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Mormonism's "God in embryo": The doctrine of man becoming God

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“[I]n his mortal condition man is God in embryo. . . . [A]ny individual now a mortal being may attain the rank and sanctity of godship.” ~LDS Elder James E. Talmage

“And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die. . . . your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:45).

As the world looks at the broad “Protestant” world, it has little problem fitting Mormonism into the category. Mormons speak often of God, Jesus, and the Bible. They celebrate Christmas and Easter and speak of the cross and the resurrection. The name of their church includes the name of “Jesus Christ.” What else could one conclude but that they are a somewhat unusual Protestant group—unusual because they build temples and “ward chapels,” unusual because (at least until the current Presidential campaign) they use non-standard terminology for their leaders, such as prophet, and “General Authority” and, on the local level, “bishop” instead of “pastor,” and “elder” for young men barely needing to shave. And unusual especially because they have their own set of Scriptures that, while including the Bible (King James Version) subserviate the historic Christian Scriptures to a group of modern books (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price), accepting the Bible only “as it is translated correctly” (8th Article of Faith). But surely, the world thinks, Mormonism is just another manifestation of the broad Christian movement.

But we should hardly be surprised that the world is uncaring about specifics and uncaring about the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. From the earliest generations Christians separated themselves strongly from the paganism of the world around them, insisting that their God is transcendent and unique, the only true God, creator of all things, and in no way dependent upon another. The Apostle Paul summarized one of the earliest Christian “creedal” statements in these words:

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him (1 Cor. 8:46).

Ironically, Smith turned this text into a proof text for a plurality of gods, missing the obvious context and flow of the text (something he did often). In any case, we have already heard Smith’s denunciation of the heart of the Christian faith, but what about today? Maybe things have improved? Maybe Mormonism has abandoned its pagan past?

[product id="1496" align="left" size="small"]The best way to find out is to look at what the Mormon leadership says when it is teaching its own people. In 1992 a book appeared in LDS bookstores titled Achieving a Celestial Marriage: Student Manual. It was copyrighted by the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That makes it about as official as anything in print can be. This student manual was used for a decade as the study material young couples would work through as they prepared for a temple marriage, the ideal of Mormon piety. The work is amazingly forthright in its proclamations, and proves, beyond all dispute, that the doctrines taught by Joseph Smith remain perfectly valid today, at least in the opinion of the leadership of the LDS Church. At the very beginning of the book (pages 45), we read some of the most frank doctrine regarding God, man, and how men can become gods. The work begins with this subtitle:

God was once a man who, by obedience, advanced to his present state of perfection; through obedience and celestial marriage we may progress to the point where we become like God.

It then provides a section of doctrinal statements before presenting a representative dialogue between an older, more mature Mormon leader and a younger Mormon man considering the centrality of “celestial marriage,” the LDS marriage ceremony performed solely within the precincts of the LDS temples. Consider well the doctrinal instruction section:

Proclaiming the divine potential within man, John Taylor once wrote, “Knowest thou not that thou art a spark of Deity, struck from the fire of His eternal blaze, and brought forth in the midst of everlasting burnings.” (The Mormon, 29 Aug. 1857). Elder B. H. Roberts stated, “Man has descended from God; in fact, he is the same race as the Gods. His descent has not been from a lower form of life, but from the Highest Form of Life; in other words, man is, in the most literal sense, a Child of God. This is not only true of the spirit of man, but of his body also.” (Course of Study for Priests, 1910, p. 35).

Can you see the implications of these two statements as they relate to you and to your eternal destiny? Elder James E. Talmage did. He declared, “…in his mortal condition man is God in embryo. However…. any individual now a mortal being may attain the rank and sanctity of godship….” (Articles of Faith, p. 529). How is this possible? What course of action will bring this potential to fruition? As you study this lesson, look for the answers to these questions.

Proclaiming man to be “God in embryo” must be understood within the context of the overall LDS teaching that God is himself an exalted man. “Godship” is a rank, a status, an achievement in the scheme of exaltation, not, as it is in Christianity, a personal, self-sufficient Being who is the ground of all else. LDS apologists are quick to point to similar statements amongst Christian writers regarding man partaking of the divine nature, being made in the image of God, etc., but what is absent from the theology of all of those Christian writers is the absolutely necessary corollary, that is, a belief that God is an exalted man, himself dependent upon others. Christians have never believed, and will never believe, that God and man are of the same species. By grace men may be given great gifts and brought close to the very heart of God by the work of Jesus Christ, but that will never mean they are uncreated, independent beings. The chasm between Creator and creation is never violated.

Then the book's conversation begins, introduced in these words:

POINTS TO PONDER

God Became God by Obedience to Law

It was late afternoon as we sat in my office, but I felt the time had been well spent. He sat silently now, obviously contemplating the ramifications of the things we had been discussing. We had talked of God, of how he had become God, and of what that meant in terms of our own exaltation. Finally he spoke.

Do not miss the assertion being made here: “God became God by obedience to law.” What law? The law that includes the eternal marriage concept as well as many other “priesthood” concepts. But where did this law come from? We are not told. If all gods have become gods by obedience to law, then law is more eternal than even the process of exaltation, and we are left without any basis for its origination. Joseph Smith Jr. did not, it seems, have the time (or possibly the ability) to think through such things, but his followers have been saddled with his system ever since, and remain so to this day. Modern Mormons, faced with the attempt of Mormonism to portray itself as “mainstream,” are trying to come up with philosophical concepts to bridge this unbridgeable gap; so far, they have not been successful. The conversation begins:

"What is this law of exaltation of which you keep speaking?"

