Today in Gospel Doctrine I played the role of Devil’s advocate. I spent the last 10 or 15 minutes leading a discussion about the children who died when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, when God sent the Flood, when Christ died on the cross and Nephite cities were burned, buried, and sunk, and when Alma and Amulek watched as women and children were burned to death before their eyes.
Several of the commenters sought to defend God’s justice using familiar arguments (like the idea that there are some things worse than death) or evasions (like the idea that maybe there were no children in Sodom who were not already engaged in or tainted by sin). Some of these arguments make more sense than others to me, but for me no combination makes the problem go away entirely. The whole idea of using modern reasoning to try and justify these stories seems futile given the existence of ancient explanations that are, themselves, just as bad.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also 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.
11 But 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 14:10-11)
The idea that women and children had to die an agonizing death—and that Alma and Amulek had to witness it—so that God’s subsequent additional violence would be justified seems like a fairly horrific chain of logic. Amulek’s next statement was, “Behold, perhaps they will burn us also.” I imagine he may have said it with longing in his voice. I’m not even sure how to read Alma’s response: “Be it according to the will of the Lord. But, behold, our work is not finished; therefore they burn us not.” I hope I’m never in a position to understand it.
Perhaps Alma’s rationalization is correct, and then we have to doubt our own moral compass. Perhaps Alma’s rationalization was wrong, but he sincerely believed it. Then we have to wonder at the cultural distance between ourselves and the Book of Mormon and—once again—wonder where our own cultural blind spots lie. Or maybe Alma’s rationalization as wrong, and even he didn’t believe it. He was just doing the best he could, like we do. Which of these options is supposed to be comforting?
My first ethics professor taught me that we should read every argument twice. One with maximum skepticism, to find all the flaws. Once with maximum generosity, so that we do not miss anything that is beautiful or true, even in a flawed argument.
So yes: I disagreed with some of the impromptu theodicies I heard today. The justifications for violent commission and heartbreaking omission did not satisfy me. But at the same time, I want to honor the righteous willingness of people to speak up publicly in defense of their Father.
We are children. In all probability, the logic of our arguments is silly to God’s perspective. Just as silly as the heated debates my 5 and 7 year old get into about everything from natural disasters to homonyms. More often than not, neither one of them makes enough sense to qualify as wrong. But even children can reflect true nobility. The dogged willingness to be thought a fool rather to stay silent and leave Heavenly Father undefended exhibits childlike discipleship. When the Lord taught hard things, after all, His apostles could do no better:
67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. (John 6:67-68)
Peter didn’t have the answer. He also didn’t have any other place to go. Sometimes that’s the best we can do. In Christ’s mercy it is enough.
I tried to speak politely and encouragingly to the respondents during the lesson while at the same time making the point that their explanations were not sufficient for everyone. Obviously I didn’t want to shake testimonies or attack faith, and so I bore my testimony sincerely that I had frequently felt the love of a Heavenly Father, and believed that He does love us all. But at the same time, I wanted to demystify the experience of mystery. Confusion should not be a novelty. Perplexity should not be something we feel ashamed about and seek to hide. The same Gospel that comforts us in our darkest hours of need is also a painful goad when we feel complacent. We are consoled on the one hand and challenged on the other. I wanted to create a sense of safety for those who wrestle secretly with doubt, and call those who are more secure to a sense of compassion. We all experience both sides of that coin at various points during our lives.
I think these are important goals. I hope I achieved them, or at least made some progress in that direction. But as I closed the lesson I had that feeling of having left something undone or unsaid. I tried to figure it out before the clock ran down, but it was only after the closing prayer had been said and the class dismissed that I was able to put my finger on it. I hadn’t said thank you.
I hadn’t expressed my gratitude and respect for the folks who played God’s advocate to my Devil’s advocate. It’s become something of a fashion these days to talk about doubt, and I believe that recognition of our uncertainties and limitations is of vital importance. But so is a willingness to risk being wrong in the interests of trying to say or do or believe something true. Doubt is a part of the larger experience of faith, but it is not the whole experience. Someone needs to play the role of promoter of the cause.
Those who are deeply troubled by the stories of pain and suffering in the scriptures or in the news may see the insufficiency of the answers God’s advocates can provide, and assume that the answers must be glib and cheap if the people who offer them really accept them. There’s a dangerous kind of smugness to that attitude. After all, which of us who have not seen what Alma has seen has any right to judge his heart?
It’s a mistake to assume only those of us who wrestle with doubt outwardly wrestle with doubt.
I would liked to have been in your class. What comes to my mind isn’t concrete, it’s my own wanderings and coming to a conclusion that seems logical to me. I’m sure you’ve already thought of this yourself.
First, the phrase, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust,” has always brought me comfort. Tragedies, punishments, innocents will be caught in the crossfire. Whatever the circumstance, it will affect the wicked and the innocent.
The other question that comes to mind is, the children of these cities were probably taught to sin and would have continued in sin. The only way they had a chance at being “saved” was for the Lord to take them. In a way that makes sense, when I hear of the cycles of chemical or sexual abuse in families and how it is difficult to break them.
Lastly, I wonder if Alma was constrained because the Lord needed the “evidence.” That may sound harsh, but in a court of law, we use evidence to convict the guilty. Like a court of law, I wonder if the Lord needs the evidence to convict the wicked on judgement day. There are many references in the scriptures, perhaps intent isn’t enough, to judge them, he needs them to commit the act and have “blood” on their hands?
Thank you for letting me wonder aloud. We will be discussing this very lesson on Sunday. So perhaps I’ll gain more insight….perhaps not.
Having been there — with “that explanation doesn’t work for everyone” — this is a good reminder. I’ve been guilty of smugness. But less so today. Thanks.
I wish I’d written this, and I’m glad I read it. Thanks, Nathaniel.
Great post, Nathaniel. Thanks.
Thank you for writing and sharing these ideas.
I have found myself reluctant “to speak up publicly in defense of [my] Father” out of sheer inadequacy against the apparent strength of the arguments expressed by the advocates of the other side.
After reading your post, I feel much more encouraged to “risk being wrong in the interests of trying to say or do or believe something true”.
I have never wanted to be an apologist; but now I do want to be an advocate.
I’ve thought of that a few times when reading the scriptures. I’ll bet that Enos seemed like a Peter Priesthood/perfect son before the events shown in the book of Enos, but we can see from that book that he had plenty of doubts.
Sometimes I feel like when the prophets say “doubt not, fear not” it’s almost as much of a mantra to help themselves remember as much as it is a reminder for us.
When Katrina destroyed New Orleans, there was a prominent man of religion who blamed it on the evils of the city. Our Church moved promptly away from that interpretation. Why? There is plenty of Biblical precedent for natural disasters being inflicted upon evil places by God. Why do we hesitate to see the Lord’s wrath in current events, but openly accept it in the distant past? Maybe Sodom, like New Orleans, was just one of those unfortunate natural disasters that cannot be helped and which, in retrospect, was attributed to God’s wrath by those who wrote the scriptures.
I think if we are going to stop crying death and destruction to the wicked every time a hurricane makes its way up the coast (and I believe it is good that we do stop) than we need to stop seeing scriptural natural disasters as signs of God’s anger. I think, for consistency’s sake, we have no other choice.
It is going to be a long year in GD class. A long year, indeed.
Every Lucky needs a Pozzo I guess.
Obviously I have no answer either, other than to note that the people I’ve known who have gone for the jugular to judge God for allowing that — and other, more current — violent injustice to occur, are too often those who are looking for something to justify their own impending apostasy. God gave us this world as a place to live and learn, the REAL “Survivor” story. It’s complex, we have a plan to follow, people get hurt and die, and even our own lives end up being less admirable than we would have hoped. I don’t think death is sweet, but I am able to believe that in some cases, including the group who were burned in the Book of Mormon, it is far sweeter than the observers could perceive. Dying is usually the part that’s toughest, but look what happened to the Savior. How can we hope for what He offers if we aren’t willing to suffer our brand of His suffering? The other unanswered question is, Did they know and agree to such prior to their birth? Too many unanswered questions to claim the power of judging.
“… the children of these cities were probably taught to sin and would have continued in sin.”
That is to say, ‘nits make lice’. Amanda Smith refers to the men who disposed of the “nit” that was her son, Sardius, as “monsters”. Were they ‘Satan’s monsters’? Are there those who serve as ‘God’s monsters’? Wherein lies the difference? Does a ‘godly end’ justify any means? Are there ‘ungodly means’?
That is why spiritual things can’t possibly be fully explained. We can share what we have found on our individual journeys through life, but we can’t point the exact way on someone else’s map.
As a “crypto-marcionite” I do not have a great problem with the theodicy of the Old Testament. Without Christ and his teachings, it was much easier to justify an angry and violent God and use Him to create a rationale for evil acts. I believe if one looks at the genocide of the Medianites in Numbers 31, we can understand why Marcion had such a large following in the early Church
Did any of your answers include agency?
One one does not doubt (ever), then one needs no faith.
And that, in the end, is what Christ Jesus is looking for.
NG, I disagree with your thesis. There is value in offering possibilities the truth of which we’re uncertain, but it is damaging to state as knowledge things we do not know. What would have been wrong with Alma saying, “I don’t know, Amulek. It’s terrible and I believe it’s for a good reason, like…?” Maybe such a qualifier would have been understood between the two of them and did not need to spoken, but at least in modern Western cultures such qualifiers needs to be explicit. Otherwise, we are potentially misleading others with awareness (at least we should be aware) and that’s dishonest. I always find dishonesty damaging and constraining, even when well-intentiond. The truth shall set you free.
To be honest, the truth shall set you free may be a noble lie.
Regarding the tragic examples of death portrayed in the scriptures and the various explanations supporters use as justification. My favorite one is from Hebrews and creates the impression that we saw things differently while in pre-mortality, kind of a risk-reward approach to mortality.
Hebrews 11:35-40 JS Translation
35 Women received their dead raised to life again; and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain the first resurrection;
36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment;
37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
38 Of whom the world was not worthy; they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promises;
40 God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.
The way I view it is that Alma wasn’t being deceitful, but simply expressing what he truly believed at that time.
“I wanted to demystify the experience of mystery.”
Great line. This is an excellent post.
And it pricks my conscience. I am ashamed of my tendency to be dismissive of the members of my ward who seem to have such easy answers for everything. Thanks for the reminder not to feel superior in my own status as wrestler-with-doubts and asker-of-hard-questions.
“I wanted to demystify the experience of mystery.”
I hope when you do this you promote humility of pronouncements and not a sacralization of incoherence. It seems to me that it is often the case that the more mystery and less evidence, the more heatedly people maintain their conclusions, intuitively realizing that there is nothing else with which to convince people.
In my GD class on Noah and the flood this year, the teacher was trying to see what it means to us today. There was a mix of literal and non-literal interpretations and a mix of understandings of what it meant to be thinking of evil continually and what our society is like today on the spectrum between the two.
I found the discussion very difficult because everyone had such radically different starting points. My ward seems to have entered something of a moral worldview tower of babel phase. Its not mysterious to me that we have, but recognizing we’re all blind does not make conversations more coherent or fruitful.
I’m troubled by the characterization of Alma’s words, “…that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just” as a rationalization to make “God’s subsequent additional violence… justified”. Is it really a “horrific chain of logic” to recognize that we are all judged according to our thoughts and actions and not for what we might do if given the opportunity? David O. McKay said, “Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man.” That gift is given to all, not just the righteous.
There is no malice in the judgments of our Father in Heaven and no end to the love and compassion he has for his children.
Does knowing this take away the compassion and sorrow we feel for the righteous who were martyred on that day? Is that the comfort that we seek? These are the feelings that move us to action on behalf of our brothers and sisters.
President Uchtdorf has counseled us to doubt our doubts before we doubt our faith. Faith in a loving Father in Heaven and in gospel principles that we’ve learned through living them, strengthen us when we don’t fully understand the painful experiences of life.
May our efforts to draw people into discussions and encourage the sharing of testimonies and insights always result in an increase of faith and commitment.
Matt: thanks for being an advocate for God!
Carey, there’s a difference between believing and knowing. Alma understood that.
Mtnmarty, I don’t think I could believe in a Savior who would lie, even “nobly” (if such a thing is possible).
How about a Savior that “oversimplifies”?
As others have intimated, I think it is a grave error to blindly accept any statement in the scriptures or from a modern church leader that gives God “credit” or assigns Him “blame” for the destruction of a city or the death of innocents. All too often, this strikes me as a pathetic, reductionist attempt to rationalize the tragedy, evil, and simple bad luck that randomly strikes all of us, to some degree, during our lives.
Once you question the assertion that God is the author of these disasters and devastations, there is much less need to defend Him.
mtnmarty, this isn’t a great method or forum for such a discussion, but I’ll just say, technically, no. I believe in a Savior that simplifies, but not one that oversimplifies. I believe in the Obi Wan Kenobi principal (the truth has many points of view) but not in the Santa Claus principal (I’ll tell you a “beneficent” lie).