Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: unnecessary suffering

D&C Lesson 5 (Personal Revelation)

“This Is the Spirit of Revelation”

Reading assignment

Reading assignment: Doctrine and Covenants 6; 8; 9; Joseph Smith—History 1:8–17.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

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

Revelation

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

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?

BoM Lesson 31 (Wars)

“Firm in the Faith of Christ”

Alma 43–52

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To explain why apostates are so dangerous to the church, and to investigate whether a common criticism of the Book of Mormon has any validity

Reading

Man, if this reading isn’t a stinker. The Book of Alma has a reputation for being tough to get through, and this reading is part of the reason why. It concerns the Nephite/Lamanite wars, and would really only be of interest to someone from that area and time.

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual seems to sense the tension in the room for this lesson, and tries to forestall it by asking:

• Why do you think Mormon included so much information about war in the Book of Mormon?

Because war stories are easy to write?

1. Mormon knew that the Book of Mormon would be read and studied in a time when war would be common throughout the world. These writings teach us how to remain Christlike during times of conflict.

Actually, war is less common now than at any time in earth’s history.

“War” is a fuzzy category, shading from global conflagrations to neighborhood turf battles, so the organizations that track the frequency and damage of war over time need a precise yardstick. A common definition picks out armed conflicts that cause at least 1,000 battle deaths in a year — soldiers and civilians killed by war violence, excluding the difficult-to-quantify indirect deaths resulting from hunger and disease. “Interstate wars” are those fought between national armies and have historically been the deadliest.

These prototypical wars have become increasingly rare, and the world hasn’t seen one since the three-week invasion of Iraq in 2003. The lopsided five-day clash between Russia and Georgia in 2008 misses the threshold, as do sporadic clashes between North and South Korea or Thailand and Cambodia.

And:

In fact, virtually all the war in the world is now confined to an arc stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan, which contains less than a sixth of the world’s population. We are hardly, as pessimists like to say, a “world at war.” Of course, the world continues to suffer from other forms of violence: terrorist bombings that kill dozens, drug gangs that kill thousands, and homicides that kill hundreds of thousands. But the latest inroads against a major category of violence — war — after five years in which it had lurched in the wrong direction, deserves our attention and gratitude.

What else you got, LDS manual?

2. Mormon recorded Nephite history preceding the Savior’s appearance in great detail. We can read of the Nephites’ experiences and be prepared for similar events occurring in our day prior to the Second Coming of Christ.

Ah, yes — the Second Coming. Seems like they’ve been saying it’s on its way ever since I was a young tacker. The last and chosen generation before Christ’s triumphant return, and all that. When is that going to happen?

Oh, look: not for a while yet.

The end is not near, senior LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer said Saturday.

Today’s youths can look forward to “getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren,” Packer told more than 20,000 Mormons gathered in the giant LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Isn’t that a hoot? The name of the church has “Latter-day” in it, and now one of its leaders says the Second Coming has been called off due to lack of interest. Or maybe it’s because they’ve just built a mall and they’ve got to recoup.

I see these war chapters as a missed opportunity. Remember, the Book of Mormon was God’s best shot at re-establishing his revelatory link with humanity. He could have told us anything! There we were, at the cusp of the humankind’s great leap into the Scientific Age, and God could have dropped in some nuggets that we were about to discover. What if the Book of Mormon had gotten the jump on Einstein and Bohr? That would have made believers out of a great many people.

Instead, we get pointless war stories.

Alma 49:24 There were about fifty who were wounded, who had been exposed to the arrows of the Lamanites through the pass, but they were shielded by their shields, and their breastplates, and their head-plates, insomuch that their wounds were upon their legs, many of which were very severe.

Was severe leg injuries really the best God could come up with?

Main ideas for this lesson

Why do we fight?

There’s a lot in this reading, but it’s so boring, I’m not going to go through it like a regular lesson. Instead, this lesson will touch on a pertinent question from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.

• Some of the strongest opponents of the Nephites had once been Nephites themselves, including the Amalekites (Alma 24:29–30; 43:6–7), the Zoramites (Alma 30:59; 31:8–11; 43:4), Amalickiah (Alma 46:1–7), Morianton (Alma 50:26, 35), and Amalickiah’s brother Ammoron (Alma 52:3). Why do those who have left the Church often fight so strongly against it? (See Mosiah 2:36–37; Alma 47:35–36.)

