I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers.
My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent BCC post on Nehor and Universalism. It was that best kind of post: one that made me think for several days about the mentioned passages.
To start with let me state my view of the Book of Mormon text. I tend to see it as a compositional text. That is I believe there was a real text that Joseph translated but that the translation was (to use an analogy of Umberto Eco’s) more an encyclopedic translation rather than a dictionary translation.
To understand the difference consider reading the Bible with a version of the KJV text that includes Strong Numbers. If you’ve never done this it’s a very useful if simultaneously misleading way of reading. Each number represents a word in the text which you can lookup in their concordance to the original Greek or Hebrew. The concordance then gives a dictionary explanation of the word along with the range of meanings it has. Since the KJV often is fairly literal in how it does the translation this often will give greater insight to the words in a verse. It’s misleading for the same reason that using a dictionary to understand sentences is misleading. It gives a first order translation but doesn’t tell you which of the range of meanings of a word apply in that sentence. Further, it typically gives you little indication about of collections of words that have a particular sense or connotation. Think of the phrase “pulling my leg.” Merely translating the words doesn’t tell you all the social practices and their import in our culture. To translate this larger unit of meaning requires longer explanations not just of the typical meaning of the phrase, it’s various connotations but also where and when it’s appropriate in the source language and context. When you have to explain more and more you end up with an encyclopedia type translation.
I’m convinced that with the Book of Mormon there’s a lot of this encyclopedia aspect. Relationships to our Biblical text are often given with slightly modified quotations from the King James Version Bible. Sometimes translations are from later works (such as Paul’s epistles). Far from thinking this as an accidental feature of translation I think it an important part of this encyclopedia type translation. Not only are these references important but so too are the differences from the quoted or alluded to texts. Finally, since I think the text is about objects, the translation can give us more information about those objects rather than just a dictionary word signifying that object. Blake Ostler has speculated that Joseph received expansions to the text telling us more about aspects of the text. Some have suggested the opening of Alma 11 regarding Nephite weights and measures is an example of such an expansion. I confess I’m more skeptical there.
Overall I think Blake pointed us in the right direction. This means how we read the translation has to keep in mind these features of how the text signifies different aspects of the text. That is the translation is doing much more than simply rendering a one to one relation of the surface representation of the original written marks. Again, it’s a kind of encyclopedic set of significations rather than being closer to a dictionary. (Even a dictionary at a phrase level as one might call more interpretive translations of the Bible)
I’ll have upcoming posts with more on this topic. For now I just want to explain that my close reading is focused on the objects the chapters are about and not just the surface text in a more limited fashion. I want to pay attention to all aspects of the text as signifying various aspects of these objects. That means paying close attention to possible connotations and looking and various potential contexts in which to read the text.
So let’s get started on the topic of hell.
Let me begin in what may seem a very backwards fashion compared to what we might call the “fairly traditional ways” of conceiving of hell. I think we make a lot of assumptions regarding the received view we either follow or oppose. I want to begin by tracing through a certain genealogy of those assumptions we bring to the text. I’ll be largely following Powys’ ‘Hell: A Hard Look at the Hard Question‘ along with various other resources like the Anchor Bible Dictionary. The SEP also has a surprisingly good entry on hell.
There are probably three main traditional views of hell. These in turn can be represented by three key figures in early traditional Christian history. I bring these figures up because I think they function well as three foils for the Book of Mormon. That is even if they are never mentioned, they are constantly lurking in the margins of the text. To understand the text we in turn have to grapple with these margins even as we grapple with the text itself.
First is the Christian Father Irenaeus. Unlike even some of his contemporaries he couldn’t really conceive of a soul separate from the body. While he thought there was a resurrection, to him it just made no sense to talk of the soul without talking about the body. In certain key ways he’s like Mormons in that. Although as we’ll see he differs in important ways too. Judgment to him meant that the righteous were restored with a bodily resurrection but the wicked were absolutely destroyed. This would all occur when Christ returns. He fundamentally didn’t believe that humans were immortal in any basic sense. Rather immortality was a gift of Christ. The metaphor of “everlasting fire” was literally that of destruction.
Gregory of Nyssa was, like many theologians of that era, a neoplatonist. Despite that basic stance he was quite eclectic and somewhat cautious in reading theology through a platonic lens. To him Christ’s resurrection restores the sensible and intelligible aspects of a person into a permanent union. Again like Iranaeus this resurrection is in the future and comes by exercising faith with necessary ordinances like baptism that remove sin through grace. Not everyone will take advantage of this purification but may be good enough to be judged worthy of heaven. They have a secondary route through torment to purify them so they can return to God. The second death at judgment (in the future) is not punitive or retributive but remedial. It involves great suffering but eventually the suffering transforms people by removing their sins. This means that the suffering is not temporally endless. Rather people are being forced to give up what is ungodly. (Remember that he conceives of all these attributes fairly platonically as something they participate in rather than a behavior or desire they have in modern terms) The idea is that of a purgatory,
…according to the quantity of material will be the longer or shorter time that the agonizing flame will be burning; that is, as long as there is fuel to burn it. (Powys, 5 quoting (53))
Eventually for Gregory though all will be purified and return to God.
