon and thought it was true. Baptism was always accompanied by elder infatuation or social relationships. I doubt that it can ever happen otherwise. And the church knows this; otherwise they wouldn’t stress friend referrals or co-teaching with the missionaries. It’s got to be about embedding the convert into a social relationship so that leaving will be more costly.
Apostates are worse than non-members
Here the other nasty thing that Mormons teach: ex-members are worse off than non-members. Here’s the scripture:
Alma 24:29 Now, among those who joined the people of the Lord, there were none who were Amalekites or Amulonites, or who were of the order of Nehor, but they were actual descendants of Laman and Lemuel.
Apparently conversion is genetic.
Alma 24:30 And thus we can plainly discern, that after a people have been once enlightened by the Spirit of God, and have had great knowledge of things pertaining to righteousness, and then have fallen away into sin and transgression, they become more hardened, and thus their state becomes worse than though they had never known these things.
Those terrible apostates!
Ask: Why would the church teach that ex-members are spiritually worse-off than people who didn’t know about the church?
Let’s make one thing clear: it’s not really true that non-members don’t really know about the church. Members (and missionaries) have the idea that non-members don’t know about it, and if they find out about it, then they’ll join.
It’s not true. People know about the church. Even if it’s just as simple as “polygamy” — well, what one issue could be more indicative of the church? It happened, it was shocking, and now members are trying to bury it down the memory hole — while still practicing a form of it (posthumously). Yes, I’d say that’s the essence of Mormon doctrine!
There’s a Christopher Hitchens quote that I can’t find at the moment: People don’t reject Christianity because they don’t know about it; they reject it because they know about it.
Anyway, why wouldn’t they think that ex-members are worse? At lest non-members might become members someday, while it seems unlikely that ex-members will. Why would you, when you’ve seen the man behind the curtain?
And there’s another fiction that Mormons are eager to promote: that if you leave, it’s because you’ve forgotten.
25:6 For many of them, after having suffered much loss and so many afflictions, began to be stirred up in remembrance of the words which Aaron and his brethren had preached to them in their land; therefore they began to disbelieve the traditions of their fathers, and to believe in the Lord, and that he gave great power unto the Nephites; and thus there were many of them converted in the wilderness.
I still remember everything. I remember all the so-called spiritual experiences. I just have better explanations for them now.
To point out that emotional reasoning is not a good way of finding out what’s true
This reading concerns the missionary journeyings of Alma and the sons of Mosiah.
It begins with our heroes bumping into each other after 14 years of preaching — what’s meant to be a period covering around 91 to 77 BCE.
Alma 17:1 And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, Behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.
17:2 Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.
17:3 But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.
I get feels from this bit.
In the town where I grew up, there was a medium-sized Mormon presence, and most of my best friends were in the church. Reading this, I could imagine a day when we would get back together and find that we were all still active Mormons — yay!
Now life has moved on, and some of us are still active, and doing churchy things that way. But some of us have realised that the church wasn’t what it said it was, we’ve left, and we’re moving on in that way — in, I think, a better way.
I’m sure that my church friends wish we’d all be in the church again. (One former mission companion told me pointedly that he’d liked me better when I was a believer. Facebook discussions can do that.) For my part, I wish my friends would wake up and get out, as I can see that damage that a demanding religion can do. It’s a shame, and a waste.
I guess the lesson here is that basing your relationships on religious affiliation can bring about a lot of closeness if you stay, but division if you leave. And that’s too bad. Religion poisons everything.
Ask: How have you been able to maintain your friendships with believers, post-deconversion?
Anyway, they take their leave, and go teach those wild, hardened, and ferocious people, the Lamanites. One might say they had a few prejudices, but anyway.
Alma 17:13 And it came to pass when they had arrived in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, that they separated themselves and departed one from another, trusting in the Lord that they should meet again at the close of their harvest; for they supposed that great was the work which they had undertaken.
17:14 And assuredly it was great, for they had undertaken to preach the word of God to a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them; and their hearts were set upon riches, or upon gold and silver, and precious stones; yet they sought to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands.
The story moves to Ammon, who goes to the land of Ishmael, and winds up talking to their king Lamoni. Naturally he gets a welcoming committee.
Alma 17:20 And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king; and thus it was left to the pleasure of the king to slay them, or to retain them in captivity, or to cast them into prison, or to cast them out of his land, according to his will and pleasure.
17:21 And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishmael.
When Ammon tells Lamoni that he wants to live there, the king is impressed, and offers him a daughter.
Alma 17:22 And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.
17:23 And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.
17:24 And it came to pass that king Lamoni was much pleased with Ammon, and caused that his bands should be loosed; and he would that Ammon should take one of his daughters to wife.
Wow, free daughter — and Ammon doesn’t even have a green card!
When I first got to Australia as a missionary, they gave me free health care, and I thought that was something. Could it be that the Book of Mormon writer has the Lamanites all wrong? They seem quite hospitable.
Alma 17:25 But Ammon said unto him: Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.
I’m sensing a Joseph-in-Egypt element to this story, but let’s continue.
Now comes the action: when robbers come to steal the “flocks” — of alpaca, presumably — Ammon sees an opportunity. He kills some of the robbers with a sling, and cuts off the arms of others.
Alma 17:26 And after he had been in the service of the king three days, as he was with the Lamanitish servants going forth with their flocks to the place of water, which was called the water of Sebus, and all the Lamanites drive their flocks hither, that they may have water —
17:27 Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, Behold, a certain number of the Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon and the servants of the king, and they scattered them insomuch that they fled many ways.
17:28 Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already.
17:29 Now they wept because of the fear of being slain. Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words.
17:36 But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slain of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him.
17:37 But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm.
17:38 Now six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword; and he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few.
After this grisly spectacle, Ammon brings in all the severed arms. Needless to say, the king finds his manner disarming.
Alma 17:39 And when he had driven them afar off, he returned and they watered their flocks and returned them to the pasture of the king, and then went in unto the king, bearing the arms which had been smitten off by the sword of Ammon, of those who sought to slay him; and they were carried in unto the king for a testimony of the things which they had done.
