Satan’s Plan Part 1

This week in Sunday School and Primary the lesson is on Abr 3 and Moses 4 with a focus on the plan of salvation. I wanted to go in a somewhat different direction than the lesson would go. You might call this my scribbling on the margins of the lesson.

First off I think it’s important to emphasize just how big a change these scriptures give our theology compared with traditional Christianity. There is some overlap, especially in terms of the Arminian theology that was contemporary with Joseph Smith. I suspect the very notion of “moral agency” arises out of figures like Jonathan Edwards and the Arminian response. Mormonism while having subtleties uniquely our own, largely comes down on the Arminian camp’s view of freedom and moral agency.[1] In the Arminian view moral agency means that each agent must have the power to regulate and originate their own will. In Mormon circles many contemporary theologians like Blake Ostler or David Paulsen have focused on this power of origination in understanding Mormon thought.[2]

What’s key to the Mormon conception of the plan of salvation is thus our ability to chose. Even more than with the Arminians, agency becomes the focus of our mortal existence. Whereas most Christianity sees humans largely as existing for God, Mormonism inverts this. God’s work is to build up pre-existing spirits as much as he is able. Agency is thus center stage to this goal for God. Many theologies limit God by an appeal to the place of free will. Mormonism is unique in making this not a choice God creates by creating free will. Rather free will is there independent of God in some sense.

This is the place where question of the nature of free will rears its ugly head. Is free will something inherent ontologically to agents? Is it a description of what agents do? This is something that surprisingly is not really determined in Mormon thought. We can see this in the place of Satan in the narrative of free will.

Some, such as Ezra Taft Benson, see the description of Satan’s plan in Abraham and Moses as a claim that Satan wanted to ensure that every person would be good. There are two ways to see this. One is the idea it is possible to actually eliminate free will. We’d be automatons always choosing the right and never even desiring evil. Freedom in some deep sense would be gone and all of us would be saved. The second way of viewing this assumes that even Satan couldn’t fully eliminate free will. However he could create a totalitarian world such that we’d always be forced to do what was right.[3] That is regardless of our will there would be external means to ensure we’d always pick the right choice.

The main opposing view found can be found in figures like J. Reuben Clark. They all assume Satan simply couldn’t compel people. Thus Satan’s plan consists not of forcing people to be good but removing the consequences for evil. In this view Satan’s plan becomes a type of universalism where everyone is saved regardless of what they do. There’s some evidence for concern about universalism in scriptures like 2 Nephi 28:8. There may be some mild punishment but everyone would be saved. Satan’s plan becomes an extreme form of this universalism.

Looking at the language of Moses 4 the fact Joseph used the term “agency of man” can’t be neglected. As I mentioned agency was a key phrase in the debates between Arminians and Calvinists at the time Joseph translated the Book of Mormon and was undertaking his revision of Genesis. While it’s possible that agency is an accidental term, it’s most likely it came to Joseph’s mind because of the context it had in that Arminian debate. The problem is that it is very hard to see in that Arminian context the idea that Satan was merely removing consequences from free choices. Moral agency is inherently human power to chose rather than having their will determined in any fashion. Actions can happen in a morally significant fashion only by the consent of the agent.

We thus have in the history of Mormon thought rather different ways of looking at Satan’s plan. Which should we pick?

We know that for the Book of Mormon mortality consisted of being balanced between good and evil. To be free isn’t merely to be the originator of ones choices. Rather to be free is to have two live choices. The preliminary redemption Christ gives us (see 2 Nephi 2:27-28) enables us to be able to make this choice.[4] Going by D&C 93:30-31 it seems like freedom is in some sense innate and defines existence.[5] As such one might think that Satan’s plan couldn’t be getting rid of agency. However I’d suggest a practical way where Satan’s plan could work.

