Countering Korihor’s Philosophyby Gerald N. Lund July 1992 Ensign
President Ezra Taft Benson has often reminded us that all of the major Book of Mormon writers said they were writing for our day. Consequently, “we should constantly ask ourselves, ‘Why did the Lord inspire Mormon (or Moroni or Alma) to include that in his record? What lesson can I learn from that to help me live in this day and age?’” (Ensign, Jan. 1992, p. 5.)
In Alma 30, Mormon gives a lengthy account of a man he calls “Anti-Christ” (Alma 30:6), including a detailed summary of his false teachings. Using President Benson’s guideline, let us examine the story of Korihor to see why Mormon felt it important to tell us his story.
First, though, it will help to look at some philosophical terms used by contemporary philosophers. Doing so will help us see the deviousness—and the attractiveness to the carnal mind—of Korihor’s teachings (which were Satan’s teachings).
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality. It tries to answer the question “What is real?” The question of whether there is a God and a spiritual world beyond the natural world we know is a metaphysical question. Though today we often use the word supernatural in a more limited sense, originally it referred to a world higher, or above, the one we see and experience with our physical senses.
The second area of philosophy we will consider is axiology. Axiology is the study of ethics and values. It wrestles with such questions as “What is good?” “What is ethical?” “What are right and wrong?”
A third branch of philosophy is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what is real or true. There are numerous epistemological systems. Some apply directly to what Korihor was teaching the Nephites:
Authoritarianism is the system by which truth is learned from those who are authorities or experts. We trust learned men or women, such as parents, teachers, religious leaders, and consultants, to give us truth in their areas of expertise.
Rationalism refers to gaining truth through logic. In rationalism we ask, “Does it make sense? Is it logical?”
Pragmatism determines whether something works. The business world is often pragmatically oriented, focusing on whether a new product or marketing strategy actually produces the desired results. If it works, it is valid; if it doesn’t, it is rejected.
Empiricism uses observation or personal experience to arrive at truth. This knowledge is gathered primarily through the senses—through what one sees, touches, hears, smells, and tastes.
Which of these systems do Latter-day Saints subscribe to? The answer, of course, is all of them. But we also rely on another way of knowing truth: divine revelation. In this method, truth comes either directly from God or indirectly through his prophets.
Whether he recognizes it or not, every person holds to a metaphysical position, trusts in at least one system of epistemology, and holds a personal axiology or set of values and ethics. Furthermore, these three areas of our own philosophy are interrelated. Our metaphysics (our view of reality) influences our epistemology (the way we gain knowledge), and together the two determine our axiology (our values).
Let’s suppose, for example, that a person like Korihor rejects the idea that there is a spiritual dimension to life. That metaphysical position automatically determines what that person will accept as truth. Revelation is rejected because the reality of God is rejected. Deciding what is good and bad, therefore, will not be dependent on any set of God-given laws or fear of eternal consequences.
This was Korihor’s fundamental lie.
Like any philosophical system, Korihor’s doctrine had metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological aspects. Together, they enabled him to convince many to reject the traditional values taught by the Church.
For example, Korihor’s argument that “ye cannot know of things which ye do not see” (Alma 30:15) reveals his epistemology—his system of determining truth—to be primarily empirical, or based on observation and use of the senses. (See chart 1.) However, the Apostle Paul says, “Faith is … the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1; italics added.) Korihor’s stance, however, is, “If you can’t see it, you can’t know it.” He therefore rejects prophecy because prophecy deals with the future, and you cannot “see,” or experience, the future with the physical senses. Consequently, all talk of a future Savior and redemption is to be rejected on principle.
There are a number of corollaries, or inferences, that flow out of Korihor’s fundamental philosophy. The first of these is revealed when Korihor is arrested and taken before Giddonah, the high priest. Giddonah demands to know why, if Korihor is correct in what he said, the people find so much joy in their religious experience. (See Alma 30:22.)
Korihor’s answer goes something like this (see Alma 30:23–28): There are two explanations for why people believe in religion. First, they have been indoctrinated by their parents (the “foolish traditions” of the fathers), and second, they have been deceived by religious leaders whose motives are personal gain—money and/or power. Further, Korihor’s philosophy—expressed in his teaching to the people—is that this indoctrination of the people brings psychological abnormalities—“derangement” or a “frenzied mind.” (Alma 30:16.) Since there is no God and since religion is a farce, Korihor concludes, we can live as we please without fear of eternal consequences.
