It’s fair to say that Alma has been through quite a lot of trauma – war, murder, contention, faithlessness, apostasy, rejection.. more than any of us can imagine who have experienced life in relative peace and prosperity. In Alma 35, this despair once more comes out in verse 15 which motivates him to speak to, encourage and teach his three sons as stated in vs. 16.
Now Alma, being grieved for the iniquity of his people, yea for the wars, and the bloodsheds, and the contentions which were among them; and having been to declare the word, or sent to declare the word, among all the people in every city; and seeing that the hearts of the people began to wax hard, and that they began to be offended because of the strictness of the word, his heart was exceedingly sorrowful.
Therefore, he caused that his sons should be gathered together ,that he might give unto them everyone his charge, separately, concerning the things pertaining to righteousness.Alma 35:15,16
Just by way of landscape and structure, Alma starts by spending two chapters 36 and 37 (77 verses in total) with Helaman, his son who had been designated to take over record-keeping responsibilities, which was also a kind of the prophetic passing of the mantel of spiritual leadership for this community. We learn very little about Helaman in these two chapters. Chapter 36 is the famous account of Alma’s conversion written in a chiasmus form. It’s worth your time to see the chapter laid out on this page at BYU. Alma 37 is a plea from Alma to Helaman to take seriously the work as a caretaker of the records that he has been called into. Shiblon gets a single, small chapter, 15 verses that echos much of Helaman’s content but with far more brevity. Corianton, however, gets four chapters, 91 verses in all, a lot of what appears to be speculative theology on the nature of salvation. It seems that Alma feels the need to really dig into the doctrine with Corianton perhaps because he messed up in a serious way and he’s hoping to help Corianton to repent. Corianton presents Alma with a problem and Alma uses these four chapters as his attempt to solve it.
I think there’s something to this. Life is hard. We’re all human. We so easily stumble. We’re anxious, stressed, proud and we hurt each other. But these are the times, in deep humility and in penitence, that much of what’s good in the world comes sprouting out. In this post, I want to linger on these chapters Alma spends with Corianton.
Alma kind of has a rough start making a classic parenting mistake, comparing Corianton unfavorably with his older brother Shiblon (verse 1). Alma bluntly points out ways Corianton messed up when he was supposed to be trying to reclaim the Zoramites (verses 2-3). His first crime is pride, but more seriously in verse 2 Corianton wanders off after the harlot Isabel.
Alma spends some time early on laying into his son, trying to get him to recognize the state of his soul, verse 5, “know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord”, comparing it some of the worst sins anyone can commit. Alma expresses deep disappointment in verse 7, “And now, my son, I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime.” And then in the same verse, “I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good.”
This is judgment day for Corianton. Something we should all do on a regular basis. Assess the state of our soul because, truly, in verse 8, “ye cannot hide your crimes from God; and except ye repent they stand as a testimony against you at the last day”. Judgment is justice, we cannot cover up our sins, but we can repent of them which is where Alma goes next, pleading with his son to “forsake [his] sins…” and “cross [himself] in these things”. Alma knows Corianton can’t do this alone, none of us can, he tells him to “counsel with [his] elder brother” (verse 10). The advice to “cross himself” seems like an allusion to Galgutha, or perhaps another way of saying, check yourself regularly, where is your heart, stay focused.
In verse 11 and 12 Alma gives some hints why Alma considers Corianton’s mistakes to be so serious, “Behold, oh my son, how great iniquity we brought upon the Zoramites” and “Command thy children to do good, lest they lead the way the hearts of many people to destruction;” Alma seems to worry here that perhaps Corianton’s heart not only wasn’t into the work, but that he carelessly and through bad example was acting in a way that could undermine the work Alma was so desperate to succeed in. Verse 16, “And now, this was the ministry unto which ye were called, to declare these glad tidings unto this people, to prepare their minds;” Consider this for a moment. Alma seems to be in near constant pain. He worried about what sort of problems the Zoramite apostasy might bring. He justifiably worried that it would bring division and ultimately war and mass death and destruction. He needed his sons to be there for him and Corianton simply wasn’t.
Alma finishes chapter 39 by describing the heart of their missionary message was and why it was so important to preach Christ even though Jesus had yet to come to the earth, that “a soul at this time [is] as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming.” (verse 17) Christ’s life and mission, the atonement, a timeless act, one that works retroactively, through all time. I think there’s something urgent about the atonement, something not to be postponed or waited for but embraced in each and every moment. Alma here wants Corianton to feel that redemption but more importantly feel what was at stake on the mission he failed to take seriously.
Chapter 40 – Time and Mystery
While spiritual awakening takes on urgency in Chapter 39, Alma lays out the vast timelines of salvation in Chapter 40. In verse 3 he cautions “the resurrection is not yet.” The resurrection is a mystery Alma admits, but a mystery Alma has spent significant time with and spends time here with a few insights, perhaps in the the hope he might be able to contextualize things for Corianton. In verse 4, all shall come forth from the dead. We will all live again, even though the timing is known only to God (verse 5). We will all die, we will all be resurrected and there is a space in between. This death we will all experience.
In verse 8, Alma complicates time, saying that “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men”. We recognize and our cognizant of time in this life, its shortness, its seasons, the days, our schedules, timelines and deadlines, our tendencies to procrastinate, and time’s ever-present anxieties.
