Teaching the War in Heaven

After hearing several discussions of the very real challenges involved in teaching the Gospel Essentials manual to Relief Societies and quorums made up largely of established members, I wanted to share the approach to the lessons that Sam Brunson (law professor, jazz fanatic, occasional Prius driver, and father of the third- and fourth-best young kids that I know in the Chicago area) has been using — quite successfully. Please enjoy, below, his notes on the War in Heaven lesson.

A couple prefatory/introductory notes to the lessons: in preparing to teach Elders Quorum, I’ve decided to focus on figuring out how we know what we know about the topics covered by the Gospel Principles manual.  Doing so, I’ve largely limited myself to canonized scripture, even where I know there’s something a prophet has said about the subject.  Why?  A couple reasons.  One is that I don’t have access to everything every prophet has said, and I suspect that most of my quorum doesn’t, either.  Another is that the half hour or so I have to teach is barely enough to cover some of the scriptures I want to look at–it’s not nearly enough time to hash out what prophetic statements are revelatory and what prophetic statements are the prophet’s personal thoughts, much less how to weigh a prophet’s personal thoughts.  A third is, it takes me hours to do this anyway, and if I were trying to find every prophetic statement I had access to, and prepared to discuss the weighting of prophetic authority, I still don’t feel like spending even more time on it.

You’ll also see that I take big chunks of scripture.  We often read 10 or 20 verses at a time, even where there’s a single verse that can get the idea out there.  I’m uncomfortable, though, with single-verse explanations.  I’m much happier reading in context, at least to the extent I have time.

Also, these are just my notes.  They’re what I have in front of me as I teach, but I don’t pretend that they’re a lesson plan.  They’re not undoubtedly not comprehensive, even as to what can be found in canonized scripture.  And we haven’t yet addressed everything I’ve written down.  Plus, some parentheticals are notes to myself that I don’t really see a good reason to bring up, but I think they’re kind of cool.

And if you think this introduction is long, you should see how long I take introducing in class.


Read Paradise Lost Book 1, lines 27-124

“Without a well-informed sense of Milton’s intellectual milieu, the reader may easily conflate Christian commonplaces with truly uncommon dogmas.  In their first flush of enthusiasm for Paradise Lost, for example, my young LDS readers often urge parallels in the following areas: the nature of the Godhead, Satan’s rebellion and the War in Heaven, the Creation, the fortunate fall, free will, obedience and repentance, the Atonement of the Son, and the Apostasy.  With the exception of his views on the Creation and the Apostasy, however, Milton’s ideas on none of these topics is peculiarly LDS in character.  Many of Milton’s beliefs on these subjects, moreover, are distinctly unlike those espoused by the Church.

“Consider, for example, Milton’s conception of the War in Heaven.  Milton’s primary sources for his description of Satan’s rebellion and the subsequent war are the Bible (especially Isaiah and Revelation), traditional Christian exegesis, and classical accounts of epic warfare (especially those by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil).  The result is a war quite unlike that envisioned by most Latter-day Saints.  For Mormons, the War in Heaven is seen principally as a war of words and wills–like the debates between Abdiel and Satan; in Paradise Lost the war assumes the character of a pitched Homeric battle.  Many Mormon readers gloss over this crucial difference.  Similarly, they tend to see the fallen angels through Mormon lenses.  Yet the rebel angels are not only not the unembodied spirits of mankind, but their war has nothing to do with human freedom, for man does not yet exist.  Further, the revolt is provoked not by Satan’s plan to deny men free agency, but by his envy of the Son.  True, as a figure of magnificent intellect, enormous persuasiveness, and insatiable ambition, Milton’s Satan resembles the fallen angel of light in the Pearl of Great Price; but his motives, as well as the issues and conudct of the war, are all conceived of quite differently.”  –John S. Tanner, Making a Mormon of Milton, 24 BYU Studies 191, 195 (1984).

1. Biblical Accounts

Isaiah 14:3-20 (focus on 3-4: every other translation I looked at translates “proverb” as “taunt”; specifically, once they’re free, apparently, they were to taunt the kind of Babylon).  (Focus on 12-15: look at Heb. for “Lucifer.”  Potentially at least three levels of meaning here.  Most literal: Babylonian tyrant attempted to displace God, fell to Hell instead.  Probably an allusion to Canaanite mythology, where a minor god tried to take over the mountain of the gods, was cast down.  Finally, many Christian traditions, including ours and Milton’s, saw this as a reference to Satan’s being cast out of God’s presence.)

