Alma 44

Captain Moroni brings this initial conflict to an end, after having trapped the Lamanite forces in the middle of the river Sidon.

Verses 2-4 always make an impression on me:

Behold, we have not come out to battle against you that we might shed your blood for power; neither do we desire to bring any one to the yoke of bondage. But this is the very cause for which ye have come against us; yea, and ye are angry with us because of our religion.

But now, ye behold that the Lord is with us; and ye behold that he has delivered you into our hands. And now I would that ye should understand that this is done unto us because of our religion and our faith in Christ. And now ye see that ye cannot destroy this our faith.

Now ye see that this is the true faith of God; yea, ye see that God will support, and keep, and preserve us, so long as we are faithful unto him, and unto our faith, and our religion; and never will the Lord suffer that we shall be destroyed except we should fall into transgression and deny our faith.

One interesting thing about this chapter, however, is the way it lets Zerahemnah make his response to Moroni’s claims:

Behold, we are not of your faith; we do not believe that it is God that has delivered us into your hands; but we believe that it is your cunning that has preserved you from our swords. Behold, it is your breastplates and your shields that have preserved you.

(Alma 44:9)

It is always interesting how two people can see the same event, the same facts, and yet come to radically different conclusions about their meaning. And unfortunately, certainly from an eternal perspective, some of these things are not mere matters of “live and let live”. What we see, and choose to see, will have eternal consequences. Indeed for Zerahemnah some consequences came even quicker than that.

Zerahemnah’s not entirely wrong either: Captain Moroni did use cunning, and has equipped his men with armour such that the Nephite heavy infantry can outfight the Lamanite light infantry by a considerable margin. The text is open about this. But he doesn’t see how the Lord’s hand has helped too. He might have no way to know that Captain Moroni knew where to take his armies because of the word of the Lord coming to Alma (Alma 43:23-24), though that did happen regardless of Zerahemnah’s consequence. But he’s also just been present for the turning point when – on the verge of breaking before Lamanite ferocity – the Nephites cried onto God and “began to stand against the Lamanites with power” (Alma 43:48-50). He doesn’t recognise it, but he’s seen a miracle and seen God’s power at work. But because he doesn’t recognise the truth – because he insists on interpreting events along what might be termed secular lines – he must suffer the consequences.

Alma 43

We head away now from the doctrinally heavy chapters we’ve just read through, and return to the war. The reading pace for Come Follow Me has also changed once again, going from a few chapters a week to ten this week. One consequence is that I really need to keep these posts of mine brief in order to keep up the pace, rather than the multi-thousand word posts they keep turning into; the point, after all, is not a comprehensive examination of each chapter, but simply picking out things that strike me, especially on this read through. Another consequence is that perhaps the curriculum committee should reconsider how they pace such readings. I suspect readings a couple of chapters one week, and then trying to read fifteen chapters – 14 of which are Isaiah quotations – another may hinder consistent reading. But that’s not for me to decide.

Some plans of the Lamanite commander Zerahemnah stood out to me today:

And now, as the Amalekites were of a more wicked and murderous disposition than the Lamanites were, in and of themselves, therefore, Zerahemnah appointed chief captains over the Lamanites, and they were all Amalekites and Zoramites.

Now this he did that he might preserve their hatred towards the Nephites, that he might bring them into subjection to the accomplishment of his designs.

For behold, his designs were to stir up the Lamanites to anger against the Nephites; this he did that he might usurp great power over them, and also that he might gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage.

Zerahemnah has a distinct preference for choosing Nephite dissenters – the Amalekites and the Zoramites – as his commanders over his Lamanite armies. Now there’s some textual evidence that the Zoramites had a particular aptitude for that sort of thing, but Zerahemnah’s reasons are telling: he does it so he can perpetuate Lamanite hatred and anger at the Nephites, so in turn he might usurp power over the Lamanites. The Nephites are not his only intended victim here, although the Lamanites are also his unwitting tools. And it shows how hatred and anger can be used to manipulate us, which is presumably one reason we’re informed Satan plans to encourage the same emotions in the latter days (2 Nephi 28:19-20).

Verse 30 always stands out for me:

And he also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands, and their liberty, and their church, therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem; therefore, he found by his spies which course the Lamanites were to take.

Trickery is not Zerahemnah’s province alone; Captain Moroni likewise resorts to it, feeling that since his cause is just that “it [is] no sin that he should defend them by stratagem”. I am reminded of Christ’s instruction in Matthew 10:16:

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

It is important to do the right things, and for the right reasons. Provided we’re doing that, however, it is no crime to be clever about it.

I was also struck today by the Lord’s instructions on warfare to the Nephites in verse 46:

And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.

I find that formulation about the first offense and the second offense significant: we are not to strike the first blow, to provoke a fight. Nor, however, are we to immediate retaliate to any aggressions against us. But when there is a consistent pattern of aggression – when our opponent has committed both the first and second offense – then self-defence is permissible and commanded.

Alma 42

I firmly believe that Alma 42 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Book of Mormon. There has been a lot of philosophical speculation, in the more academic circles of the Church, about God and his divine status based on this chapter. I have long been of the conclusion – and indeed when it comes to Alma 42 believe I can show – that many of the assumptions and conclusions in these speculations are mistaken, and lead to serious errors. I’ve written about this before, and upon reading the chapter today felt that going over this area again would be worthwhile. As such, I’ve taken the liberty to use and revise my earlier remarks in an attempt at maximum clarity.

Some background

I frequently run across the claim, often given by members of the Church themselves, that LDS doctrine teaches that God is limited, that He is bound by moral or physical laws to which he is subject and which have power over him. These ideas have a long pedigree, but continue to pop up.

