Balancing Scripture

I’ve often been interested in how scriptural books relate to each other. As Latter-day Saints, of course, we have multiple books of scripture in our canon: The Bible (which itself is a compilation of books); the Book of Mormon, a record of ancient prophets in the Americas; the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations from the modern era; and the Pearl of Great Price, which is rather a small miscellaneous assortment. How these connect, and the way they draw on each other and shed light on each other, drew my attention enough that I wrote my erstwhile thesis (and now book) on the Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible.

Sometimes, however, we can neglect particular parts of our canon. There’s a particularly powerful warning in the Doctrine and Covenants about the Saints neglecting the Book of Mormon:

And 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.

And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.

And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—

That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.

(D&C 84:54-58)

This warning was notably reiterated by Ezra Taft Benson in his first conference address as President of the Church, a message he continued to repeat throughout his presidency. I think that now, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, one can see many blessings that have come from members heeding that warning and paying more attention to the Book of Mormon, including a greater understanding of Christ’s atonement and the role of his grace, topics about which the Book of Mormon teaches emphatically.

One can neglect the other books too, of course. One conclusion of my own work was that the Book of Mormon prophets saw all scripture as part of one vast, interdependent collection, and that to reject one part is to reject all, as seen in the warning in 2 Nephi 28:29-30:

Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.

Indeed, I believe one can sometimes take a focus on the Book of Mormon too far, if it causes one to neglect completely the Bible, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. To do this is hardly something the Book of Mormon writers would approve of, when one purpose in writing the work was “for the intent that ye may believe that [meaning the Bible]” (Mormon 7:9); nor would it be in keeping with Christ’s instruction to read Isaiah and the other prophets (3 Nephi 23:1, 5). It’s for that very reason – in response to comments that Latter-day Saints didn’t need to read the Old Testament – that I wrote a series of posts about why they should (including that it’d help them understand the Book of Mormon)!

Having said that, however, there does seem to be a particular focus on the Book of Mormon itself, enough to provoke a divine warning in revelation, not to mention the continuing focus by present day Apostles. And I have often pondered why that is the case. It was written with prophetic foresight for our day (Mormon 8:34-35), of course, and wasn’t read by the people of the time, but then again the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants were actually written in our era. There is also the sense in which the Book of Mormon is described as “the keystone of our religion”: it simultaneously bears witness of past scripture, of the prophethood of Joseph Smith, and of the divine authority of the Church today (D&C 20:11). But if one has already received this witness, are there any other reasons to focus on the Book of Mormon in particular?

Two principle reasons suggest themselves to my mind (there are more, but these seem key).

Firstly, the Book of Mormon has a relentless focus on the most important and basic matters. It is noticeable, for instance, that in contrast to the rather loose and expansive way we tend to use the word doctrine (and slather that term on top of everything), in the Book of Mormon it is only used in two senses: doctrines, plural, always referring to false doctrines; and doctrine, singular, always referring to the “doctrine of Christ” or “the gospel”, a term used of the most basic core of the gospel. As seen, for instance, in 3 Nephi 27:13-20, the description of this gospel is succinct (just 8 verses there!), but covers the most important matters: the incarnation of Christ, redemption through his death and resurrection, our resurrection and final judgment and the basic principles of faith, repentance, baptism, and sanctification through the receipt of the Holy Ghost. Likewise, the basic themes announced on the title page – revelation, the restoration of Israel, and the messiah-hood and divinity of Christ – are emphasised again and again (including, as I discovered, in the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible). The Book of Mormon aims like a laser at the things that matter most, while hardly talking at all about some things we tend to think are very important.

This may be seen as part and parcel of its mission to restore “plain and precious things” (1 Nephi 13:40), but I also wonder if it ends up going beyond that. It seems quite easy, from observation, that when people principally read other portions of scripture for them to not see the wood for the trees: that is, to end up focusing and losing perspective on principles that may be true, and may even be necessary, but which are an appendage to more basic things. Likewise, in such circumstances it seems easier for people to over-complicate the gospel, or get focused on overly-speculative matters. But if we are reading the Book of Mormon as well, perhaps its focus can help to keep us focused. By serving as a lens in our reading of other scripture, it may not only restore plain and precious things, but help us to see the plain and precious things in the other books too.

