Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My presentation at Kirtland Sunstone - BoM as Ascension Text

This is a write up tied to my presentation.  For those wanting a copy of the slides, please let me know and I'll email them.  This goes a bit more in-depth than my original presentation, so I hope you like it.

The Book of Mormon as an Ascension Text
by Gerald Smith
Presented at the 2012 Sunstone Kirtland Symposium (Mar 10, 2012).

Over the past several years, I’ve studied ancient ascension texts, often in conjunction with friends such as David Larsen (currently studying at St Andrews College).  With the studying, I’ve looked closely at the Book of Mormon in regards to how the ancient patterns of ascension are found and apply.  While the presentation at Kirtland was limited by time, I will expand upon certain areas in this paper.

Slide 2 - Defining Ascensions

An ascension is a spiritual experience, where the person is transformed and lifted up into the presence of God.  The term Theophany is often used to describe many ascension events.. While called “ascensions”, the experience can also include God descending to the person, such as Joseph Smith seeing the Lord in his First Vision.  Also, in some instances the person sees God on a mountain top (Moses or the brother of Jared are examples of this)

In many instances, the individual experiences God in his throne room in his heavenly temple.  In this theophany, the individual will often see the divine council of angels surrounding the throne of God. In some instances, the person will engage with God and his council in regards to the discussion they are having.  We will be discussing Isaiah chapter 6 as one of several examples of this.  John the Revelator and the martyr Stephen also experienced the throne room in their theophanies.

Slide 3 - Examples of Ascensions

In the Bible are several examples of ascensions.  Among these are Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel, and the apostles Peter, James and John.

Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28) describes a dream Jacob had while journeying from his father’s tent to the land of Laban, his mother’s brother.  In the dream, Jacob sees not a ladder, but an actual grand staircase that leads into heaven.  Jacob sees God on his throne at the top of the staircase.  While Jacob does not physically ascend the staircase himself, he sees angels ascending and descending it. As we will see later, the staircase symbolizes levels of heaven, in the prophet’s ascension experience.

Upon awaking, Jacob proclaims, “this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17).

Here we may have an anachronistic statement, “house of God” as technically there was no “house” for God available in Jacob’s day.  Moses may have seen it equal to his tabernacle.  However, it may also be that Jacob saw the heavenly temple, and recognized it as God’s house. That the staircase is seen as the “gate of heaven” is important to note, especially for Latter-day Saints and for ancient Israel in conjunction with the Tabernacle and the Temple.  Both the Tabernacle and Temple had a gatekeeper to ensure only worthy and qualified individuals were allowed access to the sacred space within.  Here, Jacob is permitted to peek beyond the gate and its keepers (the angels) to the throne of God itself.  Such an event was powerful for Jacob.  He set up a pillar or altar as a witness of his vision, and poured a sacrifice of anointing oil upon the pillar, naming the place Beth-El, or House of God.

For Moses, the events that occurred on his several ascensions onto Mount Sinai are very important to note. While on his first ascension, he saw the burning bush, upon returning with the House of Israel, he ascended and saw God.  Moses received a book or tablets to share with the people. Still, the Ten Commandments were not his main reason for bringing Israel to the mount.  D&C 84:19-26 explains that Moses desired all of Israel to experience the ascension.  He called on them to ascend the mount with him, so they could receive a fullness.  In rejecting Moses’ call to ascend, the Melchizedek Priesthood, which holds the keys to the mysteries of godliness and the power to stand in God’s presence, was removed from them.  In exchange, they were given the lesser law of Moses, and the Aaronic Priesthood with its key of the ministry of angels, so that one day they could prepare to return into God’s presence.

In chapter six of Isaiah, the prophet has a major throne room Theophany.  Isaiah suddenly finds himself in the celestial Holy of Holies, where he sees the seraphim, God’s highest angels, talking to one another regarding the greatness of God.  Isaiah is astounded, because he not only hears and understands the angels, but sees the face of God.  No one was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies until after the sacred incense had filled the room with smoke, so that God’s presence would be obscured.  As noted by Joseph Spencer, King Uzziah had entered the temple in the wrong way, and was struck down with leprosy.  Now, Isaiah sees he has entered in and realizes he also is unclean.

“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:5).

Isaiah realizes he is as the leper Uzziah, and as good as dead.  However, because of his humility and proclamation of uncleanness, one of the seraphim takes a coal from the sacred altar of incense and cleanses him. Suddenly, not only can Isaiah hear the seraphim, but he also hears God’s voice. Isaiah is no longer a spectator, but a member of this divine council.  God has a plan to preach repentance to the people.

“I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isa 6:8).  This is reminiscent of the language in the original divine council at the beginning of the earth, wherein after all the planning, there remained one thing to do: select the chosen one.

“And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27).

For Elijah, his fiery chariot symbolizes not only his ascension into heaven, but the chariot suggests God’s mobile throne, which Ezekiel saw.  From this throne, God was able to show Ezekiel that God could follow Israel out of Israel and into foreign lands.

Then, at the Mount of Transfiguration, the three apostles experience an ascension experiece as well. They see Jesus, not as mortal, but as transfigured divine being, and in the presence of the divine angels Moses, Elijah and Elias.  So overwhelmed was Peter, that he suggested building tabernacles or small tents for each.  The tabernacles would have tied to the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot. Tradition holds that the first Sukkot began when Moses descended from Sinai with the tablets, and began building the Tabernacle of God.  Also known as the Feast of Ingathering, it is a forward looking feast tied to the temple and the future reign of the Messiah, when he defeats all his enemies and gathers his people.  The three apostles found themselves in the center of an ancient coronation and temple rite, where Christ was pronounced Messiah and Lord by his very Father.

Slide 4 - Lehi’s First Theophany

The Book of Mormon begins with two key visions given to Lehi (1 Nephi 1).  Nephi, as author of his small plates, begins his spiritual writings with a purpose: to examine the ascensions of Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Moses and Isaiah.

In this instance, Nephi compares his father with Moses, drawing similarities between their visions, teachings and actions.  Lehi sees a pillar of fire, while Moses experiences a burning bush (and is guided by a pillar of fire into the wilderness). Both see God, leading their people through the wilderness and into a promised land. Moses brings forth the Law and Ten Commandments, while Lehi sends forth his sons to obtain the Law and Testimony found in the Brass Plates of Laban.

In his vision, Lehi sees Jesus and his twelve apostles descend. This will be discussed later in more detail.

The Lord provides for both Moses and Lehi a heavenly book. As Lehi reads the book given to him by Jesus, he sees the future of his people, and marvels at the teachings therein. The Ten Commandments become a foundation upon which Israel will be established.

Lehi has another great vision, and shares it with his family. In his vision of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8), Lehi has an angelic guide, who walks with him in the darkness.  When the darkness dissipates, Lehi sees the Tree of Life and partakes of its fruit. He notes the fruit to be white and brings exceeding joy to those who partake.

Slide 5 - Ascension of Isaiah text

The Ascension of Isaiah text is believed to originally been a Jewish writing that was updated by Christians to reflect their belief in Jesus.  The final product probably was produced around 200 AD.

In the text, we find that Isaiah ascends the ten levels of heaven into the presence of God.  The lowest levels of heaven describe demons fighting and contending with one another. As Isaiah is guided by an angel to higher levels, he notices ever greater levels of glory.  Upon reaching the seventh level of heaven, Isaiah notes that the angels are divine and holy beings of great glory. At the 7th heaven, he must change into a white robe, in order to ascend to the higher levels.

On arriving at the tenth level, Isaiah approaches the throne of God, where, along with the angels,  he worships God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost.  Isaiah has become an equal with the divine angels, as he is dressed like them, and allowed into the throne room, even as we see in chapter six of Isaiah in the Bible.

Like Lehi, while in his vision, Isaiah receives a book. As he reads the book, he also marvels at its contents.  Then, Isaiah sees Christ descend down through the levels of heaven to earth. As he descends, he empties himself of glory, so as to appear as the beings he is with.

Slide 6 - Lehi and Isaiah compared

As we consider similarities, we may note that both visions began in a lowered state. Isaiah saw demons contending in the first heaven, while in his Vision of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8), Lehi begins his vision walking in darkness for hours.

Both have an angelic guide, who leads them upward until they see God.  Both saw God sitting on his throne.  Again, Lehi and Isaiah saw Christ descend from heaven. Each is given a book to read, and both marvel at the contents of the book.

Finally, both are transfigured.  Isaiah puts on a holy white garment to clothe himself as he is in God’s presence.  Lehi approaches the Tree of Life, and partakes of its white fruit, making him fit to be in the presence of God’s light.

