Mormonism’s Satan and the Tree of Life: Part 3.2 (“Agency”)

2. By What Means Did Satan Seek to “Destroy the Agency of Man”?

The book of Moses states that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man.” The means by which this would have been accomplished have not been authoritatively explained. However, the common LDS assumption is that, as part of the Devil’s premortal proposal, an element of compulsion was required—the idea that Satan advocated “the assertion of raw power to coerce moral sanctity from humanity.” For example, in an article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Riddle writes: “Lucifer’s plan proposed to “save” all of the Father’s children by forcing each to obey the Father’s law in all things.” Similarly, Ludlow states that: “Lucifer… wanted to modify our agency so that there would be no opportunity at all to sin, thus enabling all God’s children to return to their celestial existence.”

Yet, at least insofar as an analogy can be drawn between what was contemplated in this proposal and life on earth today, LDS theology seems to preclude the possibility that such a plan could have succeeded. Drawing a distinction between “agency (the power of choice)” and “freedom, the right to act upon our choices,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks argues that though it is possible for our freedom to be curtailed, “no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.” Moreover, even if there were a way that people could be continually compelled to “do the right things,” Elder Oaks argues that they could not qualify to enter God’s presence without a concomitant transformation of their natures. McLachlan insightfully observes: “There is a strong sense in LDS doctrine that Satan’s coercive plan is a lie from the beginning because it is a rejection of reality itself which is based on the agency, creativity, and co-eternality of intelligences.”

In light of these considerations, should the element of compulsion as the central feature of Satan’s premortal proposal be assumed without question? It might seem difficult to imagine that the Devil could have won so many followers in the premortal world on the basis of a plan that was so thoroughly unworkable, if not impossible. Our examination of the story of the Fall [to follow] attempts to provide a reasonable alternative to the traditional view on the nature of Satan’s efforts to “destroy the agency of man.”

Next: 3. Why Was It Essential That Premortal Spirits Be Given the Opportunity to Receive a Body?


  1. I’ve frequently thought that the various expansions that have been proposed on “satan’s plan,” have smacked of “just making stuff up.” I think your previous post on who was proposed to be saved provides the most hopeful route for insight on the matter.

  2. Matthew Andreasen says:

    I’m still placing my bets on the idea that Agency is more like Accountability rather than Free Choice (see my comment #40 on the previous post in this series). Satan seems to take this approach when he tempts Eve in the garden. He denies accountability and the corresponding consequence when he tells her that she shall not surely die.

    I think his proposal in the pre-mortal existence was similar. He tried to convince others that they would not be held accountable–that they would be ‘saved’ no matter what.

  3. Ooh, looking forward to the alternative, Ronan & Jeff!

  4. Yes, I think it is time to change our explanations. Removing accountability seems much more ‘tempting’. This seems much more in character for Satan given his interactions with Korihor, Eve, etc. ‘There is no sin’ seems more like his style.

  5. Whatever Satan’s plan to destroy agency may have been, I maintain that the identification of agency with “the power of choice”, relatively recently promoted by E. Oaks, is first class metaphysical and theological nonsense.

    No doubt some significant number of the hosts of heaven were attracted by the the prospect of becoming eternal zombies.

  6. Eveningsun says:

    Interesting. I like Oaks’ distinction between agency (as a basically ineradicable* part of our nature) and freedom (as a function of changing external conditions).

    As for the idea that it’s “difficult to imagine that the Devil could have won so many followers in the premortal world on the basis of a plan that was so thoroughly unworkable, if not impossible,” well, that’s not a problem for me, because I read the “revolt in heaven” story not as realism or history but as myth. (And by “myth” I don’t mean “fiction” or “lie” but rather “an attempt to use a story to express the truth of some basic aspects of human existence.”)

    * Maybe I should clarify that agency as I understand it is not quite ineradicable. If we are driven (by our own bad choice or the malevolence of others) to drug addiction or mental illness, our minds might be damaged so profoundly as to destroy our ability to make choices between good and evil–that is, our agency.

