Smith argues that the Book of Mormon makes heavy use of a “heavenly ascent” motif, and that Jacob’s sermons in 2 Nephi 9-10 suggest that he viewed the plan of salvation through the lens of that motif, outlining the means by which we can return to the presence of God.
In this article Skyler Smith describes the religious motif of a “heavenly ascent”—the process of returning to the presence of God. He sees this as an overarching concept encompassing a variety of theophany and temple-related experiences, wherein individuals are ritually trained to ascend to God (e.g., in the temple) or personally ascend to God’s presence. Smith indicates this motif can be identified using a specific literary pattern, which includes:
- A two-part literary structure, where an initial divine experience is followed by a descent to the mortal world, followed by a step-by-step ascension back to God.
- The reception of light, knowledge, and mysteries during the process of ascent, including the revelation of secret knowledge.
- A cleansing process where those ascending are ritually purified, often in connection with covenant-making.
- The use of prayer to communicate with God and approach God following the mortal descent.
- The presence of heavenly messengers that facilitate the steps of ascension and serve on the divine council.
- Entering God’s presence, wherein mortals are brought face-to-face with God and converse with him, sometimes in connection with judgment motifs.
Scholars have noted examples of this pattern within the Book of Mormon, and Smith sees suggestions that Mormon himself structured the book around the idea of heavenly ascent (e.g., his use of the phrase “seen and heard," which some have identified with the ascent motif), with both early and late passages in the book discussing theophany-related experiences. In discussing these experiences, Smith outlines potential ascent events and references among the following prophetic figures:
- Lehi, whose prophetic call aligns well with heavenly ascent motifs.
- Nephi, son of Helaman, where Nephi is addressed by God in the presence of angels, and in connection with the temple.
- The Brother of Jared, being removed from God’s presence following the Tower of Babel, and ascending both physically and spiritually until he is able to withstand God’s physical presence.
- Nephi, son of Lehi, who indicates knowledge of God’s mysteries, and whose visionary experiences mirror heavenly ascent motifs. Nephi’s closing statement that he will be present at his reader’s judgment also suggests that he will be part of the divine council.
Smith places particular focus on 2 Nephi 9-10, using it to make a case for connecting heavenly ascent motifs with references to the “plan of redemption”. He suggests that Nephi instructed Jacob to give this sermon, and ultimately included it in his own writings, in part because of their joint theophanies of Christ, allowing them both to serve as witnesses of heavenly ascent and to invite others to have similar experiences. After giving an overview of Jacob’s sermon, Smith works to connect the content of that sermon to the pattern of heavenly ascent. This happens through:
- Referencing the Abrahamic covenant, which could be seen as reference to Israel’s past theophany experiences and prior connection to God, describing the two-part structure of the plan of redemption (i.e., a fall from God’s presence, and a way prepared to return us to that presence, including a discussion of the resurrection. This ascent is presented in contrast with the concept of a “hellish descent” as an alternative pathway to the plan of redemption.
- Jacob’s repeated reference to God’s name, which may be alluding to light and knowledge obtained through a divine council experience.
- A reference to repentance and baptism (as well as other aspects of the doctrine of Christ) as means of spiritual purification prior to inheriting God’s kingdom, allowing victory over death and hell. This victory was celebrated by Israel as part of a temple-oriented New Year Feast, which may explain Jacob’s repeated references to hell in the sermon. Also Jacob’s reference to shaking his garments, which could be connected to the High Priest garment and the concept of ritual ascent on the Day of Atonement.
- An injunction to pray continually, as well as reference to divine judgment, with both motifs tied to being worthy of God’s presence.
- The involvement of angels who help (or, in the case of the devil’s angels, hinder) people on the path back to God.
- An emphasis on the return to God’s presence, a theme made potentially more significant by the sermon’s connections to 2 Nephi 31-32, which scholars have connected to the Day of Atonement, and which incorporates themes and rituals of ascent. Jacob’s quotation of Isaiah, wherein Israel is admonished seven times to come to the Lord, helps reinforce this motif. Smith suggests that in the latter half of the sermon, Jacob discusses geographical and spiritual aspects of the covenant promises to build confidence in the physical aspects of this ascension.
As Smith concludes:
“It is clear the sermon contains many phrases and concepts that may reflect heavenly ascent motifs. These heavenly ascent motifs are less likely a series of coincidences and more likely the product of a careful and purposeful design on the part of Jacob and his brother, Nephi… It can be gathered that the purpose of Jacob’s sermon is to teach listener’s about God’s plan to “save all men” (2 Nephi 9:21)… Considering these two conclusions together offers evidence that strongly indicates that Jacob viewed the plan of salvation in terms of a heavenly ascent model.”
Given that the path of heavenly ascent is something all of us will ultimately need to follow to return to God’s presence, it’s pretty handy to have as many scriptural examples of that ascent as we do. Of course, it’s one thing for the scriptures to outline a general pathway back to God, and another for its authors to be consciously implementing a specific literary motif, but Smith presents enough specific evidence to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. I look forward to re-reviewing this evidence in a few weeks once we make our way back to 2 Nephi 9 as part of Come, Follow Me.