By: Michael Flournoy and Paul Nurnberg
Mormonism has a unique view of God and the universe. Many of its adherents believe God the Father was once a man like us, and was deified by obeying the commandments of his Father. Prior to that, he was formed from an eternal amorphous substance called intelligence. Or he was something called an intelligence that is different somehow to a spirit child. Mormon doctrine is ambiguous on what the state of existence was prior to spirit birth.
In the King Follett Sermon, Joseph Smith said:
In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how He came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.
In the Sermon in the Grove he said further:
I learned a testimony concerning Abraham, and he reasoned concerning the God of heaven. ‘In order to do that,’ said he, ‘suppose we have two facts: that supposes another fact may exist — two men on the earth, one wise[r] than the other, would logically show that another who is wiser than the wisest may exist. Intelligences exist one above another, so that there is no end to them.’
If Abraham reasoned thus — If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way. Paul says that which is earthly is in the likeness of that which is heavenly, Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? I despise the idea of being scared to death at such a doctrine, for the Bible is full of it.
I want you to pay particular attention to what I am saying. Jesus said that the Father wrought precisely in the same way as His Father had done before Him. As the Father had done before? He laid down His life, and took it up the same as His Father had done before. He did as He was sent, to lay down His life and take it up again; and then was committed unto Him the keys. I know it is good reasoning.
According to this logic, there is an infinite regression of Gods, and therefore no being is truly eternal. Instead of an eternal God who governs the universe, Mormons believe that an eternal law holds sovereignty.
They often use this idea to mock Christians, saying it is ludicrous to believe God sent Jesus to atone for sins that He fashioned. They say it’s essentially God saving us from Himself.
Alma 32:13 in The Book of Mormon states that if justice were destroyed then God would cease to be God. The implication is that something higher must govern God and His children.
This position is appealing because it separates God from the problem of evil. If good and evil are eternal, then no one can pin the blame on God.
However, while this seems to tie the mysteries of the universe in a nice little bow, there are more problems than solutions under the surface. In this article we will discuss six problems with the doctrine of a law that predates and governs God.
Problem #1: Where Does Agency Come From?
According to some LDS sources, agency is an eternal law. It’s something we’ve always had. Other sources say it’s a gift from God. However, both assertions cannot be true. If we already had it, it couldn’t be given to us.
Moses 4:3 says that God gave man his agency. This is also stated in Doctrine and Covenants 101:78 which reads:
That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
However, in a talk entitled, “The Gift of Agency”, Wolfgang H. Paul of the seventy said:
When we came into this world, we brought with us from our heavenly home this God-given gift and privilege which we call our agency. It gives us the right and power to make decisions and to choose. Agency is an eternal law. President Brigham Young, speaking of our agency, taught: “This is a law which has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come. Every intelligent being must have the power of choice.
So which is it? Is agency an eternal law, something possessed by all intelligent creatures? Or was it something that had to be given? It cannot be both.
Either way, the implications are staggering. If God gave us agency then He had to force something onto us without our consent. Seeing as one-third of the hosts of heaven (in LDS theology) fought against agency, it’s clearly a gift that would have been rejected in some cases if it had been possible.
If God gave us agency, He also gave us the tendency to use that agency for evil. Ether 12:27 in The Book of Mormon confirms this:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
If God gives us agency and weakness to succumb to sin, then He’s no longer excused from the problem of evil, but is directly responsible.
If agency is eternal, then God could not have given it to us. Even if it began by virtue of creation, it’s still not technically correct to say it’s a God-given gift since He couldn’t withhold it.
If this is the case, then evil is also an eternal principle. This means we naturally had agency and the tendency to either use it well or badly. It means God has no ability to destroy evil, because good and evil have always existed.
So either God is the author of evil or He is powerless to stop it.
Problem #2: The Council in Heaven
If agency is a natural byproduct of intelligent existence, then Christ had no right to propose a plan where agency would exist on earth. What other choice was there? LDS doctrine states this was the Father’s plan, but it was actually the natural order of the universe. God deserves no credit.
