16
Feb
09

The Nature of God and Salvation in Mormon Tradition

With the LDS church being under some fire for their role in California’s Prop 8, I thought it might be useful to examine some of the theology behind LDS. I am now curious as to how evangelical Christians and Catholics reconcile the theological differences to form an alliance of the kind it took to wage the war. See what you think.

OVERARCHING QUESTION

“The questions that arose for me are hardly easy ones to ask or to address. The Mormons’ concept of the nature of God seems problematic, as does the relationship between God and humanity. Ultimately, however, the question that repeatedly surfaced was whether the Fall of humankind was integral to God’s plan of salvation – in the Mormon understanding, did God intentionally engineer and/or participate in the Fall and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? If so, what does this say about the nature of God?”

THE RESEARCH

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) was organized in Fayette, New York, on 6 April 1830, under the leadership of Joseph Smith.[1] In the spring of 1820, Smith, then a 14-year-old boy, received a vision after he went into a grove of trees and prayed to learn which church he should join. In this vision, God and Jesus Christ appeared to Smith and told him that the church begun by Christ was no longer in existence. During the next 10 years, Smith was visited by other heavenly messengers, including John the Baptist and apostles Peter, James and John[2], who assisted him in the finding and translating of the Book of Mormon (BoM), and gave him the authority to restore Christ’s church on earth.[3] “This Restoration would make available the opportunity for all to receive once again all of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ”[4], such opportunity having been unavailable since the church became apostate after the deaths of the early apostles.[5] Joseph Smith, in the ensuing years, retranslated certain parts of the King James Bible, and wrote Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) and inspired the writing of The Pearls of Great Price (PoGP), which are collections of his revelations, translations, sermons and narrations that are accepted by the Church as scripture.

The LDS was built upon a model of Christ’s ministry with Christ leading the church through a prophet, who together with two counselors is called the First Presidency. The Prophet is assisted by Twelve Apostles, who are special witnesses of Jesus Christ to the entire world. The priesthood has two divisions. The lesser priesthood, called the Aaronic Priesthood, includes the authority to preach the gospel of repentance and to baptize. The greater priesthood, known as the Melchizedek Priesthood, includes the authority to preside over the Church and to perform all ordinances, including giving the gift of the Holy Ghost.[6] The statement, “All male members of the Church who are prepared receive the priesthood in order to help lead the Church and serve Heavenly Father’s [sic] children,”[7] clearly identifies the LDS attitude about denial of the priestly role to women. The Articles of Faith[8], also written by Joseph Smith, outline some other basic beliefs of the LDS. Some of the most significant are:

1. We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

2. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.

3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.

4. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

5. We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.

… 6 & 7 – unremarkable

8. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

9. We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

10. We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon this the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

 In light of readings I have done over the years, I was originally going to concentrate on a question involving the role of gender in salvation. When I considered salvation in general, and more specifically for women, it became apparent that I would have to include the question of salvation by whom or what. The scope appeared to be too large to deal with in this type of article. Likewise issues regarding creation, the Trinity or the role of Christ all ended up hinging on the LDS concept of God. The nature of God and the relationship of God to humanity had to become the general foci by virtue of being common denominators.

The nature of God, at least in a casual review of the easily accessible pages of the Mormon website, does not appear to be drastically different from that held by most Christians. In delving further, however, it became apparent that the differences are literally more than skin deep. God, for Mormons at least, is flesh and blood. “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit.”[9] God, according to the LDS, is a corporeal being – a man, albeit an exalted man – who has achieved Godhood through eternal progression from mortal to immortal. “…God can be in only one place at a time. His divine nature is such, however, that his glory, his power, and his influence, meaning his Holy Spirit, fills the immensity of space and is the means by which he is omnipresent and through which law and light and life are extended to us (see D&C 88:6-13).”[10] This reference to the Holy Spirit should not be confused with the Holy Ghost. Mormons do not believe in God as a Trinity, but in a tritheistic view of God the Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ the Son of God and the aforementioned ethereal personage of the Holy Ghost. The Spirit is God’s presence, the Ghost a separate entity.