The king is even more impressed when he learns that Ammon is feeding the animals, as though nothing has happened.
Alma 18:8 And it came to pass that king Lamoni inquired of his servants, saying: Where is this man that has such great power?
18:9 And they said unto him: Behold, he is feeding thy horses. Now the king had commanded his servants, previous to the time of the watering of their flocks, that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi; for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.
18:10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.
The real Gospel Doctrine lesson manual puts Ammon’s work ethic down to “giving service and developing trust”.
• How did the king respond when his servants told him how Ammon had defended his flocks? (See Alma 18:2–5.) What was Ammon doing when the king asked where he was? (See Alma 18:8–9. On the chalkboard write Give service and develop trust.) How did this help prepare King Lamoni to be taught? (See Alma 18:10–11.)
People who offer unsolicited help can be genuine. They can also be partaking in a more sinister pursuit: that of loan-sharking. Abusers do this to instill a sense of obligation in their victims.
We’re all familiar with the stranger who offers to help a woman with her groceries; most often he is a fairly unsophisticated loan shark looking to pick someone up. The debt he records in his ledger can usually be paid off quite easily, just a little talk will do it. But he has something in common with the predatory criminal who imposes his counterfeit charity into someone’s life: motive….At its best, loan sharking is on a par with asking a woman, “Do you come here often?” At its worst, it exploits a victim’s sense of obligation and fairness.
Once Ammon establishes trust with the king, it’s time to teach. Strangely, Ammon tells him that God is a Great Spirit, which doesn’t mesh with current Mormon doctrine, but may have been in line with Mormonism v1.
Alma 18:24 And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
18:25 And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.
18:26 And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
18:27 And he said, Yea.
18:28 And Ammon said: This is God.
Maybe Ammon is just holding back on the strong stuff, so the king doesn’t flip out and stop the discussions.
Anyway — what do you know — the king accepts everything, and his mind gives out under the strain of having to believe so much nonsense at once.
Alma 18:40 And it came to pass that after he had said all these things, and expounded them to the king, that the king believed all his words.
18:41 And he began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people.
18:42 And now, when he had said this, he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead.
But he’s okay, folks! His wife looks after him, and when he comes to, she faints. Ammon faints too, but that could just be peer pressure.
Alma 19:12 And it came to pass that he arose, according to the words of Ammon; and as he arose, he stretched forth his hand unto the woman, and said: Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou.
19:13 For as sure as thou livest, Behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth, and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name. Now, when he had said these words, his heart was swollen within him, and he sunk again with joy; and the queen also sunk down, being overpowered by the Spirit.
19:14 Now Ammon seeing the Spirit of the Lord poured out according to his prayers upon the Lamanites, his brethren, who had been the cause of so much mourning among the Nephites, or among all the people of God because of their iniquities and their traditions, he fell upon his knees, and began to pour out his soul in prayer and thanksgiving to God for what he had done for his brethren; and he was also overpowered with joy; and thus they all three had sunk to the earth.
Later on, Ammon’s friend Aaron teaches King Lamoni’s father — also a king — and teaches about a Great Spirit.
Alma 22:7 And Aaron answered him and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And the king said: I know that the Amalekites say that there is a God, and I have granted unto them that they should build sanctuaries, that they may assemble themselves together to worship him. And if now thou sayest there is a God, Behold I will believe.
22:8 And now when Aaron heard this, his heart began to rejoice, and he said: Behold, assuredly as thou livest, O king, there is a God.
Bad idea, king — that’s not how you verify a claim.
Then the king prays — to a God he doesn’t know — and wouldn’t you know it, he faints!
Alma 22:18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.
Main ideas for this lesson
So what’s going on? Why do all these Lamanites turn into fainting goats?
The Book of Mormon has its origins in 1800s American spirituality. So when something appears in the Book of Mormon, it’s a safe bet that it reflects something that was going on at the time. Was fainting a normal part of a religious conversion?
In the early 1800s, it was. The eastern US was the scene of camp revivals — mass delusions that saw the converted fainting by the hundreds.
In August, 1801, Barton W. Stone led a revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky that became the most famous camp meeting. The meeting lasted a week, and 23,000 people came. The preaching was simple, lively, and persuasive, with preachers from different denominations sharing the platform. The common people were deeply affected, and, as at the Gasper River meeting, strong emotional responses were considered proofs of conversion. Often these produced strange physical manifestations – some people fainted and fell to the ground (were “slain in the spirit”) or suffered uncontrollable shaking (“the jerks”). There was dancing, running and singing – all of which Stone said were manifestations of God’s presence. The noise of the meetings was so great that some said “the noise was like the roar of Niagara.” Revival camp meetings swept through Kentucky, Tennessee and many of the southern states.
‘The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The bast sea of human being seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons and one standing on a tree which had, in falling, lodged against another. …
‘I stepped up on a log where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that then presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens‘ (Pratney 1994:104).
The Rev. Moses Hoge wrote: ‘The careless fall down, cry out, tremble, and not infrequently are affected with convulsive twitchings …
‘Nothing that imagination can paint, can make a stronger impression upon the mind, than one of those scenes. Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convulsed; professors praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress, for sinners or in raptures of joy! …
You can imagine that these scenes would have had quite the effect on the public imagination for quite some time! Small wonder that it worked its way into the Book of Mormon. And in fact, Christian historian Nathan O. Hatch mentions fainting particularly in connection with early Mormons.
As Jonathan Edwards noted some 60 years earlier, religious ecstasy—trembling, groaning, crying out, panting, fainting—may be signs of God’s power, but you don’t know. In the 1800s, you see these same expressions in the early Mormons and Shakers.
So that’s why these fainting stories appear. It seems that, for early Mormons, fainting upon conversion was sort of a normal and well-accepted thing. I doubt early church members would recognise the rather boring church of today.
Conversion as a phenomenon
Fainting aside, I think these fainting stories have left their mark on modern Mormonism — not because fainting is still a part of Mormonism’s cultural repertoire, but because Mormons still think of conversion as something that “happens”.
