|Korihor was struck dumb and had to communicate in writing. If Alma had already addressed Korihor’s reasoning, why was this divine intervention used?
|Recap: Korihor’s philosophical conclusions were all based on the premise that knowledge can only be gained through sensory observation. Therefore, rather than give a detailed response to each of Korihor’s assertions, Alma focused on the base assumption, explaining that knowledge can also come through a witness of the Spirit.|
After refuting Korihor’s teachings thoroughly, Korihor was struck dumb by divine intervention. Since Alma had addressed the reasoning behind Korihor’s teachings and showed that they were not as air-tight as they might seem at first, one might expect that his work was done. So why the miraculous punishment?
The answer lies in Korihor’s motives. He was not a sincere seeker of truth who just happened to be using a faulty premise. Had this been the case, he would have been grateful for Alma’s input, and the Lord (and Alma) likely would have been fine with Korihor’s continued involvement in the communal discussions. As a disingenuous manipulator, however, Korihor’s influence was not going to lead to any further enlightenment of the community, but rather to its degradation.
One author antagonistic to the LDS Church describes Korihor’s teachings as “wise words of honest disbelief.”1 However, this is an inaccurate portrayal of Korihor’s thoughts and actions, for there was nothing honest about Korihor’s disbelief. In fact, Alma demonstrates that Korihor is being deliberately deceptive, and thus that his motives are impure. Alma accumulates several pieces of evidence that indicate Korihor’s harmful motives. I will discuss four reasons that Korihor’s motives were clearly wrong.
1. Discarding Premises for Convenience
I have already mentioned one: with Korihor’s premise of empiricism, the most he could assert was doubt, such as when he says, “Ye do not know that there shall be a Christ” (v. 26). But he goes beyond doubt to asserting knowledge of the future, such as when he says, “There shall be no Christ” (v. 22).
For someone as intellectually agile as Korihor, it is highly unlikely that such an inconsistency was the result of unintentional oversight. I believe Alma recognized this fact. Korihor dismissed his own logic when doing so served other purposes. This strongly implied that adherence to logic was not his primary purpose. Since he claimed it was, he was lying.
2. Feigning Ignorance
By far the most condemning evidence of wicked motives was Korihor’s prior knowledge. To explain this, consider Korihor’s litany of criticisms. At one point, Korihor gives a list of objections:
- Ye say that this people is a free people.
Behold, I say they are in bondage.
- Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true.
Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.
- Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent.
Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.
- And ye also say that Christ shall come.
But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ.
- And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world. (Alma 30:24–26)
When I read this list, I immediately noticed that the third objection was based on a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine. I waited for Alma to explain, “Well, actually Korihor, we believe that a child is fallen because of its parents, but not guilty. You see, Adam’s fall made all of us mortal and accountable, but we only become guilty on an individual basis, as we choose to sin. Fallenness is inherited, kind of like freckles or balding. But guilt is not passed on; I agree with you that such would be unfair.”
If you want to understand why Alma did not give such a neutral, explanatory response to criticism number three, look at his response to criticism number one. This is the one criticism that Alma actually did respond to specifically. Korihor complained that the priests benefited financially by requiring church members to make economic sacrifices of money and resources: “Ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands. … Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests” (v. 27–28).
As with the criticism about the fall of Adam, I expected Alma to say something like, “You’ve misunderstood. We have an unpaid ministry, so the priests aren’t the beneficiaries of these sacrifices. And the members are certainly not obligated by force or threat of bondage. They give free-will offerings. So you see, they aren’t in bondage, but are truly free.”
Alma certainly makes clear that priests are not paid, but he makes a vital point in the way he does it. He does not just explain, “We do not glut ourselves upon the labors of this people.” Rather, he emphasizes, “Thou knowest that we do not glut ourselves upon the labors of this people” (v. 32). Again, Alma does not just helpfully clarify, “We receive no gain.” Rather he pointedly asks, “Why sayest thou that we preach unto this people to get gain, when thou, of thyself, knowest that we receive no gain?” (v. 35).
Alma is explicitly questioning Korihor’s motives. He is not only clarifying erroneous descriptions of Christian doctrine; he is saying, “You already know the doctrine. And I know you know the doctrine. And you know that I know that you know the doctrine. So why are we all pretending that you’re just sincerely mistaken? You’re not; you’re a deceptive manipulator, playing on the ignorance of people who don’t know your real motives.”
So why did Alma not specifically respond to objection number three? Why did he refrain from explaining the distinction between Adam’s fall and individual guilt from sin? Because Korihor already understood the distinction. And Alma knew that Korihor already understood it—either because Alma had had other experiences or conversations not recorded in Mormon’s abridgment, or because he discerned it from the fact that Korihor feigned ignorance on other doctrines such as voluntary offerings.
The Disingenuous DJ
|If someone is misinformed, you give him more information. If he pretends to be misinformed, you don’t give him more information; you ask him why he’s lying.
Let me make a comparison. I have a friend named Patty (he’s a guy) who told me about an experience he had at a small university he attended. A student radio DJ with whom Patty was acquainted would often use his air time to criticize the Mormon church. One time Patty heard the DJ during one of these rants, attacking a belief that we do not really hold. I can’t remember what the particular issue was (and I’ve tried to contact Patty to ask him), but it was a clear case, not of disagreement, but of inaccurate portrayal; a strawman. For the sake of the story, let’s say it was something like, “Mormons are weird and wrong because they force people to go on missions, and if you don’t go they excommunicate you.”