Slide 7 - Nephi’s Vision of the Tree of Life compared to John’s Revelation

Nephi desired to see the vision his father received (1 Ne 11-15). In doing so, Nephi is told (1 Ne 14) that he has received a vision that is similar in scope to one that John the apostle would receive almost 700 years later on the isle of Patmos.  That being the case, we should be able to find similarities in the two visions.

Both experience some or all of the vision on an “exceedingly high mountain” (1 Ne 1:11, Rev 21:10). Both have angelic guides to direct them through the complicated visions they shall receive.  Each note the Tree of Life as part of the revelation they receive (see Rev 2:7, 22). Each sees Christ in their vision, as well as a sealed book.  For John, only Christ may remove the seals from his book. For Nephi, the book’s seals cannot be read by the learned, but only revealed to the one God chooses to reveal it to.

Not only do both see the great destructions of their people, but also the destruction of the earth, with the final salvation occurring when Christ comes in power upon the earth.  While many see the Book of Revelation as a bunch of events leading to the destruction of the world, I would suggest that both Nephi and John see their revelations first and foremost as ascension experiences. First they experience their own ascensions, with John also having a throne room experience (Rev 4). The destructions describe how much of mankind has descended away from God’s presence and into their final state of contention.  Then they both describe the final ascension of the righteous, when Christ descends for his final triumph in glory.

Slide 8 - the Presence of the Lord

The concept “presence of the Lord” or “presence of God” appears about 40 times in the Book of Mormon.  It is significant, especially in the early writings of Nephi and Lehi, who see themselves as symbols of Moses for their own people, leading the children of Israel (all Israel, or the Nephites - a branch of the tribe of Joseph) from out of the bondage of evil.  Traveling for many years in the wilderness, they set their sites on the Promised Land, a place set apart by God for them.  Moses, Lehi and Nephi all see God in the wilderness and seek to provide the Law of God through the books provided (Tablets, Brass Plates).

For Moses, the key reason for bringing Israel into the wilderness and out of Egypt was to present them before God at his holy temple, Sinai.  In D&C 84:19-26, we learn:

“And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.
Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.
And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.
Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;
But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.
Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also;
And the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel.”

Moses’ main plan was to have Israel walk up to the top of the mountain with him, and see God for themselves. They were not willing to go, fearing they were not ready.  In refusing to do so, they rejected God’s higher law, and were left with the lesser law and priesthood, which contains the ministry of angels, but not the revealing of the mystery of God.

Nephi also saw his vision of Christ on a mountain, and encouraged his brethren to find out from God himself the meaning of Lehi’s vision.  Laman and Lemuel noted that God did not speak to them, and so they did not “inquire of the Lord” (1 Ne 15:1-8).  Lehi also feared for Laman and Lemuel, who (like Moses’ Israelites) refused his call to join him at the Tree of Life.  In rejecting the call, they rejected receiving the fruit of the Tree, which is Jesus Christ (1 Ne 8).

For Moses, Lehi and Nephi, their goal was to bring their people into the Land of Promise.  This Promised Land was symbolic of the heavenly promised land they hoped for.  Nephi and Lehi note that those who were obedient would dwell in the promised land in the “presence of the Lord.” But those who did not keep God’s commandments, would be “cut off from the presence of the Lord.”

In other words, entering into the promised land was symbolic of entering into God’s presence. This includes a covenant made by the people to be righteous, or else they will be destroyed from the promised land, opening it up for another people to take their place as the new covenant people under God’s blessing and protection.

Slide 9 - The Doctrine of Christ

One of the most important concepts in the Book of Mormon is the “Doctrine of Christ”, taught in detail by both Nephi and the resurrected Jesus in his visit to the Nephites (2 Nephi 31, 3 Nephi 11).

We learn from the doctrine of Christ that “contention is of the devil” and suggests that it is the covenant Satan makes with his followers.  It is to divide the saints against one another, in order to establish their collapse and downfall (3 Ne 11:29-30).

The doctrine of Christ is one of unity.  The saints must be united together, if they ever hope to be one with God and the Godhead.  Both Jesus and Nephi explain that “this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen” (2 Ne 31:21. 3 Ne 11:36).

So, what is the process for the doctrine of Christ?

1. Faith in Christ
2. Repentance
3. Baptism/Ordinances
4. Reception of the Holy Ghost

You’ll note I said this is a “process.”  It is not a one time event, but a cycle.  As we develop faith in Christ, we seek to repent of sins we recognize.  We then receive ordinances, such as baptism or the Sacrament, which teach us about the “mysteries of godliness” (D&C 84:19-26). Finally, as we are readied, we are infused with the Holy Spirit, bringing us into the presence of a member of the Godhead.

As we become more faithful, and recognize the need for more change in our lives, we repent again, renew our covenants through ordinances, and receive a greater infusion of the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost, the First Comforter, prepares us for the time when we shall experience the Second Comforter, even Jesus Christ.  We actually see this occur with Nephi in his vision of the Tree of Life. His heavenly guide is the Holy Ghost, who guides him into the presence of Christ and testifies of the Father and Son (2 Ne 11).

As we continue in this cycle, we become more Christ-like and ready to stand in God’s presence. We become one with those around us, and with the Godhead.  Symbolically, we enter God’s presence with baptism and the Sacrament, as well as the ordinances of the temple.

Slide 10 - Baptism and Holy Ghost as Ascension Rites

Symbolically, we practice the Fall of Adam and the Return into God’s presence with the reception of baptism and the Holy Ghost.  With baptism, we begin our descent into the water, suggesting death in a watery grave.  The water also represents the chaos of water and darkness that existed at the beginning of Creation, when God had to bring forth order from chaos: dry land and light to manage the chaos of water and darkness.

In baptism, one then ascends out of the water, out of the darkness and chaos (such as Lehi first experienced in his Vision of the Tree of Life).  We ascend into the resurrection of Jesus Christ and into life and light.

The Holy Ghost then is offered as a constant companion.  The Holy Ghost is the third member of the Godhead, and is God.  We literally experience the presence of God, when the Holy Ghost enters into our life, and we allow him to dwell there.  As noted, the Holy Ghost leads us into the presence of Christ.  The Holy Ghost sanctifies us, making us holy.  Nephi explained that the angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, and we may also “speak with the tongue of angels” (2 Ne 32).  

Isaiah experienced the “tongue of angels” in Isaiah 6. He found himself in the throne room of God, unclean. Isaiah’s lips were purified by an incense coal brought to him from the altar by a seraphim, and was then able to speak with the angels.  That Nephi included this event of isaiah in his writings, suggests he understood from isaiah’s theophany this great ability to be able to speak with angelic voice.  Not only did Isaiah stand in God’s throne room and speak with the angels, but because he spoke with the tongue of angels, he was also able to speak to God and become part of the divine council.

As we also receive of the Holy Ghost (ascending into his presence), we are also able to speak with the tongue of angels, and perhaps stand in the presence of God in our own ascension.

Slide 11 - The Apocalypse of Paul

Written about 150 AD and found almost 1800 years later in the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt, the Apocalypse of Paul discusses the ascension Paul had through the ten levels of heaven.  While it was found in a cache of Gnostic Christian writings, it is not considered to be gnostic.

Paul’s vision begins with the Holy Ghost carrying up to the top of a high mountain.  The Spirit then guides him through the various levels, where he occasionally sees the other apostles also making the ascent towards the tenth heaven.

Along the way, he passes by “toll collectors” or sentinels, who guard the way.  These would be similar to the guards stationed at Herod’s temple, who would ensure only those allowed entrance could go by.  As Paul reaches the seventh heaven, the toll collector stops him.

“The old man spoke, saying to me, "Where are you going, Paul? ….I looked at the Spirit, and he was nodding his head, saying to me, "Speak with him!". And I replied, saying to the old man, "I am going to the place from which I came." ….The old man replied to me saying, "How will you be able to get away from me? Look and see the principalities and authorities." The Spirit spoke, saying, "Give him the sign that you have, and he will open for you." And then I gave him the sign. He turned his face downwards to his creation and to those who are his own authorities.
And then the heaven opened and we went up to the Ogdoad (eighth heaven). And I saw the twelve apostles. They greeted me, and we went up to the ninth heaven. I greeted all those who were in the ninth heaven, and we went up to the tenth heaven. And I greeted my fellow spirits.”