  7. Even if we take Elder Oaks’ definitions of “freedom” and “agency,” wouldn’t Satan’s removal of our agency also remove accountability? On some level at least, no opportunity to sin would seem to equal no sin. This is always how I’ve understood Satan’s plan – with sufficient compulsion we all would end mortality free from sin without the need for an Atonement. Since such a sinless state was sufficient for us to live in God’s presence before mortality, why couldn’t that be the case afterward?

    The great lie I see in such a plan by Satan, and the reason Jehovah’s plan was ultimately better, is that Satan’s plan would return us to God without lasting growth. Nothing (and no one) would be lost, but nothing would be gained. I’m not sure we could even keep our physical bodies if no being overcame death through an Atonement. I suspect that Satan’s offer of a risk-free (and reward-free) mortality was very enticing because it was easy and safe. God’s plan, on the other hand, required great faith and sacrifice.

  8. Adam Greenwood says:

    Me likey.

    BTW, I’m more with Bro. Andreasen in #2. I think Satan attacked agency not by compelling choice but by making choice meaningless by taking away the consequences.

  9. Matthew Andreasen says:

    To Mark D.:

    I agree that members of the church generally use Agency in the way that philosophy and protestant debates over free will v. predestination have come to define it. (Dare I say that we have mingled philosophy with our reveled scriptures (IMHO)?)

    I would prefer instead that we drop that nonsense and find a uniquely ‘Mormon’ way to view the concepts of agents and agency. I would start with the dictionary, and go from there.

  10. “It might seem difficult to imagine that the Devil could have won so many followers in the premortal world on the basis of a plan that was so thoroughly unworkable, if not impossible.” I disagree. Look back in history to various destructive and evil ideologies different societies have followed. The list is long and would include the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazis, Taliban, Jonestown suicide, Charlie Manson and multi-international corporations that now control culture worldwide. It befuddles me that people will follow an obviously rotten carrot but it happens. Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man” makes perfect sense to me. The one third were duped just like we can be duped in our moral existence.

  11. Ronan: I am not seeing the distinction here. Are you saying that Satan sought to destroy the power to choose (and thus destroy the eternal self) rather than the enslave the conscious being who had power to choose? Is that what you are getting at? Please help.

  12. According to the scriptures, “agency” has the following properties:

    1. Satan sought to destroy agency.
    2. Satan turned away a third of the hosts of heaven because of their agency.
    3. God gave man his agency in the Garden of Eden.
    4. The agency of man is manifest in his rejection of light.
    5. God established the Constitution for the purpose of enabling man to act according to his divinely granted moral agency.

    If spirit/intelligences are eternal, per Joseph Smith, (1),(3),(5) contradict the proposition that agency is essentially the same thing as free will.

    “Freedom” and “liberty” almost work, but have minor problems with (3) and (4). “Moral self-stewardship” fits all five.

  13. Matthew Andreasen says:

    Mark D.: “Moral self-stewardship” Hmm. I think I would agree.

    Here’s how I would take what I have in mind for Agency and apply it to your idea of a “moral self-stewardship”:

    1) Moral

    Merriam-Webster has the following under Moral: “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior” and “capable of right and wrong action “. I believe Agency, as it applies to God’s plan of salvation, is not just a generic ability to act, but, in order for His plan to work, has to be a moral agency. We have to be able to act in moral ways (i.e., right or wrong) as the dictionary would say.

    2) Self-

    Since the scriptures always say that men, in a doctrinal sense, are “agents unto themselves“, I actually prefer the idea of a self-steward over just a plain steward. (I doubt I would have ever phrased it that way, but I like the idea it conveys.)

    3) Stewardship

    A stewardship implies a responsibility over something, and since you called it a self-stewardship, I would assume you are implying a responsibility over oneself, and, by extension, one’s actions. A steward is actually a particular type of agent, so, although I would not call the words 100% interchangeable, the concepts they represent are definitely related, and stewardship is a fairly good way to describe the concept of agency without triggering thoughts of “free will”.

    So taken all together, I think your term “moral self-stewardship” fits the way I view agency quite nicely. Feel free to explain your idea more, especially if I completely missed your point.

  14. Matthew Andreasen says:

    [Sorry about the formatting in the above comment. The second dictionary quote should have said, “capable of right and wrong action (a moral agent)” except that the parentheses should have been greater than and less than characters. I guess the html didn’t like it, and screwed things up from that point on.]