Lucifer’s plan was equally illogical, because there was no way to quell human agency. If God couldn’t do it, how could Lucifer?
Things get even more interesting if God did give humans agency, because Lucifer’s proposal to relinquish it was a return to the natural order of things. God would have broken the law because the advent of agency brought evil into existence.
God’s plan involved so much evil stemming from his gift of agency, that it would necessitate the death of His Son to set things right. Lucifer was merely returning to the eternal law and saying in effect, “Let’s not bring all this evil into the world.”
Latter-day Saints claim that Lucifer’s plan was born of greed, but even so, that one sin pales in comparison to all the evil that would have been avoided.
It also makes sense that Lucifer would claim God’s throne, since in breaking the law, He would cease to be God. Alma 42:13 says Godhood ceases when justice is destroyed and Mormon 9:19 says it ends when a divine being changes.
The god of Mormonism is guilty of both charges since he forced agency on mankind but no longer believes in forcing anything, and since he brought evil into the world through the gift of agency. As such, he has forfeited his right to the heavenly throne.
Problem #3: The War in Heaven
In Problems #’s 1 and 2, we introduced questions related to where agency comes from. Is it an eternal law, an inherent quality of all intelligent beings as Brigham Young taught? Or is it a gift given to spirit beings by their God-father when they’re formed from intelligence? This is the age-old Mormon question…sorry, this is the almost 200-year-old Mormon question: did we exist as individual entities prior to spirit birth?
If we lacked agency prior to spirit birth, then God forced us into a state of existence (spirit bodies) that we didn’t choose for ourselves, unless we also freely chose spirit birth to God in order to traverse the ontological chasm between intelligence and spirit being. The idea that God would force anything upon us goes contrary to the common LDS refrain that God won’t abrogate agency.
LDS theology has a “war in heaven” myth to demonstrate that prior to the ontological change from spirit beings to embodied, mortal beings, a war was fought over whether or not agency should be a part of this earth. No such myth exists in LDS theology for the change from intelligence to spirit being. Were there multiple wars? Is perpetual war over agency a necessary part of existence?
On the one hand, this leads to uncertainty about the nature of humans and Gods. It also suggests that at some point in the plan of eternal progression, a change in type of being was forced upon us against our wills. So not only is God guilty of change, but the entire law of eternal progression hinges on human progression from intelligence to spirit being to physical being to glorified, physical being. According to Smith, we have got to learn how to become Gods as all Gods have done before.
Each step of that progression represents a change. If the eternal law requires both agency and the absence of change, is God really free if he is beholden to something external to himself? At what point must one stop changing to ensure one achieves and maintains Godhood?
On the other hand, if we inherently possessed agency as individual entities prior to spirit birth, then who’s to say that we couldn’t have figured out how to traverse the ontological gulf from intelligence to spirit being on our own? Besides, for Mormons who reject Joseph Smith’s “Infinite Regression of Gods” model, isn’t that just what they believe the Father did? Either that, or God has always been God from all eternity and Smith was wrong.
Problem #4: By How Many Eternal Laws is God Bound?
According to the LDS law of eternal progression, God formed spirit children from eternally existent intelligence. Or He may have formed spirit children from eternally existent intelligences. LDS scripture is ambiguous on that point. Nevertheless, according to Mormon theology, God later fashioned physical bodies for the spirit children he had formed. We are told that the highest form is to be a glorified, physical being.
The God of Mormonism, as a glorified being, still seems to have physical limitations. According to Joseph Smith, God, himself, cannot dwell in the heart of man, and cannot be omnipresent. Doctrine and Covenants 130:22 states:
The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.
According to this LDS scripture, only the Spirit can dwell in the heart of man. As if this logical inference from physicality isn’t enough, Smith made his dedication to the physical limitation of God even more plain earlier in his remarks that are canonized in Section 130. Commenting on John 14:23, Smith said:
The appearing of the Father and the Son, in that verse, is a personal appearance; and the idea that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion, and is false.