We all know that how we think is heavily determined by our bodies and brain. I can’t choose to will myself to fly because my body’s not capable of it. But even beyond such obvious limits what I think about is highly influenced by my instincts and cognitive processing. There are types of brain injuries that can stop people from being able to do odd things like using nouns or verbs. There’s also fairly abundant literature on abnormal compulsions due to brains. All Satan would have to do in order to complete his plan was produce fallen bodies that didn’t have all the inclinations towards evil. That is, all he’d have to do is upset the balance between our attractions towards evil and good. He could make brains that more easily recognized and made the good appealing.

I should note that it is precisely here that many people have so many problems with theism. The traditional problem of evil is not just why there are any evils in the universe, but why freedom seems to allow so many freely chosen evils. It seems reasonable that God could create a world where brains wouldn’t develop leading people to be serial killers or rapists for instance. Now it is still controversial how much of our inclination towards violence and other evils is determined by our biology. However even if one thinks that only a part of such evils are chosen due to biology, it seems reasonable to assume that a biology is possible that would limit the desire of such evils.

Ultimately then, it seems to me that the real issue in Satan’s plan most likely isn’t totalitarian force, eliminating consequences or eliminating our low level freedom. Rather his plan was eliminating the balance between good and evil in our fallen state. Given what we know of the plan of salvation this makes sense. In contemporary theology the plan is usually seen as being a developmental necessity. We need to have a veil of forgetfulness and come to a world of evil where we can choose both good and evil. There simply were limits to our development in heaven where the good was always such an obvious choice. Effectively what Satan’s plan most likely does is to interrupt that balance. Perhaps to simply eliminate the probationary state.

Note this interpretation has an other helpful side effect. It explains why Satan’s plan was so attractive to so many in the council meeting. Even today people are not convinced by Mormon views on the plan of salvation. The problem of evil is a strong counterargument. If Satan’s plan really is just raising the problem of evil in heaven and arguing we don’t need this level of evil, then it makes sense why it was so attractive. People continue to be persuaded by the argument.

[1] Arminianism is named after the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius. The two big points of disagreement Arminius had with other theologians was over the form of grace and salvation and then the nature of free will. Grace enables people to resist sin but freedom enables people to resist grace. Often Arminians held to a view that Adam’s fall was already taken care of by grace such that we are not bound by it. This is somewhat similar to the idea in Mormonism that Christ took care of Adam’s sin and the effects of his fall for all so that we are responsible only for our own choices. There are many other points of parallel with Arminianism particularly in the Book of Mormon. The other major figures in the movement were Hugo Grotius and John Wesley. Some have particularly focused on Grotius’ writings as potentially an influence on Joseph Smith although there’s not direct evidence of influence I’m aware of. Arminianism was especially popular in the Methodist congregations Joseph was exposed to when young.

[2] Blake’s masterwork on this topic is Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God. Most of the book consists of his arguments for this position as well as drawing out its implications theologically. He’s also the past year been going through the positions and arguments of the book in a podcast with his son. I have some qualms with some of the arguments and am largely agnostic on the question of ontological free will. However the importance of Blake’s work can’t be dismissed.

[3] It’s easy to see how cold warrior Benson would be attracted to seeing Satan’s plan as a kind of communist totalitarianism. There are obvious problems with such a view of course.

[4] It is worth noting that by adopting a position where Christ overcomes the effects of the fall for all, the Book of Mormon takes a position akin to Arminianism. This prevenient grace comes before a choice and is without merit. It is the ability to chose to accept God’s salvation and further grace. It is worth noting that D&C 93:30-32 also ties agency to the ability to receive truth but also reject truth. While prevenient grace is typically associated with Arminianism it can also be found in earlier movements. The form given in D&C 93 actually bears more resemblance to to the Cambridge Platonists like their leader Benjamin Whichcote. The Cambridge Platonists saw this grace leading to accepting the very mind of of God in the mind of man. This in turn was seen as God deifying man.

[5] Saying freedom or agency is innate is not the same thing as saying what freedom consists of. So assuming agency is libertarian free will may be problematic.

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