Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

More on the Limits of "Endless" and "Eternal" in the Book of Mormon: Awaking from "Endless Sleep" and the "Eternal Band of Death"

In a recent previous post, "'From Whence They Can No More Return': What Lehi Teaches Us About the Book of Mormon's Harsh Language on Hell," I noted that a passage in Lehi's farewell speech gives insight into the limits on the "eternal" nature of hell that has confused many readers of the Book of Mormon. Such limits, of course, are consistent with an important revelation given to Joseph Smith Section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants where we learn that while God's punishment can be called eternal since He is eternal, that does not mean that those who experience eternal punishment are never freed from their pains. 

The Book of Mormon provides another example that should immediately help us calibrate the intent behind some uses of the words "eternal" and "endless" in the scriptures. In Mormon 9:13, Moroni writes, 

And because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; yea, this is wherein all men are redeemed, because the death of Christ bringeth to pass the resurrection, which bringeth to pass a redemption from an endless sleep, from which sleep all men shall be awakened by the power of God when the trump shall sound; and they shall come forth, both small and great, and all shall stand before his bar, being redeemed and loosed from this eternal band of death, which death is a temporal death. 

All men must die, and by so doing, we enter into a state that Moroni describes as "endless sleep" where we are bound with the "eternal band of death." It would last forever were it not for the redemption from death made possible by the Resurrection of Christ. Though the state of death, a function created by the Eternal God, can be called an eternal and endless state because He and His works are endless and eternal, it will be temporary for all of us.  If physical death can be called endless and eternal and yet be temporary, entrance into hell, spiritual death, can also be temporary. You may disagree with the way those words are used, but the Book of Mormon itself makes it clear that these words in the context of death and hell may need to be understood in the way they are explained in Section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants.  

Update, Jan. 11, 2020: Robert Boylan has provided some valuable articles dealing with the meaning of "eternity" in the scriptures that can add further context to some of the issues raised here. Please see his "Resources for 'We Agree with Moroni 8:18' day (18 August)" at https://scripturalmormonism.blogspot.com/2018/08/resources-for-we-agree-with-moroni-818.html. Among these, be sure to see "Moroni 8:18, Psalm 90:2, and the Latter-day Saint Understanding of Deity."

Janus Parallelism in Alma 32 and 33?

Alma uses the verb "spring" in an interesting way in his sermon to the Zoramites in Alma 32 and 33:

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. (Alma 32:41)

And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will. Amen.(Alma 33:23)

Others have noted the intriguing reference to tree of life symbolism here, drawing upon themes in the ancient Near East, not to mention related themes in Mesoamerica. But here I wish to consider the possibility of a potential word play or poetical device in the form of a Janus parallelism.

Janus parallelism refers to the two-headed Roman god, Janus, who could look forward as well as backward. In Janus parallelism, one word or phrase serves in two parallel structures by also looking both forward and backward, relying on a double meaning to connect in both directions to nearby words or phrases. Over at Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, I once reviewed Scott Noegel's excellent book on the abundant use of Janus parallelism in Job and also tentatively proposed several possible examples of Janus parallelism in the Book of Mormon based on the presumed Hebrew words behind the English translation. More recently Paul Hoskisson has proposed a possible example of Janus parallelism in 1 Nephi 18:16. By the way, I find it interesting that most of the examples with potential Janus parallelism come from Nephi, the man closest to the deep details of Hebrew poetry. In fact, chiasmic structures and parallelism in general is not distributed uniformly or randomly in the Book of Mormon, but has a distribution that is consistent with the details of the book's claimed ancient origins as opposed to being the fruit of Joseph Smith's mind. On the fascinating distribution of parallelism among Book of Mormon texts, see Carl J. Cranney's analysis in "The Deliberate Use of Hebrew Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 23 (2014):140–65.

