Alma 34

So today my personal reading got around to the third and final part of this sermon, where Amulek picks up from where Alma left off. As I was doing so, there was already one subject that loomed large in my mind, but there are several other points that emerged, so I plan to cover these in order of reading. So without futher ado…

All are fallen and are lost

The absolute necessity of the Atonement of Christ, and our need to accept it, is something the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches. It’s something that not everyone appears to understand, however. I’ve heard a number of people, include those within the Church, conclude that they don’t need to change, because they’re “a good person”. But this is not true: all are fallen, and all are lost. This is not to say that the nature of our sins all reaches the same degree, of course. Most people aren’t Hitler, or anything of that sort. But “not Hitler” is not good enough, and while that may be easy to grasp neither is most people’s definition of a “good person”.

We might class ourselves as such as we mean well most of the time, but meaning well is very different from working righteousness, nor does meaning well erase our moments of weakness, selfishness, cruelty and malice. It is a common temptation to think that if we mostly mean well and don’t harm people most of the time, God “will justify in committing a little sin” (2 Nephi 28:8), but little could be further from the truth. All of us, by our natural attainments, fall far short of the standard of holiness by which it will even be bearable to be in the presence of God (Mormon 9:3-5), let alone to be exalted. And so we need the help of a greater power, even a divine and infinite and eternal power, not just to be forgiven of all those things we do wrong (or did not do right), but also to have our characters transformed and purified. We all need to change, and none of us can accomplish that change by ourselves. We need the Atonement of Christ.

An infinite and eternal sacrifice

And so we turn to the topic that had been on my mind. This has largely been brought up as I’ve heard people claim that the Atonement was “personal” and “for each of us”. In its most extreme variant, I’ve heard the claim that it involved praying personally for everyone by name, a claim which simultaneous makes the Atonement too small (as we shall see), and yet underestimates how long praying for everyone by name would take. Assuming a rough estimate of 25 billion people live or ever have lived on Earth, for example, one would still be at the task!

What has become clear in many of these cases is that those making these claims see the Atonement of Christ as occurring in discrete lots: that is, that Christ suffered a bit for me, then a bit for you, and so on through the whole Human family. There’s problems with such teachings, but by far the biggest is that they aren’t true.

Turning to Amulek in 34:10:

For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.

It should be noted that Christ was both an infinite and eternal sacrifice, because he wasn’t just human, he was divine. This refers to more than simply the circumstances of his birth too: it’s not simply that he was the only begotten of the Father in a genetic sense, but also because prior to birth he was divine. As the Book of Mormon puts it on the title page, “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”. For him to give up his life was to make more than a mortal offering, but to offer the life of a God.

Continuing on with verses 11 and 12:

Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

This is the crucial bit, because what Amulek is teaching is that the way at least some think the Atonement works doesn’t work. If the Atonement consisted of the transfer of a discrete portion of suffering, someone could atone for the sins of the another, but they can’t. And as his own reference to their own law makes clear, it would not be just: their just law will not be satisfied simply with a death, but rather with that of the guilty.  The simple transferral of a set amount of suffering, even if done 25 billion times, while unimaginable vast to human beings, is still finite, and would not work. The only solution is an infinite atonement, with an infinite sacrifice.

Why does this matter? For one thing, I think it is important to try, even if we fail, to appreciate the full magnitude of what Christ did, and what only Christ could do, for us. For another, the idea that the Atonement consists of Christ transferring to himself discrete and personalised packets of suffering may even lead people to reject the atonement. I have known of some who felt that they don’t want Christ to experience their bit of pain, either out of a misinformed belief that they didn’t want to “add” that burden to him, or some sort of belief that they can take their own punishment. But it doesn’t work like that. Christ has already atoned for the sins of the world, and did so in such a way that it is impossible to add or reduce the burden he took upon himself. And in doing so, he was doing something that none of us could possibly have done, not even for one person. And his superlative and infinite power can save any one of us, if we accept the gift he has already provided in gratitude.

Work out your salvation with fear before God

There’s many other things in this chapter which deserve attention, but there’s one final passage which stood out to me today:

And now, my beloved brethren, I desire that ye should remember these things, and that ye should work out your salvation with fear before God, and that ye should no more deny the coming of Christ;

(Alma 34:37)

This is not an unique sentiment in the scriptures (compare Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27), nor is it the first time I’ve discussed fear (including potential positive aspects). But I was struck by it again, perhaps because I’ve seen a fair few adverts for an event recently, in which many of the performers and speakers seem to speak as if participation in the gospel should bring one continuous joy. Well it will… eventually. But not yet.

There’s a balance in these things. On one hand we should not be in a state of insecurity, where we feel unable to trust in God’s promises, or be oppressed by feelings of perfectionism as if everything depended upon us and any failings were irretrievable mistakes. We are saved by grace, we are instructed to “look unto me in every thought: doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and encouraged to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, my emphasis). At the same time we must avoid complacency, a state of “carnal security” in which we think “all is well in Zion” (2 Nephi 28:21), and indeed work out our salvation before God with fear and trembling. In similar fashion, Christ does offer us peace (John 14:27), and offers us a “fulness of joy” in the world to come (D&C 93:33). But Adam and Eve, in their innocent state, knew “no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Nephi 2:23), and the promise to those who are joint-heirs with Christ is that “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17). We’re not guaranteed unbroken happiness in this life, no matter we live our life. The path of following Christ cannot be reduced just to one dimension, either joy nor suffering. In the course of this life, we will likely experience both, at different times and different places, as indeed 2 Nephi 2 points out that we need to. And indeed, our future joys, especially that fulness of joy may well be linked to sufferings in this life, as Peter points out:

But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

(1 Peter 4:13)

In essence, we should always remember what Christ himself teaches:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

(John 16:33)

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“The place of martyrdom”

There’s a rather intriguing piece of wordplay in Alma 14. After being arrested by the authorities in Ammonihah, Alma and Amulek are taken to somewhere the text calls “the place of martyrdom” to witness the burning both of the scriptures but especially the wives and children of those who had believed their words, an understandably horrific scene. Where the wordplay comes in is that the word martyr is derived from the Greek word μάρτυρ (martur), meaning witness. Its later meaning of dying for the faith derived from the fact that many of those who bore witness to the faith in the early Christian period paid the price with their own life:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

(Revelation 6:9-10; the Greek word translated as testimony in verse 9 is μαρτυριαν – that is in transliterated form: marturian)

Which leads us on to Alma and Amulek:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9–11, my emphasis)

Alma and Amulek are lead to this “place of martyrdom” precisely so they can “witness” those being burned by fire. As if to emphasise that this choice of word is not a coincidence, we then have Amulek lamenting that they must “witness” this atrocity, and Alma assuring him that the  blood of those so murdered will “witness” against their murderers when God judges them at the last day (that it is also said to cry also appears to echo Revelation 6:9-10 quoted above).

The immediate and then persistent use of the leitwort “witness” argues against this being a mere accidental choice of words: it is indeed a place of martyrdom, in the original greek sense, for Alma and Amulek both witness the price their converts are paying for their witness, and the crime committed at that place will be a witness against those who persecuted them.

How this piece of wordplay ends up here, of course, is another question. Critics are likely just to ascribe it to Joseph Smith, but I’m confident that he both lacked the knowledge and the sheer time for this sort of thing (in the same way that its taken me far longer to write a chapter examining Jacob 5’s use of the Bible than it took to dictate the entirety of the Book of Mormon). Furthermore, were any human author of the time responsible for this sort of cleverness (and many other such examples), you’d think they’d point it out. They didn’t and haven’t: in fact I can’t find any record of anyone else spotting this.

On the other hand, this wordplay rests on the history of the word μάρτυρ in Greek and its subsequent course in European languages including English. So what precisely is going on here? On one hand, I have been inclined at various points on the basis of this and a few other details to indulge in wild speculations on Greek influence in the book of Alma. But that’s necessarily extremely speculative, and in any case the description here (including whatever meant “place of martyrdom” on the plates) was written by Mormon, hundreds of years later. It should also not be forgotten that the Book of Mormon is doubly inspired (i.e both in composition and in translation), and in the Book of Mormon’s case that inspiration can and does extend to quoting people hundreds of years in the future (see 1 Nephi 10:7-8).

For a more emotive take on this passage, and an understanding as to why Amulek in particular was so pained, it might also be worth considering that there is every possibility that his own wife and children (Alma 10:11) are amongst the martyrs.