[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the second installment in a two-part critique of The Book of Mormon. Part I appeared in the September issue. Part II follows below, and continues, without introductory comments, where the first article ended. It is certainly not the intention either of Apologetics Press or the author of this article to insult, demean, or misrepresent Mormons. Nevertheless, multiplied thousands of individuals, who have embraced Mormon doctrine, deserve the opportunity to assess their beliefs in light of the Bible and in anticipation of eternity. We sincerely pray that no reader will take personal affront at what follows, but will simply weigh the evidence and arrive at the truth.]
Can Humans Become Gods?
One of the more eye-opening beliefs of Mormonism is the polytheistic notion that humans can become gods. Standard Mormon theology maintains that even God (the Father) and Jesus Christ were once human. They were preceded by other humans who themselves progressed to the status of gods.
Of course, this doctrine was not presented initially by Joseph Smith, but was developed after the production of The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon actually contradicts later Mormon revelation, in that it affirmed in 1830 the biblical doctrine of the oneness of God in three persons, i.e., the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Observe the conversation between Ammon and King Lamoni:
And then Ammon said: “Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?” And he said, “Yea.” And Ammon said: “This is God.” And Ammon said unto him again: “Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?” And he said: “Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens.” And Ammon said unto him: “The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels.... I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people” (Alma 18:26-30).
Nephi declared: “And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end” (2 Nephi 31:21, emp. added). Amulek contended with the diabolical Zeezrom: “And Zeezrom said unto him: Thou sayest there is a true and living God? And Amulek said: Yea, there is a true and living God. Now Zeezrom said: Is there more than one God? And he answered, No” (Alma 11:26-29, emp. added).
The Book of Mormon also affirmed that Jesus was God in the flesh:
And now Abinadi said unto them: “I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—the Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth” (Mosiah 15:1-4, emp. added).
Even the “three witnesses” to The Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, affirmed monotheism and the oneness of God: “And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God” (“The Testimony...,” 1981, emp. added). Joseph Smith affirmed the same thing in the Articles of Faith: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (Pearl of..., 1981, p. 60).
These teachings certainly are in harmony with the Bible. The Bible repeatedly and frequently affirms the doctrine of monotheism and the unity of God: Deuteronomy 4:35,39; 6:4; Isaiah 43:10-11; 44:6,8; 45:5; 46:9; Mark 12:29; Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4,6; 1 Timothy 2:5. These and many other passages indicate “there is but one infinite Spirit Being, and that within that one Spirit essence there are three personal distinctions, each of which may be, and is, called God” (Lanier, 1974, p. 46). There is only one divine essence (ousia) or nature (phusis)—a solidaric unity—one divine substance in (not and) three persons (prosopa or persona), with each “person” being the subsistence (hupostaseis) of the divine Essence [NOTE: For discussions of the biblical concept of Trinity and its treatment in church history, see Archer, 1982, pp. 357-361; Bickersteth, n.d.; Boles, 1942, pp. 19ff.; Chadwick, 1967, pp. 84ff.; Schaff, 1910, 3:670ff.; Walker, 1970, pp. 106ff.; Warfield, 1939a, 5:3012-3022].
But by 1844, Joseph Smith had begun to advocate a very different understanding of deity—in direct contradiction to The Book of Mormon. He began to promulgate the idea that God had, in fact, previously been a man Himself Who had become exalted, and that all men were capable of the same progression (see Tanner, 1972, p. 163). This shift was expressed formally in the Pearl of Great Price. In the Book of Moses, God is spoken of in the singular throughout. For example: “I am the Beginning and the End, the Almighty God; by mine Only Begotten I created these things; yea, in the beginning I created the heaven and the earth upon which thou standest” (2:1). In stark contrast, however, in the Book of Abraham, in a section discussing the same creation event, God is spoken of as “Gods.” For example:
And then the Lord said: “Let us go down.” And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth. ...And the Gods called the light Day, and the darkness they called Night. ...And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed. ...And the Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness. ...And the Gods planted a garden, eastward in Eden, and there they put the man, whose spirit they had put into the body which they had formed (4:1,5,18; 5:8, emp. added).
Anyone who is familiar with the King James Version cannot help but be struck with the fact that the author of the Book of Abraham had before him a copy of a KJV and merely paraphrased the text. It is equally apparent that the author “had an axe to grind” in adjusting the text to foist upon the reader the notion of multiple “gods.” In fact, in the 31 verses of chapter four, the term “Gods” is used 32 times. It is used 16 times in chapter 5. Polytheism now so thoroughly permeates Mormonism that one Mormon apostle asserted that humans are the offspring of the union between an Eternal Father and an Eternal Mother (McConkie, 1979, p. 516)!
“Let Us make man”
Separate and apart from the issue of the inspiration of The Book of Mormon, the question must be asked: Does the Bible give credence to the notion of multiple gods? Certainly not! However, various verses have been marshaled in an effort to defend the Mormon viewpoint. For example, on the sixth day of Creation, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). It is alleged by Mormons that the use of the plural in this verse implies a multiplicity of “gods.” However, an examination of the context reveals that the doctrine of the Trinity is being conveyed (see Leupold, 1942, 1:86ff.).
The Holy Spirit was active at the Creation, “hovering over the face of the waters” (1:2). “Hovering” refers to attentive participation (cf. Deuteronomy 32:11). Elsewhere, the Bible makes clear that Jesus also was present at the Creation, in active participation with Deity’s creative activity (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; 2:10). Hence, when God spoke of “Us,” He was referring to Himself and the other two members of the divine Essence [NOTE: Compare “Godhead” (theotes) in Colossians 2:9, “divine” nature (theios) in Acts 17:29 and 2 Peter 1:3-4, and “divinity” (theioteis) in Romans 1:20. The first term (theotes) differs from the third term (theioteis) “as essence differs from quality or attribute” (Thayer, 1901, p. 288; cf. Vine, 1966, pp. 328-329; Warfield, 1939b, 2:1268-1270)]. Some (e.g., Archer, 1982, p. 74) have suggested that God was including the angels in the “us,” since “sons of God” sometimes can refer to the angels (e.g., Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; cf. Psalms 29:1; 89:6), and “sons of God” can be shortened to “God” while still referring to angels (e.g., compare Psalm 97:7 with Hebrews 1:6, and Psalm 8:5 with Hebrews 2:7,9). In either case, the fact remains that the Bible presents a consistent picture that there is only one God, and that this divine essence includes three—and only three—persons.
“Ye shall be as gods”
Another verse that has been brought forward to substantiate Mormon polytheism is the comment made on the occasion of Adam and Eve being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit: “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5—NKJV). The King James Version says, “ye shall be as gods.” Four points of clarification are in order on this verse. In the first place, Satan made this statement—not God. Satan’s declarations are never to be trusted, since he is “a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
In the second place, the uncertainty conveyed by the various English translations in their differing treatment of the verse (i.e., whether “God” or “gods”) is the result of the underlying Hebrew term elohim. This word is not to be confused with Yahweh, the formal name for God throughout the Old Testament. Elohim is a generic term used some 2,570 times in Scripture, and generally refers to the one true God, but also is used to refer to pagan gods, and even can refer to human judges or rulers (e.g., Exodus 4:16; 7:1; 21:6; 22:9,28) and, as noted previously, to angels (Harris, et al., 1980, 1:44-45; Miller, 2008, pp. 114-115). Though the word is plural in form, it is used in both the plural and singular sense [cf. “face” (panim—Genesis 50:1; Exodus 34:35) and “image” (teraphim—1 Samuel 19:13)]. English shares a similar phenomenon with its plural nouns like “deer,” “seed,” “sheep,” and “moose.” The same form is used, whether referring to one or many. Hebrew, like most other languages, matched the number (whether singular or plural) of verbs and adjectives with the noun. In the case of elohim, with only rare exception, the verbs and adjectives used with it are either singular or plural in conformity with the intended meaning (Ringgren, 1974, p. 272). Fretheim noted that its use in the Old Testament for Israel’s God is “always with singular verbs” (1997, 1:405; cf. Archer, 1982, p. 74).
Some Hebrew scholars maintain that the plural form used to designate the one true God is the pluralis majestatis or excellentiae (the plural of majesty), or the plural of intensification, absolutization, or exclusivity (e.g., Fretheim, 1:405; Gesenius, 1847, p. 49; Harris, et al., p. 44; Mack, 1939, 2:1265; Reeve, 1939, 2:1270), although others question this usage (e.g., Grudem, 1994, p. 227; Jenni and Westermann, 1997, p. 116). In the case at hand, Satan was tempting Eve with the prospect of being like God—Whom she knew, and from Whom she (or at least her husband) had received previous communication (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:3). She knew nothing of other “gods”—pagan or otherwise. Since the term elohim occurs 58 times in the first three chapters of Genesis and is consistently rendered “God,” and since Satan himself used the term earlier in the same verse, as well as four verses earlier (vs. 1), to refer to the one God, no contextual, grammatical, or lexical reason exists for rendering it “gods” in verse five. In fact, most of the major English translations properly render it “God” (e.g., NKJV, ASV, NASB, NIV, RSV). [NOTE: See also the discussion in Clarke, n.d., 1:50, who noted that the ancient Syriac version rendered the term correctly].
Third, elohim in this verse has an attached prefix (Biblia Hebraica, 1967/77, p. 4)—what Hebrew scholars call an “inseparable preposition” (Weingreen, 1959, p. 26). In this case, the prepositional prefix is the 11th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the kaph, and means “like” or “as.” Satan was not saying that Eve would become God or a god; He was saying she would become like God. Francis Bacon noted in his Historia Naturalis: “For we copy the sin of our first parents while we suffer for it. They wished to be like God, but their posterity wish to be even greater” (as quoted in Church, 1884, p. 207, emp. added).
This realization brings us to a fourth point: the context stipulates in what way Eve would become like God. In the very verse under consideration, an explanatory phrase clarifies what Satan meant: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (emp. added). This meaning is evident from subsequent references in the same chapter. When they disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew...” (vs. 7, emp. added). God commented: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil” (vs. 22, emp. added). In other words, Adam and Eve became like God in the sense that they now were privy to a greater breadth of awareness, understanding, and insight:
They now had a sufficient discovery of their sin and folly in disobeying the command of God; they could discern between good and evil; and what was the consequence? Confusion and shame were engendered, because innocence was lost and guilt contracted (Clarke, p. 51).
As Keil and Delitzsch summarized: “By eating the fruit, man did obtain the knowledge of good and evil, and in this respect became like God” (1976, 1:95, emp. added).
God of gods
A third attempt to substantiate the Mormon doctrine of plural gods is the use of various verses from the Bible that speak of God being a “God of gods.” For example, on the occasion of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, the “Song of Moses” declared: “Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods?” (Exodus 15:11, emp. added). Forty years later, in his stirring challenge to the Israelites to be firm in their future commitment to God, Moses reminded them: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (Deuteronomy 10:17, emp. added). During the days of Joshua, some of the Israelites exclaimed: “The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, He knows” (Joshua 22:22, emp. added). These verses, and many more in the Bible, speak of “gods” in such a way that a cursory reading might leave one with the impression that the Bible teaches that “gods” actually existed. However, one cannot really study the Bible and come away with that conclusion. The Bible presents a thoroughgoing monotheistic view of reality. It repeatedly conveys the fact that “gods” are merely the figment of human imagination, invented by humans to provide themselves with exemption from following the one true God by living up to the higher standard of deity. Humans throughout history have conjured up their own imaginary gods to justify freedom from restriction and to excuse relaxed moral behavior.
Consequently, all verses in the Bible that use the term “gods” to refer to deity (with the exception of the one God) are referring to nonexistent, imaginary deities that humans have invented. When God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, the very first one said: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Liberal higher critics of the Bible (like Wellhausen) have alleged that this dictum advocated only monolatry (exclusive worship of Yahweh) rather than actually denying the existence of other gods. However, distinguished professor of Old Testament languages, Gleason Archer, maintains that “this construction of the words is quite unwarranted” (1974, p. 235). Many additional passages clarify the point. For example, the psalmist declared: “For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods” (Psalm 96:4, emp. added). One might get the impression from this verse by itself that the psalmist thought that “gods” actually existed. However, the next verse sets the record straight: “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (vs. 5, emp. added). The Hebrew word for “idols” (elilim) means “of nothing, of nought, empty, vain” (Gesenius, p. 51). Notice carefully the contrast the psalmist was making. The people made their gods; but the one true God made the heavens (i.e., the Universe). The genuineness, reality, and greatness of God are placed in contrast to the people’s fake, nonexistent gods who could not make anything. Archer concluded: “This passage alone...demonstrates conclusively that the mention of ‘gods’ in the plural implied no admission of the actual existence of heathen gods in the first commandment” (1974, p. 236). As God Himself announced: “They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God” (Deuteronomy 32:21, emp. added).
The denunciation of the Israelites for conjuring up false gods—pretending that such actually existed, rather than devoting themselves exclusively to the one and only God—reached its zenith in the eloquent preaching pronouncements of the Old Testament prophets. Elijah treated the notion of the existence of gods in addition to the one God with sarcasm and forthright ridicule (1 Kings 18:27-29). The idea of multiple gods would have been laughable, if it were not so spiritually serious (cf. Psalm 115:2-8). The people on that occasion finally got the point, for they shouted: “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” (vs. 39).
Likewise, the reality of monotheism was pure, well-defined, and single-minded for Jeremiah. He frequently chastised the people by accusing them of following gods that were, in fact, “not gods” (2:11; 5:7; 16:20). Isaiah was equally adamant and explicit:
You are My witnesses, says the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, nor shall there be after Me. I, even I, am the Lord, and besides Me there is no savior. I have declared and saved, I have proclaimed, and there was no foreign god among you; therefore you are My witnesses, says the Lord, that I am God. Indeed, before the day was, I am He; and there is no one who can deliver out of My hand; I work, and who will reverse it? (43:10-13, emp. added; cf. 37: 19; 40:18-20; 41; 44:8-24).
Over and over, Isaiah recorded the exclusivity of the one true God: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me” (45:5, emp. added); “There is no other God” (45:14, emp. added); “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (45:18, emp. added).
The New Testament continues the same recognition of the nonexistence of deities beyond the one God Who exists in three persons. Paul reminded the Galatian Christians of their pre-Christian foolish belief in other deities: “But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods” (4:8, emp. added). By definition, the “gods” that people claim actually exist are not gods. In his lengthy discussion of whether Christians were permitted to eat foods that had been sacrificed to pagan deities, Paul clarified succinctly the Bible position on the existence of so-called gods:
Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live (1 Corinthians 8:4-6, emp. added).
In this passage, Paul declared very forthrightly that idols, and the gods they represent, are, in fact, nonentities. The RSV renders the meaning even more clearly: “We know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one” (emp. added).
Of course, Paul recognized and acknowledged that humans have worshipped imaginary, nonexistent, “so-called” gods in heaven (like Greek mythology advocated) and on Earth (in the form of idols). He used the figure of speech known as “metonymy of the adjunct,” where “things are spoken of according to appearance, opinions formed respecting them, or the claims made for them” (Bullinger, 1898, p. 597; Dungan, 1888, p. 295; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4). He spoke of “gods” as if they existed, simply because many people of his day had that opinion. But Paul knew “there is no God but one.” As Allen observed: “The gods (i.e., the so-called divine beings contemplated by the pagans) represented by the images did not exist. ...[T]hey were nothing as far as representing the deities envisioned by the heathen” (1975, p. 98, emp. added; cf. Kelcy, 1967, p. 38; Thomas, 1984, p. 30).
Paul continued his discussion of idols two chapters later, and again affirmed the nonexistence of any deities besides God: “What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything?” (1 Corinthians 10:19). For Paul, it was technically permissible for a Christian to eat food that had previously been used in a pagan ceremony as an offering to a “god.” Why? Because such “gods” did not, and do not, actually exist—except in the mind of the worshipper (cf. 8:7-8)! Thus, the food used in such ceremonies was unaffected. However, the person who really thinks there are “gods,” and who then worships these imaginary “gods,” is, in actuality, worshipping demons (10:20). Paul said there are only two possibilities: “But I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (10:20-21). Paul envisioned no class of beings known as “gods.” There is only the one true God, and then there are the demons and forces of Satan (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:15-16). This bifurcation of the spiritual realm (i.e., God versus Satan and his forces) is the consistent portrait presented throughout the Bible. The Bible simply admits no knowledge or possibility of “gods.”
“Ye are gods”
A final passage that is alleged to support the notion of “gods” is the statement made by Jesus when the Jews wanted to stone Him because He claimed divinity for Himself:
The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”?’ If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came...do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”? (John 10:33-36).
Mormons allege that Jesus here endorsed the notion that men can become “gods.” But, of course, Jesus did no such thing. On this occasion, He appealed to an Old Testament context to deflect the barb of His critics. Psalm 82 is a passage that issued a scathing indictment of the unjust judges who had been assigned the responsibility of executing God’s justice among the people (cf. Deuteronomy 1:16; 19:17-18; Psalm 58). Such a magistrate was “God’s minister” (Romans 13:4) who acted in the place of God, wielding His authority, and who was responsible for mediating God’s help and justice (cf. Exodus 7:1). In this sense, they were “gods” (elohim)—acting as God to men (Barclay, 1956, 2:89). Hebrew parallelism clarifies this sense: “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High’” (Psalm 82:6, emp. added). They did not share divinity with God—but merely delegated jurisdiction. They still were mere humans—although invested with divine authority, and permitted to act in God’s behalf.
This point is apparent throughout the Torah, where the term translated “judges” or “ruler” is often elohim (e.g., Exodus 21:6; 22:9,28). Take Moses as an example. Moses was not a “god.” Yet God told Moses that when he went to Egypt to orchestrate the release of the Israelites, he would be “God” to his brother Aaron and to Pharaoh (Exodus 4:16; 7:1). He meant that Moses would supply both his brother and Pharaoh with the words that came from God. Though admittedly a rather rare use of elohim, nevertheless “it shows that the word translated ‘god’ in that place might be applied to man” (Barnes, 1949, p. 294, emp. in orig.). Clarke summarized this point: “Ye are my representatives, and are clothed with my power and authority to dispense judgment and justice, therefore all of them are said to be children of the Most High” (3:479, emp. in orig.). But because they had shirked their awesome responsibility to represent God’s will fairly and accurately, and because they had betrayed the sacred trust bestowed upon them by God Himself, He decreed death upon them (vs. 7). Obviously, they were not “gods,” since God could and would execute them!
Jesus marshaled this Old Testament psalm to thwart His opponents’ attack, while simultaneously reaffirming His deity (which is the central feature of the book of John—20:30-31). He made shrewd use of syllogistic argumentation by reasoning a minori ad majus (see Lenski, 1943, pp. 765-770; cf. Fishbane, 1985, p. 420). “Jesus is here arguing like a rabbi from a lesser position to a greater position, a ‘how much more’ argument very popular among the rabbis” (Pack, 1975, 1:178). In fact, “it is an argument which to a Jewish Rabbi would have been entirely convincing. It was just the kind of argument, an argument founded on a word of scripture, which the Rabbis loved to use and found most unanswerable” (Barclay, 1956, p. 90).
Jesus identified the unjust judges of Israel as persons “to whom the word of God came” (John 10:35). That is, they had been “appointed judges by Divine commission” (Butler, 1961, p. 127)—by “the command of God; his commission to them to do justice” (Barnes, 1949, p. 294, emp. in orig.; cf. Jeremiah 1:2; Ezekiel 1:3; Luke 3:2). McGarvey summarized the ensuing argument of Jesus: “If it was not blasphemy to call those gods who so remotely represented the Deity, how much less did Christ blaspheme in taking unto himself a title to which he had a better right than they, even in the subordinate sense of being a mere messenger” (n.d., p. 487). Charles Erdman observed:
By his defense Jesus does not renounce his claim to deity; but he argues that if the judges, who represented Jehovah in their appointed office, could be called “gods,” in the Hebrew scriptures, it could not be blasphemy for him, who was the final and complete revelation of God, to call himself “the Son of God (1922, pp. 95-96; cf. Morris, 1971, pp. 527-528).
This verse teaches the exact opposite of what Mormons would like for it to teach! It brings into stark contrast the deity—the Godhood—of Christ (and His Father Who “sanctified and sent” Him—vs. 36) with the absence of deity for all others! There are no other “gods” in the sense of deity, i.e., eternality and infinitude in all attributes. Jesus verified this very conclusion by directing the attention of His accusers to the “works” that He performed (vs. 37-38). These “works” (i.e., miraculous signs) proved the divine identity of Jesus to the exclusion of all other alleged deities. Archer concluded: “By no means, then, does our Lord imply here that we are sons of God just as He is—except for a lower level of holiness and virtue. No misunderstanding could be more wrongheaded than that” (1982, p. 374). Indeed, the Mormon notion of a plurality of gods is “wrongheaded,” as is the accompanying claim that humans can become gods.
It is unthinkable that the consistent prohibition of polytheism and idolatry throughout the Bible would or could give way to the completely contrary notion that, as a matter of fact, many gods do exist, and that these gods are merely exalted humans who now rule over their own worlds even as God and Christ rule over theirs. It is likewise outlandish—and contradictory—that humans would be required to worship God and Christ—while being banned from worshipping these other gods. The fact of the matter is that “historic Hebrew is unquestionably and uniformly monotheistic” (Mack, 1939, 2:1265). The same may be said of historic Christianity. To think otherwise is pure pagan hocus-pocus—“a mere creation of the imagination, a mere matter of superstition” (Erdman, 1928, p. 78, emp. added).
Baptism for the Dead
Another troubling, yet prominent, Mormon doctrine is the “ordinance” of baptism for the dead. The doctrine is alluded to several times in Doctrine and Covenants. Mormons allege that, for many people who have lived, water baptism was not available, or they died before learning about “the true gospel and baptism by the proper priesthood authority” (Primary 5: Doctrine...,” 1997, p. 193). For those people who would have received the Gospel, been baptized, and lived righteously if they had been given the opportunity, God instituted “proxy” baptism in which Mormons are baptized “vicariously” on their behalf: “We can do for these people what they cannot do for themselves” (p. 193), thus enabling them to be in the “celestial kingdom” (D&C 127:7). As one of the Council of the Twelve stated: “With proper authority an individual [can] be baptized for and in behalf of someone who...never had the opportunity. That individual [can] then accept or reject the baptism, according to his own desire” (Packer, 1975, p. 97). D. Todd Christofferson, of the Presidency of the Seventy, explained that “Today’s expansive construction of temples across the world has as one of its primary purposes to provide the place where ordinances essential to salvation may be performed for those who, in life, were not privileged to receive them” (2000, p. 9).
According to Mormonism, this ritual may only be done in a Mormon temple:
For this ordinance belongeth to my house.... For verily I say unto you, that after you have had sufficient time to build a house to me, wherein the ordinance of baptizing for the dead belongeth, and for which the same was instituted from before the foundation of the world, your baptisms for your dead cannot be acceptable unto me (D&C 124:30,33, emp. added).
The baptisms must be duly recorded and meticulous records kept:
And again, I give unto you a word in relation to the baptism for your dead. Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead: When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms.... And again, let all the records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my holy temple, to be held in remembrance from generation to generation, saith the Lord of Hosts (D&C 127:6,9, emp. added).
Consequently, the LDS Church in Salt Lake City maintains the most extensive genealogical records in the world (cf. Petersen, 1980, p. 34).
Despite the teaching of proxy baptism in Doctrine and Covenants, The Book of Mormon forcefully teaches that the eternal destiny of those who reject the truth while in the body is fixed at death, with no possibility of repentance after death:
For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.... I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doeth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked (Alma 34:32-35; see also 42:4,13,28; Helaman 13:38; 2 Nephi 9:24-25,27; Mosiah 2:36,39, emp. added).
Not only do Mormon scriptures contradict each other on the doctrine of baptism for the dead, the doctrine most certainly contradicts what the Bible teaches from beginning to end. Many passages eliminate the possibility of post-earthly life conversion/salvation by stressing the singular necessity of responding obediently to God in this life:
- “When a wicked man dies, his expectation will perish, and the hope of the unjust perishes” (Proverbs 11:7).
- “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
- “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
When the rich man died and entered into the hadean realm, his spiritual condition was cinched, based strictly upon his behavior while on Earth. When he expressed his desire to be assisted with his tormented condition, Abraham responded:
“Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us” (Luke 16:25-26, emp. added).
Observe that Abraham made clear that the rich man’s predicament was permanent and could not be altered. When this reality became apparent to the rich man, his thoughts immediately turned to his brothers on Earth and a strong desire to prevent their coming to his location:
Then he said, “I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” Abraham said to him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But he said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:27-31).
Observe that Abraham’s response to the rich man proves that no offer of proxy baptism is available in the afterlife. Abraham surely would have indicated its availability to both the rich man and his brothers. Instead, Abraham demonstrates the only means for a person to be saved in eternity: hearing and obeying God’s Word while still on Earth. We have only this life in which to make our decisions, and when we leave this life, we have no further opportunities to repent (cf. John 8:24).
1 Corinthians 15:29
But doesn’t the Bible speak of “baptism for the dead”? Yes, it does, in Paul’s discussion of the resurrection: “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” Does this verse teach that people who are alive on the Earth can be baptized, and the efficacy of that baptism then be offered to those who already have died and are in the spirit realm? Referring to this very verse, Mormon President Howard Hunter affirmed:
Latter-day prophets have told us that baptism is an earthly ordinance that can be performed only by the living. How then can those who are dead be baptized if only the living can perform the ordinance? That was the theme of the Apostle Paul’s writing to the Corinthians when he asked this question: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:29) (1995, p. 2).
But this verse is not teaching proxy baptism as practiced by the Mormons. At least four adequate explanations exist that avoid contradicting the rest of the Bible.
First, “dead” refers to the “old man of sin” (Romans 6:6). We are baptized for the dead in the sense that we are baptized in water to eliminate the dead man of sin. Hence Paul was asking why one would be baptized to eliminate the old man of sin in anticipation of eternal acceptance if the resurrection will not be forthcoming.
Second, “dead” refers to the world of lost souls—those who are spiritually dead. “They” refers to the apostles and “baptism” refers to the baptism of suffering that the apostles endured in order to make known the Gospel to the world (alluded to in passages like Mark 10:38-39, Luke 12:50, Acts 9:16, and 1 Corinthians 4:9). Thus Paul was asking why the apostles would subject themselves to the baptism of suffering, in behalf of the spiritually dead people of the world if, in fact, no one has hope of the resurrection.
Third, “they” refers to those who are baptized in water on the basis of the preaching and teaching done by those who had since died. In other words, why would a person obey the command to be baptized, and thereby have hope of life beyond the grave, if the one who taught the person to be baptized has since died and will not be raised from the dead?
Fourth, Paul was using the logical argument form known as argumentum ad hominem—an argument based upon what men were doing at that time and with which the readers would be familiar. The Corinthians were familiar with people who practiced an immersion for the benefit of the dead. He used the third person pronoun “they” as opposed to “you” or “we.” New Testament baptism would have been referred to in the first or second person. This tactic of referring to what outsiders were doing (without implying endorsement) to make a valid spiritual point was used by Paul on other occasions (e.g., Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12).
These four possible interpretations each have contextual evidence to support them. None of the four contradicts any other Bible doctrine, as does the Mormon spin on the passage. What is critically important is that we not miss Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15. He brought up the subject of “baptism for the dead” for one reason: to reaffirm the reality of the resurrection. Christians were being drawn into the destructive heresy that the general resurrection is fictitious. In a setting where he ardently defended the actuality and centricity of the resurrection, he advanced two questions. If the resurrection and end-time events are not to occur, then “why are they baptized for the dead?” and “why do the apostles stand in jeopardy every hour?” (vss. 29-30). He wanted the Corinthians to face the fact that many things Christians do have meaning only if resurrection is an anticipated and ultimate objective. If when we die, that’s it—no future conscious existence—why take risks living the Christian life as the apostles frequently did? If this life is all there is, forget Christianity and live it up (vs. 32). But resurrection is coming! So do not live this life indulging the flesh and mingling with those who will influence you to do so (vs. 33). Live righteously, and get your mind straight in view of your knowledge of the coming resurrection (vs. 34). In other words, the reality of the resurrection has a direct bearing on how a person lives while in the body on Earth, since his spiritual status is made permanent at death, and that condition will be brought forward at the resurrection. This verse provides no corroboration of the Mormon doctrine of vicarious baptism.
1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6
Mormon President Joseph F. Smith claimed that on October 3, 1918, while pondering in his Salt Lake City room, he opened his Bible to 1 Peter chapters 3-4. Having read 3:18-20 and 4:6, he claims he received a vision explaining that the verses referred to Jesus initiating the preaching of the Gospel, via the righteous dead, to other deceased persons in the spirit world, so that they might receive baptism enacted on their behalf on Earth (D&C 138; cf. Smith, 1971, p. 2; see also the remarks by Spencer Condie, one of the 70 (2003, p. 26).
Does 1 Peter 3:18-20 teach that Jesus descended into the spirit realm and preached to deceased people? Proper exegetical analysis, with a close consideration of the grammar, will clarify the passage. First, the preaching referred to was not done by Jesus in His own person. The text says Jesus did the preaching through the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit, by whom...” (vss. 18-19, emp. added). [NOTE: Observe that “My Spirit” in Genesis 6:3 is equivalent to “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” in Romans 8:9.] Other passages confirm that Jesus was said to do things that He actually did physically through the instrumentality of others (cf. John 4:1-2). Paul said Jesus preached peace to the Gentiles (Ephesians 2:17), when, in fact, Jesus did so through others, since He, Himself, already had returned to heaven when the first Gentiles heard the Gospel by Peter’s mouth (Acts 15:7). Similarly, Nathan charged King David: “You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword” (2 Samuel 12:9), when, in fact, David had ordered it done by another. Elijah accused Ahab of killing Naboth, using the words, “Have you murdered and also taken possession?” (1 Kings 21:19), even though his wife, Jezebel, arranged for two other men to accomplish the evil action. So the Bible frequently refers to someone doing something that he, in fact, did through the agency of another person.
Within the book of 1 Peter itself, Peter already had made reference to the fact that the Spirit of Christ “testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:11). But it was the prophets who did the actual speaking, according to verse 10. Then, again, in chapter 4, Peter stated that “the gospel was preached also to those who are dead” (1 Peter 4:6). Here were individuals who had the Gospel preached to them while they were alive (“in the flesh”), and who responded favorably by becoming Christians. But then they were “judged according to men in the flesh,” i.e., they were treated harshly and condemned to martyrdom by their contemporaries. At the time Peter was writing, they were “dead,” i.e., deceased and departed from the Earth. But Peter said they “live according to God in the spirit,” i.e., they were alive and well in spirit form in the hadean realm in God’s good graces. The contextual point of the passage is that no matter what happens in this life to deter a person from being right with God, he or she can, in fact, obey the Gospel and, hence, be in the proper spiritual condition upon leaving this life and entering into the spirit realm.
Second, when did Jesus do this preaching through the Holy Spirit? Notice in verse 20, the words “formerly” (NKJV) and “when”—“when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah.” So the preaching was done in the days of Noah by Jesus via the Holy Spirit Who, in turn, prompted Noah’s inspired preaching (2 Peter 2:5).
Third, why are these people to whom Noah preached said to be “spirits in prison”? Because at the time Peter was writing the words, that is where those people were situated. Those who were drowned in the Flood of Noah’s day descended into the hadean realm, where they continued to reside in Peter’s day. This realm is the same location where the rich man was placed (Luke 16:23), as were the sinning angels (“Tartarus”—2 Peter 2:4). However, Jesus did not go to that “prison” or “Tartarus.” He said He went to “Paradise” (Luke 23:43). [NOTE: For a discussion of the hadean realm see Miller, 2005, 4:1-R, and Miller, 2003.]
Fourth, why would Jesus go to Hades and preach only to Noah’s contemporaries? Why would He exclude those who died prior to the Flood? What about those who have died since? Since God is no “respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11), Jesus would not have singled out Noah’s generation to be the recipients of preaching in the spirit realm.
Fifth, what would have been the content of such preaching? Jesus could not have preached the whole Gospel in its entirety. That Gospel includes the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:4). However, at the time the alleged preaching was supposed to have occurred, Jesus had not yet been raised!
Here, perhaps, is the most important consideration: The notion of people being given a second opportunity to hear the Gospel in the afterlife is an extremely dangerous doctrine that is counterproductive to the cause of Christ. Why? It naturally and inevitably makes people think they can postpone their obedience to the Gospel. Yet the Bible consistently teaches that no one will be permitted a second chance. This earthly life has been provided by God for all human beings to determine where they wish to spend eternity. That is, in fact, the whole point of earthly existence. Each individual chooses his or her eternal abode based solely upon personal conduct in this life. Once a person dies, his eternal destiny has been fixed. He is “reserved for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4; cf. vss. 9,17), and then he is given his unending (“everlasting”) eternal abode—either ongoing, permanent punishment or perpetual life with God (Matthew 25:46; cf. Revelation 20:10-15). His condition will not and cannot be altered—even by God Himself (Luke 16:25-26; Hebrews 9:27). Indeed, according to the Mormon “Book of Moses” (8:16-30) in the Pearl of Great Price, Noah declared the Gospel to his contemporaries for a lengthy period (“Noah continued his preaching...” [vs. 23]), yet the people persisted in their rejection of the Gospel. Why, then, would God offer them a second chance in the spirit world? The answer is that the God of the Bible would not do so, while the god of Mormonism would.
Another passage that has been marshaled in an effort to give biblical credence to the doctrine of proxy baptism is Hebrews 11:40. Mark Peterson, a member of the Council of the Twelve, explained:
When visitors have gone from room to room prior to the dedication of these temples, explanations have been given concerning the work done there. Always a center of interest is the baptismal font. In each of the temples this font rests upon the backs of twelve stone or bronze oxen, following in this, as in other particulars, the pattern given by the Prophet Joseph Smith as he instituted temple building in his day under the direction of the Lord. Why is there a baptismal font in the temple? Cannot people be baptized anywhere? The living, yes. But the font in the temple is for vicarious baptisms performed in behalf of the dead. Baptism for the dead? Is that a Christian doctrine? In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read about the forefathers of the faithful and then the author declares “that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40), showing that there is a definite relationship between the salvation of the living and the dead (Peterson, 1980, emp. added).
Mormon exegesis of the Bible leaves much to be desired. A simple perusal of the context of Hebrews 11 demonstrates that the writer hardly had Mormon vicarious baptism in view.
The central purpose of Hebrews was to provide Hebrew Christians with encouragement not to revert to the inferior system of Judaism to which they were habituated, but to remain firm in their commitment to Christ and His new covenant: “But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:39). Hence, the Hebrews writer was simply pointing out that all persons who lived on Earth prior to the advent of the Gospel and the Christian religion are ultimately dependent on the blood of Christ and the propitiation it provides. Referring to Jesus, Paul explains: “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Romans 3:25). All who lived prior to the sacrifice of Christ could be saved only in anticipation of that atoning act, as pre-planned by deity in eternity (Revelation 13:8). In that sense, “they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11:40, NKJV). This verse is actually employing the figure of speech known as metonymy of the effect, in which the effect is put for the cause producing it (see Bullinger, 1898, p. 560). In this case, the effect (“us,” i.e., we Christians—those who are the beneficiaries of the completed system of salvation) is mentioned in place of the means of salvation—the same means that enables those prior to the Cross to be saved as well—via the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In his 1880 commentary on Hebrews, Robert Milligan summarized the point:
The phrase “without us” may therefore be taken as equivalent to without the religion which through Christ we now actually enjoy.... [A]s the ancients were not, and could not, be perfected without the cleansing efficacy of his blood, it may be truthfully said, that they were not perfected “without us” and the “better thing” which we by the grace of God now actually enjoy (p. 335, italics in orig.).
Indeed, this passage has absolutely nothing to do with an alleged vicarious role enacted by living Mormons in behalf of the deceased. The idea is preposterous, completely foreign to the book of Hebrews, and in conflict with the entire scheme of redemption as worked out through centuries of human history and reported to us on the pages of the Bible.
An honest and humble appraisal of these and many other discrepancies should create great concern in the heart of one who believes Mormon documents to be inspired. Many criticisms have been leveled against the Bible over the centuries, yet have been answered decisively (e.g., Lyons, 2003; Lyons, 2005; Archer, 1982; Haley, 1977). If The Book of Mormon were from God, it, too, could be defended and its divine authenticity substantiated. However, the lack of adequate explanations to clarify such problems compels the honest individual to conclude that The Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures do not derive their origin from the God of the Bible.
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