Theology in Alma

Just in time for us to study Alma in “Come, Follow Me,” the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk published an interview with Kylie Nielson Turley about theology in Alma. Kylie Nielson Turley wrote the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introduction to the first half of the Book of Alma and has a lot of insights to share from her time researching and studying about Alma. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

There were a lot of important insights about Alma2 and his context in particular. One thought that struck me was that prior to his conversion, he and the other unbelievers may have been participating in a competing religious movement rather than just opposing the church that his father led:

Unlike people throughout the Book of Mormon who dwindle in unbelief—seemingly for personal reasons or for shared reasons but from a personal standpoint—these unbelievers are united by common beliefs, shared practices, and group identification.

They are not simply dwindling into apostasy as individuals. They are organized; they have standard beliefs; and they can vocalize their message. They are persuasive, and they are trying to recruit others; they work to persuade members to leave the Church of God and join them. Notably, the unbelievers are “not half so numerous as the people of God; but because of the dissensions among the brethren, they became more numerous” (Mosiah 26:6).

The unbelievers seem to have been a movement in their own right.

Along those lines, Alma2 may not have been as young as his usual moniker of “Alma the Younger” would imply:

There are many reasons to think that Alma? was much older than the teenager than we often imagine him to be. He could easily be in his 30s, almost as easily in his 40s, and conceivably in his 50s when he is converted. …

Mosiah? dies at age 63 in the 1 RJ (first year of the reign of the judges), and he spent 30 years as king. Those who were “little children” at the time of his coronation, including his own sons apparently are the foundation of the Unbeliever movement (Mosiah 26:1).

How old is a “little child” who is unable to comprehend the message and intent of King Benjamin’s speech? If we simply guess, we might suggest a range, perhaps 3 – 10 years old.

If put in an equation, it would look like this:

  • The age of the Unbelievers = 3–10 years old (age at King Benjamin’s sermon) + 30 years (Mosiah’s reign) – 1–9 years (the number of years between Alma’s conversion and 1 RJ, according to the estimates of scholars).

With these very rough estimates, the little children would be anywhere from 24-39 years old when Alma was converted. …

If we use the same 1-9 years before 1 RJ to help us estimate Alma?’s age, then the date we should notice is that Alma’s father (Alma?) dies. In 1 RJ Alma’s father, Alma, dies at 82 years old (Mosiah 29:45).

Here is the question to consider: how old is the son when an angel appears, if his father is between 72-81 years old?

There is a lot of evidence that Alma2 was among the vilest of sinners for a longer period of his life than we often assume (which, in turn, highlights the redemption and change he underwent even more).

Another area that Turley was able to highlight is the impact that the experiences of Ammonihah had on Alma:

That Alma might be stunned into silence is understandable. The judge and the people of Ammonihah guarantee that Alma sees friends die. They guarantee that Amulek, the man an angel promised would be blessed by Alma’s presence, is beside Alma.

Bound with strong cords and brought to the fire while the flames are blazing, Alma and Amulek are forced to witness women and children—most likely including Amulek’s family—be burned to death. Still not content, the chief judge ensures that Alma understands the brutal irony at the heart of this horror: Alma’s unfortunate gospel metaphor about a lake of fire and brimstone prompts the literal lake of fire and brimstone that burns before his eyes.

The violence revolves around words, ideas, and metaphor in ways that are vicious, deliberate, and personal. Alma preached of fiery punishment (Alma 12:17), was forced to watch his words become horrifyingly real (Alma 14:8–11), and then is told that he is to blame for the deaths he witnesses—or, at least, that his words sparked the idea (Alma 14:14).

Ammonihah’s citizens aim to torture Alma in horrifyingly inhumane ways, and the final twist is telling him that his rhetoric—his hallmark skill—is the cause. Events much less dramatic, much less pointed, and much less personal than Ammonihah can haunt someone, even traumatize.

Alma never used that metaphor again in the Book of Mormon and went silent for an extended period within the text afterwards.

Asides from Alma2, Turley provided insights into other individuals in the Book of Alma, including Abish. One of these insights had to do with the ways in which Abish was a Christ-figure in her story:

This narrative depicts a fall in a rather original way: people are literally falling to the earth and appearing to be dead repeatedly. Oddly, when they arise, they do not speak nor act as if they have all suffered a physical fall, but, rather, a spiritual fall. The king arises and joyfully tells his wife that he has “seen [his] Redeemer” and that the Redeemer “shall come forth, and be born of a woman and he shall redeem all mankind” (Alma 19:13). While some may view Ammon as a Christ figure, it seems to me that Ammon is more of an Adam figure. Ammon’s actions and words bring the “fall” of everyone in King Lamoni’s household.

Abish is different. Regardless of whether these people need redemption from a literal fall or a metaphorical fall, Abish brings life. In a surprisingly descriptive sequence, Abish “took the queen by the hand that perhaps she might raise her from the ground” (Alma 19:29), and “as soon as she touched” the queen, the queen “arose and stood upon her feet.” Clearly Abish brings physical healing.

It was something that I never had thought about before and I found the insight fascinating.

For more on theology in Alma, head on over to read the full interview with Kylie Nielson Turley at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

4 comments for “Theology in Alma

  1. “Alma never used that metaphor again in the Book of Mormon and went silent for an extended period within the text afterwards.”

    Perhaps Alma couldn’t get himself to use that imagery after such an horrific experience. Even so, I find it interesting that Mormon — who probably witnessed far more death, destruction, carnage, and misery than Alma did — choose to include Alma’s rhetoric in his abridgment.

  2. Mormon saw plenty of death and misery, but as far as we know he never saw people burned alive. It’s seeing the metaphor of a lake of fire and brimstone turned into horrifying reality that seems to have prompted Alma and his successors to stop using it. It’s not surprising that, some 500 years later and without similar direct experience, Mormon didn’t have the same reaction.

    This does lead to the very interesting question of how to reconcile the assumptions of Book of Mormon prophets about our possible eternal destinies with D&C 76. But I guess I’ve given away my answer in how I framed the question.

  3. RLD,

    I think that some of the Book of Mormon prophets may have understood the pains of hell in the way that Section 19 of the D&C speaks of it. Here are a couple of quotes from Jacob that seem to imply that understanding:

    1 Nephi 8:26 “For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.”

    Jacob 6:10 “And according to the power of justice, for justice cannot be denied, ye must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever, which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment.”

    Jacob labels both descriptions of hell as “endless torment.” I recognize that endless is not capitalized–but even so, I can’t help but be suspicious of the usage.

    Also, King Benjamin explains that the torment of hell is in reality the pain of a guilty conscience. And so while he doesn’t mention anything about the duration of that pain he does uncover the fact that the wicked are not actually cast into a fiery furnace of sorts.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts on why I think at least some BoM prophets knew more than they actually revealed on the subject.

  4. I completely agree that Book of Mormon prophets were only using physical torment as an analogy for a guilty conscience. Alma’s story makes that clear: nothing was happening to him physically when he experienced what he described as “the pains of hell.” It’s also why they could change analogies at will. One way to reframe this question would be “How long does the pain of a guilty conscience last?”

    Some people read Alma’s teaching that everyone will be “raised to endless happiness to inherit the kingdom of God, or to endless misery to inherit the kingdom of the devil” and figure that the Celestial Kingdom is the endless happiness in the kingdom of God and everything else must be endless misery in the kingdom of the devil. But that doesn’t match the descriptions we have of the Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms. An alternative reading would assume all the kingdoms of glory offer endless happiness, and endless misery in the kingdom of the devil only describes the fate of the sons of perdition. But Book of Mormon prophets seem to assume garden-variety wicked people will go to “the bad place.” (That interpretation might fit in some places, like Mosiah 2:38.)

    The interpretation I find most plausible is that Book of Mormon prophets never got a clear vision like D&C 76, and assumed that the state of things in the spirit world, where the unrepentant wicked will suffer for their sins, would endure forever. But even there they probably had some inkling that words like “endless” and “forever” in this context don’t necessarily mean what they normally mean.

    The important thing is that God did not create a plan that will leave most of his children miserable forever. That would contradict the goodness of God.

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