What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
Having been raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was taught the key doctrines of the faith—along with various teachings that were not necessarily true, though I accepted them as such in my youth. This was the case with one of the most central issues in our theology—the catalyst for choosing Christ over Satan. I’m referring to the “war on agency” waged by Lucifer, God’s fallen son.
It wasn’t until I read a book called Satan’s War on Free Agency several years ago that I realized I had not correctly understood this foundational event. Taking certain statements by church leaders at face value, I had believed that Satan wanted to force us to be good, and that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ wanted to allow us our agency to choose to be good.
Reading the book, however, I realized that since the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ there have been contradictory statements made by church leaders suggesting, perhaps, some confusion on this topic—certainly there was not consensus. For example, then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson taught, “The central issue in that premortal council was: Shall the children of God have untrammeled agency to choose the course they should follow, whether good or evil, or shall they be coerced and forced to be obedient? Christ and all who followed Him stood for the former proposition—freedom of choice; Satan stood for the latter—coercion and force” (emphasis added).
Other quotes from church leaders exist suggesting disagreement on this position. Questioning “whether the intelligence of man can be compelled,” President J. Reuben Clark said, “As I read the scriptures, Satan’s plan required one of two things: either the compulsion of the mind, the spirit, the intelligence of man, or else saving men in sin” (emphasis added). Questioning the former, it’s clear he was suggesting a stronger case for the latter.
The Church’s own approved literature suggests a diverging view of the common “force” narrative; one Institute manual notes, “Most people think that [Satan] would have forced us to do right, but that is only one possibility. Certain conditions are necessary if we are to have agency… Satan might have destroyed our agency by eliminating any one of those [conditions] and he is still trying to destroy our agency using the same techniques of deception and lies” (emphasis added).
What are those conditions? Understanding how agency works will help us understand how Satan sought—and seeks—to undermine it. Agency requires three things: options to choose from, freedom to choose, and consequence for the choice. Like a three-legged stool, agency can be weakened or destroyed (in theory) by attacking any one of the three.
Let’s also establish an important point: no scripture mentions Satan forcing people to be righteous. Further, we read that Lucifer told Heavenly Father, “I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost.” Consider this question: if Lucifer intended to coerce obedience to God, then why did he propose to redeem us? Redemption would not be necessary under a system of compulsory obedience. This admission on Satan’s part makes clear that his proposal included options to choose from, and the freedom to choose—the two conditions that would make redemption necessary at all.
It therefore follows that Satan’s proposal sought to undermine the third: consequence for the choice.
This becomes a logical understanding of Satan’s strategy when you compare his pre-mortal proposal to his actions today. If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, it’s worth pondering whether the same is true of Satan. Wouldn’t he be attempting to do today what he did then? Nobody believes that Satan is trying to force us to obey God today; why do we believe he attempted it eons ago?
Imagine Satan addressing the hosts of heaven, whether individually or collectively, in an attempt to build support for his proposal. Do we honestly believe that trillions (or more) of God’s children would get excited about being forced into compliance? Coercion naturally evokes resistance; it would be impossible to build a popular campaign on a platform of widespread compulsion. It’s almost laughable to picture Satan at a pre-mortal pep rally, shouting to the masses, “Follow me, and I will force you to be good!” It simply does not ring true.
What does seem viable is Satan encouraging people to follow him so they could do what they wanted to do and be held harmless. Consider the state of affairs during the time of the restoration, in which God notes that people “seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, after the image of his own God.” This is an environment in which Satan finds success.
In other words, Satan proposed exempting us from the consequences of choice—eating, drinking, and being merry, while still being redeemed in the end. Satan wanted to save everybody, regardless of their choices.
This is appealing. It’s definitely a platform that would lead away the hearts of the hosts of heaven. And it’s exactly how we see Satan operating in scripture.
Think of the secret combinations in the Book of Mormon gaining power and then replacing the laws of God with the “laws of wickedness“—committing “all manner of wickedness and whoredoms” and getting away with it, or so they thought. The corrupt Nephites in Ammonihah “did not believe in the repentance of their sins” and had to be taught that “the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins” (emphasis added). They had come to embrace Satan’s model, believing that they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.
Satan gave Korihor a message which he regurgitated to others, offering a false philosophy in which he led 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—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.” Korihor clearly was not compelling obedience to the Nephite faith; his campaign was a consequence-free lifestyle.
Nephi noted that “there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin… there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” Minimization of accountability—dodging the consequence—is part and parcel of Satan’s strategy.
We cannot fight an enemy we do not understand; resisting Satan requires knowing he exists and how he operates. Satan wants to deceive us to overthrow us. Misunderstanding his motives is an effective sleight of hand; if we don’t see him coming, his chance of success increases.
Whatever the reason that the “force” model has persisted as a belief regarding how Satan attracted a third of God’s children, I find it lacking both in scriptural support, personal observation, and logic. A being who “stirreth [us] up to iniquity against that which is good” is not interested in compulsory obedience. The reality is, I think, obvious: the Enemy of God wants us to make bad choices, and tempts us into doing so by leading us to believe that we will not one day be held accountable for our actions.