Getting back to the verses from Alma, in English, readers may note that "spring up" naturally relates to the sprouting, growth, and flourishing of the tree that is nourished in the first portion of both verses. But "springing" and "everlasting life" seem less related. I have previously felt it was a somewhat odd word choice for discussing entry into eternal life, though it does convey a dynamic, vibrant sense that relates well to the tree. Recently I wondered if considering possible Hebrew roots behind this word might be useful.

The Hebrew word for "spring" can be Strong's H6779, tsamach, to sprout or spring up. This can refer to plants, hair, and figuratively to speech, and can also mean to grow abundantly or thickly, or to cause to grow.  This is translated 13 times as "grow" in the Old Testament, "spring forth" six times, "spring up" four times, and twice each for "grow up," "bring forth," "bud," and "spring out."

Strong's H6523, parach, can mean to bud, to sprout, to bloom, to blossom or send out shoots, as well as to break out (for leprosy) and to fly. It is most commonly translated as "flourish" (10 times), followed by "bud" (5 times), "blossom" (4 times), etc., with "spring" occurring twice and "spring up" occurring just once.

More interesting might be Strong's H5927, 'alah, which can mean to ascend or climb, as in to spring up or grow for vegetation, or to come up (before God), to go up, to excel, to be superior, and even to be exalted. This combination of meanings, the vegetative springing up of a plant but also the rising up to exaltation or coming up before God could make this an ideal word to use in Alma 32.  

By using 'alah or a related word that can both reflect the climbing or growing of a tree as well as being exalted or coming up into the presence of God, then both Alma 32:41 and Alma 33:23 could function as a Janus parallelism in which that word does double duty, creating a parallel with the preceding portion of the verse related to the growth of a tree  while also creating a parallel related to entering into eternal life in the final portion of the verse based on an additional meaning related to exaltation or coming up before God.

This is a tentative proposal that has not been subject to peer review. As always, I may be completely wrong and, as always, I welcome your relatively civil feedback on this topic.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Jewish Copper Plates of Cochin, India and a Hint of an Ancient Jewish Tradition of Writing on Metal Plates

A recent post here critiqued an attempt to explain the origins of the book of Ether based on inspiration from a rare book, A Key to the Chronology of the Hindus from a man named Alexander Hamilton (not the US statesmen). After substantial revision, my post was just published on the Interpreter Foundation's blog as "Was a Rare Book on the Hindu Religion a Source for the Book of Ether?" To my surprise, a comment was posted there suggesting a more relevant book from Alexander Hamilton. It turns out this was yet another Alexander Hamilton, a Captain Alexander Hamilton who had experience in the "East Indies," including India. He published his story in another large book almost a century before his namesake's book on the Hindus came out. It's actually relevant to the Book of Mormon in a couple of ways.

Here is the comment made by someone posting as "RM":

Both Lindsay and Toponce swing and miss. I recommend reading the earlier texts of Alexander Hamilton, particularly those describing members of the House of Manasseh and their brass/copper plates containing “their own history from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar to this present time”. – A New Account of the East Indies

As in there were historical Israelites from the Tribe of Manasseh in this region of the world, and the accounts given by Hamilton were an accurate telling of their history.

Now that sounds much more interesting than what one can find in the later Hamilton's book, which is frankly a very poor candidate as a source for the Book of Mormon. Captain Alexander Hamilton first published his book in 1723, with some later editions. The 1744 edition is available at Google Books: https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_New_Account_of_the_East_Indies/-jNagGDT-PsC?hl=en&gbpv=1. Was A New Account of the East Indies available in the US for Joseph Smith the bookworm to access? Or could it at least have influenced his technical advisory team or Joseph's broad circles of literati

Unlike the later Hamilton's book, which wasn't widely distributed even in England where it was published, this earlier book had made it to the shores of the US by 1830 since the 1830 catalog of the library at Harvard shows it listed. However, it still may have been rather rare, for the Library of Congress, building upon Thomas Jefferson's vast library, did not obtain the book until 1904, based on my query with the extremely helpful Rare Books Collection team (email received Dec. 15, 2020). It wasn't in the noteworthy Rochester City Library in 1839. The 1821 catalog at the very large library of Allegheny College also fails to show this book. But at least we know that Harvard had it, so it's possible that Joseph's better educated farmer friends knew all about it, though given that its topic that would seem to have no value for Joseph or his peers and given the few words of material that intersects with Book of Mormon issues, it's unlikely this had any impact on Joseph and his environment. But if Joseph did read it, what would he have gleaned?

