This is the third installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” If you missed the previous installments, I hope you will read at least the first part of this series. In this third part, I will address the question of whether the Book of Mormon contains any evidence supporting Joseph Smith’s later doctrine of exaltation.
Peterson’s Proof Text
According to Peterson, that doctrine was “implicit…though perhaps unnoticed, in the Book of Mormon,” in the following statement that the Book of Mormon attributes to Jesus:
“And ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one” (3 Nephi 28:10).
Peterson offers the following reasoning for construing this passage to teach that people can become “like the Father”:
When we apply the transitive law of mathematics to this passage — according to which, if “a” equals “b” and “b” equals “c,” it follows necessarily that “a” equals “c” — the conclusion is inescapable that, if humans can be like the exalted Christ, and if the exalted Christ is like the Father, then humans can be like the Father.
Here it is necessary to reiterate that all orthodox Christians agree that people can and should become “like” God the Father in some respects. For example, Peter tells us that we should be holy like God (1 Peter 1:15-16). The question is whether human beings can become like God in every respect. Frankly, 3 Nephi 28:10 says nothing of the sort. It is easy to see how one might think so if one takes the line “and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one” out of context. Consider, for example, Paul’s statement, “I wish that all people were even as I am myself” (1 Cor. 7:7). Does this mean that Paul wishes that all people were middle-aged men with poor vision? Does it mean that Paul wishes that all people were Jewish, or that they all spoke Greek, or that they all traveled around without a permanent home? Of course not. To understand Paul’s statement, all we have to do is read it in context. When he says that he wishes all people were like him, he means he wishes all people could be single and therefore free of the distractions of marriage (see vv. 8-24).
Likewise, if we want to understand the statement in 3 Nephi 28:10 correctly, we need to read it in context. The first step in this endeavor is to find out to whom Jesus was supposedly speaking. According to the text, Jesus was giving special promises to “the three” (v. 4), that is, three of the twelve Nephite disciples. The text goes out of its way to distinguish Jesus’ conversation with the nine (vv. 2-3) from his conversation with the three (vv. 4-11). This means that we should at the very least be cautious about generalizing from verse 10 as to what God’s intentions are for all of his people. Peterson glosses over this contextual element by saying without qualification that Jesus made this statement “to his Nephite disciples.”
Next, we need to take a closer look at what the text says Jesus promised the three. The special promises the text says he made to them were that they would never die or feel physical pain, sit down in his Father’s kingdom (presumably in a special place), and experience “fulness of joy” (vv. 7-10; also vv. 37-38). These are spectacular promises, but they fall far short of promising that the three would become gods of the same essential nature as Jesus and the Father. When the text goes on to quote Jesus as saying, “and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one,” this seems to mean in context that the three disciples will share the same joy that Jesus and the Father share.
We should observe, once again, that most if not all of the essential elements of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation cannot even be thought of as implicit in this passage. (I listed seven such elements in Part One and reiterated them in Part Two.) Nothing here so much as hints that God has not always been God, that he was a man like us before becoming God, that he is an exalted man, that human beings preexisted the world as God’s spirit children in heaven, or that we became physical beings as a stepping stone to becoming Gods like the Father. One must go beyond what the text says in context to read into it (as Peterson does) the notion that human beings can become like the Father in all essential respects.
The Book of Mormon God: Unchangeable from All Eternity
Not only does this lone proof text not offer clear support to any of the seven essential elements of the LDS doctrine of exaltation, the Book of Mormon as a whole exhibits a theological framework that precludes such a doctrine. The most serious conflict between Book of Mormon theology and Joseph’s Smith exaltation theology has to do with the doctrine of God. In the Book of Mormon, there is most emphatically only one God, and he has been God from all eternity. For example, Moroni 8:18 affirms, “For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.” Some Mormons argue that God is unchangeable now that he has attained deity, but that this doesn’t require him to have been unchangeable always or from eternity. However, Moroni 8:18 flatly contradicts this idea. Its wording clearly means that God’s existence and unchangeable nature stretches backward infinitely as well as forward infinitely. That is, it means that God has always existed and been unchangeable and that he will always exist and be unchangeable. No one, I assume, is willing to deny that “to all eternity” means that God will continue to exist, as God, forever and ever, absolutely without end. Given that understanding, which I think is beyond reasonable doubt, “from all eternity” in this same context must mean that God’s existence as God goes back forever and ever, absolutely without beginning.
