Perhaps the greatest difficulty in Nephi's description of the great and abominable church is an apparent contradiction between chapters 13 and 14. In 1 Nephi 13 the great and abominable church is one specific church among many. Indeed, Nephi's description of it as "most abominable above all other churches" (verses 5, 26) is nonsense otherwise. Moreover, it has a specific historical description: it is formed among the Gentiles after the Bible has been transmitted in its purity to the Gentiles by the Jews (verse 26), and it is the specific historical agent responsible for excising plain and precious truths from the scriptural record. It would appear that in chapter 13 Nephi is describing a specific historical institution as the great and abominable church. To this we must add the information given in Doctrine and Covenants 86:1-4, which states that the great and abominable church did its work after the Apostles had fallen asleep, that is, around the end of the first century A.D. Similarly, in the Revelation of John the role of the whore has a historical frame. She comes into the picture after the beasts, upon which she rides and which give her support, and she is eliminated from the picture while they yet continue. Again, the great and abominable church (Babylon) is not a term identical with "the kingdom of the devil," for the whore is only one of the component parts of a larger empire, together with the beasts, the image, the horns, and the false prophet—and also with other false churches. This last idea is clearly brought out in 1 Nephi 22:22-23:
But it is the kingdom of the devil, which shall be built up among the children of men, which kingdom is established among them which are in the flesh—
For the time speedily shall come that all churches which are built up to get gain, and all those who are built up to get power over the flesh, and those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world, and those who seek the lusts of the flesh and the things of the world, and to do all manner of iniquity; yea, in fine, all those who belong to the kingdom of the devil are they who need fear, and tremble. (Italics added.)
Indisputably, the full kingdom of the devil is made up of many churches (or denominations) and will be until the end of the world. Taking 1 Nephi 13 and 22 as our starting points, we might be justified in asking just which of all those false denominations is the actual great and abominable church of the devil. The apparent contradiction comes in 1 Nephi 14:10 where we are told that there are only two churches: "And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil."
How can this be? How can the devil's church or churches be one and many at the same time? The apparent contradiction actually gives us the solution to the larger puzzle and ultimately our identification of the great and abominable church.
The answer is that the term is used in two different ways in these two chapters. In chapter 13 it is used historically and in chapter 14 it is used typologically, or apocalyptically. In apocalyptic literature (remember that both Revelation and Nephi 13-14 are apocalyptic in nature) the seer is caught up in vision and sees things from God's perspective. Time ceases to be an important element. This is why the chronology of John's Revelation at times seems to be scrambled; with God there is no time. Apocalyptic visions are highly symbolic, usually requiring an angelic interpreter for the seer to understand what he sees. But the symbols are inclusive; that is, they stand for archetypical categories into which all specific instances of something can be placed. This is why the whore can be called Nineveh (some of John's language comes from Nahum's description of Nineveh), fn or Babylon, Sodom, Egypt, Jerusalem, or Rome. It doesn't matter; the names change, but the character—"that great city"—remains the same in every dispensation. To illustrate, let us take the name of the whore, or great and abominable church: Babylon. A literal reading would lead us to believe that some particular city is being described, and we would want to know which city it was. But if we read carefully, we see that Babylon in John's Revelation is not one city but many cities, all of which fall into the larger category of "that great city" which is the antithesis of the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem or Zion. Just as Zion is wherever the pure in heart dwell (Doctrine and Covenants 97:21), so Babylon is where the whore lives. Since Latter-day Saints understand that Zion is a spiritual category, which may in different contexts mean Salt Lake City, Far West, Jerusalem, or the city of Enoch, why do we have such a hard time understanding Zion's opposite, Babylon, in the same way? It is precisely this variable identity that Jacob teaches to us when he says: "Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are they who are the whore of all the earth; for they who are not for me are against me, saith our God (2 Nephi 10:16; italics added).
In other words Babylon, "the whore of all the earth," is in this context anyone who fights against Zion. In apocalyptic literature the cast of characters is constant in every dispensation; they are these same archetypical categories into which all things can be placed. From the apocalyptic point of view there is only one script, one plot, from the foundation of the world until its end. The characters in the play and the lines they deliver are always the same from dispensation to dispensation, although the individual actors who play the roles and speak the lines may change with time. Therefore, there is always the role of "that great city," though the part might be played at different times in history by Sodom, Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, or Washington, D.C. The important thing is to know what the archetypical patterns are and their identifying characteristics. Then we can orient ourselves in any time or place and know who functions now in the role of Babylon and where Zion is located.