In discussing travels to India and beyond, the book raises the issue of the diaspora of the Jews on pages 323--325 (1744 edition), and mentions that some Jews in India said to be descended from the Jews who were carried away to Babylon during the Exile had a tradition about preserving their history on metal plates. Jews writing their history on metal plates? I've heard that somewhere before....

There is now a good body of evidence showing that other Jews and Semitic peoples had put various writings on metal (see https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1695&context=msr), but it was a source of mockery in Joseph’s day. For that Jewish colony in India, I don’t know what became of their recorded history on metal plates, if they really had one — there may be a sacred treasure waiting to be revealed sometime soon, for all I know — but the Jews of the colony appear to have had at least one important document on metal plates, an engraving of a royal charter for their colony from the king of Kerala about 1000 years ago and at least a replica of the plates still exists. See "Jewish Copper Plates of Cochin," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_copper_plates_of_Cochin. More on that issue in a moment.

Here is the relevant passage in Captain Alexander Hamilton’s book on p. 324:

They [the Jews in Cochin, India] have a Synagogue at Cochin, not far from the King’s Palace, about two Miles from the City, in which are carefully kept their Records, engraven in Copper-plates in Hebrew characters; and when any of the Characters decay, they are new cut, so that they can shew their own History, from the Reign of Nebuchadnezzar to the present Time....

They declare themselves to be of the Tribe of Manasseh....

While we don't know the details, this at least suggests that in a colony founded by ancient Jews there was an old tradition about preserving important documents on metal. Interesting.  Also interesting is the connection to the tribe of Manasseh, part of the tribe of Joseph, giving another connection to the Book of Mormon.

RM also offered a link to a source in India raising questions about the authenticity of the royal charter on copper plates. See "Few Translations of the Jewish Copper Plates and the Doubtful Authenticity of the Plates," Geopolitical Strategic and Security Studies Institute (GSSSI), India (no date). This reviews the history of the plates with the purported royal charter on them, discusses attempted translations, and raises questions about their authenticity. The focus is on Claudius Buchanan, who visited Cochin decades after Alexander Hamilton and allegedly purchased the plates with the royal charter and had a replica made. The replica had engravings on one side of two plates, while the original allegedly had both sides of a plate engraved. Here is an ancient drawing made of one part of the plates:


Jewish copper plates of Cochin (plate I, side I), a photo of 2-D artwork created before the 11th-century CE. Royal charter issued by the Chera/Perumal king of Kerala, south India to Joseph Rabban, a Jewish merchant magnate of Kodungallur. The charter shows the status and importance of the Jewish colony in Kodungallur (Cranganore) near Cochin, India. There were 28 lines on three sides of two copper plates dating to the early 11th century AD. Script: Vatteluttu (with Grantha/Southern Pallava Grantha script) Language, an early form of Malayalam. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, "Jewish Copper Plates of Cochin."

What happened to the plates? Were there ever real plates? Is it all just some kind of joke or fraud? GSSSI has many doubts, but, as shown in the paragraph below, they strike me as having a rather strong bias when they interpret the University of Cambridge's answer to their query as evidence of the "non-existence or loss of the original brass plates" when it seems that the reply simply means the University hasn't done any research on the plates yet. Plates that have a manuscript number in a university catalog is not the normal way of treating items that simply don't exist:

Buchanan writes in his Annual Report that the plates were originally in brass of which he made copper facsimiles. The original was engraved on both sides while the facsimiles were on two separate plates. He mentions that these plates were deposited in the Public Library at the University of Cambridge. But Thoufeek Zakriya, a researcher, mentions that in response to his inquiry to the Cambridge University, Ms. Catherine Ansorge, Head of Near Eastern Department, (manuscripts and printed Collections, Cambridge University Library) replied by a personal mail about the MsOo.1.14, Charter of Jews of Cochin, which was submitted by Dr. Claudius Buchanan stating “Oo.1.14 -- the texts are all written on rectangles of copper. I do not know of any studies which have been carried out on these” thus confirming the non-existence or loss of the original brass plates even in the Cambridge University or it is that the original brass  plate was never deposited by Claudius Buchanan but instead what he deposited was a copper facsimile. Buchanan also writes that the plates were taken to London. Does the brass plate still exist in London and if so in whose possession and why it has to be kept secret even from Indian historians is a ‘mystery’ yet to be solved.

Meanwhile, multiple studies have been published on the plates and scholars seem convinced that these are real, ancient, and non-fraudulent. See the Wikipedia article cited above and its sources, as well as the following: 

1.  Barbara C. Johnson, "New Research, Discoveries and Paradigms: A Report on the Current Study of Kerala Jews" in Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Nathan Katz et al. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 129-146, online at https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057%2F9780230603622_8. Here is an excerpt from pp. 129-130:

Fresh historical insight into the early Jewish community in Keralahas emerged from new publications by the esteemed Kerala historian M. G. S. Narayanan, professor and head of the Department of History Emeritus at Calicut University. More than thirty years had passed since the publication of his definitive analysis of the eleventh century Jewish copper plates, still a basic source for all scholarship in the field, when his very welcome renewal of interest in the Kerala Jews was marked by participation in two scholarly gatherings, in Oxford in 2002 and in Israel in 2005. In a 2003 article, he once again turned his scholarly attention to the copper plates, enriching his earlier analysis of their sociopolitical context, and in 2005 he analyzed the leadership position of copper plate recipient Joseph Rabban in the context of eleventh century Kerala society and politics. Both these papers drew extensively from and expanded on material and analysis in his recently published monumental study on Kerala in the ninth to twelfth centuries, Perumals of Kerala. It is hoped that this volume will soon be published for wider circulation.

In addition to the important work in this volume by Chakravarti and Weinstein on ancient and medieval contacts between India and Jews in other lands, mention should be made of a 1992 article by the Israeli scholar MeirBar Ilan, exploring contacts between the Jewish communities of Yemen andSouth India. This study is based on interpretation of the controversial eigh-teenth century Cochin Jewish chronicle “Maggid Hadashot,” which is unusual in locating the origin of the Kerala Jews in Yemen. Bar Ilan relates part of its contents to similar eighteenth century Hebrew compositions from Yemen about the history of the Yemenite Jews. He then investigates the possibility that at least some of the manuscripts which are mentioned in the chronicle were actually copies of ancient “lost” apocryphal books, preserved in Yemen and brought to Kerala at a much earlier time.Whatever questions there might be about his analysis of the origin of the chronicle and of the “lost books” mentioned in it, Bar Ilan’s article is valuable in its identification of sources on early contacts between Yemen and Kerala. This topic is of particular interest to scholars exploring Yemenite liturgical and musical influences in Kerala, and to those examining Malabari alternatives to the “Joseph Rabban/Cheraman Perumal/Kodungallur” legends, as found in several other Cochin chronicles and at least one Malayalam folksong.

2. M. G. S. Narayanan, "Further Studies in the Jewish Copper Plates of Cochin," Indian Historical Review, 29/1–2 (Jan. 2002):19-28, online at http://www.mei.org.in/uploads/jijscontent/59-1534436177-jijsarticlepdf.pdf.

Narayanan explains that the language on the plates is consistent with other engravings in that part of India anciently and follows unusual ancient patterns in which dates were sometimes split up, perhaps out of superstition. Such elements are subtle indications of authenticity and antiquity.

It's interesting that engravings on both stone and copper in that part of India were part of the local elite culture anciently. Did the Jewish tradition of engraving on metal influence their environment, or did the Jewish interest in metal engravings derive from their environment, or were both independent? I'm not sure and would appreciate your input if you're familiar with this issue.

In any case, while the 1821 book of Alexander Hamilton on the Hindus is not of much interest for understanding Book of Mormon, a Captain Alexander Hamilton almost a century earlier had one brief section in his large book that hints at what we know from other sources: some ancient Jews may have had a tradition of recording scripture and their own history on metal plates. In spite of his brief hint on this topic, the idea of ancient Hebrews writing on metal plates was widely mocked in Joseph's day and was not part of common knowledge in Joseph's environment. 

Also of interest is the connection of the Cochin Jews to the ancient Jews in Yemen, some of whom Lehi and his family may have encountered, especially when they came to the place that others, perhaps local Yemeni Jews, called Nahom, likely in the region of the tribal lands for the ancient Nihm tribe of Yemen. That region is about 25 miles north of Sana'a and in just about the only place where one can leave the general scope of the Incense Trail and turn nearly due east with a chance of surviving and not only reaching the coast of Oman, but reaching the miraculous but real place called Bountiful. 

For Lehi's family, meeting a group of Jews at Nahom would have been a miraculous blessing that would have made it possible to give a proper Jewish burial to Ishmael, whose burial at Nahom is recorded in 1 Nephi in the Book of Mormon.  Note that Captain Hamilton is not aware of the Yemen connection and writes that the Jews of Cochin fled from Babylon after the Exile. But if they were from the Northern Kingdom, as suggested by their tribal affiliation, they might have been part of the many Hebrews who fled the Assyrian invasion by going to Yemen. Perhaps some later sailed from there for India?

There's much to explore here. I'm grateful for the kind leads provided by RM and welcome any further information you may have. 

Here are some images the Library of Congress kindly sent me of two of their copies of Captain Hamilton's books in their Rare Books Collection, both showing acquisition long after Joseph Smith's day. Beautiful books! And they come with a tiny treasure that intersects lightly with our  Book of Mormon and hints at further treasures to uncover.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Religious Liberty: Have We Forgotten the Pain of the Hutterites?

College students these days learn what a wise leader President Woodrow Wilson was, a good progressive. An example of the positive summary of his work is the historical summary of President Wilson offered in the Obama White House Archives at Archive.org. Nothing to dislike there. But  President Wilson needs to be remembered every time we think about religious freedom, for reasons you aren't going to hear from the progressive media or from typical college professors. 

Wilson's stance on religious liberty is one that should give us more than pause. It should motivate us to stand up against the increasing spirit of hostility toward religious liberty that is rising in this and other nations. More on that later, but first let's review what happened to religious liberty under Wilson. We'll see that we Latter-day Saints, as much as we love to recall the religious persecution our people faced in the distant past, aren't the only ones who have suffered and even died for our religion within the borders of this free land. The story of the Hutterites, the small religious group that ended up fleeing from our nation to seek relief from religious persecution, is one that we need to review and teach to our people, our families, and our communities that we may not let such persecution arise again. 

Please read "How Woodrow Wilson Persecuted Hutterites Who Refused to Support His War" by Lawrence W. Reed at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE.org). It describes the background of the Hutterites, a religious minority that came to the US to escape persecution in Europe. Their refusal to participate in war would make them a target when Wilson sought to bring "unity" to America to ensure that everyone supported World War I, the war Wilson claimed would make the world "safe for democracy." The Hutterites, however, due to their religious beliefs, were not willing to take up weapons and support his war. Lawrence Reed's article explains the price they paid for following their religion. Here is an excerpt:

Wilson signed the Selective Service Act into law in May 1917, setting the stage for the administration’s inevitable conflict with conscientious objectors, for whom no provision or exception was made. A quarter century later during World War II, objectors were offered alternative service, but not under Wilson, the “compassionate” progressive. 
At induction centers where young men reported for military duty, Hutterite men were pressured both physically and psychologically. This passage from Hostetler’s book will leave you wondering how such a travesty could ever occur in the land of the free and the home of the brave:

At Camp Funston some of the men were brutally handled in the guardhouse. They were bayoneted, beaten, and tortured by various forms of water “cure.” Jakob S. Waldner, who retains an extensive diary of his experiences in the camp, was thrown fully clothed into a cold shower for twenty minutes for refusing a work order. After such cold showers, the men were often thrown out of a window and dragged along the ground by their hair and feet by soldiers who were waiting outside. Their beards were disfigured to make them appear ridiculous.

One night, eighteen men were aroused from their sleep and held under cold showers until one of them became hysterical. Others were hung by their feet above tanks of water until they almost choked to death. On many days they were made to stand at attention on the cold side of their barracks, in scant clothing, while those who passed by scoffed at them in abusive and foul language. They were chased across the fields by guards on motorcycles under the guise of taking exercise, until they dropped from sheer exhaustion. In the guardhouse they were usually put on a diet of bread and water. Such experiences were common to all sincere conscientious objectors, including Mennonites and those of other religious faiths.

A delegation of Hutterite ministers traveled to Washington in August 1917, hoping to advise President Wilson personally of their concerns. The most they got was a meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, who blew them off with meaningless assurances and did nothing. The guilt for what happened next lies not only with the men who personally perpetrated the deed, but also just as surely with the administration that allowed it to happen and that cared nothing for those to whom it happened.

At Fort Lewis, Washington, four Hutterite men reported as ordered but refused to sign admission papers or put on army uniforms. For their sincere, faith-based convictions, they were tossed into the guardhouse for two months, then sentenced to 37 years in prison. Hostetler reveals,

They were taken to the notorious military prison at Alcatraz, attended by four armed lieutenants who kept them handcuffed during the day and chained by the ankles to each other at night. At Alcatraz they again refused to put on military uniforms. They were then taken to a ‘dungeon’ of darkness, filth and stench and put in solitary confinement out of earshot of each other.

Four months later, the men were remanded to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to serve out the remaining years of their sentences. The abuse heaped upon them there was unspeakably worse than at Alcatraz. Two of the men—brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer—became so ill from the experience they required hospitalization. Their wives, suspecting the worst, traveled by train to Kansas to see their husbands. Citing Hostetler once again,

After losing a day, the women arrived at midnight to find their husbands nearly dead. When they returned in the morning, Joseph was dead. The guards refused his wife, Maria, permission to see the dead body. In tears, she pleaded with the colonel and was finally taken to the casket only to find that her husband’s body had been dressed in the military uniform he had so adamantly refused to wear. Michael Hofer died two days later. The wives and a few other relatives accompanied the bodies to their home community, where their enormous funeral seared Hutterite minds with the price of true apostolic faith.

All through the summer and fall of 1918, the Hutterite colonies in the Dakotas and Montana suffered intolerable abuses from local citizens and officials for their German ancestry, their opposition to military service in general, and their refusal to buy the government’s Liberty Bonds in particular. Their sheep and cattle were seized and sold at auction to purchase the bonds their rightful owners would not buy. Finally, the Hutterites did what they had been forced to do so many times before: Nearly the entire population of Hutterites in America—an estimated 11,000—left the country. They migrated to Canada.

What did Woodrow Wilson say or do about the atrocities against the Hutterites? Sadly, just about nothing. Historian Stoltzfus reports that when businessman Theodore Lunde published pamphlets about what occurred at Leavenworth, Wilson tried to silence him and the journalists he was collaborating with:

…Wilson urged Attorney General Gregory to consider charging Lunde with treason for publishing criticisms of the government. “There are many instances of this sort and one conviction would probably scotch a great many snakes,” the president said.

Wilson had no qualms about jailing people he disagreed with, even after the war was over in November 1918. With Wilson’s full support, the Palmer Raids rounded up thousands of Americans in 1920—the vast majority of them for no greater offense than opposing the Wilson administration.

May we remember the Hutterites, their courage and their pain.  May we resist increasing intrusions of religious liberty in our day. Fortunately, conscientious objectors to military service are treated better these days. But I worry at the numerous governors and mayors who see religion as such an annoyance or threat that religious communities need to be forbidden from meeting while massive marches and protests are viewed with approval, while gathering by the hundreds at Walmart and other well-connected establishments is a sacred privilege. In many communities, rules for religious gatherings have been imposed that are far more stringent than rules for liquor stores or marijuana ships, and some have the gall to lecture religious people about the adequacy of praying in private. 

Government has no right to tell us how to worship. The vast majority of our nation's religious groups have show a willingness to take the COVID virus seriously, and many have shown that gatherings can still occur without creating great pubic danger. American's religious groups in general have taken the virus far more seriously than the politicians and petty tyrants who tell us to stay home while they travel freely, who tell us to celebrate the holidays alone while they and their families gather together,  who arbitrarily tell us which businesses must be shut down and be sacrificed while their pay checks are secure at our expense, who tell us to quit traveling while they vacation where they want to, who tell us to eat at home while they eat out in groups at the lucky restaurants they haven't destroyed yet. And then these great theologians tell us that we don't need to gather as religious communities, because the important thing is that we can always pray to God while we cower alone in our basements hiding from the world and from life as they command. 

Let them worship as they will, but respect the religious liberty that is supposed to be at the heart of this nation. 

May we not forget the Hutterites. It happened to them under the watch of a supposedly compassionate, humanitarian man who proclaimed the importance of liberty and democracy. It can happen again, in different ways, for different reasons, if we neglect our rights and allow them to be trampled upon.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

"From Whence They Can No More Return": What Lehi Teaches Us About the Book of Mormon's Harsh Language on Hell

The Book of Mormon's teachings on hell sometimes sound much harsher than what we understand from modern revelation. From Joseph's Smith's revelations, such as his vision on the three degrees of glory in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants and his revelations pertaining to the salvation of the dead and baptism for the dead, we know that many who die without having accepted Christ or without even having heard of Him will have a fair chance to hear and accept the Gospel. We also know that for almost all the wicked who have lived on this planet, the place or condition we call hell is ultimately only temporary for them, though the concept of hell itself is eternal and language about eternal punishment is ambiguous on purpose to stir men up to repentance, as explained in Section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants (but yes, those who go to the Telestial Kingdom after suffering for their own sins in hell are eternally cut off from the presence of God and Christ, and do not return to them in the Celestial Kingdom).

It is only the sons of perdition who seem to be cast into hell forever, those who fully know the reality of God and Christ and openly fight against them and consent to the killing of Christ--but even then we don't actually know what their end is, if any, so it may not be fair to assume their suffering is endless. Section 76 tells us that the sons of perdition go "into everlasting punishment, which is eternal punishment" (Doctrine and Covenants 76:44). Here we must note that God's punishment by definition is "eternal punishment" since God is eternal, as explained in Section 19, but that doesn't mean that those who suffer such punishment suffer it forever.  Is that the case here as well? We don't know, for the next verse tell us this about their torment: "the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows" (Doctrine and Covenants 76:45). If we don't know the end, it's possible there is one. We don't know. 

Likewise, the warning against falling into "eternal death" (2 Nephi 2:29) does not mean one will never be resurrected, but that one is cast out from God's presence and will "die as to things pertaining to things of righteousness" (Alma 40:26), things which I suggest relate to the majesties of the Celestial Kingdom that the unpenitent wicked will not experience. 

I raise these points because language in the Book of Mormon seems to reflect the view that there is either eternal heaven or eternal hell. Perhaps the strongest language on this point speaks of "never returning" from that state. For example, King Benjamin in Mosiah 2 said:

23 And now I have spoken the words which the Lord God hath commanded me.

24 And thus saith the Lord: They shall stand as a bright testimony against this people, at the judgment day; whereof they shall be judged, every man according to his works, whether they be good, or whether they be evil.

25 And if they be evil they are consigned to an awful view of their own guilt and abominations, which doth cause them to shrink from the presence of the Lord into a state of misery and endless torment, from whence they can no more return; therefore they have drunk damnation to their own souls.

26 Therefore, they have drunk out of the cup of the wrath of God, which justice could no more deny unto them than it could deny that Adam should fall because of his partaking of the forbidden fruit; therefore, mercy could have claim on them no more forever.

27 And their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever. Thus hath the Lord commanded me. Amen. 

Then in 3 Nephi 27, Christ says something similar. Speaking of those who build up false churches not founded upon His Gospel and in His name, He said:

11 But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return. 

 Then speaking of the day of judgment, He said:

16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.

17 And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father. 

So it sounds like those who build up false churches or those who fall away from and reject the Gospel will suffer in hell forever. Isn't that rather harsh? How can that be squared with the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Please note that these scriptures may be examples of the forceful but ambiguous language Doctrine and Covenants 19 speaks of. In fact, they do not say that the wicked or those who rebel will be in hell forever. They will be cast into the fire/torment/hell, but rather than saying they remain forever, instead these verses declare that they don't return. Return? Return to where? This is a critical issue for understanding the scriptures. The verb return requires a frame of reference. Return to where? If I leave Wisconsin by going to China and never return, that doesn't require that I stay in China forever. I may be in China for a week, then go to Europe or New Zealand for years. 

The Book of Mormon concept of "from whence" one does not "return" has to be considered in light of the earliest use of this language in Father Lehi's farewell speech: 

Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.  (2 Nephi 1:14)

Lehi is bidding farewell to his family and speaks of going soon to the grave, "from whence no traveler can return." So did Lehi mean that for him there would be no resurrection? That he would be dead forever? If so, why did he then go on to bear witness of Christ and the Resurrection, telling us that Christ would "bring to pass the resurrection of the dead" (2 Nephi 2:8)? But here it is clear what Lehi's frame of reference is: the mortal world. Lehi will die and will never return to be among his family and be part of this mortal life. But he knew that he would rise again and have eternal life. But once he died, he would never return to mortality.

So what is the frame of reference in the other verses speaking of the wicked never returning? Obviously, once the wicked are judged by Christ, they are sent out of His presence and will not return to Him and the Father. The language in Mosiah 3:25 is explicitly in the context of the day of judgment, where Christ is the judge. The frame of reference is the presence of Christ. 3 Nephi 27:11 is implicitly referring to the results that come on the day of judgement and 3 Nephi 27:17 also follows an explicit reference to the Father and the Son and the day of judgement in the previous verse. 

The wicked who are cast out of the presence of Christ do not return to Him, but that does not mean they suffer as if they were sons of perdition. Their pains will be great (thus Christ begs us to repent that we may be spared from the pain our sins can bring in Doctrine and Covenants 19), their regret may endure, but they will not rot in hell forever and will at last obtain a merciful kingdom of glory, though far short of what the Father hoped they would receive.

Like Lehi never returning from the grave, the language about the wicked never returning from hell needs to be followed by the simple question: return to where? With the right frame of reference, and through considering the Lord's intent in motivating us to repent, the Book of Mormon's language may fit the more extensive revelations of the modern Church better than we may have realized. 

Update, Dec. 31, 2020: Mormon 9:13 provides another clear indication about the limits on the words "eternal" and "endless" as Moronu  explains that through the Resurrection of Christ, we will all awake  from the "endless sleep" of death and be freed from the "eternal band of death." I discuss this in a subsequent post.