The Good News

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Almost two thousand years ago, in a minor province of the Roman empire and in the space of just a few days, the most important event in human history took place. More than history even, for the events of those days will have consequences beyond history and throughout eternity, when many “historical” events will seem mere footnotes. Moreover, those events matter not just two thousand years ago, nor just in eternities beyond the end of time itself, but I find myself reflecting on this Easter on the way they matter today.

It seems a human tendency to want to break things up, and subdivide them, perhaps so we can get our head around them. Thus some depictions of Christ’s redeeming work have focused on the Crucifixion. In Latter-day Saint culture, there’s been a tendency to focus on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (I specify culture; the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Cross more frequently than to the Garden). But in reality these are all part of one big redemptive work. It arguably began long before Gethsemane itself, as Christ’s experienced the sufferings endemic to mortal life throughout his mortal life (Alma 7:11). He faced hunger and thirst in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus, and abandonment by many of his former followers: such happenings and others like them were all part and parcel of him taking upon himself mortal pains so that he might help us in ours.

It is in the garden, however, that the more than natural sufferings clearly began. In addition to his sorrowing “unto death”, so much that he “fell on his face” (Matt. 26:38-39), in some way that we do not fully comprehend he began the process by which he took upon himself the sin of the world, suffering so much so that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). He was then betrayed by Judas, abandoned by all, unjustly tried and condemned, abused, scourged and then sentenced to death on the Cross. Yet his spiritual sufferings did not end in the garden, for there was more to Christ’s pain on the Cross than the physical agony of crucifixion, and more to his atoning sacrifice that the suffering endured in the Garden beforehand.

Indeed, suffering alone wasn’t Christ’s offering. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 5:12;  6:23), death and hell, or death of the body and death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10). In the first our spirit is separated from our body, in the second it is separated from God. The price to redeem us from these deaths required an infinite offering: “not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast” (Alma 34:10), nor simply a discrete amount of suffering, no matter how multiplied. There is no straightforward arithmetic of atonement that allows trading off one life for another, and so only “an infinite atonement [would] suffice for the sins of the world” (v. 11-12). Thus Christ needed to offer up his own, infinite and eternal divine life as the offering: his sufferings alone would not suffice, but his death was required also (Alma 22:14). Not even his physical life could be taken from him without his will (John 19:11), as reflected in the curious phrasing by which Moses and Elijah discuss “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, my emphasis). But just like the death we face due to our sins is both physical and spiritual, so Christ’s offering likewise required both. Thus, while in Gethsemane he received strength from an angel (Luke 22:43), on the Cross he experienced the withdrawal of the Father’s presence, causing him to exclaim “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

So Christ offered up every drop of his infinite and eternal life. And yet that is not the conclusion of his atonement, for the victory would yet be incomplete. That came several days later, on the day we commemorate with Easter itself. It is on that day that the bands of death and hell were broken, when Christ rose from his tomb. Notice how he tells Mary Magdalene, the first to see him, to not touch him “for I am not yet ascended to my Father”, but for her to go and specifically tell his brethren “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17 – the fact that those who saw him later could touch him suggest that said ascension took place swiftly). His rising was not just taking up his body again, even in perfect form, but a rising into a fullness of both physical and spiritual life, the ascension of his body from the tomb, and his ascension – body and spirit both – to the Father. Thus our redemption is “brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven” (Mosiah 18:2).

There are those, both of Christ’s followers at the time and others since, who have had the opportunity to bear physical witness of his resurrection, to have “heard”, “seen” and “handled” (Ep. of John 1:1). For others, including myself, there is the witness of the Holy Ghost. In all such cases, however, we have the promise symbolised by the empty tomb, a promise that can bring power and peace into our lives now by assuring us of good things to come. It may be easy, looking around the world, to feel a measure of disquiet at the way things are and the way they’re heading. Even when things are good, no society lasts forever. And then in our personal lives, we may – indeed almost all do – experience loss, or grief, or failure, or feelings of failure. We may feel frustration or pain that life has gone in undesired directions, whether due to our mistakes or the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is just rubbish, and sometimes we may simply feel we’ve messed it up.

