Helaman 14

Reading today a chapter which spent quite some time talking about the signs of Christ’s birth – and knowing what’s coming in the next few chapters – it suddenly dawned on me on how appropriate it is to be reading this section of scripture at this time of year. Especially since with my current pattern of reading (I’m reading mostly from the Bible at present, but am reading a chapter of the Book of Mormon each day), I should hit 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas day itself, which seems positively serendipitous.

Aside from this fortunate timing, two things from this chapter really stuck out to me today. Firstly this chapter discusses Christ’s role in saving us from spiritual and physical deaths, and speaks of the first and second deaths. Now a lot of the time at Church I’ve heard people use the terms first and second death as synonyms for physical and spiritual death. This is not how the terms are used in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is especially clear here:

Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.

(Helaman 14:16–18)

Christ saves all from the first death, which includes being saved from physical death and from the spiritual death of the fall, and brings everyone back into the presence of God. However, those who do not repent will then experience spiritual death again, which is the second death. So both the first and second death are spiritual. The distinction between them is less about type, and more about timing.

The second thing that really popped into my mind while reading this chapter was the phrase used several times here, and also throughout the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament too, of believing on/in Christ’s name:

And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

(Helaman 14:2)

And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.

(Helaman 14:13)

This caused me to ponder what is the particular significance of believing on his name. I am sure that part of the significance is more than just the actual label, just like in the similar concept found in the Book of Mormon and expressed in the sacrament prayers of taking upon ourselves his name means so much more, including being part of his family, and being his disciples and seeking to emulate him in all things. His name may also connote his attributes, character, reputation, faithfulness and so on as well. At the same time, this did make me think of the actual names of Christ if we take this literally. There’s the title Christ, the Greek term for Messiah, or anointed one. There’s Immanuel, meaning God with us. Or there is the name Jesus himself, which must carry some significance because both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) were commanded that that should be his name. Yeshua (Jesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name) is a fairly common Hebrew name, seen in figures like Joshua. But its meaning seems particularly applicable, since the name is closely connected to the Hebrew verb and noun for saving and salvation. This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is commanded to call him Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sins”. Thus while I think that to believe on his name has a more than literal meaning, literally believing on the actual name of Jesus itself surely means to believe this: that he will save his people, and can save us, from our sins.

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2 Nephi 33

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.

(2 Nephi 33:10)

This verse always sticks out to me as I consider myself a recipient of this promise. There was a time in my life when, though I knew God existed, I became confused about everything else, and really felt I didn’t know which way was up or which way was down. I continued to read the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, but I did not know they were true. Yet I continued to read them, and many other things, as I really wanted to know one way or the other (after all, I felt my soul was at stake), and if you want to find something out you have to put some effort and research into it. You can’t expect ultimate answers if you can’t be bothered to do more than cursory reading.

In any case the concept of prophets made sense to me; it made sense that if God expected us to do his will, he had to communicate it somehow. Of course, then there’s the question of which prophets. And I remember one night contemplating “well, Islam has Muhammad – maybe Islam has it right”.

It was at that very moment – and I do not know whether I somehow had already known it, but didn’t know I knew it, or if I was taught it in that very moment – that I realised we needed a Messiah to reconcile justice and mercy, and that that Messiah was Jesus Christ. Which narrowed down my options a bit.

What struck me, in years to come and reflecting upon that experience, was that the very terminology in which this insight struck me comes from the Book of Mormon (Alma 42 is a good example). While I did not yet know whether to believe the Book of Mormon, reading it brought me to Christ. And in time – now that I knew Jesus was the Christ – I came to believe and gain a witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Though I did not believe “in these words”, I read them and they taught me of Christ, and then “believ[ing] in Christ [I did] believe in these words”.

Unbelief, and membership in the Church of Christ

I haven’t updated this blog in a fair while, as I’ve been striving to finish writing up my thesis. And the next post I was going to do was going to be a speculative post involving spiders. That’s still going to happen at some stage (and people who speak to me in real life have likely heard at least some of it). But then something else came up that has sadly caught my attention.

Namely the recent reaction to the Church’s amendments to the Handbook of Instructions concerning same-sex marriage.