I had a couple of missionaries over to the house for dinner recently. I like having them over — it’s good for them to get some food, and I remember what it was like to pound the pavement under less-than-encouraging conditions. The ensuing discussions are quite interesting, as well.
In these discussions, I tend to focus on the need for evidence, when establishing a claim. I often say, “You don’t get knowledge from feels.”
But one of the missionaries — a junior companion — inexplicably challenged me to read and pray about the Book of Mormon. As though that was something I’d never thought of doing before.
I guess if that’s the only tool you have, that’s what you go with.
But it’s a part of this idea that conversion involves some kind of big emotional experience. I can even see this in the eyes of Mormons I talk to; they’re thinking: If I can just say something, then he’ll see the sense of it all, and believe. (Then when I don’t, I’m hard-hearted.)
Of course, if I did pray about the church — never mind that praying presupposes the existence of a being whose existence is one of the claims under consideration — and if I did have a big emotional experience, what would that show? Only that I’m just as susceptible to emotional reasoning as anyone else. That’s something I already know.
I should also point out that not everyone has a big emotional experience. Many people pray and get no answer at all. So if this is a test, that means it failed, right? Nope — Mormons in that situation condition themselves to believe that they “already knew it was true” and that no big experience is necessary.
This is how my experience went. I remember it quite clearly. My “answer” was that I already knew it was true. It sustained severe activity for fifty years……… Now I have to come to terms with the idea that my own mind just had to have the answer so it gave me one.
It goes to the highest levels.
Ask: How would this quote encourage someone to stay in the church, even if they feel no “spiritual manifestation”?
This is how the church plays both sides of the epistemological fence. Pray, and you’ll have an experience that will make you believe — but if you don’t, you don’t need a big experience; just believe anyway.
Additional lesson ideas
Horses and chariots
We’ve mentioned the lack of pre-Columbian horses — and here they are again — but now let’s take it farther with chariots.
Alma 18:10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.
Did ancient Americans have chariots with wheels?
In a word, no. Wheels don’t appear in the archaeological record.
There are around 100 known examples thus far and they vary in construction according to where they were found. Small solid-bodied examples were found around the Veracruz and northern coastal regions, whilst larger hollow-bodied examples have been found in Veracruz, Michoacan, Geurrero and El Salvador. If putting wheels on an animal wasn’t strange enough, the larger type are often flutes or whistles with the posterior or tail being used as a mouthpiece.
The majority were made by threading an axle through loops formed on each leg, with one between the front legs and another between the hind legs, with a wheel mounted on each end. Another composite type does exist, with the animal mounted on a plinth through which the axles were mounted. Both types result in a fairly robust mobile animal on wheels, which most people liken to a child’s toy – although it is very unlikely that they were given to youngsters to play with.
Okay, so when did they appear?
The majority of examples that exist today are thought to have been made in the Early Post Classic Era (900AD-1250AD), though some do come from the earlier Classic Era (200AD-900AD).
So that’s 200–1250 CE. That’s way too late for king Lamoni, who was strictly a BCE kind of guy.
The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.
“The stroke of brilliance was the wheel-and-axle concept,” said David Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College and author of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language” (Princeton, 2007). “But then making it was also difficult.”
To make a fixed axle with revolving wheels, Anthony explained, the ends of the axle had to be nearly perfectly smooth and round, as did the holes in the center of the wheels; otherwise, there would be too much friction for the wheels to turn. Furthermore, the axles had to fit snugly inside the wheels’ holes, but not too snugly — they had to be free to rotate.
Unfortunately, the New World suffered from a conspicuous scarcity of draft animals. The only beast of burden known in the Americas was the llama, a delicate critter restricted to certain parts of the Andes, which was used solely as a pack animal. Without draft animals you cannot do extensive hauling with sledges, and without sledges it will never occur to you that the wheel would be a handy thing to have.
In the end, the lack of ancient American wheels is a big problem for the Book of Mormon, and not just because it mentions wheels all the time. It’s also because Lehi and family came from the Old World, where wheels had already been in use. If someone traveled to the Americans with this knowledge, it would have taken the New World by storm (problems with animals notwithstanding). What, did Lehi forget?
So Lehi comes over and “forgets” to use the wheel. I’m sure that even a FARMS dude has got to admit that that is about as stupid as forgetting about fire or even forgetting how to eat…or breathe for that matter. As we all know, “forgetting about the wheel” isn’t even in the realm of possibility.
The oldest wheel found in archeological excavations was discovered in what was Mesopotamia and is believed to be over fifty-five hundred years old. The wheel was used extensively in the Greek and Roman civilizations and of course was well established in Jerusalem when Lehi made his supposed journey, (Hell, logic would say that Lehi even used wheels in his “trek” from Jerusalem to the coast.) But then once he arrives in the New world, he forgets all about it!!
Surely we’d see wheels being used in the Americas in some capacity during this time. But we don’t. Fictional people don’t innovate.
The nature of “chariots” is not clear in the Book of Mormon text. The text nowhere states that wheels were a part of these devices.
We do not know what type of chariots the Nephites used, nor do we know if what they called chariots had wheels.
Aren’t they great, ladies and gentlemen? Chariots without wheels!
“Hey, I feel like a ride in my chariot! Wanna go out for a scrape?”
“Sure; our alpacas are rarin’ to go!”
But here’s the best part: we can’t find the chariots because they just decayed.
It appears that most chariots during Book of Mormon times did not survive, just like during the Exodus which the “six hundred chosen chariots” (Exodus 14:6) and “all the chariots of Egypt” (Exodus 14:6) did not survive in the sea. (Exodus 14:26-28)
Are they saying that the Lamanite chariots are just as real as Pharaoh’s chariots?
Bronze Age wheel at ‘British Pompeii’ Must Farm an ‘unprecedented find’
A complete Bronze Age wheel believed to be the largest and earliest of its kind found in the UK has been unearthed.
The 3,000-year-old artefact was found at a site dubbed “Britain’s Pompeii”, at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire.
Archaeologists have described the find – made close to the country’s “best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings” – as “unprecedented”.
