Chapter 3 begins by outlining the traditional understanding of the “Council in Heaven.” As I mentioned before, I think we assume too much about this premortal conference.
I want to talk in more detail later about the problems I have with the “ransom” and “penal-substitution” models of atonement that shine clearly through the manual’s description of the way God apparently framed the plan of salvation, but I think that should wait for a future post. For now, let’s focus on the War in Heaven.
According to the manual,
Because our Heavenly Father chose Jesus Christ to be our Savior, Satan became angry and rebelled. There was war in heaven. Satan and his followers fought against Jesus Christ and His followers. The Savior’s followers “overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).
When I was younger, I got really excited by thinking about the war in heaven. This was encouraged by well-meaning leaders who would remind us that — as evidenced by our birth into the True Church — we were a chosen generation, reserved to come forth in the final, wrapping up scenes of history. We had been particularly valiant — file leaders and generals — in that great conflict in heaven, and God knew that we were up to the challenges that would face the faithful in the Last Days.
Wars — especially cosmic, heavenly ones — require villains, and who could be more villainous than the Father of Lies, the Great Deceiver, or (as he is referred to a few verses earlier in Revelation 12) the Dragon? In my mind’s eye, the battles that followed must have been awesome. I was inclined toward fantasy novels, and I had plenty of good imagery to draw from.
Of course, I don’t believe any of this now. War imagery is, I think, particularly inappropriate in religious settings. There is already a temptation to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘in’ and ‘out.’ When we add rhetoric about enemies, soldiers, war, battle, etc., I think we risk ramping up our inborn capacity to divide the world into groups to unhealthy, feverish heights.
Mormons would do well to seriously consider the provenance of the Book of Revelation. I think we have inherited a great many assumptions about its meaning from our more traditional Christian cousins (see this review for an excellent run-down), and the further we can get away from the Left Behind-esque superstitions that surround this rather suspect part of the canon, the better.
The problem of Satan
As a younger man, when I wasn’t fantasizing about kicking some serious demonic @$$, I was often troubled by the idea of Satan and his seemingly essential role in the Plan. It seemed fundamentally unfair that if there had to be opposition in all things and Satan was the source of that opposition he should be cast as the ultimate Bad Guy.
Jorge Luis Borges’s meditation in The Three Versions of Judas reflects my thinking in more elegant terms. In Borges’s telling, Judas is the real hero for betraying Jesus. To quote Borges,
Judas’ betrayal was not a random act, but predetermined, with its own mysterious place in the economy of redemption…. The Word, when it was made Flesh, passed from omnipresence into space, from eternity into history, from unlimited joy and happiness into mutability and death; to repay that sacrifice, it was needful that a man (in representation of all mankind) make a sacrifice of equal worth. Judas Iscariot was that man. Alone among the apostles, Judas sensed Jesus’ secret divinity and His terrible purpose. The Word had stooped to become mortal; Judas, a disciple of the Word, would stoop to become an informer (the most heinous crime that infamy will bear) and to dwell amid inextinguishable flames…. Judas sought hell because joy in the Lord was enough for him.”
Judas, from this perspective, made an equal or perhaps even more noble sacrifice than Christ. Willing to give up his name and to be remembered in derision throughout time by Christians and even to give himself over to eternal torment, he stepped up to become the essential catalyst of salvation. Where Christ’s agony was temporary and ultimately rewarded with a seat on the right-hand of God, Judas’s disgrace is infinite.
This presents us with a tangled theological knot indeed. It seems that if Satan was really so intent on thwarting God’s plan, his best course of action would be to protest the whole thing. By his simple refusal to be a co-conspirator at all, some popular understandings of the Plan would unravel entirely.
While I am well aware of scriptural injunctions (such as this one) against succumbing to the devil’s lies about his own non-existence (and if I am honest, they nag at the edges of my doubting mind), I still do not see how Satan fits into the whole picture. Perhaps it is useful in some settings to personify the pull that we all feel toward our baser instincts, but these drives have better naturalistic explanations than the devil-on-the-shoulder image that we sometimes concoct.
For me, it is most helpful to think of the war in heaven and accompanying doctrines as entirely symbolic. I like the idea of a God who persuades and respects agency at all stages in our halting development. In this way, Mormon theology offers compelling ways of dealing with some of the more troublesome parts of the traditional Christian worldview (theodicy anyone?). Since we chose in some sense to enter this mortal coil, we bear collective responsibility for the suffering and evil that exists in the world. We can’t so easily shove it off on some supernatural beings with horns and a tail. As children of God, it is our responsibility to clean up our own messes, not simply wait out our time until the triumphal return of the conquering Christ (but that is a subject for another day).