Here, as with Nephi, we see the Holy Spirit as an angelic guide, leading the initiate through the vision.  As Nephi and John the Revelator had to answer questions along the way, so too does Paul. The end of the vision brings Paul and the apostles into the top heaven, and into God’s presence. For Nephi, we may presume his vision also ended as does John’s Revelation, with the appearance of God and his heavenly Jerusalem.  Again, we see the possible ascension ties for the Book of Mormon with another ancient Christian text.

Slide 12 - The Temple and the Ascension Rite

It is possible that such continuous teachings in the Book of Mormon brought forth a desire in Joseph Smith to bring his own people into the presence of the Lord.  Joseph had the hope that with the Kirtland Temple, the members would have a Pentecostal experience. Less than four years before its dedication, the Lord showed Joseph that Moses desired to have his people ascend Sinai into God’s presence (D&C 84:19-26), and now it would be Joseph’s turn.

During the dedication, some saints spoke in tongues (the tongues of angels), while others saw angels.  People outside the temple thought it was on fire, because of a great light upon it, while others stated they saw angels in white walking upon the roof.

A week later, on April 3, 1836, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery closed a curtain, so they could privately pray on the pulpit of the Melchizedek Priesthood side of the great room.  As they prayed, they were visited by Jesus, Moses, Elijah and Elias (D&C 110).  These are the same beings that came together on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Rather than buildig miniature tabernacles to represent Moses’ Tabernacle, Joseph experienced this in the Lord’s Temple.  He and Oliver were in the presence of the Lord and several of his most important angels.  Like with Isaiah, Joseph and Oliver were invited into the conversation, as they received keys from the great prophets of old.

Today’s LDS endowment carries with it this great message of ascending to God that we find in the Book of Mormon.  Latter-day Saints go through a similar learning experience. The initiate “descends” from heaven and symbolically goes through the Creation, Fall of Adam, life in this dark and dreary world, and then an ascension back into the presence of God in his kingdom.  The temple experience becomes a practice for the day when each of us will literally return into God’s presence.

Slide 13 - the Book of Mormon and Temple Ascension Rites

Many of the teachings given in the Book of Mormon relate very closely to the modern LDS temple endowment experience.

As Lehi gave his final blessings and teachings to his children, he explained key concepts of the endowment to his son, Jacob (2 Ne 2).  Lehi notes that there is “opposition in all things”, beginning with the Creation of the world. He notes the fight between chaos and order, as he explains both are necessary for life to exist.

Lehi sees Satan fall from heaven, as part of the struggle of Creation.  But the struggle isn’t over, because he then discusses the fall of Adam and Eve.  The fruits of the Trees of Life and Knowledge (of Good and Evil) are contrasted as opposites (sweet and bitter).  The Tree of Knowledge represents the difficult experiences of mortal life, where we must learn about salvation the hard way.  It’s been suggested that the Tree of Life is the path taken for those who are humbled by listening to the word, while the Tree of Knowledge is the hard path taken by those who must be humiliated into repenting (“An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32”).  

When Lehi explains that we fall because we partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he also explains that agency only comes about because of the redemption of Christ.  Without the ability to partake of the Tree of Life, all we have is the knowledge that we will someday die and return to the dust. Partaking of the sweet fruit of the Tree of Life imbues us with God’s love and mercy.  We know we must die, but we believe that we will again live.  This gives us choice to choose life or death.  With only the Tree of Knowledge (which Satan offers us), there is no agency or choice; there is only death and misery.  However, with the Tree of Life, we receive sweetness and mercy. Adam fell bringing about man’s mortality.  The atonement came about to bring joy and hope to mankind. Because of the Messiah, we have the choice to choose an eternity in God’s presence, or in Satan’s presence.

With the story of Adam and Eve, we see a new chaos enter the world: death and misery.  With the atonement, a balanced order is restored between the opposing Trees. Through Jesus, we are lifted from this dreary world and back into God’s presence.

Slide 14 - Book of Mormon Ascension Rites

Because Alma’s conversion was so remarkable to him, he frequently returns to the concepts therein to teach those around him.  In Alma 5, Alma discusses concepts such as their fathers being in the “midst of darkness”, even as he had been (cf Alma 36).  He asks them many questions, all pointing to our current fallen state, and to their own potential redemption through Christ. “have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenance?” not only reflects Alma’s struggle in a spirit prison hell and then redemption, but of Moses descending from God’s presence or Abinadi’s power, their faces gleaming so brightly that others had to stand back from their presence.  Alma is asking us if we have God’s powerful image glowing from us, just as Nephi stated we could speak with the tongue of angels.  There is both a figurative and literal connection here.  People can speak inspired words via the Spirit, or as with Isaiah can literally speak with a divine tongue.  So can people have a figurative countenance of God, or literally glow as did Abinadi.

