Hell Part 1: Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers.

My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent BCC post on Nehor and Universalism. It was that best kind of post: one that made me think for several days about the mentioned passages.

To start with let me state my view of the Book of Mormon text. I tend to see it as a compositional text. That is I believe there was a real text that Joseph translated but that the translation was (to use an analogy of Umberto Eco’s) more an encyclopedic translation rather than a dictionary translation.

To understand the difference consider reading the Bible with a version of the KJV text that includes Strong Numbers. If you’ve never done this it’s a very useful if simultaneously misleading way of reading. Each number represents a word in the text which you can lookup in their concordance to the original Greek or Hebrew. The concordance then gives a dictionary explanation of the word along with the range of meanings it has. Since the KJV often is fairly literal in how it does the translation this often will give greater insight to the words in a verse. It’s misleading for the same reason that using a dictionary to understand sentences is misleading. It gives a first order translation but doesn’t tell you which of the range of meanings of a word apply in that sentence. Further, it typically gives you little indication about of collections of words that have a particular sense or connotation. Think of the phrase “pulling my leg.” Merely translating the words doesn’t tell you all the social practices and their import in our culture. To translate this larger unit of meaning requires longer explanations not just of the typical meaning of the phrase, it’s various connotations but also where and when it’s appropriate in the source language and context. When you have to explain more and more you end up with an encyclopedia type translation.

I’m convinced that with the Book of Mormon there’s a lot of this encyclopedia aspect. Relationships to our Biblical text are often given with slightly modified quotations from the King James Version Bible. Sometimes translations are from later works (such as Paul’s epistles). Far from thinking this as an accidental feature of translation I think it an important part of this encyclopedia type translation. Not only are these references important but so too are the differences from the quoted or alluded to texts. Finally, since I think the text is about objects, the translation can give us more information about those objects rather than just a dictionary word signifying that object. Blake Ostler has speculated that Joseph received expansions to the text telling us more about aspects of the text. Some have suggested the opening of Alma 11 regarding Nephite weights and measures is an example of such an expansion. I confess I’m more skeptical there.

Overall I think Blake pointed us in the right direction. This means how we read the translation has to keep in mind these features of how the text signifies different aspects of the text. That is the translation is doing much more than simply rendering a one to one relation of the surface representation of the original written marks. Again, it’s a kind of encyclopedic set of significations rather than being closer to a dictionary. (Even a dictionary at a phrase level as one might call more interpretive translations of the Bible)

I’ll have upcoming posts with more on this topic. For now I just want to explain that my close reading is focused on the objects the chapters are about and not just the surface text in a more limited fashion. I want to pay attention to all aspects of the text as signifying various aspects of these objects. That means paying close attention to possible connotations and looking and various potential contexts in which to read the text.

So let’s get started on the topic of hell.

Let me begin in what may seem a very backwards fashion compared to what we might call the “fairly traditional ways” of conceiving of hell. I think we make a lot of assumptions regarding the received view we either follow or oppose. I want to begin by tracing through a certain genealogy of those assumptions we bring to the text. I’ll be largely following Powys’ ‘Hell: A Hard Look at the Hard Question‘ along with various other resources like the Anchor Bible Dictionary. The SEP also has a surprisingly good entry on hell.

There are probably three main traditional views of hell. These in turn can be represented by three key figures in early traditional Christian history. I bring these figures up because I think they function well as three foils for the Book of Mormon. That is even if they are never mentioned, they are constantly lurking in the margins of the text. To understand the text we in turn have to grapple with these margins even as we grapple with the text itself.

First is the Christian Father Irenaeus. Unlike even some of his contemporaries he couldn’t really conceive of a soul separate from the body. While he thought there was a resurrection, to him it just made no sense to talk of the soul without talking about the body. In certain key ways he’s like Mormons in that. Although as we’ll see he differs in important ways too. Judgment to him meant that the righteous were restored with a bodily resurrection but the wicked were absolutely destroyed. This would all occur when Christ returns. He fundamentally didn’t believe that humans were immortal in any basic sense. Rather immortality was a gift of Christ. The metaphor of “everlasting fire” was literally that of destruction.

