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.
And secretaries have their agency to mix up diplomas. Spiritual second hand smoke of a thousand types complicates the picture. But even allowing for the white noise, moral agency, clearly, requires a stable framework within which choices are rendered meaningful and purposeful. This, I believe, is the meaning of Lehi in his great sermon on freedom, when he ways that “men are instructed sufficiently,” “and the law is given to men,” and that as a result they are “free forever, … to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment…according to the law.” In our prior example, the boy is free, to act for himself, subject to the natural unfolding of the reward or punishment he chose at the time he executed his choice.
Now here is where my exposition takes perhaps an unexpected turn. We are, I hope, agreed that if a boy chooses to earn a reward, and is denied that promised reward, to that extent his agency has been compromised. But what if the boy does not do his homework, and as a result, he gets to stay up and watch the movie? By the logic laid down above, such a consequence would also be tantamount to a denial of his freedom. The realization that giving someone a reward he did not choose is indistinguishable from a denial of agency, provides a powerful and coherent alternative reading of the mythic war in heaven. The Luciferian proposal may very well have hinged on the promise that regardless of human choices in a mortal probation, salvation would be assured. Humans wouldn’t be forced to make the right choices. Any choices they made would suffice. Which is the same thing as saying, no choice that they made would have mattered. And if choice doesn’t matter, then moral agency is an empty cliché. That would offer a plausible scenario by which he sought to destroy the agency of man, in a strategy as tempting then as it is now. Eat, drink, and be merry, and tomorrow you repose in paradise.
That early Mormons considered salvation in despite of one’s choices to be a destruction of agency is shown by W. W. Phelps’ comment, in an 1844 letter, that Zeezrom’s (and Nehor’s) conceptions were akin to the devil’s. “Lucifer lost his [first estate] by offering to save men in their sins,” he wrote.ii Orson Pratt initially disagreed with Phelps, writing that redeeming humankind “from the effects of their sins without any exercise of their agency in the act of repentance or reformation” would destroy justice, “but not destroy the agency of man.”iii By 1880, however, he was suggesting that Satan’s plan to “destroy the agency of man” did indeed entail redeeming “them all in their sins.”iv
Brigham Young’s counselor taught the same principle from the Tabernacle: “Satan desired that man should be saved through the taking away from him of his agency. He would save everybody regardless of their own acts.”v In the twentieth century, J. Reuben Clark returned to the theme, when he taught that “Satan’s plan required one of two things: either the compulsion of the mind, the spirit, the intelligence of man, or else the saving of men in their sins”vi It seems clear that the second makes far more sense.
II. The Purpose of Life
A more pertinent concern than the particulars of the war in heaven is the moral climate in which we find ourselves today. Joseph Smith said, “I believe man is a moral, responsible, free agent.”vii If Mormons also believe, as stated in Moses, that the program of earthly evil involves the destruction of agency, then anything that enhances the individual’s ability to function as an independent agent counters that agenda. The purpose of life, in this framework, would seem to be the maximization of moral agency, the attainment of that degree of liberty and independence that characterize divinity itself.
In fact, Brigham Young said exactly that. God intends humans to act with the same independence in this sphere, that God does in heaven.viii In this tangled labyrinth of life, we are generally a long way from acting with a will that is pure and uncompromised. We often choose in ignorance, or out of fear, or under the pressures of this weak and flawed fleshly tabernacle. We may not always see the consequence, or fully understand it. But it will unfold in accordance with the choice that we made, with greater or lesser degree of light. And for those at least who have the gospel law given, it is the certainty of such punishment and reward, defined and differentiated by law and freely chosen by man, that establishes his moral agency: “Wherefore,” Lehi concludes, “men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, . . . or to choose captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27).
