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The Chains of Hell: What They Are and How to Avoid Them
One morning, while studying the scriptures, a certain concept began to materialize and congeal within my mind. Alma, whom I consider a philosopher-king, induced this. Near the outset of Alma 5, the prophet wanted his audience to remember all the Lord had done for their fathers and how He led them out of bondage. Although these deliverances, noted by Alma, were physical in nature, he also honed in on the spiritual reformation that occurred, which served as the catalyst for these events. This suggests that before temporal deliverance occurs, a spiritual transformation must precede it. For Alma, in order for the physical captivity to end, the “chains of hell” must be loosened first.
What exactly are the chains of hell that Alma incessantly harped on? He reveals the definition pertaining to the “chains of hell” later in the book, namely Alma 12.
And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell. 1
The two previous verses offer some informative commentary about two important concepts pertaining to the mysteries of God. The first concept shows that “It is given to many to know the mysteries of God…”2 However, these “are laid under a strict command” and are only conveyed once adherents of the Gospel accept and apply the “portion” of God’s word already granted.3 Once adherents incorporate that which they have received, they only receive more if they strive to obtain higher knowledge like Abraham and many other prophets did. Then, like Abraham and others, believers will eventually know all the mysteries of God, knowing them “in full.”4 The second concept reveals that those who “harden their hearts” obtain a lesser portion of the word, unless they change their ways and move toward the light. If they fail to do so, they eventually know nothing concerning God’s mysteries. Lacking this important knowledge leaves one prey to the devil. Since a person’s mind is darkened by ignorance, Satan easily subjugates him, having more knowledge than he does concerning spiritual matters. This type of ignorance is the “deep sleep” or the “sleep of hell” many prophets warned about.5 What is interesting about Alma’s sermon is that there is no middle ground: a person is either progressing or regressing.
Returning to Alma’s discourse on the captivity of the fathers, he too noted that the people were in a “deep sleep” and encompassed about by the “chains of hell.”6 These people, under the reign of King Noah, were enamored with luxury and riotous living, requiring Abinadi to testify against these things. The consequences of such amenities and lifestyles, when people set their hearts on them, blinds them spiritually.7 It appears that they do not perceive much else than the activities requisite to appease their carnal appetites. This striving for material goods and gain appears to distort man’s natural abilities to reason correctly, with reason being the defining attribute that separates man from other lifeforms. Joseph Smith understood that once man abandons this unique trait for material gain, he is no better than the beasts of the field: “If a man learns nothing more than to eat, drink and sleep, and does not comprehend any of the designs of God, the beast comprehends the same things.”8 The only thing to keep the ultimate darkness from closing in are the words of eternal life. Hence, with the word of truth being taught, “their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word.”9
Alma tells us that the “bands of death” were broken with the truths taught by Abinadi.10 If you will recall his message was a recounting of the basic principles of the Gospel to King Noah and his priests. There was nothing advanced conveyed, which is why Alma said the “chains of hell” were simply loosened and not broken.11 However, Alma does say in the next verse that both the “bands of death” and the “chains of hell” were loosened. Why would Alma simply switch from saying “broken” in verse 9 to “loosen” in verse 10 concerning the “bands of death?” Although the adherents of the truth escaped death by being delivered, death could encompass them once again if they decided to stagnate their growth and rest on their laurels. Thus, the “bands of death” are always lurking in the dark, waiting to encompass those who allow their minds to be darkened. Furthermore, the “chains of hell” are never stated to be broken and are ever looming in the shadows. Their loosening permitted adherents spiritual growing room, meaning that there is still quite a bit more to learn.
Given that Abinadi and Alma the Elder taught the first principles of the Gospel, what else is there to learn? A close reading of the Book of Alma reveals that there is indeed so much more. Alma tells us that there is another set of commandments, calling them the “second commandments.”12 What is interesting is that this verse immediately precedes Alma 13 and his discourse on the “second commandments.” Also, Paul’s message to the Hebrews alludes that these types of commandments are the ones that lead to perfection:
Therefore not leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And we will go on unto perfection, if God permit. 13
Both Alma and Paul suggest that once believers accept the principle doctrines of Christ, they must be willing to move higher, building upon that which they received and not be content with repeatedly rehashing over and harping on the milk of the Gospel.14 Instead, these prophets enjoined us to “go on unto perfection.” It should be noted that the Lord himself commanded the same, after laying once again the basic foundation.15 However, if believers should reject this command and vacillate, both Paul and Alma tell us the consequences. Each prophet recounted the details about the “first provocation.”16 The “first provocation” denotes an event in which the Israelites refused to move up spiritually but desired to stay on the lower rungs of the Gospel, eventually leading to the only Melchizedek priest, Moses, being taken out of their midst; they hardened their hearts and many died in the wilderness because of it. They sated their desire for more knowledge.
To avoid the “chains of hell,” believers must seek to increase their capacity for light daily. They should never be satisfied where they are at, for doing so leads to complacency and makes them a soft target for the devil and his flaxen cord.
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. And again, verily I say unto you, and I say it that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you. 17
Notice the more light we receive for ourselves, the closer the day of perfection is. Also, this is the course necessary to “chase darkness” away. Once we stop, the darkness closes in.
Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation. 18
From what I have gathered, individuals should be pursuing knowledge continuously. In my own case, I believe that striving to master the Book of Mormon is the first preliminary to hurdle; without doing such, other truths will be hard to discern, whether higher spiritual principles or secular ones.
And when they shall have received this [the Book of Mormon], which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation. Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people. 19
As I have striven to do this and have sought learning out of the best books—note just as Hugh Nibley stated the scriptures give no syllabus—the Lord truly has staved off the “chains of hell.”20 With this stated, this information is only scratching the surface. Another post is in order to provide more information on this vital topic.
3 Nephi 26:9-11 cf. D&C 84:54-60
Alma 5:7 cf. 2 Nephi 1:13, Genesis 15:12, Proverbs 19:15-16, Isaiah 29:10
Psalms 115:4-8 (KJV)
Joseph Smith, The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 343.
Hebrews 6:1-3 JST
Hebrews 5:12-14 (KJV)
Matthew 5:48 (KJV) cf. 3 Nephi 12:48
Hebrews 3:8-19 cf. Numbers 14:2-23, D&C 84:23-25, 1 Nephi 17:30-31
3 Nephi 26:9–11
D&C 88:118; 109:7, 14