Gregory of Nyssa was, like many theologians of that era, a neoplatonist. Despite that basic stance he was quite eclectic and somewhat cautious in reading theology through a platonic lens. To him Christ’s resurrection restores the sensible and intelligible aspects of a person into a permanent union. Again like Iranaeus this resurrection is in the future and comes by exercising faith with necessary ordinances like baptism that remove sin through grace. Not everyone will take advantage of this purification but may be good enough to be judged worthy of heaven. They have a secondary route through torment to purify them so they can return to God. The second death at judgment (in the future) is not punitive or retributive but remedial. It involves great suffering but eventually the suffering transforms people by removing their sins. This means that the suffering is not temporally endless. Rather people are being forced to give up what is ungodly. (Remember that he conceives of all these attributes fairly platonically as something they participate in rather than a behavior or desire they have in modern terms) The idea is that of a purgatory,

…according to the quantity of material will be the longer or shorter time that the agonizing flame will be burning; that is, as long as there is fuel to burn it. (Powys, 5 quoting (53))

Eventually for Gregory though all will be purified and return to God.

Finally we have Augustine. His view of hell is unending physical torment that is retributive in nature. That is it’s a punishment for what people do and not a purification of what they are. He sees the first death as due to the fall and the second death as due to the fall plus continuing in sin. The first death is the separating of spirit and body and the second death is putting them back together so they can have unending torment. Unlike the prior two figures, for Augustine this all happens immediately. At death we are either rescued by Christ in the resurrection and rebirth and sent to the City of God or else we’re condemned to hell for all Eternity. (This persists in popular culture where people go meet the devil at death — often portrayed in a very Dante like fashion)

Given Augustine’s position in determining the trajectory of what was orthodox Christianity, it is probably of no surprise that his view became the accepted view. Anselm and Aquinas helped solidify this in place with their writings on punishment and judgment. While Aquinas’ view was technically subtly different, most read Aquinas as promoting an unending physical and immediate punishment that was essentially retributive in nature. The emphasis is on immediate rewards and punishments. It is true that within the Catholic tradition there remained an echo of Gregory’s transformative fire. Purgatory becomes a place where those judged at death worthy of the City of God yet not yet purified can be purified. It is temporary and transformative but fundamentally different from judgment. It’s what Mormons might call sanctifying so that they can return to be with God. Protestants typically rejected the theology of purgatory.

It’s worth defining a few terms here. Universalism, which many see the Book of Mormon as opposing, is the view that all will eventually be saved. Effectively it is Gregory’s view that tends to be accepted by those adopting various forms of Universalism even if they might differ from him in some details. At the time of Joseph Smith Unitarianism tended to attract many people troubled by the traditional Augustinian view. During the modern era (roughly after Descartes and the rise of Protestantism) many reformers looked critically at how law and punishment worked. Seeing numerous problems with what had developed in the medieval system they advocated many reforms. (Much of our criminal system is a result of those reforms) Penal reformers could hardly see the problems with government punishment without noting the same problems occurred in discussions of hell. Protestants were particularly susceptible as they did not have an intermediary system of Purgatory like the Catholics. Judgement was immediate and cruel. Further, it had the biggest problem of all in that it seemed pointless. Nothing was accomplished by punishment if it came too late to effect change.

It is into this debate over judgment and hell that Joseph Smith found himself. Now I don’t want to say, as some critics do, that the Book of Mormon should only be read in terms of its 19th century audience. That goes far too far and misses a lot of the nuance of the texts we’ll read. However it seems reasonable to note that the shape the translation took looked at the concerns of early readers of the Book of Mormon. This makes sense if the goal of the Book of Mormon was to restore truths that had been lost. I won’t go so far as to say lost due to the influence of Augustine, although certainly his theology changed Christianity in many essential ways.

When we say though that passages like 2 Nephi 28:7 refer or at least apply to Universalism we do have to be clear what we mean by that. I mentioned Gregory of Nyssa but Universalism at the time of Joseph Smith was fairly diverse. The main figure of New England Universalism was John Murray. Murray started out in England as a critic of Universalism. After setting out to disprove it he found he had come to believe it. In America he became a popular preacher and was even a chaplain in the Continental Army. Universalism due to figures like Murray became quite popular in the United States by Joseph’s time. It appears that Joseph Smith Sr. in some degree accepted the views. (See Casey Griffith’s “Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith” for more details of the history)

The form of Universalism in America was concerned not just with the punitive theology of endless punishment. They also were deeply concerned with the manipulative way hell was used in discourse. Further they didn’t just see this as a reform of Augustine but a restoration of what was original Christianity. Universalists often said that universalism was the main view in Christianity prior to the 6th century. Opposed to this received view of God as an angry God of punishment was the view of God as loving and caring of the development of his children. The difficulty for Universalists was always explaining how there could be accountability if everyone was saved the way Gregory of Nyssa thought. Was the atonement just a shortcut? Were there no consequences to our actions? In response Universalists typically appealed to Romans 5:18-19 where the atonement was for all.

Again into this it is important to recall just what the received view was. It was that judgment at death was immediate, punitive, physical and temporarlly unending. Further the doctrine was seen as important as a motivation for people to do good works. That is it was fear of punishment that was seen as the value. Even people with doubts about Augustine’s view often thought it was good for the masses to keep them motivated.

Next time I’ll start addressing some specific texts in the Book of Mormon and the more direct contexts for the texts. I just think it’s important to be clear what the Book of Mormon is opposing. I think people are unclear what the main views were historically. The text definitely does engage with the controversies of the era. However it is far from simple in its reaction as some make it out. Further, I think elements of the text should be read not just in terms of the 19th century context in which it was read but also the 6th century BCE context it which it claims to have been written.

25 comments for “Hell Part 1: Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

  1. Terry H
    May 3, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    Clark, I like this idea. I’ve been missing these kind of posts here at T & S since the 1 Nephi posts from a few months back. I also liked the BCC post you referred to above. This post has got me looking at “Chapter II, Early Jewish Version of Hell” in “The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses” by Ricahrd Bauckham. SBL, 1998, Softcover, pp. 49-80. It reprinted a JTL article from 1990. Incidentally, the first chapter, was an entry in the ABD called “Descents To The Underworld”. I have always cared more about what the similarities of the writers of the Book of Mormon were than those receiving it. Tracking the beliefs from Early Judaism is more interesting to me (not that the 19th Century applications as you describe them aren’t important.) I’ll post later about what I come up with.

  2. Clark Goble
    May 3, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    I haven’t decided if I’ll discuss the ancient Jewish views in my next post or not. Part of the problem is that most of them post-date Nephi. For instance ge-hinnom while a pre-exilic reference to a valley outside of Jerusalem with burning that came to be a type of hell with eschatological motifs, most of that development was actually quite late. There’s ties to Josiah and his reforms but how or even if it forms a context for Nephi is a tad more difficult to pin down. Of course there are definitely literary forms like aspects from merkabah texts in the Book of Mormon. And dating tends to be done on the basis of a paucity of texts – mainly late ones. That often means the evidence is typically at best circumstantial. So it’s hard to know what was going on with Nephi. (I do think elements of the similar valley in 1 Enoch can be found in Nephi though)

    So when I do engage them, I’ll try and be careful with them.

    All that said though, I think the development of the ideas of hell, death, and judgment are pretty interesting in the Book of Mormon.

  3. Wally
    May 5, 2016 at 10:37 am


    Thanks for this. Very interesting perspective. I’ll look forward to future installments.

  4. James Olsen
    May 5, 2016 at 11:37 am

    I’m excited about this series, Clark. The project is quite different from, but in some aspects relates to my own Reading Nephi series.

    This post on its own is fascinating. The background figures/interpretations is very helpful. I’ll admit, though, it’s a heck of a cliff hanger. There’s no where to go yet without getting the focal point that the background foil facilitates!

  5. Clark Goble
    May 5, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Yeah, I just wanted to set up the background. While I’m going to be focused on close readings of texts, my concerns will admittedly be the theology and philosophy.

  6. May 5, 2016 at 9:53 pm


    Are not all our sources for the conception of Hell late? You cited three early Church Father’s view of hell, but why start with them unless you are specifically speaking of the Christian conception. Judaism does not have a conception of Hell, at least that has survived in the outstanding texts. Sheol is never really defined. This makes your forthcoming posts intriguing, as what we get in the BOM presents a series of challenges to consider. So I await your insights.

    In many cultures that believed in Reincarnation (an idea that was spread throughout ancient Greece and India) this earth life was essentially the place of punishment.

    Egyptian funerary texts certainly show a judgement in the next life, but those who fail are often annihilated out of existence. Not really our conception of Hell there.

    Of course there are plenty of systems that place some form of judgement and punishment in the afterlife. Plato speaks of it. Other Greeks and Romans do the same. So the idea of a judgement and punishment in the afterlife has existed for quite some time. It should be noted that Hell and the Underworld are very often two very separate things and should not be equated unless one has examined the context.

  7. Clark Goble
    May 5, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    Typically the NT concept of gehenna is tied to the earlier Jewish notions. As I mention it goes back to pre-exilic times but it’s use as a quasi-concept of hell develops after the exile for the most part. While it’s not quite the later Christian notion of hell, it does come to have a eschatological function. It’s possible (although speculative) that the Lehi’s mists of darkness may be an early version of this.

    The main pre-exilic source for gehenna is in Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6. However that’s tied to a tradition of the valley being cursed due to earlier human sacrifice of children in fire. It’s not really used eschatologically. Often the tradition is wrapped up with the impact of Josiah’s reforms. (Which we discussed back in those close readings of 1 Nephi were most likely traditions the early Levite’s opposed although that Laman/Lemuel may have been more sympathetic to) The early post-exilic sources don’t treat it eschatologically (2 Chronicles and Nehemiah) We get more eschatological presentations of a valley with judgement in Ezek 39:11 but again not really related to anything hellish.

    The earliest hellish or at least related use is 4 Ezra 2:29; 7:36. “Your sons will not see Gehenna” where there’s a judgment after a physical resurrection. But this is late and often dated at the earliest in the 1st century AD and typically after the Bark Kochba revolution around 135 AD. There’s a reference in 2 Baruch, but again that’s dated to the 1st century (typically after 70 AD and the destruction of the temple) The Ascension of Isaiah mentions it as well, again relative to a resurrection of sorts and destruction of the wicked “as if they had not been created.”

    Of course it’s used extensively in the gospels and these later texts may be reflecting traditions that go back to Jesus or at least the communities associated with Jesus. It’s often assumed that due to the human sacrifices in Gehenna that it becomes a metaphor for hell. The counter interpretation notes there were familial burial grounds there and apparently cremation. (Although the only documented cremation was done by Roman Legions)

    So these Gehenna traditions form the backdrop for the Fathers I quoted. I intentionally left Origen alone as he’s complex, although he’s quoted as the main support for Universalists at the time of Joseph Smith.

    Given the nature of the traditions and their vagueness I’ll leave them along.

    The other traditions regarding the place of the dead is a bit more interesting. I may refer to those when they fit the relevant passages being discussed.

  8. Clark Goble
    May 5, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    I should add the typical apologetic parallel for the mists of darkness in Lehi’s vision is the Narrative of Zosimus. Again though this is usually dated to the early Christian era. So I’m not convinced it’s as helpful as some although there are lots of interesting parallels to the Book of Mormon (including a people who leave Jerusalem to an ideal land at the time of Jeremiah). My own guess is that the Zosimus text is dependent upon 1 Enoch. Although I’ll admit I’m not versed on this terribly well. However there we have mists of darkness associated with the flood, but also in sealed storerooms with various disasters prepared for the earth.

