If I Didn’t Believe, Part I: The Joseph Smith Trilemma, the Book of Mormon Translation, and the Witnesses

Like a lot of people who have gone through faith crises, I’ve spent some time thinking through the alternative to belief in the Church’s truth claims. If we assume that the Church isn’t what it says it is, what is the best explanation for the Church and its related claims that make sense of the data? At the outset I should note that I am indeed a believer, and that this picture was developed from faith crises of the past and isn’t reflective of anything I’m currently going through. 

Joseph Smith Trilemma

C.S. Lewis famously stated that the only logical options for Christ was that he was divine, evil, or insane, thus logically negating the option of the not divine, albeit good, wise teacher that is a favorite among a certain class of intellectual Christian. I’m not going to argue for or against Lewis’ trilemma here, but rather use it as a framework to approach Joseph Smith. 

On the one hand, the Book of Mormon seems to logically close off the possibility of deluded-but-sincere. To create a complex backstory across multiple years, arrange for witnesses, dictate the manuscript, and arrange for its publication would require a lot of concerted intentionality. If the Church was based solely on a kind of beatific vision a la the first vision, I would definitely see this as a more plausible scenario, but the Book of Mormon seems to mitigate against the sincerity thesis. 

On the other hand, Smith’s writings clearly impress upon readers the sincerity of his religious convictions. The nail in the coffin here for me was Don Bradley’s excellent piece about the role of the Book of Abraham in the translation of the Kinderhook plates, which solidly convinced me that, whatever else can be said about the Book of Abraham translation, that Smith himself believed that the spiritually directed translation was valid, since, without a lot of fanfare that took almost two centuries to uncover, he privately used it as the basis for his attempts to translate the Kinderhook plates. 

Consequently, if I were to categorize Joseph Smith from a non-believing perspective, I think the story that best fits the data is that he started it as an intentional fraud, but eventually came to believe his own prophetic role himself after the Book of Mormon but by the Nauvoo-era. 

The Witnesses

The witnesses to the plates are a stronger point for the Church than a lot of critics are willing to acknowledge. Still, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and while the witnesses’ accounts and faith in the Book of Mormon even after leaving the Church are an objectively strong point in the Church’s favor, in and of themselves they’re not enough to hang a religious belief hat onto (for example, I’m not going to become Catholic because of the Miracle of the Sun that was reportedly witnessed by many people). If there was a similar situation for another faith it wouldn’t be enough for me to convert to that faith, for example, but it would be a supplement to other reasons to convert, and I think that’s what the witnesses give us as believers. Given the historical record, from a non-believing perspective I think the most likely explanation for the witnesses was some kind of collective delusion, or maybe a collective delusion for the three that saw the angel, and a prop for the others. This would be hard to pull off for Joseph Smith, but whatever the case the conspiracy hypothesis is clearly out given everything that happened afterwards. Also, I’ve always felt that the “when they said they saw it they didn’t mean that they saw it” just because of some statements decades later that emphasized the spiritual nature of the experience to be a little clasping-at-strawish. Even if I didn’t believe in the truth claims, I’d still believe that the witnesses believed that they actually saw plates. 

The Book of Mormon

As someone who got a B- in Book of Mormon at BYU, I can personally attest to the complexity of its narrative. To create such a book would be hard enough, but to do so off the top of one’s head while dictating extemporaneously would have required savant-level brilliance. People who think he could have dictated it off the top of his head have never tried to read it carefully and keep all the characters, numbers, and storylines straight. Consequently, if we assume a naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon, he must have had another document he was reading from. However, having a copy doesn’t make sense with the 116 pages, or else he could have just redone it with the extra copy. Consequently, I think the most plausible scenario is that after, but not before, the 116 pages episode he wrote it first, then dictated from that copy, or at the very least a detailed crib sheet of some sort. 

Again, do I think this is what actually happened? No, but if for some reason I were to lose my faith I think these are the most plausible scenarios.

12 comments for “If I Didn’t Believe, Part I: The Joseph Smith Trilemma, the Book of Mormon Translation, and the Witnesses

  1. I think everyone that studies our history has to ask themselves was JS a “prophet, seer, revelator” or an amazing conman. With the info that is available to those who research, I believe that you can prove both to be true with the same material. I think this is why both camps have strong convictions in what they believe. The more I study the more it is clear to me that God wanted it this way. He made sure there was just enough info to believe and not believe leaving the seeker/reader to go to Him for the answers. How easy it would be for God to have just one verse of the BoM to be found on an ancient rock or building to validate to the world the book is ancient scripture? He wants people to go to Him for the answers and learn what revelation is IMO. With that revelation one can lose faith in the church and its “stuff”, but not in the Gospel of Christ restored by JS. The Gospel is true, the church has lots of warts to deal with.

    Stephen – Has anyone explained to you how JS read from a document in a dark hat? Love to hear how he pulled that off!