The mystery though for Alma is not the resurrection, it’s the state of the soul between life and the resurrection. What happens when we die? (verse 9). In verse 11, we are “taken home to that God who gave [us] life.” But the fate of the soul, though temporary is contingent on the state of our soul when we die. The soul of the righteous shall know peace and rest, but the soul of the wicked will know sorrow and pain (verse 12, 13). But this state is temporary. He speaks in binaries in these verses as is typical in the Book of Mormon, in ways that I don’t believe reflects reality. Perhaps the message is the state of the soul during death is one of stagnation, that we’ll be what we were while living, full of regret and remorse, bitterness or jealousy and whatever that was left un-redeemed, unresolved and unfinished but with peace and rest to the degree we’ve found atonement and resolution. This understanding feels like an expansion of what Alma experienced in microcosm during his conversion experience described in detail to Helaman a few chapters earlier. And perhaps something of what we experience late at night, at the end of the day while trying to fall into sleep but not quite able to as our heart and head deals with unresolved anxiety that constantly lurks deep in our soul.
But I think Alma is too pessimistic here. He describes this space between death and resolution as a stagnant state and I’m not sure that is true given modern day revelation and ordinances for the dead. As we connect the living with the dead, perhaps that connection provides the lifeline needed for progression. That’s speculative (and partly influenced by the movie Day of the Dead). Nonetheless, I like to think we can our soul can heal after death.
But death is not final, death will succumb to life, verse 19, as a gift to all, “the wicked and the righteous”, the timing of which is not settled at all. Another word, perhaps a better word for resurrection is restoration (verse 22) “of those things which has been spoken by the mouths of the prophets”. “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul;” and ends in a hopeful way in verse 25 “And then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God.”
Chapter 41 – Restoration
Resurrection moves Alma into restoration which is a word deeply embedded within the Mormon tradition. Mormonism itself is a restoration project, restoring the gospel from ancient times when we’ve had it and lost it. Life is full of temporaries. Everything we have will be lost. Everything will eventually break, be lost or die, even the most precious of what we have – relationships, our youth, our energy, our voice. We need to make the most of the time we have, extend it as long as possible and then look forward to a time when what we have will be restored. “Behold, it is requisite and just, according to the power and resurrection of Christ, that the soul of man should be restored to its body, and that every part of the body should be restored to itself.” (verse 2).
Life can be so arbitrary, difficult and short. If this were it, it would feel so incredibly unjust, so it makes sense that the resurrection is requisite for justice to have full effect. The resurrection restores, returns what was. In verse 4 “And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil. Therefore, all things shall be restored to their proper order, every thing to its natural frame.” He talks here about endless misery and endless happiness, but endless is not necessarily time-based because as we learn earlier, time is not measured by man, but all is as one day with God. Endless, though, can be interpreted according to Doctrine and Covenants 19 and something that comes through God.
Verse 9 is interesting because here Alma tries to bring these teachings back home to Corianton’s personal experience warning, “do not risk one more offense against your God upon those points of doctrine, which ye have hitherto asked to commit sin.” I’m wondering here if because Corianton is young and careless. And when we’re young, time and life seems so big and so endless, it’s hard to contextualize a short life within this eternal context and it seems like Corantion’s sin stems mostly from carelessness, youth and casualness.
Alma gets more specific with restoration in the next few verses. Death and resurrection on their own cannot bring happiness. We have to achieve that here now and what we achieve now in mortality shall be returned back to us. We won’t be returned something we haven’t at first acquired. Verse 13, “but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal… good for that which is good.” And how can we receive mercy, goodness, justice? Verse 14, 15, by doing good, extending mercy, dealing justly. How we treat others often becomes how we are treated. More often, how we treat others is how we treat ourselves.
Alma 42 – Mercy and Justice
I can relate to Corianton in verse 1, worried as he is to suppose that ” it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.” In response to this concern, Alma starts from the beginning, Adam and the fall. The fall in a sense is not really a fall but an ascension where man “becomes as God, knowing good and evil” (verse 3), but that ascension required mortality for reasons not fully explained. And then this life (verse 4) becomes the time to repent, to yield, to turn our hearts to God. So, we’re placed in a state, separated by God in a state of impermanence, pain and separation, to succumb to our own eventual nothingness and to give ourselves, eventually over to God.
But our tendencies, our pride, probably in some sense stems from our inherent potential and power, and knowledge. We become carnal and sensual (v10) really out of necessity – food, shelter, sex are all necessary for survival, but it also put us in this miserable state (v11) cutoff from God. The way out was the plan of mercy brought about through the atonement (v15).
Verse 16 breaks things down carefully. We have natural laws (v17) and our own tendencies to break those laws, sin (v17) and the necessity to come to terms with this disobedience (v18). Law brings sin, sin brings punishment and mercy, only mercy brings salvation (v22). Mercy can only come through repentance.
Verse 22 is particularly poignant:
For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also amercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.Alma 42:24
And time becomes the central theme of chapter 40 – the chronology of salvation.
But verse 30 is my most favorite of all:
O my son, I desire that ye should deny the ajustice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his bmercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in chumility.Alma 42:30
I think this is the key, we need justice. Justice brings judgment, judgment brings remorse, humility and penitence, repentance brings mercy and ultimately healing.
I can speak to both sides of this. When I’ve been wrong, it’s deeply healing when the person who committed the harm, recognizes it, feels true sorrow for my pain and expresses regret and shows penitence. I’m healed and so are they and most importantly the relationship is healed. And maybe not even just healed, strengthened.
This is the key of salvation, deal with our impermanence, recognize we have so little time, make the absolute most of it, try to be in a constant state of penitent concern for others, repent quickly forgive even more quickly. Have hope that what we lose will be restored in the end. Goodness for goodness, mercy for mercy, justice for justice.
There’s a lot here that we cannot understand but a lot more here to have hope in.