Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Can Men Be Gods? What the Bible says about exaltation.

My friend T. S. sent me this question the other day, and I was somewhat amused to receive it, as I have been waiting for someone to send me just such a question since I started writing this blog.

Q: I have a nonmember friend who read a chapter in a world religion book about Mormons and it said that we believe we will become God and have our own planet someday and now she thinks we are freaks.  How do you respond to this and what scriptures are there in the Bible that support such a claim?

A: The idea that we can become gods someday (or exaltation) is an idea that really throws people for a loop when they first hear it, and this is mostly due to the fact that people often first hear it outside of any doctrinal or logical context. Many people dismiss it out of hand as being absurd (or frightening) without giving it much study or consideration. That is the reason why it is usually at the front of nearly every anti-Mormon leaflet I have encountered. Without explanation or consideration it tends to scare a lot of people.

I think the reason why exaltation seems so scary is partly because many members (and non-members) tend to (intentionally or unintentionally) misrepresent what we actually believe exaltation to entail.  Case in point, the church does not actually teach that we can have our own planets someday, although some members may think that it does.  This article published by the church on its "Newsroom" website entitled "Mormonism 101: FAQ" presents the official church statement on this question:

"Do Latter-day Saints believe that they will “get their own planet”?  No. This idea is not taught in Latter-day Saint scripture, nor is it a doctrine of the Church. This misunderstanding stems from speculative comments unreflective of scriptural doctrine. Mormons believe that we are all sons and daughters of God and that all of us have the potential to grow during and after this life to become like our Heavenly Father (see Romans 8:16-17). The Church does not and has never purported to fully understand the specifics of Christ’s statement that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2)."

So what do we believe?  Let us refer once more to LDS Newsroom:

"Do Latter-day Saints believe they can become “gods”?  Latter-day Saints believe that God wants us to become like Him. But this teaching is often misrepresented by those who caricature the faith. The Latter-day Saint belief is no different than the biblical teaching, which states, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17). Through following Christ's teachings, Latter-day Saints believe all people can become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4)."

Even when presented in this reasonable and measured way, many Christians tend to react to this doctrine with dubiousness and even some distaste.  While I understand why it is that people are disturbed by our doctrine of exaltation, I nevertheless feel that it is the only logical end and purpose of God’s plan of salvation. When a person is willing to sit down and reason it out using the scriptures and simple logic (and the spirit) as their guide it is not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. I feel that the difficulty that many people have with this particular doctrine is largely a conceptual one.

When I taught the gospel on my mission, I found that most reasonably intelligent people who truly sought the truth were able to reconcile this issue in their own minds without too much help from me, as long as my companion and I were able to provide a larger gospel context. In a couple of cases, I taught investigators that more or less arrived at this doctrine on their own after I taught them the lesson about the Plan of Salvation. This served to strengthen my belief and opinion that exaltation is the logical conclusion of the matter. On the other hand, I encountered many people who simply were unable or unwilling to grasp a concept that seemed so foreign to them. On the whole, however, I generally found it to be true that those who could not or would not accept this doctrine were generally not willing to listen to anything else we said either, and accordingly were not inclined to study it out logically.

You will be (or at least your friend will be) surprised to find that much of the scriptural basis for this doctrine comes from the Bible. In fact when I would ask people I met on the street if they had ever read the Book of Mormon, I could tell that they were stretching the truth if they claimed that they had read it, and subsequently declared that they “just couldn’t handle all that stuff in there about men becoming Gods”. “All that stuff” just isn’t in there. When it comes to pure doctrine, the Book of Mormon spends most of it’s time talking about Jesus Christ and His atonement, the Gospel that Christ taught and it’s associated principles and ordinances, and the covenants and promises that God has made with (and to) His children. In view of this, one could make the argument that it is implied, but one would have to be extremely perceptive to recognize it. I make this point to show that the concept of exaltation does not depend exclusively or even substantially upon scripture that is essentially unique to the LDS church. And furthermore that, despite many charges that I have personally heard to the contrary, this doctrine is in fact largely “Biblical” in origin and nature. So let us examine precisely what there is in the Bible to support this unique, and some would say, strange doctrine.

Be Ye Perfect

Jesus Christ, in that great statement of His central doctrine and principles known as the Sermon on the Mount, gave us this imperative in Matthew 5:48:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

According to C.S. Lewis, this commandment is meant to be taken, and applied, literally:

“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible…He said [in Psalms 82:6, which Christ quotes in John 10:34-35] that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words…Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect--perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality.” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 176-77; emphasis added)

The great theological writer Henry Drummond (1851-1897) declared that without obtaining perfection one cannot truly be saved, because it is not enough to merely be a “moral man.” For in order to obtain salvation we must be transformed into something greater:

“The end of salvation is perfection, the Christ-like mind, character and life….Therefore the man that has within himself this great formative agent, Life [spiritual life] is nearer the end than the man who has morality alone. The latter can never reach perfection, the former must. For the life must develop out according to it’s type; and being a germ of the Christ-life, it must unfold into a Christ.” (Henry Drummond, Natural Law in the Spiritual World, as quoted by Joseph Fielding Smith in Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith, see footnote p. 346)

When Christ commanded us to be perfect, “even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect,” He commanded us to become like Him in every way, and in every aspect of our lives. Through the power of His atonement, Jesus Christ has provided a way for us each to be made perfect, and eventually that we might receive all of the blessings that the Father has. It is for this reason that Christ called apostles, and prophets, etc. Paul taught (in Ephesians 4:11-15) that Christ established His church to aid us in obtaining perfection as we come to know Him. As we grow closer to the Savior we will eventually become more like him, to the point that we begin to grow up into Him (in an echo of the words of Henry Drummond):

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:

Equal with God?

I have heard it said that the very idea that we might aspire to become like God is the height of arrogant presumption, that to seek to be made equal to God constitutes fatal hubris. I would argue that in fact the opposite is true, and that it is God’s intention that we be made equal to Him.

Paul taught this principle when he said, in Philippians 2:5-9:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Christ Himself, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God. To most people it is not an earth-shattering notion that Christ and God are equals, but let us examine Paul’s words more closely. Just like Jesus Christ, we are also in the form of God, or as it is written in Genesis 1:26-27, we were made by God in His “image, and after his likeness.” We are the children of His creation. Paul tells us that as such we should be of the same mind as Christ, who thought it not robbery to be equal with God. We are instructed by the Apostle Paul himself to follow Christ’s example in seeking to become equal with God!

I stated above that we are the children of God’s creation, but according to Paul we are more than that, as he testified in Hebrews 12:9:

Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?

Paul here teaches that not only is God our creator, but moreover that He is the Father of our spirits. God is not some remote and alien being, who bears little resemblance to us, and cares little for our welfare, but rather He is a loving and interested Father to each and every person that has ever, does now, and ever will walk the earth. More to the point, if God is our father, then we are his children. We are the children of deity! Each human is special to Him because we are each a son or daughter about whom he cares deeply. It was in this spirit that the Lord declared in Psalms 82:6:

I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.

Furthermore, as Lorenzo Snow taught, this simple Biblical teaching, when properly understood helps us to realize that as children of God, we are each possessed of divine potential beyond that which most of the world chooses to comprehend:

"We were born in the image of God our Father; He begat us like unto Himself. There is a nature of Deity in the composition of our spiritual organization. In our spiritual birth, our Father transmitted to us the capabilities, powers and faculties which He possessed, as much so as the child on its mother’s bosom possesses, although in an undeveloped state, the faculties, powers and susceptibilities of its parent” (Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, 335)

C.S. Lewis understood this when he declared:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which…you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal….But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…” (Lewis, The Joyful Christian, 197)

Heirs of God, and Joint-heirs with Christ

Paul taught us of the role and crucial importance of the Atonement in our progression toward godhood when he testified in Romans 5:8-11, and 8:16-17:

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

If we, through the grace of Christ, are reconciled to God by the atonement of His son, we will be counted as His sons, and more importantly His heirs, and not only that but joint-heirs with Christ. As Peter puts it in 2 Peter 1:3-4, we will be made partakers of the divine nature through Christ.

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

According to Paul (returning to Romans chapter 8), we (those of us who are made partakers of the divine nature and so are numbered among God’s children through the merits and mercy and grace of Christ), stand to inherit the same blessings that Jesus Christ himself stands to inherit. What exactly does that consist of? Jesus Christ tells us in John 16:15 that:

All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you.

According to the Bible we stand to inherit ALL that the Father has (through Christ), not some, not part, but ALL things that pertain unto life and godliness (in Peter’s words), including God's divine nature.

We are the offspring of God

I have focused on the traits and inheritance that we receive as children of God, but I think that is important to step back for a moment to consider the logical ramifications of the simple and yet profound fact that we are the offspring of a God.

“Do not the laws of science teach us that like begets like, each after its kind…? That is exactly what John Taylor taught: “As the horse, the ox, the sheep, and every living creature, including man, propagates its own species and perpetuates its own kind, so does God perpetuate His.” (Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 165, in Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration, 156-157).

It is for this reason that the apostle John could proclaim (in 1 John 3:1-2):

Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

It is important to note here that not all of God’s children will become Gods. Each child of God has been given agency, or the ability to choose to do good or to do evil. If a man chooses to do evil, he will “fall short of the glory of God” (see Romans 3:23), and so fail to realize his own divine potential. Nevertheless, God has placed us on this earth, not so that we will fail, but rather so that we can succeed, through Christ. C.S. Lewis expressed this perfectly when he said:

“God did not create the humans--He did not become one of them and die among them by torture--in order to produce candidates for Limbo, “failed” humans. He wanted to make Saints; gods; things like Himself.” (Lewis, The Quotable Lewis, 308)

“The difference between man and God is significant, but it is one of degree, not kind. It is the difference between an acorn and an oak tree, a rosebud and a rose, a son and a father. In truth, every man is a God in embryo, in fulfillment of that eternal law that like begets like. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that God begat inferior offspring, in direct conflict with every scientific law known to man.” (Tad R. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration, 156-157)

As I have stated above, many people are offended by this idea because they believe that it would lessen, or degrade God’s divine majesty to have children as flawed as us that nevertheless can potentially become Gods in their own right.

Still others raise the Trinitarian notion that there can be but one God, and no others.

To these critics I present this simple (for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that our critic is a man, who has a healthy relationship with his father) hypothetical conversation:

Me: You have a father, correct?

Critic: Of course I do.

Me: When you were a child, could you do all of the things that your father was capable of doing.

Critic: No, of course I couldn’t. But eventually I grew up.

Me: Are you a father, or do you at least have the potential to become one?

Critic: Yes.

Me: So now you are capable of doing all of those things which your father did in his capacity as an adult, even though they were out of your reach as a child?

Critic: For all intents and purposes, yes.

Me: When you became a father, did your father stop being your father? Did the fact that you were a father negate his fatherhood in any way?

Critic: No, of course not!

Me: Did your love and your respect for him lessen in any way when you became a father?

Critic: Far from it! If anything my love and respect for him probably deepened.

Me: Just so, it is possible to become a god, and yet still love and worship YOUR God. No matter how much you grow and change your father will always be your father. In a like manner, God will not cease to be God, just because you become a god. He will always be your father, and you will always be His son.

Critic: But what about Deuteronomy 6:4 where it says “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:?”

Me: That is why Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6:

For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.

And that is also why in Deuteronomy 10:17 it goes on to say:

For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward:

No matter how you grow and change, God will never cease to be your God.

(I should note that the preceding hypothetical conversation closely mirrors one which I have had many times, both as a missionary, and also when attempting to help my friends to reconcile this doctrine in their own minds.)

If the prospect of attaining godhood seems daunting, to say nothing of well nigh unto impossible in your eyes, you can take comfort in the fact that exaltation is a principle of growth, and as such will not (indeed, cannot) happen overnight. The prophet Joseph Smith taught that the process of exaltation (growing up to become a God) is just that: a process. He likened it to climbing a ladder:

“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel-you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil [the veil between this world and the next] before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.” (Smith, Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith, 348)

Let’s review:

1) We are commanded by Jesus Christ to be perfect, and not just perfect in the abstract sense, but perfect in the way that God is perfect.

2) It is not dangerous arrogance to presume to be made equal to God. Christ did it (people tried to stone him for it, so maybe it is a little dangerous. But it is NOT arrogant. See John 10:30-36), and Paul tells us that we must follow Christ’s example in this.

3) We are the Children of God. As gods in embryo we are possessed of divine potential and, conditioned upon our righteousness, we stand to inherit ALL that the Father has through the redemption of His Son.

4) Children of a God can grow up to become gods, just like children of any creature must grow up to become like their parents. When we see God, we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

I have endeavored to demonstrate that through a careful study of the Bible, one can, through the spirit, gain testimony of this doctrine. A doctrine, which I freely admit, can be troubling to many. I feel that if one were to pin most people down and make them state their principal objections to this doctrine they could only say “It just can’t be!” and if you asked them to explain WHY it can’t be, all they could say is “It just can’t be!” However, I hope that as we have examined the doctrine of exaltation in detail as it is presented in the Bible, it has become clear that this doctrine is stated both explicitly and implicitly many times through out the Old and New testaments. Therefore the burden then shifts to those who would challenge the concept of exaltation to explain why this doctrine “just can’t be.”

This is not a “weird” or “freaky” doctrine, but rather it is an important and powerful blessing to know that we are the children and potential heirs of The Most High God. Moreover it is a doctrine that was held and taught by those men who wrote the letters and books that became the Bible, men who were called of God to be Apostles and Prophets, and witnesses of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I add my testimony to theirs that God lives, we are His children, He is our Father, and He loves us. He cares deeply about our personal eternal welfare, and He has given us ample means through the redemption of His son, not only for us to return to live with Him in the world to come, but also He has provided the means by which we each can become partakers of the divine nature and thus realize (and inherit) all of the things that pertain to life and godliness.

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