Alma 33

While part of the same sermon as Alma 32 and 34, Alma 33 often seems quite neglected in comparison. And while Alma 32 and 34 do have quite a few amazing things in them, this perhaps shouldn’t be the case, for if Alma 32 is where Alma encourages his audience to try an experiment by believing the word, and the process by which faith in that word can be built up, it’s in Alma 33 that he describes the content of that word. Thus this chapter probably deserves more attention than it gets, including the brief attention devoted to it in this post. Possible areas of attention include: Zenos’ and Zenock’s words (or indeed, their very existence, and Alma referring to their writings plainly as “scripture”); the way the Zenos quote addresses both questions held by Alma’s audience (namely – by mentioning all the places he prayed – where they can worship, and by reference to the Son, who they should trust in); and the type of the serpent staff in the wilderness, and how we might look upon Christ.

One thing stood out while reading it today, however, which was how Alma himself seems to condense the “word” he wishes the Zoramites to plant into one verse, which does indeed seem to condense the core of the Gospel into one sentence:

If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.

(Alma 33:22)

This is the word that Alma desires they should “plant” in their hearts, and then nourish by their faith (v. 23), and presumably one we should too, and which will likewise lead us to eternal life. That we too should “cast about” our eyes, and begin to believe on the Son of God, that he came (and will come again) to redeem his people, that he has suffered and died to atone for our sins, and he rose again from the dead, which will bring to pass our resurrection, so that all of us will stand before him, to be judged. This is the very core, that Christ came down to Earth, that he is our redeemer from sin and from death, and that he is our judge and we are accountable to him. If we truly believe these things, I believe Alma to be saying, and exercise our faith in them, that is the message that will transform our lives, and indeed shape our eternal destiny. As I think upon this verse, it seems strange that such a powerful message can be condensed into such few words, and yet thinking upon it, it seems so obvious that nearly all our errors stem from forgetting one of these simple elements.

 

Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.

 


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.

 

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.