Giddonah decides that Korihor’s case warrants the full attention of Alma, so Korihor is taken to Alma in Zarahemla. It doesn’t take Alma long to determine the ultimate source of Korihor’s teachings. “The devil has power over you,” he says to Korihor, “and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.” (Alma 30:42.) Later, after Korihor is struck dumb, he confirms Alma’s words. “The devil hath deceived me,” he admits, “for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, … and he taught me that which I should say.” (Alma 30:53.)
Why would Satan care about such things as our view of metaphysics and epistemology? Because if he can shape our views on those issues, then those views provide a basis, as Alma declares, to “destroy the children of God.” (Alma 30:42.) The philosophy Satan taught Korihor is a rational system. It is not true, but it is rational! If we accept the assumption that there is no super-natural reality, then it logically follows that there is no God. If that is the case, then man is the supreme being. It also follows that if there are no eternal realities, then there are no eternal consequences for man’s actions. Korihor’s reasoning is that man himself determines what is right and wrong, not some set of rules laid down by a group of phony religious leaders claiming to speak for a God who doesn’t exist.
This is the heart of Korihor’s doctrine. By preaching his false philosophies, Korihor accomplishes Satan’s designs in grand fashion. Note Mormon’s description of the end result of his teachings: “And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms.” (Alma 30:18.)
What a victory for Satan! This is not just wickedness. The people are proud in their wickedness! And why shouldn’t they be? Korihor has convinced them that there is no God and no ultimate right and wrong. All the “psychological hangups” they feel—guilt, shame—are simply the result of the foolish teachings of ignorant parents or self-serving religious leaders.
President Ezra Taft Benson has taught that “the Book of Mormon exposes the enemies of Christ. It confounds false doctrines and lays down contention. (See 2 Ne. 3:12.) It fortifies the humble followers of Christ against the evil designs, strategies, and doctrines of the devil in our day. The type of apostates in the Book of Mormon are similar to the type we have today. God, with his infinite foreknowledge, so molded the Book of Mormon that we might see the error and know how to combat false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts of our time.” (Ensign, Jan. 1988, p. 3.)
Today, the world is permeated with philosophies similar to those taught by Korihor. We read them in books, see them championed in the movies and on television, and hear them taught in classrooms and sometimes in the churches of our time. Note just a few examples drawn from modern writings:
“We believe that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. … Traditional religions often offer solace to humans, but, as often, they inhibit humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities. … Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence.” (“Humanist Manifesto II,” The Humanist, Sept./Oct. 1973, pp. 5–6; compare Alma 30:14, 16, 27–28.)
“We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. … No deity will save us; we must save ourselves. Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices.” (Ibid; compare Alma 30:18, 23–24, 27–28.)
“Science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces. As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.” (Ibid; compare Alma 30:17.)
“Whether we ought to follow a moral principle or not would always depend upon the situation. … In some situations unmarried love could be infinitely more moral than married unlove. Lying could be more Christian than telling the truth. … Stealing could be better than respecting private property. … No action is good or right of itself. It depends on whether it hurts or helps. … There are no normative moral principles whatsoever which are intrinsically valid or universally obliging. We may not absolutize the norms of human conduct.” (Situation Ethics: True or False? A Dialogue between Joseph Fletcher and John Warwick Montgomery, Minneapolis, Minn.: Dimension Books, 1972, back cover. Compare Alma 30:17.)
Here we see clear evidence of Mormon’s inspiration to give us a full account of Korihor and his teachings. Korihor’s teachings are old doctrine, and yet they are ideas as modern as today’s high-speed printing presses and satellite dishes.
A Prophet’s Answer
So how do we deal with these false philosophies? Fortunately, Mormon not only gave us Korihor’s doctrines, he also gave us an inspired answer to them. This is the real value of the Korihor account.
The first thing to note is that Alma does not get into philosophical debate with Korihor. He doesn’t allow himself to be pulled onto the ground that Korihor tries to define as the area of debate. There is a great lesson in that. We combat false philosophies with revelation and true doctrine, not academic debate.
