Question: Is the Book of Mormon's anti-universalism derived merely from Joseph Smith's contemporary religious culture?

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Question: Is the Book of Mormon’s anti-universalism derived merely from Joseph Smith’s contemporary religious culture?

Introduction to Criticism

Critics of the Book of Mormon allege that it contains anti-universalist rhetoric and that this rhetoric was derived from Joseph Smith’s contemporary religious culture.[1]

This article will present evidence that this criticism is based on a false dilemma fallacy and that such appearance of universalism and concerns about it appear in the ancient world. If enough evidence of such a presence of universalism exists in the ancient world, then it can be used to demonstrate that there is a plausible religious context in which ideas like universalism can develop during Book of Mormon times and in which Book of Mormon prophets can respond to such ideas--thus showing that this presents no problem for a believing, orthodox Latter-day Saint's worldview that includes belief in the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the integrity and divine calling of its supposed translator, Joseph Smith.

Response to Criticism

Examples from the Ancient World of Universalism

There are many examples from the ancient world of universalism that can provide a context for the Book of Mormon’s words about universalism found in passages like Alma 1:3-4 and Alma 21: 6-9.

Early Church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen, as early as the second and third centuries respectively, “held the possibility of even Satan being restored.”[2] "In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea had 'to confess that most ordinary Christians have been beguiled by the Devil into believing…that there will be a time-limit' to suffering in hell. Two of these 'ordinary Christians' were 'Gregory of Nazianzus, who on occasion seems to wonder whether eternal punishment is altogether worthy of God, and Gregory of Nyssa, who sometimes indeed mentions eternal pains, but whose real teaching envisages the eventual purification of the wicked, the conquest and disappearance of evil, and the final restoration of all things, the Devil himself included.'”[3]

Some of our earliest extant writings from the ancient world attest to the idea of universal salvation. Latter-day Saint scholar and apologist Martin S. Tanner discusses The Good Fortune of the Dead, “a text that sets forth the ancient Egyptian belief that, upon death, all find a fulfillment of the good things of this life. Regarding the peaceful place to which the Egyptians believed that the soul goes after death…we find it written, ‘All our kinsfolk rest in it since the first day of time. They who are to be, for millions of millions, will all have come to it. . . .There exists not one who fails to reach yon place. . . .Welcome safe and sound!”[4]

Early Zoroastrianism espoused the idea of universal salvation.[5]

“There are also Old Testament passages which have been interpreted as authority for the idea of universal salvation.[6] These would have been familiar to Lehi and his descendants as part of the brass plates taken to the New World which were part of the Nephite culture (1 Nephi 19:21-23; Alma 37:3-4).”[7]

Did the Anti-Universalist Bent Change After the Publication of the Book of Mormon?

A tangential criticism can be dealt with here. Gerald and Sandra Tanner in their book Mormonism: Shadow or Reality allege that Joseph Smith aligned himself with universalist doctrine subsequent to the publication of the Book of Mormon and thus contradicted The Book of Mormon's anti-universalist bent. Latter-day Saint apologist Barry Bickmore has soundly refuted them in this FairMormon publication.

Conclusion

Clearly there is enough historical evidence to demonstrate how this criticism relies on a false dilemma fallacy. Most accusations of plagiarism or the imputation of outside cultural influence to the Book of Mormon rest on such a fallacy. Critics and defenders will need to be aware of this moving forward as Book of Mormon scholarship advances.

Notes

  1. Gerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1972), 197. Dan Vogel, “Anti-Universalist Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon,” New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 21–52.
  2. Vogel, “Anti-Universalist Rhetoric,” 27n8.
  3. Barry R. Bickmore, "The Tanners on the Hereafter: A Case Study in 'Studied Ignorance'," <https://www.fairmormon.org/archive/publications/the-tanners-on-the-hereafter-a-case-study-in-studied-ignorance> (2 September 2020). Citing J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 483–484.
  4. Martin S. Tanner, “Is There Nephite Anti-Universalist Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon?Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1 (1994): 418–33. Citing "The Good Fortune of the Dead," in James B. Prichard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 33–34; A. H. Gardiner, The Attitude of the Ancient Egyptians to Death and the Dead (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), 32.
  5. George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols. "Unitarian-Universalist Association (UAA) History," Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religion and the Occult (Grand Rapids: Harper Collins, 1993), 286. Cited in Tanner, “Is There Nephite Anti-Universalist Rhetoric?” 433n29.
  6. Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 9:26; 21:8; Psalm 130:8; Isaiah 52:10; 43:1; 44:22; 45: 17, all Israel to be redeemed; other passages have been interpreted to mean that all mankind will be saved (Isaiah 50:2; 52:3; Hosea 13:14; 1 Samuel 14:6; 1 Chronicles 16:23; Psalm 28:9; Isaiah 25:9, 35:4; 45:8; 49:6); see also Paul Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament (St. Paul: North Central Publishing, 1955), 12, God's covenant with Abraham did not involve Abraham only, or Israel only, but promoted the divine plan for universal salvation (emphasis added); James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 1:302, Israel, gentiles, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.
  7. Tanner, “Is There Nephite Anti-Universalist Rhetoric?” 433.