    There’s also some interesting ties to mists in 4 Ezra where it appears to be a metaphor for death. “…the multitude…are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke.” Charlesworth ties that to the James 4:14 “for you are a mist that appears for a little time and vanishes.” i.e. fleeting.

  9. Clark Goble
    May 5, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Oh, regarding other cultural views, yes, these ideas were far more developed in other cultures prior to Judaism. That’s why a lot of scholars think they get the ideas from the exile from Persian and Babylonian influence. The question if we’re talking about the Book of Mormon though is what context matters? If there’s not as much of one in pre-exilic Judaism where even the notion of immortality is contentious let along a bodily resurrection what do we do? I’d say it’s solid odds that there were traditions Nephi was exposed to with the ideas. But how do we know what they are?

    I raise the other issue more as a question of what the text might be emphasizing in the 19th century translation. That is that “encyclopedic” aspect of the translation.

  10. May 6, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I go over this a lot in my dissertation, but basically the transition from rejecting universalism in the Book of Mormon to embracing it in DC 19 fits well with how universalism had been presented for thousands of years. Origen said it was a higher doctrine that the masses shouldn’t know about or they’d be totally wicked. (DP Walker, The Decline of Hell, 5, 19). When universalists did tip their hand, they tended to really emphasize that the post-mortal suffering would be severe even if it ended eventually. Jane Lead (the first early modern person to declare universalism openly) said, “This Word of Caution and Counsel, That none presume to turn This Grace of GOD into a vitious and careless way of Living, For Anguish and Terrour, of Soul, and Suffering, will be upon them here, and hereafter.” (Enochain Walks with God, [iii-iv].

    Anyway I go over all this in chapter 3 of my dissertation.

  11. Clark Goble
    May 6, 2016 at 9:43 am

    As I said I think Origen is complex, although he appealed to a lot in the 19th century by Universalists. I’m not sure Joseph really ends up in the universalist camp. Although the echoes of Gregory of Nyssa in D&C 19 are pretty obvious. (One reason why I decided to include him in the above as a way to get into these discussions)

  12. May 6, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Near universalism draws heavily on universalism. There were a lot of varieties but you can find very similar language in those varieties. It’s quite similar to how Origen was described in contemporary sources.

  13. Clark Goble
    May 6, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Well yes and no. I think the Mormon solution is fairly unique despite older examples (that apologists often bring up) Quinn obviously sees parallels with the Mormon solution to neoplatonism but I don’t think he deals well with the neoplatonism. Whether or to what degree D&C 19 is directly influenced by phrasing of universalists I just don’t know. (Do you address that in your chapter?) If there is some I suspect Ballou would be the influence. While my knowledge of the universalists isn’t deep (I’m more interested philosophically) I seem to recall Ballou wrote one of the earlier treatments of Origen as a source for universalism and a defense of universalism as early authentic Christianity. He was so prominent at the time of Joseph I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some influence.

    Again though Origen is more complex I think than the Universalists necessarily treated him. Perhaps given how quoted he was at Joseph’s time I should include him in the discussion after all when appropriate. (Please chime in if you think I’ve missed something) The main reason for limiting it to Gregory, Iraneus and Augustine was they just make for a nice table on key features that I think apply to Joseph’s revelations. They also are really nice as a foil regarding assumptions people often make about the universalist context of the Book of Mormon.

  14. Clark Goble
    May 6, 2016 at 11:11 am

    I should add that the reason I didn’t include Ballou in the above was that his main relevant work, Ancient History of Universalism, isn’t published until 1829. As such it’s really too late for the Book of Mormon. I don’t know when it was widely available so perhaps it was read by Joseph or his main peers by the summer of 1829 and thus was a context for D&C 19. In any case I figured it’d be a bit misleading to bring up.

  15. Clark Goble
    May 6, 2016 at 11:20 am

    BTW – the passage most relevant to D&C 19 in Ballou is on page 232-3. This is Ballou summarizing Origen’s beliefs.

    1. That all things had, from eternity, a real existence in the mind of Deity. 2. That angels, human souls, and demons were of one uniform, equal substance, and originally of the same rank; and that their present diversity is the consequence of their former deserts. 3. That this world was made for the punishment and purification of the souls which had sinned in the pre-existent state. 4. That the flames of future torment are not material fire, but only the remorse of conscience. 5. That they are not endless; for, although they are called everlasting, yet that word, in the original Greek, does not, according to its etymology and its frequent use, signify endless, but answers only to the duration of an age; so that every sinner, after the purification of his conscience, shall return into the unity of the body of Christ. 6. That the devil himself will, at length, be saved, when all his wickedness shall have been subdued. 7. That Christ had employed, before his advent on earth, in preaching to hte angels and exalted powers. 8. That the sun, moon and stars are to be reckoned among those intelligent rational creatures who, accord to St. Paul, were made subject to vanity and likewise to hope.

  16. Steve Fleming
    May 6, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Knowledge of Origen stuck around through the Middle Ages: his allegorical reading of scripture became the preferred method. He was controversial because of his universalism (and other reasons) and a popular university debating topic was “is Origen in hell?” He got revived by the Renaissance Platonists, and by the sixteenth century certain groups like the Socinians were accused of teaching universalism (considered a major heresy to both Catholics and Protestants).

    The Cambridge Platonists really liked Origen and started to write about universalism anonymously, the most important of which was A Letter of Resolution Concerning Origen and the Chief of His Opinions (1661), which embraced universalism. The first work that embraced universalism non anonymously was Jane Lead’s Enochian Walks with God (1694) which also happens to be chuck full of Mormon-sounding stuff. “The Restoration of all things” was a popular universalist phrase based on Acts 3:26; Jeremiah White wrote a universalists book by that name in 1712.

    So lots of talk about Origen, and lots of influence by him. Charles Buck’s Theological Dictionary entry under Origen said, “That, after long periods of time, the damned shall be released from their torments.”

    I argue in my diss that Smith was very interested in Origen and seemed to be looking up lots of information on him. I’ll talk a little about that in my MHA paper.

  17. Steve Fleming
    May 6, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    And great Ballou quote.

  18. Clark Goble
    May 6, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Yes, you can see where some of those elements are very platonic, such as the idea of pre-existence in the mind of God.

    What time frame did you find Joseph looking at Origen?

    The influence of Origen and other non-orthodox (often Platonic) ideas was pretty interesting. In the pre-Renaissance the enemy was typically Aristotle with varying attempts at bringing just parts in (such as with Aquinas who was seen as more orthodox than others of his time). Then interestingly with the rise of the Renaissance you switch the opposite way. Aristotle and the Scholastics become the enemy (at least in the big less orthodox thinkers usually focused on in the era by philosophers). Suddenly platonism becomes the foil for Catholicism and to a certain extent Protestantism. Then you get a shift again in the 19th century. Platonism still remainds a bit, but the main drives are empiricist idealism, Kantian idealism and then Hegelian idealism. Of course the Scottish realists are in there too – and they influence Mormonism via Orson Pratt who starts from a more platonic position and moves largely to be a Priestly atomist with a weird more stoic take on his earlier beliefs.

    The back and forth often fascinates me.

    The bit about the Restorationists is interesting. There’s an article on them that’s worth contextualizing for Mormons.

  19. Steve Fleming
    May 6, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    My guess that he looked up Origen is based on similarities in certain revelations: DC 19, 88 (the school of the prophets has some interesting stuff) and 93. Alma 13 also has some interesting language. Sources would be Buck, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History.

  20. Steve Fleming
    May 6, 2016 at 1:45 pm
  21. May 6, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    You know the early Church Fathers better than I. Judaic references to a kind of hell are late, as you point out. Quite remarkably the first clear reference to an afterlife in the Old Testament comes in Daniel, which is also a rather late text comparatively.