I have never been happy with these ideas. I dislike the implication that places something else (such as impersonal moral and physical laws) as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, which implies we are worshipping the wrong being. I dislike the formulations that result, such as the idea of God as the “ultimate scientist” who has simply discovered more laws, and that in consequence there is no such thing as a truly supernatural miracle. I find such notions contrary to the very emphasis the Book of Mormon places upon the power of God and the reality of miracles. It seems to me to be very bizarre that on one hand we have the Book of Mormon insisting upon God’s power and capacity for miraculous intervention, and that Christ himself at one of the fulcrums of the Restoration puts the issue as being one where people “hav[e] a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and yet Mormon philosophical discourse is filled with discussions of God’s supposed limitations (in some cases limitations greater than would be applied to, say, the crew of the Starship Enterprise). I can’t help but feel that if Latter-day Scripture (and General Conference et al) is pointing one way and “Mormon philosophy” is pointing another, there’s something severely wrong with the latter.

I discuss briefly some of the issues when it comes to “physical” laws here. Contrary to popular speculations about God’s relationship to physical laws, Section 88 flatly declares that God is the source of such laws, and his power is the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). This alone points to a very different picture than that depicted by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate basis of reality, and a very different metaphysics than the Western model which sees the universe chugging along independently according to natural laws. However, some of these issues appear to come down to more than simply importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. I think there’s several reasons for this (for instance, I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), but one particular reason for the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” appears to be the reading of Alma 42.

Much speculation has been based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“. This speculation has suggested that God can, in essence, lose His divine status. Since it is repeated three times in reference to the notion of “justice” being “destroyed”, some have argued that this entails a law of justice supreme above God Himself which if not obeyed may in a sense “demote” God. Most arguing this appear to have suggested that justice is a “natural” law, akin to gravity, and seemingly self-regulating (ignoring what Section 88:42-43 describes as the ultimate source of gravity). Cleon Skousen, however, takes a different tack, asserting that God’s power is dependent upon the obedience of matter and of ‘intelligences’ within it which, however, will cease to obey should He prove unjust, depriving Him of power.

I believe, as I plan to show, that these ideas serious misunderstand Alma’s statements in Alma 42, that they are logically inconsistent, and carry implications that are at odds with what we know of God, his works, and his character. Above all else, however, I think they lack a full understanding of what makes God God.

Alma 42

In understanding any passage, particularly one like Alma 42 in which weighty doctrinal matters are being discussed, it is valuable to understand what the original question being addressed is to understand the aim of the passage.

Alma 42 is no different. Alma 42 is the final part of Alma’s counsel to his son Corianton, who has gone astray somewhat, and needed correction and has some concerns. And in the very first verse of this chapter we learn of the concern that Alma plans to address:

And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.

Corianton’s concern is about “the justice of God“, specifically in relation to the punishment of the sinner. That this question is a key point throughout this discussion becomes apparent when we consider Alma’s concluding words in verse 30:

O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.

Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“, to not excuse his sins “by denying the justice of God“, and to “let the justice of God“, alongside God’s mercy and long-suffering, affect him in such a way as to produce humility (and repentance).

The principal aim of this chapter, therefore, is not to explain the atonement, nor supposed limitations upon God’s power. Rather it is a defence of the justice of God. Other topics – such as the atonement – are used here to explain and defend God’s justice, not the other way around.

In this light, it is worth considering what the speculations discussed above do to any attempted defence of God’s justice. If those readings are correct, than God is just either because he is kept in line by some impersonal force superior to himself, or his power is subject to a veto by every single little element in the universe. I submit that this are terrible defences: they argue that God is just because he is forced to be so. This is a poor service to God’s character, and seems to deny God of the very agency which He gave to man (Moses 4:3). Moreover, they seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the concept of justice itself.

Misunderstanding Justice

Justice has – without any prior intention – become somewhat of a recurring theme on this blog. That’s in part because it’s a principle that doesn’t always seem to be appreciated, particularly as an attribute of God, and also because it often seems misunderstood. The former might play a part as to why some are content to think God is forced to be just, as if it were some otherwise undesirable quality it’d be better to be without. The second may explain some of the logical inconsistencies in what is proposed.

Firstly, justice is not a law, nor a force, in and of itself. It is first and foremost a moral ideal . Indeed, the phrase “law of justice” is not to be found in the scriptures (Alma 34:16 comes closest, but the “whole law of the demands of justice” is not the same thing). Justice is ensuring that the wicked are punished in proportion to their crimes, and that the righteous are blessed for their obedience, and that those who suffer receive a fair recompense. It is true that as an ideal, justice can only be maintained when law has been given, as Alma points out: “And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?” (Alma 42:21). It is also true that there is a distinction between justice as an ideal, and the enforcement of justice. Thus there can be just laws and unjust laws. In the case of an unjust law, recognising it requires us to be aware of the concept of justice, but the existence and enforcement of an unjust law would mean that justice isn’t being done. Thus fulfilling the ideal of justice requires the issuing of just laws, and for them to be justly administered.

Who is it that does these things? The arguments of those who postulate justice as being an eternal, self-regulating, natural law – an impersonal and independent “law of the justice” that has the power to demote God himself if he fails to measure up – would ultimately place that force as the one that is the ultimate source of such laws, and the ultimate enforcer. After all, if justice has the power to “demote” God, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful than God. God would be ultimately subject to that force, and would seemingly have no power to make or change laws. Moreover we would seemingly be in no need of a God – why would God need to give or enforce law if there were a natural, self-regulating one? In fact one could even argue we were worshipping the wrong entity.

And yet, as previously stated, scripture affirms that it is God who gives law to all things (D&C 88:42). There are no “natural laws” independent of God: they were given in the first place and are continually sustained by the power of God (D&C 88:13). If God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it?  Moreover, there is no sign of any independent, self-regulating, force enforcing justice. Alma 42 itself points out that “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (v.22). But those laws and that punishment are given and enforced by God. It is God who shall judge us at the last day, who shall bless the righteous, and – the very concern of this chapter – shall punish the sinners. It is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14).

