Can Human Beings Become Gods? Answers to Mormon Arguments from the Bible
In Part One of this two-part study, we provided in detail some historical background to the doctrine of “exaltation” taught in the final chapter of the LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles. That first part explained that Joseph Smith’s doctrine began as something very close to traditional Christian monotheism. However, fifteen years later Joseph’s theology was a full-blown doctrine of polytheism, in which all intelligent beings are eternal, a plurality of Gods organized this world, the head God of our world was once a man and became exalted to Godhood, and we are called to do the same. We also saw that in recent years the LDS Church has been softening or moderating this doctrine while not actually rejecting or denying it.
In this second part, we will compare the LDS doctrine of exaltation to the teachings of the Bible. Note that we have already established in Part One that the current LDS doctrine is not compatible with the theology of the Book of Mormon. In a previous article in this study guide, we responded to common LDS criticisms of the reliability of the text of the Bible.
Before we try to compare the LDS doctrine with the teachings of the Bible, we need to be as clear as possible regarding the issues at hand. The issue is not whether human beings can in some sense become “like God.” We might mention here that Satan’s temptation, andThe traditional, orthodox doctrine of Christianity affirms that human beings by God’s saving grace will be made like God in several important respects. They will become immortal; they will have resurrection bodies of the same type and perfections as the resurrection body of Jesus Christ; they will become morally and spiritually holy and without sin; and they will reflect without compromise or corruption God’s goodness and love.
Nor is the issue whether one might describe redeemed and glorified human beings—again, in some sense—as “gods.” As we will show, the Bible never describes glorified human beings in this way. Later in church history, some Christian theologians did use this language, a point Mormon apologists often emphasize. However, it would be a serious mistake to confuse this semantic issue—what words one uses to describe glorified human beings—with thetheological issue of what such glorified human beings will actually be. The two issues are not unrelated, but they can and should be distinguished. Unfortunately, all too often the semantic issue overshadows the theological issue. Hypothetically, a writer might describe glorified human beings in effect as gods without using that language, or he might refer to them as “gods” while having any number of possible meanings in mind. Thus, while we will address the semantic issue, the real issue here is the theological question of what sorts of beings glorified humans will become.
To put this question in proper context, there are four essential claims made in LDS theology of relevance to its doctrine of exaltation:
- God was once a man like us and is now an exalted man of flesh and bones.
Humans are essentially uncreated beings that existed in heaven as the spirit children of heavenly parents and that have the same potential as those parents.
We became mortals in order to progress toward becoming Gods just like our heavenly parents.
Exalted humans will have the same powers as God and will be Gods over their own worlds.
As we will show, the Bible does not teach any of these doctrines and in fact teaches an understanding of God and his creation that is incompatible with LDS theology.
B. The Bible on God’s Nature
The fundamental error of the LDS doctrine of exaltation is what it says about God. The notion that God was a mortal man who became a God by a process of exaltation—a process also open to us—is about as flatly contrary to biblical teaching as any false doctrine one might mention.
According to the Bible, the Being commonly called “God” has always been God, from everlasting, with no beginning, and there was no God before him (Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 43:10). The Lord (Jehovah, Yahweh) is the only true God, the sole creator and maker of all things (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 44:6-8, 24; etc.). The Bible thus draws a bright line between the Lord God, who is the Creator, and everything else, all of which is his creation. No creature is equal with or fully comparable to God (Isaiah 40:18, 25). Thus, no one can ever become a “God” in the same sense as the self-existent Creator of the universe. God, in this sense, is by definition the One who has always been the all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent Being that brought everything else into existence. In this sense, obviously, if you haven’t always been God, you never will be! There are a lot of things that creatures can become. A caterpillar can become a butterfly, a baby boy can become an adult man, and a woman can become a mother. However, a creature cannot become its own Creator; a being that has only existed for fifty years cannot become an eternally preexistent being. It is simply impossible for any of us to become God.
This divine Creator is revealed in the New Testament to exist eternally and unchangeably in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (e.g., Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14). The Bible never refers to them as three “Gods,” as Joseph Smith taught in his “Sermon at the Grove” in 1844. Instead, the New Testament uses the Old Testament language of one God, one Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4) to articulate the co-equal deity of the distinct persons of the Father and the Son (e.g., 1 Corinthians 8:4-6).
Why does it matter whether the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God or three Gods? Because if there is only one God, then it is natural to conclude that this is the way it always was and always will be, because God is by nature unique. On the other hand, if there are three Gods, there might be four, or five, or any number…the number might be open to further expansion, so that one day we might even join that number. This is likely one of the main reasons that Joseph was so adamant that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was false. Understanding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one eternal and unchangeable God—as the Bible clearly teaches and as Joseph himself even taught in his “translation” of the Book of Mormon and in his other early revelations—closes the door to other beings becoming Gods. Having come to the point of claiming that our divine purpose is to become Gods, Joseph ignored the teachings of the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon and boldly claimed, against all evidence, that he had always taught plurality of Gods.
