In 2006 the official Mormon Ensign magazine launched “A series of articles explaining basic beliefs of the restored gospel” entitled The Fullness of the Gospel. Although they cover a lot of big ideas these ideas are contained in the briefest of articles and there is precious little explanation, more description than explanation in fact, and the author assumes the reader will accept uncritically what is written. We will look in more detail at the claims being made, compare them with the Bible, and investigate these things for ourselves. The series begins in the January issue with the following quote:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has many beliefs in common with other Christian churches,” said Elder Dallin H Oaks of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “But we have differences, and those differences explain why we send missionaries to other Christians, why we build temple in addition to churches, and why our beliefs bring us such happiness and strength to deal with the challenges of life and death.” (Ensign, January 2006, p.50)
We should remember then that, by their own admission, Mormonism does not bring what might be readily recognised as the traditional Christian gospel, but a very different message. This second article (February 2006) illustrates this very well as it addresses the Mormon concept of life before birth.
Life Before Birth
The article begins with the assertion that, without an understanding of the Mormon teaching on premortal existence, life makes precious little sense:
“There is no way to make sense out of life without a knowledge of the doctrine of premortal life…When we understand the doctrine of premortal life, then things fit together and make sense.” (Boyd K Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles)
Building on this quote the article goes on to assert that only this doctrine makes sense of our relationship with God, the purpose of life and our ‘divine destiny’. It does raise the question, if the Bible can tell us nothing about these things why then do Mormons trust it at all? If things so fundamental as our relationship with God, God’s purpose for us and our ultimate destiny are not clearly explained in the Bible what is anyone doing with a book that demonstrates such fatal deficiencies? We will look at what the Bible has to say about these things.
Boyd Packer is also quoted as saying that this teaching, “was known to ancient Christians. For nearly five hundred years the doctrine was taught, but it was rejected as a heresy by a clergy that had slipped into the Dark Ages of apostasy…Once they rejected this doctrine…they could never unravel the mystery of life.”
The quote is taken from the November 1983 Ensign magazine, a conference address, and the article can be read online at the official LDS web site, lds.org. I looked it up, curious to know how he backed up such a statement only to discover that the talk is yet another collection of assertions backed by nothing more than anecdotes and homiletic sentiment. These things appear to be an endless collection of anecdotes and assertions built upon even more anecdotes and assertions.
The Dark Ages
Something ought to be said at this stage about the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. It is a term that was coined by the Victorians to describe the period from around the fifth century to around the tenth century, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of a new millennium. It is more correctly known as the Early Medieval Period (Early Middle Ages) and marks a time of great migration, hence the German name Volkervonderung (wandering peoples).
The term ‘Dark Ages’ was coined to describe what was then perceived as a period of great social and economic backwardness; a time of moral, cultural and social decay precipitated by the fall of the Roman Empire. However, although it was a time of great change and social decline this is a comparative value and it was not totally devoid of spiritual enlightenment, social structure and significant culture. There is another, more correct way to understand the term, i.e. a time in which there were precious few written records to illuminate the period compared with those before and after. The term ‘Dark Ages’ then is an historical term that more properly describes what we don’t know rather than what they didn’t know.
Why is this important? Because, just as the Victorians found the phrase useful to explain their own ignorance of the period, so many cults, groups and individuals press it into service to erroneously describe a period of heresy, apostasy, and spiritual decay. Every ‘restoration’ claim it seems is explained as a teaching lost in the Dark Ages and we must treat with deep suspicion such arguments from silence.
What we know?
Under this heading the article goes on to describe the familiar Mormon teaching on premortal life:
1. “Intelligence” is eternal and has always existed (we are all “intelligences”)
2. God, at some point in our premortal past, created for us spirit bodies making us his “spirit children”
3. We came to earth to gain a physical body and become more like God
“God himself…because he was more intelligent, saw proper to instigate laws whereby [His children] could have a privilege to advance like himself” (History of the Church, 6:312, quoted in article)
These points sum up the “purpose of life” as Mormons see it and the quote is interesting in that it raises at least two issues:
Firstly, there is a clear inference we can draw that God is merely a more advanced “intelligence” than we are, i.e. “more intelligent”. An interesting idea in light of the teaching of Psalm 90:1-6, which we discuss in the first in this series of articles “The Godhead”.
Secondly if, as we can safely infer, this is an endless process by which God himself became God “the same as all gods have done before” (Joseph Smith) the laws would already have been in place so how could God “instigate” (start, begin, initiate, bring about) those laws? Surely God is locked into a priori systems and laws making him, of course, less than “Almighty”?
In any event “what we know” is exclusively what Joseph Smith has told us. Contrary to Boyd Packer’s claim, there is no evidence presented that this is a restoration of early church doctrine, or that the church ever believed or taught it. Building on this article we will look more closely at what Mormonism teaches and compare it with the Bible.
The Purpose of Life
The Mormon Church usually introduces the idea of a premortal existence by talking about the three great questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Where Did I come from?
The Mormon book The Pearl of Great Price paints a clearer picture of this “pre-mortal existence”:
“Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;” (PofGP, Abraham 3:22-25)
This, in a nutshell, is what the Mormons call “the Plan of Salvation”, or “the eternal plan of happiness”.
If challenged to show biblical proofs for this teaching they might quote:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you a prophet to the nation” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
They might then quote from Acts, “We are the offspring of God” (17:29) and will reason that we lived before we were born (Jeremiah) and were literally children of God (Acts).
Premortal or Foreordained?
It is totally unnecessary to postulate a premortal existence to explain these texts as though, as Mormons would have us believe, they are otherwise inexplicable. Indeed, to do so one would have to ignore substantial, sound and clear biblical explanations and, by so doing, deny the purposes and sovereignty of God.
While the Mormon would argue, “how could God have known Jeremiah if he did not have a premortal existence?” the Bible clearly teaches ordination according to the foreknowledge of God and not according to the premortal existence of man. God declares:
“I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is to come (Isaiah 46:9)
Note the words highlighted in Italics, “there is none like me”. Far from being a more intelligent version of us God is unique in his nature and there is none like him. One unique characteristic of God, and that is shown in the Isaiah text, is his omniscience, or all-knowing nature.
Our knowledge is of things that are already history or that we come to know as events unfold in our little part of creation. God, however, “knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act” (Grudem). The Bible describes God as “perfect in his knowledge” (Job 37:16) and John tells us that God “knows everything” (1 John 3:20). Perfect knowledge is complete knowledge and this includes our future, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt.6:8); “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (Psalm 139:4); “Your eyes beheld my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).
These, and numerous other passages, make clear that Jeremiah need not have existed in a pre-mortal life for God to choose him before he was born and the text points not to premortal existence but to foreordination according to the foreknowledge of God. Indeed, Jeremiah himself clearly understood that all things had their beginning with God and not in an eternal premortal life (Jeremiah 10:10-16)
The verse in Acts is even more easily explained from the context of the passage as well as from the wider biblical context. Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers in Athens and teaching them about the true God. Beginning at verse 24 we read:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men… ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:24-28).
This chimes perfectly with Malachi 2:10 which clearly links creation and the Fatherhood of God “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” God is the Father of humanity in the sense that he created us and it is in him that we have life and being. The statement that “we are his offspring” is clearly set in the context of creation. Romans 8:16, another verse pressed into service of this Mormon teaching, is again dealt with properly in context for from verse 15 we read “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption. And by him we cry Abba, Father. Now if we are children, then we are heirs…” (vv 15-16)
It is interesting that the Greek in Acts gives us genos, which has a similar root to genesis and means origin, source, beginning, creation and is used here in the context of God as our Creator. The Romans text, on the other hand, gives us the Greek teknos, meaning child, daughter, son and is used in the context of God becoming our Father by adoption. In the first God is the one in whom all mankind “live and move and have our being”, while in the latter God is the Father (Abba) of all those who are given the Spirit of Sonship and who are led by the Spirit of God. All mankind are included in the first while a contrast is drawn in the latter between “those who live according to the sinful nature” (Ro.8:5) and those “controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit of God” (Ro.8:9).
In Acts, then, we have a reference to God as our Creator/Father, while in Romans we have a reference to God as our Father by adoption, through faith in the saving work of his Son and the leading of the Spirit.
It is not true that Christianity is confused about the foreordination of Jeremiah and the Fatherhood of God. The Bible has always had clear and definitive answers to these important questions and, far from being a restoration of lost truth, the Mormon message of a premortal life for all mankind flies in the face of biblical truth.
God is not a man. The God of the Bible is eternally God. “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). He is called “the Eternal God” (Genesis 21:33; Deut.33:27). The psalmist declares, “Your throne was established long ago; you are from eternity” (Psalm 93:2). This is not a God who has progressed but one who is constant in his nature and character.
We are not gods in embryo. God declares, “You are my witnesses. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me ” (Isaiah 43:10). Our relationship with God is twofold. First he is our Creator and our Father in the sense of being our origin, source, life giver (genos); Secondly, to those who are being saved he is our Father by adoption and by the indwelling of his Spirit, the Spirit that leads us to call him Abba, Father. We are his children (teknos) by the new birth described in John 3.
What, then, does it mean to be “in the image of God” if we cannot “progress” to be gods? The purpose of our redemption is, “to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). To be made in the image of God is to enjoy his “communicable attributes”, i.e. his character and personality, righteousness, holiness, wisdom, justice, love (c.f. James 3:13-18).
The purpose of this is also made plain in the Bible, i.e. “In order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). It is for the greater glory of God that these things are brought about.
After this life Mormons expect to be “judged, by the Lord, according to our faithfulness in following the course he has laid out for us”. That by keeping to the plan they merit rewards. The greater their faithfulness the greater their reward, the greatest reward being godhood. However the Bible tells us that “God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Our “rewards” can by no means be commensurate with our efforts just as our punishments are not commensurate with our sins since “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5); “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5:21).
“Is this a charter for sinning?” the Mormon might ask, or as Paul wrote, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Romans 6:15). “By no means!” is Paul’s reply. It is as a result of God’s grace that, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). “We…are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is a sovereign work of God, not what we make of ourselves but what God makes of us.
In Romans 5 Paul describes a miraculous transaction in which, just as we inherited sin from Adam so, through faith, we inherit righteousness from Christ the new Adam. We are born “in Adam” but are born again “in Christ”. “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19).
In the old Adam we are “slaves to sin” but in the new Adam “slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6). “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew (Jeremiah) he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn of many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).
Since “We…are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18) the life of the Christian is not one of sinless perfection. It is characterised by repentance, righteousness and a following after God, as well as an assurance of eternal life with God (1 John 5:13), which life is our destiny.
For further reading:
New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 1996 ed.
Systematic Theology, IVP, 1994, Wayne Grudem
Knowing God, J I Packer, Hodder & Stoughton
According to Plan, Goldsworthy, IVP
At The Heart of the Universe, Peter Jensen, IVP
Mormon Teaching Notes, a systematic critique of the Mormon Missionary Discussions, Reachout Trust.