Secondly, there is a power beyond the text itself. I’ve had some powerful experiences with scripture, with a range of different passages, throughout the standard works. But when I look back over my life, I find that in general that it is those periods when I am reading the Book of Mormon regularly (rather than just the other books) that I am spiritually better. On an average basis, I find it has a more powerful devotional effect than almost any other passage, save perhaps for the Gospels (and perhaps even just the Gospel of John). When I am read the Book of Mormon over a prolonged period, I am closer to the Spirit, repent more readily, am more obedient, and find it easier to resist temptation.

Part of a reason this comes to mind is a feeling that I have a personal need to refocus a little. Most of my reading of scripture this year has been from other books, particularly the New Testament, and that’s certainly not bad (especially with Come Follow Me), but I have been reading less from the Book of Mormon this year than those immediately prior (especially compared to the thesis years). Everyone is probably in a different place on this front, and would need to judge for themselves where their balance currently is, but personally speaking I feel a need to re-balance in the direction of reading the Book of Mormon more consistently than I have recently. Because there’s a benefit that I feel that comes from it that extends beyond the words themselves.

There’s many things in the gospel, and our experience with God, that cannot be put into words. Indeed, I think that’s part of the key to the book of Job: Job’s questions aren’t answered in the book of Job, but he does learn something that puts him at peace, something he learns from seeing God (Job 42:3-6), something which cannot be put into words, but can only be learned the same way Job did. Likewise, in reading scripture I feel that there is something we can experience that is more than simply taking in the text on the page. There have been times in my life – I found quite often as a missionary, since I’d often have one in my hand – that I could feel the power within the Book of Mormon simply by holding it. That power comes from God, and I believe, and have felt, that when we read the book with a sincere heart and real intent that we receive not only the words that are written into our minds, but also receive that power into our souls. Christ himself taught that God’s word, and his word, has a sanctifying effect upon us (John 15:3, 17:17). And as President Benson said, quoting an earlier apostle:

“But there is another reason why we should read it,” President Romney continued. “By doing so we will fill and refresh our minds with the constant flow of that ‘water’ which Jesus said would be in us—‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (John 4:14.) We must obtain a continuing supply of this water if we are to resist evil and retain the blessings of being born again. …

“If we would avoid adopting the evils of the world, we must pursue a course which will daily feed our minds with and call them back to the things of the Spirit. I know of no better way to do this than by reading the Book of Mormon.”

 

Their reward lurketh beneath

Then they say in their hearts: This is not the work of the Lord, for his promises are not fulfilled. But wo unto such, for their reward lurketh beneath, and not from above.

Doctrine & Covenants 58:33

Was just reading this verse today, and was struck by the imagery in the last sentence. It’s not uncommon in literature for something to be described as lurking beneath, although that’s usually literally (beneath the waters) or talking of something hidden, such as unsavoury personality traits (lurking beneath the surface/facade etc). Here, however, you have the notion of a “reward”, which otherwise sounds pleasant, juxtaposed with the threatening “lurketh beneath”, beneath here meaning in hell. In contrast to those rewards offered “from above” (the heavens), the reward beneath lies in wait, ready to pounce on its unwary prey.

“Elias” as a “forerunner” in LDS Scripture

The use of the name Elias (in the New Testament a version of the name Elijah) in the Doctrine and Covenants, where it refers in several passages to at least one other individual than Elijah, has been an interesting puzzle for me for many years. A very interesting article by Robert Boylan, sheds light on this matter, including on Joseph Smith’s understanding of the term in the NT and its possible meaning(s) in the D&C:

This post is not meant to be exhaust all the arguments and responses to this issue. However, it should be clear to the reader that (1) Joseph Smith knew that OT Elijah and NT Elias were the same person; (2) contemporaries of Joseph Smith used NT Elias to denote a forerunner in the same way that the prophet did and, in light of these facts (3) the claim that this is a “blunder” on Joseph Smith’s behalf is without warrant.

via “Elias” as a “forerunner” in LDS Scripture.

Hell!

There’s a quite misguided article on hell by some member at the Huffington Post (thanks to Dan Peterson’s blog for the link), in which she basically claims we don’t believe hell exists (“The short answer to this is simple: No”). She admits that while Mormons “casually” refer to hell, and even concedes that the Book of Mormon “mentions” it. However, she claims that really it’s used either in a metaphorical sense, refers to “spirit prison” (which she claims “is also not a place that God has created for sinners” but “is a place where those who die in ignorance of Christ go”), or lastly “outer darkness” as a destination for the devil and his angels and unspecified “sons of perdition”. “God does not punish us” claims the author.