But the promise of that Easter Morning – the “good news” which is literally the meaning of the word gospel – is that this life is not it. There is more to come than the ephemeral things of this life, and no failure need be final. No matter what setbacks we face, what trials we experience or pain we go through in the present, that empty tomb is a promise that better things are in store if we look to the one who is risen and hold on faithful. It is a promise that we need not be forever defined by our sins nor our failures, nor any other imperfection, for Christ has conquered death and hell, and can put all enemies under his feet.

The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

I’ve come across this rather interesting and thoughtful article on Abrahamic tests by Larry E. Dahl (a retired BYU professor), which is available from the BYU Religious Studies center. Some particularly important excerpts:

Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. Let me repeat. Everyone who achieves exaltation must successfully pass through an Abrahamic test. The Prophet Joseph Smith, in speaking to the Twelve Apostles in Nauvoo, said: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God.[1] That is not a particularly comforting thought, but it is one that cannot be ignored if the scriptures are taken seriously. Why must there be an Abrahamic test? And how can we all be tested like Abraham was tested? Why use Abraham as the standard? What is there about the test Abraham experienced that is universally applicable? When our test comes, will we recognize it? How can we prepare?

and:

What about us? How are we to be tested “even as Abraham”? Being asked to offer a child as a sacrifice just does not relate to our time and circumstance. But wrenching heartstrings does relate—to all times and circumstances. And there are many ways to wrench the heart in any age: being asked to choose God over other things we dearly love, even when those things are good and have been promised, and when we have worked for them, yearned for them, prayed for them, and have been obedient and patient; or being asked to persevere in righteousness and service (perhaps even Church service) in the face of terrible difficulty, uncertainty, inequities, ironies, and even contradictions; or watching helplessly as the innocent suffer from the brutal misuse of God-given agency in the hands of evil men.

 

Read the full thing at: The Abrahamic Test | Religious Studies Center

2 Nephi 9

Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.

(2 Nephi 9:5)

I am convinced the scriptures teach us far more about the atonement than we have yet realised. This passage is but an example of this: there is some sort of symmetry at work, by which the fact that the Saviour became subject unto men, and suffered and died at their hands, means that we are all subject to him. Yet while being subject unto him means we are liable to his judgment (2 Nephi 9:15-17), it also means we become subject to the power of his redemption, and that if we believe and repent we shall be freed from both death and hell and inherit the kingdom of God (vv. 18-19, 23).

2020 Edit:

I thought about mentioning first that this is one of my favourite chapters, but as I was reading over it and pondering it my mind I think I’ve come to the realisation that this is my actual favourite chapter in the Book of Mormon. There is so much in it, and so much powerfully said.

This is a continuation of Jacob’s sermon, but here he leaves off quoting Isaiah – which he notes teach about the covenants God has made with the house of Israel (and perhaps above all, their continuing validity and ultimate fulfilment) – to directly address the redemption God will work through the atonement. And while his sermon begain in 2 Nephi 6, I think it’s here that for the first time one really hears Jacob’s rather distinctive voice. A couple of examples:

      1. As I discuss here, Jacob speaks with a characteristic lack of self-assurance, in marked contrast to Nephi. Note how in describing the situation of the righteous and wicked at the last judgment, he mentally includes himself with the wicked (“we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt”) rather than the righteous (“and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment”) in 2 Nephi 9:14, although we know that’s hardly an objective assessment of the man, and it’s rather different from the way Nephi speaks of the final judgment, and different again from the grim realism of Mormon.
      2. There is his concern with the feelings of the audience, the sort of thing perhaps most clearly seen in Jacob 2:7-10. Here it is seen in 2 Nephi 9:47-48:

        But behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up your souls if your minds were pure? Would I be plain unto you according to the plainness of the truth if ye were freed from sin?
        Behold, if ye were holy I would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that I teach you the consequences of sin.

        Again, this seems a striking contrast to how Nephi speaks.

     

The bulk of the chapter itself really covers the core of the gospel, addressing our need for redemption, how Christ’s atonement saves us from death and hell, how we will all face God’s judgment, and our need to repent so that we might face that final judgment without fear and a perfect remembrance of our guilt. As such, there is so much that could be talked about, in a chapter that could be mined again and again.

One important topic is, of course, is Christ’s atoning sacrifice. People have tried to explain this act in a variety of different ways, through reconciliation, through legal metaphors, analogies of creditors and debt, or a transfer of sin and of suffering. I think an important thing to realise is that, as much as we try to understand or explain the atonement by use of earthly analogies, the atonement came first. It was already part of the plan of God before the world was created, and so long before any of these earthly institutions we use to try and understand it existed. And so, in approaching this issue, I think it’s important for us to understand that Christ’s atonement is the original, while any concepts we might use as a lens to better understand it are at best patterned after and are the echo of more eternal realities. Earthly comparisons may help us better understand the atonement, but they cannot completely explain it.

The scriptures therefore talk about the atonement in a variety of different ways. Some speak in terms of reconciling justice and mercy, others focus on a more sacrificial aspect, of Christ as an offering. Alma 7:11-12 extends the point of Christ’s suffering to speak of him suffering and taking upon him all our pains (including, ultimately, death). And many of these overlaps, because they’re talking about the same thing that did all of this. We see that here too in this chapter. There’s the aspect that I picked up on in the original post (and discuss when talking about 1 Nephi 11 too), that by being becoming subject to men, all men become subject to him and his judgment. But this chapter also speaks quite a bit about the resurrection (vv. 6-8):

For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord.

Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.

O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.

We sometimes (I wonder if from a human tendency to subdivide things and try and organise them) separate the resurrection from Christ’s atonement, but as is quite clear here it is part of parcel of the whole thing. The power of the resurrection is part of the process by which Christ conquered both “death and hell”, “this awful monster” (v. 10); note this monster is singular, death and hell/sin are not treated as two separate entities (I also love how at this point the atonement is treated almost in mythic terms, as a battle that Christ waged against some beast). Spiritual and physical redemption are part of the same process, and indeed if it weren’t for the latter the former could not take place: “our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell” (v. 8). This atonement here is a power, by which Christ conquered that monster and by which corruption can be replaced by incorruption. Yet another necessary dimension of the core fact of our religion.

One thing in this chapter linked to the above which is perhaps important to note is in that verse 8 and then what follows in verse 9:

And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.

It is common within the Church to speak of our “divine potential”. This is true, although sometimes people go a little too far and speak of our “divinity”, which is not (at least yet) true. We have the potential, as children of God, through the atonement of Christ, to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. But as Jacob points out here, we also have the potential to go to the opposite extreme, a diabolical potential in which we become devils. And as we learn from Section 76, there’s going to be at least some who don’t end up at either extreme, who become angels and so on. Potential is not the same as current reality. In a sense, we shouldn’t count our chickens before they are hatched; what potential we end up fulfilling will depend on the choices we make.

Another facet of this chapter I like, but which I only noticed this time through: Jacob peppers his sermon with statements praising different attributes of God as he speaks of different parts of the redemptive process.. Thus “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace!” in verse 8, then “O how great the goodness of our God” in verse 10. “Oh how great the plan of our God” he proclaims in verse 13, and then “O the greatness and justice of our God!” in verse 17. These continue (see verse 19-20), and serve to almost punctuate his address.

From about verse 27 there is a turn in the sermon:

But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!

From this point on, Jacob’s less on the process of the resurrection and the judgment, and more towards our need to repent, and not be one “that wasteth the days of his probation”. Which is a question to always consider: we all fall short and doubtless transgress (I know I do), and it makes one consider the various ways one might have wasted or be wasting the day’s our own probation. Jacob then speaks of particular sins and tendencies, and I was struck particularly by verses 28-30:

O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.

But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.

One thing that struck me was the different way these potential perils (of being rich and of being learned but thinking oneself wise) strike as described here. Both risk pride, though for riches it’s described as being mostly against other people (“they despise the poor” and “persecute the meek”) while for knowledge it’s against God (“they hearken not to the counsel of God”). But riches also seem to affect one’s heart and desires (“their hearts are upon their treasures”), one’s aims, while the risk of being puffed up with knowledge as described here seems to be that it doesn’t so much change your desires, as affect your opinion on how to get there (i.e. that one can “set [God’s counsel] aside, supposing they know go themselves”).

Personally I’ve never been in a position to be regarded as rich (though I’d like to think I’m ready for that trial!), but I have been accused of knowing things, which made me consider various ways that I might be neglecting the counsel of God. I guess the trick is that any degree of learning must also be coupled with humility, to realise that knowledge not only isn’t wisdom, but even with much knowledge there is still no certainty that one knows the right way forward for any given course, and of course that there is the absolute certainty that no matter how much learning we acquire, God knows better.

If men are faithful…

If men are faithful, the time will come when they will possess the power and knowledge to obtain, organize, bring into existence and own. “What, of themselves, independent of their creator?” No. But they and their creator will always be one, they will always be of one heart and one mind, working and operating together; for whatsoever the Father doeth so doeth the Son, and so they continue throughout all their operations to all eternity.

– Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:304

The real posthumanism

So I’ve recently been thinking about posthumanism, and particularly transhumanism – that is the idea that the human condition can be surpassed, and particularly avoided by technological means. In transhumanism this usually runs along lines of predicting a technological singularity, involving the creation of advanced AIs who will then lead to a cascade of technologies that, among other things, abolish death. It’s pretty clear to me that this is, in a sense, religion for atheist technophiles, the aptly named “rapture of the nerds”, complete with messiah and forthcoming new age that will bring life for believers. The existence of a so-called “Mormon transhumanist society” doesn’t really falsify that, since it turns out that tends to go along with rejecting essential LDS ideas about the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ (as opposed to technology) bringing resurrection to all mankind, let alone ideas about God.

Now there’s lots that could be discussed about these ideas. On one level, they could be potentially scary – people wanting to create super-intelligent AIs and turn themselves into machines does sound a little like something out of a technological dystopia, particularly with the somewhat naive hope that said new AIs would rain gifts rather than nuclear weapons down upon humanity (has Terminator taught us nothing? More to the point, wouldn’t Terminator give the AI ideas?) That is, it would be scary if I considered it all that possible at all. I don’t – progress is not inevitable, technological progress is not inevitably exponential (indeed in lots of fields it has slowed down), I severely doubt strong AIs are possible, and I don’t believe uploading someone’s memories, even if possible, entails immortality (if possible at all, it’d just be creating a AI with a copy of your memories, particularly evident if you leave the original alive…)

That said, I can understand some positive reasons as to why the idea would be attractive. The human condition comes with a lot of frailties. Death seems to be the one mentioned most in transhumanist circles, but there’s also sickness generally. I can definitely understand that one – I’m not dying, but I’ve certainly felt pretty grotty the last few days, and sure wish I could surpass that limitation. Then there’s the various weaknesses we have, the limitations on our abilities, on our minds and our bodies. When put in those terms, the desire to exceed the limits imposed by our present existence can be understandable.

Yet, as I have realised the last couple of weeks, it is the restored gospel that has this, and indeed the only real way to do this. We understand from revelation that we lived prior to our earthly existence, prior to assuming our earthly, mortal existence (D&C 93:29, Moses 3:5, Abraham 3:22-26). Our life as a human being is to help prepare us for eternity (Alma 34:33). Our personalities will in some fashion persist (Alma 34:34), as will our social relations (D&C 130:2). But much of what is the human condition is temporary. Rather, if we are faithful we can progress, receive all that the Father has (D&C 84:38), “receive of his fulness” (D&C 93:19) and become “gods”, “from everlasting to everlasting”, and having “all power” (D&C 132:20).

Our mortal existence then is somewhat like that of a caterpillar – limited, but a stage of existence through which we have to progress, and which through the gospel we may transcend completely. This is the only real hope for a genuine transcending of the human condition. In comparison, transhumanism offers to augment the caterpillar. It has no real power to turn the caterpillar into a butterfly.