Revelation 3:21 and the Mormon Doctrine of Deification
The Mormon doctrine of exaltation is based on the modern revelations of Joseph Smith, not on the Bible. However, Mormons cite a number of verses in the Bible to support their doctrine. Revelation 3:21 is another proof text that LDS teachers cite from the Bible to support their doctrine that human beings can become gods, or become like God in all ways:
“I will grant the one who conquers permission to sit with me on my throne, just as I too conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21 NET).
However, this verse does not support any specific element of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation. With any verse of the Bible (or of any other text), one must first determine what the verse really means before claiming that it agrees with a particular doctrine. The importance of this basic step of interpretation is especially crucial with verses from Revelation, which is written in a form of literature that uses highly symbolic imagery that modern readers easily misunderstand. Thus, we must first understand what the biblical statement means in its ancient religious and literary context, and then ask whether it supports any of the distinctive elements of the Mormon doctrine of human beings becoming gods.
Mormons sometimes claim that they take verses like this one “literally” in contrast to traditional Christians who do not. If they did, that would not make their interpretation correct. Indeed, I would suggest that even Mormons do not take this verse literally, and if they did it would in no way support the LDS doctrine of exaltation. Is the Mormon claim with respect to this verse that exalted humans will be given the opportunity to sit in Christ’s chair—or in God the Father’s chair—in heaven? One can imagine a “literal” acceptance of such occurrences that would not entail those exalted humans becoming beings of the same order or essential nature as God. A king might let an adopted child sit on his throne, even on his lap, as an expression of love and closeness, without anything more being implied. But it is of course a mistake to read Jesus’ statement in Revelation 3:21 literally. Whatever Jesus means, he does not mean that millions of redeemed, glorified saints will take turns sitting in his chair.
Presumably Mormons who cite Revelation 3:21 understand it to mean that those who conquer will be given divine authority comparable to the authority of Christ, which in turn is comparable to the authority of God. Such an interpretation would hardly be literal, but in any case it does not fit the specific LDS doctrine of exaltation. According to that doctrine, exalted human beings will have all the power, glory, dominion, and knowledge that God the Father has. But Revelation 3:21 does not speak of exalted people receiving their own thrones of equal glory or authority to that of Christ or God. Rather, it speaks of God’s conquering people being welcomed to sit with Christ on his own throne. There is no idea here of a multiplication of deities with comparable authority. Nor do Mormons think that exalted people will become members of “the Godhead” or co-rulers of this world with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (the three Gods who in LDS doctrine rule this world). They think that exalted people will become gods in their own right but will not be the gods of this world. If they are going to rule as gods with authority comparable to that of Christ or the Father, it will have to be over other worlds—the traditional Mormon view, though one that the LDS Church is now oddly reticent to affirm. In any case, as it stands, Revelation 3:21 simply does not fit the Mormon view of exaltation.
The fact is that it is not anti-Mormon animus that leads orthodox Christians to eschew a “literal” reading of Revelation 3:21. It is, rather, recognition of the genre of the Book of Revelation as a whole, a book that exhibits clear signs throughout of an ancient Jewish genre commonly known today as apocalyptic literature. The apostle Paul used similar language in speaking about the present status and future hope of Christian believers:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7 ESV, emphasis added).
The idea in Revelation 3:21 is probably the same as in Ephesians 2:4-7. Believers in Jesus Christ in the present may feel like they are on the losing end of history. They are often persecuted and even more often ignored. Despite these present travails, in reality believers in Christ are assured of all the blessings that he came to acquire for us. Christ’s conquest of sin by his death on the cross counts as our death to and conquest of sin. His conquest of death by his resurrection counts as our conquest of death and assures us of our own future resurrection to immortal, eternal life. And his conquest of all spiritual powers that oppose God by his ascension to the right hand of God the Father counts as our conquest of those spiritual powers and our eventual enjoyment of eternal life in intimate relationship with God in his presence. That Christ’s death, resurrection, and especially his ascension to the Father’s right hand have to do with his bringing all evil spiritual powers under submission is clear from several statements in the epistles (most explicitly, Rom. 8:34-39; Ephesians 1:20-21; Col. 2:9-15; 1 Peter 3:22). Read in this broader NT context, Revelation 3:21 affirms in apocalyptic fashion the basic Christian truth that those who are united to Christ through faith are assured of spiritual victory over all the evil forces of this age. This is the idea behind John’s description of faithful believers in Revelation 3:21 (and elsewhere) as those who conquer (note especially Rev. 12:11; 15:2; 17:14).
If we go back and review the specific elements of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation, we can find none of them implicit (let alone explicit) in Revelation 3:21. The text neither says nor implies that God the Father was a man who then became a God, that we existed in heaven before becoming mortals, or that we can become beings of the same ontological order or essential attributes as God. This text, then, also does nothing to support the claim that Joseph Smith restored a lost, forgotten doctrine of humans becoming gods.