Moroni 8:18 isn’t the only place in the Book of Mormon where this language is used. Mosiah 3:5 describes Jesus Christ as “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity.” Alma 13:7 states that the order of the high priesthood of the Son of God “was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things.” Notice here that being “from eternity to all eternity” is synonymous with “being without beginning of days or end of years.” Similarly, Moroni 7:22 speaks of “God knowing all things, being from everlasting to everlasting.”
Other LDS scriptures outside the Book of Mormon that Joseph produced within the first couple of years after publishing the Book of Mormon reflect the same doctrine. Moses 6:7 describes Jesus Christ as “him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.” Twice more the Book of Moses describes the Lord as being “from all eternity to all eternity” (Moses 7:29, 31). Joseph Smith’s revelations during the first two years of the LDS Church also express the same idea. Doctrine & Covenants 20:17, perhaps the most emphatic of all these statements, says, “By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them.” D&C 39:1 says, “Hearken and listen to the voice of him who is from all eternity to all eternity, the Great I Am, even Jesus Christ.” Here, in traditional Christian fashion, Joseph Smith uses the words “the Great I Am” as a title of deity that expresses the absolute eternity of Jesus Christ. Likewise, Joseph Smith affirmed concerning the Lord, “From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail” (D&C 76:4). D&C 61:1 describes God as the one “who has all power, who is from everlasting to everlasting, even Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Such statements about God almost completely disappear in the LDS scriptures after 1832 (though see D&C 109:77, where in 1836 God was said to be enthroned “from everlasting to everlasting”). By 1843 Joseph Smith’s doctrine had changed so much that he could assert that those who faithfully practiced polygamy as part of their LDS faith would in the resurrection “be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them” (D&C 132:20). Here “from everlasting to everlasting” does not refer to divine status from all eternity, as Joseph explains (“because they continue”). Well before this revelation, Joseph had begun teaching that all of us are also eternal beings without beginning. This passage in D&C 132 is explicit in teaching the human side of Joseph’s doctrine of exaltation.
By contrast, the earlier statements quoted above from the Book of Mormon and other early revelations of Joseph Smith all rather clearly express the traditional Christian belief that God, the personal Creator of the universe, exists eternally as God, without any beginning or end of his existence or of his divine nature. This conclusion is consistent with the evidence (and there’s a lot of it) to show that before 1833 Joseph Smith accepted more or less the same generic Christian conception of God that he had inherited from his early nineteenth-century Protestant Christian environment. During the period from 1833 to 1843 Joseph’s theology underwent almost constant development, leading to his radical departure from the more traditional theology found in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon, then, explicitly contradicts Joseph Smith’s later theological assertion that God has not always been God but instead became God.
The Book of Mormon God: A Spirit Who Became a Man, Not a Man Who Became a God
Consistent with its more traditional Christian theology, the Book of Mormon views God as a being of spirit who came to earth in the flesh, not as an exalted man of flesh and bones as Joseph later taught. The Book of Mormon teaches not that a man became God but that God became a man.
In one section, the Book of Mormon contains repeated references to God as “the Great Spirit” (Alma 18:2-5, 11, 18, 26, 28; 19:25, 27; 22:9-11), as in the following verse: “Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?” (Alma 18:28; cf. 22:10). This “Great Spirit” was not going to remain mere spirit forever, though, but was going to come to the earth as Christ. Later the book of Alma describes a group of people called the Zoramites who believe in God but with some false beliefs, including both a denial of the coming of Christ and a doctrine of election that sounds suspiciously like a modern caricature of Calvinism:
“Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever. Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ. But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God” (Alma 31:15-17).
