Weaving Korihor’s Philosophy

Nathan Richardson

Korihor, by James H. Fullmer
Korihor taught a variety of devilish ideas, meant to appeal to the flesh. When you view them in the appropriate framework, you can also see why they could be so appealing to the mind.

I used to feel slightly uncomfortable with the story of Korihor back in high school. For one thing, Korihor brings up several fairly well-articulated reasons for his disbelief in God and for discounting the teachings of his Church. As I read Korihor’s arguments, several rebuttals came to mind, and I expected that Alma would reply by addressing each argument in turn. I was confused at why Alma did not seem to take advantage of some fairly simple answers when he replied.

For another thing, when Korihor is silenced by divine intervention, I thought, “What was the need? There are answers to each of his arguments.” That miraculous punishment also made it seem harder for us to apply the lessons of the Korihor account to our own lives, since the Lord clearly doesn’t strike dumb every critic of the Church. How was I supposed to apply this story in my own encounters since I can’t expect them to end with divine intervention?

I have since come to understand the story of Korihor better, and I can now appreciate just how incisive and appropriate Alma’s response is. Alma actually identifies the real questions at hand and addresses them very directly. I’ve also come to understand that not everything in the Korihor account can be applied in equal measure to all similar situations. In his response, Alma does two things: (1) address Korihor’s reasoning, and (2) address Korihor’s motives. Alma’s use of reasoning unravelled Korihor’s philosophical arguments; the divine intervention that ensued seems to have been a unique response to the particular situation. In this post, I will explain how Korihor’s ideas were related to each other. In the next post, I will show how this explains the approach Alma used to addressed Korihor’s reasoning. In a following post, I will explain how Alma addressed Korihor’s motives.

Three Threads in Philosophy

First it will help to summarize the various teachings that Korihor weaves together. Elder Gerald N. Lund does this very efficiently with a chart in his Ensign article “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy.” I have adapted the chart for the purposes of this article. In order to better understand Korihor’s teachings, Elder Lund recommends we learn some philosophy jargon. (Forgive the lengthy quote, but it’s important to understand these terms in order to follow the rest of the explanation.)

First, … it will help to look at some philosophical terms used by contemporary philosophers. …

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality. It tries to answer the question “What is real?” The question of whether there is a God and a spiritual world beyond the natural world we know is a metaphysical question. Though today we often use the word supernatural in a more limited sense, originally it referred to a world higher, or above, the one we see and experience with our physical senses.

The second area of philosophy we will consider is axiology. Axiology is the study of ethics and values. It wrestles with such questions as “What is good?” “What is ethical?” “What are right and wrong?”

A third branch of philosophy is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what is real or true. There are numerous epistemological systems. [Examples include authority, logic, pragmatism, empiricism, and revelation.]1

Elder Lund then explains that “like any philosophical system, Korihor’s doctrine had metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological aspects. Together, they enabled him to convince many to reject the traditional values taught by the Church.”1 I have adapted Elder Lund’s explanation and his chart. While Mormon’s account does not show Korihor teaching his ideas in this particular sequence, I like Elder Lund’s chart because it helps us organize and understand Korihor’s teachings by identifying these three main threads. (All scripture references are to Alma chapter 30 unless otherwise indicated.)

Korihor at the Loom

Elder Lund explains, “These three areas of our own philosophy are interrelated. Our metaphysics (our view of reality) influences our epistemology (the way we gain knowledge), and together the two determine our axiology (our values).”1 Korihor summarizes his epistemological foundation when he says, “Ye cannot know of things which ye do not see” (v. 15). Since he thought “God … never has been seen or known,” (v. 28) he concluded that God is not real—part of his metaphysical position. And if there is no God to decree right and wrong or to judge us after we die, then disobeying the commandments does not morally “offend some unknown being, who they say is God” (v. 28)—part of his axiological position. (See the following table.2)

Epistemology --- Metaphysics --- Axiology

With his epistemological starting point, Korihor goes on to further conclusions. Since we can’t see the future, then “no man can know of anything which is to come” (v. 13). This leads him to negate all predictions, including those that the Messiah would come to the earth at some distant future time, when he teaches that “there shall be no Christ” (v. 22).

However, having denied this tenet of the Church, he must account for the phenomenon of prophecy, which the believers had written records of. Korihor produces his own explanation, saying, “These things which ye call prophecies … are foolish traditions of your fathers” (v. 14).


Korihor also makes other metaphysical conclusions. Since Korihor has never seen a person or spirit after they died, he concludes that there is no life after death, stating “that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof” (v. 18). Since there was no eternal world to prepare for, it made no sense to think we fare in the afterlife according to how we manage our spiritual choices here, such as being humble, having pure thoughts, or loving others. Rather, Korihor said that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature,” or the physical laws of survival-of-the-fittest (v. 17).

However, there were many faithful Nephites that lived contrary to Korihor’s conclusions. For example, they rested from their economic endeavors every seven days, and they regularly gave the best breeding stock in their herds to temple priests to slaughter them as sacrifices. These practices are counter-intuitive and counter-productive from Korihor’s dog-eat-dog perspective, yet the people appeared happy and willing to do it. Why would they make these economic sacrifices if they were so detrimental to prosperity? Korihor explains away this phenomenon, saying, “They durst not make use of that which is their own [their time and resources] lest they should offend their priests, … that ye [priests] may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands” (v. 27–28). Thus, the whole economically burdensome exercise could be explained as a con-job by the priests so that they wouldn’t have to work on their own.

Korihor's metaphysics

Korihor’s final and most significant conclusions are axiological. Since there is no God to issue commandments or hold us accountable for our sins, he concludes that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (v. 17). Since there is no such thing as sin, then there is no need for an atoning sacrifice. In fact, “there could be no atonement made for the sins of men,” and thus “a remission of your sins … [is] not so” (v. 16–17).

However, once again there were many Nephites who regularly repented of their sins and looked forward to the atoning sacrifice that would conquer sin. Korihor had to account for this phenomenon in some way other than a genuine understanding of and response to sin, so he chalked it up to “the effect of a frenzied mind; and [a] derangement of your minds” (v. 16).



Thus we can see how, as Elder Lund says, Korihor’s epistemology and metaphysics determined his axiology. When laid out according to these three major philosophical threads, it is easier to see Korihor’s step-by-step reasoning, and thus the appeal of his teachings.

His philosophical tapestry had momentous results. While sin had obviously been present in Nephite society long before this time, Korihor’s logical deconstruction of the concept of sin was a new threat. His doctrines led people to not only break the commandments, but to do it intentionally and “to lift up their heads in their wickedness,” actually being proud of it because they were now “liberated” from erroneously thinking that anything is a sin (v. 18).

How would you counter this philosophical tapestry? Where would you start? I will discuss where Alma focused and why in my next post.


Korihor painting by James H. Fullmer, who, by the way, has created some amazing artwork and two incredible scripture-themed games (bookofmormonbattles.com).

1. Gerald N. Lund, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy,” Ensign, Jul. 1992, p. 16. The charts in this article are based on Elder Lund’s, who divided Korihor’s teachings into these three areas. In my adaptation of his chart, I have tried to use just direct quotations from Alma 30. Elder Lund’s chart, in contrast, benefits from more detailed paraphrasing that flows a little better.

Another author highlights these same key areas of philosophy: “Behind the various theories and practices of textual interpretation lurk larger philosophical issues. Indeed, implicit in the question of meaning are questions about the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, and the criteria for morality. It may not be at all obvious that one is taking a position on these issues when one picks up a book and begins to read, but I will argue that that is indeed the case. Whether there is something really “there” in the text is a question of the “metaphysics” of meaning. Similarly, reading implies some beliefs about whether it is possible to understand a text, and if so, how. Whether there is something to be known in texts is a question of the “epistemology” of meaning. Lastly, reading raises questions about what obligations, if any, impinge on the reader of Scripture or any other text. What readers do with what is in the text gives rise to questions concerning the “ethics” of meaning. Together, these three issues give rise to a related question, “What is it to be human, an agent of meaning?” (Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 19.

2. In the charts, I have refrained from using brackets for my insertions or changes, because they can quickly become visually cumbersome. Rather, I have denoted my insertions or changes by coloring the text lighter where I have used my own words.

By the way, I originally created these charts in PowerPoint. I’ve tried saving them (via Photoshop) as JPEGs, GIFs, PNGs, and BMPs. So far the bitmaps (BMP) have been the least blurry, but they still aren’t as crisp as I’d like them to be. Any graphics-wise people out there who can help me?


  1. interesting…

    it is hard to counter arguments like Korihor’s that strike at the very foundation of any moral system. relativism and whatnot have such an almost-right sort of feeling, given how different everyone on earth is. the only real answer is a testimony and the experience that life with God is better than life without him.
    it’ll be cool to hear how you break down Alma’s response along these lines.

    as for the graphics… powerpoint is ridiculous? I don’t know what else to tell you.

  2. JPEG is where the blurring happens. JPEG files nearly always blur text due to the algorithm used in the compression. BMP is not compressed and hence not blurred, but the file size is usually too large. GIF files are smaller but limit you colour choice (not a problem for this image). PNG is another option, but I don’t know much about the PNG format. Try GIF.

  3. Thanks Eric!

    Amelia: Relativism and what-not have such an almost-right sort of feeling.

    So true; that’s a good way to put it. It can be hard to combat because at times it seems to resolve so many problems, like why good, intelligent, well-intentioned people can come to such disparate conclusions.

    Graham, thanks for the tips. I have now inserted the charts in BMP format. I tried GIF and PNG with the same results; BMP is a little better. However, when you right-click a chart and hit “View image,” it shows up much sharper. I just need to figure out how to make it display that sharply within the actual article. *&^%*# image formatting! 🙂

  4. Quite a bit more in-depth than I expected, Nate! And I like this line of reasoning – spirited attempts to reconcile seemingly-strange bits of scripture with personal philosophy when they seemingly converge, but written from the perspective of a sincere believer and not a skeptic. Many LDS intellectuals tend to ignore the spiritual side of things so this approach is refreshing.

    I had always thought that the problem with Korihor’s approach was not his argument per se, but the fact that he understood the truth and was intentionally deceiving people down the wrong path with great consequences, thus demonstrate a highly sinister sort of evil.

    Still, I generally ignore “proofs” of God in the Book of Mormon, particularly Lehi’s, because of their circular logic and reliance on shared assumptions.

  5. Very interesting, Nate.

    I would point out to elder Lund and yourself that ontology would be a better word than metaphysics when describing “what is real”. Metaphysics refers to that which is beyond physical, does it not? While it is true that our descriptions of reality may refer to that which is beyond the physical domain, for many people who are physical monists, that which is fundamentally real in the world is physical matter.
    I think recognizing physical monism is important because it is the doctrine that Korihor embraced. In short, Korihor’s philosophy was “if you can’t see it and touch it, then it is not real.” He then applied this to God.
    The trappings of Korihorian philosophy are very much with us today. It is the same old song, just different musicians. Our modern day Korihors are secular humanists who actively dissuade people from believing in God. Other modern-day Korihors also include evolutionists who teach that we fare according to the management of the creature (survival of the fittest), that there is no afterlife, and that because everything came into existence via un-purposeful events, there is no God and thus no law (sin).

  6. Dave C.,

    You are right that “ontology” is the more precise term. The term metaphysics, however, has often been used by philosophers to refer not only to “that which is beyond the physical realm,” but also to the ontological question. I think Elder Lund and Nathan have both borrowed a common but less precise use of the word. You are right that Korihor did not embrace a metaphysical ontology.

  7. Dave C.: Ontology would be a better word than metaphysics when describing “what is real.”

    Interesting, I didn’t know that. I was actually wondering what the difference was. Thanks!

  8. I really appreciated the article. I have never been thought of looking back to the philosophical root of arguments made against the gospel, or any arguments in general. Thanks for enlightening my mind!

    Look forward to the next installment!


  9. I forgot to write about my second thought. As I was trying to understand epistemology I wrote this summary. I would like your input on this idea.

    The concept of epistemology is really relevant whenever two people disagree about anything. The only way that two people can both be seeking the truth and still disagree in the presence of evidence one way or the other is a difference of belief in the epistemology. It seems that this is the core issue whenever we are trying to convince a person one way or the other. If we both agree on the epistemology–the way in which we can discern or know the truth–one simply needs to present conclusive evidence in favor or your position. However, if we both believe that the truth is to be found in different ways, it doesn’t matter how much evidence I provide in support of my own position.

  10. I agree that differences in epistemology ultimately account for most differences of opinion. I’m not sure whether I’d say all, although off the top of my head I can’t think of an example at the moment. But yeah, a lot of the time, especially in religious discussions, people assume different bases of knowledge, and that’s why they disagree on other things.

  11. Honestly, I am somewhat surprised to discover a man of Korihor’s philosophical bent tooling about in the 1st century BC. Epistemic evidentialists of this stripe don’t appear in our Western philosophy until maybe the sixteenth century or so. I think Korihor’s brand of thought is quite Western indeed. It seems to me that he is way ahead of his time and even appears somewhat anachronistic to the critical eye.

    We believe that the Book of Mormon was written for our day … so it is useful to have such a man as Korihor to teach us about one increasingly common argument that has been leveled against religion. Clearly Korihor did not get his philosophy from any cultural tradition. The devil is in the details, as Korihor himself confessed, and perhaps the people of Alma’s day got a little taste of things to come—for our sake.

    I look forward to your further analysis. Also, if anyone has additional insight into historical materialism, evidentialism, or anti-rationalists from antiquity, I’m all ears.

  12. Thanks, Peter. The entire series is actually complete. Just scroll past the footnotes and you’ll see the “Series” box. Click on the next article in the series, “Unraveling Korihor’s Philosophy.”

    This article was actually posted a year ago, but I bumped it to the front because I’m anticipating there might be some new traffic from Chris Heimerdinger’s blog, Frost Cave (frostcave.blogspot.com). I wrote a guest post for him, “Incomplete Knowledge in Past Dispensations,” and I thought the people who follow links to this website might find the Korihor series interesting.

    Feel free to comment on the series; we’d love to hear your thoughts!

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