Revelation 12:1-12 (focus on 3-4: dragon’s tail swept down 1/3 of the stars; indicates hubris, cosmic upheaval; traditionally, thought to represent the fallen angels.  Cf. Dan. 8:9-11 [also an apocalyptic work].) (Focus on vss. 7-9: casting out of Satan.) (Focus on vss, 10-12: conquering Satan through Atonement.)

Cf. Luke 10:18 (Jesus saw Satan fall like lightening from Heaven).

2. Latter-day Scriptural Accounts

With modern scripture, we get a little bit more detail on this plan that existed before.

Divide into two groups.  Give one Moses 4:1-4.  Give the other Abraham 3:22-28.  Read these, see what details from our Biblical accounts these provisions confirm, what additional information is provided.  Have Abraham group respond first, then Moses.  Be tight–have them read what they use to get their fleshed-out story.  It’s not much.  Especially Abraham doesn’t say why God asked for a volunteer, what Satan did to not be chosen.  (Also, it makes the first [presumably Jesus] sound qualitatively different than us.)  (Abraham does imply that the host of heaven were humans in a premortal state; doesn’t come out and say it expressly, because rulers could be godly rulers, but that fact that Abraham was one of those strongly implies that the host of heaven was us.)

D&C 76:22-30: not really explanatory, but discusses Satan’s being thrust down, rebelling, warring with the Saints

D&C 29:34-39: Makes concrete that 1/3 of the host of heaven were cast down with Satan

3. This Thing They Fought Over

By virtue of His being chosen, Jesus became our Redeemer (Moses 4:1).

What does that mean to us?  2 Cor. 5:11-6:2 (through Christ God reconciles Himself with us)

If time permits, ask class to discuss what this Atonement/Reconciliation means to them

[Note: a class member mentioned, after class, that Satan is cast out generally in the passive voice.  So it’s not entirely clear who does the casting from canonized scripture]


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    A great approach, and a helpful reminder that the quality of the class is going to be determined largely by the preparations of the teacher.

  2. Wow! I’d attend RS in my ward if there was any chance to get an insightful scripturel-based discussion like this.

  3. I’ve just been called to teach 2nd Sunday RS and have been utilizing a similar approach. I started my Jan lesson by stating that someone somewhere made the decision that we review the basics, and while this may seem boring, I think it is really interesting to think of it in terms of what we “know” from scripture. There is plenty there in the scriptures and it protects those within the class that might be struggling with cultural or certain “conservative” or “liberal” strands of doctrine interpretations to feel more comfortable in attending the class.

    While I generally don’t take this approach within the class, my preparation is HIGHLY driven by thinking through what we don’t know. The reality, especially of pre-earth life stuff, is that we often don’t know a whole lot. It helps me think through potential cultural and even doctrinal sticky issues where I can expect a diversity of thought within my urban ward.

  4. looking for a name says:

    Thank you for sharing. I particularly like that you read so many verses at a time. I had an experience in SS today that made me realize how often we take a scriptural account and make it conform (sometimes inappropriately) to the principle that we’re trying to teach. One word in a verse led to an entire discussion (prompted by the manual) of a certain topic, even though the rest of the reading had nothing to do with this topic.

    I realized that I know the principles/doctrines/stories that get taught in church very well, but I don’t know the scriptures as well as I should. Unfortunately, this approach of massaging the scriptures seems to reinforce the idea that knowing the principle is good enough as long as you have a verse of scripture that will back you up (regardless of the context surrounding the verse). I wish more emphasis (in church and my own study) were placed on the question, “What does this passage of scripture say/teach?” at the expense of, “How does this scripture support the true principle of _________?”

  5. Chris Henrichsen says:

    Thanks, Sam B.

  6. Thanks all. (And thanks JNS for your nice comments at the front end.)

    Nicole and looking for a name, one of the big reasons I am trying to teach like this is to suggest that we need humility as we address the basic doctrines of the church. A lot of our thought isn’t something new that we get through Joseph Smith or other prophets, because we get it fully formed from the Bible. Another chunk we get prophetic reinterpretations of the Bible, and another chunk comes from LDS scripture.

    But then there’s a big chunk of stuff that we’ve reasoned out. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that—most of us are smart people who can see holes in our knowledge, and there are logical (and, of course, illogical) ways to fill those holes. But often, especially for those of us who grew up in the church, I feel like we don’t know where the holes that we’re filling in are. We’ve heard something since we were little and assume it must be the case without knowing where it comes from. (Kind of like my passive assumption that God cast Satan out. It’s not to say He didn’t, but it’s not clear that he did.)

