I finished the Book of Mormon again a few weeks ago. This year, I didn’t have a specific theme to focus on, but I knew I wanted to do a writeup of impressions, and I had a thought to focus on 3 Nephi. It’s maybe the spiritual summit of the Book of Mormon text, but to be honest in all my readings of the BoM, I’ve never really applied myself to understand that book like I have others.
Here at the outset, I want to make a claim about the Book of Mormon in general, and 3 Nephi in particular. If you have never heard of Marcion and his heresy, he was a theologian in the early Christian community who developed a strong position that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God who had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In Marcion’s thinking, The Jewish/Hebrew Jehovah was mean-spirited, ruthless, and cruel, while Christian Jesus of Nazareth was completely different: kind, loving, merciful, and so forth. Therefore, they could not be the same entity.
Parts of the Marcion heresy are still alive and well today, even among wonderful Christians around the world. But Latter-day Saints bring to our understanding a Book of Mormon witness that Jehovah and Jesus are one and the same. And 3 Nephi is the book where this reality is shown with the most clarity. 3 Nephi thoroughly destroys the Marcion heresy.
After the massive destruction and upheaval documented in 3 Nephi 8, we are given a list of these destructive events from the Lord Himself, and it bears repeating in its entirety:
3 Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof.
4 And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned.
5 And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof, to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them.
6 And behold, the city of Gilgal have I caused to be sunk, and the inhabitants thereof to be buried up in the depths of the earth;
7 Yea, and the city of Onihah and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Mocum and the inhabitants thereof, and the city of Jerusalem and the inhabitants thereof; and waters have I caused to come up in the stead thereof, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come up any more unto me against them.
8 And behold, the city of Gadiandi, and the city of Gadiomnah, and the city of Jacob, and the city of Gimgimno, all these have I caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the places thereof; and the inhabitants thereof have I buried up in the depths of the earth, to hide their wickedness and abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up any more unto me against them.
9 And behold, that great city Jacobugath, which was inhabited by the people of king Jacob, have I caused to be burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness, which was above all the wickedness of the whole earth, because of their secret murders and combinations; for it was they that did destroy the peace of my people and the government of the land; therefore I did cause them to be burned, to destroy them from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints should not come up unto me any more against them.
10 And behold, the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof, because of their wickedness in casting out the prophets, and stoning those whom I did send to declare unto them concerning their wickedness and their abominations.
11 And because they did cast them all out, that there were none righteous among them, I did send down fire and destroy them, that their wickedness and abominations might be hid from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints whom I sent among them might not cry unto me from the ground against them.
12 And many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and their abominations.
13 O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?
Here we have a list of nightmarish, catastrophic events that resulted in the suffering and death of entire cities of men, women and children. And the Lord is not at all vague about how these things happened: “I caused.”
Theologians often debate what that means: does God sometimes actually cause suffering, or just allow it to happen for reasons known only to God? This is called theodicy, or the problem of evil. I love — and highly recommend — Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book on this (it’s a short read), and I recommend Nathaniel Givens’ article as well as Francine Bennion’s classic talk. But as for the question of direct cause, imagine that you see a car stuck on a railroad track with a speeding train on the way. You have the ability to move that car, but you don’t. Did you cause the resulting accident? For both the guy in the car and the train engineer, the question of cause versus allow to happen is just semantics.
But the point here in 3 Nephi is, this is not the sweet imaginary Jesus-as-affirming-therapist that has been created by modern Western religion. The Christ of 3 Nephi actually levels entire cities of people and calls the remainder to repentance. And He is very transparent about His reasons: the wickedness of the people was such that their societies’ continued existence was intolerable for God.
Is this the behavior and the perspective of a loving God?
It is an indisputable fact that this world contains a massive amount of cruelty and suffering. And rejecting the light that God offers, societies become violent and cruel, with an insatiable appetite for violence. Historically, these societies have generally wiped each other out, and God has allowed that process to unfold. The people of Israel were to be a covenant people that would, by contrast, receive God’s protection from these forces of chaos and cruelty. While nations were conquering and killing and enslaving each other, covenant Israel was to show the nations that a covenant relationship with God offers a different, peaceful, and secure way to exist. And when covenant Israel abandoned that covenant relationship, Jehovah let them know through the prophets that the hostile nations around them would no longer be prevented from imposing their will upon Israel. This is the recurring message of the Old Testament prophets.
God’s love is covenant love, which means it is 100% oriented toward our well-being, and our well-being is defined by God. As any mortal parent knows, sometimes our well-being involves painful consequences for our actions. In some very sad cases, love can look like calling the police on one’s own child, or committing someone to a mental institution. In the most extreme cases, love can take the form of denying someone the ability to continue to influence the world in any way. If a society has become a satanic horror show of cruelty and exploitation, then 3 Nephi tells us that God’s love can involve the wiping out of that entire society so that His spirit children are no longer being born into that environment.
Super-important is Chapter 8 verse 13: will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you? This echoes Jehovah’s message to Isaiah in 6:10 as he was commissioned to prophesy to a people who were no longer able to receive God’s message with clarity:
Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
The word convert here in Isaiah is the Hebrew word SHB, “to turn,” which is translated to mean both conversion and repentance. This passage in Isaiah 6 is expounded by the Lord in Mark 4. In 3 Nephi, this turning and healing will be seen again in 18:32; these passages reinforce that there is no Christian healing without turning. Turning, reorienting the soul toward God, and away from all of the lies and stories and sins that keep us from Him.
Jehovah and Jesus are not two Gods, like Marcion insisted. They are one and the same. The Book of Mormon clarifies this in ways that are unmistakable. 3 Ne 15:5 destroys the Marcion heresy once and for all with Christ’s proclamation “Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel.”
Because our tendency is toward idolatry, we like to create images of Jesus that are one-dimensional. Either he is sweet and empathetic, or he is all law and judgment. 3 Nephi gives us a real, multi-dimensional picture of the Christ: healing and weeping with the remaining people in Bountiful, but also executing very real and brutal judgment upon the wicked. And Christ is very specific about some things: He cares about the specific name of His church, the exact mode of baptism, and the exact contents of scripture. He differentiates between His gospel and His doctrine and His commandments, and Mormon adds that He offered additional teachings. But they are all equally valid and binding.
He ordains a quorum of apostles, and tells the people “Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants…” (3 Ne 12:1) We often refer to apostles as “church leaders,” but Christ talks about the role of apostles in language of servanthood and ministry. In our self-centered American approaches to religion, we might be tempted to say that if the apostles are our servants, then their job is to serve in ways that meet our expectations. That is a consumerist mentality, typical among the unconverted. Our role is not to dictate how we will be served; it is to give heed unto the words of these whom He has chosen from among us.
There is nothing more common in social media commentary about “Jesus” than to argue that because Jesus did x, y, and z and you don’t, you are not really following Jesus. This is almost always projection, imposing our views onto an imaginary Jesus and making him into a club to beat other people over the head. And if all you have is the New Testament to work with, making this kind of an idol out of Jesus is super easy. The Book of Mormon and other restoration scripture make it much harder to construct these false “Jesus” idols, because they reveal and confirm so many dimensions of His character.
So much more can be said about 3 Nephi, and I guess I’ll continue when I finish the Book of Mormon again next year.