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Mormons and the Resurrection of Jesus

Mormons and the Resurrection of Jesus

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The April 2017 issue of Ensign, the flagship magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, features an article by David Edwards timed for Easter. The article is entitled, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and Truths about the Body.”1 It highlights some important agreements and disagreements between the teachings of the LDS Church and the teachings of evangelical and other orthodox Christians.

The Resurrection of Jesus: Notable Agreements

We are happy to observe that the LDS Church forthrightly and emphatically affirms the truth that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead with a glorified human body. As Edwards correctly states, Jesus appeared to his disciples “in tangible and human form” with a “physical” body. We also agree that the resurrection of Christ is “central” to the Christian message. “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain” (1 Cor. 15:17).

It is also quite true that Jesus’ resurrection is a dramatic revelation of the nature or attributes of God. Edwards rightly says, “The power, knowledge, and goodness of God are proven by Jesus Christ’s Resurrection,” which also reveals God’s love and wisdom.

Misunderstandings of the Traditional Christian View of the Resurrection

Unfortunately, the article by Edwards also touches on some common Mormon misunderstandings of what Christianity historically and traditionally has taught. The most serious of these misunderstandings is the mistaken claim that traditional Christianity teaches that the body and matter are evil or unreal. Edwards quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith, a standard Protestant (Reformed) statement of faith published in 1646, as describing God as “without body, parts, or passions” (2.1). According to Edwards, what that statement means is that “the body (and matter generally) is evil or unreal, whereas spirit, mind, or ideas are the true substance of ultimate being or reality.” Other Mormon leaders and teachers have expressed the same opinion about the traditional Christian view of God.2

The notion that spirit is good and matter is evil or that spirit is more “real” than matter is not part of traditional Christian doctrine. Such a view is generally aligned with Gnosticism, which the early church fathers (whom Mormons view as apostate) opposed. Evangelical Christianity has also historically opposed such views. For example, The Westminster Confession of Faith, of which Edwards and other Mormons are critical as just noted, affirms that God created “the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible,” and that it was “all very good” (4.1). The problem with the body is not that it is material but that it is corrupted by sin.

Mormons’ misunderstanding of Christianity as impugning the material or physical has also typically been connected to their mistakenly thinking that Christians traditionally deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. Mormons commonly think that orthodox Christians deny that Jesus Christ rose in his physical, human body. Edwards does not express this criticism in any clear way, but other Mormons have. For example, Jeff Lindsay, a popular online Mormon apologist, claimed that “the Protestant Jesus is an immaterial spirit essence but the real Jesus of the Bible is a physically resurrected being whose body can be touched.”3 William O. Nelson, in an article in the Ensign, wondered aloud, “How did traditional Christianity come to the idea that somehow Jesus’ bodily identity was dissolved into spirit essence?”4 Stephen Robinson, a prominent Mormon biblical scholar, even claimed in an article published in Ensign that the early church threw out or radically reinterpreted the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead:

In order to satisfy the Gentiles steeped in Greek philosophy, Christianity had to throw out the doctrines of an anthropomorphic God and the resurrection of the dead, or reinterpret them drastically. Denying or altering the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is precisely what some Greek Christians at Corinth had done, and Paul responded against them forcefully in 1 Corinthians 15.5

As has already been mentioned, in actuality orthodox Christians have always affirmed the literal, material resurrection of Jesus’ flesh-and-bone body and the hope that believers will be resurrected with immortal human bodies. The Apostles Creed states, “I believe in…the resurrection of the flesh” (often translated today as “the resurrection of the body”). The ancient Greek form of the creed used the word sarx and the ancient Latin form used the word carne, both of which meant “flesh,” the physical substance of the body. To quote the Westminster Confession of Faith again, “On the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered” (8.4). The Baptist Faith and Message (2000), the official doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, affirms that Jesus Christ “was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion” (II.B).

Major Differences between the Mormon and Orthodox Christian Views

The usual basis for the Mormon misunderstanding of our view of the Resurrection is the fact that orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is God and that God is by nature incorporeal (bodiless). Mormons infer from these teachings that the resurrected Jesus in orthodox doctrine does not have a body. This inference is a mistake because orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is both God and man—meaning that the incorporeal nature of God is united in Christ’s person with the corporeal, physical nature of humanity. This union of two natures in one person is basic to orthodox Christian theology and is solidly based on the New Testament (e.g., John 1:1, 14; Col. 2:9). By contrast, in Mormonism humanity and deity are two stages of development of the same kind of being. This point leads us to consider two essential differences between the Mormon and orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus’ resurrection.

First, Mormonism teaches that the resurrection of Christ reveals the Father to be an exalted, resurrected man. Edwards makes this point in his article:

Heavenly Father Has a Glorified Body…. During His ministry, the Savior said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). This was even more true after His Resurrection with a perfected, immortal body, which showed that “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (D&C 130:22). The physical nature of Heavenly Father was thus revealed.6

By a “glorified body” Edwards means a body that had once been mortal, that had died, that was raised from the dead with immortality, and that attained divine glory. This idea was introduced by Joseph Smith near the end of his life. Mormon theologian Robert Millet explains:

First, the Latter-day Saints believe that God the Father is an exalted man, a corporeal being, a personage with flesh and bones. They do not believe he is a spirit, although they acknowledge that his Spirit or sacred influence is everywhere present. Joseph Smith taught in 1844 that God our Father was once a mortal, that he lived on an earth, died, was resurrected and glorified, and grew and developed over time to become the Almighty that he now is. To say this another way, they teach that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but that he has not been so forever; there was once a time in an eternity past when he lived on an earth like ours.7

Millet was here referring to the King Follett Discourse, Joseph Smith’s most famous sermon, delivered in 1844 just a couple of months before his death. As Millet indicates, Joseph’s teaching that the Father is a resurrected man is still the teaching of the LDS Church. In a 1916 statement by the First Presidency (Joseph F. Smith, who was the Prophet and President of the Church at the time, and his two associates), Jesus Christ is said to have been “the offspring of a mortal mother and of an immortal, or resurrected and glorified, Father.”8 A 2011 curriculum manual published by the LDS Church states that “God is a resurrected, exalted personage of flesh and bone.”9 The idea has been affirmed numerous times by other Mormon leaders and teachers.10

The problem here is not merely the idea of God having a body. Christian theology maintains that God the Son became a man, Jesus Christ, and that he rose from the dead with an immortal human body in order to save sinful people from death and condemnation. But Mormonism does not teach that God the Father took on human nature to redeem us. Rather, it teaches that dying and being resurrected from the dead was the way that the Father became a God. The claim that God the Father is a resurrected, glorified, and exalted man is the cornerstone of Mormonism’s unprecedented, radically unbiblical theology in which there are many Gods and in which all Gods are exalted human beings. In the discourse just mentioned, Joseph Smith taught that our God had not always been God but became a God by a process of mortality followed by exaltation.11 If the Father himself passed through mortality and death, then someone else must have been his Father and God during that time. In a later sermon—his last before his death—Joseph concluded that our Heavenly Father did indeed have a Father who was his God.

After quoting from these two speeches by Joseph, a 1971 article in the LDS Church magazine New Era by Brigham Young University professor Kent Nielsen summarized the doctrine with disarming clarity:

Long before our God began his creations, he dwelt on a mortal world like ours, one of the creations that his Father had created for him and his brethren. He, with many of his brethren, was obedient to the principles of the eternal gospel. One among these, it is presumed, was a savior for them, and through him they obtained a resurrection and an exaltation on an eternal, celestial world. Then they gained the power and godhood of their Father and were made heirs of all that he had, continuing his works and creating worlds of their own for their own posterity—the same as their Father had done before, and his Father, and his Father, and on and on.12

This theology is unbiblical in its view of God and the world. It erroneously teaches that there was a God before our God (see Isa. 43:10) and that God has not always been God (see Ps. 90:2). It denies that the Lord God of the Bible is the only true God, the sole creator and maker of all things (see Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 44:6-8, 24; etc.), teaching instead that there are many Gods that have made many different worlds. To make matters even worse, Mormonism also teaches that multiple deities made the world in which we live (this is the main theme of chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Abraham). These are foundational matters that affect every other area of Christian doctrine and of one’s understanding of the Christian life.

Second, integral to Joseph Smith’s teaching that God the Father is a resurrected man who became exalted to Godhood, Mormonism teaches that the purpose of mortal life, death, and resurrection is for human beings to realize their potential as God’s literal offspring to become Gods. In the 1916 First Presidency statement quoted earlier, Joseph F. Smith and his associates asserted:

So far as the stages of eternal progression and attainment have been made known through divine revelation, we are to understand that only resurrected and glorified beings can become parents of spirit offspring.13

In Mormon theology, this is why people are born as mortals and die: it is the only way they can be resurrected, which is a necessary stage in the development of humans into Gods who can “become parents of spirit offspring” as were our own heavenly parents (Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother). Mormonism teaches that human beings existed for millennia in heaven as spirit offspring of God prior to coming to the earth for the express purpose of becoming Gods in the same way as our heavenly parents had done. Another First Presidency statement, issued in 1925, presented this idea quite clearly:

All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother; and are literally sons and daughters of Deity…. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. By his Almighty power God organized the earth, and all that it contains, from spirit and element, which exist co-eternally with himself. Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so that undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God.14

The Bible teaches a very different view of human beings. We were not preexistent spirit offspring of heavenly parents but were created as physical beings on earth to represent and reflect God’s “image” by acting as stewards on his behalf (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7). We became mortal because we disbelieved and disobeyed God and joined the devil’s rebellion against him (Gen. 2–3; John 8:44; Rom. 5:12-19), not because we were cooperating with God’s plan for us to become Gods like him. Resurrection is therefore God’s solution to the problem we brought on ourselves. By embracing and conquering death on our behalf, Jesus Christ offers us eternal life in God’s kingdom as a free and utterly undeserved gift (John 3:16-18; Rom. 3:21-26; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9). This resurrection life will be astoundingly wonderful: believers in Christ are promised immortality, incorruption, and glory (Rom. 8:14-29; 1 Cor. 15:35-47; 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:17-21; Phil. 3:7-21). However, we will not become Gods—that is, we will not become omnipotent, omniscient beings producing our own offspring with the potential to continue the cycle by becoming still more Gods.

As evangelical Christians, we are genuinely happy that Mormons believe the truth that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. At the same time, our commitment to the truth as revealed in the Bible and our heartfelt concern for Mormons motivates us to explain why the LDS Church’s understanding of the meaning or significance of Christ’s resurrection is contrary to biblical Christianity. The gospel is not a plan for becoming Gods, but for reconciling us as God’s image-bearing creatures to our Creator, the one true God, and his eternal, kingly rule (Mark 1:14-15; Rom. 1:16-17; 2 Cor. 5:18-21).

NOTES


1. David A. Edwards, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and Truths about the Body,” Ensign, April 2017, 27–31.

2. E.g., Kent P. Jackson, “Early Signs of the Apostasy,” Ensign, Dec. 1984; William O. Nelson, “Is the LDS View of God Consistent with the Bible?” Ensign, July 1987.

3. E.g., Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995; Jeff Lindsay, “Are Latter-day Saints Christians? Yes!” LDS FAQ: Mormon Answers, last updated Feb. 5, 2012.

4. William O. Nelson, “Is the LDS View of God Consistent with the Bible?” Ensign, July 1987.

5. Stephen E. Robinson, “Warring against the Saints of God,” Ensign, Jan. 1988.

6. Edwards, “Resurrection.”

7. Robert L. Millet, The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity (Shadow Mountain, 1998), 29-30. See also Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Foreword and Afterword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 144. Millet has made the same statement in several different publications.

8. Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and Charles W. Penrose, “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” Improvement Era, Aug. 1916, reprinted in Ensign, April 2002; often quoted, e.g., Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (2011), 356.

9. Doctrines of the Gospel Teacher Manual (2011), 7–8.

10. E.g., James E. Talmage, “The Son of Man,” an Address Delivered on 6 April 1915, from the Journal of James E. Talmage, 10 May 1915, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, BYU, Provo, UT; and Eighty-fifth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Published by the Deseret News, 1915), 120-24; published in The Essential James E. Talmage, ed. James Harris, Classics in Mormon Thought 5 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 135-36; David O. McKay, in Conference Report, Apr. 1966, 58–59, quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (2011), 60–69; Marion G. Romney, “How Men Are Saved,” Ensign, Nov. 1974, 38 (general conference address); Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985), 72; William O. Nelson, “Is the LDS View of God Consistent with the Bible?” Ensign, July 1987; Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May 1995; Henry B. Eyring, “Gifts of the Spirit for Hard Times,” CES Fireside for Young Adults, Brigham Young University, Sept. 10, 2006; Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, 42, part of which is quoted in Edwards, “Resurrection.”

11. For thorough documentation of this point from Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse and subsequent LDS sources, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Mormon God Has Not Always Been God,” in 3 parts (Institute for Religious Research, 2013).

12. Kent Nielsen, “People on Other Worlds,” New Era, April 1971.

13. Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and Charles W. Penrose, “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” Improvement Era, Aug. 1916, 934-42; quoted in Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (2002), 324–326, quoting Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 5:34; also reprinted in its entirety in Ensign, April 2002.

14. Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, “‘Mormon’ View of Evolution: A Statement by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Improvement Era 28/11 (Sept. 1925), available online at FairMormon (2010). See also John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, 52, quoted in Presidents of the Church: John Taylor (2001), 3; Millet, Different Jesus, 144.