With that claim, Smith overturned the meaning of Jesus’ promise, that in the indwelling of the Spirit, the Father and Son make their abode or dwelling place with believers. In John 14:15-24, “all three persons of the Trinity are said to indwell the believer: the Spirit (v. 17; cf. Rom 8: 9, 11), Jesus (vv. 20, 23; cf. Col 1: 27), and the Father (v. 23).”
What’s interesting is that the Greek word used in John 14:23 to describe the manner in which the Father and Son make their abode with believers (Μονήν) is the same word used in verse 2 to describe the many mansions Jesus is going to prepare for his followers.
If God and Jesus are limited physically from dwelling in the hearts of humans, then how can we trust that Jesus can fashion physical dwelling places in the life to come that will be fit for his physically resurrected followers?
If we follow Smith’s method of ignoring what the Bible says and attempting to logically reason to what Smith thought possible, we cannot be certain that the “covenant path” that God has traversed — a path that leads from spiritual to physical — actually leads to a higher level of existence. A God bound by one external law is a God bound by too many.
Problem #5: What is Agency’s Opportunity Cost?
The more vexing challenge posed by this problem comes in when one considers what Mormons are taught in the Endowment ritual performed within temples. The Endowment confers — contingent on one’s enduring to the end in a state of worthiness — a person’s exalted inheritance as a king or queen, priest or priestess, god or goddesses. Each spirit child of God who becomes exalted increases God’s power and glory.
Without discussing the parts of the Endowment ceremony that Mormons covenant not to reveal to others, the LDS plan of eternal progression is presented theatrically, including the fall of humanity brought about by the serpent’s beguiling of Adam and Eve. When Lucifer is confronted by God, about his introduction of sin into this world, Lucifer retorts:
If thou cursest me for doing the same thing which has been done in other worlds, I will take the spirits that follow me, and they shall possess the bodies thou createst for Adam and Eve!
Assume that what Lucifer is presented as saying here is true; that he and his unembodied followers can possess the bodies of Adam and Eve and their children. Agency is something that seems to have caused a lot of trouble!
First, it made one of God’s eldest spirit sons his enemy and one third of his spirit children aligned themselves with Lucifer in that “war in heaven.” They were cast out — bodiless — their eternal progression halted; they were damned eternally. God’s future glory was reduced by one third before the mortal probation on earth even began. Second, it renders sin necessary. Unless Lucifer is lying here and he did something different in introducing “agency” to Adam and Eve than what had been done on other worlds. Third, it allows God’s enemy to do something that Joseph Smith said even God himself can’t do. Namely, dwell within the hearts of humans (see Alma 40:13). If the path of eternal progression and agency means that God cannot do something his enemy can, how can we be assured that God will ultimately prevail in ridding his worlds of evil?
Problem #6: Is Agency Really Free?
Thus far, we’ve focused on the classic model of Mormon cosmology. Let’s remind ourselves or where we are. On Mormon cosmology, if we step back to that moment before spirit birth, we were either: A) amorphous intelligence (unorganized spirit matter) lacking agency or B) we already existed as individual free agents prior to spirit birth. Let’s call Option A the “Elohim is the First God” model and we’ll call Option B the “Infinite Regression of Gods” model. The “Elohim is the First God” model seems to be on the ascendancy among Mormon thinkers because the “Infinite Regression of Gods” model presents a host of problems.
The “Elohim is the First God” model is replete with its own issues. We’ve presented one in Problem #4. In this model, not only is there a point at which God forced an ontological change upon something (amorphous intelligence) that lacked the ability to choose otherwise, but he forced agency itself upon his resultant spirit children. Since we couldn’t choose to have it in the first place as amorphous intelligence, then agency presumably must be a gift given rather than an inherent quality.
But Lehi in 2 Nephi 2:11 taught his sons that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” The “God is the First God” model that Mormons are clinging to more and more of late either ensures that God broke eternal law by introducing agency, or it fails immediately to offer a cogent systematic ordering of Mormon doctrine, since there would be no opposing choice in any sense in the ontological state of amorphous intelligence. Neither for Elohim to first figure out how to transcend that state nor for others to follow later.
Further down the line, there are other theological problems with this model. Mormons generally buck against the doctrine of unconditional election to salvation. In their system, one must be able to accept or reject a gift — the gift of grace, for example. However, on either Mormon cosmological model agency is a gift that cannot be rejected. If agency cannot be turned down, why must it be necessary that grace can be rejected?
“Not so!” a Mormon may cry. “We must be able to choose God over Lucifer. But there will come a time when Lucifer and his followers will be locked away in Outer Darkness for all eternity. They will not have agency to leave that space and trouble the saints of God any more.”
Apparently, agency can’t be rejected but can be abrogated on Mormonism. Work out that logical inconsistency! Additionally, God breaks eternal law on both models. If Elohim is the first God, then he jumped the shark by discovering all on his own that he possessed agency and went through an ontological change that Mormon theology suggests only a literal Father of spirits could bring about. That is, unless, God has been God from all eternity.
In this article, we’ve primarily explored the classical model of understanding who God is within Mormon thought and discussed some problems that result from trying to understand Mormon theology in a systematic way. While the “Elohim is the First God” model is certainly on the ascendency, Mormon scripture canonized remnants of Joseph Smith’s “Infinite Regression of Gods” model, which he most fully presented in the final two sermons he preached before his death.
That fact makes it difficult for latter-day saints to fully embrace the “Elohim is the first God” model. One of the appealing factors of the “Elohim is the First God” model is that one can avoid the “embarrassment” — as one recent Mormon commentator described it — of the “Infinite Regression of Gods” model. The avoidance of embarrassment comes from the fact that adherents of the “Elohim is the First God” model — unlike their “Infinite Regression of Gods” counterparts — get to claim that God has always been God and is the God of Gods. In this, they may think that they are closer to Biblical theology and can avoid criticism. But the remnants of Smith’s plurality of Gods teachings in Mormon scriptures make a consistent, systematic Mormon cosmology impossible. It’s the challenge that every deep LDS thinker faces. One cannot fully embrace the “Elohim is the First God” model without damaging the thing that Mormonism tells its adherents is their destiny. Namely, to learn how to become Gods.
In this article, we presented six problems with Mormon cosmology, which places eternal law above God. We close by posing two questions to for our readers to consider:
1) Does Elohim have agency inherently?
2) Does Jehovah have agency inherently?
If your answer to the first question is ‘yes’ but your answer to the second is ‘no,’ then there was a point at which Jehovah was not God, and agency had to be given to him. According to 2 Nephi 9, the eternal Creator himself must carry out the infinite atonement for it to be efficacious. If Jehovah was not God in every sense, he fails the requirements of the atonement per the Book of Mormon.
If your answer to both questions is ‘yes,’ then humans can never be Gods, because Mormonism suggests that agency — if it is something that humans have — is a gift given by God. If agency had to be given to us, then there is a sense in which we will never be fully like Elohim and Jehovah.
If you’re an LDS adherent of the “Infinite Regression of Gods” model, congratulations! The God you worship has broken eternal law.
If you’re an LDS adherent of the “Elohim is the First God” model, congratulations! The God you worship has broken eternal law. If you’re feeling a bit frustrated at this point, but you’re okay with the idea that God has always been God. Congratulations! Mormonism may not be for you!
All you have to do is jettison the teaching that eternal law external to God is greater than God. The conclusion is simple! You cannot have your Biblical theology and imbibe Joseph Smith’s theology too.
- Smith, Joseph, The King Follett Sermon, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1971/04/the-king-follett-sermon?lang=eng ↑
- Smith, Joseph, The Sermon in the Grove, https://emp.byui.edu/jexj/courses/sermon_in_the_grove.htm; also cited in History of the Church 6:473-479; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 369-376 ↑
- Doctrine and Covenants 101 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/101?lang=eng ↑
- Paul, Wolfgang H., The Gift of Agency, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2006/04/the-gift-of-agency?lang=eng ↑
- Ether 12 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/ether/12?lang=eng ↑
- Doctrine and Covenants 130 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/130?lang=eng ↑
- Ibid. verse 3 ↑
- Harris, Murray J.. John (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament) (Kindle Locations 8446-8447). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↑
- https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/2?lang=eng ↑