There are a number of references in the scriptures that refer to the chains with which Satan binds God’s children. I am limiting what I address here to Alma’s description of the chains of hell as found in Alma 12.
Nothing God creates is created until first there is a law put in place that governs what will be created. Likewise, all that God does is governed by the laws he has first put into place to govern all actions for His children in whatever sphere he has placed them.
What we call the plan of salvation is the complete set of laws governing all things having to do with the mortal experience of His children. This set of laws includes all the covenants available to His children that will enable them to return to His presence. It also includes all the responsibilities, blessings, and punishments associated with the appointed Redeemer and the sacrifice (atonement) he would make on behalf of all the rest of God’s children.
One of these laws governs the dissemination or the dispensing of knowledge of God’s plan and His purposes. Read Alma 12:9 below then we will look at what it is telling us. This is an explanation of part of the plan of salvation being given to Zeezrom, the lawyer, in the city of Ammonihah.
9 And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to the of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.
It is important to remember that all things spiritual are hidden by God from the human mind. No mortal can discover, nor comprehend the things of God without that knowledge being given to him/her by the Spirit. Only by the Spirit can we receive the knowledge of heavenly principles and heavenly things. And only by the Spirit can we understand them. The purpose of the Spirit is to enlighten our minds with the light of truth. By enlightening our minds we are able to come to a knowledge of the personality and character of God. These spiritual truths are the mysteries of God.
The mysteries of God were never meant to remain mysteries. God wants us to know them, but they can only be revealed to us through the exercise of our belief and faith. Without belief and faith we remain in the darkness of ignorance. Verse nine tells us that those to whom the mysteries of God have been revealed are allowed to share that information only with those who have demonstrated belief and faith, “according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.” The “him” in that sentence refers to God.
How much will He reveal?
In the Old Testament, the verses referring to Pharaoh and Moses were translated incorrectly. Time and again the current version of the Bible states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against the words of Moses. Joseph Smith, in the JST (Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible) corrects all these verses to state that it was not God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh, himself.
God does not violate anyone’s agency. We choose whether or not we will believe something. When we choose to believe the word of God the scriptures refer to us having a softened heart. When we choose to refute or fight against what we are told by our choosing to not believe, the scriptures refer to us as having hardened our hearts. Why is that?
There is something about the act of refusing knowledge given us by God that makes it more difficult for us to understand anything else given us by God. When we choose to believe what we are taught, the opposite happens, and we are more able to understand the things of God. The process is an addition and subtraction action. Belief adds to our ability to understand and comprehend. Disbelief subtracts from our ability to understand and comprehend.
Verse 10 tells us what happens to us spiritually when we choose to believe or disbelieve knowledge given us from God.
10 And therefore, he that will his heart, the same receiveth the portion of the word; and he that will harden his heart, to him is the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.
This rule of addition/subtraction is the law that governs how much God can and will give us to know about His own personality and character. Those who humble themselves and choose to believe what they are taught by God’s servants then live their lives in compliance with what they are taught, are given more. Those who harden their hearts and refuse to change their lives to conform to this new knowledge not only have what they were just given to them taken away so they cannot understand it, but what they already know of God and His ways will slowly be stripped from them as well. If they persist in the hardness of their hearts they will be left with no understanding at all of God’s attributes. The idea here is that to know God you have to become like Him. He gives us knowledge of His divine attributes only as quickly as we are willing to accept them and put them to use in our own lives.
In mortality there are only two directions our agency can take us. Either we subject ourselves to the will of God, or we subject ourselves to the will of God’s enemy, Satan, the devil. It is important to accept that there is no other option. All the laws of mortality lead us to one or the other of these two ideological camps. There is no third option. This is why we refer to our agency as moral agency. All the decisions we make in mortality contribute to our acceptance of either the good God offers us or the evil Satan offers us.
Because all of our behavioral choices in mortality lead either toward or away from God, Alma is able to say the following to Zeezrom in verse 11.
11 And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser of the word until they 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 of .
The chains explained
Reading and writing serves as a great example for the chains Alma refers to. For centuries in the early years of the Christian church, the only ones in Europe who were able to read and write were the wealthy. Books were very expensive, so only the very wealthy and those in the priesthood of the Catholic church learned how to read and write. There is power in knowledge.
The priests of a congregation were the only ones who could read the scriptures. Everyone else had to go to the priest for explanations about what the scriptures meant. Because the priest was often the only one in the area who could read and write, whatever the priest told them was considered as “gospel.” No one argued with the church’s interpretation of the scriptures. If you disagreed you ran the risk of being condemned by the church and possibly excommunicated, which was like a social death sentence.
It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that more people could get their hands on books and learn to read and write. With the advent of the masses learning to think for themselves, the birth of the Reformation went into full swing. The Catholic church lost its control over the people. Why? Because they were now able to read for themselves and form their own opinions and could comprehend for themselves the truths of the bible. And their opinions were often very different from what their priests had been teaching them for the last thousand years.
The people who lived in darkness, because they were ignorant and couldn’t read or write, were at the mercy of those who had the knowledge. They were chained down by their own lack of understanding. This put all the power into the hands of those who were educated. They could make the masses believe almost anything they wanted them to believe and to do almost anything they wanted them to do.
This same principle of the educated vs. the uneducated applies to all of us in spiritual matters. When we harden our hearts and the Lord takes away our understanding, eventually we are left to be so ignorant of spiritual truths that Satan can lead us wherever he wants. His lies become our truths, because we can’t understand the eternal truths we rejected. He can make us do almost anything he wants us to do. Remember that the Lord only strips us of our understanding when we refuse to believe what we are taught, and refuse to conform our lives to the teachings He gives us. It is we who have shut out the Holy Ghost, He who gives us understanding. So it is not God’s fault that we do not comprehend spiritual things, it is ours.
The belief in Satan’s lies are the chains of hell. Those who believe the truths God reveals are not able to be bound by Satan’s lies. Only those who reject God’s truths are subject to be ruled by Satan’s whims and fancies. Satan’s lies always lead to misery and sorrow, while God’s truths provide us with the best way to feel lasting peace and joy. These paths paint the perfect picture of the personalities at play here. Satan is miserable, and wants everyone to be as miserable as he is, and God lives in perfect joy, and wants all of His children to share in that same joy.
Part of the plan of salvation requires that we be resurrected so we can be brought back into God’s presence (the Savior’s presence, not the Father’s) to be judged according to the moral choices we made during mortality.
There are two deaths possible. The first death is what we all experience when our spirits leave our mortal bodies to go into the spirit world. The mortal body returns to the earth from which it came and the spirit awaits the day of resurrection. If a person dies having chosen evil all their days, rather than righteousness, and then doesn’t repent in the spirit world, it won’t go well for them in the day of their resurrection.
When we obey the truths revealed to us in mortality we are said to live in the Spirit. That means we are alive as to the knowledge of God. We are enlightened by eternal truths. And we need to understand that when I say enlightened, I mean there is a physical and spiritual light that infuses our soul. This is the same light that gives God His glory and makes Him a being of light. God, and all those like Him live in everlasting burnings – not the fire we talk about in the descriptions of hell, but glorious light, like the sun, only brighter.
Those who reject the truths that make up the mysteries of God will live not in fire, but in relative spiritual darkness. Those who qualify as sons of perdition will live in complete darkness for eternity, for there will be a complete absence of light and truth.
Alma teaches us that those who reject spiritual truth in mortality, and don’t repent of their sins, die a second kind of death, a spiritual death (Alma 12:16–17). (Until Christ came, knowledge of the spirit world and the degrees of glory was very limited, if understood at all. I believe this is the reason our latter-day understanding of the spirit world and the degrees of glory is so different from the hell portrayed in all the scriptures written before Christ’s time. During the entire period of time from Adam down to Christ’s day there was no missionary work taking place in the spirit world, so there was no need for the prophets to know much about it. As a result, when they talk about what happens when someone chooses righteousness or wickedness, and what happens after we die, they completely skip over the person’s time in the spirit world and go directly to the resurrection. Their doctrine isn’t wrong, it is just missing some key elements we now possess as part of the restoration of all things.)
16 And now behold, I say unto you then cometh a death, even a second , which is a spiritual death; then is a time that whosoever dieth in his sins, as to a temporal , shall also a spiritual death; yea, he shall die as to things pertaining unto righteousness.
17 Then is the time when their torments shall be as a of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever; and then is the time that they shall be chained down to an everlasting destruction, according to the power and captivity of Satan, he having subjected them according to his will.
Note that it is their torment that is as a lake of fire and brimstone. Even when they are sent to their kingdom of glory, having earned such a kingdom by having kept their first estate, they will always know that they could have had so much more had they been willing to soften their hearts and humble themselves before the Lord and accept his sacrifice in their behalf.
Those for whom the atonement of Christ cannot be applied, because of their rejection of his sacrifice, will have to pay for their own sins the best they can. Satan has won the battle to keep them forever out of the presence of God. In a very real sense Satan has chained them and captivated them according to his will. He convinced them in mortality to reject God and His teachings, and as a result was able to gain power over them. In this sense he has captivated them for eternity, even though all but the sons of perdition will eventually be forgiven and released from hell and given a kingdom of glory.
The power play
It really is true that whomever we obey gains power over us. This is the mortal way. If we obey God then the Spirit guides us and teaches us of the things of God. If we harden our hearts by refusing truth when it is presented to us, Satan gains that power over us and he becomes that voice in our head that leads us down to destruction. But it is always our choice. We choose whom we will listen to and obey. And since there are only two choices, it is clear that if it is not God who is directing us then it must be Satan.
So the chains of hell refers to the state of ignorance of spiritual things that gives Satan power to rule over us and command us in all things. We choose who we listen to. We choose whom we obey. One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we can be self directed, that we don’t have to listen to anyone but ourselves. If we listen to God and choose to obey and accept the light and knowledge of spiritual things He offers us then we have the freedom to think for ourselves and are expected to learn to reason and choose to do good and be righteous on our own. We learn to become independent, like God.
If we harden our hearts and refuse what God is offering us then all that is left is to be swept along by the temptations and demands of the devil, to do his will and suffer as he suffers. If we refuse to believe God’s truths then the only option for us is to believe and follow Satan’s lies.
The changes from light to dark, from being ignorant to enlightened, happen gradually, and can be reversed at any time. Our Father in Heaven has great patience. He presents us with opportunity after opportunity to repent and turn to Him. We can choose to follow Christ at any time. There is never just one chance. Our Father and our Redeemer want us to be happy, and that can only happen when we accept and obey the laws that bring happiness.
Those who are not currently on the covenant path can still get on that path. They can still enjoy the fruits of righteous living. The timer does not run out until we are resurrected and then it is everlastingly too late to change our mind. But in the meantime, whether here or in the spirit world, there is hope. So don’t give up on friends or family members who are having difficulty choosing to believe and conform to the truths of the gospel. Our Father is constantly working on them to help them make better choices. In the meantime, we need to be serving, loving, accepting, and setting a good example so they are enticed to choose good over evil.