  2. Interesting list. For a story that seems so fantastic on its face, the historical evidence is surprisingly difficult to deal with. Like if I wanted detailed notes to help me translate, it seems like the easiest place to put them would be on the surface of the plates themselves (but then why that hat and seer stone, as REC911 notes?). Speaking of which, what do you think is the most plausible naturalistic explanation for the existence of the plates in the first place? None of the proposals strike me as really plausible (carved rocks aren’t really interchangeable with metal plates, metal plates are expensive and laborious to produce, etc.).

  3. Great post Stephen. When I was first investigating the Church, the easy answer was that he made it all up. It’s funny to me that the deeper I went, the burden on Joseph became impossibly large and would make him not only a great conman, but one of the greatest scam artists of human history. It’s funny how the “stone in hat” thing is a new favorite Anti meme, because this translation technique to me makes the task Joseph completed even more incredible (as REC911 noted).

  4. Johnathan – We dont talk much about one of the main purposes of the BoM and that is to back up the Bible and prove that there was in fact a Savior. If one studies the HISTORY of the Bible, which most members do not, the bible and how it was written is very questionable. We dont have the originals or “author copies” of the 4 gospels that share the Jesus story. The Gospel Of Matthew really should be called “The Story of Matthew written by someone that we have no idea who was”. Mark, Luke and John are in the same boat. There are literally thousands of “copies” of the 4 gospels through the ages and they are all a bit different. So we believe in 4 books about Jesus and have no idea who wrote them. When I studied this I looked at the BoM a lot different.
    – One version carefully guarded for generations then kept in the care of angels.
    – Written on a substance that will stand the test of time.
    -Written in a language that required the translator to have the power of God.
    – Written in the first person….”I Nephi” not in the third person of an unknown writer telling Luke’s story.

    I think the Bible will fall victim to the cancel culture some day and the BoM will be the witness to help people believe in the bible again. IMO.

  5. @ REC911: Yes, presumably the dark hat stage of the dictation was extemporaneous. That was one method among others.
    “The more I study the more it is clear to me that God wanted it this way. “
    I agree. Enough to not make faith unreasonable, but also not so much so as to not require faith.

    @Jonathan: I think the best naturalistic explanation would either be that there was some sort of a prop made from tin, or that he was pretending to move the plates around when he really wasn’t. Like you said, not plausible, but if there were other reasons for not believing I’d think it’d be one of those options.

    @Helaman: Agreed. It’s interesting how many people think that it’s all just a kid who came up with a random story that somehow caught on and launched a thousand missionary ships (e.g. JK Rowling’s bit about only Joseph Smith seeing the plates that she, to her credit, backed away from after people pointed out that others had seen them).

  6. I currently live in an area of the world where I am a minority in a sea of Muslims. I recently read an Islamic tract (yes, these exist) ”selling” the religion and I’ve read about half the Quran. Between these two materials, it has struck me as incredible how similar Joseph and Mohammad were.

    I’m starting to think that:
    1) if Joseph was a con man, he took a page from Mohammad’s play book
    2) if Joseph was a prophet, maybe he was God’s way to counter Mohammad
    3) maybe Mohammad was a prophet like Joseph

  7. “I think everyone that studies our history has to ask themselves was JS a “prophet, seer, revelator” or an amazing conman.”

    What false dichotomy means:
    / ?f?ls da??k?t ? mi / PHONETIC RESPELLING. noun. a logical fallacy in which a spectrum of possible options is misrepresented as an either-or choice between two mutually exclusive things.

  8. The Book of Mormon is ahistorical; Joseph Smith was not a con man. “American genius” is as close as we’re likely to get, but even Harold Bloom admitted this description is woefully inadequate.

  9. I would add that not only does the complexity of the Book of Mormon far exceed anyone’s ability to create off the top of their head–the theological depth also exceeds the wisdom of the religious wisest since the time of the Savior.

  10. While I admire a bunch of the comments in relation to the complexity and genius of the Book of Mormon, there are other, contemporary examples of similar work (see the 7th Day Adventists for starters).

    It’s not wise to place a testimony on ‘complexity’ of the Book of Mormon. Not that anyone’s doing it, but it sure seems like that’s the route some of these comments are leading. So strange to see from the more ‘true blue’ crowd.

  11. Brian, you’ll have to explain what you mean, because there really aren’t a lot of good parallels to the Book of Mormon. Quite a few recorded visions and revelations, of course, but really not anything presented as a centuries-spanning historical narrative. It’s really unusual, and not nearly as easy to explain away as the gift of gab as someone might think. The presumed sources and cultural influences don’t accord well with Joseph Smith’s biography to that point, which is why there have been a few centuries’ worth of theories to identify some other person as the author. It’s not proof that the Book of Mormon is divine revelation, but it’s weird enough that a naturalistic explanation is harder than one might think. Or looking at it the other way, believing the Book of Mormon is scripture is a lot easier than it could be.

  12. @Brian, I’m not sure where you’re getting that we’re going down a “route” where our testimonies hinge on the complexity of the Book of Mormon. If my testimony needed to hinge on some sort of physical evidence like that, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to become religious. I mostly just think it’s interesting to discuss. I’m sure that others feel a similar way–we have other reasons for our faith, but it’s not like the complexity of the book is a bad or entirely unimportant thing. With love from the truest and bluest :)

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