I’m not really going to discuss the actual policy itself, other than the section on children is an extension of the policy applied to polygamous families, and that entering into a same sex marriage isn’t just being classed as apostasy, it is apostasy: it is, after all, a public act in opposition to the Church’s teachings, not just the result of a yielding to temptation. Further context can be found here on the actual policy itself.

It is the reaction to all this that gets my attention. It follows the reaction to several other things over the years on social media (such as the Church’s efforts to support marriage, the “Ordain Women” movement and the excommunications of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin). I have become aware – who couldn’t? – that there’s at least a portion of Church membership who stand vocally opposed to the Church’s policies, and often teachings. This has struck very close to home, as I have seen friends and continue to see friends go astray in these things. People who were once my brothers and sisters in the gospel have abandoned the Church because of these things. I am not a diplomatic man, and I hold no ecclesiastical position of any major consequence. But if there are members, ersatz members and ex-members who feel free to comment in such a way as to lead my friends astray, then I believe I at least have the right to reply.

The real problem

Now this is not so directed as those Church members who otherwise agree with the Church’s teachings but felt some concern at the announced policies. There are other, better, things that they can read which hopefully address their concerns. But my observation is that those most concerned at this, and certainly those who are most vocal, not only differ with the announced policy, but some if not all of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the family. Indeed I struggle to think of a single blog article or facebook comment I’ve seen whizzing by in the past week that was critical of handbook changes which was by someone who didn’t also – explicitly or implicitly – object to the Church’s fundamental teachings in this area in the first place. So some comments about policy vs doctrine are misguided – while the exact nature of a policy like this may well take different forms, the Church’s fundamental opposition to same-sex marriage as contrary to the Lord’s commands isn’t new. That wasn’t going to change just because US law changed.

I have been struck, for a number of years, by a line from Alma 12:

Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption
(Alma 12:32, my emphasis)

This is quite a common pattern. When I was a full-time missionary, we taught people about the law of chastity after we had taught them about the plan of salvation and eternal families. We taught about fasting and tithing after we taught about sacrifice. Many of God’s commandments may be confusing to us mortals when we’re working from our own presuppositions about the universe – but they make fundamental sense when we understand and believe in God and His plan. The Church’s teachings on the nature of the family, the law of chastity and human sexuality make perfect sense when we know that He is, that Christ is our Saviour, that He revealed Himself to prophets who recorded it in scripture, and that He has established His Church in these latter days which He continues to lead to which He has given His power and authority. Likewise the administration of priesthood ordinances is not a mere social event, but the exercise of that power and authority that requires preconditions, including faith.

Now many of those writing these various posts, comments etc have certainly been in the Church long enough to learn all this. They’ve been taught it. “Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?” If they are now having trouble accepting the Church’s teachings on family and sexuality, then what is the problem?

I speak bluntly. The problem is unbelief.

Unbelief

Now they may believe something, for example, that God exists. But it is impossible to believe that God exists, that He has revealed commandments in His scriptures and to His modern prophets, and that by His power Man and Woman may be knit together for eternity, and that obedience to this covenant is the path to exaltation, to believe all of that and yet believe that somehow God and His prophets have it wrong and that violating those commandments and barring oneself from what is required to gain exaltation must be morally acceptable. Somewhere there is a lack of belief.

Some of those who’ve commented have been quite open about this too – one I happened to read claiming that the individual had been a ‘practicing Mormon’ for decades, but never a ‘believing Mormon’.

This attitude baffles me. I find it incredible, yet I do know people who hold to this – who do not believe all the teachings of the Church, but who continue to claim a “Mormon” identity. What’s more is that some of these voices increasingly campaign that this *should* be the case, that the Church should give up any ambition for its members to believe, that it’s possible to be, say an atheist or agnostic and a Mormon (I would not have believed this had I not read it myself), and that the Church should be ‘inclusive’ of those who feel ethnically ‘Mormon’, but reject (loudly) the teachings of the Church.

I shall return to the last point later. On the former, it is certainly the case that those who are experiencing doubt and unbelief have been urged (as within the last few years by Elder Uchtdorf) to remain within the Church. It’s also the case that doubt and unbelief are not always the result of sin. But some have misconstrued this into thinking unbelief is an acceptable, or even a desirable state, and that one can be “faithful” and comfortable in the Church while remaining in a state of unbelief. This is not true.

For unbelief is a sin.

I’m aware that statement may cause hackles to rise. But sometimes things must be put as plainly and bluntly as possible. There are sins of the intellect. And I am not seeking to rise up as a great accuser here, for we are all sinners. I have my sins as does any man, and all of us need to repent. I’ve even recently struggled with unbelief: not as to the existence of God or the truth of His Church or anything like that, but in believing certain promises God has extended to me. I’ve struggled with some of that, and have had to strive to believe. I certainly lay no claims to perfection. Every one of us does things that are wrong, and need to change and repent. For us to do that, of course, we need to realise where we have erred, so that we might call upon God and that He might correct us. The reason people struggling with unbelief are encouraged to remain within the Church is – as it is for the rest of us and most of our sins – the Church is the best place to do that.

And far from being content in our unbelief, it is one of those things in which we sin and in which we need to repent. Christ “upbraided” his disciples for “their unbelief” (Mark 16:14), and taught elsewhere that “he that believeth not is condemned already” (John 3:18). We likewise learn “the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and are warned to “take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). In the Book of Mormon we find Nephi mourning because of “the unbelief […] of men” (2 Nephi 32:7), and are told directly by Christ (as reported by Moroni) to “come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief” (Ether 4:13). Finally in modern revelation we see Edward Partridge being warned that “if he repent not of his sins, which are unbelief and blindness of heart, let him take heed lest he fall” (D&C 58:15) and the Church as a whole taught that “your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received— Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation” (D&C 84:54-55). While faith and belief may not come easily, we are commanded to “doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36), and instructed to “exercise a particle of faith”, and to not cast out the word “by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord” (Alma 32:27-28). Unbelief is a sin, but with God’s grace we can choose differently, by “experimenting” on his word, by yielding to the influence of His spirit and by remembering our previous experiences.

For several years now I have been struck by how important it is to remember our spiritual experiences and those miracles we witness. While there’s some – like the aforementioned article writer – who may have never have believed, others did at some stage. And for at least some of them, including some of my friends, that belief was not just a vain hope, but founded on actual experiences. I wonder what they make or even remember of those now, and there’s some friends I wish I could just shake: “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what it was like? What you felt and saw?” How I wish I could help them remember, for it is actual experience with the Divine that answers all questions and doubts.

The exclusivity of “inclusivity”

There is one final point I wish to briefly address, namely this concept that because of one’s ancestry and upbringing in the culture, one can continue to be a “Mormon” while rejecting the practice and especially the belief, and even that they should be permitted access to the Temple and so forth in spite of public disbelief. I have to admit this argument gets me angry to some degree, although I doubt that many who advance it see the implications of it.

Converts must believe to be baptized. To unite themselves with the Church, they must have faith and practice the first principle of the Gospel. And before they are baptized, they are asked about what they believe to ensure they meet the requirements for baptism. To become a “Mormon”, they must have and exercise their faith.

What is being implicitly proposed, then, ends up being a two-tier system. Converts must have faith to become members of the Church and enjoy its spiritual blessings. But those of a particular ancestry and upbringing need no faith to accrue the same benefits. I can only imagine what the Apostle Paul would make of this argument. As for me, all I can think is to paraphrase the words of John the Baptist: “Think not to say within yourselves that we have Brigham Young, or Lorenzo Snow or whomever to be our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Brigham Young”.

“Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?”

Recent events and comments have reminded me of the following:

FOR A moment there was silence under the cedar trees and then-pad, pad, pad-it was broken. Two velvet-footed lions came bouncing into the open space, their eyes fixed upon each other, and started playing some solemn romp. Their manes looked as if they had been just dipped in the river whose noise I could hear close at hand, though the trees hid it. Not greatly liking my company, I moved away to find that river, and after passing some thick flowering bushes, I succeeded. The bushes came almost down to the brink. It was as smooth as Thames but flowed swiftly like a mountain stream: pale green where trees overhung it but so clear that I could count the pebbles at the bottom. Close beside me I saw another of the Bright People in conversation with a ghost. It was that fat ghost with the cultured voice who had addressed me in the bus, and it seemed to be wearing gaiters.