"Well, it involves the whole of the gospel law. Everything required of us by God is associated with this law, but the major crowning point of the law which man must obey is eternal marriage. Therein lies the keys of eternal life, or, as the Doctrine and Covenants puts it, 'eternal lives.' In other words, an eternal increase of posterity."

"Then what you're saying is that God became God by obedience to the gospel program, which culminates in eternal marriage."

The fact that Christians and Mormons use the same terms, but mean very different things by them, is illustrated here, where the Christian concept of eternal life is twisted into the concept of “eternal lives,” that is, the idea that the resurrected bodies of worthy Mormon men and women have the capacity to beget spiritual offspring. The conversation continues:

Through Obedience to Law We Can Become Like Our Father in Heaven

"Yes. Do you realize the implications of this doctrine as far as you are concerned?"

"I think so. If God became God by obedience to all of the gospel law with the crowning point being the celestial law of marriage, then that's the only way I can become a god."

"Right. And it is the law that assists us in reaching that potential. It tells us what we must do to gain the ultimate freedom. In fact, it is by obedience to law that we have progressed to our present position."

"You mean we have always been governed by law?"

The continuum of being and existence is here seen: the idea that men and God are of the same species, just at different points “along the way,” at different levels of exaltation. Such language grates upon the ear of the Christian who sees so clearly how foundationally other Mormonism truly is. But it is just here that we encounter what may be the single most amazing anti-Christian statement I have ever read in LDS literature. It is a short paragraph, but it is stunning in its teaching and implications:

"Always. You are an eternal being. You were never created and you cannot be destroyed, but you can advance, progress, and develop by obedience.

[product id="1497" align="left" size="small"]Here we have the utter negation of the most basic teachings of the Christian Scriptures. The Bible says God is the Creator of all things. Mormonism has no such God. The Mormon deity cannot create anything at all—he is limited to organizing pre-existing matter. For Christians, man is the creature of God, formed of dust and brought into existence in time. Mormonism says no. Mormonism says man is an eternal being, not in the sense that man will eternally exist, but that man has always existed, just as God has always existed, and in the exact same way (God being an exalted man). As the LDS Scriptures say, “Man was in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29). The Bible narrates the creation of man, and gives to God ultimate power and authority over the destiny of man, but Mormonism has no such God, and hence denies this Christian teaching. Here in just a few words is the very heart of the Mormon system. Consider it well!

"Then Hamlet's question 'to be or not to be?' is not the question?”

"Right, not in the ultimate sense, at least. Order means law, and that law is the law of the celestial kingdom. Any who come unto that kingdom must obey that law. (See D&C 88:24-29.)"

"But I thought godhood meant freedom. If I have to do things to become God, am I really free?"

"You have got it wrong. It was the Savior who said, 'If ye continue in my word,' that is, obey the law, 'ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.' (John 8:31,32.) So by obedience to law, we learn truths by which we become free -- but not free from the law. Can you see that?"

Aside from the demonstration that this section was written by a frustrated BYU English student, it likewise documents that context and exegesis is not a meaningful part of LDS publications, for how one can interpret John 8:3132 in this way is hard to say. But it continues:

"I think so. I can be a god only if I act like God."

"Exactly right. Can you imagine the state of the universe if imperfect gods were allowed to spawn their imperfections throughout space, if beings who did not have law under their subjection were free to create worlds?"

At this point one is left pondering such epics as the original Battle Star Galactica series (which was thoroughly LDS in orientation and authorship) with visions of “imperfect gods” spawning their imperfections throughout space and being free “to create worlds.” But this again is found at the very start of an LDS work written for LDS people and used for a decade just recently with the full knowledge and approbation of the LDS leadership.

"I guess that would be pretty disastrous. But I'm not sure I see why celestial marriage becomes the crowning apex of this progression. Marriage doesn't seem directly related to the creation of the universes."

"Oh, but don't be limited by your mortal perspective. God himself has declared his own reasons for existing. Remember, he said, 'For this is my work and my glory....' "

"I see his purpose is 'to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.' " (Moses 1:39).

Do not miss this statement, the very purpose of the LDS God is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” The Mormon deity is not only a man himself, he remains very anthropomorphic in orientation as well. Again, the Christian is left staggered not by the simple paganism of such teachings, but by the fact that anyone would dare to identify it as Christian!

"Which involves giving birth to spirit children and setting them on the road to exaltation. And if that is to be done, you must have an exalted man and..."

"An exalted woman."

"Exactly, an exalted man and woman who have been joined together in an eternal marriage. If this man and woman were obedient to all gospel laws except celestial marriage, what would be the result?"

"They still could not be gods. Now I understand. Celestial marriage is the crowning ordinance of the gospel."

"Right," I said with a smile. "And with that comment I think we can end the discussion."

And so we see the need for celestial marriage—so that we can become gods! Not exactly the teaching of the Apostles on the sanctity of marriage, of course, but again, very few outside of Mormonism itself have ever read these words, and it is not something that Mormons themselves are interested in presenting to the world in quite such an open fashion.

And so we see the essence of Mormon theology: universes filled with exalted beings, and other beings on the path to exaltation. No creator God, no creation ex nihilo, no ultimate Being. It is not a system that has much to commend it logically or philosophically, but the truly amazing aspect is that it parades under the name “Christian” in our world today. Any honest examination of the source documents of Mormonism once again affirms the startling truth that Islam is, at its basis, far closer to Christianity than Mormonism could ever be. And that is saying a lot.

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