We should not understand this passage to be criticizing all of the beliefs the Zoramites affirmed but to be condemning their rejection of the traditions, their denial of Christ, and their belief in election. Their affirmation that God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” for example, is explicitly stated with obvious approval elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 10:18; 2 Nephi 2:4; 27:23; 29:9; Mormon 9:9; 10:19) and in two early sections of Doctrine & Covenants dating from 1830 (20:12; 35:1). When the Zoramites say the same thing, however, they say it in support of their denial that God is going to come in the flesh as Christ. Their belief that God was, is, and always will be spirit is held up as false insofar as it denies that God will come in the flesh as a human being—as Jesus Christ. This passage, then, does not deny that God was simply spirit prior to his coming in the flesh as Christ.
Two passages that Mormons often cite to show that the Book of Mormon agreed with Joseph Smith’s later doctrine that God the Father was an exalted Man with a body of flesh actually show otherwise:
“And because he said unto them that Christ was the God, the Father of all things, and said that he should take upon him the image of man, and it should be the image after which man was created in the beginning; or in other words, he said that man was created after the image of God, and that God should come down among the children of men, and take upon him flesh and blood, and go forth upon the face of the earth” (Mosiah 7:27).
“Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image. Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh” (Ether 3:15-16).
Mormons assume that if these texts say that human beings were created in God’s “image” then the texts must imply that God had a physical body. However, the texts do not say this, and in fact Mosiah 7:27 implies otherwise and Ether 3:15-16 explicitly says otherwise. Mosiah 7:27 asserts that God created man after his image and that he was going to “come down…and take upon him flesh and blood.” It might be possible to quibble that here “flesh and blood” denotes the mortal human condition and not the physical body per se. However, Ether 3:15-16 is explicitly contrary to such an interpretation. The conventional belief (based on Genesis 1:26-27) that God created man after his image is interpreted here to mean that God created man “after the body of [his] spirit.” We see here the notion, which though not strictly orthodox has been a fairly popular belief in the history of Christianity, that God has a “body of spirit,” that is, an anthropomorphic shape composed of pure spirit rather than of flesh. That this is what the text means is confirmed by the conclusion of the verse, in which Christ (who in Book of Mormon theology is God in the flesh) announces that later he will appear to his people “in the flesh.”
Elsewhere, the Book of Mormon states that Christ “shall manifest himself unto them in the flesh” (2 Nephi 25:12; see also 2 Nephi 32:6; Jacob 4:11; Enos 1:8; Mosiah 15:2-7). It affirms that “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5). The Book of Mormon also says that God “created all flesh” (Jacob 2:21), which would again seem to presuppose that God was not himself a being of flesh. The early sections of Doctrine & Covenants also express this same idea that Jesus Christ was God come in the flesh (D&C 20:1, 26; 93:11).
The Book of Mormon, then, disagrees with the idea that God the Father was a man of flesh who then went on to become a God. It teaches, rather, that God was a being of spirit who became a man of flesh by the name of Jesus Christ.
Book of Mormon Humanity: Not Preexistent Spirits
An essential element of the LDS doctrine of exaltation is that human beings preexisted in heaven as God’s spirit sons and daughters before coming to earth with physical bodies. This idea is essential to Mormon exaltation doctrine because that doctrine views God, humans, and angels as beings of the same species but at different stages of progression or development. In Joseph Smith’s later theology, as in Mormon theology now, it would not be correct to say that God created us. God may have created or made our physical bodies (or those of the first earth people, Adam and Eve), but in LDS doctrine we are eternal beings, just as much as God or Christ, and with the same divine potential.
The Book of Mormon, however, does not teach this idea that human beings preexisted as God’s spirit children in heaven. In fact, what it does say undermines or contradicts that idea. We have already noted the fact that it repeatedly refers to God as “from eternity to eternity” or “from everlasting to everlasting,” in contexts where this description clearly marks God apart from human beings and the rest of creation. Those affirmations about God, then, implicitly deny that we are also eternal spirits that have always existed.
