Rhetorical: Korihor opens with both guns blazing. He jumps into the heart of his philosophical position, and immediately attacks the underpinning of the Nephite church. He begins by belittling the Nephite gospel by defining it as a “foolish and a vain hope.” He then suggests that this belief is deleterious to the people, since they are “bound down,” and “yoke[d] with such foolish things.”
Even before declaring the specific target, he has managed to characterize it as somehow a bad thing, and a foolish thing. With that introduction, he then introduces the issue of Christ. This was a very intelligent beginning, because had he immediately begun with the question “why do ye look for a Christ?” the audience could have taken it for a serious question, and begun to think of very positive answers. In the context of his setup statements, this can only be take as rhetorical derision. The audience would not be asking themselves for positive answers, but rather for defensive ones, or – in the case of those already questioning such a belief – beginning to entertain the question in precisely the way that Korihor proposed it. Korihor’s powerful logical punch comes with the statement that “no man can know of anything which is to come.”
That is a dangerous statement, but one that has an appeal to a particular level of society. In many ancient cultures it would have been unthinkable to ask such a question, for much of ancient religion was founded on the premise that man might commune with the gods, and therefore have some indication of future events. The development of a more complex society, and particularly an experience that begins to rely more upon one’s own prowess rather than the efforts of the spirits can lead to the situation where such a question might be entertained. Apparently Nephite society had become sufficiently sophisticated that they had begun to make the separation between the events of men and of the gods. The statistically prevalent number of times that God does not reveal the future could lead to a compelling argument that the lack of evidence became evidence for the impossibility of such knowledge. Korihor certainly makes the argument, and expects that it will be accepted.
Social: The nature of Korihor’s argument suggests that he is preaching in the city, not in the countryside. The social sophistication of the city would have been greater, and the general tendency for rural populations is for a greater retention of their religious beliefs. The rural areas are noted for reluctance to change in many cases, where the greater education and interconnections of the city would create situations where such arguments might be more readily accepted. While Mormon does not clarify the setting, the presence of Alma in the debate is not deemed to require travel, and may be yet another indication that the location of this event is in a city. Both the argument and the presence of Alma suggest it.