“My dear boy, I’m delighted to see you,” it was saying to the Spirit, who was naked and almost blindingly white. “I was talking to your poor father the other day and wondering where you were.”

“You didn’t bring him?” said the other.

“Well, no. He lives a long way from the bus, and, to be quite frank, he’s been getting a little eccentric lately. A little difficult. Losing his grip. He never was prepared to make any great efforts, you know. If you remember, he used to go to sleep when you and I got talking seriously! Ah, Dick, I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!”

“But wasn’t I right?”

“Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological. . . .”

“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?”

“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”

“I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?”

“Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?”

“We call it Hell.”

“There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.”

“Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back you may call it Purgatory.”

“Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.”

“But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.”

“Are you serious, Dick?”

“Perfectly.”

“This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.”

“Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?”

“There are indeed, Dick. There is hidebound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed-they are not sins.”

“I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.”

“Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.”

“What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came-popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”

“Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?”

“Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?”

“If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like …”

“I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but me and you. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.”

“I’m far from denying that young men may make mistakes. They may well be influenced by current fashions of thought. But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”

“Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.”

“You’ll be justifying the Inquisition in a moment!”

“Why? Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?”

“Well, this is extremely interesting,” said the Episcopal Ghost. “It’s a point of view. Certainly, it’s a point of view. In the meantime . . .”

“There is no meantime,” replied the other. “AH that is over. We are not playing now. I have been talking of the past (your past and mine) only in order that you may turn from it forever. One wrench and the tooth will be out. You can begin as if nothing had ever gone wrong. White as snow. It’s all true, you know. He is in me, for you, with that power. And- I have come a long journey to meet you. You have seen Hell: you are in sight of Heaven. Will you, even now, repent and believe?”

“I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,” said the Ghost.

“I am not trying to make any point,” said the Spirit. “I am telling you to repent and believe.”

“But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realize that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.”

“Very well,” said the other, as if changing his plan. “Will you believe in me?”

“In what sense?”

“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”

“Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances … I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness-and scope for the talents that God has given me-and an atmosphere of free inquiry-in short, all that one means by civilization and-er-the spiritual life.”

“No,” said the other. “I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”

“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things” … to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

“If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.”
“But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?”

“You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.”

“Well, really, you know, I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.”

“Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.” The Ghost seemed to think for a moment. “I can make nothing of that idea,” it said.

“Listen!” said the White Spirit. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”

“Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

“You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.”

“If we cannot be reverent, there is at least no need to be obscene. The suggestion that I should return at my age to the mere factual inquisitiveness of boyhood strikes me as preposterous. In any case, that question-and-answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.”

“We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”

“I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact.’ The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly . . .”

“Do you not even believe that He exists?”

“Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, ‘there,’ and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way. If there were such a thing (there is no need to interrupt, my dear boy) quite frankly, I should not be interested in it. It would be of no religious significance. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance-and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.”

“If the thirst of the Reason is really dead . . . ,” said the Spirit, and then stopped as though pondering. Then suddenly he said, “Can you, at least, still desire happiness?”

“Happiness, my dear Dick,” said the Ghost placidly, “happiness, as you will come to see when you are older, lies in the path of duty. Which reminds me. . . . Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! there is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip-a certain confusion of mind. That is where I can be of some use to them. There are even regrettable jealousies. … I don’t know why, but tempers seem less controlled than they used to be. Still, one mustn’t expect too much of human nature. I feel I can do a great work among them. But you’ve never asked me what my paper is about! I’m taking the text about growing up to the measure of the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you’ll be interested in. I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience to consider what his mature views would have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste … so much promise cut short. Oh, must you be going? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy. It has been a great pleasure. Most stimulating and provocative. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

The Ghost nodded its head and beamed on the Spirit with a bright clerical smile-or with the best approach to it which such unsubstantial lips could manage-and then turned away humming? softly to itself “City of God, how broad and far.

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce