Nathan Richardson

Korihor, by James H. Fullmer
Korihor taught a variety of devilish ideas, meant to appeal to the flesh. When you view them in the appropriate framework, you can also see why they could be so appealing to the mind.

I used to feel slightly uncomfortable with the story of Korihor back in high school. For one thing, Korihor brings up several fairly well-articulated reasons for his disbelief in God and for discounting the teachings of his Church. As I read Korihor’s arguments, several rebuttals came to mind, and I expected that Alma would reply by addressing each argument in turn. I was confused at why Alma did not seem to take advantage of some fairly simple answers when he replied.

For another thing, when Korihor is silenced by divine intervention, I thought, “What was the need? There are answers to each of his arguments.” That miraculous punishment also made it seem harder for us to apply the lessons of the Korihor account to our own lives, since the Lord clearly doesn’t strike dumb every critic of the Church. How was I supposed to apply this story in my own encounters since I can’t expect them to end with divine intervention?

I have since come to understand the story of Korihor better, and I can now appreciate just how incisive and appropriate Alma’s response is. Alma actually identifies the real questions at hand and addresses them very directly. I’ve also come to understand that not everything in the Korihor account can be applied in equal measure to all similar situations. In his response, Alma does two things: (1) address Korihor’s reasoning, and (2) address Korihor’s motives. Alma’s use of reasoning unravelled Korihor’s philosophical arguments; the divine intervention that ensued seems to have been a unique response to the particular situation. In this post, I will explain how Korihor’s ideas were related to each other. In the next post, I will show how this explains the approach Alma used to addressed Korihor’s reasoning. In a following post, I will explain how Alma addressed Korihor’s motives.

Three Threads in Philosophy

First it will help to summarize the various teachings that Korihor weaves together. Elder Gerald N. Lund does this very efficiently with a chart in his Ensign article “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy.” I have adapted the chart for the purposes of this article. In order to better understand Korihor’s teachings, Elder Lund recommends we learn some philosophy jargon. (Forgive the lengthy quote, but it’s important to understand these terms in order to follow the rest of the explanation.)

First, … it will help to look at some philosophical terms used by contemporary philosophers. …

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality. It tries to answer the question “What is real?” The question of whether there is a God and a spiritual world beyond the natural world we know is a metaphysical question. Though today we often use the word supernatural in a more limited sense, originally it referred to a world higher, or above, the one we see and experience with our physical senses.

The second area of philosophy we will consider is axiology. Axiology is the study of ethics and values. It wrestles with such questions as “What is good?” “What is ethical?” “What are right and wrong?”

A third branch of philosophy is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what is real or true. There are numerous epistemological systems. [Examples include authority, logic, pragmatism, empiricism, and revelation.]1

Elder Lund then explains that “like any philosophical system, Korihor’s doctrine had metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological aspects. Together, they enabled him to convince many to reject the traditional values taught by the Church.”1 I have adapted Elder Lund’s explanation and his chart. While Mormon’s account does not show Korihor teaching his ideas in this particular sequence, I like Elder Lund’s chart because it helps us organize and understand Korihor’s teachings by identifying these three main threads. (All scripture references are to Alma chapter 30 unless otherwise indicated.)

Korihor at the Loom

Elder Lund explains, “These three areas of our own philosophy are interrelated. Our metaphysics (our view of reality) influences our epistemology (the way we gain knowledge), and together the two determine our axiology (our values).”1 Korihor summarizes his epistemological foundation when he says, “Ye cannot know of things which ye do not see” (v. 15). Since he thought “God … never has been seen or known,” (v. 28) he concluded that God is not real—part of his metaphysical position. And if there is no God to decree right and wrong or to judge us after we die, then disobeying the commandments does not morally “offend some unknown being, who they say is God” (v. 28)—part of his axiological position. (See the following table.2)

Epistemology --- Metaphysics --- Axiology

With his epistemological starting point, Korihor goes on to further conclusions. Since we can’t see the future, then “no man can know of anything which is to come” (v. 13). This leads him to negate all predictions, including those that the Messiah would come to the earth at some distant future time, when he teaches that “there shall be no Christ” (v. 22).

