Four Troubling Theological Assertions in the Book of Mormon


Location: 2 Nephi 4

Situation: Nephi is led by the Spirit, and finds Laban fallen to the earth and drunken with wine. The Spirit tells him to kill Laban. Nephi doesn’t want to do it. So the Spirit explains that the Lord has delivered Laban into his hands and he has to go through with it.

Money quote: “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better  that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”

Potential Problems:

–Ouch. It’s okay to kill people as long as some vague future good will come of it?

–This sets a terrible precedent. Think: Lafferty brothers. Having God not just command people to kill, but also include justifications as to why it’s okay, can get you into trouble in that it’s easier to talk yourself into it. I’ve met people who not only say that the Spirit has told them wacky things, but include the Spirit’s justification for said wacky things. Not usually a good sign.

–God can override his own laws, hmm? What about this whole being steadfast and unchanging and therefore trustworthy?

–Is this a God who is even good?



Location: Alma 14

Situation: Those who were converted by Alma and Amulek  are cast into a fire. Alma and Amulek are forced to watch. Amulek proposes that they do something about it.

Money quote: (from Alma): “the Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory, and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.”

Potential Problems:

–Huh? The wicked have to be allowed to be wicked so that God can judge them fairly, to the extent of the righteous getting tortured to bring that about? Everyone loses: the righteous suffer in this life, and wicked suffer in the next one.

–Whatever happened to calling people to repentance? Evidently God will sometimes encourage you to stay in your wicked ways so that he can be just in his plan to punish you.

–Once again, we start to wonder: is God even good?



Location: Alma 34

Situation: Amulek is explaining the atonement.

Money quote: “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered;  therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.”

Potential Problems:

–This is less disturbing and more just confusing. How can it be fair to punish someone for someone else’s sins? That’s always something I’ve found problematic in vicarious satisfaction theories of the atonement, that when it comes down to it, they’re actually not just. So how is justice getting satisfied?

— Amulek seems to see the problem here, but instead of grappling with it, he leaps to an infinite atonement. I’ve never understood how this resolves anything.



Location: Moroni 8

Situation: Mormon is  talking about infant baptism. He’s pretty worked up. It’s a “gross error”, as children are not capable of committing sin. It’s “solemn mockery before God.” In fact, it’s so bad that even thinking it can send you to hell.

Money quote: “I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.”

Potential Problems:

–Really? You happen to die while having the wrong belief about this, and you’re doomed?

–It also seems a little extreme to say that a belief in infant baptism means that you lack faith, hope, and charity.

–Okay, to be fair, I think this is likely hyperbole. But still.


  1. I remember learning that Nephi was justified under the Law of Moses for killing Laban because Laban had stolen from him and threatened to kill him (and his brothers). But I don’t know my OT well enough to find proper references.

  2. On #4:
    I think Mormon is much closer in time to the institution of infant baptism than we are. As such, he knows that the apostates who preach it have severely twisted other gospel principles to get to infant baptism being needed. Now that we are 1800 years removed from that event, people who believe it who never heard the basic gospel principles taught like we teach are not quite as far in the “bonds of iniquity”.

  3. On the Nephi as murderer thing, I did once read some contorted justification somewhere on the Maxwell Institute. I wasn’t at all sure I agreed with their arguments.

    On Alma 14, I thought the point was they had been preaching repentence, prior to their being thrown in prison, and the whole converts fleeing and remaining believers thrown into the fire. Very disturbing though, nonetheless.

  4. Let me address your items:
    Yes, it is ok to remove people for mortality if the Lord commands it. It is always for some very good reason, which we may not to see or understand. Not only have individuals been taken out by the Lord’s command, so have whole armies and even the whole population of the earth except for eight people. Check out your Old Testament.

    The Lafferty’s were under the influence of Satan. You cannot compare what Satan inspires with what the Lord inspires. I agree there are a lot of wacky folks that have committed some pretty terrible acts.

    I know of no law that the Lord cannot remove people from mortality if he thinks it is best. The law is against murder by mortals for some selfish reason or for gain. Killing by command of the Lord is not murder. Killing by the command of Satan is.

    And as far as God being good how does one know that removing a mortal from the life is not a good thing for that person. It may put that person in a better position to see their errors or at the least protect innocent people who the Lord does not want remove at the present time.
    Sure the Lord allows such acts to take place. The Holocaust is another example in our own time. What happened is a fact, but how do you know that these righteous did not learn some lesson that is unknown to us by their experience. How do you know that the wicked also learn some lesson that was valuable in the external scheme of things. Our assessments are based on our very limited vision of what we see around us. God sees the big picture and what happens to us on this earth is really for our own good whether we can see it or not.
    I think your assessment of facts is problematic. You appear to see only what you want to see for whatever reason.
    When someone allows an object to fall from their hand it will fall to the ground. That is the law of gravity and there is no way to get away from that. Mercy will not negate the law of acceleration of objects as they fall earthward.
    The same is for our actions, whether they be good or evil. Preform a good act and a good reward will happen, in fact we demand it. Do an evil act and we want retribution! We would definitely be angry at God if these rewards were not dished out.
    In some old Jewish writings, the proposition in the preexistence was put forth that everyman should suffer for his own evil acts because of the demands of justice. We still do so as mortals whenever we hear of terrible crimes in our society. We want someone hung who has committed some of the terrible acts we hear about in the news.
    Well someone came forth and said in effect I will be the “whipping boy” to satisfy the peoples demand for justice, but the people have to go through the repentance process. If they don’t they will suffer for their own evil deeds. It is similar to someone paying a fine in court for you because you might not have any money at the moment, but are still required to pay the fine but under better conditions. You are out of jail, but justice is still required by your repayment of the fine to the person who paid it.
    I also thought that it was a little extreme what Mormon said to his son about those who required infants to be baptized. (I wonder they required the infant to be baptized by emersion?)
    I suspect, as one of your commentators has said, that there may have been other problems as well. At the very least it showed that there was no understanding of true nature of our state as infants and as very little children.
    It may be, in addition, that all the killing of innocent infants by both sides of the final battles of the Nephites and Lamanites witnessed by Mormon firsthand had made him a little more sensitive to matters dealing with infants.

  5. These troubling concepts are not unique to the Book of Mormon, but may be found throughout other sacred writings of the Abrahamic religions.

    The first is a sort of utilitarian definition of virtue. Another example today, outside of religious contexts, is the question suppose you are driving a trolley that loses its brakes. You can either turn on to one track in which would result in the death of one person (tied up on the tracks) or you may turn on to another, which would result in five deaths (people tied up on the tracks). Which would you choose? Most people have no trouble chosing the first–the one with fewer deaths. I.e., it is better that one person die than that multiple people do.

    Change the facts: As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a weighty person next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?” This is a much more difficult question for most people.

    The Nephi problem is different because it is not a question of one death versus multiple deaths, but of one death versus an entire people’s “dwindling in unbelief” and perishing. Of course, one could argue that the dwindling and perishing is not just a spiritual issue, but that the loss of ethics resulting from a loss of the Brass Plates might result in many more deaths than just that of Laban.

    In any event, it is an illustration that either in Nephi’s understanding of his inspired thinking or listening to God’s voice, God engages in a form of utilitarian thinking. And that even for God, ethics is not also purely black or white.

    Again, this is not an issue restricted to the Book of Mormon or even necessarily to traditional religion.

    As to the second point, God’s allowing the innocent to be harmed, this is a restatement of the problem of evil–if God is all powerful and all good, than why is there evil in the world (like the death of the innocent). I do not have a satisfactory answer to that question; as I tell others, “God has some explaining to do at the last day.”

    In this instance, as in most, God chooses not to save the innocent. What differs is that God also commands his servant Alma not even to try to save them (or at least that is the way Alma reports it). Alma’s explanation for why God is not saving the innocent, either on God’s own volition or through Alma, is not satisfying to me, any more than any other explanation I have read. Please note that the Book of Job is full of attempts to answer the Problem of Evil (or as philosophers and theologians call it, the “Theodicy”), but ultimately does not give an answer.

    Alma’s perspective, though, is an interesting one.

    As to the third, an apparent penal substitution model of the Atonement, I would note that LDS scripture does not take a definitive position on the most appropriate model or explanation. A couple of recent posts on the subject

    As alluded to in the articles, wrestling with what the Atonement means and how it operates has continued for centuries in the Christian tradition, and penal substitution is only one among several. I don’t accept it, although it can be illustrative of some aspects of it. Amulek’s explanation is not conclusive nor is it binding, unless taken as one of many differing explanations that are not consistent with each other.

    As to the quote about infant baptism, I wonder if Mormon had had a bad day when he wrote it. Or if something else was going one that he used such incendiary language. Prophets are human too, and have good days and bad days, and some days are more prophetic than on other days.

  6. “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.”

    Here’s my problem with this: It isn’t actually the Lord doing the slaying with Nephi and so many others, it’s the Lord requiring His young servants to do it! I suppose if He wants to waste tons of people like He did to the Egyptians and the baddies at the coming of Jesus to the new world, well, I guess that’s His call. But when He has His servants – like Nephi or the young army of Joshua who was sent in to Canaan to kill all of the old people, children, puppies and kitties – do the killing, I really get sick to my stomach.

    One of the problems I have with the Nephi/Laban situation is how unimaginative it is. Like Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, couldn’t the Lord have come up with 50 better ways to get the brass plates for the Lehites than to chop off the head of a defenseless drunk?

  7. I have a real problem with Nephi slaying Laban. Apparently, God can take out cities (see Sodom and Gomorrah), vast areas of land, (see BOM when Christ dies), and even the entire world, (see Noah and end times prophecy) but when it comes to taking out one person, it’s too much for God to do Himself.

    My personal opinion is that Nephi killed Laban because Nephi wanted to kill Laban and not that God commanded the killing. Then after the act, Nephi feels bad (but not bad enough to say he was wrong) and tries to justify the unjustifiable with the “constrained” statement.

    God doesn’t need you to do His “dirty” work. He is perfectly able to do it himself.

  8. OK, Lynnette, I’ll see your four troubling theological assertions and raise you this one:

    Location: 3 Nephi 9

    Situation: The voice of Jesus Christ is speaking to the survivors of the great physical calamities in the New World, the earthquakes and fires and floods that killed entire cities.

    Money quote (Christ speaking): “…that great city Jacobugath…have I caused to be burned with fire because of their sins and wickedness…therefore I did cause them to be burned, to destroy them from before my face…”

    Potential problems: Does the Savior Jesus Christ send down fire from heaven to burn up people who displease him? Doesn’t seem like a very attractive God to follow, nor does it seem like Jesus Christ of the New Testament.

  9. “The Nephi problem is different because it is not a question of one death versus multiple deaths, but of one death versus an entire people’s “dwindling in unbelief” and perishing.”

    This is curious reasoning also and goes against modern-day teachings. One of the main points that Apostle LeGrande Richards makes in A Marvelous Work And A Wonder is that if every bible in the world suddenly disappeared, the Church would still continue unabaded because of modern-day prophets, priesthood authority, and continuing revelation. All three of these things were a part of the kingdom in the new world. We are taught that the words of the current prophet trumps the past prophets, hence the brass plates – while providing a historical context for the ancient new world church and great teachings and wisdom – would seem to be a wonderful but non-essential set of scripture (and something not worth losing your head over).

  10. Some thoughts:
    1) God is a utilitarian who recommends strong rules of thumb (e.g. thou shalt not bare false witness, unless the SS are asking if you’re hiding jews in your attic; thou shalt not kill, unless you’re Claus von Stauffenberg and you’ve got an opportunity to end the second world war a year early).

    2) God values human agency more than anything else. He constantly permits bad people to hurt good people because forcing people to be good (or removing the consequences of bad behavior) would cause us to become things to be acted upon and destroy the plan of eternal progression.

    3) Amulek recognizes the logical difficulty in the idea of an atonement. His solution is to call it a type of repayment that is categorically different than earthly justice. Nothing in our world is infinite and he suggests that things that are infinite might because to break the inequality of justice transference. I agree that it doesn’t entirely resolve the problem of an atonement but I do think it describes the problem well. It’s a bit like Descartes’ Meditations.

    4) I wonder if Mormon had other kids than Moroni who died young and had people in his ward who were real jerks about it.

    Of course, Mormon believed in hell and Latter-day Mormons don’t. I’m so grateful it live in an age where that disturbing simplification (i.e. sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell) has been expunged by D&C 19 and 76.

  11. Upon further examination, Troubling Assertion #3 is not troubling in the way you think it is.

    Don’t limit your reading to verse 11-12, but expand it to at least 8-19 (and arguably, the entire Book). The following example has helped me understand Amulek’s point:

    X owes Y $100, with 4 annual, no-interest payments due ($25/yr). X cannot pay the debt, but Z, who is possibly a guarantor on the debt, DOES. Through principles of guaranty and subrogation, Z approaches X with the following proposition: Z doesn’t want money, rather, he wants X to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro sometime within the next 20 years, and if X agrees, Z will pay Y the fill $100. X agrees, and everything is hunky-dory. Z pays Y, and X begins to train for the hike. (citation owed to Boyd Packer and a seminary video).

    Granted, money is easier to “pay” than “Justice.” However, an infinite being is able to do just that, whereas a mortal being is not. Amulek even provides a parallel example to a specific Law being satisfied through the Atonement (v13). The Savior’s requirements may be found in verses 17-19.

    The real troubling part is thinking about what that payment included to be able to create an umbrella large enough to cover the past and future sins of mankind. Furthermore, pondering on this point helps me resolve your Troubling Issues 2 and 4 (I won’t bore you with further exposition).

    No answer for Laban though – he messed with the wrong dude.

  12. Very disturbing verses you’re analyzing. Here’s another one that has disturbed me recently, but Elder Holland says it is folklore (all the things we used to think about race, like this verse), so I shouldn’t take the Book of Mormon so seriously, I guess.

    Behold, they had hardened their hearts against him…wherefore, as they were white, and exceeding fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their sins.” (2 Nephi 5:21-22)

    God curses people with dark skin (race)? That just doesn’t make any sense at all.

  13. I think we’re forgetting that people like Nephi, Alma, Amulek, and Mormon were imperfect human beings. Am I suggesting that there is untruth in the Book of Mormon? Only inasmuch as people made mistakes. Furthermore, there are limits to our knowledge about God’s purposes, but there are also limits to our knowledge about the intents and true feelings of others. The Book of Mormon is one of the most terse works of historical nonfiction I have ever read, and we as readers want the story to be more fleshed out. We want to fully understand the thoughts, feelings, and intents of others. Trying to justify sin or mistakes only leads to confusion. Some of the “troubling theological assertions” in this post might not be accounts of human mistake, but some might be. How many times have you thought you had a prompting, only to discover later on that it was really just your sense of prideful justice (aka. revenge) or wishful thinking? Yeah, it happens a lot.

    This hints at another troubling (but common) practice in the church: the deification of saints. We too readily accept as truth all that proceeds from the mouths or pens of apostles and prophets. Even biblical prophets/saints made mistakes (think about Gideon, Noah, and David, for starters). The Bible and Book of Mormon are meant to draw men to God, who is the author of truth, so we can learn from Him. He gives us the gift of the Holy Ghost so we can discern between truth and error. These troubling passages are troubling for good reason, and although these comments might help us come closer to understanding the truth, the takeaway for me is that it is sometimes important to say “I don’t know” or write actions or untruths off as human error.

  14. I have wrestled with Amulek’s question about the atonement: how can Jesus be justly held responsible for something I did? The answer I have right now is not obvious from the book of Alma, but it satisfies me, for the moment:

    At the Council in Heaven, Jesus (then Jehovah) volunteered to fulfill the plan of the Father. If he had not done so, I would never have had the opportunity to exercise my agency unto sin. Jesus’s special relationship to the creation of the world and the realization of the Plan of Salvation allows him to justly assume responsibility in ways that nobody else could.

  15. Agree with the problems listed.
    1) God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (I believe that probably effectively killed her), The lamanite that tried to kill Ammon when he was unconcious on the floor was immediately slain, etc. etc. So Nephi had to be that hatchet-man (pun-intended)?

    2) But this same god also shook the earth so badly that the prison fell in and killed all the bad guys BUT Alma and Amulek.

    3) And here’s where I have questions. We believe that a man will be punished for his own sins, and not Adam’s transgression (except you don’t have to be punished if you subscribe to the atonement). So why do I even need a “savior”? …. Hear me out before you start throwing things….. I live in a world today, much less perfect than heaven, yet there is a concept of justice and mercy. If I steal a car, or whatever; there is a law that says I must have some punishment in order to fulfill the demands of justice. So say that the judge says that 5 years in prison or $10,000 will cover that crime (satisfy justice). I go to jail or give the money, it pays the debt , and guess what, justice is served, and I’m good to go (think at a high level here). So it seems that ultimately, even without an atonement, god will get his justice. It just may take ME a long time and a lot of work, but eventually he HAS to be paid. If jesus could pay the debt, then there is some form of payment that becomes acceptable to justice, since it can indeed be taken care of.

    It also says in the D&C that there is a punishment affixed to sin. So would it not be logical that as we make mistakes we get to pay some as yet undetermined/unknown penalty (endless punishment). Sure I kind of warm to the idea of not having to suffer at all, but I make the mistakes, I get to pay the price! I hope my point is obvious, eventually there is something that will eventually appease justice, or there actually is no justice if it can’t ever be satisfied.

    And as far as mercy goes, I may have an aunt that loves me because I’m so adorable that she gives me the $10k, no re-payment needed, thank you very much. Justice is still served.

    It also clearly states in more modern scripture that those who would have received the gospel will be saved. If so, is it by the atonement or is it simply part of the law, whereby the law only states that those who hear and understand the gospel are destined to pay for their own sins (or, if you believe, the atonement covers them)

    Many questions indeed!

    4) Agree with the OP. Repeat in your mind always…..”Little children are alive in christ and perfect……Little children are alive in christ and perfect……Little children are alive in christ and perfect……” just in case you have a heart attack. This sounds like as severe a problem as, oh, say, mass genocide, human trafficking, etc., which I think that god condoned in the scriptures.


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