Second, Alma exposes Korihor for what he is. (See chart 2 for a summary of how Alma dealt with Korihor.) In effect, Alma says to Korihor: “You know that we don’t profit from our service in the Church, but you say we glut ourselves on the labor of the people. Therefore I say you deliberately twist the truth.” It all comes down to one irrefutable conclusion: Korihor is a liar.
But there is more to Alma’s answer than that. Alma takes Korihor’s own philosophy and catches him in a trap of his own making. Korihor teaches that we can know only what we can see. (See Alma 30:15.) But when questioned, Korihor categorically denies that he believes there is a God. Alma then asks, “What evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.” (Alma 30:40.)
It is an inspired insight on Alma’s part. Korihor is not consistent in his own thinking. If we truly can know only those things for which we have empirical evidence, then we cannot teach there is no God unless we have evidence for that belief. And Korihor has no evidence.
Korihor will consider only evidence that can be gathered through the senses. In such a system, it is much easier to prove there is a God than to prove there is not a God. To prove there is a God, all it takes is for one person to see, hear, or otherwise have an experience with God, and thereafter the existence of God cannot be disproved. But here is what it would take to prove there is no God: Since God is not confined to this earth, we would have to search throughout the universe for him. We assume God is able to move about, so it would not be enough to start at point A in the universe and search through to point Z. What if after we leave point A, God moves there and stays there for the rest of the search?
In other words, for Korihor to say that there is no God, based on the very criteria he himself has established, he would have to perceive every cubic meter of the universe simultaneously. This creates a paradox: In order for Korihor to prove there is no God, he would have to be a god himself! Therefore, in declaring there is no God, he is acting on “faith,” the very thing for which he so sharply derides the religious leaders!
No wonder Mormon chose to detail the story of Korihor. It teaches a great lesson for our day. No matter how clever, how sophisticated the philosophies of an anti-Christ may seem, they are not true. They are riddled with contradictions, errors, and false assumptions. The gospel, on the other hand, is truth—truth that has stood the test of centuries, truth that can withstand rational examination, truth that is pragmatic and practical, truth that can be confirmed through personal experience. A believer need not apologize for his or her beliefs, for these beliefs withstand every scrutiny much more efficiently than do the doctrines of Satan.
A Final, Tragic Lesson
There is another lesson that Mormon draws from the story of Korihor. After Korihor is confounded by Alma, he demands a sign before he will believe. Korihor receives his sign—he is struck dumb, and evidently deaf as well. (See Alma 30:51.) In that pitiable state, Korihor resorts to begging for his livelihood. He finally goes among a people called the Zoramites, and there he is “run upon and trodden down” until he dies. (Alma 30:59.)
Mormon summarizes the lesson he wants us to learn: “And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.” (Alma 30:60.) How unlike God and his dealings with his children!
Another lesson to be learned from Korihor is found in the following chapter, after Mormon finishes telling the story of Korihor. In Alma 31, Mormon begins the account of a missionary effort among the Zoramites. Alma, two of his sons, and the sons of Mosiah go to the land of Antionum to try to reclaim the apostate Zoramites.
Remembering that it was the Zoramites who killed Korihor, note the following phrases from Alma 31 that describe their beliefs:
- •They “had fallen into great errors.” (Alma 31:9.)
- •They had rejected traditions that they felt were “handed down … by the childishness of their fathers.” (Alma 31:16.)
- •They did not want to be “led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren,” which they believed did “bind them down to a belief in Christ.” (Alma 31:17.)
- •They refused “to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.” (Alma 31:22.)
Familiar echoes? Indeed. The Zoramites represent the end product of Korihor’s own philosophy. How ironic that Korihor should meet his death at the hands of a people who practiced what he preached!
Korihor’s teachings were based on lies. Indeed, Korihor himself confessed this when he wrote, after he had been stricken dumb, that he “always knew there was a God.” (Alma 30:52.) Yet Korihor had tried to teach people that happiness is to be found independent of God and the gospel. The Book of Mormon shows that this is not possible. The philosophy Korihor taught, so pervasive among us today, leads to a dead end. This is undoubtedly why, under the power of inspiration, Mormon gave his detailed account of Korihor and his false teachings—so that we today may more easily distinguish between Christ and anti-Christ, between eternal life and spiritual death.