C. Man: The Same Kind of Being as God?
A basic element of the LDS doctrine of exaltation is that human beings are, at least potentially, the same kind of being as God. That is, we are intelligent spirit beings with the capacity to become Gods with the same powers and glory as our own God the Father.
An essential premise of this view of human nature is the idea that all human beings are really eternal spirits—that we existed before the world in heaven as God’s spirit children. In an earlier article in this study guide, we discussed the major LDS proof texts from the Bible for this idea of human preexistence. Here are brief summaries of some of the main points we made about those proof texts:
God made the first man by breathing the breath of life into him (Genesis 2:7), not by sending the man’s spirit into his body.
God asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4), a rhetorical question to be answered “Nowhere.” God therefore distinguishes the human Job from the angelic sons of God who shouted for joy at God’s work of creation (Job 38:7).
God’s statement that he knew Jeremiah before his birth (Jeremiah 1:5) was a statement about God’s foreknowledge, not an affirmation that Jeremiah existed before his birth.
John the Baptist stated that he was of the earth in contrast to Christ who was from above (John 3:31).
Christ’s statements about his existing before Abraham (John 8:58) and coming from the Father into the world (John 13:3; 16:28) are clearly meant to reveal something unusual, even unique, about him—which conflicts with the LDS belief that we all existed before Abraham’s physical birth and that we all came to this earth from the Father.
Mormons also point to the biblical teaching that God made human beings in his “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27) as confirmation that humans are basically the same kind of being as God. They make two plausible sounding points in support of this conclusion. First, they reason that if human beings are in God’s image and likeness, this implies that God is an anthropomorphic being—that is, a being with a physical body like ours. Second, they argue that the language of image and likeness is naturally understood to refer to human beings as God’s children, just as Seth, for example, was a son in the image and likeness of his father Adam (Genesis 5:1-2).
Notice the emphasis on human beings ruling on God’s behalf. This is what is meant by creation in the image of God: that God made human beings to rule over the physical creation on earth as his royal representatives. Although this does not mean we are or will ever become the same kind of being as God, our creation in God’s image is a wonderful and high status in creation. God has made us to function as princes and princesses in his world, to reflect his character and purposes, to know him and live in a way that honors him as the Creator. Since we failed to realize this created purpose because of the Fall, God has made a way for that purpose to be fulfilled through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus: God and Man
Even Christ himself was not perfect at first; he received not a fulness at first, but he received grace for grace, and he continued to receive more and more until he received a fulness [see D&C 93:11–13]. Is not this to be so with the children of men? Is any man perfect? Has any man received a fulness at once? Have we reached a point wherein we may receive the fulness of God, of his glory, and his intelligence? No; and yet, if Jesus, the Son of God, and the Father of the heavens and the earth in which we dwell, received not a fulness at the first, but increased in faith, knowledge, understanding and grace until he received a fulness, is it not possible for all men who are born of women to receive little by little, line upon line, precept upon precept, until they shall receive a fulness, as he has received a fulness, and be exalted with him in the presence of the Father? (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith , 153).
The citation from Doctrine & Covenants given in the above comment reads as follows:
And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us. And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first (Doctrine & Covenants 93:11-14).
The Savior did not have a fulness at first, but after he received his body and the resurrection all power was given unto him both in heaven and in earth. Although he was a God, even the Son of God, with power and authority to create this earth and other earths, yet there were some things lacking which he did not receive until after his resurrection. In other words he had not received the fulness until he got a resurrected body (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation , 1:33, quoted in Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual , 10).
Here is another statement, made in LDS general conference, to the same effect:
That Jesus attained eternal perfection following his resurrection is confirmed in the Book of Mormon. It records the visit of the resurrected Lord to the people of ancient America. There he repeated the important injunction previously cited but with one very significant addition. He said, ‘I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.’ This time he listed himself along with his Father as a perfected personage. Previously he had not (Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign [Conference Edition], November 1995, 87).
And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5 ESV).
Paul teaches the same thing. He points out that in heaven Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “emptied himself” by becoming a human being and “humbled himself” by dying on the cross. This is why God the Father “highly exalted him” and called on everyone in creation to worship Jesus Christ as Lord (Philippians 2:6-11). By “exalted” in context, then, Paul does not mean that the Father helped Jesus attain to a higher form of life or deity than he had before he came to the earth as a humble man. Paul means that God the Father honored his Son, who was already fully God by nature and right, by restoring him to his rightful status and position after the Son had graciously come as the Father’s servant for our salvation. What
“Ye Are Gods” (Psalm 82:6)
Mormons—and to be fair many others throughout church history—cite Psalm 82:6, “I said, ‘Ye are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High,’” in support of the idea that exalted humans may become gods. However, this doctrinal idea simply will not fit the context of the psalm.
Admittedly, scholars have offered a variety of different interpretations of Psalm 82. There is no consensus as to who the beings were supposed to be whom the psalmist calls “gods” in verse 6. There is, though, consensus as to what the text did not mean in context: it was not teaching that human beings can through resurrection and exaltation in heaven eventually become gods. This interpretation is not even “on the radar” of viable interpretations of the passage in its ancient historical and literary context.
There are three main readings of Psalm 82 that have significant support in modern biblical scholarship. Rather than argue over which of these interpretations is correct, we will focus on whether any of these views will support the LDS doctrine of humans becoming exalted in the future as Gods (beings of the same kind as God the Creator).
(1) The “gods” in Psalm 82 were unjust Israelite judges condemned to death by God. According to this popular view, the Israelite judges were called “gods” figuratively in reference to their sitting in judgment on behalf of God. This view has fallen out of favor among the majority of Old Testament scholars, though it has not entirely disappeared. In any case, this view obviously does not help to correlate Psalm 82:6 with the doctrinal idea that human beings can become gods after their resurrection from the dead.
(2) The “gods” in Psalm 82 were the Israelites at Mount Sinai, considered perfect and provisionally immortal if they had kept the Torah. Nowhere does the Bible endorse or support this understanding of Psalm 82; one must go outside the Bible to certain ancient Jewish writings that commented or expounded on Psalm 82 to find this view of its meaning. If this view is correct, it means that a group of human beings for one brief moment were “gods” on earth in the sense of being immortal, but that they lost this status quickly because of their wickedness. Although such an idea does not conflict with the idea that human beings might in the future attain such a status as “gods” when they become perfect and immortal, the text itself says nothing about such a future hope. Of course, this interpretation of Psalm 82 provides no support at all for the idea that human beings can become Gods in the sense of omnipotent, self-existent beings.
(3) The “gods” in Psalm 82 were supernatural beings that were part of the “divine assembly” pictured as meeting in God’s royal court or heavenly throne room but whose corruption of human society brought God’s judgment on them. This interpretation of Psalm 82 now seems to be the dominant view in Old Testament scholarship. From a New Testament perspective, these “gods” judged and condemned by God were false gods—demonic spirits led by the devil and that held sway over the nations (1 Corinthians 10:20; Galatians 4:8-9). If one interprets the “gods” of Psalm 82 to be supernatural beings condemned by God, it has nothing to do with the future potential of earthly human beings.
The simple fact is that Psalm 82:6 is not a statement about the future potential of human beings. The psalmist does not say, “You may become gods,” but “You are gods.” Yet these beings are in the immediate context condemned as wicked, unjust, and fallen (verses 2-5, 7). This means that these “gods,” whoever and whatever they were, could not have been exalted human beings who had attained spiritual perfection in terms of holiness, righteousness, and love. If there is such a doctrine in the Bible, it will have to be found elsewhere. In fact, though, the Bible never teaches such a doctrine. It never affirms that redeemed human beings will become “gods,” nor does it teach that they will become beings of the same kind as God.
The Christian’s Hope of Glory
There is a danger that in critiquing the LDS doctrine that human beings can become Gods of the same nature as the Creator that we give the false impression that the Bible does not hold out a glorious hope for human beings. Nothing could be further from the truth. The apostle John wrote,be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). In some very significant and amazing way, we will become like Jesus Christ.
Does this mean we will become Gods, since Jesus is God? No, for the reasons we have already explained. Notice the context in what Paul says: we will “be conformed to the image of his Son.” As we have already seen, the “image” language describes human beings as physical representatives of the transcendent, invisible God. We will be like Christ in the sense that we will be perfect visible representations of God. We will fully reflect or perfectly mirror God’s greatness, glory, and purposes in the new heavens and new earth just as God had originally designed us to do. This hope belongs not to eternal beings that are potential Gods but to creatures that God has graciously created and redeemed to function as his earthly, finite children. As Paul puts it, believers in Jesus Christ are adopted as God’s children through faith in Christ (Rom. 8:14-17, 23; Gal. 3:25-4:7). Jesus Christ is God’s Son by nature and a human being by grace. We are human beings by nature and God’s adopted children by grace.
If we truly trust in Jesus Christ alone to save us as the Bible teaches, then as God’s adopted, redeemed, and glorified children our future is unimaginably wonderful. Believers in Christ are promised eternal life, immortality, incorruption, and glory (Romans 8:14-29; 1 Corinthians 15:35-47; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:17-21; Philippians 3:7-21). This same teaching is found in a statement in the epistle of 2 Peter that is also often cited as evidence for the idea that human beings may become Gods: