The Parable of the Helicopter

Nathan Richardson

Recap: My friend wouldn’t pray about the Book of Mormon because it was hard for him to trust subjective experiences like revelation. I told him that there might not ever be sufficient empirical evidence in our lifetimes to prove it true. Why wait, if the Lord had provided another means of knowing, namely personal revelation? He said he would willingly forego the blessings of accepting it because he wanted to be shown by rational, scientific methods.
If you found a lost city full of unlimited treasures, how would you help others find it? In my case, I just suggested they use the same route I used—air travel.

Once a helicopter pilot was flying over a huge, mountainous wilderness area surrounded by miles of sheer cliffs, unstable glaciers, and turbulent canyon rivers. Suddenly he saw an ancient city hidden among the trees. When he landed and explored it, he found that it was full of fabulous wealth and resources—gold and gems, fields of grain and fruit, works of art, libraries of wisdom, invaluable medicines, fine lumber, intricate devices, and other wonders in unlimited supply.

He knew that anyone could gain from coming to this city and retrieving the resources they needed. He told his friend about it so that she too could go visit the lost city and benefit from having access to it.

She asked the pilot, “How do you know this city exists?”

He replied, “Because I’ve been there myself. You can know too—just go and visit it.”

“Tell me how to get to this lost city you’ve been talking about. I’d really like to go there.”

“Well, I got there by flying. I bet that’s the fastest way to get there.”

“Mmm, I don’t trust flying machines. Personally, I’m a hiker. Tell me how to get there by walking.”

The pilot paused. “I … I wouldn’t know. I didn’t hike there; I flew.”

The hiker said, “But surely there’s also a walkable route. After all, if the city is on the ground, we must be able to get there by ground travel.”

“Well, I can tell you it’s in that direction,” he said, pointing.

“Hmmm, I’ve explored the trails in that direction, and I’ve never seen any that go very far.”

So the pilot got out his surveying equipment and tried to find a navigable path to the lost city through the mountains, cliffs, glaciers, canyons, rivers, and forests. He even went up in his chopper occasionally to hunt for a route from the air. The search continued for a long time.

The hiking friend asked the pilot one day, “Haven’t you found that walkable route yet? How long do you think it will take?”

The pilot replied, “I don’t know that there is a walkable route. And even if there is one, it could take years to find it.”

“Well OK, just let me know when you find that route. Because that city sounds kind of interesting.”

“Why not just come to the city with me in my helicopter. You’d love the food, and they have some medicines that might make life easier for you.”

The hiker replied, “No, flying is unreliable and unsafe. I’ll just wait until it’s possible to walk there.” As many times as he invited his friend to take the helicopter directly there, she always refused, emphasizing her experience with trailblazing and the long-held reliability of hiking.

Extending the Analogy

That is where the parable would end, as far as things go with my friend—he’s classy enough to agree to disagree about epistemology and leave things at that. To carry the parable further, though, I would like to address other scenarios I have seen, in which the non-LDS person makes assertions about the Latter-day Saint’s knowledge.

Sometimes when Latter-day Saints explain why they believe, they are answered with critiques of how unscientific their approach is. Such a reply misses the point—we don’t claim that our knowledge of the Book of Mormon is scientific; we invite people to try a completely different way of discovering truth. Unfortunately, you can even find situations where a Latter-day Saint has been chafed by such a criticism and has decided to try basing their knowledge of the Book of Mormon on empirical methods, often resulting in disappointment or even disillusionment. Allow me to continue the parable.

Pedestrian Reasoning

If a helicopter can land you safely amidst a wealth of life-changing treasures, why insist on walking there instead?

Eventually the hiker tired of the pilot’s assurances and said, “You know, I doubt that lost city even exists.”

The pilot replied, “But I’ve been there myself!”

His friend responded, “Not really—you’ve only flown there. You haven’t walked there.”

Bewildered, the pilot began to explain how air travel worked, describing air foils and rotors and wind currents.

The hiker shook her head and chided, “What poor surveying techniques. Don’t you know how to use a level, or a plumb line, or a tripod? I bet you’ve never even heard of a theodolite. None of the the things you’ve mentioned have anything to do with travel methods.”

“Look, sureveying methods are very useful in their own right, but I’m talking about flying to the lost city.”

“Flying there isn’t really the same as going there.”

The pilot eventually began to believe the hiker. “Maybe I really haven’t ever been to that city. I mean after all, I’ve left no footprints to follow.” He decided that he wouldn’t return to the city again until it was by foot.

But as much as he searched, he never could blaze a trail that would cut all the way through the natural barriers around the city. Sometimes he thought he might be close, and that he could just see a glimpse of the city on the horizon, but every time he started down a promising route, it eventually ended at a cliff or a torrential river. Eventually he said, “You know what, I doubt that city really exists, too. After all, I’ve never hiked there.”


Now, please don’t misunderstand. I didn’t write this parable to be an air-tight philosophical defense of my epistemological position. It’s hardly that. Mostly, I just share it to convey how I felt when someone didn’t receive what I wanted to share. It saddened me, and it was hard to understand why he wasn’t willing to at least try out what I was telling him. That’s the main reason I wrote it.

There are a couple lessons I hope this parable conveys. For one thing, one reason the Lord provides revelation is that we live in a world where tangible evidences are not always available, or not available for the present time. In contrast, personal revelation is a source of knowledge available to each person in all ages, a source that God “giveth to all men liberally” (James 1:5).

Another message is this: one of the reasons the Lord sent us to earth was to learn how to follow his voice, to become acquainted with spiritual things in a way that was impossible when we lived in his direct presence. He wants us to know things the way he knows things, which includes “pure intelligence flowing into you.”2 In other words, we did not come to earth to learn how to hike; we came here to become pilots.


1. Neal A. Maxwell, Plain and Precious Things (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), p. 4.


2. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), p. 151.


  1. What a great parable! I can sure relate. My recent dialogs with evangelical Christians have been exactly as you have described in this and a couple of previous post. They don’t believe that I have received knowledge through non empirical methods. They say that my experiences are just too subjective, with no real objective reasoning that can be duplicated. Frustrating! Thanks for sharing.

  2. That is a good parable. It is kind of a hobby of mine to collect such stories. It is rare I find something like this that I haven’t heard already.

    I actually would have found it useful talking to an atheist I occasion to speak with. Unfortunately, he is not really open to discussion anymore. I think I was getting too close to rocking his world. I’m probably the first person he’s come across who is very religious that could rival his own knowledge of science and technology. It must have made him feel uncomfortable.

  3. How does one know that one is not being tricked by Satan? This is a very basic concern in medieval spiritual accounts. So I read the book of Mormon and I get this spiritual feeling. Does that actually tell me anything? Note that this issue would not apply to science. By bringing in this notion of spiritual knowledge you are opening up the can of worms of Satanic trickery in the first place.

  4. I met a south african fellow once. after he heard the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision, he told us something I will always remember: “A man with an experience should never be at the mercy of a man with an argument.”
    this man told us later that he had been muslim, but had had such an experience in a christian church once that he converted. having his own spiritual experience helped him to accept Joseph Smith’s experience.

    so yeah—while experience, especially the spiritual kind, is inevitably subjective, it’s also something nobody can really argue about. it’s personal. so it’s up to each person to do their own experiencing.

  5. I have a friend whose experience has been a bit different: he actually went up in the helicopter, and flew around for awhile, but never caught a glimpse of the lost city. Of course, I’m still pursuing the analogy, and the truth for my friend is much more sobering: he has not felt the confirmation of the Spirit, to teach him truths that he says he really _wanted_ to believe, when he was in the process of praying about it.

    Further, after his disappointing experience, he had friends who had been to the lost city who made (incorrect) claims that they can’t have known to be true, for example, that he somehow _wanted_ to not receive confirmation, that he didn’t try hard enough, or otherwise wasn’t receptive to the Spirit. I didn’t know him at the time, and can’t comment (nor do I think it would be my place), except to say that I find the fellow to be quite trustworthy. So, if he says he prayed earnestly and got no answer, I don’t know how to help him find the great treasure.

  6. Benzion: By bringing in this notion of spiritual knowledge, you are opening up the can of worms of Satanic trickery.

    It’s true, our spiritual senses can be deceived. Our physical senses can be, too. I think the key is to refine those spiritual senses so that we become better at discerning true revelation. One reason I believe this is that the Lord has emphasized the importance of relying on spiritual knowledge in the scriptures. Most of the passages I’m thinking of are in the New Testament, but I bet there are a few in the Old Testament, too (I’d need to look). If you’re interested, there’s another article on this topic called “Your Spiritual Nose. I also highly recommend Blake Ostler’s article “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment.”

    By the way, I enjoyed your review of “One Night with the King” on your site. I agree—the biggest weakness was the screenplay. Lush costumes and sets, but the writing needed another draft or two. Which is a shame, because it could have been GREAT, but instead it was only nice.

    Amelia: It’s up to each person to do their own experiencing.

    Well put! That’s my response when people point out revelation’s incommunicability. Sure, it’s less conveyable than some other sources of knowledge—but anyone can have these experiences. If you want to know, just go try it!

    Capt. Moroni: If he says he prayed earnestly and got no answer, I don’t know how to help him find the great treasure.

    I had a similar experience on my mission with an investigator named Jose. I was at a loss. Looking back, I think that in his case, he had some practices in his life that the Lord would have liked to have seen him change first, as a show of real intent.

    But I don’t think that’s the only explanation for all cases. I wonder if sometimes, in the Lord’s own wisdom, he delays or withholds an answer for the present time. Maybe it’s to help the person learn certain lessons in the process; maybe it’s because He wants that person to serve in other capacities at the moment before he becomes a member. I don’t know.

    But I think you’re right, that “lack of real desire” is not the only possible explanations. I don’t think I understood that when I was a kid. I hope your friend wasn’t too hurt by that. Otherwise he might never try out the helicopter again, when the current problem might just be a temporary fog bank.

  7. Nathan,

    Were you going for the dual meaning of the term “pedestrian” on purpose? Or was that just a happy accident?

    Capt Moroni,

    The following is not something I tell often. But I believe it is what was happening with your friend. There are some people who will go for a ride in the helicopter. They may even pilot the helicopter for others as they parachute into the city. But for some reason, they will never be able to get to the Lost City. They will continue to try. People they piloted in will thank him for his help in finding it. But he himself will never see it.

    For some reason, these people are required to get to the Lost City by foot. There is no path. They must forge ahead. They will have obstacle after obstacle. They must forge ahead.

    Consider the line from Pirates:At World’s End “You can’t get somewhere that is unreachable until you first get truly lost”.

    Eventually they will get to the Lost City and stay there. They must stay there, because if they ever leave, they may never find their way back. They won’t be able to tell others about it because they don’t really know themselves. But the will be certain they’ve found it.

    I say this because I am one of those. I’ve just made it over the ridge. I’ve seen glimpses of the city through dense vegetation. I feel very certain it is there. But I have yet to experience it close at hand.

  8. Carborendum: Were you going for the dual meaning of the term “pedestrian” on purpose? Or was that just a happy accident?

    Yep, the double entendre was intended. Good to know people caught it. 🙂

  9. I have a close friend that just believes that the brain and its functions are too complex, amazing and wonderful but just too complex. They believe there is no way that they could trust something that could not be scientifically demonstrated. Even if they got an answer some manifestation as an “answer” to prayer there is no way the could trust it.

  10. It always makes me sad when I hear stories like that. If the brain’s complexity makes feelings untrustable to your friend, what makes thoughts trustable?

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