Alma continues explaining that “there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white...”  While figurative, this is also literal in the case of the Ascension of Isaiah, where he changed into a white garment.  In our case, the garment is figuratively washed white by the atonement of Christ.  Of course, entering into a modern LDS temple for baptisms or other work means replacing one’s street clothing for white garments.

For those who embrace the atonement and follow God, there is “...a place to sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob....”  Where shall the righteous sit? In God’s presence with the Patriarchs in ever lasting glory  As the apostle John wrote:

“Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.…To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Rev 3:12, 21).

Alma also uses phrases such as, “walk after the holy order of God”, “an inheritance at my right hand” and “be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life.”  Clearly Alma had in mind major teachings that come up again and again in his teachings.

Slide 15 - Book of Mormon Ascension Rites (cont)

In Alma chapters 9-13, the prophet and his missionary companion, Amulek, seek to introduce the rebellious people of Ammonihah to the concept of ascension.   To do so, he returns to Lehi’s original concept of the Promised Land symbolizing God’s presence:

“Behold, do ye not remember the words which he spake unto Lehi, saying that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land? And again it is said that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord” (Alma 9:13).

He again shows that their rebellion has cut them off from God.  But there is still hope for them. He tells them that they have been “visited by the Spirit of God; having conversed with angels, and having been spoken unto by the voice of the Lord...” (Alma 9:21)

In chapter 11, Alma and Amulek teach that because of the atonement of Christ, all will return back into the presence of the Lord.  In other words, there will be a universal ascension (Alma 11:43-44, Mormon 9:13).  However, in Alma 12, the prophet notes that for the wicked, it will not be a happy experience, for they would wish the rocks to cover them up and hide them from the Lord’s presence. This is an interesting take on the ascension event - where all mankind will ascend, but it will be a mixed experience of joy for the righteous, and misery for the wicked (cf Mormon 9:4).

Of course, for the wicked, it will be a temporary ascension, as they will then be judged and sent to a more accommodating place for them outside of God’s full glory and presence.  

In chapter 13, Alma discusses the premortal existence and how many righteous were foreordained to the holy priesthood and authority of God.  Of these, Alma notes:

“sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God…. entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:12).

Again, Alma focuses on the descent from the premortal existence of those righteous beings and how in overcoming this world are able to return back to the presence of God, dressed in white, symbolizing they have become holy and pure, even as Christ is holy and pure.

Slide 16 - Alma’s Conversion (Alma 36)

Alma was growing old, and would soon return to God’s presence in death. With all the great missionary experiences of his life he could share as his final words to his sons, Alma instead returns to his own conversion event.  Alma tells of his rebellion and the angel that called him to repentance.  Most of his conversion story is spent on the experience he had after he collapsed.  Interestingly, his experience fits one of the main descriptions for what we term a Near Death Experience.  If so, his experience could cast much light on Spirit Prison and Paradise.

Alma finds himself in hell, perhaps spirit prison hell.  He suffers the buffetings of Satan (D&C 82:21), and “exquisitely” suffered even as Jesus suffered (D&C 19:15-20).  Alma found himself in darkness, similar to the darkness Lehi found himself in in the Vision of the Tree of Life. Only after calling upon God would Alma be released from the darkness (as with Lehi) and from the pain. He enters into Paradise, where he notes:

“…methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (Alma 36:22).

Alma again ties his teaching back to Lehi’s experience; this time with Lehi’s ascension and seeing God on his throne.

Slide 17 - Other Book of Mormon Ascensions

Here I quickly list other teachings that connect to the concept of ascension.

For King Benjamin’s discourse (Mosiah 2-5), it is the Yearly Feast or Feast of Tabernacles, representing Moses at Sinai and in the wilderness.  Tradition has it that when Moses descended Sinai, his first act was to build the Tabernacle so that the Presence of the Lord would be in Israel’s midst.  For King Benjamin, he noted how low and worthless mankind (and he as king) are. Then he explains how Christ lifts us into God’s presence.  The conversion of the people, and the effect the Holy Spirit has upon them is important in this discussion.

