A Lake of Fire and the Problem of Evil

I remember talking to an atheist on the riverfront walk in Dubuque, Iowa one day while serving my mission.  He told my companion and me that he couldn’t believe in God after some of the things he had seen, and went on to describe (in a fair amount of gruesome detail) visiting a Catholic church in South America in the aftermath of an attack by a militant group of some sort and seeing the mutilated bodies of the Christians laying scattered about.  If God existed, he reasoned, God would have not allowed such horrific act to take place.  I was taken aback and was uncertain how to respond to his expression of disbelief rooted in such deep trauma.  We talked with the man for a little while longer and moved on in with the day.  His comments got at one of the most difficult and complex philosophical issues of Christian religion—the theodicy, the question of why evil exists if God exists, is good, and is all-powerful.  That evening, I remember talking about the incident with my companion and thinking (somewhat naïvely): “I should have just opened up the Book of Mormon to Alma 14, where Alma and Amulek watch their converts burn and discuss why they can’t do anything about it.  That would have shown him how we have all the answers.”  Looking back, however, I’m grateful we didn’t turn to that section of the Book of Mormon during our brief encounter.

The story of the martyrs in Ammonihah is one of the most disturbing stories in the entire Book of Mormon.  Alma and Amulek preach in a stronghold of Alma’s political and religious enemies and tell the people of Ammonihah that they need to repent, with Alma even going on to threaten them with “a spiritual death” wherein “their torments shall be as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever” if they do not repent (Alma 12:17).  They have some success, and “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent,” but “the more part of them were desirous that they might destroy Alma and Amulek; for they were angry with Alma, because of the plainness of his words” (Alma 14:1-2).  When some of those who had begun to believe resisted the efforts of the majority group to imprison Alma and Amulek, the hostile majority “brought [the believer’s] wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire,” along with their scriptures.  Alma and Amulek are forced to watch the inferno and, as if to drive home the fact that it is Alma’s followers rather than his opponents suffering in a lake of fire at the moment, “the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?” (Alma 14:14).  Amulek, horrified at watching his neighbors, friends, and (most likely) his own family suffering death in such a horrific way, “was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene?  Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames” (Alma 14:10).

Alma’s response is, perhaps, less than ideal for such a situation.  “Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day” (Alma 14:11).  Why I say this is less than ideal and that I am grateful I didn’t respond to that man in Dubuque with this quote is that it doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of God.  At least on the surface, it seems to say that God wants to validate maximum punishment of the wicked by allowing them to inflict pain, suffering, and death upon the righteous.  It brings to mind the image painted by American Reverend Jonathan Edwards when he said that: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”[1]  All in all, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation for all involved, unless God is a vengeful deity who finds joy in saying “gotcha” to the wicked at the last day (and then still lose-lose for the humans involved).

There are, of course, alternative interpretations of the statement.  A second way of looking at it that I’ve heard is that God allowed the people of the city to burn their neighbors in order to clear out the righteous from Ammonihah so that when the city fell to the Lamanite army that was pursuing the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, only the wicked were destroyed.  Alma, however, seems more focused on judgement at “the last day” rather than a soon-to-come destruction for the wicked.  It also still paints a less than ideal picture of God as being somewhat ineffective, killing the righteous at an earlier point through one version of human brutality rather than through a later, different version of human brutality.  If removing the righteous from the scene was the goal, why not just save them through divine intervention as was the case with Alma’s father and his church community in the wilderness?  Further, as Grant Hardy has pointed out, “there is a third group not mentioned at all in Mormon’s summary. These are the people ‘around the borders of Noah’ who were also killed in the Lamanite military excursion. What exactly had happened to them? Why did they die, in contrast to their neighbors?”[2]  The death of others, an innocent group in the conflict between Alma and his adversaries, also undermines this interpretation of clearing out the righteous so only the wicked would suffer.

Perhaps, in the light of a Latter-day revelation, we see a third explanation.  In a revelation with commentary about the constitution of the United States of America, it is stated that God allowed the document and political system to be “established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:77-78).  In other words, God approves of freedom to allow humans the chance to determine their own course so they can be held more fully accountable for their actions at the time of judgement, for good or for ill.  Applying this to Alma’s words, perhaps Alma was stating that God allowed the people of Ammonihah the right to exercise their moral agency, even though they chose evil, and will hold them accountable for their sins in the day of judgment because they chose to perpetrate atrocities when given the choice.  As C. S. Lewis put it, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God: ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’  All that are in Hell, choose it.  Without self-choice there could be no Hell,”[3] leading to the paraphrase that Hell is the greatest monument to human freedom.

