Postponing Heaven: The Three Nephites, the Bodhisattva, and the Mahdi

At the end of August 2007, I attended a conference in Sibiu, Romania: "Religious Metaphors and Philosophical Concepts." The conference was followed by a one-week summer course on the same topic at the Bancoveanu Monastery in the village of Sambata de Sus in the Fagaras Mountains.

The topic was good. The presenters were excellent, including John Milbank (University of Nottingham) and Jean-Yves Lacoste (Cambridge University). There was also someone I'd not heard of before, Jad Hatem (St. Joseph's University, Beirut).

After an interesting two days in Sibiu, a young and earnest graduate student (Paul Terec) drove me in his car to the monastery. I settled in and then went for the first night's dinner in the refectory. The entrance to the refectory was narrow, requiring us to line up to get in, and as we were lined up I heard someone behind me talking about Mormons.

I couldn't hear what the person behind me was saying, but I heard the word Mormons several times and began to prepare for some sort of problem, at least a tense moment when it became clear that I am LDS. I'm not naturally paranoid, but my experience with other academics concerning Mormonism has seldom begun with them thinking good of it.

On entering, we lined up on two sides of long tables, and when I came to my place I found myself directly opposite the person whom I'd heard speaking. "Oh well," I thought. "Might as well take care of this at the beginning." We then went around the table, each person introducing himself. When I introduced myself and said, "I'm from Brigham Young University," the fellow across the table from me stood up, reached across to hug me, and said "BYU! I love Mormons."

Needless to say I was surprised. I hadn't expected overt hostility, but I'd expected that kind of response perhaps even less.

The person who had welcomed me so enthusiastically was Professor Jad Hatem. We talked over dinner and afterward, and as we talked he told me of a book that he had recently published, Les Trois Néphites, le Bodhisattva et le Mahdî (Editions du Cygne, 2007). It was difficult for me to believe that a philosopher from Lebanon had heard enough about Mormons to write about us at all, much less to write about a topic like the Three Nephites.

The story of the Three Nephites is in the Book of Mormon. There, three of Jesus' disciples on the American continents desire to remain on the earth so that, as Jesus says to them, "ye might bring the souls of men unto me while the world shall stand" (3 Ne. 28:9). He grants them that blessing:

Ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven. And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father. And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me . . . . (3 Nephi 28:7-9)

Most academic discussions of the Three Nephites are discussions of them as folklore, stories of strangers who appear from nowhere to help those in need. Sometimes they change a flat tire. Sometimes they deliver food. They often appear as hitchhikers. And as soon as they've done their good deed, they disappear.

The folklore is an expansion of the promised blessing. Jesus says nothing to the three disciples about fixing flat tires. Rather than ordinary good deeds, he says they will work to bring souls to Christ. In spite of that the folklore is what most people think of when they think of the Three Nephites, and I wouldn't want to deny that ordinary good deeds can be a large part of what bringing souls to Christ involves.

But Professor Hatem said he had given a philosophical and theological analysis of the story of the Three Nephites as it appears in the Book of Mormon. After dinner he gave me a copy of his little volume, and the combination of jet lag and curiosity—and the need to refer often to my French dictionary—kept me up until breakfast the next morning.

I wasn't much good during the next day's lectures, but I was excited by Professor Hatem's book. Though not LDS, Professor Hatem had read the Book of Mormon carefully. He understood it and he understood Mormonism, and he offered an original analysis of that passage in the Book of Mormon, arguing that we must understand the Three Nephites as people, like the bodhisattva and the Mahdî, who sacrifice their existence not by dying but by consecrating their existence to others. Whereas Christ died for others, making it possible to return to the Father, the Three Nephites are preserved to bring the rest of humanity to God.