The Prophet Joseph Smith made the following statement to a man who wondered why those who had left the Church often fought so fiercely against it: “Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant” (in “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 15 Aug. 1892, 492).

“And you shall be in my power! Muhahahahahaaaa!!!”

hqdefault

No, but seriously.

Let me try to explain why I fight the church so hard after being devoted to it for so many years.

I was raised in the church. For thirty-eight years, I went to weekly three-hour meetings, served a two-year mission, served in callings, and went to early-morning seminary classes. (How many years is that? You do the math.) Through it all, the church carefully wove a web that influenced the whole of my life. It taught that it was the Lord’s kingdom on the earth, and that if I was obedient, I could have an eternity with my family in heaven.

Sometimes things wouldn’t make sense. There would be contradictions. And when that happened, I didn’t worry, and I didn’t doubt. I would simply invent a workable explanation. Or I would place the item on my shelf, reasoning that I would find out after I died. Because, no matter what else, I knew the church was right. That was the one thing I knew.

In 2005, when I was struggling for answers, and everything appeared in shades of gray instead of black and white, I still believed. The idea that the church might be wrong was the last thing I wanted to think. I tried every other option, through every contradiction.

But when I allowed myself to serenely and honestly contemplate that last and final possibility — that the church was wrong — all the contractions folded up and disappeared, resolved at last. There were no contradictions. The complex and byzantine tower of faith that I had spent years constructing simply collapsed into a pile of dust at my feet.

The next few weeks at church were strange. In discussions about Noah’s Ark, the Millennium, the Creation — every time some doctrine was taught, I thought: All the people in this room are wrong about this.

The church was not what it taught me it was. It held itself up as the One True Church with living prophets, and it was just another human-made organisation.

And when you realise that — once you get past the shock — then comes the anger.

the-truth-will-set-you-free-but-first

Because once you really grasp that the church isn’t what it claimed, you realise that someone’s been doing a whole lot of lying.

But who? Parents? The missionaries? No, they probably believe it. They’re not to blame.

The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve? (We have this discussion a lot, we exMo’s.) Does the Q15 really believe it, or are they fooled as well?

One thing’s for sure: whoever wrote the Book of Mormon knows that they sat down and wrote it. And if the Q15 don’t know it’s wrong, they’re in a position to. Not knowing seems like criminal negligence.

What I’m saying is there’s a lot of anger, and it’s not clear whom to put it on.

And the wasted time and money! And the guilt they used on me. The way they shamed me about my body, my sexuality, and my desires. They claimed authority over the things that were closest to me. And the way they gave me a fake moral system to follow instead of something based in the real world. And the bad choices I made based on bad information. And on and on. You never really get through it. You just sort of keep rediscovering ways in which the worldview you cultivated was fake.

The closest thing I can imagine to it is discovering your spouse has been unfaithful. I’m not saying that’s a deal-breaker for everyone or anything. But imagine: you thought it was one way, and it was another. The reality you based your life on was a lie. And now you have to rediscover what reality is.

So that’s why I do what I do. I don’t have any delusions that I can bring the church down, but I do hope to contribute to the hollowing-out that I think is happening. And if someone finds themselves in my position, maybe they’ll see me and I can encourage them.

This stuff is kind of personal, and I can see we’re going over time. So I’ll end this bit here.

Let me ask the opposite question, just to finish off: why does the church fight its apostates so hard — to the point where they say that we’re enlisted with the evil one, and we’re his servants? Why are church members conditioned to shut down whenever one of us speaks?

Easy. Because we’re dangerous to the church. We know their mind games, because we’ve seen them all — and used them on ourselves. Who could be more dangerous to the Wizard of Oz than the ones who know all his tricks, and are happy to call them out for anyone listening?

IMG_0209

Damn straight, JD.

I want to give a special shoutout to NewNameNoah, who has been happily exposing the secrets of the LDS Church to anyone who would like to see them. Through the magic of hidden video, he has recorded the temple ceremonies, and placed them onto YouTube. People who were about to join the church have watched them, and said “No, thanks.” You can strike a blow for transparency and openness of information by linking to them here.