...I would like to submit that no single historical church or denomination known to us can be the great and abominable church in an exclusive sense. No single organization meets all the requirements:
1. It must have been formed among the Gentiles and must have controlled the distribution of the New Testament scriptures, which it edited and from which it deleted plain and precious things.
2. It must have slain the Saints of God and killed the Apostles and prophets.
3. It must be in league with civil governments and use their police power to enforce its religious views.
4. It must have dominion over all the earth.
5. It must pursue wealth, luxury, and sexual immorality, and must last until essentially the end of the world.
No one denomination fits the entire description. Neither does world Communism in our own day. The conclusion is inescapable—no single entity can be the great and abominable church from the beginning of the world to the end. Rather, the role has been played by many different actors in many different times, and the great and abominable church that Nephi described in 1 Nephi 13 is not the same one that crucified Christ or that martyred Joseph and Hyrum.
So the one error, as I see it, is to try to blame some modern denomination for the activities of an ancient great and abominable church described by both Nephi and John. The other error is to go too far the other way and remove the great and abominable church from history altogether. This latter approach does not acknowledge that there ever was or ever will be a historical manifestation of the great and abominable church. It allegorizes the term completely, so that it becomes merely a vague symbol for all the disassociated evil in the world. We cannot accept this in the face of clear and explicit scripture to the contrary, for if we do, we shall not be able to recognize the historical manifestations of the great and abominable church in our own time or in the times to come. On the one hand, we must avoid the temptation to identify the role of the great and abominable church so completely with one particular denomination that we do not recognize the part when it is played by some other organization, but on the other hand we must remember that the role will be played by some agency. Will we be able to recognize it?
To return to our original topic, can we identify the historical agency that acted as the great and abominable church in earliest Christianity and which Nephi and others describe? I would like to argue that the great and abominable church Nephi describes in chapter 13 had its origins in the second half of the first century and had essentially done its work by the middle of the second century. This period might be called the blind spot of ecclesiastical history, for it is here that the fewest primary historical sources have been preserved. Essentially, what happened is that we have good sources for New Testament Christianity (the New Testament documents themselves); then the lights go out (that is, we have very few historical sources), and in the dark we hear the muffled sounds of a great struggle. When the lights come on again a hundred years or so later, we find that someone has rearranged all the furniture and that Christianity is something very different from what it was in the beginning. That different entity can be accurately described by the term hellenized Christianity. The hellenization of Christianity is a phenomenon which has long been recognized by scholars of Christian history, but it is one which Latter-day Saints know better as the Great Apostasy. Hellenization means imposing Greek culture on the native cultures of the East. The result was a synthesis of East and West, with elements of the Greek West predominating, a melting-pot, popular culture which was virtually worldwide.
But in the realm of religion, synthesis means compromise, and when we speak in terms of the gospel, compromise with the popular culture of the world means apostasy from the truth. When Jewish Christianity and Greek culture met head-on in the gentile mission field in the middle of the first century, the Greeks eventually won, and Jewish Christianity was ultimately "revised" to make it more attractive and appealing to a Greek audience. Primary prejudices of the Hellenistic world were the "absolute" nature of God (that is, he cannot be bound or limited by anything) and the impossibility of anything material or physical being eternal. In order to accommodate these ideas and thus appeal to a broader gentile audience, Christianity had to discard the doctrines of an anthropomorphic God and the resurrection of the dead or else "reinterpret" them in a manner that had the same effect. This is precisely what some Greek Christians at Corinth had already done and against which Paul responds with such force in 1 Corinthians 15:12: "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?"
