Apocalypticism in the Book of Mormon and the Striking Lack Thereof

Lehi and Nephi have apocalypses? Why doesn’t anyone else? (Brother of Jared doesn’t count, he’s not a Lehite)

It seems a little odd to me that two of the greatest prophets of the Lehite/Nephite people (and the first two to boot) have these amazing apocalyptic visions and then there was nothing. For 1000 years or so.

The reason that this strikes me as so odd is because when apocalyptic visions start occurring during the OT and continuing on through the Second Temple period, they get more and more popular. Lehi and Nephi come out of the start of this flood of crazy dreaminess. So why didn’t it catch on in the Promised land?

Or did it? There are evidences that several others  possibly also had similar apocalyptic experiences. Jacob, the younger brother of Nephi, is said by Nephi both to have seen him (2 Ne. 11:3; no promise of an apocalypse here admittedly) but Jacob himself says that God showed him that Jerusalem was destroyed, that the people would return, that Christ would come and be crucified (ok this is starting to sound like Nephi’s vision, you think maybe Jacob asked to see it and got to too?), and then he goes on about the Gentiles, and now I’m starting to think maybe Jacob’s vision was apocalyptic (2 Ne. 6:8-18).

Several other popped into my mind as I thought about working in the Book of Mormon that could be construed as hidden apocalypses. Nephi son of Helaman converses with angels (Hel. 5:36) and the Lord when he receives the sealing power (Hel. 10:3-7). His son, Nephi, has even stronger clues because he describes himself as seeing angles on more than one occasion, being an eye witness (to what exactly?), and receiving the power to know about Christ’s coming ministry, and being given a ministry of judgment, and the people get angry with him, and he casts out devils, and on and on and on (3 Ne. 7:15-20).  Is there any way that he didn’t have an apocalyptic experience?

Mormon and Moroni both present themselves as good candidates too. Mormon was visited of the Lord and “tasted of his goodness”(Morm. 1:15-17). Moroni knows so much that if he had the time he could make all things known to us (c’mon, that’s apocalyptic all the way) and he says that the Lord showed it all to him and that he’s seen us (Morm. 8:12, 34, 35). And I could probably find others.

So why aren’t these prophets sharing their visions? Commanded not to? Maybe, they seem not to mind letting some of the details slip. I think that what’s really going on here is Nephi and his darned delighting in plainness. First he says that his people don’t understand the ways of the Jews because he’s not teaching it to them (the Jews were wicked, why learn their ways? 2 Ne. 25:2) and then he says that he loves Isaiah but that he really likes it when things are plain and straightforward (2 Ne. 25:4). It’s not impossible for his people to figure it out with the spirit of prophecy but he doesn’t seem like he’s going to encourage it either.

So I blame Nephi. I think he set a precedent that the Nephite prophets followed throughout the course of their history. Maybe especially Mormon and Moroni since they redacted the final version of the text. Too bad, I wonder what else we might have been able to learn with a few more nice apocalypses to chew on.

28 Replies to “Apocalypticism in the Book of Mormon and the Striking Lack Thereof”

  1. Um what about Alma the Younger seeing Jesus in vision while he was ko’ed, or Lamoni? How about King Benjamin’s vision of Christ’s life he alludes to in his speach? How about Moroni seeing our day and our time?

    Perhaps I do not know what makes a vision “apocolyptic”…

  2. How about the whole structure of the Book of Mormon where they prepare for the First Coming of Jesus Christ, that is a type and shadow of his Second Coming? Then, the other half where we see the destruction of the Nephites that is a type and shadow of the destruction of the wicked in the last days? Not to mention Ether was edited by Moroni who thought it important to add to the Book of Mormon. Like any editor, I am sure he redacted some things to conform to his own intended message.

  3. Isnt this all explained by 1 Ne. 14:27 and Ether 4:16? There they explicitly defer to a different apocalyptic text. Since Nephi was the principal proprietor of the first small set of plates and Mormon/Moroni are the principal editors/redactors of the remaining text, then they are saying “Hey, we’re pulling the plug on our own stuff here and deferring to this John guy”.

  4. I second Jettboy.
    Also, maybe it wasn’t Mormon’s purpose to write about visions and dreams and stuff like that had by the various prophets, but to show how those prophets had an effect on his people.
    Nephi’s and Lehi’s slipped through in an appendix that Mormon didn’t write.