This is a vitally important point, for it is in the hope of God’s justice that we put our trust, because from the perspective of this life only, the wicked and tyrannical often escape the penalty of their crimes while the innocent suffer. But our trust in the eternal operation of justice is based on God’s interventions and actions. Were God not to judge us, there is no impersonal force that would take over the task of eternal judgment for us, or for Hitler, or Stalin, or for anyone else. What independent force is it, if the only being it will act against is God and appears to have no effect on the rest of the universe? Thus Alma teaches that unless God enforced his laws that “the works of justice would be destroyed” (Alma 42:22). This would be an impossibility if justice were a law that was supreme even over God himself. But it speaks to the truth: if God will not ultimately enforce justice, there is no one else who can and will do it; the ideal of justice might exist, but justice as an enforced reality would not.

Skousen, of course, does not postulate a impersonal force, so his interpretation is a little different, but it has similar problems. His idea places final moral judgment – judgment over God and whether His acts are “just” or not – not in the hands of a perfectly good and omniscient being but in the hands of “intelligences” even more limited than mortal men. Can the full justice of an act ever be measured without both impeccable character and full knowledge of the consequences of the act? God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, yet Skousen would place supreme moral authority over the universe into the hands of the largest and logically most ignorant committee ever conceived. Universal mob rule has never been so literal.

Understanding Deity

A key problem with these speculations is how they view deity. One misunderstanding is rooted in the very reading of this chapter. Who, it should be asked, is this chapter meaning when it speaks of God? Many advocating these speculations seem to suppose that it refers to God the Father. Yet this cannot be entirely the case, for the chapter itself states “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world” (Alma 42:15). This then speaks of God the Son, or at least the entirety of the Godhead.

Likewise, both the impersonal force and Skousen’s approach share a similar logical inconsistency when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above argue strongly that God’s power is limited; that there is something or someone that can deprive Him of it. Yet they also define God “ceasing” to be God as meaning God losing His power, thus they define God in terms of power. They are therefore in the position of arguing simultaneously that power is the defining characteristic of God (since to lose it is to cease to be God) and yet to argue that He isn’t defined by power, since His power is dependent on and subservient to the approval of something or someone. This is contradictory.

To understand what Alma is getting at in Alma 42, and to resolve the conundrum these ideas leave unanswered, we must ask ourselves the question what makes God, God?

The Apostle John states amongst other things that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). God is also described in other places in terms of his knowledge of all things (2 Nephi 9:20), his wisdom (Mosiah 4:9), his goodness (Mosiah 5:3), his eternal nature (Mormon 9:9), his truthfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and indeed his mercy (Alma 26:35) and his justice (2 Nephi 9:17). God is described in more terms than that of just power including that of his character, and justice and mercy are included amongst those attributes. I suggest then we should view God in terms other (or rather, in addition) to that of raw power. We might then ask ourselves the question: would God still be God if he lacked any one of these attributes?

It is this that seems key to the whole matter. Elsewhere, in Alma chapter 12, Alma teaches that the “works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). God, it appears, cannot destroy the works of justice not because he lacks the power, but because it would be contrary to his “goodness”, his character. Abinadi speaks in a similar fashion when he states that God does not redeem the unrepentant “…for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:27). Here to deny justice is not equated with disobedience of some external law but rather a denial of himself: again a denial of his character. Justice then is not some supreme all-powerful law of nature, but an attribute which in mankind is an unrealised ideal but in deity a fully realised attribute, as also is his goodness and mercy (it is strange that those advocating a natural law of justice appear not to conceive of a natural law of mercy capable of similar demotions). So I suggest that God would cease to be God if he were not just because justice is an essential part of His divine character, even if he were still omnipotent. God is God not just because of his omnipotence and omniscience (though he is those, and they are essential) but also because of his goodness, love, mercy and justice. Or as William Miller puts it in A Canticle for Leibowitz:

But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

We believe in God as God because he is good. Were he to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. Were God unjust, he would not be God, not because something would step in and strip him of power, but because being just is part of the definition of God. And that’s a good thing: An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.

This, I believe and think, is a more accurate understanding of what Alma was saying in Alma 42, and such an understanding carries important consequences. Firstly, with all the emphasis that ancient and modern scripture put upon the power and capacity of God, I feel it is spiritually unhealthy and perilous to our faith to have some sort of understanding that (aside from its other issues) convinces us to think of God in terms of supposed limitations, limitations that scripturally do not exist, and for us to do this in an age where Christ himself asks whether faith shall be found on the earth (Luke 18:8).

Secondly, I believe this helps us better understand the Atonement. The Atonement is not some method of cheating justice, some scheme to get past a natural law. Rather the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy. Jacob teaches earlier in the Book of Mormon that without the Atonement all mankind would be subject to a total and universal damnation (2 Nephi 9:7-9), which would hardly be just to such as infants. Jacob also reveals that the Atonement “satisfieth the demands of justice” (2 Nephi 9:26) by rescuing those without law from an undeserved fate. The Atonement does not cheat justice, rather it provides means “that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

Thirdly, and growing from the other two points, this understanding shows better, in my view, Alma’s point: that God is so impeccable in His character, so just and yet so merciful, that He has gone to enormous lengths to reconcile those divine attributes. God is just, and merciful, and perfect, and Alma teaches his son to no more “deny the justice of God” but rather “let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). This is a God whom we need not doubt and think of as limited; rather, knowing the full perfection of His character and his power, we can have even greater faith in Him. We worship God, we have faith in God – indeed we can only accept God as God – as we come to know not only of His power and knowledge but also of His perfect, unwavering character. And it is as we come fully to realise the perfection of His character that we will increase in our faith and trust in Him and better realise the object of our goal: not the mere obedience to natural laws, but the perfection, through Christ, of our characters and very beings.

Alma 41

In the Church today, we often use the word restoration to refer to the restoration of the gospel, and the restoration of the Church. However, in the Book of Mormon other meanings of the word predominate. Thus restoration often refers to the restoration of the house of Israel, of which the restoration of the gospel & Church are elements. In Alma 41, however, restoration is used in yet another sense:

And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the restoration of which has been spoken; for behold, some have wrested the scriptures, and have gone far astray because of this thing. And I perceive that thy mind has been worried also concerning this thing. But behold, I will explain it unto thee.

I say unto thee, my son, that the plan of restoration is requisite with the justice of God; for it is requisite that all things should be restored to their proper order. …

(Alma 41:1-2)

What Alma is teaching Corianton here is about the ultimate restoration, that in which God restores all things to their proper place.