God’s gender is also not in question since God has a wife. “Latter-day Saints infer from authoritative sources of scripture and modern prophecy that there is a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. . . . A Heavenly Mother shares parenthood with the Heavenly Father.”[11] Together the Heavenly Father and Mother bear spirit children – children without corporeal bodies that dwell with God in the heavens. Knowing that these children desire to be like Godself, God sends them to earth “to gain experience from overcoming trials and temptations, learn to walk by faith, and learn to choose between good and evil”[12], all the while not being cognizant of their preexistent spirits. It is required that the condition of being human be experienced before salvation can be earned. Salvation from what? From being human, of course! In order for us to become more like God, God developed a plan. God sends us to be human, knowing we will make mistakes and need forgiveness. God provides Jesus Christ as a sacrifice to atone for the transgression of Adam but, as humans, we need to additionally atone for our own sins by repenting, and then following the Ten Commandments and other tenets of LDS doctrine. We can then return to live with God in heaven.[13] 

In addition, God is a descendent of another pair of Heavenly Parents. Heber C. Kimbal, a counselor to Brigham Young and member of the First Presidency, wrote: “We shall go back to our Father and God, who is connected with one who is still farther back; and this Father is connected with one still farther back, and so on” (Journal of Discourses, vol.5, p.19); “our God is a natural man…where did he get his knowledge from? From his father, just as we get our knowledge from our earthly parents” (Journal of Discourses, vol.8, p.211).[14] Just as God progressed to the point of becoming a divine human, we too can eventually become gods in a seemingly endless line of divinities. This, of course depends on living a perfect life after repenting, being baptized and having received the Holy Spirit from the Melchizedek Priesthood. Oh yes, and being male, of course.

With all this having been said, the questions that arose for me are hardly easy ones to ask or to address. The Mormons’ concept of the nature of God seems problematic, as does the relationship between God and humanity. Ultimately, however, the question that repeatedly surfaced was whether the Fall of humankind was integral to God’s plan of salvation – in the Mormon understanding, did God intentionally engineer and/or participate in the Fall and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? If so, what does this say about the nature of God?

ONE AMONG AN INFINITE NUMBER OF POTENTIAL ANSWERS

First, a summary of the information gleaned so far seems appropriate. In the Mormon tradition, God is a man, both in gender and physical attributes, who has progressed to Godhood. It is safe to say that this could be stated in the past tense but there is wide belief among Mormons that, since God has a body of flesh and bones, he is still a man, just eternal. God has a wife, the Eternal Mother, and between them they bear spirit children. These preexistent spirit children are born to earthly parents to become more like God by dwelling on this earthly plane. God has or had fathers and mothers – presumably a set of divine or Eternal Parents, as well as a set of worldly parents – just like all humans. Since humans are capable of realizing godhood, through living a life in strict adherence to the Ten Commandments and LDS doctrine after accepting Christ, repenting, being baptized and receiving the Holy Spirit from the higher priesthood, it stands that there is at least the possibility that there have been and will be more gods.

This particular set of beliefs bears a striking resemblance to an unusual mathematical principle proposed by Georg Cantor, a nineteenth century mathematician and developer of the set theory that survives to this day. Cantor developed the theory of transfinite numbers based on nested sets of infinite numbers contained within finite limits as compared to the infinite range of integers (whole numbers). To comprehend Cantor’s theory it is necessary to understand that the cardinal (counting) number of any set (or group of things) is the number of elements contained within it. In short, Cantor proposed that the range of positive integers (from 1 to infinity, and called aleph-nul) has an infinite number of elements, or a cardinal number equaling infinity. He also proposed that the cardinal number of fractions between any two integers would have the same value – infinity. The infinite fractions between any two consecutive integers (e.g. between 1 and 2 and between 2 and 3) would be equal in cardinality (infinity) despite being unequal in values. Cantor proved that if two sets of infinite numbers were multiplied (e.g. aleph-nul(0 – 1) times aleph-nul(1 – 2)) a new infinite range of numbers would exist that would be equal in cardinality to either of the originals. Following this logic all simple mathematical functions could be performed on these sets of infinite numbers creating new, but still equal, infinite sets. If, however, the cardinal number of integers would be compared to the cardinal number of real numbers (integers and the fractions between them) the mathematical function is exponential – aleph-nulaleph-nul – and the latter would have a greater value logically and mathematically – aleph-one. Each time infinite numbers were exponentially increased (e.g. aleph-onealeph-nul ) a new and greater infinity would be produced. The ultimate conclusion was that there are infinite sets that are larger than infinity (aleph-nul), and there are an infinite number of these sets of larger-than-infinity numbers. This theory has never been disproved, and many believe it will survive intact into infinity (forgive the pun).[1]

In essence, I see a similarity between Cantor’s Theory of Transfinite Numbers and the LDS notion of Godhood. If God produces spirit children, any number of whom possesses the potential to become gods in their own right, there is the potential for an infinite number of gods resulting from God. Likewise, if God had Eternal Parents who produced spirit children, God could be one of an infinite number of gods produced by these parents. This coupling of Eternal Parents would still be producing spirit children and, therefore, gods that are siblings to God. This stands to reason since if God’s Eternal Parents ceased to exist would not their creation also cease to exist? These siblings of God could be producing more gods in like manner. God also, presumably, had Eternal Grandparents that produced an infinite number of God’s god-uncles (I intentionally omitted aunts since that would contradict the inability of women to achieve Godhood in Mormon belief). Since the thoughts of Heber C. Kimbal, as quoted earlier, are considered Mormon doctrine by virtue of their inclusion in the Journal of Discourses, does it not mean that Mormons believe in this god-ancestry ad infinitum? If so, an infinite number of all-powerful gods produce an infinite number of all-powerful god-offspring that produce an infinite number themselves, and on and on. Each step is an exponential product of infinite gods.

Since God, in Mormon belief, is all-powerful does it not stand to reason that God’s siblings are also all-powerful? Also in Mormon belief, God will remain more powerful than God’s god-offspring. This follows from a quote by Brigham Young, the second Prophet, “God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p. 120).[2] If God continues to accrue power through the ages, the same will be true for God’s Eternal Father. Does it not also stand to reason, therefore, that God’s Eternal Parents will remain more advanced, and therefore more powerful, than their god-offspring, of which God is one? If that is the case, there are nested hierarchies of gods that are more powerful than each other and more powerful than all-powerful, or more powerful than God. How can God, in this scenario, grant true salvation in a universe that is ordered by hierarchical gods that are more powerful than Godself?

What, then, is the nature of the LDS notion of salvation – to put it crudely, what is its cash-value to humanity? Obviously, salvation cannot be considered without understanding the LDS concept of the fall. In James Talmage’s book, The Articles of Faith, he says of the fall,

“The opportunity of winning the victor’s reward by overcoming evil was explained to our parents, and they rejoiced. Adam said: ‘Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.’ Eve was glad and declared: ‘Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.”[3]

 Two commandments were given Adam and Eve, according to Talmage – multiply to populate the world and, of course, don’t eat the forbidden fruit. Talmage asserts that Adam had to fall from grace in order to produce offspring, as does the BoM, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:25) It would seem that Adam had to transgress – if he didn’t partake of the fruit, he would transgress by not multiplying; in order to propagate, he had to eat the fruit. Further, if God had spirit children who were required to be born on earth in order to become more like God, the fall was an indispensable part of God’s plan.

Now God’s plan of salvation might look something like the following scenario: Adam, in order to fulfill God’s requirement that spirit children had human bodies to be born into, partook of the fruit that was both necessary to God’s plan and forbidden. Adam had to sin. When the spirit children were born to earthly parents, they entered a realm that was, by God’s design, tempting and sinful. God, however, had already provided for redemption from the state of iniquity that was built in the plan – Jesus Christ, God’s son, was humiliated and died a hideous death to satisfy the requirement that humanity receive atonement from this condition prescribed by God. The natural state of iniquity being overcome, each child of God then had to choose to live in accord with God’s laws as defined by the Ten Commandments and LDS doctrine in order to receive individual salvation. Are these the actions of the loving Eternal Father described in LDS literature? God doesn’t just see if we can overcome a curse, he designs the curse in the first place. Of course, on the flip side, is this much different than the rational problem many Christians have with God allowing the torture of Job? 

If living in, and overcoming the temptations of, a corrupt world is necessary to become more like God, it would seem that part of God’s nature must be based on having had similar experiences on a world before exaltation. If that were the case, this scenario has existed longer than God and, therefore, is not of God’s design. It must be, rather, the design of one who came before God. Does this pattern have the same infinite history as the hierarchy of deities? If so, how can God provide meaningful salvation from an existence that was prescribed by a god more powerful than God? God would simply be living out a pattern of behavior, like us, that was foreordained by a greater power.

Of course, this line of reasoning is based on a foundation of ‘if-then’ conditions, which may or may not be tenuous. Missing is any discussion of the mystery or unfathomable nature of God which is also present in the orthodox Christian tradition. In reality, I hardly possess the knowledge of Mormon doctrine and theological acumen necessary to produce a definitive answer. All I can do is end up with more questions. Serious concerns remain for me, however, about the nature of God and the value of God’s salvation for humanity in the LDS belief.

A FINAL THOUGHT

While not directly related to this paper, of particular interest in the research was the sheer number of websites that appeared to have as their main purpose fulmination against a despised heresy. Most were sites written or sponsored by conservative Christian groups seemingly aimed at convincing Mormons of their gullibility in believing in the doctrines of the LDS. The diatribe used was often vitriolic and the most common title seemed to be “Are Mormons Christians?” or some variation of the same. In examining ad nauseam these websites, looking for some useful or insightful information, it became apparent that these were intended to be evangelistic missions to Mormons, presumably to bring them to an understanding of God’s love and the true message of Christ. The exercise certainly brought up other theological questions, many having to do with Christian tactics. One amongst them is whether these groups think that evangelism by finger-wagging and insult-throwing is biblically prescribed, and does it seem to them that this aggressive form of spreading the “good news” is what Christ intended? To me, at least, it professes a similar logic to yelling louder when you realize the person to whom you are talking doesn’t understand English.

The question of how evangelical Christians and Catholics can form strategic alliances, for instance the one regarding Prop 8 in California, with a religious group that garners such vitriolic negativism still astounds me. I have not yet come to a resolution with this question that does not hinge on hate. Could they hate same-sex couples so much that they are willing to enter allegiance with a group that they would otherwise condemn to hell? I will be looking into this further as time goes on.

 


[1] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “History of the Church”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/0,8672,956-1,00.html&gt; last accessed 11/26/07.

[2] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Scriptures,  “Chronology of Church History”, LDS home page <http://scriptures.lds.org/chchrono/contents&gt; last accessed 11/26/07

[3] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “History of the Church”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/0,8672,956-1,00.html&gt; last accessed 11/26/07.

[4] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Restoration”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/0,8672,958-1,00.html&gt; last accessed 11/26/07.

[5] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Apostacy”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/ 0,8672,844-1,00.html> last accessed 11/26/07.

[6] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Restoration of the Priesthood”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/ 0,8672,960-1,00.html> last accessed 11/27/07.

[7] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Divine priesthood authority”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/ 0,8672,1083-1,00.html > last accessed 11/27/07.

[8] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Summary of beliefs”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/ 0,8672,1598-1,00.html> last accessed 11/27/07.

[9] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Scriptures, “The Doctrine and Covenants”, LDS home page, <http://scriptures.lds.org/ dc/contents> last accessed 11/27/07

[10] Robert L. Millet, Dean of BYU religious education, “What We Believe”, Come to Zarahemla home page,  <http://www.cometozarahemla.org/believe/rlmwhatwebel.html#_1_3&gt; last accessed 11/29/02

[11] Daniel H. Ludlow, Ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2; Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. (p. 961).

[12] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “You lived before being born”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/ 0,8672,1122-1,00.html> last accessed 11/29/07.

[13] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Plan of Salvation”, Mormon home page, <http://www.mormon.org/learn/ 0,8672,1294-1,00.html> last accessed 11/29/07.

[14] Michael Davis, “Mormon vs Biblical Teachings about God”, Equipping Christians to Understand Other World Faiths and Religious Philosophies, World Religions Index home page, <http://wri.leaderu.com/mormonism/god.html&gt; last accessed 11/29/07.

[1] This is summarized from my 12th grade Independent Study in Mathematics project and I no longer possess the books used to research the subject. The work was simply a study of Georg Cantor’s theory, and included no independent original thought of my own. I believe the book used was Contributions to the Theory of Transfinite Numbers by Georg Cantor.

[2] Matthew J. Slick, B.A., M. Div, “Interesting Quotes from Brigham Young the Second Prophet of the Mormon Church”, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry home page, <http://www.isnet.org/~djoko/Offsites/Religions/Xtianity/CARM/ldsbyqot.htm&gt; last accessed 11/30/07

[3] Talmage, James, Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984. (p.62)

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... or, preaching from both ends

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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