  5. Wow, I’m a little surprised by the negative reactions. Not upset by any means, just didn’t expect it.

    Matt: That last bit of your comment there seems to me to be the heart of the issue in some respect. I didn’t define what an apocalyptic vision was because it is notoriously difficult to define. This is definetely where I wish that Mogs would speak up and enlighten us all, this being her speciality.

    Let me just forth some basics behind what makes an apocalyptic vision an apocalyptic vision, just realize that virtually any of these points may be missing and a vision still be considered apocalyptic.

    Usually there is some kind of ascending going on, either literally in that the visionary actually climbs a mountain (like Moses) or the person is raised up onto a mountain or into heaven as a part of the vision (like Nephi or John).

    Very often the whole process is assisted by one or many angels who direct the flow of things, ask and answer important questions, and just generally being helpful. Things seen in apocalypses tend to be exceptionally symbolic. For Nephi and Lehi this is your tree, path, mists, building, field, etc.

    In other apocalyptic visions it’s fairly common for people to represent angels, animals to represent mortal humans, numbers to be very symbolic, etc. Often they are focused on the present and future (the last days are not an uncommon topic and have become associated with this genre a little more than they should) and usually what the visionary sees in heaven is representative in a figurative way of what is happening and will happen on earth.

    A theophony (appearance by God) is quite common in apocalyptic literature and getting to see God’s throne, hosts worshipping him, and glory is a special treat. There are many more things that could, and maybe should, be added to this but it will suffice for a start.

    So, Matt, does this help you see why Alma’s experience is not considered apocalyptic? The setting is all wrong. It’s very important and it does seem to represent a theophony but it is not presented in the form of an apocalypse. And really the form is a huge part of what makes an apocalypse an apoclaypse. Same with Benjamin, he may have had an apocalyptic experience but it isn’t being expressed that way. And I think that Moroni’s experience was probably an apocalypse, so why doesn’t he share it? We already have a couple, will another one hurt?

    Jettboy: My response to most of your comment is in the long boring section above, there is a pattern going on in the overall compilation and presentation of the Book of Mormon but that presentation in no way resembles an apocalypse except that it is a type of the last days. Not nearly enough connections to make that leap. However, your observation about Moroni is astute. The problem is I don’t think that the visionary experiences of the Brother of Jared are given in apocalyptic terms either. The tantalizing hint is there in Ether 3:25 that Jesus shows the history of the world to Mahonri but we don’t get to experience the account with him. It seems like it is recorded in the sealed portion of the plates.

    Kurt: I don’t think so. Nephi’s visions are nothing like John’s and so it is beneficial to have them. Isaiah’s, Ezekiel’s, Daniel’s, everyone’s visions seem to be just a little bit different from each others and those differences make them all worth having and studying. They may in fact be deferring to John, but why? Are they really all having the exact same vision, every single whit? Much seems pretty standard fair but not all of it.

    Jason: An interesting suggestion. Mormon and Moroni definitely must have had some divine direction in choosing which parts made the final cut, and how and in what form, but why would God say, “No apocalypses for you in this book of scripture after Nephi. That’s plenty.” The text could definitely share apocalypses and still teach about the prophet’s effect on the people,there is lots of room. And I’d hardly call the small plates of Nephi “a slip in,” they being prepared and included from the very begining exactly because God knew we’d lose the first 116 pages. That seems pretty intentional to me.

  6. On my old blog site (http://www.blogdiss.weblogs.us) I was posting lists of the words (in alphabetical order) that showed up in each chapter of the Book of Mormon. People thought I was a nutball but I’ve been using those lists as a resource for personal study since then.

    The reason I bring this up is that I also had Google Adsense running on the blog and during that time period I was getting a lot of ads that mentioned the apocalypse, the book of Daniel, etc. It was very interesting that these lists influenced Adsense in that particular direction (to serve up those kinds of ads) and it made me consider the possibility that the Book of Mormon is more apocalyptic in nature than we may realize.

  7. Danithew: Interesting. Apocalyptic vocabulary without the exterior forms. What is the significance of that?

  8. Google define function for apocalyptic


    I find some of the definitions of “apocalyptic” to be quite interesting in relation to Book of Mormon scripture. It may not be apocalyptic in the style of Revelation or of the Book of Daniel – but the Book of Mormon may also be offering some criticism of the style in which these scriptures have been handed down to us. That is, the Book of Mormon seems to suggest that at least some of the apocalyptic literature that we have has not been provided to us in its original “plain” form. Perhaps the Book of Mormon is in fact Apocalyptic literature as it was originally intended.

    We have to remember also that the revelations Nephi wrote refer very specifically to the apostle John, his writings and what has happened to those writings (that is, that they are no longer plain to be read):

    1 Nephi 14:18-27
    18 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
    19 And I looked and beheld a man, and he was dressed in a white robe.
    20 And the angel said unto me: Behold one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
    21 Behold, he shall see and write the remainder of these things; yea, and also many things which have been.
    22 And he shall also write concerning the end of the world.
    23 Wherefore, the things which he shall write are just and true; and behold they are written in the book which thou beheld proceeding out of the mouth of the Jew; and at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, or, at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.
    24 And behold, the things which this apostle of the Lamb shall write are many things which thou hast seen; and behold, the remainder shalt thou see.
    25 But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write; for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them.
    26 And also others who have been, to them hath he shown all things, and they have written them; and they are sealed up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the Lamb, in the own due time of the Lord, unto the house of Israel.
    27 And I, Nephi, heard and bear record, that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel.

    If this passage is accepted as it is, then we may have to alter our understanding of what apocalyptic literature really and truly is supposed to be. We seem to think it has to be entirely symbolic and cryptic and complicated when in fact the best apocalyptic literature should not be that way at all.

  9. Well, a sociologist would tell you that apocalyptic texts tend to be written when/if the writer’s community is a persecuted minority. Does our reading of the BoM sustain or refute that theory?

  10. Matt: Fair enough. That is the current general understanding of what apocalypticism means. That isn’t the apocalyptic that I’m speaking about. I’m using the term in a narrowly defined technical way, which way I’ve tried to give you an over view of above.

    Literally, the term simply means to unveil or reveal. Not all works that are apocalyptic reveal the end of the world, just lots of them. The Christian book Shepherd of Hermas is an example of a clear apocalypse in which the end of the world is not revealed (I think).

    Danithew: Good argument. I’d sure like to see that unadulterated apocalypse of John because right now it merely presents a tantalizing possibility. I don’t know that we can say exactly what a pure and simple apocalypse really looks like but the closest thing we might have to that is Nephi’s vision (after all it’s pretty plain to read and any potentially hard parts get explained). I think that what you are proposing is very possible but I’d expect that vision to look more like 1 Ne. 11-14 than the whole of the Book of Mormon. And while Nephi’s vision is no Revelation of John, it is still symbolic, visionary, guided by an angel, and generally all around apocalyptic in the defined sense which I have been using. For Nephi it still seems to be a clearly defined, unique genre.

  11. I’m sorry Lxx, I wasn’t attacking, I was just surprised.
    Anyway, could a reason be that Mormon and Nephi are seperated by more than 1000 years of different and developing culture and thus what they view as important is radically different? For example, Mormon did not live in the “Hebrew” (I am so uneducated) culture of Nephi, and thus did not see the same value in the content and imagery of the visions that Nephi did, but focused on the meaning, story and doctrine more.

  12. Goodness! We’ve been some busy little beavers around here. Unfortunately, I have to teach Homemaking tonight so I can’t play until sometime tomorrow. Looks interesting, though.

    If I could point you folks in one direction, it would be toward proto-apocalyptic. In the Biblical chronology, real apocalypses are way too late for the BoM. Proto-apocalyptic, however…!

  13. Structurally Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision shares a lot of elements with apocalypsism. Although as you note there are some important differences in content.

  14. I think it would be good at this point to define apocalypsism and what it must contain to be considered such. As it is I get a sense that we are all defining it differently, some loosely and others more narrow. Lets define our terms and then I think things can go smoother.

  15. Matt: Sorry about any negative tone up there, it isn’t meant at all, I haven’t been even remotely angry yet. Just intense. I think it is an interesting subject at hand.

    OK, now that everyone knows that no one is yelling at each other, your theory about the development over 1000 years seems possible to me. I’d expect that a great deal of things would have changed culturally. Including this. Real apocalyptic literature was only popular for 300-400 years in the Old world. So the question is then, was it still happening among the Nephites and they weren’t recording it for us? Did it ever grow into full blown apocalypticism (ala Mogget’s comment)? I’m not sure at all, I just think I can see places where we have prophets having these end of the world visions but not writing about it and I’m curious why. Your theory may be correct.

    Mogs: So what you are trying to say is Nephi’s visions are more like Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s and less like Daniel’s and John’s, is that it? I’ve never really thought about the potential difference between apocalypse and proto-apocalypse but I can see some patterns now. Any insight into that for me?

    Clark: That’s what I thought. No two apocalypses, I mean proto-apocalypses (oops), ever seem to be the same, you always seem to get some personal details just for you and those details could be quite revealing. Hence if other prophets are having them I want to hear about it!

    Jettboy: See comment 5 by me, I’d like to work from that very basic definition, incomplete as it is.

  16. Dave, you and I ought to have a FPR smackdown here one day about that. Just for fun. We could make it pay-per-view and score $100 for our worries!

  17. I didn’t pay enough attention to #5, sorry. Following the definition, I think one of the reasons we don’t have more specifics on other experiences is what the BofM writers give as a reason. There are some things too sacred to simply put down for general readership.

  18. Interesting post and discussion. I’d be inclined to think more along the lines that Kurt proposed above, that Nephi may be to “blame,” but that it is closely related to his words about deferring to John. Remember, too, that there was much that Christ taught which was not written.

    I confess I’m a bit tainted by Margaret Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ (though I’ve only glanced at parts of chapters so far…). I don’t expect these ideas will be taken seriously in academic circles, but for those of us not so bound, I think her ideas open up the radical new ways of thinking that we as Mormons have good reason to be open to.

  19. Robert: ! I would be very careful throwing that name around these parts. She is not well received by most people for good reasons.

  20. LXX, I wouldn’t want to humiliate you what with your gentle BYU mind and your future as a professor there. I’m pretty sure you can’t work there if you think the BofM is a 19th century document.

  21. Okay, here’s a few quick thoughts on the matter. FWIW, I’m not an apocalyptist, I work with NT narrative. It’s just that the narrative I’m working with now is an apocalypse.

    Here’s the generic definition of an apocalypse worked out by the SBL Literature Genres Project and published in Semeia 14 in 1979:

    …a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

    This definition focuses on form and content. David Hellholm suggests that an adequate generic definition must include function. Hence, he adds (Semeia 36, 1986):

    …intended for a group in crisis with the purpose of exhortation and/or consolation by means of divine authority.

    Notice that Hellholm does not explicitly define the nature of this crisis. It was once a “fact of life” that apocalypses were produced by writers or communities who were taking it tough at the hands of a more powerful group, that is, they were suffering in some fashion for their religious stand. More recently, this idea has been seriously challenged.

    David Aune (Revelation, WBC, vol 52A, lxxxii) follows Hellholm in his generic definition by explicitly including the elements of form, content, and function:

    Form: an apocalypse is a first-person prose narrative, with and episodic structure consisting of revelatory visions often mediated to the author by a supernatural revealer, so structured that the central revelatory message constitutes a literary climax, and framed by a narrative of the circumstances that surround the purported revelatory experience.

    Content: the communication of a transcendent, usually eschatological, perspective on human experiences and values.

    Function: to legitimate the transcendent authorization of the message by mediating a reactualization of the original revelatory experience through a variety of literary devices, structures, and imagery, which function to “conceal” the message that the text purposes to “reveal,” so that the recipients of the message will be encouraged to continue to pursue, or if necessary to modify, their thinking and behavior in conformity with transcendent perspectives.

    If you want to seriously engage the idea of Nephi’s vision as an apocalypse, you need to consult Semeia 14 (1979) for John Collins’ master paradigm of the constituent features of ancient apocalypses. For my part, I think an extended debate over whether or not some text is an apocalypse is mostly a waste of time. Instead, it would be best to use Collins work to structure an inquiry into “what” and particularly into “how” the central message of Nephi’s vision is being conveyed. It would also be interesting to consider how well this coheres with John’s intent and message.

    Despite what I just said, I am now going to tell you why I have reservations about reading the part of Nephi’s vision that is recorded in the BoM as an apocalypse.

    First, it’s really hard to explain how an apocalypse would appear in the BoM about five hundred years before it appears in the rest of the Biblical world. Then there’s the matter of the literary matrix out of which apocalypses are generated: prophetic, Persian?, and the “right” wisdom. Only one of the three was around at the needed time.

    An apocalypse is not an ideal genre for conveying a Christian message. Apocalypses tend to be deterministic. Christianity is big into repentance and no Christian document has more to say about repentance than the BoM. So if we choose to read Nephi’s vision as an apocalypse, perhaps the more apt question is why there’s an apocalypse at all rather than why there’s only one.

    Finally, there’s the matter of eschatology. It is not clear to me that either the BoM or Nephi’s vision has a consistent apocalyptic eschatology. One very key item in all historical apocalypses is a cosmic transformation of some kind – in Revelation, it’s the new heaven and new earth. How about Nephi’s vision?

    Eschatological scenarios that involve the end of history are associated with historical apocalypses like Daniel. The other kind of an apocalypse is an otherworld journey. Needless to say, these don’t do the end of history thing. What most folks find common to all apocalypses, however, is a transcendent eschatology that looks for retribution in the afterlife as opposed to a prophetic eschatology which is “thisworldly.” How about Nephi’s vision?

    So now, I do not think that anything I have mentioned here precludes reading Nephi’s vision as an apocalypse. If you find by the standards that it is an apocalypse then explaining its sociological origins is of secondary import. If your heart is not set on a true-blue apocalypse, you might avoid having to explain sociological issues by working with proto-apocalyptic.

    If you find that Nephi’s vision “fits” an apocalypse in most areas, then in those areas that do not you can report that the vision subverts the traditional forms in some fashion. This sort of subversion is typical of most authors. For example, Revelation avoids determinism by embedding prophetic material, that is, its exhortations to repent, in its larger apocalyptic structure.

    And so I return to the point at which I started. A lengthy debate over whether or not Nephi’s vision is an apocalypse could be a stunning example of “the letter which killeth,” one of those exercises that make historical-critical inquiry look pointless to the outsider. To make the results of such a debate useful for something besides a sterile academic inquiry we should employ the results to clarify the message and the means by which the message is conveyed.

    Anyone who is still awake after all that is hereby awarded some really excellent, nice, chast, Mogget kisses.

  22. I confess I’m a bit tainted by Margaret Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ (though I’ve only glanced at parts of chapters so far…). I don’t expect these ideas will be taken seriously in academic circles, but for those of us not so bound, I think her ideas open up the radical new ways of thinking that we as Mormons have good reason to be open to.

    PLEASE, i spent 4 days talking to a group of people at http://www.shoutingzone.com about how Margaret Baker was full of it (sorry for my choice of words, it’s either that or something much worse) and in the end none of them had a good enough come back to what i had to say.


  23. Regarding Barker, I know her theory is pretty radical and is more of a rough-sketch conjecture that leans a lot on perhaps vague connections to books like 1 Enoch. That’s why I said I know theories like hers won’t be received well in historical-critical circles. (Though I would be interested in hearing other specific criticisms….) My point is not so much that her specific theory is credible, but that the Book of Mormon is so radically different than the Bible in so many ways (wasn’t there a recent post on the lack of historical-context we have about the BOM?), that I think it’s a bit irresponsible not to start thinking about how little we really know about the Bible (1st Temple period in particular), and to not just try to force the BOM into existing Bible scholarship.

    Surely fitting the BOM into existing scholarship is a worthwhile endeavor, but at points where this isn’t working, I think other avenues should be explored. I didn’t really have anything specific in mind before, but perhaps Deutero-Isaiah theories might be one such issue to which this could/should be applied. It seems to me that although there are a few important passages where a certain redacting time period is indicated, there is extremely little that we can have much confidence in regarding the redacting process, so where the BOM contradicts the most accepted versions of the Deutero-Isaiah hypothesis–I’m not even sure what passages this might be, I’m just trying to give a for-instance–I don’t think it’s out of bounds to point out how weak even the best/most-accepted textual-redaction theories really are, and to put forth alternate theories, even if they radically differ from extant work.

    In this sense, I haven’t seen good arguments or evidence that make me inclined to dismiss out-of-hand the idea that Josiah’s reforms might’ve drastically changed the pre-reform texts in ways that systematically removed references to, say, a godess figure. Or to confidently dismiss the idea that Revelation has ties to apocalyptic texts which have not survived for our perusal, or that there are curious ties to non-canonical texts which indeed seem to be quite similar in interesting ways. I’m not surprised to see that no one in these parts of the blogosphere are interested in studying these issues more carefully, but given the secret-temple tradition inherent in Mormonism, I’m a bit surprised if y’all are dismissing these ideas simply b/c they haven’t found favor among the larger academy. But, again, I haven’t looked very closely at any of these issues, so maybe there are indeed good reasons to reject Barker’s main ideas (Nikii, if I register for shoutingzone.com, will I able to find your said-converstaions?).

  24. Hi Robert, the 6page discussion is not on the public forums, you’d have to be a member with over 150 posts to gain access to that forum.
    If you want to know what my argument was, I see no problem in my copy / pasting the points I made here, as for what the other people said, I wouldnt want to evade on their privacy by sharing what they had to say.

    I’ll find the topic later and share my posts with you in hopes to discuss them further if you like?

    (I too have not looked ‘very’ closely into Margets ideas and theories, but I spent a good 3weeks researching about it for a project a while back, therefor have a little background on the said issue)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *