- Mormonism teaches that some humans have the potential to become gods
- LDS employ biblical texts and authoritative quotes out of context as evidence
- According to the Bible and orthodox Christianity there is the only one God
Among the many unique theological differences between Mormonism and Christian orthodoxy, one stands out among the rest – the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression.
According to this doctrine, part of our salvation process is the potential of evolving past a limited existence as a created human in order to become a creator god. Joseph Smith, the first Mormon apostle, recounts this ‘revelation’ in Doctrine & Covenants.
“Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.” – D&C 132:20
In this instance, the term gods is meant to be understood literally. Human beings will one day literally become gods like God is now. A number of past Latter-day Saint (LDS) apostles have clarified this uniquely Mormon concept.
- “Man is a god in embryo and has in him the seeds of godhood, and he can, if he will, rise to great heights.” – Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Apostle (1895–1985)
- “Mortality is the testing or proving ground for exaltation to find out who among the children of God are worthy to become Gods themselves.” – Joseph F. Smith, LDS Apostle (1838–1918)
- “As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be.” – Lorenzo Snow, LDS Apostle (1814–1901)
While this is, indeed, a unique idea to Christians, many LDS hotly contest its uniqueness, arguing instead that the idea of exaltation (humans becoming gods) is not a new one. (Of course, it must be said, not all LDS believe in exaltation; however, the idea is still prevalent within Mormon thought.)
In fact, one can find evidence of exaltation in the Bible in addition to the writings of many of the early church fathers and famed Christian thinker C. S. Lewis.
So, is there any truth to these points? Does the Bible teach exaltation? Did the early church fathers and C. S. Lewis hold to the view?
CONSIDERING THE BIBLICAL EVIDENCE
First, we must notice one important thing – the biblical passages typically employed for support of ‘exaltation’ are usually taken out of context. Within context, the Bible is emphatically clear that there is no God aside from God.
Here are just a few verses to this effect: Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5,14,18,21,22; 46:9; 47:8; John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:5-6; Gal. 4:8-9.
Within the framework that the Bible give us, there is no room for polytheism (the existence of many gods). This is a problem for Mormonism. If human beings are destined to become gods one day, then there is more than one god. Thus, Mormon theology is necessarily polytheistic.
So, while a LDS would most certainly affirm the biblical passages mentioned, the problem of polytheism exists nonetheless.
A potential LDS response is that Heavenly Father is a higher god than we’ll ever be, which is why the Bible seems to teach that there is only one God. We are only to worship him even if we are destined to become gods one day. God, Heavenly Father, is our god.
Unfortunately, this explanation does not do away with polytheism. Whether or not the other gods receive our worship is moot – they exist nonetheless. This is why God says in Isa 44:6, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
Yet even a verse like Isa 44:6 can be taken out of context by simply adding “…of this planet” to the end of the verse. Still, one must contest, unless the term god means something other than an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being, the doctrine of eternal progress necessarily teaches polytheism.
The biblical evidence for exaltation, and by extension polytheism, is simply not there.
“YOU ARE ‘GODS'” – MISQUOTING JESUS
From the New Testament, a common verse used in defense of exaltation is Jhn 10:4. “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?'”
Here, we see a clear instance in which Jesus is rhetorically asking whether or not we believe we are called gods. On face value, it does seem like Jesus would agree with this unique Mormon doctrine.
However, on face value, Jesus also calls himself a door (Jhn 10:7), to which I do not believe he meant to say that he may be purchased at Home Depot for a reasonable price. There must be something more to the text.
A closer look at Jesus’ quotation in Jhn 10:4 gives us a hint at what the Bible means here. Notice Jesus does not say, “you are becoming gods.” Instead, he says, “you are [present tense] gods.”
Certainly, a LDS would agree that they are not currently gods (although they may believe they are in an ’embryonic’ state). If Jesus meant to support exaltation in this one instance, why did he use the present tense?
The answer lies in the original source of what Jesus is quoting. Psa 82:6 states, “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”
Instead of affirming exaltation, it is much more likely that Jesus meant the term gods in the same way the original psalmist did – to describe earthly beings (“gods”) who are being judged for failing in their duties of properly administering justice.
Thus, verses like Jhn 10:4 can be inappropriately taken out of context to support the idea that humans are literally destined to become gods.
“WE MAY BECOME GOD” – THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS
At the outset it must be said that any evidence for the early church father’s support of the doctrine of eternal progression is shaky and scant at best. The idea seems wholly foreign in their writings.
So, how could they be used in support of exaltation? Simply put, we misunderstand what the fathers meant by the word god.
It was very common for the early church fathers to describe us as “gods” in glorification because we do, in fact, become like (but not ontologically like) God.
There’s a million dollar word – ontological. It simply means “the metaphysical being or reality of something.” So, to be ontologically like God means to be made of the exact same stuff as God.
This, however, is not what the early church fathers had in mind when they referred to us as gods. While we may become like God (free from sin, eternal, etc) we will never be ontologically like God (e.g., omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc).
Take, for example, a widely quoted line from Athanasius, “He became man that men might be made gods (emphasis added).” On face value, we can be lead to believe that he would support exaltation. However, within context, we quickly see that he would not.
First, this is most likely a mistranslation. This quote should actually read, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God (St. Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B, emphasis added).”
With this in mind, note Athanasius does not say ‘become gods’ but ‘become God’. Obviously, he is speaking of our glorification to become like/with God in heaven. No LDS would agree that Athanasius means to say that we will become Heavenly Father. Neither, then, does he mean to say we will become gods.
Another popular quote to utilize is from Augustine, “If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods (Exposition on the Psalms, 50.2)”
As before, face value agrees. Like usual, context doesn’t.
Just a few sentences later he writes, “For the only Son of God, God, and one God with the Father, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, was in the beginning the Word, and the Word with God, the Word God. The rest that are made gods, are made by His own Grace, are not born of His Substance, that they should be the same as He, but that by favour they should come to Him, and be fellow-heirs with Christ. (Ibid).”
Here, Augustine clearly teaches what orthodox Christianity teaches – that we will be perfect like God, but not literally (ontologically, by nature) a god. Unfortunately, for our LDS friends, using this quote from Augustine to support exaltation is unfounded.
(As an aside, it is ironic that this passage would be utilized to support a Mormon doctrine in the first place. Note that it clearly affirms Augustine’s view of the Trinity, an idea that Mormonism rejects.)
“WE WERE ‘GODS'” – C. S. LEWIS
Employing C. S. Lewis to support the doctrine of eternal progression is a very popular move among the doctrine’s proponents. Perhaps this is due to the authority and weight commanded by the theological giant. Nevertheless, were Lewis alive today he would surly disagree with exaltation.
LDS have claimed that Lewis held to exaltation based on a quote from Mere Christianity, “He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words.”
Again, at face value this does seem to indicate Lewis’s support. However, as with the examples before, we must keep in mind what the author means by the term gods.
Note that Lewis was careful to place quotation marks around the word ‘gods.’ Like the early church fathers, Lewis meant that we will be like gods in that we will no longer suffer sin and death, not that we will be literally gods who are omnipresent, -potent, -scient.
We can be sure of this by placing the quote within its proper context. Lewis goes on to write, “If we let Him. . .He will make us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature. . .which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness.”
Here, Lewis is clearly explaining the process of sanctification and the culmination of our salvation through glorification. We will, one day, become the perfect creatures who perfectly worship the Creator.
If this were not enough context for clarification, Lewis reveals his position perfectly well in the beginning of the chapter when he says, “He is the inventor, we are only the machine. He is the painter, we are only the picture.”
From this, ontologically speaking, are we to presume Lewis imagines a time in which the machine becomes an inventor or a picture becomes a painter? Obviously, we are not.
Lewis clearly defines the orthodox lines between Creator and creation – an impassible chasm not crossed by any manner of exaltation.
EXALTATION IS IDOLATRY
In conclusion, when it comes to the Mormon doctrine of exaltation context is key. Most support for the doctrine comes from a line or two lifted out of context and distorted to mean what the original author never intended.
But, the issue of exaltation goes deeper than simply misquotations and unorthodox ideas.
The deeper issue begins in a misunderstanding of glorification. According to the Bible, our salvation consists of three stages (or aspects): justification, sanctification, and glorification.
- Justification is instant, the moment we are declared righteous before God by his grace through faith alone (Rom 3:24-25;5:1, Eph 2:8-9).
- Sanctification is a continual process of becoming more and more Christlike through the Holy Spirit (2Th 2:13, 1Pe 1:2).
- Glorification is when we die and enter into God’s presence in a perfected state free from sin for all eternity (Phi 3:21).
Mormonism, unfortunately, blends sanctification and glorification into the same process. If sanctification and glorification can be blended together, it only follows that we work towards salvation (something the Bible fiercely rejects, Eph 2:8-9). Add the doctrine of exaltation to this and we come to something even more dangerous – idolatry.
At the end of the day, to be frank, the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression is idolatry. It necessarily takes away the function of our very being (namely the worship of God) and replaces it with a slightly cheaper, albeit tempting, giving of and reception of worship to ourselves.
According to eternal progression, one day we will have people of our own who will worship us. Herein lies the danger – Isa 42:8 says, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other.” Eternal progression necessarily states that we share in God’s glory of worship, which is idolatry.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER FOR LDS READERS
If you are a LDS reader and would like to further consider the doctrine from a critical angle, here are some questions to ponder.
- If exaltation is such an important doctrine of salvation, why is there such scant evidence for it in the Bible and historical Christian writings?
- Given exaltation’s importance, why did it take Joseph Smith so many years to teach it?
- Why does the Book of Mormon remain relatively silent on the doctrine of eternal progression?
- Is it not strange that the LDS Church, which has historically criticized orthodox forms of Christianity for “adopting” pagan concepts into biblical theology, would adopt such a pagan idea as exaltation?