Finally we have Augustine. His view of hell is unending physical torment that is retributive in nature. That is it’s a punishment for what people do and not a purification of what they are. He sees the first death as due to the fall and the second death as due to the fall plus continuing in sin. The first death is the separating of spirit and body and the second death is putting them back together so they can have unending torment. Unlike the prior two figures, for Augustine this all happens immediately. At death we are either rescued by Christ in the resurrection and rebirth and sent to the City of God or else we’re condemned to hell for all Eternity. (This persists in popular culture where people go meet the devil at death — often portrayed in a very Dante like fashion)
Given Augustine’s position in determining the trajectory of what was orthodox Christianity, it is probably of no surprise that his view became the accepted view. Anselm and Aquinas helped solidify this in place with their writings on punishment and judgment. While Aquinas’ view was technically subtly different, most read Aquinas as promoting an unending physical and immediate punishment that was essentially retributive in nature. The emphasis is on immediate rewards and punishments. It is true that within the Catholic tradition there remained an echo of Gregory’s transformative fire. Purgatory becomes a place where those judged at death worthy of the City of God yet not yet purified can be purified. It is temporary and transformative but fundamentally different from judgment. It’s what Mormons might call sanctifying so that they can return to be with God. Protestants typically rejected the theology of purgatory.
It’s worth defining a few terms here. Universalism, which many see the Book of Mormon as opposing, is the view that all will eventually be saved. Effectively it is Gregory’s view that tends to be accepted by those adopting various forms of Universalism even if they might differ from him in some details. At the time of Joseph Smith Unitarianism tended to attract many people troubled by the traditional Augustinian view. During the modern era (roughly after Descartes and the rise of Protestantism) many reformers looked critically at how law and punishment worked. Seeing numerous problems with what had developed in the medieval system they advocated many reforms. (Much of our criminal system is a result of those reforms) Penal reformers could hardly see the problems with government punishment without noting the same problems occurred in discussions of hell. Protestants were particularly susceptible as they did not have an intermediary system of Purgatory like the Catholics. Judgement was immediate and cruel. Further, it had the biggest problem of all in that it seemed pointless. Nothing was accomplished by punishment if it came too late to effect change.
It is into this debate over judgment and hell that Joseph Smith found himself. Now I don’t want to say, as some critics do, that the Book of Mormon should only be read in terms of its 19th century audience. That goes far too far and misses a lot of the nuance of the texts we’ll read. However it seems reasonable to note that the shape the translation took looked at the concerns of early readers of the Book of Mormon. This makes sense if the goal of the Book of Mormon was to restore truths that had been lost. I won’t go so far as to say lost due to the influence of Augustine, although certainly his theology changed Christianity in many essential ways.
When we say though that passages like 2 Nephi 28:7 refer or at least apply to Universalism we do have to be clear what we mean by that. I mentioned Gregory of Nyssa but Universalism at the time of Joseph Smith was fairly diverse. The main figure of New England Universalism was John Murray. Murray started out in England as a critic of Universalism. After setting out to disprove it he found he had come to believe it. In America he became a popular preacher and was even a chaplain in the Continental Army. Universalism due to figures like Murray became quite popular in the United States by Joseph’s time. It appears that Joseph Smith Sr. in some degree accepted the views. (See Casey Griffith’s “Universalism and the Revelations of Joseph Smith” for more details of the history)
The form of Universalism in America was concerned not just with the punitive theology of endless punishment. They also were deeply concerned with the manipulative way hell was used in discourse. Further they didn’t just see this as a reform of Augustine but a restoration of what was original Christianity. Universalists often said that universalism was the main view in Christianity prior to the 6th century. Opposed to this received view of God as an angry God of punishment was the view of God as loving and caring of the development of his children. The difficulty for Universalists was always explaining how there could be accountability if everyone was saved the way Gregory of Nyssa thought. Was the atonement just a shortcut? Were there no consequences to our actions? In response Universalists typically appealed to Romans 5:18-19 where the atonement was for all.
Again into this it is important to recall just what the received view was. It was that judgment at death was immediate, punitive, physical and temporarlly unending. Further the doctrine was seen as important as a motivation for people to do good works. That is it was fear of punishment that was seen as the value. Even people with doubts about Augustine’s view often thought it was good for the masses to keep them motivated.
Next time I’ll start addressing some specific texts in the Book of Mormon and the more direct contexts for the texts. I just think it’s important to be clear what the Book of Mormon is opposing. I think people are unclear what the main views were historically. The text definitely does engage with the controversies of the era. However it is far from simple in its reaction as some make it out. Further, I think elements of the text should be read not just in terms of the 19th century context in which it was read but also the 6th century BCE context it which it claims to have been written.