    So for me, this has been a fun exercise in trying to find where we have holes in our canonized knowledge, so that I can realize that the filling I’ve given those holes is just that—my gloss.

  7. Rob Osborn says:

    Like the approach. We have gone too far in our assuming and not enough scripture pondering to put the puzzle pieces together. There are several points made from the scriptures that we have not thought about.
    We know that Satan “rebelled” against the father and Son, but we do not know at what time that rebellion started. We assume that it started at Satan’s offer being rejected. But in truth the scriptures do not state specifically but logic informs us that any plan contrary to the Father’s is a pre-thought way of direct rebellion.

    We also know that Satan sought to destroy our agency. But it says nothing in the scriptures about how he was going to do this or “already was” doing this. Theories of forced obedience or the removal of consequences abound and yet have no foundation from scripture. The only hint we have of “how” he destroys agency is by the Lord explaining that all those who follow him go into “captivity”. This is the chains of hell- the destruction of agency. Interesting point!

    Another point is that we assume Satan is telling the truth in Moses 4:1 when he speaks. Let me ask this- When was the last time Satan said something that we should hold as “truth”?

    What was the war in heaven about? Its about the same exact thing that is still raging in the world- that Satan will save us and that we should not worry about sinning- there being no sin or consequences on the one side and on the other its about us overcoming adversity, conquering sin, and living eternally in freedom and peace. It is truly a case of good versus evil- freedom versus slavery.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    a PRIUS?!

  9. #2, perhaps you not attending RS in your ward is one reason why RS is so dull. Change doesn’t happen over night. Show up, be dedicated, prepare in advance, ask good questions, help make the RS class better.

  10. Steve,
    I thought that if I ever wanted to get something on BCC, I had to prove my smug liberal cred. And now, because of you guys (and, I guess, Toyota’s engineers), I have to take my car in so that it doesn’t go Christine on me.

    That’s probably a legitimate criticism, but it’s a tough line to walk. In my experience, at least, there’s a fine line between asking questions that make the class more interesting and hijacking the lesson to go a different direction than the teacher wanted to go. Which is to say, showing up, being dedicated, being prepared, and asking good questions are all wonderful things (and things that I hope my class does—it helps me a ton), but there’s also an element of politeness/respect that you have to throw in. And when you add in the group dynamics of a large class who all have a slightly different spin on things, well, again, you’re right, but it isn’t always easy or successfull.

  11. Sam,
    Your lesson notes are intriguing, but can you describe to us what happened in the actual quorum discussion? Did you actually read the Milton passages and commentary, and how did the group respond to that? Also, what are the size & demographics of your group?
    I ask because I’m not sure whether this approach would have worked in my elders quorum. For instance, yesterday we had 10 people there, which is a large group for us. Of that group, only 2 have graduated from college, and most are working in non-white-collar jobs. I don’t think I could have quoted from “Paradise Lost” when I taught this lesson.

  12. TaterTot says:

    Wow! I love this! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Clarification: it’s the introductory part of your approach that I don’t think would have fit my quorum. Reading aloud the scriptural passages to elicit the principles to be discussed (as opposed to reading aloud the Gospel Principles text) — that would work, and has worked.

  14. Zefram,
    I actually had a quorum member who is an actor read the Milton passage, then I read Tanner’s take on it. My quorum is big (probably 30 people there that day), and is hugely diverse, including a couple professors, some attorneys and other professionals, grad students (Ph.D., law school, business school that I know of), several African immigrants, some blue-collar workers, etc.–the ward cuts a broad swath of the north side of Chicago. What helped with the reading was two things: the guy who read it is an engaging reader, then I asked someone to summarize what the passage said about the War in Heaven (which JNS did in a remarkably concise and helpful way).

    That said, this approach requires some buy-in from the class. I’ve explained what I’m trying to do every time I’ve taught, and I’ve tried to be loud and engaging so that the quorum members remain interested. The biggest thing for me is that I try to teach stuff that I’m interested in; if I didn’t enjoy (what little I’ve read of) Milton, the intro would have been an utter failure.

    It probably doesn’t hurt that the guy who was teaching before me was a writer who, on at least one occasion, introduced the lesson by referring to Infinite Jest. So the quorum is used to unusually introductory material.

  15. Revenent says:

    References to Infinite Jest in EQ? And I thought my quorum was awesome!

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