Still containing its hub, the 3ft-diameter (one metre) wooden wheel dates from about 1,100 to 800 BC.
Unprecedented — but possible.
This wheel is even older than anything from our reading. If something like this were found in Guatemala, LDS apologists would claim it as a win for the Book of Mormon. And rightly so — it would turn Mesoamerican archaeology on its head. But when we don’t find such things, they don’t seem to care. And that’s careless.
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?
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.
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.
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 33:11And 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.
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
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.
To encourage a more helpful view of the world than Mormon theology allows
For this lesson, we’re getting into Nephi’s analogy of the Tree of Life — a big white tree that makes you happy when you eat its fruit. (It’s not drugs, apparently.)
But the real message of the tree is that there’s only one place to be, and only one way to get there. This fits in well with the current message of the church, which pretty much amounts to “stay in the church”. And when your organisation just says “stay in the organisation”, that means the organisation is entirely superfluous.
Main ideas for this lesson
Origins of the Tree of Life story
Members of the church make a big deal about how Joseph Smith couldn’t have cranked out the Book of Mormon himself in such a short time. Well, he didn’t have a short time. You know what they say: You have your whole life to write your first book.
And so it is here. It seems that Smith borrowed the Tree of Life analogy from a story his dad used to tell. Here’s the story as his mother told it in her book History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.
In 1811, we moved from Royalton, Vermont, to the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Soon after arriving here, my husband received another very singular vision, which I will relate:
“I thought,” said he, “I was traveling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing, before I went any further. So I asked myself, ‘What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?’ My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, ‘This is the desolate world; but travel on.’ The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it; for, said I to myself, ‘Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and straight is the gate that leads to everlasting’ life, and few there be that go in thereat.’
Traveling a short distance farther, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the termination; but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I can not eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.
While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.
I presently turned to my guide, and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.’ Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children, standing some distance off. I immediately went to them, and brought them to the tree; upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees, and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.
After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building which I saw. He replied, ‘It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.’
I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy.”
Anyone familiar with the contents of this Book of Mormon reading will recognise all the salient elements of the Tree of Life story, which Joseph absorbed and repackaged into his own narrative. It seems that Joseph Smith wasn’t the only creative one in the family.
Elements of the story
I’m going to pull the important bits of the story out, and maybe give some ideas about how they contribute to Mormon thinking.
The dark and dreary waste
Lehi starts the story.
1 Nephi 8:5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
8:6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
8:7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
No clue from the manual as to what this is supposed to be, but I suppose it’s the world. Believers need everyone to think the world is an awful and unfulfilling place without their bullshit.
The tree of life and its fruit
1 Nephi 8:10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
8:11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
Notice that, in this story, there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: near the tree. In the same way, Latter-day Saints seem to think there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: stuck in boring meetings for three hours on a Sunday.
The rod of iron
1 Nephi 8:19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
Not only is there only one place to be, there’s only one way to get there: a cold, hard iron bar. You have to hold onto the bar and never let go, if you want to get to the tree.
Ask: What’s wrong with this picture? Answer: We live in an amazing world, with many options open to us. There are many ways to live and be happy, and they don’t all involve undeviating obedience.
In fact, undeviating obedience is way more likely to lead to committing atrocities than thinking for yourself is.
The river of filthy water, the mist of darkness, and the great and spacious building
The story continues:
1 Nephi 8:21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
8:22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
8:23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
8:24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
8:25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
8:26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
8:27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
8:28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
8:31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
8:32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
8:33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
Boy, the world sure seems like a dangerous place, doesn’t it? And if you let go of that rod for a split second, you could get drowned in a fountain.
This part of the story contributes to a “scary external world” narrative, which keeps many believers from venturing very far outside the confines of the faith.
Notice also that in this lesson, the church is attempting to inoculate its members against criticism and scorn.
I admit it’s not very nice to make fun of people. On the other hand, I think making fun of beliefs and ideas is perfectly acceptable. Ridicule doesn’t harm true ideas, but it’s lethal to false ones, which is why people with false beliefs are incredibly touchy about mockery and ridicule.
Ask: If you’ve been in a science class, did the lecturer warn you that people would mock and ridicule you for accepting a certain scientific idea? Answer: Such a warning is unnecessary for factual ideas that are demonstrably true. If someone did try to ridicule you for accepting a fact, it would be sufficient to display the evidence for that fact, and then let that person do what they want with that information. But for beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, this is impossible, which is why believers typically resort to an appeal to faith as a fallback position.
People in the story
So the LDS lesson manual mentions four kinds of people in the story:
a. 1 Nephi 8:21–23. (Those who start on the path but then become lost in the mist of darkness.)
Not very high achievers, are they? All they had to do was keep hold of that rod, and they couldn’t. Sheesh.
b. 1 Nephi 8:24–28. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, but then become ashamed and fall away.)
Ah — they succumbed to peer pressure. Losers.
c. 1 Nephi 8:30. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, and who then remain faithful.)
Those brave and stalwart individuals who stayed in the boat. And how did they manage it? By ignoring people with contrary opinions.
d. 1 Nephi 8:31–33. (Those who never start on the path but instead go directly toward the great and spacious building.)
So one group ends up believing, and three don’t. There’s something I want to point out about the three groups: They’re all people who succumbed to less-than-worthy motivators, whether apathy, or insufficient stamina, or social pressure. No one ever lets go for a worthwhile reason, like the fact that the iron rod isn’t really going anywhere, or the fruit of the Tree of Life is kind of meh. And what with all the scriptural editing, uncredited essays, and apologetic double-talk in the church today, the iron rod isn’t as firm as it used to be. It’s more like a steel slinky.
Which leads me to a conclusion. All the church knows how to do is devalue the life choices of people who don’t stay in the church. You can blame them or feel pity for them, but in this story, there’s no way to see their choices as valid.
How is a Mormon supposed to respect non-members or ex-members? How is a believer supposed to regard an ex-Mormon partner? How does this story help to build relationships? Or really, to do anything besides keep Mormons in their seats every Sunday?
There is one good thing in the manual, however.
Encourage class members to strengthen each other and to never mock or belittle others.
Hey, that’s fair. If we’re doing that, we need to knock it off. Ideas are fair game, but people deserve respect. That also goes for people who stay Mormon. We may not think it’s a good decision, but we don’t always know their motivations or their situation. Who knows — maybe something could have been different for me, and then I’d still be there.
A better story
Here’s my try at writing a better analogy. It’s more reflective of reality as I see it. From the Book of Daniel (Midgley), chapter 1.
And it came to pass that I saw a world, and this world had treasures wondrous to behold.
There was knowledge to gain, and work to be done.
There were books to read and stories to tell.
There was treasure.
What’s that game where you slash around in the grass and find gems? Is it Zelda?
It was like Zelda.
There was food and people and music and art and love.
There were a lot of dangerous animals and there was disease.
For a lot of people, things sucked pretty much all the time.
But fixing that was part of the work to be done.
Oh, yeah, and there was coffee, too.
And it came to pass that into this land there came a group, all huddled together, with a huge muslin sheet over them.
The Sheet kept them together in a group, like a great amoeba or something.
The Sheet blocked out the light, and kept them from seeing the things in their world as well as they might.
For those closest to the centre, it obstructed their view entirely.
God, were they sensitive about the unkind comments people made about the Sheet; but in fairness, they looked frigging ridiculous under that thing.
And it looked hot and uncomfortable.
But they did not mind being under the Sheet because they felt it was safer then being outside.
Their leaders told them what life was like outside, and their descriptions of the dangers was enough to keep them under the Sheet.
Being under the Sheet made them feel special, like a community.
And some said that they could not imagine life without the Sheet.
And some were not sure about the this whole Sheet thing, but that the Sheet was a part of their identity, and they’d been under the Sheet for this long, so.
And it came to pass that some of them would venture out in pairs to convince others to join them under the enormous Sheet, and some would join them.
And it came to pass that in the course of time, I saw more and more people venture out from underneath the Sheet.
They had seen that the world outside the Sheet had more treasures than they’d been able to imagine, and that life under that Sheet involved a lot of unnecessary crap.
Especially not having coffee.
But when they returned to tell others about life without the Sheet, they found themselves ignored by their erstwhile fellow Sheet-mates.
And it came to pass that Sheet-mates was not intended as some kind of sexual euphemism.
And sometimes they were cut off from their families and partners (who really had been Sheet-mates) and these were the saddest of all.
And it came to pass that some of the People of the Sheet were happy, and some were miserable.
And some of the people outside the Sheet were happy.
And some were miserable.
A fact which the People of the Sheet harped on endlessly.
But sometimes not being under a Sheet is like that.
And the people outside the Sheet ended up, not in one place, but across the whole face of the land, since that was where the action is.
And as the people discovered things about their world, they called unto each other, and shared their discoveries, and used their knowledge to discover more.
And there were many ways to live, and many places to be, and all chose their way as best they could.
Additional lesson ideas
Is Jesus the Father?
The first edition of the Book of Mormon contained these verses:
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.
… 11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
… 11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
In current editions, the text of these verses has been changed to read:
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
It’s a change that goes quite a bit beyond a simple textual edit, and shows that the Book of Mormon was Mormonism v1. Even so, sometimes Mormons double down on this, insisting that Jesus is the Father, if you redefine ‘father’. (Redefining words is the last refuge of a scoundrel.)
• Christ is sometimes called Father because of his role as Creator from the beginning
• Jesus Christ is also known as Father through the spiritual rebirth of mankind (see Born of God). As the foreordained Redeemer, he became the “author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him”
• Furthermore, Jesus is called Father because of the authority God gave him to act for the Father.
So Jesus is the Father, but only when he’s acting as the Father. Unless he’s also the Creator or the Saviour, which is all the time. Totally not confusing.
Sometimes the Savior has spoken both as the Father (Elohim) and as the Son (Jesus) in the same revelation
Because the writer got confused.
At this point, I tap out. It’s like arguing about the Force v Midichlorians with Star Wars nerds. Mormons are basically making their Godhead indistinguishable from the Trinity, so I hope they have fun with that.
This lesson is where we meet a young upstart by the name of Saul / Paul. (We’ll call him Spaul for convenience.) Spaul never met Jesus in person, but he would take over his racket. With his penchant for telling people how to live their lives, his hatred of women, and his boorish style of declamation, he would be the most influential Christian of all time (Jesus not excluded). He would also serve as a model for thousands of the asshole evangelists who plague college campuses in our day.
Main ideas for this lesson
The stoning of Stephen
We start this reading with a disciple named Stephen, who was doing stuff.
Acts 6:8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
But then he ran afoul of “certain of the synagogue”. Side note: it really looks like anti-Jewish sentiment was firmly entrenched by this time in Christianity’s history.
Acts 6:9 Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.
6:10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.
Stephen is hauled up before the council, and makes his defence. This takes up all of chapter 7 (it’s long, too), and is essentially an entry for a “Summarise the Old Testament” contest. In a synagogue. Where he says stuff like this:
Acts 7:51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
“Not bad summarising, Stephen. But you could have tightened it up a bit by saying, ‘Moses did a bunch of stuff… and YOU SUCK!'”
By the way, it would have been difficult for them to have resisted the Holy Ghost; according to Jesus, the Holy Ghost hadn’t been sent yet.
And then Stephen gets stoned.
Acts 7:54 When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
7:55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
7:56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
7:57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
7:58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
7:59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
7:60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And this takes us up to where we meet Spaul.
Saul is traveling to Damascus, when the Big Guy puts the hurt on him.
Acts 9:3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
9:4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
9:5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
9:6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
9:7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
Ask: Did the men who were with Spaul hear a voice or see anyone? Answer: According to Acts 9:7, yes to the voice and no, respectively. But when Spaul tells the story again later, he’s forgotten some details because now the answers are “no to the voice, and yes to the light.”
Acts 22:7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
22:8 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.
22:9 And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.
Stories can change in the retelling, especially if they’re fictional stories.
Should we fight error?
Let’s talk about “kicking against the pricks”.
When people leave the church, members have a range of strategies to minimise their credibility. Many of these could have been used against Spaul.
Ask: If you have left the church, how many of these have been used against you?
The “can’t leave it alone” idea is especially rank, coming as a criticism from Mormons. When you believe it, you’re supposed to shout it from the housetops, but if you no longer believe it, you’re supposed to… what… disappear? This is a way of silencing people who disagree.
And it’s not like the church leaves people alone. It doesn’t leave people alone when missionaries come around to knock on their door. It doesn’t leave member kids alone when they turn 19, and it’s time to serve a mission. (Did I say 19? Now it’s 18. Apparently they were losing too many kids during that first year of learning at uni.) And they haven’t left gay people alone — they’re still spreading their homophobic message, as ever. So this “can’t leave it alone” thing is just silly. Members need to knock it off.
Even in the post-Mormon community, there’s this idea that it’s not healthy to keep fighting the church, or to keep talking or writing about it. There’s some expectation that you leave the church, you start your blog, and then after a while, you’re supposed to “move on”.
Mormonism is interesting! And with the ongoing revelations of polygamy and magic rocks, it’s never been interestinger! So who wouldn’t want to keep talking and writing about this slow-motion trainwreck? (Hey, maybe that’s what ‘continuing revelation’ means — the church keeps revealing things about its history to its members.)
I need to remember that sometimes I can be wrong — really wrong! When you get a wrong idea, it’s possible to build up defences around it. I did that once, and I don’t want to do it again. My Mormon experience helps me to remember my human fallibility.
The church is a pernicious entity that harms people. Once it gets its hooks into someone — with all the attendant logical loops and thought-stopping clichés — it’s hard for them to get out. And they’ll be paying the church all the while. If you’re concerned about scam artists and bad reasoning, then the LDS Church (as with religion in general) is definitely something to be concerned about.
And besides, we used to belong to a faith that taught that it was important to keep old wrongs and injustices firmly in mind.
D&C 123:13 Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven—
14 These should then be attended to with great earnestness.
Additional lesson ideas
You never know who the church is going to attract. A lot of people who are poor thinkers in one area tend to be poor thinkers in another. (It may have a lot to do with intellectual character.)
Anyhow, one of the early converts was a magician named Simon.
Acts 8:18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,
8:19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.
8:20 But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.
Simon’s contribution to the language is that of simony, the sin of selling church offices, or taking money for spiritual things.
In the LDS Church, simony takes the form of requiring that tithing be paid in order to get a temple recommend so that one can maintain their temple covenants and attain salvation thereby.
If you decide to mention this in a real Gospel Doctrine class, please let us know how it went in comments. See you next week.
To show contradictions in the resurrection story, and to encourage readers to seek evidence for extraordinary claims.
This lesson is about the pivotal event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. I say it’s pivotal because if it didn’t happen, then there’s no point to Christianity at all. And Paul says as much.
1 Corinthians 15:14And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
This really came home to me when my father passed on. I realised that I was the grown-up now, and I had to decide how I was going to live. And if there was a life after this, or no life after this, I wanted to know it. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you don’t care about defending the story you’ve always lived by, and you just want to know if you’re right or wrong. Well, at this point, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.
So for me, the crucial question became: Did the resurrection of Jesus happen?
And my answer: Of course not. Why would it? Don’t be a credulous nincompoop. People don’t just get up from being totally dead. When has that ever happened in all of human experience? Never. So if someone wants to convince me that it really happened, thry’re going to need better evidence than copies of documents. And as Sam Harris points out, that’s all we got.
Bible scholars agree that the first gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus. Decades.
And of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts which have thousands — literally thousands — of descrepancies between them, many of which show signs of later interpolation, which is to say that people added passages that then became part of the canon. There are whole books of the canon, like the book of Revelation, which for hundreds of years were not included because they were deemed false gospel. There are other whole books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which you probably haven’t heard of, but for centuries it was considered part of the canon, and then was later jettisoned as false gospel.
Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken. Think about that. This process, this all too human process of cobbling together the supposed authoritative word of god is a very precarious basis to assert the claims of Christianity. But the truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneaus claims of the miracles of Jesus this would not be good enough. Because miracle stories abound even in the 21st century. The devotees of the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba ascribe all of the miracles of Jesus to him. He reads minds, he fortells the future, he heals, he raises the dead, he was born of a virgin. Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. You may not have heard of him, but they had a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are vast numbers of people that think he is a living god.
So Christianity is predicated on the claim that miracle stories — exactly of the kind that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba — become especially credible when you place them in a pre-scientific religious context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurance, as attested to by copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek and largely discrepant manuscripts. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses and they don’t even merit an hour on cable television. And, yet, you put a few miracle stories in an ancient book and half the people on Earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around. Does anyone else see a problem with that?
Actually, yes, I do.
Speaking of “largely discrepant manuscripts”, we’re going to see how the stories in the gospels are hopelessly confused as to the details of the resurrection. Here’s a helpful infographic.
This was God’s opportunity to report the facts of the case, and it resembles nothing more than a mishmash of human fabrication.
So how does Christianity paper over this? The surprising answer: By expecting you not to demand any evidence for its claims, and by telling you that you’ll be blessed if you believe without evidence. How about that?
Main ideas for this lesson
Rolling away the stone?
Let’s start at the beginning: In the morning, two Marys (and a Salome, if you believe Mark) were heading to the tomb.
Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
Other Mary: Why do I have to be ‘other Mary’?
Mary: You’re not married to Jesus.
Other Mary: Well, you’re not married to Jesus!
I don’t know what they thought they were going to do; there was supposed to be a huge stone there. But then Matthew reports a second huge earthquake that no one else noticed, and an angel rolls away the stone.
Matthew 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
Already we have a fail. Round tomb stones weren’t really a thing at the time. They wouldn’t be popular until about 70 CE, which supports the idea that this was a later addition. Richard Carrier notes:
There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).
Jesus then appears to different people in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. Rather than recount it, I refer to this portion of our infographic.
If that’s not enough for you, I have this PDF file from my good friend David Austin. (He should get a blog.) Click the image to download a copy for yourself.
Thomas and doubt
Jesus appears to the rest of the apostles. And since it’s John, notice the “fear of teh Jooz”. He’s always on about the Jews.
John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
Good so far, except Thomas wasn’t there. And he won’t believe it until he sees it.
John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
Good on him. He’s demanding the kind of evidence that’s required to support a claim. That’s what a person should do.
John 20:26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
20:27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.
Thomas believes, but at least he’s doing it right. He wants evidence, he gets it, and he changes his mind.
But now here’s Jesus with the kicker.
John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Here we have it, folks. This is the one that I count as the worst verse in scripture. Jesus is saying that evidence is fine, but no evidence is just as good. Maybe even better.
By insisting that believing without evidence is somehow on a par with believing with evidence, Jesus takes the metric that rational people use to evaluate claims, and turns it on its head. If we all did this, there’s no limit to the mutually exclusive and contradictory claims we could believe. To accept this way of thinking is to abandon reason.
Imagine how irresponsible it is for a god to demand this. Here we are in our short lives, having to choose the right religion or philosophy or story among tens of thousands, and if you get it wrong, it’s no salvation for you. Those are serious consequences (which God has set out). A responsible parent would spell out the evidence for his gospel fairly clearly. God doesn’t do that. Instead, he expects you to pick one without adequate reasons, and hope you got it right. To be fair, he also is supposed to give out feelings, the nature of which can easily be misunderstood, and which are experienced by followers of all religions. Otherwise, good luck.
This theme of not needing evidence is often taken up by believers I’ve met. When I ask for evidence, they never provide it. Instead, they make excuses for why I shouldn’t expect evidence, or they tell me why I should accept substitutes for evidence (like feelings). Strangely, they don’t seem to see how this is an evasion of the responsibility to back up what they say.
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
Ask: How does the LDS Church encourage people to “avoid the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss” church doctrines? Answers: By avoiding material that is not “inspiring”, and by labelling books and people who tell the truth about the church as “anti-Mormon”.
Ask: How is the refusing to confront doubts “one long sin against mankind”? Answer: One of the most important things we can do in life is to advance our collective knowledge. Doing this helps create technologies that can cure illness, sustain life, and improve the quality of living. But this only works if we make reality the metric against which we compare other ideas. Accepting false beliefs means that we stop advancing, and start retreating, and this helps humankind not at all.
I’d like to take a moment and bear my testimony of doubt. Doubt is amazing! Doubt has helped me figure out what’s true and what’s false far better than faith can. Having faith just confirms what you believe, whether it’s right or not. It’s like a compass that always points in the way you’re going. What good is that? It might be okay if you’re trying to feel good about your beliefs, but if you’re trying to find out what’s true, it’s no use at all.
By contrast, doubt won’t hurt true claims (as long as you understand the kind of evidence required to establish a claim). However, it’s lethal to false ones.
Why’s it have to be snakes?
Jesus eventually jet-packed back up to heaven, but before he did, he left this instruction:
Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.
Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church. The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.
At first, “All I could think about — am I going to make it?” Coots said.
Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.
His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured “Sweet Jesus,” said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.
People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.
A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.
This raises all kinds of questions for me.
When someone dies from a snake bite in these churches, why don’t they take it as a sign of the victim’s lack of faith?
Why do they pray for the person to get better? Is that supposed to be some kind of Plan B, in case of lack of faith?
And where are all the poison-drinking churches? Did they used to exist, but poison worked more reliably than snakes?
To show the futility of prayer, and the contradictory and convenient rationales used to explain away its failure.
Ask the class: According to this reading, which of the following is a reason to pray?
To ask God for things we need
To pester God into giving us stuff
To feel better about not getting stuff
To remind ourselves of how unworthy we are
As a way of displaying our relationship with God to other people
Answer: All of the above, except the first one.
Surprised? Let’s just do a bit of review.
Back in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, prayer was simple. You asked God for stuff, you got stuff — just like in that first answer above. If you only had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could have it all. There was no indication from Jesus that it was supposed to be any other way.
Matthew 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
7:8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
7:9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
7:10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
7:11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Mark 11:23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
11:24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
But as anyone who’s ever prayed for a pony — or a loved one to get better — knows, it really doesn’t work. People started noticing that God was giving out a lot of serpents. So Jesus added this dodge:
Matthew 17:19 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
17:20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
If you didn’t get it, it was because you didn’t have enough faith. Which is a great way of blaming the victim when prayer fails. Nice move, Jesus.
And now, Christianity and Mormonism are teeming with qualifications, hedges, and rationales to explain why prayer really works — just not how you think. If prayer doesn’t seem to work — well, it’s because:
you didn’t blah blah blah…
you’re not supposed to blah blah blah…
God doesn’t blah blah blah…
Here’s the complete chart, just for reference.
That being the case, this lesson is about some of those other — in my view, less worthwhile — reasons for prayer.
Main ideas for this lesson
Pestering God into giving us what we want
Here we have the parable of the Unjust Judge and the Widow.
Luke 18:1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
18:2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
18:3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
18:4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
18:5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
This is one dodge to justify why prayers don’t get answered: Oh, well, they will eventually.
The LDS lesson manual elaborates.
• How is persevering in prayer an act of faith? What should we do when we have persevered in prayer and feel that we have not received an answer?
Elder Richard G. Scott said:
“It is a mistake to assume that every prayer we offer will be answered immediately. Some prayers require considerable effort on our part. . . .
“When we explain a problem and a proposed solution [to our Heavenly Father], sometimes He answers yes, sometimes no. Often He withholds an answer, not for lack of concern, but because He loves us—perfectly. He wants us to apply truths He has given us. For us to grow, we need to trust our ability to make correct decisions. We need to do what we feel is right. In time, He will answer. He will not fail us” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1989, 38; or Ensign, Nov. 1989, 30–31).
Ask: How does Mr Scott justify the lack of answers to prayers? Answers:
God will answer your prayer. Just not yet. Well then, when? Juuuuust a little longer.
