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Terryl L. Givens
Wednesday, March 09 2011

Agency and Atonement

By Terryl L. Givens Notify me when this author publishesComment on Article
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See Part 1 of this article here

I. War in Heaven

If any myth can make a claim to near universality among the cultures and religions of the world, it is probably the primeval conflict between good and evil. But in Mormon cosmology, the first conflict gave birth to evil, but did not itself involve evil. It was, rather, a conflict over how to secure humanity’s destiny. Christianity has long contended with scattered, cryptic, biblical allusions to a conflict in the celestial realms that antedated even the creation of the earth. “And there was war in heaven,” says the writer of Revelation in the most prominent example, “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven” (12:7-8). But a war is just the latter stage of a conflict unresolved by other means. What was the conflict itself about?

In Joseph’s version, God stands in the midst of many “noble and great” spirits, and declares his intentions with regard to these future inhabitants of the earth. “We will go down, . . . and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” In response, “one among them that was like unto God” offers himself as executor and instrument of the Father’s plan, apparently indicating a willingness to expiate the sins that will inevitably accrue to all mankind in the wake of such a probationary scheme (Abraham 3, PGP).

It is at this point, according to a revelation Joseph had published five years earlier, that a second figure steps forward with a competing proposal. Referring to Satan, God tells the prophet Moses that

 He came before me, saying—Behold here am I, send me, I will be thy Son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore, give me thine honor. But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever. Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him; and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down; and he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive, and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will. (Moses 4:1-4, PGP)

 Notice that the critical action in this scene unfolds while Satan is yet Lucifer, an angel of “authority in the presence of God,” the Bearer of Light, as his name signifies. The contest is not about light and dark, good and evil. Something more subtle is in play. It is only after the Father says, “I will send the first,” that Lucifer becomes angry and rebellious, and is cast out, becoming Satan. The scope of his transformation is noted in DC 76, according to which “the heavens wept over him” (76:26). So in the logic of the scriptural narrative, his proposal was not obviously and self-evidently evil. Egregious affronts to one’s moral sensibility are not effective, until our consciences have been duly dulled.

One problem with making Satan out to be some kind of dull-witted heavenly thug is that it leads to simplistic assumptions about how evil operates. Many Mormons have long assumed, evident in a pervasive cultural grammar, that Lucifer’s plan involved coercion. That he would simply “force” people to be righteous, or to keep the commandments. There are several problems with such a reading. In brief: 1. If Mormons read this myth literally, it is hard to see how an appeal to force could be persuasive with a substantial proportion of the heavenly hosts. 2. In the verse succeeding the reference to destroying agency, the newly christened Satan seeks “to lead [mankind] captive at his will.” Failing to get official sanction for his plan, in other words, he prosecutes it as an unsanctioned renegade. And in today’s moral climate, few would characterize the greatest threats to human agency as involving coercion, compulsion, or physical force. 3. Most importantly, this simplistic view of how agency works—and how it is thwarted—makes Lucifer into a caricature of evil. Brutish, unsubtle, unsophisticated, and transparent as glass. This is dangerous, because underestimating the power and appeal of evil, and the failure to recognize its operations in the world we inhabit, can be catastrophic.

In Mormon doctrine, as more generally, a distinction can be drawn between agency, the power to make a choice between alternatives, which is an eternal endowment to humans, and freedom, which is the power to put into execution that choice, and can be circumscribed or abrogated altogether. As Dallin Oaks has suggested, moral agency or free will is a given and is guaranteed to us from our creation. However, freedom is always circumscribed. He adds this important caveat: moral agency cannot be taken from us, but neither is it absolutely inalienable.i Humans may and do surrender their moral agency piecemeal, if they are not vigilant.

But there is a critical constituent of moral agency and freedom alike, without which both are meaningless terms. And that ingredient is consequence. A cardinal insight of the Book of Mormon is its teaching that to choose is always to choose a consequence. And the tendency of a decadent culture is always to obscure or deny the connection between choice and consequence. Here is what I mean:

In any set of alternatives we are presented with, we find two choices attached to two sets of consequences. To simplify, we can imagine presenting a child with two options. Do your homework and you get to watch a movie. Do not do your homework and go to bed without supper. Now if the child does his homework and is summarily sent to bed without supper, he would protest this was not fair. What he would mean, is that he made a choice that was linked to a consequence. And something intervened to disrupt that linkage on which his morally free decision was predicated. He was operating under the assumption that he possessed a certain freedom of self-determination, and that freedom proved to be a sham.

If every choice we made resulted in totally unforeseen and unpredictable consequences, we would be inhabiting a realm of chaos. Agency would be meaningless and freedom effectively non-existent if no reliable principles existed by which to make choices that were attached to the particular ends we desire. What kind of freedom would it be, if there was no predicable result attached to any deliberate choice? We order pizza and get a dozen roses. We turn on our computer and the toaster heats up. We go to law school and receive a degree in plumbing. We love and honor God, but he sends us to Outer Darkness.

Yes, we live in an imperfect world. Electricians have their agency to wire our appliances wrong.


1 Comment

  1. I appreciate Brother Givens approach to Agency and Atonement. While he uses an intellectual approach he backs it up with scripture. The biggest compliment I can give him is that he causes me to think and evaluate my understanding of the Gospel. Thank you for your insight

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