Moral agency and human freedom are key principles in Latter-day Saint doctrine, and they hold that position for good reason.  The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that: “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, … until you arrive at the station of a god, and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before.”[4]  This process of apotheosis requires a steep learning curve, including learning to stand on our own two feet, as it were, though making our own choices.  Hence, President David O. McKay taught that “free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress.  It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him.  In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.”[5]  In exercising that freedom, it is only by choosing good that we learn to appreciate that which is good, and it is only by choosing or seeing evil that we experience what evil is and understand why it should be rejected.  As President Brigham Young taught: “Darkness and sin were permitted to come on this earth. Man partook of the forbidden fruit in accordance with a plan devised from eternity, that mankind might be brought in contact with the principles and powers of darkness, that they might know the bitter and the sweet, the good and the evil, and be able to discern between light and darkness, to enable them to receive light continually.”[6]  Freedom of choice allows growth, even though it also allows evil.

Hence, in this third perspective on Alma’s explanation of why God did not interfere with the burning of the converts in Ammonihah, God did not or could not intervene because it would disrupt the system of moral agency and human freedom that He operates within.  I acknowledge that Alma does seem to be focused on vengeance and the wrath of God, and so the initial surface reading that I gave may reflect what he actually felt and meant.  Perhaps, if that’s the case, it reflects Alma’s trauma and anger from living through the experience more than it does his theology.  Regardless, I think the third explanation makes more sense within the framework of Latter-day Saint theology today and that there is some room to understand Alma’s words in this way.

This discussion can be broadened out to the idea of the theodicy in general (if in a very brief and very simplistic way).   Latter-day Saint theologian Sterling M. McMurrin wrote that: “The problem of theodicy in theism is how to reconcile the absolute power and absolute goodness of God with the facts of moral evil and the suffering caused by such natural events as floods, earthquakes, and disease. One of the angles of this triangle has to go.”[7] Of the three angles—God’s absolute power, God’s absolute goodness, and the existence of evil—this last explanation I’ve been discussing seems to rely on stepping away from believing in the absolute power (or at least absolute control) of God.  It is, perhaps, unclear in current Latter-day Saint beliefs whether God gives up absolute control willingly as part of a plan to help His children learn through exercising freedom or whether God (who may be a being who learned to be a god in an already existing universe, who used pre-existing matter within that universe to create the world we live in, and who is working with pre-existing entities or intelligences with wills that existed outside of Him and weren’t created according to His pleasure) is limited by laws that are a natural part of the universe He operates within.

Of the two options, McMurren felt that embracing the latter option made for a better explanation of the existence of evil.  As he explained:

In Mormon thought evil is seen as a positive factor in the natural world and in human experience, and the primary meaning of human existence is found in the struggle to overcome it.  It is a struggle in which the moral decision of men make a difference, and a very genuine difference, not only in their own destinies, but for the outcome of human history and of the world.  The demonic factors, whether moral or natural, are given elements of the world.  Moral evil, the evil that men do, is the inevitable consequence of genuine moral freedom.  Natural evil, the evil that the world does, results from the moral neutrality of the material universe.  God is not ultimately responsible for either that freedom or that neutrality.  They are among the elemental uncreated facts of existence.  But by entering creatively into human and natural history, God struggles endlessly to extend his dominion over the blind process of the material world and to cultivate the uses of freedom for the achievement of moral ends.[8]

Such an idea—that God is not an all-powerful Deity who created the universe ex nihilo to His own liking, but is working to reduce evil and chaos in the universe—may seem radical at first (given that we have many currents from mainstream Christian theology about God’s omnipotence in our common beliefs), yet it does follow the ramifications of the teachings of Latter-day Saint prophets like Joseph Smith (particularly in the King Follett Discourse).  It also does give more meaning to the choices and experiences of women and men in the world—that we can have a real impact in reducing the amount of evil and chaos in the universe as we labor alongside God.  Looking back, I wish I could have discussed this idea with the man in Dubuque who bore the trauma of seeing an example of humankind at its worst and to discuss why that was allowed to happen and how we can work with God to help engender humankind at its best.  It’s not anywhere near a complete resolution to the theodicy, but it’s at least a step towards understanding possibilities that make sense of the existence of both God and evil at work in the same world.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm.

[2] Hardy, Grant. Understanding the Book of Mormon (p. 116). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 506.

[4] Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 221-222, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-18?lang=eng.

[5] Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 206-207.

[6] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 39.

[7] Sterling M. McMurrin, “The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” in The Truth, the Way, the Life, an Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts, edited and annotated by Stan Larson (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xix.

[8] Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965),  96-97.  See also Blake Ostler and David Paulsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil” for a longer explanation than I have offered here.

20 comments for “A Lake of Fire and the Problem of Evil

  1. Wondering
    June 17, 2020 at 7:15 am

    Or perhaps Alma was simply wrong when he said “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand” and, blaming his inability to control others’ behavior on the Spirit and god, theorized a reason for it. Perhaps Alma did not in fact have the “power of God” to save people from the flames, as Amulek had supposed. Or perhaps by the time Mormon got around to abridging and editing, the record we have of the event and conversation includes his spin and not just Alma’s or Amulek’s.
    I have wondered why in our LDS culture we so often assume that the prophets’ words in canonized scripture accurately convey the absolute truth of the events and theology they espouse, when we are so willing to reject recorded words of BY about Cain, race and priesthood and about Adam-God, and the overstatements of other prophets of the restoration. If prophets of the restored church sometimes err in discerning the source or accuracy of revelation or in their theology, why not prophets of the BoM church?
    But, all that (and BRM’s insistence on God’s omnipotence and BRM’s authority aside), your post does a good job of outlining “step[s] towards understanding possibilities that make sense of the existence of both God and evil at work in the same world.” It’s just not the same omnipotent first cause, creator ex nihilo, posited by much of historical Christianity.

  2. Ardis
    June 17, 2020 at 8:38 am

    I can accept all the premises outlined here, and in all the commentaries I’ve obsessively searched for this:

    * It doesn’t matter, ultimately, how the righteous die because they will be received by God
    * Agency is meaningless if granted only for good acts; men must be permitted to act evilly, too, for agency to be real
    * Agency means not intervening with supernatural acts (although presumably Alma would have been okay with normal, mortal acts had there been, say, an army from Zarahemla available to rescue the victims)
    * Our actions as well as our intentions will be the basis for judgment of our lives

    All that’s fine. But there’s still one point in Alma’s sermonizing that I cannot reconcile and that distresses me whenever this incident is discussed: Alma isn’t giving only general principles here; he is speaking particularly of this incident — “this thing”; it’s the blood of these innocents that will cry out against the evil men of Ammonihah. He says, in more simplified sentence structure, that God is allowing this horrific incident so that he can justify destroying the perpetrators — for what? for perpetrating this horrific incident. “I’m letting you do this so I can destroy you for doing this” just doesn’t sit well with me. It’s more than Edwards’ dangling of sinners over hell like a spider over flame because we’re unworthy of anything else; it’s God deliberately setting us up to be unworthy of anything else.

    I don’t think that’s the case, but that’s what Alma seems to be saying, and no amount of philosophizing about agency in general addresses that aspect of this story. None of the commentaries I’ve consulted address this.

  3. Wondering
    June 17, 2020 at 9:07 am

    Thanks, Ardis. You have articulated better than I ever could the heart of the reason why I prefer thinking Alma’s theologizing in this instance was simply wrong. If the story is reduced to the events rather than Alma’s theologizing — the wicked burning the righteous while Alma and Amulek (are forced to) watch, then it is consistent with at least some Mormon philosophizing about agency in general. It is then a story of a particular instance of God’s not miraculously intervening without positing the horrible reason Alma theorizes as to why God did not intervene to prevent the innocents’ suffering.

  4. Sute
    June 17, 2020 at 9:16 am

    From church history we know that Joseph tried to organize an “army” to liberate the people who who were being oppressed and driven from their homes.

    Joseph was the Alma who didn’t heed that constraining of the spirit, but stretched forth his mortal hand with Zions camp to save the saints and failed.

    About this, God said the reason for his failure was:
    Behold, I say unto you, were it not for the transgressions of my people, speaking concerning the church and not individuals, they might have been redeemed even now.
    But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them;
    And my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer.

    Is it possible through this last sacrifice of their lives, the people being sacrificed truly learned something important about obedience?

    What does that imply for us, who listen to God more than many, but aren’t still living up to the level we should. The people of Ammonihah contributed to the situation that lead to their destruction prior to their repentance.

    We surely see the same thing in WW2 Germany. Many people recognized their wrongs too late and the destruction came upon them.

    The implication is God’s word is serious business to follow and it’s only sheer luck or just a matter of time before we bring destruction upon ourselves when we turn away from it.

    But reading carefully the statement above, what were the Saints not obedient in? The law of consecration – caring for the poor and the needy.

    You’ll recall earlier we read of the city, “Now, it was for the sole purpose to get gain, because they received their wages according to their employ, therefore, they did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ, that they might get money” and then Zeezrom essentially tried to bribe Amulek, so the people were pretty corrupted by wealth.

    Is it possible that individual failures to impart their substance to the poor led to their destruction? We know from the sheep and the goats parable how the Lord will burn, or allow to be burned, those who don’t care for the needy; even if they still confess his name.

    Which brings us back to the missionary moment here… Good Christians are allowed to suffer, at least in one instance from church history, because they didn’t use the resources in their lives to bless the lives of others.

    When you consider the point of Christ’s life and his mission, it’s clear what he expects of his disciples.

    It’s not a happy truth. But the blameless son of God allowed even himself to be the example as he took all the wickedness of the world on himself. So it’s not unreasonable that our own mortal failings at consecration would bring that same wickedness on ourselves.

  5. Chad Nielsen
    June 17, 2020 at 10:09 am

    Ardis and Wondering, thank you for articulating those things. I think it’s the same sense of unease that ultimately drove me to write this post, even if I wasn’t as clear as Ardis was on the point. I do think, as I mentioned briefly above, that Alma’s reasoning probably “reflects Alma’s trauma and anger from living through the experience” more than anything else, and is likely distorted by that fact as a result.

    Sute, there is a lesson in your words that is worth pondering on for us today. I worry, though, that in this case it might be blaming the victims. We don’t know much about the people who were burned in Ammonihah, and Zeezrom was not one of the ones who was martyred on that occasion. It also seems like it would be unfair for God to punish people who have only converted, as far as I can tell, within the last few days or even hours. That’s not a lot of time to judge them on whether they were going to fail on that account or not.

  6. Chad Nielsen
    June 17, 2020 at 10:21 am

    To Ardis’s point about commentaries discussing the incident, I am curious to see how (or if) Kylie Nielson Turley discusses this issue in her forthcoming contribution to the Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions series. In a recent podcast interview (https://mi.byu.edu/mip-bti-turley/), she does a good job of bringing out just how traumatized Alma was by the experience, so she might take that as a way to discuss the Alma quote we’ve been focusing on here. Not sure if she will, but I’m interested to see.

  7. June 17, 2020 at 11:31 am

    I am okay with the idea that God allows people to make bad choices – even if that means significantly harming others – so that they will accept the judgements of God on Judgement Day. Although I suspect it’ll be more of us judging ourselves. What bothers me is, shouldn’t everyone experience having to make that same choice then? I haven’t had the chance to throw women and children into a fiery pit, shouldn’t I? That way if I do, I can be judged accordingly, or if I don’t, be judged accordingly as well?
    We have quotes from the Brethren about how everyone is going to have their own personal Abrahamic Trial, it’s just that for most of us our trial isn’t going to be worthy of scripture. And I think that’s related to this discussion.
    So what I want isn’t an explanation on how God could allow bad things to happen, but “Is everyone getting sufficiently similar opportunity to exercise that amount of agency?” I get the feeling that most people don’t have the opportunity to make the choice to throw innocents into a fiery pit, so what gives?
    It’s possible that when we see everyones’ life for what they are, we’ll see an accumulation of choices equivalent to the choices that the people of Ammonihah had in front of them; but I don’t know how I will feel if we don’t.
    Are there choices which are unjust for God to dangle in front of us?
    I notice how in the beginning Amulek talks about his children and women of his household being a blessing to him. But then when Alma and Amulek make it to Sidon, it’s mentioned how Amulek has given up all of his riches, and how his kin have abandoned him, but there’s no mention of a wife or children. Is it possible that Amulek’s household/family were among those who were thrown into the fire?

  8. Taiwan Missionary
    June 17, 2020 at 1:32 pm

    I have enjoyed Chad Nielsen‘s post and the comments that followed. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of God working continually to reduce chaos and evil in the universe, and struggling endlessly to extend His dominion over the blind processes of the material world. That this non-omnipotent God is linked to the the King Follett Discourse and the concept of eternal progression, not just for us, but God as well. That He honors our agency, and the tragic consequences that can follow.

    Luke 13:1-5 indicates to me that Christ, the Savior of the world, is well aware that bad things happen to people, and not because the people were bad. But He adds that unless we repent we will perish.

    Face it, there are just sections of Scripture that are plain hard to take. In the OT, the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac, with divine intervention at the last minute; it was just a test. The story of the she-bear tearing to death the children who taunted Elisha for his baldness. In the B of M, Alma 14 and the martyrs of Ammonihah.

    In my own life, my interactions with God can be divided into three categories: (1) He answers my prayers; (2) He chooses not to answer my prayers; and (3) He gives me things, sometimes miraculously, that never occurred me to ask Him for. I have gradually learned to just trust Hin, putting aside the unsolved mysteries until a future day.

    Someday we will all get to ask God the Great Why. The Great Why is to me best summed up in by a Church movie produced several years ago (Testaments?), in which Emma points out to be Joseph that he uses God‘s power to heal people and save them from death, but could not save their children who died in infancy.

    In the meantime, Sterling McMurrin‘s approach makes the most sense to me.

    Thank you, again.

  9. Kevin Christensen
    June 17, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    One of the things I love about my LDS heritage is that it offers an escape from the problem that derives from thinking in Absolutes, but rather acknowledging and “opposition in all things.” Other Christian thinkers have come up with simular solution, but long after Joseph Smith did. Ian Barbour reports that:

    “Process thought provides distinctive analyses of the problems of freedom and evil. The ways in which freedom is built into process metaphysics from the outset have already been indicated. If the classical ideas of omnipotence and predestination are given up, God is exonerated of responsibility for natural evil. If no event is the product of God’s agency alone, he works with a world, given to him in every moment, which never fully embodies his will. The creatures, and above all man, are free to reject the higher vision. Suffer in is inevitable in a world of beings with conflicting goals. Pain is part of the price of consciousness and intensity of feeling. In an evolutionary world, struggle is integral to the realization of greater value. As Teilhard de Chardin maintained, evil is intrinsic to an evolving cosmos as it would not be to an instantaneous creation. Suffering and death are not punishments for sin but structural concomitants of what he called ‘the immense travail’ of a world in birth.”

    That is from Ian Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study of Science and Religion, the relevant chapter on a range of Christian Models of God, available online here:

    https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-8-the-christian-paradigm/

    I was first introduced to both Process Theology and the notion that Joseph Smith got there first in essays in Sunstone 7/1.

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issues/031-01.pdf

    And regarding the “lake of fire,” the one that Amulek and Alma preach is different than the one Jonathon Edwards preached and the people of Ammonihah made in several crucial ways. It is metaphorical (that important word “as” appears in both Alma 12:17 and Mosiah 3:27). And Alma has personal experience with the experience that generates the metaphor. Mosiah 27:28-29, and Alma 36 provide his accounts of repenting “nigh unto death” during which his consideration of his personal actions (“Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities”) were the source what he describes as “eternal torment”. And note that his “eternal torment” lasted for three days and for three nights. D&C 19 comes later, but just restates the same idea rather than introducingn a new concept. I had a comparison of that experience reports from Grof and Grof, Beyond Death, of the experience of Endless torment of finite duration in near death and other intense spiritual experiences, in an essay in JBMS 2/1. Many Near Death Experience accounts of the Life Review resonate with Alma’s reports. They report that a Being of Light (often Jesus or an Angel) show them how their actions affected other people, not just showing them what happened, but showing them how what they did and said in their lives made other people feel. This is a teaching experience. It’s also significant that the Fourth Step in Recovery taps into the same thing, involving a “Searching and Fearless Personal Inventory.” And when compared to the reasons why Laman and Lemuel give for not repenting, (that is, fear danger, resentment of Nephi, anger at having to give up society and riches what they left in Jerusalem for a difficult journey, etc,) that shows that it is the Life Review, a self-examination, being self critical, considering the beams in own’s own eye, rather than efforts at self-justification, that explains why Alma and Zeezrom repent and why Laman and Lemuel do not. It’s not the angel that makes the lasting difference, but the self-examination.

    Would Jesus do better to show Othello how Desdemona felt, or just say, “Well, you were obviously upset. What else could you have done under the circumstances? Just forget about it.” Same thing applies to Ammonihah, and cops who kneel on necks and ignore pleas for breath. Pure knowledge, D&C 121 says, “greatly enlarges the soul.” Impure knowledge clearly does the opposite, contracts the soul. Contracted souls don’t comprehend the Golden Rule. Pure ego drives them. Others are not quite real. Iago planted seeds, but Othello chose to nourish them. Jesus wants our souls to enlarge, even, it seems, if the path to enlargement is painful. Indeed, it seems to me the At-one-ment was the way he enlarged his soul, following his love and going through the pain empathy caused to become one capable of the necessary comprehension to both judge and heal.

    FWIW

  10. ji
    June 17, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    To me, Alma’s statement at that stressful time (or his later recollection when he wrote it down) is Alma’s statement. It is Alma’s good-faith attempt to explain. It is not God’s perfect statement. I accept and appreciate it as his testimony.

  11. Ethan R
    June 17, 2020 at 5:24 pm

    To play the devil’s advocate, if God isn’t omnipotent and is beholden to natural forces more powerful than God which God may not fully understand, then what is the point of believing that God can help you in your personal life by praying and obeying what is believed are divine commands? God might be largely helpless. If God is omnipotent and can help you if you pray and obey, then heavy physical and emotional suffering could be interpreted as a God who doesn’t care at best or who is evil at worst. That being the case, I can see how it’s worth asking if praying and obeying amount to anything. The issue that many atheists have is that religious people don’t appear to be inherently better off than non-theists simply because they pray, believe in God, and follow some moral code which they believe to be the commands of God. In fact, the wealthier, more educated places on the planet where the quality of life is higher tend to be places that are non-religious. Places that experience the greatest suffering tend to be heavily steeped in religion. Now we could say that most people are praying to the wrong God and that are only a select few who are benefiting by praying to the right one. But I doubt there is any data that could make a correlation.

  12. Taiwan Missionary
    June 17, 2020 at 6:27 pm

    Despite being attracted to the idea of a non-omnipotent God, my own ideas on the subject are not definite. I have no problem with the idea of a God, who, relative to us as His children, is all-powerful, but is Himself subject to the laws of the universe, and is still working mightily to reduce evil by and chaos. The idea of a progressing God has great appeal, BRM notwithstanding—and SWK rebuked him for giving that notorious “Seven Deadly Heresies” speech, and BRM had to reframe it as his personal opinion—which was in contradiction to statements made by other Church leaders—particularly Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow. And despite BRM’s quondam status as “keeper of doctrine,” the Church has been quietly distancing itself from him, for some time.

  13. Chad Nielsen
    June 17, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    Those are some fair questions, Ethan, and important ones to think about, even if I don’t think we’ll find the answers anytime soon. We do see God intervening in some dramatic ways throughout the scriptures (such as releasing Alma and Amulek from prison in the same chapter) and often the answers to prayers come through other people, who God seems able to influence (though not totally control) through the Holy Spirit or Light of Christ. That begs the question of why sometimes dramatic or miraculous responses come and other times not, etc. But again, I don’t know that we have great answers at the end of the day.

  14. Jeff Walsh
    June 18, 2020 at 3:56 am

    Maybe the answer to this seeming conundrum is given in Isaiah 55:8-9. Our Heavenly Father’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours and just because we do not all the answers to all questions then some speculate maybe Heavenly Father is not omnipotent after all.

    I do believe that the Plan of Salvation can be likened to a large jigsaw puzzle. When we are first taught the gospel we, to my mind, are given all the edge pieces and once they are in place all the other hundreds of pieces we have to put in to complete the picture. Some pieces do not look as if they fit anywhere. Maybe we wonder if the pieces are from another puzzle. But it surely would be foolish to throw away the puzzle because we do not know where they fit yet. Of course we put them to one side and start putting the pieces that we can see where they go. Eventually we find as were persevere we find where each piece goes and we complete the picture and find where the piece that did not seem to go does go in the only place which completes the whole.

    Our Heavenly Father is bound by eternal law which He is aware of, also He knows that if He tried to circumvent the Laws we are told that He would cease to be God.

    The plan of salvation required that He sacrifice His First-Born Son. If He had not allowed this to happen the whole reason why this earth was created and organised would have been in vain. We would have lost the atonement.

    I suggest we get on with working out our own salvation rather than trying to find out where all the pieces of life’s puzzle fit. Some day we are told our Saviour will reveal where all the pieces go.

  15. GEOFF -AUS
    June 18, 2020 at 5:15 am

    Lots of esoteric discussion above. You’ll recall earlier we read of the city, “Now, it was for the sole purpose to get gain, because they received their wages according to their employ, therefore, they did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ, that they might get money” and then Zeezrom essentially tried to bribe Amulek, so the people were pretty corrupted by wealth.

    This seems to be describing a group responsibility/ideology?

    Modern application?

    What does this sound like it is describing? The country with the greatest financial inequality in the first world, which when many countries are making efforts to reduce the inequality, are continuing at pace. The country with the greatest rate of poverty?

    And many of the church have an ideology that causes them to support, what is described as this wickedness?

  16. Ardis
    June 20, 2020 at 7:59 am

    Begging the pardon of some commenters, but why are you commenting at all if your sole purpose is to tell others we shouldn’t wrestle with these questions? What is “working out our own salvation” if not struggling to understand what salvation means, and what our relationship to it is, and how our own understanding and action affects it? If we don’t wrestle with ideas presented in scripture, then we are left with nothing but a shallow course of narrative: He went here, he did this, he said that — we don’t need to try to understand why; all we have to do is lounge around until God gets around to telling our lazy selves what we might have been trying to understand all along. Pardon me for believing that that attitude is the very opposite of what God asks us to do.

  17. Old Man
    June 21, 2020 at 7:02 pm

    jader3rd,
    Perhaps you have already made the choice to not throw women and children into a fiery pit. Choices lead us down different paths. You likely made choices which took you far from having that “opportunity.” I believe that a person can make contemplative choices which takes them beyond serious temptation.

  18. mez
    June 22, 2020 at 8:31 pm

    Well, if not constrained by God, I’d react by raising my arm to save them from the fire. But I’d also innately jump to steady the Ark and He would have zapped me.

    I always find the Parable of the Ten Virgins terrifying. Christ is hardly behaving as our perception of Him being Christlike. Half the Church is not ready just prior to His Second Coming and He has come to claim the half that are prepared. Life is falling apart and scary just before His Coming. Everyone wants to escape. The unready half are church members stunned at His telling them to depart because they never really knew Him. This half are members who spent their lives in His service, doing good works in His name. These are not inactive LDS. They were doing missionary work, temple work, serving in callings, etc. They thought they were on His side and were looking forward to greeting Him. Imagine the fear and shock that He is leaving them behind to suffer the destruction of the wicked that they felt apart from this whole time. He does not simply forgive them for being mistaken and take them with Him anyway because He just loves everyone and knows these people are really repentant NOW so extend mercy and save them.

    We like to focus more on the “nice” Christlike scriptures rather than the Jehovah who wields powerful judgment.

    Having said that, there is eternal perspective that God has and we don’t. He sees us not only where we currently are but where finally end up as if we were already there. He isn’t consumed with the here and now the way we are because He sees for many, eternally, they’re just fine regardless of what is happening to them immediately– that will soon be over.

    I hope when hearing of horrible deaths that God in His mercy took their spirits quicker than it appeared or somehow shielded them from the worst. He may not but I do hope it.
    Especially innocent little children. I don’t have the answers but I personally am able to have faith that He does. I understand why others struggle or don’t believe. I hope in the hereafter we come to more answers.

  19. Wolf
    July 3, 2020 at 1:51 am

    I guess I’m confused about the idea that God is bound by certain laws to not interrupt people’s agency, and yet He interrupts people’s agency In many other situations.

  20. Chad Nielsen
    July 7, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    I think we all are, to one degree or another, Wolf. It’s part of what makes the problem of the theodacy such a persistent one.

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