Mormonism’s Satan and the Tree of Life: Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts based on research undertaken by myself and Jeff Bradshaw.

The Mormon Satan

At first glance, the Devil of LDS belief does not depart substantially from the Devil of conservative Christian theology. There are, however, a few beliefs held by Mormons about the Devil that, to some Christian ears, might seem rather curious. While few traditional Christians would disagree with the LDS belief that God “allows” Satan to tempt us— for how else can we understand God’s refusal to stop the Devil’s work?—most would avoid the kind of rhetoric uttered by Elder Jedediah M. Grant at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1854:

I have this idea, that the Lord our God absolutely gave Lucifer a mission to this earth; I will call it a mission. You may think it strange that I believe so good a being as our Father in heaven would actually send such an odd missionary as Lucifer… but his mission, and the mission of his associates who were thrust down with him, …is to continue to oppose the Almighty, scatter His Church, wage war against His kingdom, and change as far as possible His government on the earth.

Though one might be tempted to write off Elder Grant’s stark utterance as an anomaly from the early days of Mormonism, it must be admitted that the general idea he voices, albeit with language unlikely to be heard today, is not alien to current LDS belief. For the Latter-day Saints, Satan is not only the diabolical chief of the fallen angels, nor is he simply a monochrome incarnation of evil and temptation unhappily tolerated by a God who—for whatever reason—will not forcibly remove him from the world. For Mormonism, Satan is, in some respects, a curiously “necessary evil.”

Mormons believe that the purpose of earth life is to “prove” mankind “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” Such a test requires a fallen world, one which the Devil himself helped institute through his temptation in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, in his ongoing role as head Tempter, he ensures that this proving process continues today. Writes Ostler:

“Ironically, God has adopted a plan to use Satan’s desire to steal our agency as a means of ensuring our agency: ‘And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have the bitter they could not know the sweet.’ Thus, God has created this world as a space to choose by granting us the opportunity to experience ‘opposition in all things.’ Satan provides the opposition necessary to further our agency.”

In sum, Mormonism avers that the Devil and, in particular, the Fall that he facilitated, are, in crucial respects, the very means by which God fits His children for eternal life. And yet, despite this, LDS belief remains clear that Satan is an enemy of God whose opposition to God’s plan is both absolute and intractable. Some account of this puzzle seems necessary.

Our research explores the Devil’s paradoxical role in Mormon theology, noting Joseph Smith’s statement that it is by “proving contraries” (Satan-as-God’s-tempting-agent vs. Satan-as-God’s-enemy) that the “truth is made manifest.” Our intention is to attempt an answer to the following question:

In what specific respects were Satan’s actions objectionable since temptation—the “proving” deemed necessary by Abraham 3:25, and subsequently demonstrated in the expedient Fall and the book of Job—is part of God’s design?

A fresh reading of Satan’s plan as understood by Mormon theology seems to shed new light both on his strategy for the Fall in the Garden of Eden, and on his tactics to tempt man thereafter.

Next: A “Jobian” Satan?

Comments

  1. The scriptures, especially the one you quote from Abraham, support the idea that there was sin in the pre-mortal life. Obviously 1/3 of the hosts of heaven sinned. Also, how were there “noble and great” ones, if there was sin?

    The question becomes, were these people noble and great before the great war or after?

    Finally, modern prophets (I want to say Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, but I’m not sure) taught that Satan was a great teacher in the pre-mortal life. But then he opposed God’s plan. So, clearly, we were capable of sin.

    If that’s true, it seems like we’re capable of sin, without there being a devil, since the devil hadn’t been created before the first sin. If that’s the case, it seems that simply coming to Earth in mortal bodies with a veil may have been all the opposition we needed.

  2. m,
    You make a good point about our ability to sin without Satan. We (that is, Jeff and I) have a reading of Mormon theology — particularly as represented by the Garden narrative — which suggests just what makes Satan’s temptations diabolical.

  3. I’m not sure I will express this well, but…

    I think that evil simply exists whenever there is free will. I think evil would exists regardless of what Satan does or doesn’t do. Satan’s actions are objectionable because they oppose progress in the plan of salvation. I guess I feel that good and evil exist in spite of God and Satan.

  4. I’ve always been fascinated by Joseph Smith’s description (found in D&C 123:7-10) of the evils perpetrated by humans upon other humans as being “enough to make hell itself shudder, and to stand aghast and pale, and the hands of the very devil to tremble and palsy.” We’re talking rhetoric and hyperbole in a letter, as opposed to divine revelation, but it does raise the question of whether there are (or were) bounds beyond which Satan has/had no intention of going.

    On the other hand, it’s a bit hard to jibe any idea of Satan merely filling a role or showing restraint with condemnation to outer darkness. ..bruce..

  5. I’ll look forward to your future incarnations. It seems to me that in our most popular Garden narrative, the taking of the fruit was inevitable, the sin was in the timing. I tend to think that there is sufficient temptation in the fallen flesh as to negate the metaphysical necessity of a personified tempter.

  6. I’m in complete agreement with you J. Stapley.

  7. but it does raise the question of whether there are (or were) bounds beyond which Satan has/had no intention of going.

    I have to say, that’s a really cool idea.

  8. “but it does raise the question of whether there are (or were) bounds beyond which Satan has/had no intention of going.”

    Didn’t Brigham Young once say that even Satan cried out during the Atonement, saying it was too much?

  9. The idea that Satan is serving a “mission” which helps facilitate mankind’s development seems to be implied beginning with the symbolism in the Garden of Eden. Although most think of the serpent image as evil, it is often used in the other scriptures in a positive way, such as the brass serpent used by Moses (with it’s messianic overtones discussed in the BOM) and Jesus telling his disciples to be “wise as serpents”. According to Manly P. Hall, the serpent is seen throughout the ancient world as a provider of knowledge to mankind and as a helper. It is positively viewed in mesoamerica and is even the symbol of Aesclipius, the Roman god of healing and medicine.

    So even though Satan is portrayed as providing an element that is necessary for mankind to progress, on a personal level, I would appreciate a little less of his help.

  10. The problem with an inevitability of the Fall and of Satan’s role is that it would tend to absolve Satan of culpability. I don’t believe it.

  11. Thanks for the post. For me, it helps clarify all the first hand stories I’ve heard about “evil” happening at particular times for particular reasons.

    As an aside, my current theory is that Satan’s actions are objectionable only in that they are necessary* — based on the required lessons for the particular person. And I suspect that most evil in the world is really a result of free will — either a direct consequence or an indirect consequence based on the lesson required as a result of “aspect of self” revealed by the free will.


    * Stated another way, they are not objectionable. Both can be true at the same time.

  12. The problem with an inevitability of the Fall and of Satan’s role is that it would tend to absolve Satan of culpability.

    Why/how is he not culpable? I’m interested in this way of thinking. Isn’t sinning by all of us inevitable?

  13. The Satans in the OT are much more like this early LDS view. Look at Job for instance. They function more like prosecuting attorneys than the traditional Christian conception of the devil. Mormons take a kind of middle position between Satan as tester and Satan as fallen angel ala Paradise Lost.

  14. To add, the big question in LDS theology I’ve not seen adequately resolved is the question of how Satan would be necessary. Wouldn’t the inclinations given us by our biology be enough? (Especially given the range of behaviors entailed by exposure to trauma, heavy metals, poor nutrition etc.) It seems like far more of our behavioral evils are due to the bodies and circumstance God placed us in that any tempter.

    That said I do think Satans are out there. I also think there are angels working amongst us. I just strongly suspect their roles are more minor than folk traditions would suggest.

  15. Adam Greenwood says:

    Shoot, publish part II already. Can’t wait.

  16. StillConfused says:

    It is my understanding that the concept of Hell was created later in Christianity. (The scholars here can point to when that was done.) Was Satan likewise created later or was there a Satan in biblical times?

  17. There was a Satan in OT times but not the same as what we think of it. Also a lot of these images can be found in Judaism though too.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Here is a possible footnote to this discussion.

  19. StillConfused:

    Many believe that the concept of Satan and hell found its way into Jewish thought during the Babylonian exile and their contact with the Zoroastrianism of Cyrus and Persia. The Zoroastrian share many beliefs that are similar to Judeo-Christian. Their Satan is called Ahriman. Also, there is a Greek connection with the name Lucifer, who is a god and carrier of light.

  20. Good comments all. Jeff and I believe we can construct a plausible “sin of Satan” from the Mormon accounts, that is, why is he the Devil if temptation is necessary? Steve (#11): I think we can show exactly how Lucifer is culpable.

    I don’t think we have arrived at any metaphysical truths with our research: the “true” details of the Luciferian rebellion have not been revealed to me (!), but I do think we have constructed an internally plausible account using Mormon sources.

  21. Just because something is inevitable doesn’t make it right to hasten it – or to usurp or subvert proper authority to make it happen in a different way than was intended or would be “natural”.

  22. @Ray (#21) – great point. Just because Christ had to be murdered for the Atonement to be completed doesn’t mean it’s okay to be the one that does it.

  23. Aaron Brown says:

    J Stapley said:
    “I tend to think that there is sufficient temptation in the fallen flesh as to negate the metaphysical necessity of a personified tempter.”

    Yeah, this sums up my confusion about the role of Satan generally. What role does Satan perform in Mormon theology that isn’t already played by the natural man? Remove Satan from the equation, and what changes?

    AB

  24. Aaron Brown says:

    Oops. I see that Clark already said this.

  25. Aaron Brown says:

    Clark:
    “That said I do think Satans are out there. I also think there are angels working amongst us. I just strongly suspect their roles are more minor than folk traditions would suggest.”

    Clark, what is Satan’s job description in your view, and how does it differ from the traditional view?

    AB

  26. AB:

    I think it might be a little wrong headed to say that Satan has a job description. That implied God (or his supervisor) is giving him instructions.

    Satan does what he ultimately wants, like the rest of us.

  27. I think Satan is useful for God to try some beyond what is normal. Thus I suspect he was useful to try Joseph Smith or others. However this would be balanced by deeper spiritual revelations as well. (And this is how Satan is presented in Job)

    Is it a job description? I don’t think so, buying into the theology of the lost 1/3 as I do. I think God simply uses them to his own means much as he does the evil we mortals manage on our own.

    But given that basically nothing is revealed about the why God chose this sort of world for our trials it’s hard to develop a theology. It’s easy to think of a world God could easily have actualized where there would be less evil for instance. So why didn’t he? We simply don’t know. We have faith that there is some reason but not even a vague outline of what the answer might consist of. This is why what I call the empirical problem of evil remains a problem for LDS even if we can resolve the logical problem of evil. The question of Satan really doesn’t make the question worse or better.

  28. It is difficult for me to accept the idea of Satan on a divine mission if I also accept passages of scripture such as Moses 4:1-6. Phrases like “rebelled against [God]” and “he knew not the mind of God, wherefore he sought to destroy the world” seem to point to a non-commissioned Satanic goal. However, if we are to take literally passages from Job and other scriptures, as well as what we learn in sacred places, it certainly seems that God permits Satan’s efforts (at least for a time), and perhaps even meets with Satan from time to time to discuss his (Satan’s) limits.

    Also, given that probably the most in-depth description of Satan and his mission is in the Books of Moses and Abraham (presumably revealed representations of some of the writings of these two prophets), I would think that, from an LDS perspective, it would be difficult to entertain the idea of Satan as a post-exhilic development. (As a side note, the Book of Moses also give me trouble as I try to wrap my head around the documentary hypothesis.)

  29. Satan’s sins were greed, envy, false pride and seeking unrighteous power over the freedom other of beings. His rebellion was trying to take the place of God. His sins are the sins he perpetuates here on earth to bring the downfall of mankind.

    Sins of the flesh on the other hand can come from him or from men themselves. They are trickier transgression because some things concerning the flesh may not even be sins. He can only influence us to make incorrect decisions not actually force us to make the wrong choice. “The Devil made me do it” is just part of a comedy skit.

  30. Have often wondered why, of all places, Satan was cast to Earth and not some other planet where he all he would have to do with his time would be to wail and gnash his teeth.

  31. The idea that Satan is a divine calling has got to be the most ridiculous theological notion I have ever encountered. It makes God the willing and purposeful author of as much evil and suffering as possible. If Hitler only managed to kill six million Jews, I guess that means that God was slacking on the job, or didn’t give Satan a big enough budget, or the personnel resources necessary to get the job done, right?

  32. It is perhaps a little off topic, but I think the concept of a “fortunate fall” is almost as bad, virtually a contradiction in terms. I agree with Aaron Brown that Satan is not a theologically necessary figure of any kind. More of a historical contingency in my opinion. We could do just fine (indeed better) without him.

  33. #30:Mark D:

    It makes God the willing and purposeful author of as much evil and suffering as possible

    Is it better to take an action that results in 2 deaths or 10 deaths? Choosing an answer does not mean that you desire 2 deaths, only that it is the better choice.

    Similarly, pain and suffering may be the cost of lessons learned. My impression is that God works within a value system of some kind — just not our value system. He often seems to make choices where the ends justify the means.

  34. larryco_ (#19) That is some way cool info! Any chance Ahriman is envisioned as a large eyeball with wings?

    I ask because I only recognize the name from Final Fantasy. =)

  35. I have often thought that Satan is one of the most puzzling characters in our theology and certainly the least explained. Although I frequently hear people say that “Satan was tempting me,” I have never been able to share this sentiment, since I feel that most of my temptations come from other people or internal drives.

    I know that the view I am about to express is totally non-Mormon, but at this point in my life I actually think about Satan as a symbolic rather than a real being. Have I had witnesses of God? Yes. But Satan? No. And, I don’t see how it really matters in the grand scheme of things whether he is real or not. It doesn’t seem to change the atonment.