One assumption necessary to my line of reasoning is that the earliest apostates from the true primitive Church constituted the great and abominable church among the Gentiles. Therefore we need something to link the Apostasy with the great and abominable church, and I think we have such a link in many places, but two will suffice to make my point here. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, Paul says: "that day shall not come, except there come a falling away [literally, an apostasy] first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition." This man of sin will sit in the temple of God showing himself that he is God (verse 4). The "mystery of iniquity" was already under way as Paul wrote (verse 7), and you will recall that one of the names of Babylon is "mystery" (Revelation 17:5). This son of perdition, or man of sin, Paul mentions is the counterfeit for the Man of Holiness—he is Satan. And the temple in which he sits is the church, now desolated of the divine presence by the abomination of apostasy and become the church of the devil. fn The church of the devil is any church that teaches the philosophies of men mingled with scripture, which dethrones God in the church and replaces him with man (2 Thessalonians 2:3f) by denying the principle of revelation and turning instead to human intellect. It is for this reason that creeds which are the product of human intellect are an abomination to the Lord fn—for they are idolatry: men worshipping the creations not of their own hands but of their own minds and knowing all along it is a creation of their intellect that is being worshipped.
Perhaps my point could be made more quickly by citing Doctrine and Covenants 86:3, where the Lord explicitly identifies the whore, Babylon, as the apostate church:
And after they have fallen asleep the great persecutor of the church, the apostate, the whore, even Babylon, that maketh all nations to drink of her cup, in whose hearts the enemy, even Satan, sitteth to reign—behold he soweth the tares; wherefore, the tares choke the wheat and drive the church into the wilderness.
Clearly, whatever denominational name we choose to give it, the great and abominable church described by Nephi and John and the earliest apostate church are identical. The fact is that we do not know really what name to give it. I have proposed hellenized Christianity, but that is a description rather than a name. Babylon in the first and second centuries may even have been a collection of different movements. The Jewish Christians could not let go of the law of Moses and so eventually gave up Christ instead. The "orthodox" adopted Greek philosophy. The Gnostics wallowed in the mysteries and in unspeakable practices on the one hand, or in mysteries and a neurotic asceticism on the other. Tatian and Marcion rewrote the scriptures, the latter boldly chopping out anything he did not like, and all of them together forced the virtuous woman, the true church of Jesus Christ, into the wilderness.
(Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., First Nephi: The Doctrinal Foundation [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988], 177.)
James E. Talmage on the foreknowledge of God:
Respecting the foreknowledge of God, let it not be said that divine omniscience is of itself a determining cause whereby events are inevitably brought to pass. A mortal father, who knows the weaknesses and frailties of his son, may by reason of that knowledge sorrowfully predict the calamities and sufferings awaiting his wayward boy. He may foresee in that son's future a forfeiture of blessings that could have been won, loss of position, self- respect, reputation and honor; even the dark shadows of a felon's cell and the night of a drunkard's grave may appear in the saddening visions of that fond father's soul; yet, convinced by experience of the impossibility of bringing about that son's reform, he foresees the dread developments of the future, and he finds but sorrow and anguish in his knowledge. Can it be said that the father's foreknowledge is a cause of the son's sinful life? The son, perchance, has reached his maturity; he is the master of his own destiny; a free agent unto himself. The father is powerless to control by force or to direct by arbitrary command; and, while he would gladly make any effort or sacrifice to save his son from the fate impending, he fears for what seems to be an awful certainty. But surely that thoughtful, prayerful, loving parent does not, because of his knowledge, contribute to the son's waywardness. To reason otherwise would be to say that a neglectful father, who takes not the trouble to study the nature and character of his son, who shuts his eyes to sinful tendencies, and rests in careless indifference as to the probable future, will by his very heartlessness be benefiting his child, because his lack of forethought cannot operate as a contributory cause to dereliction.
Our Heavenly Father has a full knowledge of the nature and disposition of each of His children, a knowledge gained by long observation and experience in the past eternity of our primeval childhood; a knowledge compared with which that gained by earthly parents through mortal experience with their children is infinitesimally small. By reason of that surpassing knowledge, God reads the future of child and children, of men individually and of men collectively as communities and nations; He knows what each will do under given conditions, and sees the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge is based on intelligence and reason. He foresees the future as a state which naturally and surely will be; not as one which must be because He has arbitrarily willed that it shall be. . . .
The Father of souls has endowed His children with the divine birthright of free agency; He does not and will not control them by arbitrary force; He impels no man toward sin; He compels none to righteousness. Unto man has been given freedom to act for himself; and, associated with this independence, is the fact of strict responsibility and the assurance of individual accountability.
(Jesus the Christ [Deseret Book, 1976], pp. 28-29.)