Alma and Apocalypse

dapfhIn Understanding the Book of Mormon, Grant Hardy argues that an important part of the Book of Mormon’s meaning emerges from how it alludes to, comments on, or patterns itself after other stories, such as Joseph in Egypt, the Exodus, and the Fall. Another such story not discussed by Hardy but central to understanding the Book of Mormon is, I think, the end of the world.

By the late Middle Ages, the Christian end-time narrative had grown from diverse biblical seeds into an elaborate and cohesive drama that was something like a family sitcom in syndication: The cast of characters was firmly established and their roles and relationships were well known, even if the precise order of particular events was fluid or open to debate. If we take Johannes de Rupescissa’s Vademecum, composed in 1356, as our guidebook to the late medieval Last Days, we might identify the most important people and events as the following.

  • One or more Antichrists, either religious deceivers or political tyrants, supported by various false prophets.
  • The subjection of the righteous (or the clergy) to persecution of all kinds so that they are forced to flee into the wilderness.
  • Warfare and natural catastrophes, with cities laid waste by fire, storm, earthquake, and other disasters.
  • Invasion of Christian lands by Muslims or other non-Christians, sometimes explicitly identified as the unleashing of Gog and Magog from their captivity, as a scourge on faithless Christians.
  • A church in decay, with a priesthood given to indolence, luxury, and the usurpation of wealth coupled with failure to preach Christian doctrine or to live an exemplary life.
  • The preaching of two righteous prophets, literally or figuratively identified with Elias and Enoch and having the power to prevent rain and otherwise punish the wicked, and who cannot be harmed by their enemies (with the exception of the Antichrist, in some versions).
  • An angelic pope or bishop (usually selected from the two righteous preachers mentioned above) who initiates a reform of the church and the clergy to a life of apostolic poverty.
  • The conversion of non-Christians to the faith.
  • A last emperor who overcomes internal opposition, conquers external enemies, regains the Holy Land, and then abdicates (or who has always refused to wear a crown).
  • A time of peace, equality, and prosperity.
  • The Second Coming, Resurrection, and Last Judgment.

Without going into great detail, I think it’s clear that we can map all of these elements, in whole or in part, onto people in the Book of Mormon. For example:

  • The Antichrists Sherem and Korihor, not to mention deceitful figures like Amalickiah.
  • Persecution of believers, most dramatically in Ammonihah, but also in Alma’s flight into the wilderness from King Noah, and the later suffering of his people under Amulon.
  • Cities consumed by fire and earthquake and storm, or sunk beneath the sea, prior to Christ’s appearance in 3 Nephi 8.
  • The invasions and depredations of the Lamanites, which occur with divine consent in order to call the Nephites to remembrance.
  • Disorder in the church, as wealth leads believers into pride, or orders of wicked priests living lives of luxury at Noah’s court, or Zoramites focused on wealth.
  • The preaching of Alma and Amulek, who cannot be harmed by fire or bound in prison.
  • Alma as the great reformer of Nephite religious life.
  • Moroni as the great military leader who overcomes dissension within the Nephites and conquers all their enemies; the allusion to the end time narrative would give new relevance to Alma’s several chapters about warfare.
  • The conversion of many Lamanites in the historical narrative and eventually the conversion of all unbelievers at the time of Christ’s appearance.
  • Benjamin, perhaps, as the abdicating monarch.
  • The time of peace and prosperity finds a direct equivalent in 4 Nephi.
  • The Second Coming also has a direct equivalent in Christ’s appearance to the Nephites.

What stands out about the appearance of elements familiar from the End Time narrative in the Book of Mormon is that nearly all of them are from the book’s central section, from Mosiah to 4 Nephi, while very few are from the beginning or final sections: In the Book of Mormon, the End of Time becomes the middle of the story. For the message of the Book of Mormon, this is not accidental, I think. The message of the Apocalypse for most Christians is that the wicked oppress the righteous, but the righteous will overcome. The Book of Mormon varies this: The wicked oppressed the righteous, and the righteous were overthrown; but righteousness will be restored. By reading for the End in Alma, we get a better sense of how the Book of Mormon reenacts its own central message, as the coming forth of the history of wickedness conquering the righteous is itself intended to form a part of the restoration of righteousness.

9 comments for “Alma and Apocalypse

  1. October 27, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Very interesting, especially in light of the fact that the Book of Mormon is organized into one great chiasm, with Abinadi’s sermon at the focal point. Since that sermon is the catalyst for Alma’s conversion, it sheds light on your theory above.

    I think you could just as easily count the sons of Mosiah or Alma the Younger as abdicating monarchs.

  2. stephenchardy
    October 27, 2014 at 11:42 am

    I know this is a threadjack, but how is the entire BoM organized into one great chiasm. Such a thing would be interesting if it were true. Source please!

  3. robert
    October 27, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    I used to like this sort of religious speculation when I was a kid. I must have read mormon doctine on the apocalypse and the second coming over 100 times in my early teen years. However, does this stuff really matter? Shouldn’t we plan for the future but consentrate mostly on living life today? The future is uncertain other than death and at a certain point it is not useful to continue to speculate.

  4. richard caldwell
    October 27, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    In understanding what may be in the future, we study the past for clues, trends and prophecies….

  5. richard caldwell
    October 27, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Likewise, learning from the past helps in part, in how we conduct our lives now….hopefully. Besides this is the stuff of literature and history. If for nothing else, it can be illuminating.

  6. Mary Ann
    October 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Couldn’t the “End of Time” narrative you see be an aspect of Mormon’s abridgment, since it also starts with Mosiah? 1 Nephi through Omni are from the Small Plates, which were written almost a thousand years previous.

  7. October 27, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Fascinating, Jonathan; another great post here. I really value the way your contributions are enabling me to re-appreciate the Book of Mormon as a truly complicated scriptural production, with all sorts of literary and historical depths, above and beyond a simple “testament of Jesus Christ.” (Though, a quick question: is there evidence that some of the medieval tellings of the End Times story presented it in terms of a cycle, as in the classic Nephite cycle reading of the BoM? My understanding of the End Times narrative is very linear, though that may just reveal the limits of my reading.)

  8. October 27, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for the comments, and please feel free to continue the BofM-as-chiasm threadjack.

    Robert, opinions differ about the value of medieval apocalypticism today. What the future has in store for us continues to be a topic of concern for many people, though. And since we’re primarily worried here about how the Book of Mormon functions as a text, well, I guess your eternal salvation depends on it.

    Mary Ann, yes, that’s entirely possible (although we do have one Antichristian figure, Sherem, showing up in small-plate Jacob, and also the question of how Mormon/Ether/Moroni fit into the picture).

    Russell, for cyclic time, you have to look to the medieval astrologers. The End Time narrative is as you say mostly linear, so the cyclic nature of Nephite society doesn’t fit it terribly well. (That being said, the Vademecum is something of a disorganized mess, so that later redactors often tried to put all the events in some kind of logical order.)

  9. October 28, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    I think for this to make sense, we need to identify bases in Nephitic and brass plates writing for each of these elements. Or else assume that Nephi’s version of John’s Apocalypse, which he says he didn’t write down, was still passed on in some esoteric form.

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