  15. Rob Osborn says:

    We must recognize that agency is a “right”. As Mark D pointed out, “agency” is more like a right to act for oneself in a “moral self-stewardship”.

    This describes perfectly the coupling of “moral” to “agency”- thus, “moral agency”. When put this way it is only a right or priveledge that the righteous enjoy- the true freedom to act for oneself without the fear of divine justice hanging over our heads to “act upon us” if we were to choose unwisely.

    For every word there is it’s opposite. In order to find out what words mean and how they apply sometimes it is best to address it’s opposite. But what is the opposite of “agency”. I searched for quite some time before i came up with a good scripture definition and word that fits.

    I believe that the opposite of agency is found in these phrases and words-

    1. chains by which ye are bound (spiritual)
    2. yoke of bondage, bondage
    3. captive, captivity
    4. being acted upon
    5. powerless
    6. devil hath “all power over you”
    7. being “subjected”
    8. snare of the devil
    9. deep sleep, spiritual death, unresponsive

    This list could go on, there are many other terms describing the opposite of agency. But this helps us identify just what agency is and is not. A person “bound down” by the “chains of hell” is obviously not in a position where he is free to “act for himself” or make good moral decisions that unlock more possibilities and choices.

    Therefore agency is a “right” that only liberated souls possess. There is a great talk by Robert D. Hales called “To act for ourselves: The gift and blessings of Agency”. in the talk he discusses how Satan destroys our agency while in mortality- yes, it can be destroyed. Here are some of his words-

    “By heeding its gentle promptings, we will be protected from the destructive consequences of sin. But if we ignore those promptings, the light of the spirit will fade. Our agency will be limited or lost and we will lose the confidence and ability to act. We will be walking in spiritual darkness at noon-day. Then how east it is to wander into strange paths and become lost! How quickly we are bound in the chains of sin spoken by Lehi to his rebellious sons.”

    He explains very well that “agency” is the power to act for ourselves “when” we choose the right and make good choices. It is a right that thus must be maintained by making good choices.

    So, how was Satan going to destroy our agency? It is obviously crystal clear- he was going to lead us down dark paths until we became bound down by the very chains of hell! His offer to be the savior was just a lie and ploy to steal away the gift and power of God- the gift of immortality! Had he became the “only begotten son” he would have gained not only a physical body, but an immortal body at that! He lied in saying that he would save everybody, that was just a ploy to trick others into accepting him! He wasn’t going to save anyone. No, all he wanted was the gift of immortality so he could rasie up who he wished to follow in his evil kingdom and ultimately make all of gods children slaves to his awful misery.

    He rebelled not “after” his plan was rejected, but actually was in rebellion before his plan was rejected. He was in opposition to Jesus Christ and the ability for gods children to maintain an active moral agency that coupled with a proper savior could become equal with god being gods themselves. Satan was about having “power over” gods children and not “sharing the power”.

    His plans have not changed one bit- he is still actively limiting and destroying mans agency by leading men through temptation down unto the captive chains of hell- the same chains he himself is in.

  16. I think one of the best depictions in literature of Satan’s plan in action is Lois Lowery’s The Giver. One could imagine a species of human in which evolution had fashioned a neurology incapable of ever committing sin (the morally colorless world she creates in the book). One in which, social obligations were so neurologically constrained that things like murder, adultery, or even lying even were biologically impossible. One is constrained by brain function to tell the truth. One had to be true to ones spouse. Certainly if choice were so limited Satan could save us all. We’d just never be cable of real choice and therefore moral action. Satan’s plan therefore would consist of a very different selection regime for our earthly bodies. He would have had to use ID.

  17. Matthew A., Thanks. The predominant subject of morality is our obligation to others. “Freedom” doesn’t convey that obligation. “Self-stewardship” does. That is why I prefer the latter term.

    A couple centuries ago, a similar distinction was often made between “freedom” and “liberty”. Freedom was considered to be dangerous without proper regulation, including self regulation. Liberty was understood in the higher sense – hence “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law”.

  18. …find a uniquely ‘Mormon’ way to view the concepts of agents and agency.

    When I read the words of Joseph Smith I know they are the words of a prophet, coming from God. With others writers, I don’t get the same feeling.

    I say that because so much of this discussion seems based on interpretations of interpretations. And I worry that we may lose our “humility” regarding our lack of clear understanding of both agency and evil.

    I consider myself someone who has experienced many aspects of both agency and evil, and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with most of theories put forth.

  19. Ronan:

    “Lucifer… wanted to modify our agency so that there would be no opportunity at all to sin, thus enabling all God’s children to return to their celestial existence.”

    Lucifer’s plan doesn’t fail because he wanted to force us to not sin. His plan fails because it presupposes that a life lived without sin is the purpose and that, if attained, would somehow make a person into a celestial being. It would not.

    Which is exactly what Elder Oaks is saying when you paraphrased him, “Moreover, even if there were a way that people could be continually compelled to “do the right things,” Elder Oaks argues that they could not qualify to enter God’s presence without a concomitant transformation of their natures.”

    Our purpose in this life is to learn good from evil–and upon obtaining this knowledge–to choose the good. This process, made possible by agency, is the secret sauce. It is this experience that transforms us into Celestial beings. Heavenly Father can’t supply experience. It can’t be given or cloned or copied. Or forced.

    “It might seem difficult to imagine that the Devil could have won so many followers in the premortal world on the basis of a plan that was so thoroughly unworkable”

    Really? I would argue that many of us still buy into the erroneous Lucifer plan even today. Ask yourself this question: What is it about Jesus Christ that made him perfect?… If you answered something to do with the fact that he did not sin, then I would say you are buying now what Lucifer was trying to sell you back then. How many of us members of the Church would answer in this way? I would guess many.

    Not sinning was simply a by-product of Christ’s perfection–and to focus on or try to obtain that by-product is a distraction from the truth. It can only lead to frustration and despair.

    We’ve never been commanded to not sin–just as we would never command a child to never fall down, never stutter or misspell a word, etc. Not because we know it is impossible, but because we know that mistakes and pain are necessary for that child to learn to become a ballerina, a great speaker or a National Spelling Bee champion.

    Instead, we are commanded to be perfect–which we believe is attainable through the Atonement after using our agency to gain experience and transform ourselves. Christ wasn’t perfect because of an infinite number of things that he didn’t do (including sin). He was perfect because of what he did do–used his agency to act in perfect harmony with the will of the father. And that experience is what made him celestial.

  20. I’m with Matt W. It would help if you more clearly outlined what it is you’re actually claiming- also, this is your 3.2 post, and you’re still telling us what you’re going to be telling us without actually telling us.

  21. Matthew Andreasen says:

    When I said we should, “find a uniquely ‘Mormon’ way to view the concepts of agents and agency,” I did not mean we should invent our own meaning. But I also agree that I was not very clear.

    What I’m trying to say is that I want to know what agents and agency meant to early members of the church before the idea of ‘free agency’ became the predominant idea.

    Here is the question/challenge: What are the “best” quotes or sources from the early church (let’s say during the lifetime of Joseph Smith)? Did Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries ever define the word agency? Or what are the best indications as to its original meaning? If it wasn’t defined, was it such a common idea that everyone knew what it meant without the brethren constantly defining it for them as we seem to do today?

    I’ve been looking for years and I can’t find anything definite, so I’ll wait and see if anyone else finds something. However, I will contribute Noah Webster’s definitions from his “An American Dictionary of the English Language” (published in 1828) for Agency related words:

    A’GENCY, n. [L. agens. See Act.]
    1. The quality of moving or of exerting power; the state of being in action; action; operation; instrumentality; as, the agency of providence in the natural world.
    2. The office of an agent, or factor; business of an agent entrusted with the concerns of another; as, the principal pays the charges of agency.
    A’GENT, a. Acting; opposed to patient, or sustaining action; as, the body agent. [Little used.] Bacon.
    A’GENT, n. An actor; one that exerts power, or has the power to act; as, a moral agent.
    2. An active power or cause; that which has the power to produce an effect; as, heat is a powerful agent.
    3. A substitute, deputy, or factor; one entrusted with the business of another; an attorney; a minister.
    A’GENTSHIP, n. The office of an agent. [Not used.] We now use agency.