The Book of Mormon presents much more evidence on this point in the form of statements that directly pertain to the nature of humanity. For example, the Book of Mormon refers ten times to Adam and Eve as “our first parents” (1 Nephi 5:11; 2 Nephi 2:15; 9:9; Mosiah 16:3; Alma 12:21, 26; 42:2, 7; Helaman 6:26; Ether 8:25). Since it never qualifies this description in any way (for example, by calling them “our first parents on earth”), the natural way to take these words is that Adam and Eve were literally our very first parents. By contrast, in Joseph Smith’s later theology, God the Father was our first literal parent (and in Mormon doctrine soon after Joseph Smith’s death, the idea arose that we were all spirit children of heavenly parents, Heavenly Father and a heavenly mother).
In a passage I quoted earlier, the Book of Mormon quotes Jesus as saying:
“Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters” (Ether 3:14).
This statement presupposes that human beings are not already God’s literal sons and daughters but affirms that they can become his sons and daughters through faith in Christ. We saw in Part Two that this is also the teaching of the New Testament. Mormons today sometimes try to explain such statements by a theological distinction not found in any of these texts. They suggest that human beings are already literal children of Heavenly Father but that through faith in Christ they can also become in a spiritual sense children of Jesus Christ. Such an explanation seems especially artificial when Ether 3:14 explicitly identifies Jesus Christ as both “the Father and the Son.” Of course, in the New Testament Christians become children of God the Father through their faith in his Son Jesus Christ (e.g., John 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14-17, 29; Gal. 4:4-7).
Elsewhere, the Book of Mormon consistently speaks of human beings as having the beginning of their existence as physical beings. God creates us as beings of flesh, formed from the dust (Jacob 2:21; Mormon 9:17). We owe our lives and continued existence from day to day to his creating and sustaining us (Mosiah 2:20-23). God “created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are,” and specifically “created our first parents” (2 Nephi 2:14-15). All of these statements reflect quite traditional Christian beliefs that were common to Joseph Smith’s theological environment in early nineteenth-century America, and there is no reason to take them in any other way than just as they sound in that context.
Let me comment briefly on one passage in the Book of Mormon that some Mormons cite as reflecting a belief in the preexistence of human spirits. That passage states that priests were “called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God…. this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts” (Alma 13:3, 5). Surely, though, we should understand this passage to mean not that the priests themselves existed “from the foundation of the world,” but rather their “calling” was “prepared” for them “according to the foreknowledge of God.” That is, God knew ahead of time that these men would be suitable for the priestly office and so “prepared” that calling for them. Such a passage cannot overturn the considerable evidence from the more than a dozen passages cited above that show that the Book of Mormon reflects the traditional Christian belief that our existence begins on earth as physical beings.
Conclusion: The Book of Mormon Does Not Teach the Exaltation Doctrine
If, as we have seen, the Book of Mormon teaches a more traditional view of God and man, one that is not compatible with Joseph Smith’s later doctrine of exaltation, then clearly the Book of Mormon does not teach that doctrine. And in fact no passage in the Book of Mormon supports the LDS belief taught later by Joseph Smith that human beings can become Gods with the same powers as God the Father and creating and ruling over their own worlds. It does not even teach anything that might be described as a form of theosis, or the Greek Christian doctrine of deification.
The Book of Mormon affirms, as Christians traditionally have also believed, that God’s people can do anything that he empowers and authorizes them to do (e.g., 1 Nephi 9:6; 17:50; 2 Nephi 1:10; Mosiah 5:3; Alma 20:4; 26:12; 37:16; Helaman 10:5; Moroni 10:23). However, these affirmations are not eschatological statements about our future, post-resurrection glorified state, but assurances of God’s powerful presence among God’s people in the here and now. They are not teaching that we will become omnipotent beings, but rather that the Omnipotent One is able to accomplish anything he wishes through the agency of his people when they trust him and obey his direction.
The disparity between the theology of the Book of Mormon and the theology of Joseph Smith in his last years cannot be overcome by citing isolated proof texts. The evidence is overwhelming that in teaching his doctrine of exaltation, Joseph Smith was not restoring a doctrine attested by the Book of Mormon.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]