Ether 3 and the Mormon Doctrine of God and Man
The Mormon doctrine that humans are the literal offspring of Heavenly Father and are meant to develop into gods just like him remains the most controversial of all Mormon beliefs. In a 2014 article entitled “Becoming Like God,” published online by LDS Church defending this doctrine, only one verse from the Book of Mormon was cited in support. The apparent lack of support for the Mormon view of God and man in the Book of Mormon ought to be troubling to those who defend that view, given that the Book of Mormon is supposed to be the “keystone” of the Mormon religion. To be more precise, the article quotes only part of one verse (Ether 3:6) in support of the doctrine: “In the Book of Mormon, a prophet ‘saw the finger of the Lord’ and was astonished to learn that human physical forms were truly made in the image of God.”
Does Ether 3:6 support the Mormon doctrine that God and man are the same species—that human beings are God’s literal offspring and meant to mature into gods with the same nature and powers as he has? This study will address that break down that question into three smaller questions and base its answer on an examination of the verse in context. Those three questions are: (1) Does God in the Book of Mormon have a physical body of flesh and bones? (2) In the Book of Mormon, are human beings the spirit offspring of heavenly parents? (3) According to the Book of Mormon, did all humans preexist as spirits in heaven before the earth was made? It will be shown that the answer to each of these questions is No.
1. Does the Book of Mormon God Have a Physical Body?
The partial quotation given in the 2014 Mormon article comes from the following verse:
And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear. (Ether 3:6)
Ether 3:6, read out of context, might easily be understood as agreeing with the current Mormon belief that God himself has a physical form like human beings. It is odd, though, that the LDS article cites Ether 3:6 but not the verses later in the same chapter that actually refer to humans as made in God’s image:
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 human beings were created in God’s “image” then this must imply that God had a physical body. However, Ether 3:15-16 explicitly says otherwise. 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. This is not what Genesis 1:26-27 means, but it is also not what the LDS Church teaches about Heavenly Father. According to Ether 3, man is created in God’s image because God has a body of spirit. That this is what the text means is confirmed by the conclusion of Ether 3:16, 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.” Perhaps this is why the 2014 web article cited Ether 3:6 but not 3:14-15. The passage actually conflicts with a central claim of Mormon doctrine, namely, that the God in whose image we were created was a being of flesh and bones.
It should be noted that in Mormon doctrine today, the Father and Jesus Christ are sharply distinguished from each other as two separately embodied beings. From this perspective, what Jared’s brother saw in Ether 3 was a vision of the Lord Jesus, not of Heavenly Father. There are at least two problems with this interpretation. The first is that the divine speaker in Ether 3:15-16 explicitly says that man was made in his image. The natural way of understanding this statement is that the speaker is God the Father (especially if one accepts the Mormon argument that the image of God shows that we are God’s children). Second, in the immediate context the speaker claims to be the Father and the Son: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son” (Ether 3:14a). Later Mormon explanations that Jesus can be called “the Father” in a different sense don’t work well here. The text does not quote Jesus as saying, “I am the Father of creation,” or “I am the Father of Israel” (an idea obviously foreign to the context of Jared, who would have lived a millennium or more before Abraham). Instead, it quotes Jesus as saying, without qualification, that he is both the Father and the Son.
2. Are Human Beings in the Book of Mormon God’s Heavenly Offspring?
Immediately after it quotes Jesus claiming to be the Father and the Son, Ether 3 quotes Jesus as promising, “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 3:14b). According to this statement, human beings are not already God’s literal sons and daughters; rather, they can become his sons and daughters through faith in Christ. Thus, Ether 3 contradicts the Mormon doctrine that all humans existed in heaven as spirit offspring of Heavenly Father before the earth was made.
Mormons today sometimes try to explain such statements as Ether 3:14 by a theological distinction not found in this text (or anywhere in the Bible or the Mormon scriptures). 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. The Book of Mormon does teach that people who believe in Christ become his spiritual children, but not that this is something in addition to being children of God. Consider the following statement: “ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7). In context, this “Christ” is called “the Lord God omnipotent” and said to be “God above all” (5:15). The distinction between being preexistent spirits of God and being spiritually begotten children of Christ simply does not fit this or any other passage in the Book of Mormon. Similarly, Ether 3:14 explicitly identifies Jesus Christ as both “the Father and the Son.” As it stands, then, Ether 3:14 is incompatible with the Mormon doctrine that human beings preexisted as literal sons and daughters of Heavenly Father.
3. According to the Book of Mormon, Did All Human Beings Preexist in Heaven?
Finally, the passage quotes the Lord as saying that “all men were created in the beginning after mine own image” (Ether 3:15). Might this statement be consistent with the Mormon doctrine that human beings were spirits in heaven before they became physical beings on earth? The answer is no. The text says that humans “were created,” not that they existed eternally as spirits or that they were begotten or produced as spirit offspring. Nor can this statement mean that they were “created” (in some looser sense) as spirits in heaven. In the Book of Mormon, as in the Bible, the “creation” of human beings always refers to God making them as physical beings on the earth. There are numerous statements in the Book of Mormon on this point (1 Nephi 5:11; 17:36; 2 Nephi 1:10; 2:14-15; Jacob 2:21; Mosiah 2:20-26; Alma 22:12-13; Mormon 9:11-12, 17; cf. also 1 Nephi 2:12; 2 Nephi 29:7; Jacob 4:9; Mosiah 4:9, 12, 21; 7:27; Alma 1:4; Helaman 12:6-7). The meaning of the text is not that all people existed in the beginning of creation, but that God created the first human beings in his image right at the beginning, so that all human beings (not just some) are in his image. We know this is what the text means, because the hundred billion or so people who have ever lived did not all exist as physical beings on the earth at the beginning. Therefore, this verse does not teach that people existed before the earth, even as created beings.
Alma 18:30-34 contains a statement that is a particularly close parallel to Ether 3:15.
And Ammon said unto him: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels. 31 And king Lamoni said: Is it above the earth? 32 And Ammon said: Yea, and he looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning…. 34 Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God. (Alma 18:30-32, 34)
Notice that heaven is the place where God and the angels dwell, separate from the earth where God created man after his image. Humans did not live in heaven as spirits and then come down to earth; the God who lived in heaven created them in his image and looks down on them from heaven. All people are created by God and have been his creatures in his image since the beginning, but all people did not exist simultaneously at the beginning.
Conclusion: The Doctrine of Ether 3 Is Contrary to Mormon Doctrine
Ether 3 is the only Book of Mormon text cited in the 2014 article in defense of the Mormon doctrine that God and human beings are the same species or kind of being. Yet as we have seen here, Ether 3 actually presents a doctrine contrary to the current Mormon doctrine of God and man. According to Ether, God did not have a physical body of flesh and bones until he became the man known as Jesus Christ. Instead, he had a body of spirit—an idea that disagrees with orthodox Christian theology, but also disagrees with Mormon doctrine. Human beings are not the spirit offspring of heavenly parents, nor were they preexistent spirits in heaven before the earth was made. Rather, humans were creatures whom God created in his image on earth.
The fact that the Book of Mormon presents a doctrine of God and man that is contrary to accepted Mormon doctrine is not what one would expect if it were an inspired translation of ancient inspired scriptures. It is exactly what one would expect, on the other hand, if it were a modern fiction reflecting Joseph Smith’s own doctrinal views.