3 Book of Mormon Verses We Might Be Getting All Wrong

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Alma teaching Corianton.

Here’s the thing about interpretations: They’re subjective. There’s probably a conclusive, correct answer in each of the cases we’ll be looking at below, but unfortunately Mormon isn’t here to give us the thumbs-up. That said, take a look at the following examples and give the alternate interpretations some serious consideration. Who knows, you might like them.

1. Is sexual sin really almost as bad as murder?

A hand reaching out.

The idea that sexual sin is akin to murder comes straight from Alma’s encounter with his missionary son, Corianton, in Alma 39:3-5:

And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

We’re all familiar with this story. It’s used in lessons on the Law of Chastity throughout the Church. We tend to focus solely on the apparent sexual nature of Corianton’s sin, but that’s not all he was guilty of, nor the only factor we need to incorporate into our interpretation of these verses.

The most common interpretation

After denying the Holy Ghost and murder, sexual sin is the most severe sin one can commit. Deal with it.

A different interpretation

This alternate interpretation has gained traction in recent years due to research by scholars such as Michael R. Ash, B. W. Jorgensen, and fantastic resources such as Book of Mormon Central. But before we get into this alternate interpretation, please understand that sexual sin is indeed extremely serious. There’s a broad spectrum of sexual sins that one can commit—stay far away from ALL of them. That said, in these verses, was Alma really trying to say that sexual sin is almost as bad as murdering someone?

First of all, Corianton is guilty of more than one offense. Alma mentions specifically the fact that he “forsook the ministry” and he went after Isabel. Alma then says something really important: “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?” Alma doesn’t say, “this thing,” he says, “these things.”

But what are “these things” that are so damnable? Sexual sin may have been a factor, but the plural “these things” implies more. Verse four gives us a hint. “Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many…” The most common interpretation of this verse is that Isabel was simply quite the promiscuous lady. But we’ve seen similar language elsewhere in The Book of Mormon. In fact, it’s something Alma also wrote, this time about Korihor the Anti-Christ. Alma 30:18 says,

And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness…

In this verse, “leading away” hearts is a metaphor for leading people away from Christ and into apostasy. Isabel may have been guilty of the same thing. And worse, the son of the prophet was her latest victim. Alma later says in chapter 39,

Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

It’s interesting that chapter 39 seems to focus much more on testimony than sexual sin. It seems that while sexual sin may (or may not) have played a significant role in this chapter, the most serious issue going on here is not just that Corianton sinned, but that he’s leading other people to sin as well. A sort of “spiritual murder,” if you will. It wouldn’t be the first time Alma associated apostasy with murder. Alma 36:14 says,

Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

From Alma’s point of view, next to denying the Holy Ghost and murder, leading others into apostasy is the most grievous sin one can commit. Of course, whether a sin of sexual nature or leading others into apostasy, one can repent, just as both Alma and Corianton did.

2. Who were they persecuting, and why?

Woman covering hands with face.

Check out Alma 4:8, giving special attention to the final few lines (parenthetical added):

For they (Alma and other church leaders) saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.

There are a couple of different ways we can read that last section. “And they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.”

The most common interpretation

Many people read that section and interpret it thusly: “And they began to persecute those who weren’t members of their church. They persecuted them whenever and where ever they wanted to.” That may have been the author’s original intent. And even if it wasn’t, there really aren’t any doctrinal consequences that come along with this interpretation. So, by all means, go for it. But there’s a second interpretation that teaches a slightly different, but valuable, lesson.

A different interpretation

Oftentimes our brains add a comma in between “believe” and “according to” in this verse. But there’s not a comma there. There’s no pause. When we remove the pause, the verse says something different.

“And they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure” can be interpreted to mean, “And they began to persecute people, even people within their church, that did not believe in the exact same way as the persecutors.

Suddenly this verse become less about liberally persecuting those that don’t believe, and more about persecuting those that don’t believe the right way (according to their will and pleasure). Don’t we see this in the modern Church today?

Maybe we all believe in The Book of Mormon, but some people believe it took place near the Great Lakes and others believe it happened in Mesoamerica. Or maybe one person pays tithing on gross income but someone else pays tithing on net income. Or maybe someone thinks eating tiramisu is against the Word of Wisdom because it contains coffee while someone else thinks only drinking coffee is prohibited. Do we persecute each other for not believing according to our will and pleasure?

3. Does grace save us after all we can do?

Man painting fence.

You’ve probably read 2 Nephi 25:23 many times:

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.

What does “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” actually mean?

The most common interpretation

I grew up believing that this verse essentially meant, “Do everything you can to be as righteous as possible, and God will make up for the rest.” Many non-Latter-day Saint Christians have a big problem with this verse, because it sounds like a verse teaching a “works-based” gospel.

If the whole grace versus works subject is confusing for you (I don’t blame you), I’d encourage you to read Brad Wilcox’s speech, His Grace is Sufficient. He explains the relationship between grace and works better than I ever could.

The truth is that we can’t “earn” heaven. That’s not how exaltation works. It is only through God’s grace that we will be allowed to return to live in God’s presence. Does that exempt us from works of righteousness? Of course not. Christ has paid the ticket in full, you’ve just got to walk to the train station to pick it up. Your walk there doesn’t pay for your ticket, but it’s still necessary if you want to catch the train. Remember scriptures like 2 Nephi 2:4 and 2 Nephi 26:27,

…the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free.

Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men…

A different interpretation

“It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” As we better come to understand the relationship between grace and works, we start to see this verse in a different light. It might be better interpreted to mean, “You can do all the works you want, but after all you can do, it’s still God’s grace that will save you.

Are there other scripture that we should be interpreting differently? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

David Snell is a proud member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's the Founder of The Sunday Pews, and has experience writing for Mormon Newsroom Pacific, KBYU11, Classical 89 Radio, FamilyShare.com and plenty more. He tries not to take himself too seriously and just wants to brighten your day a bit.