  22. Rob Osborn says:


    I too have long sought for the true definition of “agency” and what it means. Fro studying the scriptures the closest definition that i can find which may thus represent its original intent is that by the prophet Lehi in the Book of Mormon. He defines agency as the power to “act for themselves”. The opposite (loss of agency) is thus to “be acted upon”.

    In the garden of Eden man was given his agency and could “freely choose and act” and eat any tree of the garden without it hindering his agency. But, of one tree- the tree of knowledge of good and eveil he was forbidden to eat of it because he would thus lose his agency (in a degree) and would no longer be able to freely eat of the other trees and instead would be acted upon being cast out of the garden.

    Like is mentioned in the dictionary definition, an agent possesses the power to act. the funny thing about choices and acting upon them (agency) is that good choices are the only choices that preserve agency- the power to continue to freely choose and act. Bad choices bring bounds, limits and repurcushions beyond the desire of our choosing. Bad acts of choice thus limit our choices. When our free choices are limited we are no longer free agents, and in that sense we are no longer agents as we can no longer have the “power” to act for ourselves. Sinners caught up in the addictions and torment of their sins often report that they feel “powerless” to their lives- that they cannot truly act according to what they really want. The obvious side effects of sin- that of the inescapable feelings of loss and let down become the dominating power and force in a sinners life and they thus lose their ability of freedom. They are thus without true agency.

    Another effect of sin is that sets off a chain of reactions that the sinner has no control over, this may include disease and infections (HIV, Hepatitus, etc) or the painful withdrawls that they cannot control. I remember when i quit smoking and it felt like a great burden was lifted off- a chain was broken, a chain of darkness. I did not realize it was such a chain until I realized that I caould not go without a smoke and that i would do things and say things that I didn’t really have a control over just to smoke! I remeber wanting so bad to come back to church, become clean again and be sealed in the temple to my family and then lookin at that smoke in my fingers and thinking- “I am chained down to this stupid stick so bad that I cannot even act for myself according to mine own desires. That cigarette was limiting my agency. my body had become so dependant on that stick that I was no longer in control of my body, my body was in control of me!

    Agency: The freedom to act for ourselves “when” we make, and continue to make, good choices.

  23. Matthew Andreasen says:


    Since the primary definition of agents and agency in the dictionary is built on the concept of acting, I agree that the Book of Mormon idea of “act for themselves” is definitely related to agency. I especially like that it so neatly parallels the D&C/Moses idea of “agents unto themselves”. I think both phrases are talking about the same thing.

  24. Does the “Satan Paradox” enter into this discussion?

    One way to neuter the agency of man and thwart the plan of salvation would be for Satan to do nothing, or even, for Satan to temp man to be righteous. Thus, there would be no opposition in all things – or less opposition in all things.

    Lehi taught that this opposition is essential to the plan of salvation.

    I have not had this paradox adequately explained to me… why a premortal spirit of the stature and knowledge of Lucifer would seek revenge and power through evil, rather than mere indifference and apathy?

    Does evil exist in the absense of “opposition in all things?”


  25. Earl, a more correct question is whether opposition in all things exists without Satan. I would say yes.

  26. Matthew Andreasen says:

    Opposition probably exists without Satan, but is that enough for agency to exist?

    D&C 29:39 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 bitter they could not know the sweet—

    The above scripture (which is fairly similar to what Lehi says in 2 Nephi 2:16-18) seems to explicitely say that the devil (as the tempter) must exist for men to be “agents unto themselves”.

    Lehi says a similar thing when he says that man must be enticed for him to “act for himself” (2 Ne. 2:16), then intoduces the devil in verse 17 and shows that he was the one who enticed Eve in verse 18.

    I think the devil plays a needful part in God’s plan, but that’s just my oppinion. The above is info thrown into the mix for your consideration.

  27. lurkingrandma says:

    If the conflict between righteousness and evil ( right ideas and wrong ideas as expressed through intelligent beings) is an eternal conflict, then we would not know how to wage that fight without exposure to the influence of evil in this life. The trials and fights with our biology and others would not be enough. We would need exposure (enticement) to/of intelligent beings that have chosen wrong as well as those who have chosen righteousness.