However, having denied this tenet of the Church, he must account for the phenomenon of prophecy, which the believers had written records of. Korihor produces his own explanation, saying, “These things which ye call prophecies … are foolish traditions of your fathers” (v. 14).

korihor-2-epistemology

Korihor also makes other metaphysical conclusions. Since Korihor has never seen a person or spirit after they died, he concludes that there is no life after death, stating “that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof” (v. 18). Since there was no eternal world to prepare for, it made no sense to think we fare in the afterlife according to how we manage our spiritual choices here, such as being humble, having pure thoughts, or loving others. Rather, Korihor said that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature,” or the physical laws of survival-of-the-fittest (v. 17).

However, there were many faithful Nephites that lived contrary to Korihor’s conclusions. For example, they rested from their economic endeavors every seven days, and they regularly gave the best breeding stock in their herds to temple priests to slaughter them as sacrifices. These practices are counter-intuitive and counter-productive from Korihor’s dog-eat-dog perspective, yet the people appeared happy and willing to do it. Why would they make these economic sacrifices if they were so detrimental to prosperity? Korihor explains away this phenomenon, saying, “They durst not make use of that which is their own [their time and resources] lest they should offend their priests, … that ye [priests] may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands” (v. 27–28). Thus, the whole economically burdensome exercise could be explained as a con-job by the priests so that they wouldn’t have to work on their own.

Korihor's metaphysics

Korihor’s final and most significant conclusions are axiological. Since there is no God to issue commandments or hold us accountable for our sins, he concludes that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (v. 17). Since there is no such thing as sin, then there is no need for an atoning sacrifice. In fact, “there could be no atonement made for the sins of men,” and thus “a remission of your sins … [is] not so” (v. 16–17).

However, once again there were many Nephites who regularly repented of their sins and looked forward to the atoning sacrifice that would conquer sin. Korihor had to account for this phenomenon in some way other than a genuine understanding of and response to sin, so he chalked it up to “the effect of a frenzied mind; and [a] derangement of your minds” (v. 16).

korihor-4-axiology

Conclusion

Thus we can see how, as Elder Lund says, Korihor’s epistemology and metaphysics determined his axiology. When laid out according to these three major philosophical threads, it is easier to see Korihor’s step-by-step reasoning, and thus the appeal of his teachings.

His philosophical tapestry had momentous results. While sin had obviously been present in Nephite society long before this time, Korihor’s logical deconstruction of the concept of sin was a new threat. His doctrines led people to not only break the commandments, but to do it intentionally and “to lift up their heads in their wickedness,” actually being proud of it because they were now “liberated” from erroneously thinking that anything is a sin (v. 18).

How would you counter this philosophical tapestry? Where would you start? I will discuss where Alma focused and why in my next post.



Notes

Korihor painting by James H. Fullmer, who, by the way, has created some amazing artwork and two incredible scripture-themed games (bookofmormonbattles.com).

1. Gerald N. Lund, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy,” Ensign, Jul. 1992, p. 16. The charts in this article are based on Elder Lund’s, who divided Korihor’s teachings into these three areas. In my adaptation of his chart, I have tried to use just direct quotations from Alma 30. Elder Lund’s chart, in contrast, benefits from more detailed paraphrasing that flows a little better.

Another author highlights these same key areas of philosophy: “Behind the various theories and practices of textual interpretation lurk larger philosophical issues. Indeed, implicit in the question of meaning are questions about the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, and the criteria for morality. It may not be at all obvious that one is taking a position on these issues when one picks up a book and begins to read, but I will argue that that is indeed the case. Whether there is something really “there” in the text is a question of the “metaphysics” of meaning. Similarly, reading implies some beliefs about whether it is possible to understand a text, and if so, how. Whether there is something to be known in texts is a question of the “epistemology” of meaning. Lastly, reading raises questions about what obligations, if any, impinge on the reader of Scripture or any other text. What readers do with what is in the text gives rise to questions concerning the “ethics” of meaning. Together, these three issues give rise to a related question, “What is it to be human, an agent of meaning?” (Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 19.

2. In the charts, I have refrained from using brackets for my insertions or changes, because they can quickly become visually cumbersome. Rather, I have denoted my insertions or changes by coloring the text lighter where I have used my own words.

By the way, I originally created these charts in PowerPoint. I’ve tried saving them (via Photoshop) as JPEGs, GIFs, PNGs, and BMPs. So far the bitmaps (BMP) have been the least blurry, but they still aren’t as crisp as I’d like them to be. Any graphics-wise people out there who can help me?