“It is not written, that there shall be no end to this torment”

Years ago, I attended a testimony meeting that began with a counselor in the bishopric talking about how grateful he was to be a part of a religion where believed that God was full of grace and would save almost every individual in one degree of glory or another.  He quoted from the Vision in Section 76, and discussed how all but a very few would be saved in the Telestial, Terrestrial, or Celestial Kingdom and how grateful he was that God loved His children enough to make a plan that allows pretty much everyone into heaven in some form.  What was interesting was what followed—the bulk of the remainder of the testimony meeting was dominated by adults in the ward getting up and rebutting his testimony by “clarifying” that being in a place outside of the top tier of the Celestial Kingdom is still damnation, so we need to work hard to gain eternal life instead of believing that we will have it good in the end, no matter what.  In a way, that meeting captured the complicated relationship Latter-day Saints have with universalism.

Joseph Smith lived in a context where Universalism was a major part of the religious discussion.  Universalists argued that God is a benevolent and generous being whose attributes of love and justice were incompatible with widespread condemnation and permanent torment. They also held that God would not allow Himself to be defeated by Satan and would overcome the effects of Satan’s work by restoring all His creation to its original, pre-Fall glory.  Many early Latter-Day Saints held universalists beliefs prior to conversion—Joseph Knight and Martin Harris being prominent among them.  Among my own ancestors who converted to the Church in the early 1830s, Zerah Pulsipher noted that traditional belief he had problems stomaching above all others was the “Doctrene of Eternal punishm[ent],” stating that: “I could not be reconceled to souls left in Hellfire to all Eternity as I had been taught by the secatrians.” [1] This is an indication of a universalist strain in Zerah’s beliefs.

Joseph Smith’s own family was heavily influenced by universalist beliefs.  For example, Joseph Smith’s paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, was a universalist who believed that Christ “came to Save Sinners mearly because they [were] such” and that “if you believe that Christ [came] to save Sinners … that Sinners must be saved by the rightiousness of Christ alone, without mixing any of their own rightiousness with his; then you will See that he can as well Save all, as aney.”[2]  Asael was drawn to the teachings of a preacher in the vicinity of his home named John Murray, from whom he drew many his ideas of universalism.  Murray taught that while hell and punishment existed, they were waystations to redemption. He reasoned that: “It is one thing to be punished with everlasting destruction, and another to be everlastingly punished with destruction.” The comparison he used was that: “If your candle were to burn to endless ages, and you put your finger into that candle, but for a moment, you would suffer, for that moment, the pain of everlasting fire.”[3]  Joseph Smith’s father inherited many of Asael’s beliefs and they would have likely been discussed in Joseph Smith’s household during his youth.

It is interesting to note that there are parallels between Murray’s sermons and the 1829 revelation that is now Section 19.  The text of the revelation indicates that the Lord used the words everlasting and eternal in the context of punishment in ways that trick people in believing that they need to reform their lives to avoid unending punishment, but it really means that he will punish them with they type of punishment that a being who holds the titles of Endless and Everlasting will wield:

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment . . . For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great it is! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment (D&C 19:6, 10-12).

The wordplay of endless and eternal here as a condition of the punishment in relation to its nature rather than its duration seems similar to John Murray’s approach to dismissing everlasting as a condition of the flame rather than the duration of the pain.

Yet, there is tension between the text of this revelation and the Book of Mormon, which was being translated around the same time that the revelation was received.  In the Book of Mormon, Nehor and his followers are presented as one of the primary groups of villains, and they seem to almost be a negative caricature of Universalists.  Nehor, after all, goes around preaching that: “All mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.”[4]  He also demonstrates a logical concern that many Christians have about embracing universalism (i.e., if God saves everyone, why bother with keeping commandments?) by becoming a murder.

The prophet Alma and his teaching companion, Amulek, spend a considerable amount of their ministries working in opposition to Nehor’s followers.  One example is when Alma preaches in a stronghold of Nehor’s religion that after judgement, those who do not bring “forth fruit meet for repentance” will be in a condition “as though there had been no redemption made; for they cannot be redeemed according to God’s justice.”[5]  He also worked to explain to his wayward son about “the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.”[6]  Amulek, if anything, is even more blunt and straightforward about rejecting the beliefs of Nehor that seem similar to universalism, teaching that: “If we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. … For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil … and this is the final state of the wicked.”[7]  In many ways, much of the book that Section 19 affirms “contains the truth and the word of God,”[8] was written in opposition to ideas that seem similar to universalism.

I’ve discussed before that Joseph Smith’s revelations seem to demonstrate an evolution of thought that tried to reconcile the universalist tendencies displayed in Section 19 on one side and the consignation to a state of misery displayed in the Book of Mormon on the other.  In many ways, the idea of performing ordinances for the dead, the option of repentance in the Spirit World, and varying degrees of glory available after judgement are a middle path between the two.  Those revelations, with various interpretations of how they fit together, however, still leave room for tension and debate within Mormonism about the chances for redemption after death and a certain amount of discomfort with universalists beliefs that can be found in some of them.

Take, for example, the reaction to “the Vision” of the three degrees of glory after it was revealed in 1832.  Brigham Young recalled that: “It was a great trial to many.  Some apostatized because God … had a plan of salvation, in due time, for all.”  He added on another occasion that: “My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was directly contrary and opposed to my former education.”[9]  Members in Geneseo, New York, said at first that “the vision was of the Devil,” until John Murdock, Orson Pratt and even Joseph Smith reached out to them to discuss the issue.[10]  On the other hand, Wilford Woodruff recalled that: “When I read the vision … it gave me great joy.  It appeared to me that the God who revealed that principle unto man was wise, just, and true—possessed both the best attributes, and good sense, and knowledge.  I felt He was consistent with both love, mercy, justice, and judgment; and I felt to love the Lord more than ever before in my life.”[11]  In other words, the initial reactions to the revelation by early Latter-day Saints weren’t that different from the reactions displayed in discussing the same revelation approximately 175 years later in my ward.

Part of the tension seems to be ideas about justice, God, and motivation.  As Wilford Woodruff points out, the idea of some form of redemption for nearly everyone is “consistent with both love, mercy, justice, and judgment.”  An aspect of justice and judgement is that punishment is befitting the crime.  No matter how much evil one person can perpetrate during the course of a human life, that evil is limited by the human lifespan.  Logically, a never-ending punishment heavily outweighs the evil that was perpetrated in a period of (generally) less than 100 years and, thus, is not a punitive measure that is equal to the transgression.  As the fictional philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye put it in the TV series The Good Place, if you are “brutally tortured forever with no recourse” for actions carried out in this life, then “the cruelty of the punishment does not match the cruelty of the life that one has lived.”  Hence, it makes sense that if God is just and merciful, He will allow progress, repentance, and redemption in the next life.  That is why many people find it satisfying to believe that God will continue to extend mercy and repentance after this life.

On the other hand, people in the Church tend to get concerned that if we’re going to have endless chances to be saved, then folks are going to get lazy and put off repenting until later.  That seemed to be the major concern of the adults in my ward in rebutting the opening testimony in the meeting—they were worried that youth in the ward were going to use the idea that they would end up in some form of heaven no matter what as an excuse to sin.  This concern was also raised by Elder Bruce R. McConkie when he discussed a man who was married to a member of the Church and believed the Church was true, but expressed that: “I have no intention of changing my habits in order to join [the Church].  I prefer to live the way I do.  But that doesn’t worry me in the slightest.  I know that as soon as I die, you will have someone go to the temple and do the work for me and everything will come out all right in the end anyway.”  Elder McConkie then said that: “He died, and she did.  And it was a complete and utter waste of time.  There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation.”[12]  The concern he displayed in sharing this story and his judgement was that a belief in future chances for repentance would lead to people putting off their current chances for repentance.

Both ends of this spectrum of opinions about Universalism seem to be addressed in Section 19. The text indicates that there is going to be punishment for the unrepentant, since Jesus Christ tells Martin Harris that: “If they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit,” and that: “I revoke not the judgements which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.” [13]  The text also addresses the concern that if people are taught universalist ideas, they may not feel the need to repent by telling Martin Harris to not share those universalist ideas publicly, but to focus on repentance instead: “I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me.  For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.”[14]  Addressing the other end of the spectrum, however, we do have the indication that punishment is not of an endless duration: “It is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.”[15]  The text also potentially hints at the universalist idea that God will not allow Himself to be defeated by Satan and will, in the end, restore all His creation to its original glory by stating that the Lord retains “all power, even to the destroying of Satan and his works at the end of the world.”[16] There are reasons to repent in this life (to avoid suffering), but even still, God is just and merciful and that suffering will not go on for an endless duration.

With that suffering, there is beauty in how Section 19 approaches the issue.  While the Lord makes it clear in the text that punishments will come to the unrepentant, He also makes it clear that He isn’t keen on the idea of people suffering.  He suffered exquisite pain “for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent,” and focuses on a message of repentance throughout the text—both for Martin Harris and for those to whom he would have the opportunity to preach.[17]  This, along with the indications that there will be an ultimate end to suffering, shows us that the Lord is not a Lord who delights in punishing the wicked, but one who wishes for us to avoid suffering.

 

Further Reading:

 

Footnotes:

[1] ZP Autobiographical Sketch #1 and ZP Autobiographical Sketch #2.

[2] Asael Smith, “A few words of advice which I Leave to you my Dear wife and children whom I Expect ear Long to Leave,” in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage: Influences of Grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith, 2nd ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2003), 160-165.

[3] John Murray, Letters and Sketches of Sermons, (Boston: Joshua Belcher, 1812), 2:253.

[4] Alma 1:4.

[5] Alma 12:15, 18.

[6] Alma 42:1.

[7] Alma 34:34.

[8] D&C 19:26.

[9] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-Day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 16:42 and 6:281.

[10] See Matthew McBride, “The Vision,” in Revelations in Context, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/the-vision?lang=eng.

[11] Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 5:84.

[12] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie/seven-deadly-heresies/.  The quote is from the audio version rather than the print version to emphasize his point.

[13] D&C 19:5, 17-18.

[14] D&C 19:21-22.

[15] D&C 19:6.

[16] D&C 19:3.

[17] D&C 19:16.

8 comments for ““It is not written, that there shall be no end to this torment”

  1. Almost every teaching in the scriptures has a paradox somewhere else in the scriptures. Somehow, I think they are all right somehow, based on context or perspective or season — for this reason, I try not to be dogmatic about them, but to rejoice in the simple and wonderful message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while wondering about some of the paradoxes.

  2. Thank you for this analysis and the many excellent recent posts. I am a universalist, so this lines up with how I view things. What became clearer to me as I read was that Christ does not want us to suffer. As you said, He wants us to avoid suffering. That’s why he atoned for all. Sometimes I feel that people revel in the thought of the wicked being destroyed and made to pay for their sins in the end. And that vengeful feeling gets projected onto God. Or maybe the vengeful part comes from the OT. But I need to remember that the Lord does not want us to suffer. I don’t know why that impacted me so much today, but it was a great reminder. I have occasionally speculated that our eventual punishment would be to see and feel the pain and sorrow we have inflicted on other people. That certainly would be torture.

  3. Chad, excellent discussion here. I wasn’t aware of the Asael Smith/John Murray sources. Very interesting context for D&C 19. I’d recommend Mark Wrathall’s Maxwell Institute book on Alma for a novel and compelling theological account of Alma’s difficult teachings on justice and mercy.

  4. On the issue of claimed tension between the Book of Mormon and D&C 19, I had this, in a JBMS 2/1 essay comparing Alma’s accounts of his own and others (such as Zeereom) with “everlasting burnings” of finite duration with modern near death experience research:

    “While most reported modern NDEs lack the hellish aspects, such reports have been noted with much interest and were, according to Carol Zaleski’s Otherworld Journeys, a typical feature of medieval Buddhist, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Judeo-Christian accounts. P. M. H. Atwater and Margot Grey have also shown the point-for-point antithesis between positive and negative NDEs.

    “In place of elation, the emotions of fear and panic; similar though less pleasant sensations of being out the body; the plunging into a totally black void instead of an end-lit tunnel; and not least, a sense of an overwhelming proximity of the forces of demonic evil.
    Stanislav and Christina Grof, in Beyond Death, elaborate on three themes from hellish experience that also stand out in Alma’s accounts:
    • the polarities of the hellish and heavenly experience
    • the subjective sense of eternal torment infinite duration
    • the use of “rebirth” imagery

    “In the Grofs’ discussion, the process of psychological death and rebirth “bears a striking similarity to the events described through the ages in shamanistic initiation, rites of passage, temple mysteries, and in the ecstatic religions of many ancient and preliterate cultures.” They identify the first of three stages as cosmic engulfment, related to the onset of biological delivery, beginning with “an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and an awareness of a vital threat.” This corresponds to Alma’s shock at seeing the angel.

    “The second stage is no exit, related to “the second stage of delivery in which uterine contractions encroach on the foetus, but the cervix is closed.” Subjectively, “the situation is inescapable and eternal. There is no hope and no way out either in space or in time.”
    Notice how Alma describes a longing for annihilation while he felt “racked with eternal torment,” being “encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36: 12, 18).

    “Concerning “the ordeal of hell,” the Grofs write:
    The feeling that suffering is eternal is an essential. experimental attribute of hell. The endlessness of this state does not consist in an extreme extension of linear time, but in its transcendence. The individual undergoes tortures beyond any imagining which at that point are the only available reality; since the sense of the linear flow of time is lost, there appears to be no way out. It is only when this situation is fully accepted that one has experienced hell, and the journey can continue.

    So I coud observe “In Alma’s account of his torment, the terms “everlasting” and “eternal” do not refer to duration, but to quality. Alma reports that his “eternal torment” lasted for three days (cf. D&C 19: 1-21).

    https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=jbms

    And with respect to Universalism and the Book of Mormon, I touched on this in a 1995 essay in RBBM 7/1

    “Alma’s emphasis on restoration is not only biblical, but also consistent with the reports of the Life Review (or Encounter with
    Deeds) reported in near-death experiences throughout history. One of the early Universalist teachers in England (Dr. George de
    Benneville 1703- 1793, born to French Huguenot parents) based some of his ideas on what a modem researcher would immediately
    call a near-death account. However, neither the Universalists nor their critics (other than Mormons) cared to resolve the issues
    by referring to a contemporary revelation (as Alma does). Impressed and challenged by the Deist thinkers. the dominant
    Universalist teachers based their arguments on Reason.
    Vogel’s main argument requires that we see Alma as using anti-Universalist rhetoric against Corianton in relation to the main
    anti-Universalist issue regarding the endless duration of future punishment for mortal sin . Yet, Alma ‘s own teachings pl ai nly
    affinn the notion of temporally limited punishment. Alma’s own “eternal torment” (Mosiah 27:29) in an “everlasting burning”
    (Mosiah 27:28), when encircled about by the “everl asting chains of death,” lasted for three days (Alma 36: 16, 18). Likewise,
    Zeezrom experiences ” the pains of hell ” (Alma 14:6) for a limited time.
    Vogel claims that the Book of Mormon argues for a doctrine of endless duration since punishment is “as eternal as the life of
    the soul ” (Alma 42:16; p. 44). Yet this passage can be understood as referring to the existence of just punishment and blessing
    through eternity, rather than the infinite and endless application of such.

    Vogel quotes Hosea Ballou’s Universalist argument against traditional interpretations to the effect that “the never
    ending fire was ‘a state of great trouble of mind, in consequence of conscientious guilt’ It (p. 45). Vogel fails to observe that Alma
    agrees and makes it very clear that the imagery symbolizes the torment that comes from a personal sense of guilt (Alma 12: 14-
    15: 36: 17; also Jacob 6:9; Mosiah 3:25).
    Ironically, Vogel pits Alma against Elhanan Winchester (1751- 1797), the leader of the “Restorationist” faction of Universalism, who opposed Murray’s radical Universalism (p. 42). But rather than being anti-Universalist, Alma’s teachings seem more consistent with Winchester’s restorationist position. Some parallels shoul d be natural because both Alma and Winchester draw on biblical precedents. Additionally, Winchester had been influenced by Benneville’s near-death vision, which again would tend to supply certain parallels to Alma.”

    https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1253&context=msr

    And elsewhere, it seeems to me that part of an individual tendency to lean towards justice or mercy comes not completely from cultural or theologicial background but also from a person’s Myers-Briggs Type preferences for Judgement as T or F. The Thinking or Feeling preferences lead a person in different directions, that is, T people favor rules, tradition, authority or logic based approaches, whereas, F people favor circumstances and empathy. For instance, compare ESTJ Manager profiles with the opposite INFP Idealist. (For the record, I’m an INFP).

    ESTJ

    http://www.typelogic.com/estj.html

    INFP

    http://www.typelogic.com/infp.html

    FWIW,

    Kevin Christensen
    Canonsburg, PA

  5. In an essay in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1, on Alma’s personal experience with the everlasting burnings, I wrote:

    While most reported modern NDEs lack the hellish aspects, such reports have been noted with much interest and were, according to Carol Zaleski’s Otherworld Journeys, a typical feature of medieval Buddhist, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Judeo-Christian accounts. P. M. H. Atwater and Margot Grey have also shown the point-for-point antithesis between positive and negative NDEs.

    In place of elation, the emotions of fear and panic; similar though less pleasant sensations of being out the body; the plunging into a totally black void instead of an end-lit tunnel; and not least, a sense of an overwhelming proximity of the forces of demonic evil.
    Stanislav and Christina Grof, in Beyond Death, elaborate on three themes from hellish experience that also stand out in
    Alma’s accounts:
    • the polarities of the hellish and heavenly experience
    • the subjective sense of eternal torment infinite duration
    • the use of “rebirth” imagery

    In the Grofs’ discussion, the process of psychological death and rebirth “bears a striking similarity to the events described through the ages in shamanistic initiation, rites of passage, temple mysteries, and in the ecstatic religions of many ancient and preliterate cultures.” They identify the first of three stages as cosmic engulfment, related to the onset of biological delivery, beginning with “an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and an awareness of a vital threat.” This corresponds to Alma’s shock at seeing the angel.

    The second stage is no exit, related to “the second stage of delivery in which uterine contractions encroach on the foetus, but the cervix is closed.” Subjectively, “the situation is inescapable and eternal. There is no hope and no way out either in space or in time.”
    Notice how Alma describes a longing for annihilation while he felt “racked with eternal torment,” being “encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36: 12, 18).

    Concerning “the ordeal of hell,” the Grofs write:

    The feeling that suffering is eternal is an essential. experimental attribute of hell. The endlessness of this state does not consist in an extreme extension of linear time, but in its transcendence. The individual undergoes tortures beyond any imagining which at that point are the only available reality; since the sense of the linear flow of time is lost, there appears to be no way out. It is only when this situation is fully accepted that one has experienced hell, and the journey can continue.

    In Alma’s account of his torment, the terms “everlasting” and “eternal” do not refer to duration, but to quality. Alma reports that his “eternal torment” lasted for three days (cf. D&C 19: 1-21).

    That’s from “Nigh Unto Death: NDE research and the Book of Mormon.”

    In another essay from 1995, discussing Universalism and the Book of Mormon, I had this:

    “Alma’s emphasis on restoration is not only biblical, but also consistent with the reports of the Life Review (or Encounter with
    Deeds) reported in near-death experiences throughout history. One of the early Universalist teachers in England (Dr. George de
    Benneville 1703- 1793, born to French Huguenot parents) based some of his ideas on what a modem researcher would immediately
    call a near-death account. 166 However, neither the Universalists nor their critics (other than Mormons) cared to resolve the issues
    by referring to a contemporary revelation (as Alma does). Impressed and challenged by the Deist thinkers. the dominant
    Universalist teachers based their arguments on Reason.

    Vogel’s main argument requires that we see Alma as using anti-Universalist rhetoric against Corianton in relation to the main
    anti-Universalist issue regarding the endless duration of future punishment for mortal sin . Yet, Alma ‘s own teachings pl ai nly
    affinn the notion of temporally limited punishment. Alma’s own “eternal torment” (Mosiah 27:29) in an “everlasting burning”
    (Mosiah 27:28), when encircled about by the “everl asting chains of death,” lasted for three days (Alma 36: 16, 18).168 Likewise,
    Zeezrom experiences ” the pains of hell ” (Alma 14:6) for a limited time.
    Vogel claims that the Book of Mormon argues for a doctrine of endless duration since punishment is “as eternal as the life of
    the soul ” (Alma 42:16; p. 44). Yet this passage can be understood as referring to the existence of just punishment and blessing
    through eternity, rather than the infinite and endless application of such.

    Vogel quotes Hosea Ballou’s Universalist argument against traditional interpretations to the effect that “the never ending fire was ‘a state of great trouble of mind, in consequence of conscientious guilt’ It (p. 45). Vogel fails to observe that Alma agrees and makes it very clear that the imagery symbolizes the torment that comes from a personal sense of guilt (Alma 12: 14-15: 36: 17; also Jacob 6:9; Mosiah 3:25).
    Ironically, Vogel pits Alma against Elhanan Winchester (1751- 1797), the leader of the “Restorationist” faction of Universalism, who opposed Murray’s radical Universalism (p. 42). But rather than being anti-Universalist, Alma’s teachings seem more consistent with Winchester’s restorationist position. Some parallels shoul d be natural because both Alma and Winchester draw on biblical precedents. Additionally, Winchester had been innuenced by Benneville’s near-death vision, which again would tend to supply certain parallels to Alma.”

    That is from Paradigms Crossed in RBBM 7/2

    Additionally, it seems to me that at least some of a person’s tendency to argue for Justice or Mercy has as much to do with the Myers Briggs Type preferences on the Judgement issue. That is, the T (Thinking preference) or F (Feeling preference) makes a difference. T preference people tend to make decisions based on authority, tradition, logic, and reason and lean to justice. Whereas F preference people tend to to include individual circumstances and empathy and lean to mercy. LDS tradition, as Terryl Givens notes in People of Paradox, tends to embrace the tensions and accept the opposition as creative and essential, rather than trying to impose an Absolute one way or the other.

    For an example T, see the ESTJ Manager profile:

    http://www.typelogic.com/estj.html

    Compare an F preference the INFP Idealist profile:

    http://www.typelogic.com/infp.html

    For the record, I’m an INFP.

    FWIW.

    Kevin Christensen
    Canonsburg, PA

  6. It seems strange that would people would argue that the kingdoms of glory are not . . . kingdoms of glory. My personal understanding is that people will suffer for those things for which they have not repented, then inherit a kingdom of glory deemed appropriate. But nearly all will indeed inherit a kingdom of glory. That says a lot about the kind of love God has for his children. I suspect the idea also “glosses over” the nature of the suffering prior to inheriting a kingdom.

  7. Thank you, everyone for the great thoughts and recommendations. I’ll have to look at Wrathall’s work when I get a chance, Rosalynde. And thank you for sharing your thoughts on Alma’s concept of punishment not being endless, Kevin. I hadn’t made those connections before.

    I found it interesting as well, Mike. It may be that in some ways, we’re still struggling to overcome the dominant Christian view of the afterlife as a group and really embrace Joseph Smith’s revelations.

  8. Amulek’s words play rather interestingly into this. I’ve toyed with the idea of scriptural fallibilism, ie it’s unlikely that Alma and Amulek would have received all the knowledge that we have in this dispensation and thus they may have been speaking out of a situation of lesser light and knowledge which would lead to doctrinal imprecision. I’ve also toyed with perhaps the idea of mistranslation on Joseph’s part. Nonetheless, perhaps a better solution is in the offing.

    I worry sometimes that we over-generalize the sermons we find in the scriptures. Each one that we have was delivered to a specific audience, which audience is not us. Mormon and Moroni may have prepared the book with our day in mind, but I find it unlikely that Alma and Amulek were likewise focused on us. In this case Amulek is speaking to the poor of the Zoramites. Though they are more sympathetic than the rich Zoramites, they are still Zoramites, apostates from the Nephite church. Amulek himself was such an apostate once, and describes his past self as “called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore I went on rebelling against God, in the wickedness of my heart.” (Alma 10:6) It is imperative that we bear these contexts in mind. In Alma 34 Amulek is not speaking generally, but to people who have already rejected Christ once (Alma 31:16-17). Alma is speaking to similar people in Nehor’s stronghold. This one contextual note must be borne in mind: Alma and Amulek are both former apostates who rejected Christ, and they are universally teaching people who have already rebelled against Christ, whether Nehorite, Zoramite, or Corianton. Thus I have reason to believe that Alma and Amulek’s teachings may not be so readily generalizable to all mankind, but rather have particular application to those who have already rejected Christ.

    A similar situation, interestingly, obtains in Elder McConkie’s example, where the man believed in the Church but voluntarily refused to deepen his relationship with Christ.

    Now, why should this matter? Why shouldn’t there be a second chance for those who willfully reject the first? Well, I have been rather influenced by Blake Ostler’s thinking regarding the definition of deity as being in a state of perfect oneness and agape with God. Those who willingly reject that relationship, that reject the Spirit, form a different relationship instead. Amulek, interestingly, doesn’t say that “your spirit will have the power to possess your body in that eternal world” in Alma 34:34. He refers to the possessing spirit in the third person, as another actor, and follows it up with references to two other opposing spirits, the spirit of the devil and the Spirit of the Lord, in keeping with the generally Manichaean view of his prophetic tradition which sees the conflict between the Church of the Lamb and the Church of the Devil as zero-sum.

    The critical line in this is the first line of Alma 34:34: “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God.” Amulek situates those who are sealed as the devil’s in a state of crisis: they realize the enormity of the relationship they have formed and wish to exchange it, but how could their new relationship with God ever escape the tinge of the mercenary? How could it be anything but coerced? The freely-chosen deifying relationship of agape is not even possible. When they had their freedom they not only did not choose but explicitly rejected a relationship with God, having only chosen it when the consequences of that rejection arrived on their doorstep. Choices have consequences, that is the very nature of the laws of justice and the harvest which bind even God. We must remember that D&C 76 is not, strictly speaking, universalist. Those who commit the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost are not redeemed, and exaltation is not universal. Our choices in this life still matter and the next life, for all of its opportunities for missionary work and repentance, is not a tabula rasa independent of our choices made here.

    The long story short, imho, is: Alma and Amulek’s teachings are likely aimed towards those who have voluntarily cut themselves off from a relationship with Christ and have taken up opposition to His cause. Thus their soteriological proclamations may be more limited in application than we may realize: ie they are addressing those they believe to be potential sons of perdition. We members of the Church tend to view the unforgiveable sin as “knowing Christ with a perfect knowledge and then rebelling against him”, but I don’t see that in D&C 76: what I see is “having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame.” Basically, having sufficient access to and interaction with the Holy Ghost but rejecting its influence outright, which is a more significant risk. God is doing the Section 19 thing with Alma because the more express language may touch some of these Nephites who would be at risk of ultimate damnation.

    This actually leads to interesting new avenues in discussing the problem of divine hiddenness. It’s possible that losing epistemic confidence in God’s existence may be a mitigating factor and so those who would be vulnerable to the unforgiveable sin may, if they have additional reasons to disbelieve, be spared from ultimate damnation by virtue of additional factors being mixed into their decision to leave the relationship. Such would have costs: it seems not everyone who loses faith would otherwise be prone to the unforgiveable sin. However, such may have the opportunity to mend the relationship postmortally because they did not outright reject it but instead were influenced by other factors. Thus an escape hatch is provided for even the least of these and the ranks of the angels of the devil are minimized.

    tl;dr Alma and Amulek’s soteriological teachings are probably geared towards people who are at-risk for son-of-perdition status and thus we probably should not take their teachings as rejections of the general universalism in the Doctrine and Covenants. Furthermore, God’s relative hiddenness and permission of messiness in the world and His church may serve a similar purpose in minimizing the degree of perdition.

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