This includes the physical resurrection:

… Behold, it is requisite and just, according to the power and resurrection of Christ, that the soul of man should be restored to its body, and that every part of the body should be restored to itself.

(v. 2)

It also includes judgment of our works:

And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good.

And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. …

(vv. 3-4)

Reading and thinking about this concept this time around, I really got a sense of how this restoration is part of the atonement, the other side of the coin of that which we tend to appreciate. When we most often think, write and speak about the atonement, I think we tend to think of it in terms of the mercy God and Christ offer us, about the forgiveness and compassion that are extended to us. But Christ’s work is also about fulfilling justice. We sometimes seem to shy away from that, to see justice almost as a bad thing (something I’ve touched on before, particularly as it relates to God). And I think part of that reason is we tend to see justice purely in terms of punishment. But it isn’t. Justice isn’t just about acting against the transgressor (though that is important, particularly as it relates to defending the transgressed). It’s about putting right what was wrong. The Law of Moses, for instance, provided that if someone stole and killed or sold a sheep or and ox, they were to “restore” four or five-fold to the owner (Exodus 22:1). Justice is not only about punishing the thief, it’s also about rewarding the righteous and recompensing the robbed.

Similarly, in this life we sin and are sinned against. Through Christ we can be forgiven of those things, but one reason he has the power to do that is because he has the capacity to restore and make those things right: to repair what we have done against others that we are unable to do ourselves, and to restore to us whatever we have lost as a consequence of others acts against us. The damage of many sins cannot be fixed in this life. Ultimately, however, Christ can and will fix all these things, and restore all things to their proper frame:

… Therefore, all things shall be restored to their proper order, every thing to its natural frame—mortality raised to immortality, corruption to incorruption—raised to endless happiness to inherit the kingdom of God, or to endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil, the one on one hand, the other on the other—

The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil; for as he has desired to do evil all the day long even so shall he have his reward of evil when the night cometh.

And so it is on the other hand. If he hath repented of his sins, and desired righteousness until the end of his days, even so he shall be rewarded unto righteousness.

(vv. 4-6)

It is why who we become and develop in this life is of paramount importance. If we yield to our evil inclinations, that becomes our natural state and that is what we will be restored to:

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.

And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in 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.

And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature?

O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful.

(vv. 10-13)

This life is often unfair. We do not get what we put in. We may suffer at the hands of others, may fail to receive reward for work well done, may lose out on opportunities through no fault of our own, or simply have bad luck. And on the other hand we may be lucky, may gain fair more than our work warrants, and may have caused others to suffer our our hands. At the end of our lives here, such things are not balanced. But the work of God will balance it all out, in the end. This work of restoration will ensure that the time will come when all of us will feel and know that justice, in all its aspects, has been done, and the law of the harvest fully fulfilled, to either our condemnation or our blessing.

Thus Alma’s words to Corianton here:

Therefore, my son, see that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again.

For that which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored; therefore, the word restoration more fully condemneth the sinner, and justifieth him not at all.

(vv. 14-15)

Alma 40

Alma now moves onto Corianton’s doctrinal concerns, beginning first with his worries about the resurrection of the dead (Alma 40:1). In doing so, Alma decides to explain one thing that has puzzled him:

Behold, he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead. But behold, my son, the resurrection is not yet. Now, I unfold unto you a mystery; nevertheless, there are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself. But I show unto you one thing which I have inquired diligently of God that I might know—that is concerning the resurrection.

(Alma 40:3)

Before getting onto that “mystery” itself, I wonder if one reason Alma mentions this here is to also demonstrate a model to Corianton: there’s things Alma had questions about too. But rather than troubling him and even providing an occasion for sin, as they did Corianton, Alma sought answers and “inquired diligently of God” for those answers. Having questions is okay; but we are then meant to use those questions and seek answers.

This doesn’t necessarily mean our answers will come quickly, or indeed even in mortality. Some mysteries are “kept”. But the key thing is our attitude and response to such questions, to know that God can answer such questions if we approach them in the right way and it be his will, and to always remember that the point of questions is that they have answers, that they can and are to be solved. I’m reminded of what the friend attempted to teach the episcopal spirit (in vain) in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:

“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.”

Onto that answer itself. Alma explains by reasoning that there’s a time appointed for the resurrection of the dead, and so there must be period in between the time of death and the resurrection:

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.

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.

Now there must needs be a space betwixt the time of death and the time of the resurrection.

And now I would inquire what becometh of the souls of men from this time of death to the time appointed for the resurrection?

Now whether there is more than one time appointed for men to rise it mattereth not; for all do not die at once, and this mattereth not; all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.

Therefore, there is a time appointed unto men that they shall rise from the dead; and there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection. And now, concerning this space of time, what becometh of the souls of men is the thing which I have inquired diligently of the Lord to know; and this is the thing of which I do know.

(Alma 40:4-9)

Fortunately in this case he has been blessed with an answer, by an angel no less:

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.

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.

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.

(Alma 40:11-13)

I have my own questions (and cannot claim any answers yet) about “the spirits of all men” being “taken home to that God who gave them life”. Does that mean there is an immediate encounter with God himself post-mortality? Or is this speaking in a broader and more general sense? This is a question I one day hope to know the answer to.

The two verses after that of 12 and 13, concerning the different halves of the spirit world, seem self-explanatory, and yet I believe I’ve seen some confusion over this (especially verse 13), even if people are not aware of it. I’ve seen people shy away from Alma’s description of the resting place of the wicked as “outer darkness”, even claiming we “know” what is “really” meant by such a term, so that Alma’s description isn’t quite right (this is despite the fact that of the six times the term is used in scripture – Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30, Alma 40:13, D&C 101:91, D&C 133:7 – not once it is solely associated with the sons of perdition). Such an attitude, of course, prevents us from learning from Alma’s words by assuming we already know what is “really” meant, and projecting what we think we understand onto the words we are reading. This is an opposite – and equally damaging – attitude to one we discussed earlier to questions. One mistake is to not to seek for answers (or assume there aren’t any) to questions, and either indulge in endless questions without answers or to become vexed by such questions. The other is to assume we already have the answers, and so prevent ourselves from learning: to fail to find answers because we stop ourselves from posing questions.