There’s bits of truth here mixed with folk doctrine and some real misconceptions, but these are widespread misconceptions. I remember as a missionary teaching around one family’s home, where my companion at the time (a good man and teacher – I enjoyed serving with him) made the claim that we did not believe in hell. After the discussion when we were alone again I brought it up. “Er… we do believe in hell. In fact we believe in lots more hell than most people. We just don’t think most people are going to be there permanently”. More recently I’ve had the opportunity to notice that despite it being more than a decade since I got home from my mission, the same phrases keep getting repeated (such as “spirit prison isn’t a place of punishment, it’s simply a place of learning), even though they cannot be found in either the scriptures or things like Preach My Gospel (which basically paraphrases Alma 40 on the issue). On a side issue, finding out how such notions get transmitted nearly word for word despite zero official support would be an interesting topic in itself.

However, it is on hell itself that I address myself. The following points seem to be misunderstood, and yet easily established from scripture:

 

A) God does punish sinners

Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding here. The author of the linked article bluntly claims the opposite, but this is (as also noted by one commentator on Daniel Peterson’s blog, who quotes some of the same passages) quite unscriptural. Take the following scriptures:

And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—

2 Nephi 2:10

Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.

Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?

Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.

Alma 42:16-18

For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—

Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.

Endless punishment is God’s punishment.

Doctrine and Covenants 19:10-12

And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay down the haughtiness of the terrible

2 Nephi 23:11//Isaiah 13:11

At present this punishment is largely deferred (thankfully!) as we are experiencing a probationary state to give us time to repent (Alma 12:24). But God most certainly will punish wickedness; in fact to do otherwise is to be merciless to the victims of sin.

 

B) Hell Exists, and God has prepared it for those who do not repent

Hell is not just “mentioned” in the Book of Mormon: the word is used 59 times, more than in the Old Testament and New Testament combined (31 and 23 times respectively). Both the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scripture speak of it being prepared by God for the wicked:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

2 Nephi 28:23

And, behold, there is a place prepared for them from the beginning, which place is hell.

D&C 29:38

Wherefore, they have foresworn themselves, and, by their oaths, they have brought upon themselves death; and a hell I have prepared for them, if they repent not;

Moses 6:29

(1 Nephi 15:35 speaks of the devil being the “preparator” of hell, but Royal Skousen argues – quite convincingly in my opinion, in the light of passages such as Moses 6:29 and D&C 29:38 – that this is a scribal error and “proprietor” is intended).

 

C) Hell does sometimes have a broader meaning

“Hell” is sometimes used in other senses. Thus we find it used as a label for the forces of the opposition (as in D&C 6:34 or 88:113), or some other despairing situation (as by Jonah in Jonah 2:2). Jacob uses the term hell to mean “the death of the spirit” (2 Nephi 9:10). One particular notable use is by Alma when teaching the people of Ammonihah:

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.

Alma 12:10-11

Here Alma is using the “chains of hell” to describe not a place, but a condition, where someone has rejected the word, lost what they already have and is held captive by the devil’s will. However, I’m not sure Alma would quite agree that what he is describing is “metaphorical”. I suspect he would describe it as a very real spiritual phenomena (and one we can see elsewhere in the Book of Mormon).

 

D) Hell also refers to the destination of the spirits of the wicked go after death

Alma describes:

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 40:12-13

We seem to shy away from such descriptions, but Alma does not: indeed he describes the destination of the wicked as “outer darkness” (a term we moderns seem to have solely associated with the sons of perdition, although 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 133:73 – not once is it so associated; in fact all the uses in latter-day scripture clearly have reference to broader groups). This is “spirit prison”. This is hell.

However, there seem to be a misunderstanding that may explain why people try to soften this. As in the linked article, there seems to be this belief that all who are not members of the Church, including those who were simply ignorant, are going to spirit prison. But Alma simply divides between the “righteous” and the “wicked” (indeed “evil”!). He nowhere states that this includes righteous non-members, particular those who simply lack knowledge of Christ. Likewise Joseph F. Smith, in his vision, speaks of the wicked dead to whom Christ did not go in person as “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).

We furthermore have an actual example, in the thief on the cross:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?

And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Luke 23:39-43

It is highly unlikely that the thief on the cross had been baptised or received other essential ordinances, nor presumably had his life been an unspotted one. But Christ tells him: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”. Doubtless the thief had a lot more learning to do and things to do to be ready for heaven itself, but it seems his heart was right enough that he could escape hell. There are things to be learned and ordinances to be received, but the righteous dead need not wait for those in hell.

