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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Once Upon Apostacy

Just polished off another chapter in the latest "Tennis Shoes" adventure. Thus I can post a new blog. Sorry I can't post as much as I'd like. But I watch the number of "views" here increase every day and I am very pleased. Still, I wish more folks would leave comments or notes. I'm most definitely not the last word on any issue that I may address.

The novel that I am now writing has forced me to deeply ponder the concept of apostacy. In particular, the monumental lapse of faith experienced by Judas Iscariot. There's much to learn by closely reading the four gospels and understanding Judas' local environment that helps us to, at least, understand his actions. Understanding is not acceptance. His actions were unspeakably heinous. But they at least reveal that Judas, son of Simon, was a product of his environment, and more particularly, a product of human weakness that often reveals itself in many different settings of human experience.

Virtually every Latter-day Saint has had personal experience (i.e., witnessing firsthand) the apostacy of someone they respect, love, or care about. Quite often we are profoundly baffled. Sometimes we are angry and defensive. But mostly, we're just tremendously sad. A few of us may have even found ourselves caught up in the web of apostacy and somehow fought our way back to full fellowship in the faith. I'm not sure any lesser word than "fought" can be used here. Phrases like "intensely struggled" or "battled with all our might, mind, and strength" are likely to be more accurate and appropriate.

Every story of apostacy is tragic and depressing. But the most confusing kind of apostacy is always that which is seemingly accompanied by intellectual or theological concerns. I stress the word "seemingly" for good reason, because based on my own personal experience, an individual's lapse in faith resulting from things like Book of Mormon Geography or disagreements with the Church's stance on gay marriage never tells the whole story of an individual's long and slippery descent into apostacy.

I recently asked an older LDS scholar (who now works at BYU) how many times in his long Church experience has he watched someone fall away from the LDS faith strictly based on intellectual or theological reasons.

"Once," he replied. "But even then I think there were mitigating circumstances."

In his experience, whenever an individual seemed to grapple with intellectual matters that brought him or her to the brink of apostacy he was always cynically inclined to say, "So you have some problems with Church theology? All right. But first let's discuss your sins of immorality. Afterwards we'll discuss your concerns intellectually."

In his mind unrepented sins always seemed to preceed intellectual apostacy. I would have to say that this is also my experience. Usually intellectual or theological disillusion is merely the iceburg that an apostate chooses to reveal, whereas their real reason for leaving the Church is oftimes hidden beneath the surface.

Most of us could cite a thousand methods or tactics that the Adversary employs to deceive formerly faithful Church members. But I think virtually every case can be boiled down to two primary causes: misplaced expectation or the downfall of human pride. Misplaced expectation refers to an individual who has certain defined "expectations" about life--generally from their upbringing or culture--and how, inevitably, the Church fails to live up to those expectations. By the downfall of human pride I mean the kind of poisonous pride whereby the Adversary successfully transforms our greatest strengths into our most debilitating weaknesses.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke of this kind of pride when he said:

"The proud can hear only the clamor of the crowd, but a person who, as King Benjamin said, “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, [and] humble” (Mosiah 3:19), can hear and follow the still, small voice by which our Father in Heaven guides his children who are receptive" (Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Liahona, May 1995, pg. 10).

Pride that leads to apostacy is most often seen when a person is offended by another Church member. As a result, the offended soul decides to abandon Church activity altogether. Often the offended person does not abandon their testimony per say--just the responsibilities associated with that testimony. Apostacy due to personal offense remains one of Satan's most effective strategies. You'd think after all the warnings we receive from Church leaders from Primary age onward that we would develop a kind of indestructible shield against this kind of attack. But obviously it still works just fine for the Adversary. So as far as remaining a regular weapon in his arsenal, he seems to think, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Apostacy caused by unfulfilled expectation is closely related to pride, but seems to have its own subtle nuance or twist. It remains integrally connected to a person's inability to separate him or herself from certain long-established tenets about "life"--tenets often ingrained since birth, parroted by the media, and distributed across the entire spectrum of modern culture. Then, when the Gospel appears to come in direct conflict with these "expectations", the Gospel usually loses. An example of one tenet of expectation might be the concept that science is the most reliable means to gain an understanding of human existance. If this expectation is strongly entrenched--and admittedly, all of our formal education since Kindergarten seeks this entrenchment--then some will conclude that even religion must adhere to such standards. Many come to believe that the tenets of religion are to be judged alongside science, and if science appears to disprove some aspect of religion, cultural "expectation" demands that such religious tenets should be abandoned.

Another cultural expectation might be that modern morality, because it just seems so much more tolerant and easier to abide by than "old-fashioned" morality, must be a superior way of life. The foundation of this principal might be more simply stated as: "Tolerance is the ultimate noble attribute." After all, morality today often disguises itself as an issue of choice rather than a matter of right and wrong. The quest to elevate the attribute of "tolerance" as the pinnacle of desirable virtues defines much of the current generation. To the youth of today, anyone who professes constraint or who trumpets views which appear non-inclusive of those whose life choices conflict with traditional values must be labeled "intolerant". Actually, these days they are more often called bigoted or hateful. I'm guessing this view was born out of the racial conflict and prejudice that occupied our culture in the last half of the 20th Century. But now Satan has taken this genuinely just cause (of not judging one another according to our race or color) and tweaked it just a bit to serve very different ends. The objective now is, quite simply, to tolerate sin. As a result, much of the world feels they can intellectually reject the LDS Church on the grounds of its supposed "intolerance" alone. We frequently have to remind our critics that we didn't change--the world changed. Moral, social, and intellectual expectations have been radically redefined in this generation. And so it is often on these grounds that a soul will justify falling, or drifting, into apostacy.

But as I said before, it is rare, and perhaps non-existant, that this kind of apostacy is not accompanied by serious, unrepented sins. Not long ago I had a very dear friend in the arts who fell into this trap. We'd worked together on several of the songs that I composed for the movie Passage to Zarahemla. In such a setting he and I often found time to discuss the Gospel and wax philosophical about life and religion and the arts. I found that his philosophies were very similar to my own when it came to the challenges faced by today's LDS artists, LDS youth, and Latter-day Saints in general. However, a couple years later I found that his spiritual state of mind had altered dramatically. He revealed that he had left the LDS Church and no longer believed in the Book of Mormon or even Jesus Christ. I was astonished, to say the least. What had happened in thost few intervening years since we'd worked so closely together?

In particular I was struck when my friend proclaimed that he had fallen away because of articles that he had read about DNA research suggesting that Native Americans originated in Siberia and Southeast Asia and not in Mesopotamia. It seemed like such a silly reason for apostatizing that I immediately set about trying to pursuade him to a more rational perspective. At that time I wasn't particularly conversant on the science that he was questioning. And quite frankly, I didn't believe I had to be. I'd actually never heard of this particular objection before. Similar intellectual gymnastics against Church theology seemingly come along more often than a soul has time to keep up with. At some point a saint is forced to rely on his testimony--his faith in "things not seen that are true." Nevertheless, because it happens to be a driving hobby of mine to study out these kinds of matters, I've since done so. As a result, I've found this conflict more trivial than most others I've encountered. Much counter-research has been presented by faithful Latter-day Saints that dispell whatever concerns may have existed. A simple internet search can drum up all the arguments, pro or con. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter. And in the case of my friend, it turned out that it didn’t matter at all.

What concerned me more than the issue he claimed had caused his downfall were things he told me, and things that I later learned from other sources, regarding choices he'd made in his personal life and with his family. His choices had clearly been in opposition to Church edicts and God's commandments for many years prior to his apostacy. Even when, for a period, he struggled and repented and fought to overcome his mistakes, he nevertheless drifted back into old patterns of destruction. Suddenly any desire to discuss issues of human migration and DNA became inconsequential. Something far more corrosive was at work here. As I said before, it wasn’t long before my friend confessed that he'd also abandoned his faith in the Savior and the Atonement. Oh, he professed that he still loved the LDS people and had nothing against those who still believed. He just no longer believed it for himself. Later he announced that he was getting divorced and that he might have to file for bankruptcy. If the pattern continues--the same pattern that I’ve seen play out more often than I care to count--he will soon become an outspoken enemy of the Church. That’s just how it seems to go. People with formerly strong testimonies don’t seem to just fall away from this Church. They fall AWAYYYYYYY from the Church--so far away that in time we hardly recognize them anymore.

But there was something else about my experience with this friend that I found interesting. I learned that he was living in opposition to the Church even during those months that we worked together on my project--even as we were philosophizing and expressing mutual positive belief and testimony. From this I concluded that there is sometimes a "grace period" offered by the Spirit wherein a person is given an opportunity to repent--a period wherein their testimony is not utterly stripped away. Despite everything, it remains, for a time, intact and vibrant and strong. During this time the individual still knows full well that they are doing wrong and must make changes. This grace period only seems to end when conscience dies; when guilt is sufficiently suppressed so that this spiritual gift (yes, guilt is a spiritual "gift") can no longer intercede. Only at that point--the point when the Lord is seemingly convinced that no change is forthcoming--does the Voice of the Spirt grow silent within a person's soul. (Though I should clarify, my personal belief is that the Spirit NEVER goes completely silent. For those who will finally open their ears, they find that the Voice is still there, and the Lord's arms ever outstretched to provide a welcoming embrace of love.) I don't know all the ins and outs of this sort of thing. I couldn't tell you how the time table works. I suppose it's different with every soul. But one thing is certain: Heavenly Fatherly is infinitely merciful and patient with all of us. In the end, even if we fall away, I believe we will one day acknowledge that whatever happened in our lives, it happened for our own good and was designed to help us progress as best as possible under the circumstances.

Infinite mercy. Infinite patience. These are attributes of God that never run dry. They are always abundantly available to the sinner, no matter how far they have drifted, with the possible exception of prohibitions expressed in Alma 39:6.

This verse speaks of denying the Holy Ghost. Every now and then I'll hear of some wayward soul who thinks he has committed this kind of unpardonable infraction and thus damned him or herself to Outer Darkness. However, it is entirely doubtful if anyone reading this blog even qualifies to commit such a sin. Such a sin requires such knowledge and light and understanding that few who have ever walked the earth even possess. Therefore very few people in world history could even qualify to commit sin against the Holy Ghost.

Judas Iscariot is a prime example of a man who committed a sin so heinous that some believe he ought to be destined to a state of Perdition. However, a closer look at all the circumstances reveals that he simply does not qualify. Judas is an enigma among the figures of world history. He is the only member of the twelve apostles who was not a Galilean. (This alone might provide a piece of the puzzle behind his disloyalty, but certainly not enough to satisfy most.) To some Christians Judas represents the ultimate antagonist—-the embodiment of evil, alongside Cain and Lucifer. Non-Christians or anti-Christians have, at times, portrayed him as a man misunderstood--a man whose intentions were noble or even heroic. An apocryphal text dating to the Second or Third century, and titled The Gospel of Judas, even claims that Judas was in cahoots with Jesus and committed his betrayal under the Savior’s direct orders. Most scholars conclude that this text was written decades, perhaps centuries, after the conclusion of the Savior's mission, and was motivated by Gnostic theology--an apostate movement which picked up steam toward the end of the First Century.

Looking at the facts surrounding Judas' betrayal, it seems clear that this man was terribly complex and troubled. Such an observation in no way justifies his betrayal, but it does present some interesting queries: How can anyone who basks in the presence of the Lord for three and a half years commit such a despicable act? What was the pivotal moment when Judas began to doubt his Master’s mission? What flaws in Judas’ character allowed Satan to “enter into him” (Luke 22:3, John 13:27)? And finally, what caused him to regret what he had done with such self-loathing that suicide seemed the only alternative?

In my latest "Tennis Shoes" novel I attempt to shed some light on Judas in the best tradition of historical fiction. In the end such speculations only amount to one author’s best efforts to untangle an immensely difficult conundrum. However, one of the advantages of fiction is that it can sometimes reveal motivations and psychology heretofore unconsidered or unexplored. As I said before, Judas was, more than anything, a product of his environment: its political, religious, and eschatological foundations. These factors above all others likely led him to commit the acts that he committed. It seems most compelling to presume that his disenchantment with Jesus was a symptom of the general misunderstanding and impatience felt by nearly all of Judea’s masses. They wanted a king and conqueror, not a spiritual “Savior.” Jews had been programmed all of their lives to look for a Messiah who would rule on earth, not in heaven. Expelling such concepts from one’s psyche and transforming it according to the Lord’s will is often no less challenging today than it was for the Lord’s ancient followers. Only after the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost that occurred on that day did Christ's Apostles and disciples finally begin to understand the breadth and depth of what their Master had done, and the ultimate sacrifice that He had taken upon Himself.

Judas is an example of someone whose entrenched expectations, internal flaws of character, and poisonous pride made him pitiably vulnerable to become the Adversary’s pawn in bringing about the tragic events that led to the Savior's crucifixion. Many of us, after undergoing our own spiritual self-examination, might conclude that in critical ways we are no less vulnerable than Judas. Only though continual repentance and unflagging, daily effort to realign ourselves with God’s will can we insure that the Adversary will not prevail in carefully leading us into similar destructive paths.

From President Joseph F. Smith we learn the following regarding Judas' status as a Son of Perdition:

"Now, if Judas really had known God’s power, and had partaken thereof, and did actually “deny the truth” and “defy” that power, “having denied the Holy Spirit after he had received it,” and also “denied the Only Begotten,” after God had “revealed him” unto him, then there can be no doubt that he “will die the second death.”

"That Judas did partake of all this knowledge—that these great truths had been revealed to him—that he had received the Holy Spirit by the gift of God, and was therefore qualified to commit the unpardonable sin, is not at all clear to me. To my mind it strongly appears that not one of the disciples possessed sufficient light, knowledge nor wisdom, at the time of the crucifixion, for either exaltation or condemnation; for it was afterward that their minds were opened to understand the scriptures, and that they were endowed with power from on high; without which they were only children in knowledge, in comparison to what they afterwards become under the influence of the Spirit
(Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, pg. 433)."

Rather than pass off Judas Iscariot as God's ultimate antagonist, a man who committed acts we would never dream of committing ourselves, we ought to strive to understand all of the factors that led to his downfall and possibly recognize some of those social, cultural or spiritual flaws and tendencies within ourselves.

Apostacy for a Latter-day Saint is generally not a sudden affliction. I believe it can be unknowingly nurtured for years, usually by allowing some caustic sin to fester inside us. The best advice? Cast off the sin. Repent. And finally, do not underestimate the Adversary.

Remember, Satan doesn't have to see us tossed into Outer Darkness to acheive victory over us. If we have the potential to become a Celestial heir with Jesus Christ and yet we allow Satan to knock us down to a Terrestrial inheritance, he wins.

So let us put on the full armor of God. Let us make right in our lives anything that might be amiss. Only by so doing can we defend ourselves against the Adversary's dark whisperings at that critical moment when our very exhaltation hangs in the balance.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

If you are interested in signed Tennis Shoes and Passage to Zarahemla stuff for Christmas presents. See: http://shop.ebay.com/liahona10/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340.


  1. I had several converstions with a couple people on Facebook late last year and early this year on just this sort of thing. The big beef both times was the Book of Abraham. Their feeling was that because the Joseph Smith Papyri found in the Smithsonian (or whatever museum it was) did not and could not have produced the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith wasn't a prophet. One of them hadn't gone very far into the subject and just seemed to be looking for a reason to apostatize. The other had done a lot of research, but only on one side of the argument - the anti-LDS side. He hadn't bothered to read any of several books by Hugh Nibley, John Gee, and others at FARMS or other LDS sources on the subject, which he knew about, so it seemed obvious that he too was looking for a reason to leave. Every time I had an answer or response to a question or concern, he dug up another one, or flat-out refused to accept the answer. In the end, all I could really do was bear my testimony, say I'd given him the facts on his questions, and wish him luck in figuring out where he was going to go from there.

  2. John Gee and I knew each other High School. We competed in Speech and Drama around the state of Wyoming. Very fun. I'm posting a link to John's FAIR speech on this subject even though you've likely already read/seen it. He's not a particularly dynamic speaker, but what magnificent information! He very carefully reveals that the papyrus upon which the Book of Abraham was written was most likely destroyed in the Chicago fire. I'd never seen it laid out quite like John does it. Thanks for your comment.

    This speech is actually in several parts. I'll only give the link to pt. 1. Hopefully those who know YouTube.com can figure out where to go from there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_cdxJgYcZM

  3. I really like what you had to say about the "grace period" of the spirit. I went through some apostate thoughts and "contradictions" early on in high school, these were supplied in part to the life I was leading and some of the choices I was making. It is interesting to me that right before this my testimony had been the strongest it had ever been, even though I was still making these choices. Then one day, the spirit just left, or I shut my ears. I went on to deny a lot about the church, even throw up these so called, "contradictions" in seminary classes, but the Love of God is so powerful. Many things happened and next week I am leaving for my mission. I'm so greatful for the Savior's Atonement. It brought me where I am today.

  4. Thanks for giving us Frost Cave. I don't have any in-depth comments, but just want to agree with your premise. I have seen apostasy close up, and I know that you are right, and it is so very sad. Lynn

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and look forward to spending more time catching up on previous posts. You are not only an excellent fiction writer, you are great with spiritual matters in a very poignant sense, too. I've often wondered why Judas would betray his friend, and I'm looking forward with great anticipation to how you present him in the novel. I'm quite sure it will be insightful.

  6. Your insights on apostacy are much appreciated. One of the reasons I enjoy your writings is that you put such considerable thought research into each of your works. Like other scholars whom I appreciate, I am then able to use many of your thought provoking ideas as road signs for my personal consideration and study. Much of what you write confirms or better states ideas I have long considered or been formulating. However, as in this article your comments about Judas have opened up a new avenue of thought for me to consider. Thank you.

  7. I really enjoyed that. It made me think of something I read last night in one of my books. I thought I would share it. President Ezra Taft Benson said this (May 1989 Ensign, pg 5)"[Pride] is manifest in so many ways, such as faultfinding, gossiping, backbiting, murmuring, living beyond our means, envying, coveting, and being unforgiving and jealous".

  8. Wow!I really enjoyed...hmm, is that the right word when describing apostacy? Ok, I thought your post was really interesting! I was thinking that the Savior had many moments where the authorities at the time thought they 'had' Him on some point or other, perhaps Judas thought He'd 'get out of it' again, but provide a bit of money at the same time. Especially being passover. I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong here, but I read that the Jews didn't believe in carrying out legal trials during passover, but unfortunately they made an exception. I think John 13:3-6 are very interesting verses on this topic.
    I also have experienced apostacy of those I care about. My Dad is one of those who went awayyyyy. He is a very intelligent person, and tried to reason his way out but pretty soon his reasoning becomes pretty twisted.
    A couple of years ago there was this documentary going around saying that they'd found Jesus' remains, therefore denying Christianity. Even here in Australia it was everywhere. Of course I didn't need to watch it to know it was false and I personally thought the logic against such a 'find' was so simple, I didn't know how anyone was fooled by it. Still a friend of mine who was inactive asked me what I thought because she was angry in general about its existence but that spiritual 'grace period' you spoke of was there as the smallest doubts were entering in. I hadn't planned it this way, but I found myself testifying that once you know Christ it doesn't matter what rubbish anyone says, or if you have the answers, because you Know, I know that He lives! Saying it, I felt the confirmation of the Spirit inside me, and she sat up straight and agreed, all doubt gone because she too felt the Spirit. She has since come back to church and is now setting an example for me all the time.
    I also wanted to just say that I've been listening to the tennis shoes audiobooks (vol 5 & 6) and the simplicity of the faith expressed has been like fresh air to me. Although my testimony is solid, sometimes the adversary whispers cynicism (usually in my dad's voice) into my ears but listening to the way you've written about testimony and faith have melted the cynical voice into nothing. Thank you.

  9. Chris: Misplaced expectation refers to an individual who has certain defined "expectations" about life—generally from their upbringing or culture—and how, inevitably, the Church fails to live up to those expectations.

    This reminds me of a quote last Sunday from the Joseph Smith manual: "Do you think that even Jesus, if He were here, would be without fault in your eyes?" We all know the Savior was perfect and sinless, but sometimes we have a flawed expectation of what that would look like. I think that if any one of us were to spend 24 hours with the Savior, walking with and observing him, there would be at least one or two things that would defy our picture of "perfect and sinless."

    When I was younger, I thought sinless meant never saying anything that wasn't pleasant or "nice." As I began to read the gospels, I realized that sometimes the Savior was very blunt with people, in a way that at the time I would have categorized as "unkind" and therefore a sin. I've since learned that Jesus Christ is not only the Lamb, he is also the Lion (Rev. 5:5–6).

    (Actually, that's why Aslan is one of my favorite Christ figures—a character who could bite your head off, but instead he gives you lion kisses. Gentleness is meaningless unless the person has the power to hurt you as well.)

    It seems that Judas, the pharisees, and the saducees all had this expectation problem. "He seems like the most valiant, loving, perfect man there is, just like a Messiah would be. But he heals on the Sabbath, so he can't be the one."

  10. My apologies if this is too off topic, but I read something by John Tvedtnes about the trial of Jesus that was really interesting, and I thought I'd post it here because it you might want to add it to your research for your novel. Regarding John 18:31 wherein the Jewish leaders say, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death," Tvedtnes says,

    Many have misconstrued this to mean that the Romans had taken from the Jews the right of capital punishment. Such was not the case, however, for Rome merely superimposed its law on the laws of native peoples whom it conquered. There is clear evidence that Jews guilty of crimes meriting capital punishment could be condemned and executed by Jewish courts, as always. (Source)

    He supports that assertion in the footnotes:

    Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews 14.9.3, notes that in his day, the Sanhedrin had the power to condemn a man to death. This was but a few decades after Jesus' death, when Judaea was still under Roman rule. In addition, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4-9, 11), describing the Sanhedrin's operations in the days of the Second Temple, gives a list of capital crimes and very exact (and gruesome) details of the different types of execution, where they were performed, how, and by whom, under Jewish law. Finally, we have the evidence of Acts 7, where Stephen was condemned and executed by the Jews, not the Romans.

    I read Gerald Lund's Kingdom and the Crown series (and loved it!). In the last book, he uses this traditional interpretation to explain all of the Sanhedrin's machinations in the last week of the Savior's life. But now I wonder whether that's the most accurate way to portray it.

    I find Brother Tvedtnes's idea fascinating because it completely uproots my previous understanding of why all the scheming by the Sanhedrin was going on. It leaves me wondering what a fictional account of the crucifixion would be like if other motivations were identified and written into the plot (and Tvedtnes suggests some in his article).

  11. Your point is correct, but it's also true that Caiaphas' father-in-law was deposed specifically because of performing capital punishment based upon the Torah (i.e. for religious reasons) rather than Roman law. This was expressly forbidden, and I think John (who I know and have worked with) would concur. For this reason Caiaphas and Annas would have been particularly sensitive to the idea of going forward with capital punishment without the express consent of Rome, i.e., Pontius Pilate.

  12. Thank you. I needed to read this today. I have been struggling with sadness over several family members who have intellectually apostatized. It breaks my heart, but what you say is true - the reasons they proclaim aloud are just their "exit story," and the real reasons lie under the surface and involve misplaced expectation or pride or sin. :(