  36. I know that the view I am about to express is totally non-Mormon

    No, it’s just not the orthodox view. I think you’d be surprised at how many members either accept it or are willing to entertain the possibility.

  37. #35 Natalie: I’ve known members who have witnessed “Satan”. That is probably the primary reason that I find this topic so compelling.

    After exposure to unmitigated, unmotivated, miraculous, and complete evil, it is a struggle to reconcile with any understanding of God.

  38. nice.
    a couple thoughts.
    1. Swedenborg proposes a complex devil not terribly unlike the one you’re describing–i haven’t made it to heaven and hell yet, but even earths in the universe talks about it.
    2. you may need to come to terms with the embodiment dialectic of 1842-3 in JSJ’s thought, which is a fascinating explanation of the metaphysics of temptation.

  39. It might be interesting to compare Satan’s role with the role the Lamanites played to be a “scourge unto [the nephites], to stir them up in the ways of remembrance” (1 Nephi 2:24)

    Perhaps there’s a difference between a divine commission and having one’s actions used by the Lord for His own purposes.

  40. Rameumptom says:

    I think opposition and knowledge are necessary for sin (and good) to exist. In the premortal existence, sin did not exist until rebellion occurred. Opposition did exist. Differences of opinion did exist. Abraham mentions the great and noble ones PRIOR to the final plan being presented. These are those who had chosen a spiritual route, as did Christ and the Holy Ghost, that made them valiant enough to be divine gods in the premortal existence.

    I agree that Satan was a key player in the early stages of the Great Plan. In it, he seems to have realized that God’s plan had too much risk and pain involved, and so he devised changes that would ensure safety and security, in exchange for two things: some agency, and God’s throne. Agency and security cannot co-exist easily. In a realm where we would live in security and little agency, we cannot become as God is, and so we would require a replacement for Elohim that we could emulate. Lucifer becomes the example to follow in this instance.
    Lucifer took with him those that feared risk, failure and pain. With the right press, God could be made to look like an evil rich guy running a sweat shop in Nicaragua.
    Satan doesn’t push sins on us. He pushes choices upon us. Opposition. He provided the opposition and choice in the Great Council, and he does so now. The temptations and evils are already in place in the world without him. He just uses them as a catalyst to get people to follow his lead.

    I truly believe that Satan, as with any of us who commits sinful and/or evil acts, has what he thinks are good intentions. He is trying to save us from a bad plan that promises to punish and enslave many (at least in his view). And if in attempting to save us (by drawing us away from God and towards him) we suffer some, it is God’s fault.

  41. Rob Osborn says:

    Lucifer is not a part of the plan of salvation. The plan existed before Lucifer fell. Had he not fallen, the plan would of covered him as well.

    It is my opinion that he started a plot to overthrow righteousness, bind the souls of men into sin and thus effectively destroy our agency being in his chains, his power and his will. For this plot he was thrown out of heaven. He is thus an enemy to the plan and not a part of it. he actually hinders the plan.

    For his actions unbecoming a child of God he was thrust out of heaven and got the title of “satan the father of all lies”. His lies obviously got him cast from heaven. What were his lies? In part we know that he lied about wanting to save Gods children. His plans did not involve God’s will. Instead he was trying to steal the hearts of men and by popularity gain the throne of God! He did not want men to be happy though, he wanted to bind them down to sin and slavery- both physically and spiritually.

    This same plan has not changed one bit from the grand council- he still trys to lead us captive in his chains (the same chains he is in) down to hell all the while promising us that sin is ok. He is still effective in destroying mans agencey through sin today as he was yesterday and at the council.

  42. The Devil says:

    This series pleases me. Continue onwards as I wait, lurking…

  43. #42–Hm, never was the term “lurking” more literally true…

  44. Some years ago while in Provo, we had a sunday school teacher who was teaching about magnifying your calling. Then he got on the topic of Satan and how he is magnifying his calling – which left me puzzled. But what he said next shocked me, and I have always tried to find some sort of reference to it, but he said B. Young said that one day, (perhaps eons from now), Satan would take off his mask and God would say “well done my good and faithful servant”. I think everyone in the class was sleeping, but it literally shocked me. After class, I asked him where he had read this, and he didn’t elaborate too much.

    If anyone has ever heard this before, let me know. I’d be happy to put this idea to bed once and for all. But then again, if B. Young said it, he also spoke of the Adam-God theory which makes no sense to me at all either.

  45. #44 Sounds like Snape, doesn’t it? There sure seem to be a lot of literalists in this group. No consideration to the idea that Satan is simply an allegorical figure??

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