And really, if members think their ancestors are waiting in hell for them to get their baptisms by proxy sorted out, even delaying Temple attendance by 24 hours seems an outrageous sin (and quite unjust)!

 

E) All are ultimately saved from hell, save the “sons of perdition” and the devil and his angels.

One measure of quite how many people are going to pass through hell is that this is listed as a defining characteristic of those who receive a telestial glory. I’m not exaggerating:

And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament.

These are they who are thrust down to hell.

D&C 78:81, 84

However – since again there seems to be some confusion on the matter – this is not a reference to the telestial kingdom itself, the glory of which “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89 – despite hypothetical spiders?). Rather we learn of these people:

These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work;

D&C 76:106 (my emphasis)

The telestial kingdom is what comes after hell, and the future inhabitants of the telestial kingdom must spend some time in hell – in spirit prison, awaiting their resurrection – for their sins “until” Christ has perfected his work. But their time in hell will come to an end, because of the efficacy of Christ’s atonement. For:

That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;

Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.

Wherefore, he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment—

And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows;

D&C 76:42-45

With the exception of the “sons of perdition”, the devil, and his angels, all mankind will be ultimately saved from hell. This is not because of the article’s mistaken claim that “God does not punish us”, for God is just, and will punish unrepentant sin. There is no cause for complacency, or believing that we can sin “and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 28:8). God is a holy and a just God, who “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). He will require a reckoning from us and we are accountable to him, as much as we will want the same of those who’ve sinned against us. But he couples those traits and holds them in perfection alongside his equally perfect love and mercy: seeking to save, but not permissive and an enabler of evil.

 

The Scriptures – Harold B. Lee

I say that we need to teach our people to find their answers in the scriptures. If only each of us would be wise enough to say that we aren’t able to answer any question unless we can find a doctrinal answer in the scriptures! And if we hear someone teaching something that is contrary to what is in the scriptures, each of us may know whether the things spoken are false—it is as simple as that. But the unfortunate thing is that so many of us are not reading the scriptures. We do not know what is in them, and therefore we speculate about the things that we ought to have found in the scriptures themselves. I think that therein is one of our biggest dangers of today.

The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 153.

If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth

Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24-26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69.

He hath given a law to all things

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:12-13)

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. (v.41-43)

The nature of miracles sometimes gets some discussion in LDS circles. Of course, most of the modern world has dismissed the possibility of such things, but the Book of Mormon strongly emphasises not just the existence of past miracles, but the reality and indeed the necessity of present day miracles (Moroni 7:37-38, compare Mormon 9:20), for faith works miracles, and an absence of miracles is due to unbelief.

The question is often raised as to how such miracles relate to physical ‘laws’ – after all, such miracles as raising the dead, transmuting water into wine or walking on water violate physical laws as we understand them. And some LDS folk have suggested that there is no such violation here – all that is happening is that God understands some ‘higher law’, and works within that.

I’ve never been entirely happy with this approach, which seems to subordinate God to physical laws, and reduce the supernatural to the natural (the very tendency the Book of Mormon, with its emphasis on the power of God, appears to argue against!). And, as verse 42 above indicates, it is God who gives law rather than the other way around. But upon rereading the above verses, I am struck that much much more seems to be offered here. Our very model of immutable physical laws, separate from God, is itself an artefact of many centuries of Western culture, as can be seen in notions of God as a ‘watch maker’, who sets up the universe and then lets it run itself, and later concepts that ditched the watch maker.

Yet that is not the perspective of Section 88. Notice here that the light of Christ, which is ‘the law by which all things are governed’ and the ‘power of God’ (v.13), and which amongst other things is the power by which the sun, moon and stars were made (v.7-9) and regulates their motions (v.42-43), is depicted as proceeding ‘forth from the presence of God’. It is not a one time thing, done in the past, but something in the present. The physical laws operate not because they were set down in the past, but because the power of God, which gives life, light and law to all things, acts upon them now. Any such physical laws by which the universe operates do so because of the continuing present will of God. Law is thus not something separate from God, let alone above him – it is the present operation of His will upon the physical universe.

If this is true (and the above verses suggest it is), then there are no such thing as immutable physical laws. Physical laws operate because God presently wills it, and if he ceased to do so they would not. Miracles are where God wills differently, and when he does the physical universe obeys (Helaman 12:7-8). And rather than everything being confined under rigid, naturalistic law, even the operation of supposedly ‘natural’, ‘physical’ laws are actually further examples of the supernatural and the power of God. Perhaps this is why Section 88 goes on to proclaim:

Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (v.47)