Additional lesson ideas

Book of Mormon place names

There’s an argument against the Book of Mormon that I’ve never been fond of. It’s that Joseph Smith (and co.) simply grabbed a lot of local place names when they were trying to come up with place names in the Book of Mormon. This idea is stated most clearly in the CES Letter (which is fantastic, and which has helped a lot of people).

It shows up on page 9.

names

Here are the maps.

mormonmap

modernmap

The CES Letter continues:

p10

Like I say, I’ve never been fond of this argument. Here’s why:

1. How close is close, for place names? Sure, the list looks compelling by the ol’ eyeball method, but can we use such a metric? Isn’t that what Mormon apologists do when they look at an inscription that says NHM and claim a match for Nahom?

2. There are a lot of similarities. But that’s to be expected when you cherry-pick. How many modern names were left off? How many Book of Mormon names? It would be easy to assemble a list of matches from just about anywhere.

That’s the root of my argument: It would be easy to take any random place, and match up Book of Mormon place names to it. To show this, I’m going to pick a random spot on the map, compare the place names to a list of Book of Mormon place names, and match as many as I can. I predict that I’ll get a healthy list of matches, no matter where I plop down a pin, which would mean that the plagiarism charge is not really reasonable. If, however, I can’t get a list of matches, I’ll have to admit that maybe there’s something to this.

But back to my first question: how close is close? Well, let’s keep in mind that different places are going to have their own ways of making words. There may be different suffixes that might get in the way. So I’m going to play this loosey-goosey. I’m going to be super tolerant of differences in the vowels, and I’ll probably even allow some consonants to drop out. It seems to me that only the first two or three consonants are significant. If there’s a place name like Bunbury, I’ll be looking for anything with B*n*b, or even B*n. For Adelaide, I’ll be happy if I get any vowel up the front, plus D*L. After all, that’s about as rigorous as what I think the inventor of our chart did.

So here we go: Malaysia. Here’s the zone.

mal1

Let’s zoom in for some detail on place names.

mal2

I should be able to find something. Hmm…

mal3

I can’t find one crappy name that looks even remotely close. Bintangor and Bethabara ain’t exactly a match.

But that’s just one place. I bet I’ll have better luck with some of the former Soviet republics.

Here’s the long view, in case you want to try.

kaz1

and the zoom in.

kaz2

And the result:

kaz3

Seventy freaking place names, and I can’t find a good match. Although Kishlakidzon at least has a Kish– in it. I’ve been as generous as I can, but the matches are pathetic.

Let’s give it one more try, this time in South America. This is the one place where we could expect a few decent matches, right?

I’m putting the pin down here:

sud1

sud2

And the result:

sud3

We get Annai and Ani-Anti, which is less-than-inspiring, given the lack of complexity. I matched Cunani and Cumeni, which I think was pretty generous. Other than that, there’s nothing. Check the list and let me know if you disagree. If you can do a better job, go for it.

I tried. I really tried. I thought I could get lots of matches for Book of Mormon names, no matter where I looked. Instead, the list from the CES Letter is way better than mine. I have to admit that this angle on Book of Mormon place names is more viable than I thought.

Did Joseph Smith (and/or friends) pull local place names when writing the Book of Mormon? I’m listing this as:

plausible

BoM Lesson 30 (Plan of Salvation)

“The Great Plan of Happiness”

Alma 40 – 42

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show Joseph Smith’s tendency to plagiarism, and to encourage readers to take time for things that matter.

Reading

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.

pos

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.”

Celestial Kingdom, eh? That sounds familiar.

Not only that, but Joseph Smith probably became familiar with his work.

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).

And would you believe that the ideas of the three heavens was incredibly controversial in Smith’s time?

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:

planOfHappiness

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.

tyd_003

Click here to see the full comic.

But Alma soldiers on.

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?

Probationary state

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.

In other words, is a thing good because God says it’s good, in which case we’re bound to a moral tyrant who declares things sinful for arbitrary reasons? Or is the goodness in the thing itself, in which case God can safely be ignored? This is Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and it’s a game-ender for claims to theistic “objective morality”.

Cake or death

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.

For more about why Jesus’s atonement makes no sense, check out New Testament Lesson 25.

Additional lesson ideas

More about ‘God would “cease to be God”‘

There’s something else strange about this verse.

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.

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The full text:

And this one:

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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.

Mormon logic

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.