    At the same time Nephi’s theology is not orthodox Judaism. Nephi and Lehi represent a very different view, and one can only speculate on what kind of sub-culture they belonged to. (They were the Essenes before the Essenes sort of thing.) Further, what kind of influence did Joseph Smith have in translation, or in other words, is the theology of Nephi also heavily influenced by the cultural prejudices of Joseph Smith during translation? There are lots of issues in play.

    Lehi’s Dream, in my view, is much closer to pagan eschatology. When you compare it to features found in Egyptian funerary texts or the Orphic gold tablets you find far greater parallels than in reading anything in the Old Testament or in early Christian writings. To take as an example, in Orphic eschatology, (1) the deceased descends to the underworld which is a place of darkness. (2) The deceased sometimes needs a guide. (3) The deceased often passes through all the elements (fire, water, and air). (4) The deceased is on a great path that splits in two, one which leads to a fount of memory and the other to a fount of forgetfulness. (5) The founts are often next to a great tree. (6) Those who know the proper knowledge and drink from the correct fount travel the sacred road to immortality.

    Meanwhile, (1) Nephi finds himself in great mists of darkness. (2) Nephi has an angel who is his guide through the vision. (3) Nephi does pass through the elements, if we consider the great and filthy river the element of water, the fire that ascends from it the element of fire, and the mists themselves as the element of air. The parallels are sufficient for the comparison. (4) The straight and narrow path leads to a great tree. There is another path that leads to a great and spacious building. (5) The great tree itself is actually equated with the fount of living waters. (6) The rod of iron fills in for those who have the proper knowledge, and those who hold to the rod are promised immortality.

    There is no Hell in Nephi’s vision, in the Christian sense. There are souls who are lost on a myriad of dark paths. There are souls who are drowning in the filthy river. But the spotlight is actually on the souls who dwell in the great and spacious building, which is a palace. People appear to be having a great time. And while it’s all a fraud, it certainly is not an image of eternal hellfire. In other words, there are several alternative states for the ones who do not partake of the tree. Virgil’s Tartarus and Dante’s Inferno are similar, and it should be noted that the Christian Hell is a late conflation of an earlier and highly developed cosmography where the souls of the dead often faced two or three roads which led to different states of being generally called Heaven (the Blessed Isles, Aperion, Realm of Fixed Stars, Tower of Cronos, etc.) and the Underworld which contained a realm of punishment like Tartarus, but in point of fact all souls had to journey to the underworld in order to find their way to the Upper world. The Hesperides held the secrets of immortality and were located in the underworld. Jason and Heracles descend upon the Eridanus into the underworld to find the same secrets. The Egyptian dead do likewise. Utnapishtim, who hold the secrets of immortality, dwells in the underworld.

    It is quite a nice parallel to Nephi’s vision, which never shows a heaven, but only a great tree at the end of a path through darkness. I could go on, but these few comparisons show us (well at least me) that Nephi’s vision belongs to a different kind of cosmovision than that which developed throughout Christianity. Interestingly, Mormon eschatology is closer to the pagan cosmovision than to orthodox Judaism or Christianity (three kingdoms, guides, special cultic knowledge, etc.) Still, Mormons generally treat Heaven and Hell like orthodox Christians.

    Personally, I hope there is a Hell, so at least my mother in law has some place to stay …. “)

  22. James Olsen
    May 8, 2016 at 6:32 am

    In response to JL 4.4: Very interesting parallels. That said, I don’t see anything in either Lehi or Nephi’s accounts that make me think the vision of the Tree pertains to an afterlife — it seems to be a vision of the present. How does this square with the pagan accounts you mentioned?

  23. May 8, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    James 4.5

    Great question. Actually ancient cosmology was not just about the afterlife. The template of the celestial journey was used not just for the afterlife, but especially for the present life. The only surviving fragment of the writings of Parmenides (founder of the school of Elea) is a poem called “On Nature” where he describes his ascent into the astral world to find the realm of pure forms. This journey gave him the authority to teach. The School of Pythagoras shares in this same mise-en-scene. Plato uses cosmic archetypes to describe the ideal city. Cicero does the same.

    More important, the oracle center at Baia, in Cuma Italy, was built as a scale model of the underworld. The oracle center at the Trophonian was the same. Mystery initiations took place at both. Which means that the oracles for the living shared the same cosmography as the eschatology for the dead. The cave at Charonium, Greece, which was a healing center or hospital, was said to have direct access to the underworld. Mystery initiations also took place there. The ancient Greek theater shares the same imagery. In other words, the cosmography told by the Orphics and used for the journey of the dead held very similar themes and tropes to the cosmography used for all the civic processes of the living, including the early Greek schools, the oracle centers, the healing centers, and even the theater.

    There are differences between these models, of course, but they all align along a backbone of a cosmology where the eternal world held all the real forms and ideals from which the material world was to draw. This cosmovision underwrites astrology, which was practiced throughout the ancient world for thousands of years.

    In fact, I would assert, that any founder of a city-state had to make a symbolic journey through the sky to bring down the appropriate cosmic powers from the heavens. This was his source of his authority to lead. Please note that this is exactly what Gilgamesh does. He founds the city of Uruk, but only after taking a celestial journey through the underworld. In fact, after his celestial escapade, he brings Ur-Shanabi, the underworld boatman, to his city to measure out all of its dimensions. Only the underworld boatman could do this. Which tells us that the city was predicated upon not only celestial measures, but also a radically different cosmology than we generally assign to ancient peoples. The Egyptian Pharoah re-enacted such a journey during the various Egyptian festivals, and the Chinese Emporer was said to be the divine steward who carried the Mandate of Heaven and who made the empire a model of the heavens’ itself.

    This deals with a previous discussion on Walter’s thread on Abraham. When Jacob founds the nation state of Israel what do we find? We find him at the ladder of heaven, having a vision of heaven, until he sees the very face of God. The imagery in the Old Testament is muted, but it highly suggests that the early Israelite nation was predicated on a very similar cosmography as we find with Gilgamesh or the Pharaoh. This should not surprise anyone, as in fact the ancient city-state could only be predicated upon the erection of a sacred center (the temple, or tree, tent, cave, or rock) which was a model of the cosmos and which imprinted eternal cosmic processes upon the civilization.

    So Nephi is a founder of an ancient state. He is building a new kingdom. His vision qualifies as the authority to make such a state, and aligns in similar themes and tropes with the celestial escapades of other kings and rulers in the ancient world.

    There are lots of differences. I am going over similarities. Nephi’s vision is actually very similar to that of Enoch (a late text, but drawing from a much earlier cosmology). Enoch sees all his progeny to the end of days. It should be noted that Jacob probably did the same, for the covenant Jacob makes upon the ladder of heaven deals with all the seed of Abraham (who are likened unto the stars, but in late and extra-canonical sources Abraham actually must make a journey through the stars to obtain the covenant–no surprise there.) Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life is intimately connected with his vision of his seed. Our chapter breaks interrupt the sequence, and we tend to divide the vision of the TOL from the prophecies of the future generations, but the two are the same vision. The TOL is an introduction to the cosmic template of the generations of the living.

    As far as I know, no LDS scholar has written on this. Too bad, because there is a gold mine hear of potential connections that have yet to be probed. In any case, Nephi’s vision, in an ancient context, provides a template for the organization of the community and provides his claim of kingship. Of course, Nephi does not want to be king, but his vision is the metaphysical crown upon which leadership was bestowed. In this strict sense, he is a Gilgamesh, or a Heracles. We don’t generally associate these figures together, but there is a common cosmology that unites them.

  24. May 8, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    Do you think that the Book or Mormon has one solid view on the subject? I realize that Mormon abridged most of it, but there are still lots of voices in the Book of Mormon, and they all may have understood Hell differently.

  25. Clark Goble
    May 9, 2016 at 10:37 am

    I’m not looking to portray a single view. I think there’s an evolution with views in the Book of Mormon over time.

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