When the Brother of Jared sees Christ (Ether 3), we have an obvious ascension experience. The BoJ has climbed a high mountain, where he asks God to perform a miracle (giving light in the darkness / order vs chaos) for their journey in the seas (boat in the seas / order vs chaos), which is suggestive of the Creation story.  For the Jaredites, descending into the waters represents this fallen world, while arriving to the Promised Land again symbolizes returning to God’s presence.

Of course, the resurrected Lord’s visit to the Nephites is an ascension event. In this case, Jesus descends to them at the temple.  Jesus’ teachings are all directed at the “Doctrine of Christ” as noted prior.  Being one with the Godhead is the focus throughout His teachings to the Nephites (3 Nephi 11-28). Even in establishing the Church’s name, he had to put down contentions that were dividing the people and redirect them again to a unity.

In Zenos’ Allegory of the Olive Tree (Jacob 5), we note that it is God and his Servant (Jesus) who tend to the trees involved.  The main tree represents the covenant of Israel, whose roots of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remains in God’s presence. As Israel and then Gentiles take turns accepting and rejecting the covenant, we see some brought into God’s presence, while others are cast out.

Even in his darkest days, with the final destruction of the Nephites, the prophet Mormon looks to the future with hope, as he sees that the Lamanites will one day be redeemed and “he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end” (Mormon 7:7).

Interestingly, Moroni also sees the importance of such things in the very last pages of the book. He focuses on priesthood ordination as in Alma 13, and baptism/Sacrament and the Holy Ghost as taught in the Doctrine of Christ (2 Ne 31, 3 Ne 11).

Slide 18 - the Book of Mormon’s final Ascension text (Moroni 9)

Moroni ends his book by quoting the last words he received from his father, Mormon.  In chapter 9, Mormon tells us how far the Nephites and Lamanites have fallen from the presence of God. They have forsaken the light given by the Holy Ghost to where they are no more than animals. Cruelty is the norm. Rape and cannibalism are signs of courage for the depraved.  They have fully descended into the presence of Satan.  There is nothing left to save or redeem.  There is nothing left for God to do but to destroy the Nephites and try to start over.

Yet, Mormon also has choice words for his faithful son, Moroni:

“My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, to weigh thee down unto death; but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and long-suffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever.
And may the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who sitteth on the right hand of his power, until all things shall become subject unto him, be, and abide with you forever. Amen” (Moroni 9:25-26).

Here, Mormon tells his son to let these comforting words “abide with you”: to let Jesus help him ascend through his grace to the throne of God, to sit on the right hand of God.

In other words, we find the concepts of ascension and of the temple flowing throughout the Book of Mormon; from its very first chapter, where Lehi sees God and Christ, to Mormon instilling the hope of a final ascension into his son’s heart.  Knowing that Moroni would spend at least 40 years alone after the final destruction, we can only hope that such a hope remained with him, to console him and give him hope.

Foot and Sideway notes

Joseph Spencer on isaiah 6: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/02/13/book-of-mormon-lesson-9-my-soul-delighteth-in-the-words-of-isaiah-2-nephi-11-25-sunday-school/

Joseph Spencer, “An Other Testament” pg xii, discusses how Alma reads his conversion story in light of Lehi’s vision:: http://www.saltpress.org/An%20Other%20Testament.pdf

Feast of Tabernacles/Sukkot: http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2011/04/new-testament-gospel-doctrine-lesson-15.html

Ascension of Isaiah text online: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ascension.html

Creation and God bringing forth Order from Chaos: http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2010/07/gospel-scholarship-order-out-of-chaos.html

The Apocalypse of Paul text online: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/ascp.html

On the Trees of Life and Knowledge.  “An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32”
Edited by Adam S. Miller, pg 13: http://www.saltpress.org/Experiment%20on%20the%20Word.pdf

BTW, Salt Press offers three great books to consume. I’m digging through two of them right now (the ones noted).  So far they are amazing pieces of work. If I can teach Jenny Webb how to spell “Rameumptom” correctly, I would consider the books a perfect accomplishment (so far anyway).  Sorry, but the word Rameumptom is so closely tied to me that I am OCD on how it is spelled....  As an aside, the Rameumptom (holy stand) of the Zoramites represents a false ascent into God’s presence.  Someday I might have to study and expand more on that one.

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