Possibly the least important question you could ask about a scripture story is, “Did it actually happen?”
It doesn’t matter if Ruth or Nephi or Adam or Eve ever walked the earth or performed the acts imputed to them by the scriptures. It would be more constructive for you to think about what kind of plates you’d like to set for dinner tonight than to light one more neuron in an attempt to establish the historicity of any scripture story.
It doesn’t matter if a scripture story happened. It matters if it’s true.
There’s a difference.
Here’s the thing about truth: we can’t conceive of it. On a physical level, our five senses detect only a tiny sliver of what goes on around us, and then our minds filter most of that out.[i] And then our memories retain even less. And then, when we try to articulate what we remember, we’re forced to process it through language and cultural constructs—notorious deformers.[ii] By the time a perceived instance in time and space has made its way to the uttered or written word, it bears little resemblance to what originally incited it.[iii]
And this is just when we’re talking about things that can be perceived by our five senses. What happens when we start talking about spiritual things?
Paul summed it up well: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
In other words, there is no way to convey spiritual truths through language. If our senses cannot perceive them and our hearts cannot hold them, then our mouths cannot articulate them. All we can do is experience them.
Jesus was constantly struggling with this limitation, devising metaphors and parables that he hoped would help people enter spiritual experience. This language limitation is also why most of the Old Testament is poetry—its metaphors pointing toward the indescribable.
So how do we know when we’re experiencing truth? Alma provides a helpful metaphor, “this is a good seed . . . for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
A teacher of mine once said, “I know something is good when it helps me see that the universe is much larger than I thought it was.”
Truth doesn’t prove theories. It doesn’t reveal secret combinations.[iv] It doesn’t support any agenda. It simply grows one’s soul. You enter truth; you experience it; you savor it; you grow; and . . . that’s it.
Yes, we try to communicate what we’ve experienced, but all we can ever do is gesture toward it and hope the people around us can have their own experience.
So, if you’re wondering about the truth of a particular scripture story: whether or not it happened is irrelevant. You only need to ask, “When I experiment upon this word, does it make me grow? Does it reveal a larger universe? Does it taste good?”
The truth of a scripture is not in its words, but in your experience.
[i] And, if we want to be completely honest, what happens in any moment is infinite. Infinite processes on infinite levels occurred during the moment the story claims to narrate, the overwhelming majority of which are not noted.
[ii] Incidentally, this weakness applies to the moving image as well. You may have a video recording of an event, but the context—and therefore the meaning—of that recording is up for grabs. You need look no further than Fox News, MSNBC, or Facebook to see this played out.
[iii] And, yes, this applies to scripture stories as much as it does to news reporting.
[iv] Indeed, the experience of truth never leads to fear. Moroni taught that the Spirit of God leads only to charity (Moroni 7:44).