Sunday, October 14, 2012

The climax of Alma versus Korihor

The story of Alma versus Korihor is a well-known one, but there are some things I noticed recently that seemed to stick out.  Mostly I want to look at the final part of the confrontation.  Alma says,

47 But behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; therefore if thou shalt deny again, behold God shall smite thee, that thou shalt become dumb, that thou shalt never open thy mouth any more, that thou shalt not deceive this people any more.
48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.
49 Now Alma said unto him: This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance. (D&C 30:47-49)

Alma warns Korihor that if he denies again, God would smite him.  In response to this, Korihor seems to waffle, “I do not deny the existence of a God” and then in the very next breath, he says, “but I do not believe that there is a God.”  It is as if he thinks that denying God and expressing disbelief in God are two different things.  Really, he is trying to nuance his position away from that word “deny” because that implies to him that the argument is being framed around the assumption that God exists and he wants it framed around the assumption that God doesn’t exist.

Yet even though he says that he doesn’t deny God, his disbelief is a denial.  (With “affirmers” like Korihor, who needs atheists?)  Alma takes that disbelief as the same thing as denial, and judging by the curse that falls on Korihor, so does God.  This shows us it is possible to create distinctions and shades of meaning that have no reflection in reality, and God can see through any artificial nuances of rhetoric and cut through it.

Korihor says another odd thing: “I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.”  Korihor flat-out denies Alma’s testimony.  There’s a strategic element to it in which we can see Korihor’s carnal security.  Korihor may have reasoned that if Alma does not know God exists he wouldn’t be able to summon the moral and divine authority sufficient to pronounce a sign from God.  Korihor may also have reasoned mistakenly that even if Alma knew there was a God, Alma couldn’t be sure of being united with God’s will enough to induce God to act miraculously to give a sign.  On top of this, Korihor knew the sign he required must be indisputable.  Korihor probably thought he could blaspheme with impunity as he considered the difficulties he was making for Alma.

So then Alma says, “This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.”  Somehow when I read this recently it seemed like the punctuation was stuck in oddly, almost as if the power of the statement was diluted.  I remembered that the Book of Mormon was punctuated by the printer, not by Joseph Smith as he was translating. (1)  So I tried punctuating it differently.  Here’s my unofficial version:

This will I give unto thee for a sign,
that thou shalt be struck dumb according to my words,
and I say that in the name of God.
Ye shall be struck dumb,
that ye shall no more have utterance.

This seems to me to be a much stronger version, because it reveals that Alma uses his priesthood.  It becomes clear that the Spirit is upon him and that he is no longer speaking on his own authority, but speaking expressly for God.   We can also see Alma’s words as a chiasmus with his invocation of the name of God as the point of greatest emphasis.

This will I give unto thee for a sign,
>that thou shalt be struck dumb according to my words,
>>and I say that in the name of God.
>Ye shall be struck dumb, 
>that ye shall no more have utterance.

Also, the three repetitions of the idea that Korihor would be dumb indicate superlative emphasis upon the sign that he would be given. 

It also seems to me that the sign makes obvious a number of truths that in that day were points of faith:
1) God exists
2) God gives power to man
3) Alma had authority from God to speak in His name
4) God judged Korihor through Alma. 

In Korihor’s distress at his loss of speech, finally the truth comes out as he writes his story:

52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me. (Alma 30:52-53)

One of the things that got Korihor in trouble at the first was that he listened when the devil told him the people had ALL gone astray and he should reclaim them.  His problem at first sight doesn’t seem to be disbelief in God, but belief in a false revelation.  I suppose this is what led him to look critically at the practices and institutions and methods of the church in his day.  If everyone else were wrong, he must find fault with everyone else in order to support his own position.  Indeed, once you have the ego-stroking idea that you are right and all others are wrong, it is hard to know how far their wrongness extends and everything must be questioned.  For Korihor, with each question, the carnal security of “I’m right” beckoned and he gradually silenced any nagging warning “I might be wrong.”  He had to find fault with belief in Christ, with the traditions of prophecy and revelation, with declarations of repentance.  He had to dismiss testimonies of receiving forgiveness as the effect of a frenzied mind and mental derangement.  He had to accuse priests of overstepping authority and requiring too much and criticize the people for being deceived.  He had to deny the fall of Adam, the need for the Atonement, and scorn the idea of a future judgment or resurrection, since he must necessarily be right and all others wrong. 