One critical element of misunderstanding seems resolve itself in an attempt to soften Alma’s description here, and likewise descriptions of “hell” and spirit “prison” elsewhere when referring to the abode of the spirits of the wicked. I’ve heard – at widely separated times and places – almost identical descriptions of spirit prison as being “places of learning”, not places of punishment. These were so similar, in fact, that I wonder how they’re being communicated, considering neither scriptures nor missionary manuals say any such thing. Alma himself follows his description in verse 13 with a further vivid depiction in verse 14 that is very different from such well-meaning depictions:

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.

That being said, I think I can understand where the desire to “soften” descriptions of such a place come from, and it is well-intentioned if rooted in a further misunderstanding. Were the spirit word divided into two halves, with Church members going one place and all others going another – including those who hadn’t even been exposed to the gospel – it would be inconsistent with the justice and mercy and God – not to mention horrifying – for the abode of all the others to be the sort of place that Alma describes.

But this is a misunderstanding. Alma doesn’t say that only Church members go to paradise, and all others elsewhere. He simply divides between the righteous and the wicked, with no reference to membership in the Church or to baptism. He gives no indication that those who are simply ignorant of the gospel, or good people who are not baptized, go to the “bad” half rather than paradise. Quite the opposite: that’s the destination of the “the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil”.

I’ve written a bit about this before when writing about hell (in reaction to what might be deemed an extreme variant of the “softening” impulse, in which a Church member wrote a news article claiming that The Church didn’t believe in the existence of hell. They were very wrong). It seems there’s an impulse the soften the destination of the spirits of the wicked in part because we mentally include far too many other people in alongside the wicked. But we should not conclude that this is the case. Alma 40 is not the only indicator of this either. Thus President Joseph F. Smith, in his vision of the spirit world, describes the inhabitants of that part to which Christ did not go in person (i.e. Spirit prison) as being “the wicked”, “the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh” and “the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets” (D&C 138:20-21, see also v. 29). There’s the example of the thief on the cross – which we often use as a proof-text for the existence of “paradise” as separate from Heaven on the grounds that the thief hadn’t been baptized yet – who Christ told “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The thief undoubtedly had more learning to do to be made ready for heaven, but he could do such learning in paradise.

There’s also what we know about the future inhabitants of the kingdoms of glory. It is those who ultimately inherit the telestial glory – which includes the “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie” – who as a category end up spending some time in hell, until “the fulness of times” (D&C 76:81, 84, 106). While those who inherit the terrestial glory include those “who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them” (D&C 76:73), it also includes “those who died without law” (v. 72) and those “who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men” (v. 75), of whom there is no indication of a spell in what Alma terms “outer darkness”. It can reasonably inferred that – since it is a distinguishing mark of those who inherit telestial glory – one can inherit terrestial glory without spending time in hell. And at the same time, baptism is to qualify one for inheritance of the celestial glory (v. 51). The inference here aligns with what we know of the thief on the cross: one does not need to have been baptized to enter paradise.

Thus the situation is both more and less severe (or perhaps more just and more merciful) than we often depict it. The alternative to paradise is as terrible as Alma says it is, and we should take him (and the angel who taught him) at his word. And at the same time, there are fewer people who are going there, and many more going to paradise than we have recognised or hoped.

Alma 39

I feel a bit sorry for Corianton. I would not want my own sins broadcast to the world, and yet Corianton’s have been recorded for people millennia hence, and – despite the fact that he repented of these things – he’s perhaps best known by people millennia after he died for those very sins. Perhaps he agreed to this at some stage (even posthumously), but it seems lie quite a burden.

Alma’s address to Corianton is spread over several chapters, beginning here in 39 and continuing to 42. The later chapters address specific doctrinal questions and concerns Corianton has (that may have affected his conduct), but this chapter deals directly with his behaviour itself.

Verse 5 is particularly famous:

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

This has generally been read as a denunciation of sexual sin. But while this is definitely part of Corianton’s problems, it has been suggested that – in view of the ambiguity of “these things” – that that is not quite what verse 5 is speaking about. If we examine the preceding verses 3 & 4, we read:

And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

There’s several elements here that could be included in “these things”. There’s indeed the part where he went chasing after “the harlot Isabel” (so much so that he crossed over to the edges of Lamanite territory, something that really stood out this time; perhaps an indication of how such sins can lead us into dangerous territory – metaphorical or in this case quite literal – that we’d otherwise never have intended to go). But there’s also Corianton’s forsaking the ministry as well.

The following verses build on both components. Thus Corianton is instructed to “go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things” (v. 9) and to “suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots” (v. 11). However, there is also another factor that clearly concerns Alma:

Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

(Alma 39:11)

Alongside being told not to be lead away by “those wicked harlots”, Corianton is warned not “to be led away away by any vain or foolish thing”. And why? Because of the great harm his sins inflicted upon the Zoramites: “for when they saw your conduct, they would not believe in my words”.

Thus it has been suggested that the particularly sharp denunciations in verse 5 and verse 7 may not aimed at just sexual sins per se, but at what might be termed spiritual murder. We might hesitate at that; it is clear from the quoted verses that such sins are significant, and a major part of Corianton’s problems. But it is also clear that they are aggravated and are more severe in Corianton’s case because of their effects on those around him. Thus the spirit reveals to Alma:

And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities;

(Alma 39:12)

This warning may strike quite close to home for Alma; whatever the extent of his sins prior to his conversion, there’s no positive indication that sexual sins were a significant factor. But we know leading people astray was; indeed, in his recounting of his conversion experience to Helaman just several chapters ago he confesses “I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14), precisely the very thing the Lord is warning him his children may do (albeit, in Corianton’s case, by different means). Hence his urgency in encouraging Corianton to change his course.

One thing I was struck by reading this time around, however, were several steps that preceded Corianton’s more infamous missteps, mentioned right at the beginning of the chapter:

For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.

(Alma 39:2)

Here we learn that Corianton did not pay as much heed to Alma’s words as Shiblon did, and boasted in his strength and wisdom. When reading this time around I couldn’t help but think that these things – examples of pride and a belief that he already knew enough – left him vulnerable to the later temptations embodied by Isabel and others. That if he had paid more attention to Alma’s instructions, and been more humble, he would have been better protected against later temptations, whatever form they took. Just as Alma taught Helaman that God works through “small and simple things” (Alma 37:6-7), these small and simple things could have had a great effect on Corianton’s own later decisions.

 

 

Alma 38

This is a comparatively brief chapter, containing Alma’s comparatively brief remarks to his son Shiblon between his longer remarks to Helaman and his other son Corianton. There’s an interesting structural parallel that Grant Hardy noted in Understanding the Book of Mormon between the layout of these three addresses and the three detailed accounts of Alma’s ministry to the cities of Zarahemla, Gideon and Ammonihah. Zarahemla needed work, and needed repentance; Ammonihah was in a direr state, needed even more repentance and got an even longer sermon. The sermon to Gideon in between, however, is comparatively short, perhaps in part because it turns out the people in Gideon were on the right track and merely needed encouragement. Hardy suggests that the structure of these accounts draws a parallel between these three cities and Alma’s three sons.

It’s possible to push this potential parallel to far: we don’t, after all, have any real evidence that Helaman needed to get anything specific in order (much of the instruction given to him relates to the records that will be conferred upon him), and while Corianton does need to repent, he actually does, unlike Ammonihah (and I feel quite sorry for Corianton, considering he’s best known millennia later for sins he repented of). But Shiblon – who is commended for his “steadiness and … faithfulness to God” (v. 2) and his diligent service among the Zoramites (v. 3), including experiencing “bonds” and stoning (v. 4) – definitely parallels the faithful city of Gideon.

Several parts of this chapter overlap with Alma’s instruction to Helaman, including the assurance that those who trust in God will be delivered, the statement that Alma knows these things not of himself, but because of the spirit of God, and a (far more brief) recap of Alma’s conversion experience. Others are more specific to Shiblon himself, in particular verses 10-12:

And now, as ye have begun to teach the word even so I would that ye should continue to teach; and I would that ye would be diligent and temperate in all things.

See that ye are not lifted up unto pride; yea, see that ye do not boast in your own wisdom, nor of your much strength.

Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness.

I think we get quite a particular picture here: this is a faithful and diligent man, a son who brings Alma considerable joy. Some of the instruction here is simple encouragement, to keep on the course that he has already begun. More specific dangers come not from weaknesses as such, but the danger of pride in his wisdom and “much strength” (in similar fashion, in the modern era Elder Oaks has spoken about how “our strengths can become our downfall”). Verse 12 here suggests that Shiblon is not only capable of being bold, but may over-correct into being overbearing, and so he’s counselled to rein it in a little and to “bridle all your passions”. That last phrase is a very important bit of imagery: as a friend once pointed out to me, a bridle does not kill or stop a horse, but steers it. Likewise Shiblon – and implicitly we as well – are being counselled not to kill nor suppress our passions and emotions, but to steer them.

I find verse 14 striking, as I do similar teachings in Mosiah 4:

Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.

Obviously the bad example Alma and Shiblon both personally witnessed – of the Zoramites thanking God for making them the elect and thus “better” than everyone else – would make this contrast particularly clear in their mind. Perhaps Alma mentions it again here because the temptation to forget one’s own unworthiness before God is likely to come more strongly upon those who are otherwise capable, faithful and successful in their vocations (indeed, the Zoramites were competent, courageous and hard-working, but those very virtues left them open to pride).

But as I mention in connection with Mosiah 4, I think there’s also a modern tendency to shy away from teachings about acknowledging our “unworthiness before God at all times”. I suspect part of this may be trying to over-correct from other areas. What we don’t want, of course, is for people to become convinced that they cannot approach God and cannot expect his aid. Satan often tries to use such discouraging thoughts to undermine faith keep people from praying, repenting and so on. But there is also the opposite danger, particularly for those who may feel they are doing well: to become complacent in their perceived goodness, to forget their own imperfections and need for constant mercy, and thus risk succumbing to pride. It strikes me that God would have us acknowledge our imperfection and unworthiness in our present state, but to have alongside that a confidence and faith that we can call upon him, and that he loves us and will help us in and despite that unworthy state. Rather than dwelling upon unworthiness as a feeling that depresses us and detaches us from God, it seems to me that he would have us acknowledge that as a simple fact that teaches us humility and instead impels us towards him, to seek and ask for his mercy, strength and aid.

Alma 37

Alma 37 is the second part of Alma’s counsel to his son Helaman, this time revolving around the sacred records that Helaman is being charged to take care of, as is clear from the verses that book-end the chapter:

And now, my son Helaman, I command you that ye take the records which have been entrusted with me;

(Alma 37:1)

And now, my son, see that ye take care of these sacred things, yea, see that ye look to God and live. Go unto this people and declare the word, and be sober. My son, farewell.

(Alma 37:47)

This is quite a sizeable chapter that ranges over several topics, but if one thing unites them it is this theme of sacred records, of scripture. Thus in the first part, Alma charges Helaman to take the records, and to make a record himself, and to keep them sacred. For these are not just any records:

Behold, it has been prophesied by our fathers, that they should be kept and handed down from one generation to another, and be kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon.

(Alma 37:4)

Verse 3 immediately preceding this is talking about the plates of brass, which might cause one to wonder if it’s the plates of brass that are thus prophesied about. However, verse 2 speaks of the plates of Nephi and the record Alma has kept and that Helaman is to keep, and so it seems verse 3 is more parenthetical, and verse 4 refers to the Book of Mormon and the future records that are due to come forth (which includes, of course, some of the material on the plates of brass).

Alma expands on why in the following verses, in which he speaks about the power and influence of such records. I particularly like verse 6-8 here:

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.

And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.

And now, it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls.

God, it appears, likes working in ways that confound human expectation. Thus he works through the weak and foolish to confound the mighty and “wise” of the world, and he works through “very small means” to accomplish great works. Thus while the sacred records themselves are literally small – we can hold them in our hands – and perhaps seen as small by those who look down upon them, they will work great things because of the power and influence they have to sway people: to enlarge our memory, to convince us our our errors, and to bring us to a knowledge of God.

From verse 21 onwards, Alma speaks of the contents of the 24 Jaredite plates, which Mormon – our narrator – has already promised we will have an account of (Mosiah 28:19). Alma here, however, instructs Helaman to be careful about what and how he shares. Lest this point be misunderstood, however, I think we also need to bear some of Alma’s other comments here in mind.

Thus in verse 21, Alma instructs Helaman to keep these records and preserve the interpreters that go with them:

And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-four plates, that ye keep them, that the mysteries and the works of darkness, and their secret works, or the secret works of those people who have been destroyed, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, all their murders, and robbings, and their plunderings, and all their wickedness and abominations, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, and that ye preserve these interpreters

A significant contribution of these twenty-four plates is to make manifest the Jaredite misdeeds. Indeed ultimately the destruction of such “secret works” relies upon revealing and bringing them to light, as Alma goes on to prophesy:

And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.

And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:

I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land.

(Alma 37:23-25; it’s not entirely clear who Gazelem is and various identifications have been proposed, including Mosiah, Joseph Smith, an unknown Jaredite, or others, including that it may be the name of the stone)

While, however, it is God’s purpose to ultimately replace darkness with light and make all such things manifest, Alma counsels Helaman to be careful about what he shares. Thus he tells him:

And now, my son, I command you that ye retain all their oaths, and their covenants, and their agreements in their secret abominations; yea, and all their signs and their wonders ye shall keep from this people, that they know them not, lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed.

Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, and only their wickedness and their murders and their abominations shall ye make known unto them; and ye shall teach them to abhor such wickedness and abominations and murders; and ye shall also teach them that these people were destroyed on account of their wickedness and abominations and their murders.

(Alma 37:27, 29)

And elaborates in verses 32-34:

And now, my son, remember the words which I have spoken unto you; trust not those secret plans unto this people, but teach them an everlasting hatred against sin and iniquity.

Preach unto them repentance, and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ; teach them to humble themselves and to be meek and lowly in heart; teach them to withstand every temptation of the devil, with their faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Teach them to never be weary of good works, but to be meek and lowly in heart; for such shall find rest to their souls.

Thus Alma counsels Helaman to not share the details of the secret oaths, agreements so on by which the Jaredites performed their “secret works”, only to make clear “their wickedness and their murders and their abominations”, and to teach repentance, faith in Christ, humility, and other such inspiring principles.

I think there’s a number of things we can learn from this passage and episode, but I’m not entirely sure what to conclude. Some thoughts:

  1. As a bit of a spoiler such secret combinations get reintroduced to the Nephites by the original “source” anyway. Does this mean Alma’s plan didn’t work, or did it buy several decades of peace. As his prophecy indicates, Alma realises that such discretion isn’t the permanent solution to such things, anyway.
  2. I do think this counsel underlines the power of words, ideas and of course of the scriptures. If they have a great power and influence to do good – as Alma taught for much of the first half of the chapter – then misused, it makes sense they could have power in inflict harm. It perhaps underlines that we should not be careless about how we use such things.
  3. Likewise, I think the counsel in verses 32-34 teaches a valuable lesson on the importance of focusing on good and inspiring things, in what we learn and what we teach. There are dangers we need to be warned against, true, and sins we should be taught against. But – and I believe I’ve seen this – if we focus unhealthily on such things to the neglect of that which is good, we risk negative consequences. Our thoughts affect our actions, our emotions, our psyche, and our spirituality. If we wish to draw closer to God (and not some other influence) we need to focus on goodness. Likewise we don’t conquer sin with an obsession with it, but by yielding to the influence of the Holy Ghost towards righteousness. Darkness is ultimately conquered by light.

A third part of these chapter involves Alma giving a typological reading of an earlier episode in the Book of Mormon,, namely their use of the Liahona, and the direction it gave to the promised land provided their exercised their faith and diligence. As Alma reads it:

And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual.

For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

(Alma 37:43-45)

I’ve written about typology before, but one thing that struck me upon reading this time round was how it addresses the supposed divide between literal and allegorical readings of scripture. This has been very much a concern in the West, for a considerable length of time. Thus several scholars have read the concern in 1 Nephi 22, for instance, about whether prophesied events are to be understood “according to the spiritual” or “the flesh”, as addressing concerns along these lines. That’s actually not quite the case in 1 Nephi 22, as I cover in pp. 136-140 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible (and my blog post on 1 Nephi 22), but it’s understandable why people might leap to that conclusion.

It should be evident that there are parts of scripture that should definitely be read in a symbolic fashion (the parables, for instance, are not fundamentally about agriculture), and others that should definitely be read quite literally (such as prohibitions on murder and adultery). But as I was reading Alma 37 this time round, I was really reminded of how types and typology (in which actual events can also carry a prophetic or symbolic meaning) can really bridge that gap. A purely literal reading of Lehi’s journey would prevent one from seeing any deeper intended meaning, and indeed may cause on to think of it simply as a historical account or story of a long distant time. On the other hand, a purely allegorical reading would render the examples of faith and faithfulness, and the examples of how God intervenes and delivers his people, null and void; they would, after all, be fiction. But reading the story as a type allows us both to learn the lessons from and be inspired by the actual events, and perceive the symbolic meaning of the story in our own journey through the wilderness of mortality. It preserves and transmits both sets of lessons, without destroying either.

Alma 36

Alma 36 is a very poetic (indeed the whole thing is one giant chiasmus) account from Alma the younger himself of his conversion. It’s also a very powerful, and powerfully written, chapter; any paucity of comments by me today should not be taken as a reflection on the chapter itself, which is very worth reading.

Alma begins (and ends, in chiastic fashion) his account by talking of God delivering the Israelites and his own forefathers, and the importance of remembering them. There’s a point in verse 3 in particular that stood out to me today (my emphasis):

And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

Note what it doesn’t say: it does not say that those who put their trust will be spared trials and troubles and afflictions. Rather Alma states that those who put their trust in God will be supported in their trials and so forth. The very last phrase should not be forgotten either: “and shall be lifted up at the last day”. This is speaking of salvation and resurrection, of course, but I think also speaks to the promise that God will deliver us from our trials, troubles and afflictions. It just might not be immediately. God will deliver us in his time, and in the meantime will support us through those periods. Good examples of that pattern can in fact be seen in those very episodes Alma speaks of remembering; for instance, the deliverance of his own father and his people involved a period in which they were strengthened to bear their burdens in their captivity, and then a miraculous deliverance from captivity.

A question came to mind as I read Alma’s own account of the angelic visit that lead to his conversion:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.

And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

But behold, the voice said unto me: Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel.

And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.

And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.

And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.

(Alma 36:6-11, my emphasis)

It’s verse 11 that particularly raised the question. Alma recounts that when he heard the statement that “If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God”, he was so affected by it that he fell and didn’t hear the rest of the words of the angel. So the question is why did the angel keep speaking?

Perhaps the answer to this is that they “were heard by my brethren” (namely the sons of Mosiah). Perhaps those words were really aimed at them. Considering how they changed their lives around at this point too, perhaps they were the target of this angelic ministry as much as Alma was.

As I’ve mentioned before with Alma, he’s very good at conjuring the potential horror of judgment and damnation, perhaps in part because he’s already felt that experience, and it’s here in this chapter we really see it:

But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.

And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

(Alma 36:12-16)

It is this experience, however, that causes him to remember his own father’s teachings, and which leave him desperate enough to call for help:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

(Alma 36:17-18)

And as a result he experiences the power of the gospel, as he feels the joy of forgiveness and deliverance:

And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!

Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.

Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.

(Alma 36:19-22)

It’s worth reflecting that it is not the angel that converted him. The angel simply allowed him to realise his own sins. It is that consciousness of sin that cause him to turn to Christ, and that turn to Christ led him to be spiritually reborn and feel the joy of the gospel.

Alma 35

This is a transitional chapter, between Alma and Amulek’s preaching to the Zoramites, and Alma’s instruction to his sons and the wars following. This time around, I found this chapter a bit challenging to find anything to write about, as nothing particularly leapt out of me. Reading over the chapter again, however, there’s several things I thought about.

The first is how the Zoramites once again manage to combine virtues with bad aims, an example of what not to be like. Thus in this chapter they are both clever and determined; unfortunately that cleverness manifests as a public consultation that is really a means of identifying and flushing out those sympathetic to the Gospel, while the determination shows in the fact that they are not content to have cast out the converts, but then promptly exert themselves to try and have the people of Ammon cast them out too and leave them without abode.

The second thing I couldn’t help but think about was the poor people of Ammon. On one hand they show both their charity in welcoming and providing for the exiles, and their courage in refusing to heed the threats of the Zoramite leader. But it might seem like poor thanks for their deeds that in doing so, they end up having to leave their own lands once again, and find a new abode in Melek. It’s necessary: Jershon is the new front line, and the people of Ammon have their covenant to not to take arms. And they did the right thing. But it’s another example of how this life can be quite unfair, and in some cases any rewards for good deeds must wait for after.

I also find an interesting contrast between verses 14 and 15:

And Alma, and Ammon, and their brethren, and also the two sons of Alma returned to the land of Zarahemla, after having been instruments in the hands of God of bringing many of the Zoramites to repentance; and as many as were brought to repentance were driven out of their land; but they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon, and they have taken up arms to defend themselves, and their wives, and children, and their lands.

Now Alma, being grieved for the iniquity of his people, yea for the wars, and the bloodsheds, and the contentions which were among them; and having been to declare the word, or sent to declare the word, among all the people in every city; and seeing that the hearts of the people began to wax hard, and that they began to be offended because of the strictness of the word, his heart was exceedingly sorrowful.

Verse 14 seems almost optimistic, focusing on the positive things that have happened: many Zoramites have repented, and while they may have been cast out they have been given lands in Jershon and now stand ready to defend themselves and their families. But then verse 15 – recording Alma’s reaction – takes a turn for the negative – he is “grieved for the iniquity of his people”, and “exceedingly sorrowful”. There’s a number of reasons for this: the war which is beginning, apparent wickedness at home. But I also think this is connected to Alma’s intentions regarding the Zoramites in the first place: going back to Alma 31, Alma was very concerned at the Zoramite separation from the Nephites (Alma 31:3), and the Nephites generally feared the Zoramites would affiliate with the Lamanites (Alma 31:4), and it is in answer to this dilemma that Alma decides to “try the virtue of the word of God”.

And yet in many respects he and his cohort’s missionary efforts have helped to precipitate the very crisis Alma sought to avoid: The Zoramites, furious at the people of Ammon for taking in their exiles, promptly begin to “mix with the Lamanites and to stir them up also to anger against them”. The Zoramites not only utterly break with the Nephites and affiliate with the Lamanites, but immediately stir up the Lamanites so that they and the Lamanites start mobilising for war. It would be understandable for Alma to find this situation disappointing.

And yet the perspective of verse 14 is important and true: many have been reclaimed, both for the truth and for the Nephite cause. And from a more detached perspective, I believe we can judge that if this was the Zoramite reaction to simple preaching of the gospel, and then another people’s kindness, then those who defected were going to defect anyway and couldn’t be reclaimed. Alma may be disappointed he has not achieved his goals, but good has been done anyway. And perhaps there’s a lesson in that too: we may end up having many righteous goals that end up unfulfilled despite our best efforts, or worse find that our righteous efforts have actually  made those goals more remote. We may not, despite being faithful and working diligently, find we do not get the results we were expecting or hoping for. And yet, like Alma, through such righteous efforts we can still do God’s work and accomplish good, even if our own plans and goals appear to fall through.