Prayers require effort. Submit your request again, and continue paying tithing.
Sometimes God answers no.
But what good are these excuses? We could get the same results by praying to a jug of milk.
You might as well ask a rock! Which some people do, and they think it works great.
Pick up your stone and hold it firmly in your hand to feel its power and purifying abilities. Ask it to soak up any negativity from your office space and send out strong, positive energetic rays around your computer to keep it virus-free.
You may chuckle, but at least rocks exist.
By the way, why would we need to ask an omniscient god for anything, when he already knows what we need? Blonde Hot Surfer Jesus has an answer:
To sum up, the moral of this parable is that you should keep asking. Weary the Lord with your pleadings.
Except when you’re not supposed to keep asking. You might remember the story of the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, which were lost by investor Martin Harris.
By mid-June 1828, the Prophet Joseph Smith, with Martin Harris as scribe, had translated 116 pages of manuscript from the gold plates. Martin asked Joseph to allow him to take the manuscript to “read to his friends that [perhaps] he might convince them of the truth” (Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers , 15). Joseph approached the Lord with Martin’s request but was told not to let the manuscript out of his possession. Martin convinced Joseph to ask again—which resulted in a second refusal from the Lord. Martin prevailed upon Joseph to ask once more and, on this third request, the Lord gave permission for Martin to take the manuscript if he agreed to show the manuscript only to his wife and a few select family members. However, Martin broke his oath and the manuscript was lost. Because Joseph had not accepted the Lord’s initial counsel but delivered “that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man” (D&C 3:12), Moroni took the plates and the Urim and Thummim from the Prophet.
Considering what you know about Martin Harris and all that he had done for Joseph Smith, why do you think Joseph persisted in asking God if Martin could take the manuscript even though God had already given a clear answer the first two times he asked?
I don’t know; maybe because Jesus said to persist in asking? The rules of whether to persist in prayer or leave it alone are confused and contradictory. This is not the work of a god who’s all that bright.
Reminding ourselves of how unworthy we are
You know what people tell me when I say that religion is harmful? They tell me about the comfort it brings them. So comfort. Wow.
Well, how comforting is it when you’re told what an unworthy wretch you are? That’s the next purpose of prayer in this lesson, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.
Luke 18:10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
18:12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
18:13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
In other words, you’re supposed to proclaim your unworthiness at all times. This graphic is an actual meme that Christians are sharing with each other.
This is not a system that builds confident people. It celebrates and encourages brokenness.
Displaying your relationship with God to others
Lazarus gets sick and dies. Like the man born blind, it’s an example of God making people sick so that he can show how great he is for making them well.
John 11:4 When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.
Then Jesus says something a little unusual in his prayer to raise Lazarus:
John 11:41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
11:42 And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.
From the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:
• What can Jesus’ prayer before he raised Lazarus teach us about his relationship with his Father? (See John 11:41–42.) How can we follow Jesus’ example in our personal and family prayers?
Answer: By praying as ostentatiously as possible. Suggestion: Over food in restaurants.
A diner on business travel received a 15 percent discount on her check for simply praying over her meal at a Winston-Salem, North Carolina restaurant Wednesday.
Jordan Smith stopped for breakfast with two colleagues at Mary’s Gourmet Diner where they publicly prayed for their food, and later were surprised with the deduction.
” … The waitress came over at the end of the meal and said, ‘Just so you know, we gave you a 15% discount for praying,’ which I’d never seen before,” said Smith, according to HLN TV. “The three of us at the table talked about how wonderful that is and what a cool thing it is that they do as business owners.”
Except that Jesus said we’re not supposed to make a show for others.
Matthew 6:5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
Again, the advice on prayer is confusing and contradictory.
Does prayer do anything?
As we’ve seen, believers have taken Jesus’ original instruction to pray for things, and larded it up with justifications and out-clauses for when it doesn’t work.
So does prayer actually do anything? Well, it’s pretty good for making you feel better.
I will pray for you
My favourite passive-aggressive Christian jibe is when people say “I’ll pray for you.”
Do I answer in the way that this guy does? No, I do not.
Many people will say yes, prayer works. They base this on personal anecdotes, and I have to say, some of them are pretty trivial.
That’s not a pretty picture, I know, but there are a lot of starving kids in the world. If God is helping wealthy Westerners find parking spaces, while choosing to leave problems of massive systemic suffering alone, then he truly is the God of Small Things.
The Divine Plan
Of course, when prayer doesn’t work, people try to make themselves feel better by saying it “wasn’t in God’s plan”.
As always, George Carlin had the best answer to this.
Again, on Bill Maher.
And of all people, Mr Deity knows what’s up. He’s got a plan! And when doing nothing gets people to believe in you, why screw it up?
Can’t answer ’em all
Complicating the whole prayer idea is the fact that people send millions of contradictory prayers and requests that are mutually unfulfillable.
All of which should be enough to tell us that prayer is futile.
If, as people say, prayer is really for you, then there are better things for you to be doing.
Additional lesson ideas
On his way somewhere, Jesus healed another blind guy.
Luke 18:42 And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.
18:43 And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God.
Perhaps you’re not impressed by this story, written down as it is in this 2,000-year-old book. Would you be impressed if you saw it in real life? Many people are; these so-called miracles are duplicated by fakes and con artists everywhere.
SCEPTICS are warning people to be wary of a self-proclaimed “miracle healer” who claims to have cured blindness and is bringing his “healing” tour to the southeast.
Hungarian pastor Laszlo Magyari, who has claimed to have healed people of conditions from cancer to blindness, will perform his “healing” services in Bentleigh, Springvale, Noble Park, Narre Warren and Endeavour Hills over the next two weeks.
But Australian Skeptics Victorian Branch president Chris Guest said it was important to remain vigilant of the claims of faith healers.
“Even faith healers who are sincere in their beliefs and offer their services without fee are still capable of doing harm,” he said.
“Their followers may be dissuaded from getting timely medical attention from serious illnesses or continuing with promising orthodox treatments.”