Patty talked to the DJ later and explained to him that what he’d said just wasn’t accurate. “They’re strongly encouraged to go, and maybe in some cases there’s undue pressure from friends, but that’s a cultural issue, not an institutional one. And they certainly don’t excommunicate you if you decide not to go.” The DJ said, “Oh, I see. Thanks for clearing that up.” Then a few days later, Patty heard the DJ make the same complaint again on the radio: “Mormons excommunicate you if you don’t serve a mission. That’s just wrong, because it should be a personal decision. Aren’t they terrible?”
Do you think Patty did that same thing this time? Pull the DJ aside and explain again—in short, slow sentences so he’d understand this time? Of course not, because the DJ already understood, and they both knew it. Instead Patty told him that he’d lost any respect for him because he obviously wasn’t interested in truth or accuracy, only in gaining listeners through controversial discussion.
The DJ did not have misinformation; he had malicious motives. The solution to misinformation is correct explanations; the solution to malicious motives is usually very different. It might include inviting the person to admit his real motives, or making the motives clear to the third-party victims of his actions. But it definitely does not include re-explaining facts that you both already know.
You may ask, “What if the DJ later brings up a different, inaccurate criticism? Since he might genuinely be mistaken about that one, shouldn’t I give him more information in that case?” The answer is no, because it won’t accomplish anything. As long as his intentions are malevolent, it won’t change his view or keep him from coming up with other reasons to be critical. Until he acknowledges the real situation, an increase in information won’t help. If he softens and begins speaking frankly, then is the time for answering the other questions. Until then, it’s a waste of time.
3. Ignoring the Available Evidence
Alma has two more reasons to impugn Korihor’s motives. While Korihor admits at one point that he cannot prove there is no God, he insists that he is persuaded by evidence and that there is no positive evidence for a God. “If thou wilt show me a sign â€¦ that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words” (v. 43).
To this, Alma responds by enumerating the wonders of the natural world, such as the planets. “Ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that [these things] are true. â€¦ Thou hast had signs enough” (v. 41, 44). I don’t think Alma necessarily considered these as empirical proofs of God’s existence. But it seems he was saying something like, “Look, you may be able to say there’s no empirical proof, but you can’t say there’s no evidence, no signs at all.”
To someone who relied on empirical evidence, that ought to be at least reason enough for a hung jury, or for continuing the search. Instead, Korihor was adamant in his conclusion, a position that didn’t seem consistent with his epistemological premises.
4. Spiritual Revelation
Near the end of the conversation, Alma flatly asserts, “Behold, I know that thou believest” (v. 42). This may have been just a reasonable supposition on Alma’s part, given the three indicators I have just mentioned. But given the fact that Alma didn’t use the word “know” lightly, and his beliefs about how we know things, I suggest that he may have had it revealed to him through the Spirit.
Either way, Korihor later confirms that Alma was correct (v. 52). Since Korihor had outwardly professed, “I do not believe that there is a God,” (v. 48) this is one more example that he was lying, claiming knowledge or beliefs that he did not in fact hold.
Calling Korihor on the Carpet
With all these pieces of evidences, Alma confronted Korihor and made it clear to anyone paying attention that Korihor was more than just a mistaken logician. Alma’s dialogue with Korihor was designed to make obvious Korihor’s impure motives, as summarized in the following table.2
|Korihor, you know … But you say …||We do not receive anything for our labors in the church. (v. 34)||Ye keep them down â€¦ that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands. (v. 27)||
||[Ye have none] evidence â€¦ that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not â€¦ save it be your word only. (v. 40)||There shall be no Christ. … God â€¦ never [will be] seen or known. (v. 22, 28)||
||Ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that [these things] are true. â€¦ Thou hast had signs enough. (v. 41, 44)||If thou wilt show me a sign â€¦ that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words. (v. 43)||
||That thou believest. (v. 42) [cf. v. 52, “I always knew that there was a God.”]||I do not believe that there is a God. (v. 48)|
All these disingenuous actions by Korihor led Alma to say, “Thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you” (v. 42). Alma points out that not only was Korihor lying, but this fact also made him impervious to a spiritual witness, so that even if the Spirit were to give him the knowledge he claimed to seek, it would not penetrate his heart and provide an assurance of the truth.
As with my friend Patty and his DJ acquaintance, Alma knew it was pointless to talk theory with someone who was clearly deceptive and manipulating. No progress can be made in such a situation until the deceiver admits his motives or confesses his inconsistencies. Because Korihor declined to do so, even when given multiple clear opportunities to back down, the Lord saw fit to make an example of him through a miraculous intervention. I doubt that such would have been the case if Korihor had just been putting forth his arguments as part of a sincere effort to learn truth and share it with others.
All scripture citations are from Alma chapter 30 unless otherwise indicated. Image credit: The Church’s illustrated Book of Mormon Stories, artist’s name not given. (I would have liked to use a more modern drawing, but Jay Fullmer’s is the only painting of Korihor that I can find, and I already used it in the first article of this series. Until someone points me to other artwork depicting Korihor, enjoy this flashback to the 70s!)
1. Steve Wells, “The Wisdom of Korihor,” http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2006/08/wisdom-of-korihor.html.
2. This chart is based on the one in Gerald Lund’s article. Elder Lund’s contains more explanation; I have limited mine to just the statements from Alma 30 rather than paraphrases.