Book of Mormon: Blessings, Righteousness, and Evil

The two principal authors of the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Mormon, for the most part share a particular world-view. Both subscribe to the idea that the wicked are punished and the righteous prosper. This idea is so ingrained in the thinking of these two authors, that it forms the entire narrative framework of the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s description of the responsibilities his people bear in the Promised Land stand as a prophetic announcement, while Mormon chronicles the history of his people as the explicit fulfillment of Nephi’s warning.

All of the stories in the stories in the Book of Mormon are fed through this framework. Jerusalem falls because of its wickedness. Nephi’s people remain white and delightsome because of their righteousness. However, the Nephites are constantly at risk of destruction as they flirt with iniquity. The “Pride Cycle” is Mormon’s narrative outline, and every example of Nephite defeat or conquest is a direct expression of their righteousness. Consider all of Mormon’s “And thus we see…” interjections. We must resist the move to “spiritualize” these accounts, since Nephi and Mormon have in mind specifically the temporal success of the Lord’s people.

This narrative structure and explanation of the world is not unique to the Book of Mormon. Indeed, it is most prevalent in the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua to 2 Kings, excluding Ruth). Jeremiah’s connection with this literature is widely accepted as well. The production of this literature occurs in the exact same milieu as Lehi, which may be more than a coincidence. (However, this shared world-view is not enough to definitively locate the Book of Mormon in antiquity. This Deuteronomistic account of nations has proven incredibly influential, appearing most famously in modern times in Gibbons, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

The question that one faces with the Pride-Cycle view of history is that it is incredibly problematic both historically and theologically. From a historian’s standpoint, one can no longer attribute the rise and fall of civilizations to some standard of “wickedness.” At the very least, this view completely ignores power and economics. Theologically, the notion of the wicked failing and the righteous prospering has also become highly suspect. It is simply one of the worst explanations for the problem of evil.

For the most part, I am not really sure that many members of the church subscribe to this world-view anymore, at least as regards to individuals. Indeed, we actually spend quite a bit of time worrying about the opposite problem, namely, why the righteous have to face so many trials. Though the sentiment does still exist in the Church, I think that most members would not attribute a great tragedy in the life of an individual to that person’s wickedness. (However, we do still seem to attribute great successes in life to righteousness. I call this the Abraham-syndrome…the idea that our flocks will be multiplied if we are obedient to the Lord).

At the corporate level, however, I would say that many members of the church do still subscribe to this world-view. I think that a lot of the rhetoric about SSM, for instance, can be traced to Nephi’s warning that those who inhabit the Promised Land will only prosper insofar as the nation is righteous. The justification for much of LDS politico-theological reflection is ultimately rooted in the idea that the nation’s righteousness is the key to its success. However, I think that the LDS community is still more reluctant when it comes to attributing national tragedies to our wickedness. I don’t think that many LDS would support the kind of comments that Pat Robertson gave after 9/11 when he blamed the feminists and homosexuals for the terrorist attacks.

The point of this post is not to determine how many LDS subscribe to this particular world-view at either the individual or corporate level. Suffice it to say that I think that it is declining, especially if General Conference-level explanations of the problem of evil are an indication. Rather, my point is to say that this world-view is deeply problematic and even harmful in some cases and perhaps we should consider rejecting it more explicitly at both the individual and corporate level. There are many ways of trying to salvage aspects of this world-view. In fact, I would argue that some elements of this view are worth saving. But what happens if members of the Church reject perhaps the central theological message of the Book of Mormon? Can members believe in the Book of Mormon without believing the Book of Mormon (on this issue)? Hasn’t this already happened in much of the church?

6 Replies to “Book of Mormon: Blessings, Righteousness, and Evil”

  1. Individuals are cast about by the wind – often in material circumstance subject more to the contingencies of history than to the consequences of their own actions. As it is said, no good deed goes unpunished. And yet every good deed is a step in the right direction – the ultimate reformation of society as a whole – the establishment of a Zion society and the kingdom of God.

    So while a person, a family, a corporation, even a small nation may suffer the temporal consequences of standing against the rising tide of sin, the collective righteousness of the heavenly hosts is what makes heaven what it is – a prosperous, peaceful society of love and understanding – the ultimate authority in the universe – a bulwark against any challenge. God will stand victorious because he has the right on his side.

    And yet the path between worldly corruption and eternal exaltation lies between. A state where now righteousness is often punished and a state where righteousness is rewarded. So by the intermediate value theorem we might conclude that our incremental, temporal efforts here may not result in our temporal prosperity, but that they are a sine qua non for any society to eventually acheive true prosperity, not just the cargo cult of materialism, or the worship of the feelies, but a genuine balance of all things of lasting worth – if not here then in the world to come.

  2. Mark, thank you for your comment. It sounds like you are saying that righteousness leads to prosperity, but I am not exactly sure what you mean by righteousness or prosperity.

    Also, you have said that righteousness will lead to prosperity in the world to come. Do you think that this way of framing it is the primary way that the Book of Mormon puts it?

  3. Ultimately, there are three issues TT, one is whether a society that is composed of nothing but righteous (humble, generous, kind, God fearing) people prospers in all respects. The Book of Mormon answer on that is yes.

    The second issue is whether righteous people temporally prosper when living in the same society with not so righteous people. The Book of Mormon answer is no – the wicked corrupt entire societies, and the righteous often bear the brunt of it.

    The third issue, is in the long run, will people be rewarded with eternal prosperity in the heavens if they sacrifice their worldly prosperity for the greater good? And of course the answer there is yes. We call it the law of restoration, and it is also explicitly taught in the Book of Mormon.

    In short, individuals often do *not* prosper temporally by keeping the commandments in spirit and in truth, but societies always do. The law of restoration guarantees that no sacrifice will go unrewarded – the righteous sufferers in this world will be rewarded with the riches of eternity. Seek ye first for the kingdom of God, and all else will be added unto you. Generally not in this life, however, unless the whole society seeks with you.

  4. I have two questions:

    individuals often do *not* prosper temporally by keeping the commandments in spirit and in truth, but societies always do

    First, is there an example of a society (outside scripture) that kept the commandments and prospered?

    Second, TT, what aspects of the BoM’s presentation do you think can be salvaged?

    Finally, my impression of LDS personal use of scripture is that it is comfort-related. By that, I mean that the meditational reading enjoined on us daily is mostly directed toward finding comfort.

    With respect to the theological principle under discussion, this tranlates into a desire to find evidence that somebody is in control of events. The BoM’s cycle shows that control in spades. Not many folks will question something that makes them feel better.

  5. Mark, I suppose that the question that remains is to what extent you see God at the helm here. Is he responsible for the righteous prospering and the wicked suffering, as the BoM suggests, or can we have a more nuanced view? As it is, I am not sure about the justice of such a system of temporal prosperity.

    As for the claim for other-worldly blessings, I don’t think that this is absent from the BoM, I just think that this isn’t what Nephi and Mormon primarily have it mind. They seem to be talking about the this-worldly salvation of their people.

  6. Mogget,
    I think that I would like to salvage the general notion that our actions do have consequences, either for good or for bad. I think that this general peice of conventional wisdom is at the heart of the Deuteronomistic/BoM world-view. The problem, of course, is dealing with the fact that this often isn’t the case in any empirical sense, as well as trying to trying to think about how this functions between individuals and society as a whole.

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