Another thing that made me wonder was Korihor’s assertion that the devil came to him in the form of an angel.  I used to think that Korihor was lying, but now I think that he was telling the truth.  His experience marks him not just as an anti-Christ, but as a recipient of a counterfeit “miracle conversion” meant to oppose the divine angelic visitation to Alma the younger and the four sons of Mosiah.

I wonder why Korihor didn’t smell a rat though when the “angel” appearing to him told him that there was no God.  It doesn’t seem logically consistent.  If there is no God, wouldn’t that mean angels wouldn’t exist?  Or if there was no God, and angels existed, then angels would be God… but then there would still be a God.  According to religious logic, the “angel’s” message contradicted its appearance.  But I suppose that the carnally pleasing everyone-is-wrong-and-you’re-right message stroked Korihor’s ego to the extent that he didn’t think too hard about the inconsistencies. 

It is interesting that Korihor says, “I taught [his words], even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed they were true.”  Korihor seems to have not even believed the false message the devil gave him to preach, but he preached anyway.  His persistence and the carnality of the doctrine attracted more people than he expected until he fell into the trap of assuming that his success proved he was right.  Trouble is, truth is not proved by the number of people who subscribe to it.  Large groups and small groups who believe (or disbelieve) something can be equally wrong.  Rather, the Holy Ghost testifies to the truth, and we seek and learn and experiment and practice to seek that confirming witness.

I used to think Alma was unmerciful for not complying with Korihor’s request to pray for the curse to be removed, especially considering Alma’s own conversion experience with the angel and whatnot.  Recently I realized that Alma must have used his own experience to discern Korihor wasn’t repentant.  Korihor admitted how he got into his predicament, but he did not acknowledge the atonement Christ had made for him.  He only wanted the curse removed and made no statement that indicated any realization of the depth and breadth and seriousness of his sins and leading people away.  He considered himself cursed, but he never registered that his soul is lost, even though Alma gave the same kind of warning to him as the angel had once given to Alma (“it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction”).  Because Korihor didn’t acknowledge the magnitude of his sins, Alma knew Korihor was not repentant.  Alma had been harrowed up with his sins, so he knew what repentance was required.  Curses can’t be lifted without repentance.

How does this story help me in my life?  It shows me that I should resist any suggestion that the whole church is gone astray and I need to reclaim them.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on the right track and is the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which the Lord is well pleased, speaking to the church collectively and not individually (see D&C 1:30).  There have been times when I have looked down on other members and mistakenly considered myself better and more knowledgeable, and this has opened me up to the temptation to think I am right and they are wrong.  In direct contrast, it is much more wonderful to meet members and remind myself that they must have unplumbed depths of insight and experience that is perhaps too sacred to share in Sunday school, that each person knows pains and joys and truths too real for words. 

This story also is a grim reminder that not only does God give revelation, but the devil does too.  Joseph Smith said something like there is nothing more injurious to the saints than to think they are under the influence of the Spirit when it is really the influence of the devil.  That is really true; the devil can make his arguments seem so rational and urgent.  He can make it seem like squelching his suggestions is failing God somehow.  He can hit you with feelings of failure and depression.  He will take every opportunity to buffet you with guilt, even if it is undeserved.  We must never give in, but pray to be delivered from Satan. 

Another way this story helps me is that it shows me the danger of doctrine that pleases the carnal mind.  Let’s compare divine doctrine to Korihor’s carnal doctrine.

Divine Doctrine
Korihor’s carnal doctrine
Man is fallen and must repent
Man is just fine; no need to repent; there is no crime
God will judge our works
No judgment, so do what you want
We can’t save ourselves; we need a Savior
No one needs saving; there is no Savior
We must sacrifice to God; we are commanded
Sacrifice is pointless and is oppressive
There is life after life and a resurrection
This life is all there, so take advantage of very moment
Prosperity is a blessing from God for keeping the commandments but also for industry
Prosperity is just a function of good management

I have been pondering how Korihor was deceived by the “angelic” visitation from the devil and how he fell for the message of “there is no god.”  It seems to me that he wouldn’t have been susceptible unless he had already been entertaining doubts about it.  His experience makes me think of stories I’ve heard of people who have tried to force revelation and visions of angels.  But why would he have troubles with believing in the existence of God?  He had many witnesses.  Even Alma points out that Korihor had heard witnesses of the brethren and all the holy prophets from the scriptures.  The whole point of witnesses and testimony in the church is to tell the truth about God and the gospel and our experience and be believed.

Perhaps Korihor began doubting all of those and wondered how anyone could tell whether they had been telling the truth.  I think he had to have experienced the witness of the Holy Ghost and decided he didn’t want to be moved by it.  Perhaps he was alarmed by how Holy Ghost made him want to do things that he couldn’t understand or how it seemed to require improvement or service from him, so he worked hard to ignore it, deciding he was being worked up into a frenzy.  But ignoring the Spirit brought uncertainty, which built a need to feel divine approbation or support, so perhaps he decided that unless he could get his own visitation, then there must be no God.  I can imagine Korihor threatening the Lord in prayer, “Unless you show yourself, I’m not going to believe in you.”  Yet God isn’t held hostage to threats.  We can’t dictate the means of revelation;

What do we learn from this story?
·      Man can speak for God.  Man can also speak for the devil.  You have to choose who you believe.
·      The devil uses lying wonders to try to de-convert people from the truth. 
·      Teach something you know is wrong enough times, and you may eventually deceive yourself too.
·      Repetition tends to convince people over time, even if the repeated idea is false.
·      The numbers of people subscribing to a belief (or disbelief) does not prove anything about the rightness or wrongness of it.
·      Disbelief in God is the same as denial of God.
·      Pressing for a sign brings signs of condemnation (curses).
·      There’s a difference between being horrified by your sins and being horrified by the effects of your sins.  One leads to repentance, the other leads to attempts to manipulate the consequences.
·      And probably the most important lesson—don’t put off or quench the Holy Ghost. Any member of the church can become a Korihor if they persistently put off the Holy Ghost. 

For other articles on Korihor, see
 “Korihor: The Arguments of Apostasy” by Chauncey C. Riddle,  Maxwell Institute.  


(1)  Porter, Larry C., “The Book of Mormon: Historical Setting for Its Translation and Publication,”


catania said...

Love this post.

I have thought about Korihor a bit - especially in connection with Nephi - who had a visitation of the Spirit that instructed him to slay Laban and Moses - who, of course witnessed both God and Satan.

I blogged about it here. I'm especially intrigued at how the power of the Spirit will help us to discern between truth and error. It seems like Korihor had No spiritual witness that the message he received from the angel was true. Even though it was from an angel, it seems like Moses's experience with the devil - without authority or glory. What convinced Korihor that the message he received from the angel was "true" - not the Spirit, but it grew on him as it was pleasing to his carnal nature.

I, too, have thought about Alma's experience with people such as Zeezrom and Korihor. As I read, I've got this internal dialogue: "Korihor, you're talking to don't know who you're dealing with." Alma knew what it was like to persecute the church, and he also had a change of heart...his is a pretty convincing example.

Oh - I agree with you "I have been pondering how Korihor was deceived by the 'angelic' visitation from the devil and how he fell for the message of 'there is no god.' It seems to me that he wouldn't have been susceptible unless he had already been entertaining doubts about it." We don't have the record of Korihor's life before the experience, but this is where I think that Nephi's experience with the Spirit instructing him to slay Laban is a helpful comparison. Nephi was close to the Spirit. Before receiving this revelation, he was armed only with the Spirit not knowing what he'd do before-hand (1 Nephi 4:6). He was in tune. I think that it is safe to assume that Korihor was not in tune with the Spirit when he received his angelic visitation. And even during Nephi's experience, he goes through a "mental checklist" looking for confirmation that this is truly a message from God. thoughts are getting jumbled, but thanks for the post. Also, thanks for the links to the other articles.