An immediate problem that now arises concerns the seeming conflict of independent moral actions, and God’s intervention in human lives. The problem has two dimensions: the first is the particular, i.e, the why and wherefore of God’s apparently random response to individual crises. One mother’s prayer is answered and another’s is not. One teen miraculously avoids an accident, another dies tragically. One bishop receives a gift of inspiration to provide critical counsel, another attempts to and fails miserably. At present I am more concerned to address the second dimension, which is the universal. How can another agent (Christ) bear the consequence of all human actions, without compromising our agency? How can he suffer in our stead, without sacrificing our accountability and therefore our moral freedom? Was Lord Byron’s hero Manfred right, when he renounced the power of Satan and Christ alike, insisting that a freely choosing agent “is its own origin of ill and end,” and must be “absorbed in sufferance or joy, Born from the knowledge of its own desert?”ix If we don’t receive what we chose to receive, how can our freedom be intact? As we have seen, and as Joseph affirmed, morality, responsibility, and freedom are indissolubly linked.
The Book of Mormon is a revolutionary document insofar as it reinterprets the fall of man as the moment when moral agency was validated, rather than obliterated. The fall of man was fortunate, the Book of Mormon explains, not because in some Miltonic sense it called forth a triumphal act of supernal grace, but because its presence in the world is the sign—and price—of the moral freedom that precedes it. Freedom, in turn, is the precondition for human happiness. As Lehi explains,
And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. (2 Ne. 2:13)
Against this backdrop, then, the Book of Mormon develops a doctrine of the Atonement in such a way as to reclaim the principle of Justice from a kind of Platonic abstraction or equivalence with God himself, and situate it in the context of human agency.
This may well be one of its greatest theological contributions. One Christian doctrine of Atonement, with which we may compare the Book of Mormon’s teaching, has it that “sin, being an infinite offence against God, required a satisfaction equally infinite. As no finite being . . . could offer satisfaction, it was necessary that an infinite being, i.e. God Himself, should take the place of man and, by His death, make complete satisfaction to Divine Justice.”x The Book of Mormon (which uses various forms of “atone” 36 times as compared to the New Testament’s one reference) similarly connects atonement to Justice, explaining that vicarious expiation
notwithstanding, “the work of Justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13).
The theological rub seems to be, why cannot God simply pardon fault? To explain the necessity for Atonement in terms of an inflexible principle of Eternal Justice—as in a conventional soteriology—is to defer the problem, it is not to solve it. We have, in this case, merely elevated one of God’s attributes to the status of a universal, and then endowed that universal with highly peculiar features. Peculiar, first, because Justice manifests itself here as a mathematical rather than moral principle. Since punishment—but not punishment of the guilty—is required, the impersonal demand is in accordance with some abstract calculus that has no earthly counterpart. No terrestrial magistrate would allow an innocent person to die for a guilty one and consider justice to be served. Peculiar, second, because Justice here usurps the place of God, as a principle before which he himself seems to bow. A wise father, given appropriate extenuating circumstances, or the timely and efficacious exercise of mercy, may remit altogether the punishment of a guilty son. God, apparently, cannot. Explanation of atonement in terms of a Platonic absolute called Justice, in other words, begs as many questions as it answers. The fact is, as we have seen, genuine moral agency must entail necessary consequences. If choice is to be more than an empty gesture of the will, more than a mere pantomime of decision-making, there must be immutable guarantee that any given choice will eventuate in the natural consequence of that choice. This point is explicated by one of the most profound revelations of Joseph Smith’s career. In explaining why God does not simply bestow eternal bliss upon all who die, the revelation explains: “they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received” (88:32). Imposing a heavenly reward on those who did not choose heaven, in other words, is just that: an imposition on the “unwilling,” and an abrogation of the moral agency on which all human life and earthly existence is predicated.
Hell does not exist because of some inflexible ultimatum decreed by an impersonal Justice. Reward and punishment is entailed not simply because that is the “fair” or “just” thing for God to do. For God is also merciful, and if humans can remit a penalty out of compassion or mercy, why cannot God? Because, as Alma continues, such apparent generosity would undermine the essence of that agency on which moral freedom depends. Consequences are chosen at the time actions are freely committed. To choose to indulge a desire is to choose its fruit—bitter or sweet—assuming, as Lehi did, that “men are instructed sufficiently” to understand what they are choosing (2 Nephi 2:5). So following the exercise of such agency, “the one [must be] raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil” (Alma 41:5). It is a truth that harks back to Dante’s grim vision of hell, in which God is not present as Judge or dispenser of punishments, because choices are allowed, inexorably, to bear their own fruit. In Alma’s Inferno as well, future states are chosen, not assigned: “For behold,” says Alma, “they are their own judges” (Alma 41:7).
And what is the role of Christ in this conception? One might posit in this scheme of things that Christ bears the consequences of all the wrong choices that have ever been made, to assure, to guarantee, the principle of moral agency, maintaining the law of restoration and the equilibrium of choice and consequence, thereby permitting an errant human kind to repent, or as the word signifies, to re-decide, to choose afresh. The law of agency requires that choices of moral moment eventuate in their decreed consequences. But so many of our choices, made in our frailty, entail catastrophic pain and suffering. Christ is willing to bear that pain and suffering in our stead, that we may re-employ our agency to better ends. The atonement, then, does not eliminate or override individual agency; it reaffirms its status as the precondition for all meaningful existence.
The perpetual exercise and re-exercise of moral choice is the non-negotiable condition of any condition to which we aspire. It may be that mercy cannot rob justice, but a more profitably approach may be to consider that grace cannot rob choice. Rather than arbitrarily choose sides in the perennial faith vs. works debate, Joseph cut through the confusion with a definitive statement about the existential realities that circumscribe God’s intervention in human destinies: “That which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, … cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still” (DC 88:34-35).
We are, inescapably and unalterably, the product of our own choices. God’s role in our salvation is to maximize our opportunities to choose in the context of genuine freedom—which means with a knowledge of what we are choosing, and the guarantee that our choices entail predictable consequences. The atonement allows us to choose, and then choose again, as often as we in good faith (that is, with sincere moral purpose) persevere in reorienting our moral compass according to True North.
In conclusion, let me return to two of the characters I described last month. Ivan Dostoevsky, who rejected the God of classical Christianity because, as he said to Alyosha, “I love little children,” and he could not countenance a universe in which God had the power to prevent their suffering, but did not. And Huck Finn, who seeing only a God of classical Christianity, one who in the logic of the day sanctioned human trafficking and brutality toward an oppressed race, rejected that God. Those two great men of fiction worshipped the God of Enoch, though they knew it not. They illustrate the truth that we do not come to know God, and then learn his attributes. We must come to know his attributes, and only thereby do we come to know God. And that is why I said to the young man who came to see me, you must first ask, what kind of a God are you seeking? And having found him, and only after having found him, can we hope to make sense out of his universe.
Joseph Smith made the claim, unique in all the theological world, that there are three independent principles in the universe: God, man, and the devil. Within that framework, God’s purposes—and Christ’s sacrifice—revolve around the great and terrible truth that if this independence which attaches to the human soul is voided, then in the words of scripture, “there is no existence” (93:30).
Terryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and author of several books on Mormonism. Most recently, he has published When Souls had Wings: Premortal Life in Western Thought, A Very Short Introduction to the Book of Mormon, and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.
i Dallin H. Oaks, “Free Agency and Freedom.” Address given at Brigham Young University, 11 October 1987.
ii Letter to William Smith, Times and Seasons 5:24 (1 January 1844).
iii The Seer 1.4 (April 1853), par. 41.
iv Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., reported by G. D. Watt et al. (Liverpool: F.D and S. W. Richards, et al., 1851-1886; reprint, Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974), 21:288.
v George Q. Cannon, “Foreknowledge of God,” in Brian H. Stuy, ed,. Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Woodruff… (n.p.: B.H.S., 1999), 2:228.
vi J. Reuben Clark Jr., Conference Report (October 1949), 193.
vii Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1994), 33.
viii Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 2:139. See also 6:332.
ix Lord Byron, Manfred (London: John Murray, 1817) , 74.
x “Atonement,” in Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 123.