The Murderous Savior: A theological dilemma

Imagine that you love some child very much. Imagine also, contrary to John Lennon, that there is a Heaven of endless happiness and a Hell of endless misery. You are probably going to be doing everything you can to ensure that the child you love goes to Heaven. Unfortunately for you, you cannot guarantee that your loved one will qualify for Heaven; you can raise them right and teach them all you know, but they still might make poor choices and condemn themselves to Hell. It’s an agonizing fact, but you try to live with it.

Then one day, a talking snake comes up to you and says: “If you act soon, there is a way to ensure that your loved one will never be damned.”

“How?”, you ask. “Children are naturally innocent”, the snake replies. “If they die young, then they die in innocence, and God will not fail to save them. So, the surest way to save someone’s soul is to find them as a child and kill them.”

“What?!”, you shout. “You want me to murder a child? You’re mad! I could never do that!”

“Not even to guarantee them an eternity of perfect happiness?”, asks the snake. “The pain of death only lasts for a moment, after all, but Heaven is forever.”

“But…”, you stammer, “but that’s murder! Killing a child is a terrible sin! I’d go to Hell for sure!”

“Ah, yes, I forgot to mention the price”, says the snake. “You’d be damning yourself, that’s for sure. But you’d also be saving your loved one. A fair trade, yes?”

“No! I’m going to let them live, and teach them right from wrong, and we’ll both do what’s right and we’ll both be saved!”

The snake laughs. “I suppose there’s always that possibility, if you feel like gambling with your loved one’s soul. But isn’t also possible that you’ll be saved and they’ll be damned? Surely you’ve seen good parents whose children went astray?”

“Well, yes, but – “

“And if you asked those parents if they’d be willing to trade places with their damned child, wouldn’t a few of them say yes?”


“Of course, you might both fail and end up in Hell together. That happens, too. But there’s a way out of all this uncertainty. Give up on yourself, kill them now, and they’re saved forever. And that’s not even the best part!”

“What? What is the best part?”

“You can do this for any child you meet! If you have any degree of fondness towards a child, you can guarantee them a place in Heaven just by killing them. You could save hundreds of people that way!”

You say nothing, unsure of how to reply. The snake begins to slither away, but it turns back to say: “You can start at any time. One soul lost for hundreds saved is not a bad trade-off, if you ask me. But maybe it’s none of my business.” And with that, the snake leaves you alone with your thoughts.

Now tell me, dear reader: what will you do? Will you slay your loved one? Will you go on to kill other children, sending them back to God? Will you preserve your own soul, and hope that your friends and loved ones can avoid damning theirs? What do you think God would want you to do?

I can tell you what I would do: I’d reject the snake’s proposal, confident in my belief that there is no Heaven or Hell, and that killing someone is the exact opposite of saving them. Of course, I might reconsider my disbelief in Heaven and Hell if a real live snake started talking to me about them…

EDIT: As you might expect, other people have considered this question before me, and one of them was nice enough to say hello. Check out Justin Paul Walters’s piece, Whether or Not You Believe in the Age of Accountability, You’re Wrong Either Way. There, you will find further food for thought (and an appreciation of DOOM if you read his other posts).

Lies Are Bad, LDS Edition

I recently discovered, via this thread on r/mormon, an article on By Common Consent, titled Yo, Dre, I got something to say!, and I found it rather disturbing. The article seeks to make two points. Here’s the first one:

First, I think we need to carve out a space for people who are willing to accept the BoM as scripture, just not of the historical kind (i.e., a modern pseudepigraphon), to remain within the fold and be accepted as good members of the Church.

Only two sentences in to the article and we’re already on the wrong foot. You see, the Book of Mormon itself claims to be historical. While it may not try to be a complete history of its peoples, it still announces itself as a factual account of people who actually existed. If you’re willing to accept it as the word of God, why not trust its historical message as well? Joseph Smith, the man who brought forth the book, also considered it to be an actual history in addition to being a vital collection of scripture. Several other latter-day prophets and apostles share Smith’s opinion; read the statements collected in this comment and think of what they would say to you if you told them that the Book of Mormon wasn’t historical.

But it appears that the author, Kevin Barney, is fully prepared to contradict his own church leaders on this point. He starts by contradicting Gordon B. Hinckley. He quotes from this interview:

Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

And then he says this:

On the one hand I appreciate the vibe he was going for, and this it’s all true or all false stance does indeed pack significant rhetorical power. But note that this is exactly the stance anti-Mormons want the Church to take, because it makes their job incredibly easy. On this stance all it takes is one problem, one counterexample, one bauble that turns out on examination not to be as shiny as it seemed at first blush, to bring the entire house of cards down. Not leaving room for any sense of nuance at all for a religion as recent and messy as Mormonism simply is not a smart corner to paint ourselves into.

Kevin, why are you contradicting the prophet like that? I thought you accepted this guy as a prophet, seer, and revelator, uniquely qualified to speak for God. Are you saying that he fell into an anti-Mormon trap just because he wanted “rhetorical power” in an interview?

It’s worth noting that Hinckley was not the first to use such rhetoric when talking about the Book of Mormon. I’ve compiled a few similar statements:

“Either the Book of Mormon is true, or it is false; either it came from God, or it was spawned in the infernal realms. It declares plainly that all men must accept it as pure scripture or they will lose their souls. It is not and cannot be simply another treatise on religion; it either came from heaven or from hell. And it is time for all those who seek salvation to find out for themselves whether it is of the Lord or of Lucifer.” – Bruce R. McConkie, What Think Ye of the Book of Mormon?

“Likewise, we must make a simple choice with the Book of Mormon: it is either of God or the devil. There is no other option.” – Tad R. Callister, The Book of Mormon—a Book from God

“To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.” – Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon

“Finally, conversion to the Book of Mormon is conversion to the divine, prophetic calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is the divine evidence of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s calling. Either this is all true, or it is not.” – Joseph B. Wirthlin, The Book of Mormon: The Heart of Missionary Proselyting

“Nearby is the Hill Cumorah. From there came the ancient record from which was translated the Book of Mormon. One must accept or reject its divine origin. Weighing of the evidence must lead every man and woman who has read with faith to say, “It is true.”” – Gordon B. Hinckley, Testimony

As far as I can tell, the “all-or-nothing” view is the official position of the Church, and if that plays into the hands of anti-Mormons, so be it. But Kevin is determined to depart from this viewpoint, even if it means contradicting God’s mouthpieces and making Joseph Smith a liar. He even has an explanation for why Smith would lie, which is his second point.

My second thought is, taking the BoM as a pseudepigraphon for the sake of argument only, why would Joseph have created such a production? What was the pseudepigraphic impulse that led him to do it? Well, I see him as a young Ice Cube: He had somethin’ to say! And while for some purposes having a sharply closed canon can be a feature, it can also be a bug. If the canon is closed shut, tight as a drum, what is a new prophetic voice to do? Who is going to listen to the musings of an ignorant farm boy to the effect that, say, the Old Testament is not sufficiently and explicitly Christian? Maybe his family, but that’s about it. Not a soul would care what Joseph qua Joseph had to say about much of anything.

In other words, Smith lied because he had to. No one would have listened to his divine message if it was just Smith saying it, so he had to create a new volume of scripture, full of false history and false authors, to give his sayings more weight. Then people would listen and the work could move forward.

If this is how the work of God is supposed to progress, then God is a chump.

I am no longer Mormon, but I have not forgotten one lesson that I learned over and over in the Church: Don’t Lie. This talk by Marion G. Romney is typical of my instruction, and I thank the Church and all its members for pushing honesty so thoroughly. I would expect all the leaders of the Church to be exemplars of honesty, especially when it comes to matters central to the faith. Thus, to think that the Church’s founder could be lying in and about the Book of Mormon, the Church’s most important document, is hard to bear. It would mean that Joseph Smith had no faith in God’s power to carry the truth into people’s hearts, so he lied to manipulate them. It would mean that generations of Church leaders have been either liars, knowingly repeating a falsehood, or fools, unknowingly repeating a falsehood. It would mean that hypocrisy is built into the Church’s foundation. It would mean that either the Church is out of line with God’s will, since its members keep spreading a lie, or that God doesn’t really care about lies, since He allows a big lie to go unexposed.

You know, Kevin, for a guy worried about playing into anti-Mormon hands, you sure do give the anti’s a lot of ammunition.

Kevin tries to justify deception by appealing to history, and the difficulty of being heard:

This is the same dynamic that occurred in the formation of the biblical canon originally. There are almost certainly pseudepigraphic works within our biblical canon, because false ascription was simply the only way for those works to gain a hearing.

This doesn’t convince me at all. If there are pseudepigrapha within the Bible, it doesn’t mean that lying and impersonation are okay; it means that you need to take a hard look at the canonized books and figure out which ones are trustworthy and which ones were written by damned liars. The actions of men are not supposed to set precedent for ignoring the commandments of God.

To deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon is to deny its truthfulness, and the truthfulness of Joseph Smith, and either the truthfulness or the wisdom of the prophets and apostles that followed after him. Once you’ve accepted all that, you’re in a rather difficult position as a member of the Church. One option, the option I took, is to leave the Church. It’s not an easy option, but it’s a logical one; you can’t trust a liar or anyone who believes one, so if Smith is a liar and everyone after him is either a liar or a dupe, it’s best not to follow them at all. Kevin Barney does not want to take this option. Kevin wants to stay in the Church, but not really accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God, and not really follow the prophets, at least not when it makes it easy for anti-Mormons to make fun of him. He wants to think of Joseph Smith as a good man, but one who would lie for his own benefit, and the Book of Mormon as a good book, but not one that can be trusted on all points, and Hinckley and all the prophets as good guys, but not always aware of the best course for the Church. Kevin Barney is an idiot.

When Ice Cube had somethin’ to say, he didn’t pretend to be Dr. Dre in order to say it. That’s the route that Joseph Smith should have taken. But that’s not the route he took, and that’s why I don’t listen to him. I advise everyone else to do likewise, and yes, that includes you, Kevin Barney.

P.S. Atheists do not have the fear of God to motivate us to tell the truth, but we do have the good counsel of Sam Harris warning us about the cost of even tiny lies. Seriously, read the man’s book, and you’ll find renewed motivation to always tell the truth.

EDIT: I kept calling Kevin Barney “Kevin Conroy” for some reason. I’ve changed all the mistaken names to his correct name. Sorry about that, Kevin.

SECOND EDIT: I have realized that Kevin’s position is not quite as extreme as I have said it was. In his first point, he is not saying that we should believe that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical. He is saying that we should make space for those who believe that it is ahistorical. It’s an important distinction, and I apologize to Kevin for missing it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough to save Kevin’s argument, because the arguments I brought against this position still stand. Rejecting the historicity cuts at the very heart of Mormonism, undermining the trustworthiness of its scriptures and its leaders. Why would anyone want a space within the LDS Church while believing things that invalidate the Church’s claims to Godly authority? It makes no sense at all. Better to find a space on the outside, where you don’t have to make excuses for a lying Joseph Smith and a clueless Gordon B. Hinckley. Trust me on this one.

The Day of Miracles Has Ceased

In the Book of Mormon, we read of many Antichrists, and the fates that befall them. In Jacob chapter 7, we read of Sherem, trying to overthrow the doctrine of Christ. He clashes with Jacob and insists that Jacob show him a sign. In response, Jacob invites God to smite Sherem, which God does. This moves Sherem to repent and testify of Christ just before his death. Interestingly, Jacob was sure that Sherem would deny any sign he received, but Sherem did the opposite.

Another famous Antichrist from the Book of Mormon is Korihor, the atheist. In Alma chapter 30, Korihor denies not only Christ, but God and prophecy and afterlife as well. Alma the Younger confronts him, and Korihor demands a sign. He gets one: God takes away his voice. Korihor then testifies (via writing, of course) that God took away his voice, and never preaches against God again. He didn’t get a very nice sign, but like Sherem, he got a sure sign, and it convinced him and all his followers.

Some Antichrists don’t meet such bad ends. Alma the Younger was himself an Antichrist, along with his friends, the four sons of King Mosiah. In Mosiah chapter 27, we find them trying to destroy the church of God. But without their ever demanding one, they receive a sign: an angel appears and commands them to repent, with a voice that shook the earth. The shock leaves Alma catatonic for two days, but he recovers, and he becomes a powerful advocate for the church of God, along with Mosiah’s sons. It would appear that signs from God are very convincing.

So why is it that we don’t see these signs today? Why is it that I have never received one?

You may say that God is sparing me by not granting me such violent signs. It certainly is true that these signs, taken by themselves, are not pleasant at all. But when taken in context, the signs appear to be ultimately beneficial to the people who received them. Consider Korihor, who lost his voice but gained a certainty of God. Isn’t that worth it? Take an example from Disney: Ariel the mermaid gave up her voice to be with the man she loved. How much better a deal, then, to be with God in exchange for your voice! Yet no one has ever made me the offer. Why not?

These aren’t the only incidents of God displaying power in the Book of Mormon. We read of God destroying prisons, taming beast, lighting up the night sky as bright as day, protecting his servants with an angel or a ring of fire, and other signs. The scriptures seem to indicate that these signs, harsh as some of them were, had some power to convince people to believe in God and keep His commandments. So why don’t we see these signs today?

The Bible, too, is full of such signs. God sent plagues on Egypt to convince them of His power. He cursed the Philistines with mice and hemorrhoids for stealing the Ark. He sent down fire from heaven to refute the priests of Baal. He delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from a superheated furnace to show His power to Nebuchadnezzar. So where have these signs gone?

The Book of Mormon assures us that these miracles are still happening; when I searched for miracles+ceased in the Book of Mormon, I got six results that assured me that miracles have not ceased, and two results listing specific circumstances in which miracles did cease due to wickedness. There are millions of active Mormons in the world, so by Mormon standards, we’re not living in a time of great wickedness; in other words, the circumstances that prevent miracles do not apply. So, where are the miracles? There are plenty of hostile voices declaring the church to be false; why are they not silenced like Sherem or called to repentance like Alma? Why hasn’t anything like that happened to me?

This absence of the miraculous shows up even in church talks. Consider Jeffrey Holland’s 2008 talk, The Ministry of Angels. He begins by recalling angelic visitations to Adam and Eve, to Mary, to Lehi, and to Jesus, and then he moves to more modern times, recalling an experience of the late Clyn D. Barrus… but Clyn’s story has no angels in it at all! The closest we get is Clyn’s father saving him from drowning, which Clyn very much appreciated, of course, but what about the heavenly beings the scriptures tell us about? Where are they?

This problem is obviously not limited to Mormonism. Most of Christianity preaches the existence of miracles, and they are also unable to deliver the actual product. Faith healers are unable to heal (especially when it comes to amputees), prophets deliver false prophecies, and the wicked are not destroyed. The closest we get to a sign from God is Jesus appearing on people’s food.

I opened this piece with a series of negative signs – punishments from God, in other words – because I am willing to accept any sign from God at this point. If I am unworthy of signs like visions and healings, then give me a punishment for my sins, a divine spanking, and I will be satisfied, because I will at last have evidence that God cares. But I cannot get even that, and apparently, neither can anyone else. There are no signs at all. So does God actually care?

I won’t debate now whether there is a God or not (I tend to think not, but there’s room for disagreement). Instead, let’s assume that there is a God, and ask: what has God done lately? Where is the evidence that God interacts with us at all? As far as I can tell, the answers to these questions are, in order, “nothing” and “nowhere”. When we listen for God’s voice, we hear only divine hiddenness. When ordinary folks like us cry out “Oh God, where art thou?”, we don’t get a response. And what is the point of believing in God, even a true God, if God doesn’t care about us?

The old scriptures (which aren’t necessarily true) tell of God’s great deeds, but they cannot make up for the lack of God in the present. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may have had good reason to believe, but we in the present have good reason not to believe at all.

Archaeoraptor and Joseph Smith, Jr.


In October 1999, National Geographic unveiled the fossil of a new species of dinosaur. They called it Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, and trumpeted it as a new and exciting transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds. The excitement proved to be short-lived, because the fossil was a fraud. It was made out of pieces of real creatures: the upper body of a bird called Yanornis, the tail of a dinosaur called Microraptor, and the legs of something else entirely; there might be up to 5 specimens represented in the stitched-up final product. The original finder of the fossil pieces knew that complete fossils fetch higher prices, so they cemented the parts together, hoping that the real pieces would create a convincing fake.

On October 15, 2012, smartphone enthusiasts were abuzz over rumors of a new offering from Sony: the Nexus X. Photos of this new model had mysteriously surfaced, and tech reporters and commentators happily picked them apart. But some suspected that the photos were fake, and soon their suspicions were confirmed: the creator of the photos came forward and revealed that it was a hoax. The clever faker, Ti Kawamoto, had taken photos of features of other Nexus phones, including the Xperia Ion and Xperia TL, created a 3D model, and simulated photos using the model. Kawamoto used the traits of existing phones to make his pictures of a nonexistent phone seem more credible.

I mention these two examples because they have a common trait which, I believe, is found in many fakes and frauds: the fake object is made out of pieces of real objects, so that the false whole may borrow authenticity from its true parts. This is often successful, but the sources of the pieces, and the gaps between them, eventually become apparent, revealing the hoax for what it is.

There are many examples of this. Piltdown Man, made out of a human cranium and an orangutan jawbone. The Solid Muldoon, sculpted out of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. Nick Simmons’s Incarnate, with panels and character designs copied from Bleach, Hellsing, One Piece, Deadman Wonderland, and other manga, along with pieces from DeviantArt. The Feejee Mermaid, with a monkey’s body grafted onto a fish’s tail. Quentin Rowan’s Assassin of Secrets, which plagiarized Ian Fleming, John Gardner, Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, James Bamford, and more. Over and over again, fakers have created Frankenstein’s monsters to sell to the world, but keen-eyed skeptics keep seeing the stitches.

This brings me to something which I spent many years accepting as a genuine article, but which I now see as a stitched-up hoax: the Book of Mormon.

Let’s begin in the Book of Jacob, chapter 5, in which we find the prophecy of Zenos concerning the house of Israel. It begins with the narrator comparing Israel to an olive tree, with the master of the vineyard trying to save it. The master and his servants put a lot of work into the tree, grafting wild branches on, taking branches off and planting them elsewhere in the vineyard, seeking to gather fruit before the season is over and the vineyard gets burned. The whole chapter is a parable, describing the Lord’s effort to raise up righteous people before the end of the world.

Now notice the transition: the chapter began by comparing Israel to a single olive tree, but by the end, the narrator is talking about multiple trees, and discussing his plans for the vineyard as a whole. Why the change?

Like my previous examples, Jacob 5 is a composite, and the sources of its pieces are not too hard to find. The first part comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 11, where Paul compares Israel to an olive tree with branches grafted in. The second part comes from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 5, where Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that brings forth wild grapes. The rough transition between the two can be seen as Jacob 5 switches from comparing Israel to a tree (see verse 3) to comparing Israel to the whole vineyard (in verse 40, the tree is dying; in verse 41, the Lord weeps over the whole vineyard). They simply don’t mesh. Curt van den Heuvel provided an analysis where he finds more pieces copied from the Bible, such as Luke 13:6-9, where we find the Lord instructing his servants to dig about a tree, and dung it (compare Jacob 5:64). The pieces make up an interesting whole, but they do not truly belong together. The assembly is a fraud.

The rest of the Book of Mormon reveals itself to be full of stolen pieces. The WordTree Foundation did a thorough study that detected numerous quotations from The Late War between the United States and Great Britain, a popular educational text from 1816, within the Book. Stripling soldiers, bands of robbers, curious workmanship, pitching tents on the borders, freemen versus king’s men… Joseph’s first published work is peppered with snippets from the 1816 history book. Even the general style appears to be copied: The Late War was deliberately written “[i]n the Scriptural Style”, and the Book of Mormon has an obvious resemblance to scripture (meaning the Bible, of course). And speaking of the Bible: the Book of Mormon quotes the Bible many times, even when the alleged writer could not possibly have had access to the passage being quoted (or when the passage being quoted is actually a mistranslation). Then there are little pieces from other sources, such as a passage lifted from Josiah Priest and the famous vision of the Tree of Life being copied from a dream by Joseph Smith, Sr. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The pieces don’t truly fit where they’ve been placed, and their source is too obvious. The Book of Mormon is a fraud.

Other works by Joseph Smith reveal the same problems. The Book of Abraham, for instance, contains ideas and excerpts from The Philosophy of a Future State, a work first published in 1830. Researchers have found pieces from other sources as well, none of which would have been available at Abraham’s time. Then there are the names, which are Hebrew instead of Egyptian, and the flow of the text, which is just too similar to the King James Bible, much like the Book of Mormon. We might also consider the facsimiles. The copies in the official text have features which puzzled Egyptologists, until they recovered the original of Facsimile 1 and a faithful copy of Facsimile 2 and discovered that Joseph had filled in the gaps in the originals with parts that didn’t match the wholes. Like the Archaeoraptor fossil, there is an illusion of completeness, but the parts do not truly fit together into a coherent whole.

Nexus X

Even Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible has some features of a patchwork fraud. We should first note that the Bible itself is partially fraudulent: the King James version (KJV) of the Bible has 48 scribal additions (unauthorized insertions by later authors into an original text). It is reasonable to expect that a true prophet of God would detect these rude additions and excise them, but, as this analysis shows, Joseph Smith removed only one of these additions! Then there are 350 more verses that include scribal alterations or mistranslations, and Joseph removed only 11 of them. Then there are Joseph’s translations of specific words: he defines “Golgotha” as “burial” instead of “skull” and “Cephas” as meaning “seer” in addition to meaning “stone” (wrong on both counts). He also introduced a new word “Rabcha”, which he defined as meaning the same thing as the Hebrew “Raca”, meaning “fool”. But “Rabcha” is not a Hebrew word at all; the only “Rabcha” I’ve been able to locate is this village in India. In short, Joseph failed to take out the false pieces in the Bible, and added a few clearly false pieces of his own. (Do read the analysis I mentioned for more explanation and even more errors, along with this compilation from MormonThink.)

As a field, archaeology survived the loss of Archaeoraptor, because there are other fossils that are internally consistent and that come from trustworthy sources; in fact there are thousands of fossils like that, giving us a wealth of reliable data to study the world with. But Mormonism cannot survive the loss of these three texts of Joseph Smith. Even the loss of one text is deadly to Mormonism, because we would not expect a true prophet to put forth any false scripture, so if one is definitely false, what about all the others? But when we have three frauds that Smith declared to be significant revelations, and that together constitute the bulk of Joseph’s canonized work, we can say beyond reasonable doubt that he was not a prophet of God. (Unless God is a liar, but I’d rather not consider that possibility.) It is no use trying to believe in Joseph’s claims anymore. Like the Nexus X, the true Church never really existed, and we must look for truth elsewhere.