Epistemic Distance and Book of Mormon Historicity

The problem for Book of Mormon historicity is not simply the lack of conclusive evidence. LDS apologists admit, at least begrudgingly, that there is not conclusive evidence for a historical Book of Mormon. But I’m going one level deeper. My argument is that there cannot be conclusive evidence, and this creates difficulties for the Mormon God.

And not just a single conclusive piece of evidence (which may very well be extremely difficult to find for anything), but enough conjectural evidence to tip the scales in favor of objective existence. God can’t allow it. For if there were such abundant evidences that historians could discover for the Book of Mormon that would place it in the secular annals of history, it would disrupt God’s plan. Free agency and faith would be frustrated. I will again repeat Dr. Hamblin: “To accept the Book of Mormon as history requires accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet and Jesus as the Christ.” Is there anything else in the history of archaeology or anthropology that by discovering it requires you to accept a person as a true prophet of God, or to accept another as God? Not remotely, to my knowledge.

The historical reality of the Book of Mormon is intimately and directly tied to matters of faith. And as matters of faith they demand to remain matters of faith. Too much evidence in their favor would out them as realities, would prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that Jesus is the Christ. And so the reality of Book of Mormon historicity must remain just outside the realm of objective historical reality. To quote Daniel C. Peterson,

We live in a world where answers to the question of whether to accept the claims of the Restoration or not, or even whether we should believe in God or not, are “underdetermined” by the publicly available evidence. Seeming evidence exists on either side, but there’s no agreed-upon proof, not enough evidence to force a decision.

Inescapably, though, we must still decide.

This is, I think, is [sic] deliberate. It’s vital to the divine design of mortality as a testing ground.

And again in another place:

Well, why would the Lord do this? I think it’s partly because of what the philosopher, the British philosopher, John Hick, calls ‘epistemic distance’, the idea that God deliberately withholds things from us to allow us freedom. It’s very much what Latter Day Saints call, “the veil”, okay? This veil is dropped. We don’t know everything. We have a sense of things. We have a kind of feel for the way things are and ought to be, but we don’t know very clearly and so we are left in this life to walk by faith

Now, my argument would be that clear proofs would destroy the plan of salvation. There’s a necessity for the veil. We have to be left here to where we don’t know but we sense and feel certain things.

And Terryl Givens repeats the same thing:

An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.

I could find many more quotes from apologists who repeat this same mantra, that God deliberately withholds evidence, clear proofs, a preponderance of evidence, enough evidence to force a decision, to give us freedom to believe and so that we may have faith.

How the Book of Mormon could be legitimate discoverable history, while at the same time preserving freedom of faith and agency, this is what I don’t understand. LDS apologists claim that a historical Book of Mormon is a legitimate academic discipline, that these evidences can be studied just as any other academic field. But by their own admission (see Hamblin above), Book of Mormon historicity is fundamentally a matter of faith.

It’s not the same case as the Bible, where a preponderance of archaeological evidence for the historical reality of the person Solomon, or the place Bethlehem, would require us to believe that a particular person is a true prophet, or in his God. No. So how do you solve that paradox for the Book of Mormon? I can think of only two solutions. One is that God has to hide just enough evidence that, if discovered, would lead most historians and scholars to believe in the reality of Book of Mormon history (Hick’s so-called “epistemic distance”). Or, the Book of Mormon is not historical. Is there another option?

So then the question becomes this—is epistemic distance, when it involves changing the natural world, a moral or immoral attribute of God? Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins seem to think that if God has to hide the evidence from us, essentially be a deceiver of the natural world, engaged in subterfuge, that this God is not one worthy of our worship:

[F]or these claims to be true, God would have had to engage in massive subterfuge… This image of God as a cosmic trickster seems to be the ultimate admission of defeat for the Creationist perspective. Would God as the great deceiver be an entity one would want to worship? Is this consistent with everything else we know about God from the Bible, from the Moral Law, and from every other source—namely, that He is loving, logical, and consistent?

Again, it seems that if there is any evidence, or combination of evidences, that would lead us to know with any degree of certainty the Book of Mormon’s historical claims, God would have to hide this evidence from us in order to preserve our freedom. He either didn’t allow it to be created in the first place, destroyed it, or is actively blocking our ability to discover or interpret it. In other words, in our reality this evidence can not exist. I can’t imagine any other possibility in claiming a historical Book of Mormon.

Do I doubt a God of subterfuge, deceit, and cosmic trickery? I do.


One thought on “Epistemic Distance and Book of Mormon Historicity

  1. You must be an atheist… Bc obviously all God has to do is show himself to us… Why is he hiding? Isn’t he withholding the most basic evidence? Doesn’t that in and of itself make God a charlatan, irregardless of everything you have written on this site???


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