By Eric Johnson
Over the years, leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have claimed that many concepts taught by Christians, including the Trinity, come from pagan backgrounds. According to their own words, Mormonism is a restoration of biblical Christianity that was lost when the “Great Apostasy” took place soon after the death of the twelve apostles. When we consider the history of Christianity regarding the origin of the universe (and ultimately, humankind), the teachings of Mormonism cannot be reconciled. This short paper provides an overview of creation from both the Christian and LDS perspectives.
Mormons are told that their church has the answers to the three most common questions people ask: Where did we come from? Why are we here? And where are we going?
However, when it comes to the first question, many Mormons say that there is a mystery to the exact details regarding God’s past. While Lorenzo Snow’s original couplet “As man is, God once was; As God is, man may become” is taught in official LDS teaching (see here for more information), more emphasis is placed on the second part of the couplet rather than the first. Fifteenth President Gordon B. Hinckley gave two different interviews on the topic in 1997. The first was with Don Lattin, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle:
Don Lattin: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?
Gordon B. Hinckley: I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’’ Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.
Don Lattin: So you’re saying the church is still struggling to understand this?
Gordon B. Hinckley: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can. (“Musings of the Main Mormon Gordon B. Hinckley, ‘president, prophet, seer and revelator’ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sits at the top of one of the world’s fastest-growing religions,” an interview by San Francisco Chronicle Religion writer Don Lattin, Sunday, April 13, 1997).
The second interview was with Don Van Biema from Time magazine:
“On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he [Hinckley] sounded uncertain, ‘I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it’” (“Kingdom Come,” an interview with Gordon B. Hinckley by Don Van Biema, Time magazine, August 4, 1997, Ellipses in original).
Like President Hinckley, many Mormons don’t place a priority on God’s “roots.” Much more emphasis is placed on the people’s present situation (“we have divinity within ourselves,” the 2013 church manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, p. 84 teaches) and future (“we will live form eternity to all eternity. . . to stand in the presence of our Father, to receive of His fullness, to have the pleasure of increasing in our posterity worlds without end. . .” pp 84-85). As the 2012 church manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith explained,
“Being created in the image of God, we believe that it is not improper, that it is not unrighteous, for us to hope that we may be permitted to partake of the attributes of deity and, if we are faithful, to become like unto God; for as we receive of and obey the natural laws of our Father that govern this life, we become more like Him; and as we take advantage of the opportunities placed within our reach, we prepare to receive greater opportunities in this life and in the life that is to come. . . .”
As far as God’s existence before the creation of the world, the third chapter of the Book of Abraham–in the Pearl of Great Price, an LDS Standard Work–provides details, including Kolob and the intelligences of the world. Typically, however, the emphasis given by LDS leaders on understanding God and His ways has a starting point at the creation of the world and the Preexistence. With that as a background, let’s look further into the creation of the world as seen from biblical Christianity and contrast this with Mormonism.
Ex Nihilo vs. Ex Materia
Traditionally, Christianity has taught that God created the heavens and earth with His spoken voice. This is called “ex nihilo” creation. From the very first verse in the Bible (Genesis 1:1), the idea that God did not have a beginning is assumed. Theologian Louis Berkhof explains:
“While Greek philosophy sought the explanation of the world in a dualism, which involves the eternity of matter, or in a process of emanation, which makes the world the outward manifestation of God, the Christian Church from the very beginning taught the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and as a free act of God. This doctrine was accepted with singular unanimity from the start. It is found in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandra, Origen, and others.” (Systematic Theology, p. 126)
Philosophers Paul Copan and William Lane Craig agree, saying that the affirmation that God created the heavens and earth
“has been proclaimed by Christians in all centuries and has almost always been understood to mean that God created all things out of nothing (ex nihilo). That is, God is not work with uncreated, preexisting materials but created literally everything by divine fiat.” (The New Mormon Challenge, p. 96)
According to the Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, “God is Creator—the only being capable of making something from nothing. The Hebrew word for “create” always and only has God as its subject.” (p. 308) The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains, “The OT and the NT, their doctrine of creation, recognize no eternal matter before creation.” (1:801). “It was not a refashioning of previous materials (cf. Rom. 4:17; Heb. 11:3),” writes Paul Enns (The Moody Handbook of Theology, p. 39). Consider some important New Testament biblical passages that support this idea:
- “from [since, before] the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35; 25:34; Luke 11:50; John 17:24; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 4:3; 9:26; 1 Peter 1:20; Rev. 13:8; 17:8)
- “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:4, 8; John 8:44; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 John 1:1; 2:13-14; 3:8)
- “from the beginning of the world” (Matt. 24:21)
- “from the beginning of the creation” (Mark 10:6; 2 Peter 3:4)
- “from the beginning of creation which God created” (Mark 13:19)
- “since the creation of the world” (Rom. 1:20)
- “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning” (Heb. 1:10)
- “the beginning of God’s creation” (Rev. 3:14) (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 1:368-369)
Werner Foerster is quoted by Erickson, saying, “These phrases show that creation involves the beginning of the existence of the world, so that there is no pre-existent matter.” While the original words for “create” or “creation” do not necessarily dictate ex nihilo creation, Erickson explains that “nonetheless, these usages argue that a more specific meaning than merely making or fashioning is involved here” (p. 369)
Erickson further explains on page 370,
“In bringing the whole of reality into being, God created merely by his word. In Genesis 1, for instance, we read that God spoke and his statement became immediate reality (vv. 3, 6, 9). The mere statement ‘Let there be light’ was sufficient for light to come into existence. We can draw several conclusions. For one, God has the power simply to will situations to be, and they immediately come to pass exactly as he has willed. Second, creation is an act of his will, not an act to which he is driven by any force or consideration outside himself. Further, God does not involve himself, his own being, in the process. Creation is not something made out of him. It is not a part of him or emanation from his reality.”
To the contrary, Mormonism teaches the eternal existence of matter, or Creation Ex Materia. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains, “Since Mormons believe that the elements are eternal, it follows that they deny the ex nihilo creation” (1:400). The Book of Mormon speaks about how God (2 Nephi 2:14; 11:7) and Jesus (Helaman 14:12) created the heavens and the earth. Early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants also refer to this issue (D&C 14:9; 45:1).
Later in his life, Joseph Smith apparently changed his views from previous revelation. For example, D&C 93:29 says, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” Verse 33 adds, “For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.”
The fourth chapter in the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price explains in detail how the world was created. For instance:
“And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1).
“And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light” (Abraham 4:3).
“And the Gods also said: Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and it shall divide the waters from the waters” (Abraham 4:6).
“And the Gods said: Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass; the herb yielding seed; the fruit tree yielding fruit, after his kind, whose seed in itself yieldeth its own likeness upon the earth; and it was so, even as they ordered” (Abraham 4:11).
“And the Gods said: Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life; and the fowl, that they may fly above the earth in the open expanse of heaven” (Abraham 4:20).
“And the Gods said: We will bless them, and cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas or great waters; and cause the fowl to multiply in the earth” (Abraham 4:22).
“And the Gods prepared the earth to bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind; and it was so, as they had said” (Abraham 4:24).
“And the Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness; and we will give them dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Abraham 4:26).
“And the Gods said: We will bless them. And the Gods said: We will cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Abraham 4:28).
“And the Gods said: Behold, we will give them every herb bearing seed that shall come upon the face of all the earth, and every tree which shall have fruit upon it; yea, the fruit of the tree yielding seed to them we will give it; it shall be for their meat” (Abraham 4:29).
“And the Gods said: We will do everything that we have said, and organize them; and behold, they shall be very obedient. And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning they called night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that they called day; and they numbered the sixth time” (Abraham 4:31).
Four important distinctive characteristics must be noted from this overview of Abraham chapter 4:
1) A plurality of “Gods” created the universe
2) No explanation is given for how the “Gods” came to become “Gods”
3) The elements for the heavens and earth were “organized”/matter preexistent
4) Man was formed in the image of the Gods
Using the teachings from later Doctrine and Covenants sections and the Book of Abraham, LDS leaders have insisted on Creation ex Materia and eternal matter. For example, consider the words of these men:
- Founder Joseph Smith: “You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, ‘Doesn’t’ the Bible say He created the world?’ And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Not, the word create came from the word baurau (sic) which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 350-352)
- 2nd President Brigham Young: “God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways, we would say that he took of this matter and organized the earth from it. How long has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it” (May 14, 1871, Journal of Discourses 14:116).
- Young: “They [Mormons] believe God brought forth material out of which he formed this little terra firma upon which we roam. How long had this material been in existence? Forever and forever, in some shape, in some condition” (September 17, 1876, Journal of Discourses 18:231-232).
- Seventy William C. Dunbar: “We Latter-day Saints do not believe the world was created out of nothing, but that it was created just upon the same principle that a builder creates a house, that is, there is matter in existence and he organizes it and changes its condition suitable to the circumstances that he wishes to use it for; the builder changes the bricks, lumber and other material into a house or other structure; the Almighty by his power and wisdom takes existing matter and combines it and makes a world; and he places the stars and the sun and moon in the firmament, giving to each the laws by which its movements are governed” (January 4, 1874, Journal of Discourses 17:22).
- Apostle Orson Pratt: “The prophet Joseph Smith revealed to us that all the materials of our globe, and all the materials of the universe, are eternal in their nature, that their substance is eternal, not created out of nothing, according to the vagaries and foolish ideas of the religious world” (August 25, 1878, Journal of Discourses 20:73).
- The First Presidency: “The scriptures plainly and repeatedly affirm that God is the Creator of the earth and the heavens and all things that in them are. In the sense so expressed the Creator is an Organizer. God created the earth as an organized sphere; but He certainly did not create, in the sense of bringing into primal existence, the ultimate elements of the materials of which the earth consists, for ‘the elements are eternal’” (Messages of the First Presidency 5:26).
- Apostle James Talmage: “The scriptures plainly and repeatedly affirm that God is the Creator of the earth and the heavens and all things that in them are. In the sense so expressed, the Creator is an Organizer. God created the earth as an organized sphere; but He certainly did not create, in the sense of bringing into primal existence, the ultimate elements of the materials of which the earth consists, for ‘the elements are eternal’” (Articles of Faith, 1984, p. 420).
- 10th President Joseph Fielding Smith: “Under the direction of his Father, Jesus Christ created this earth. No doubt others helped him, but it was Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, who, under the direction of his Father, came down and organized matter and made this planet, so that it might be inhabited by the children of God. . . . It is true that Adam helped to form this earth. He labored with our Savior Jesus Christ. I have a strong view or conviction that there were others also who assisted them. Perhaps Noah and Enoch; and why not Joseph Smith, and those who were appointed to be rulers before the earth was formed?” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:74, 75. Ellipses mine).
- Apostle Neal Maxwell: “Ex nihilo creation—viewing mortals as having been created out of nothing—with all of its attendant problems that include blurred accountability, is refuted by Restoration light. We know now that not only was Jesus in the beginning with the Father (D&C 93:21), but we were also (D&C 93:23)!” (Not My Will, But Thine, p. 39).
The idea that matter is coeternal with God–and, as Maxwell points out, humans were also!–is clearly stated in contemporary Mormonism. For example, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states:
“Latter-day Saints reject the troublesome premise of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), affirming rather that there are actualities that are coeternal with God. These coeternal actualities include intelligences (sometimes perceived as primal selves or persons), chaotic matter (or mass energy), and laws and principles (perhaps best regarded as the properties and relations of matter and intelligences)” (2:478).
This encyclopedia also explains:
“The scriptures plainly and repeatedly affirm that God is the Creator of the earth and the heavens and all things that in them are. In the sense so expressed the Creator is an Organizer. God created the earth as an organized sphere; but He certainly did not create, in the sense of bringing into primal existence, the ultimate elements of the materials of which the earth consists, for ‘the elements are eternal. . . . (4:1670).
The idea that man is coeternal with God was clearly taught by Joseph Smith. He preached:
“We say that God himself is a self-existent being. Who told you so? It is correct enough; but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like matter upon the same principles? Man does exist upon the same principles. . . . The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself.’” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 352)
Which view is correct?
Historically Christianity has taught that God was in the “beginning” (Gen. 1:1) and created the matter of the universe through His word. The idea given by Joseph Smith that says humans are coeteranl with God is anathema in Christianity. This is something straight out of paganism and NOT the Bible! Jesus differentiated Himself from humans in John 3:31 when he said, “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.” In John 8:23, Jesus speaks to the Pharisees, saying, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” The distinction is clear in Romans 9:20: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?” When an objective person takes a look at the Bible–yes, even the Book of Mormon, for that matter–the picture is of complete separation, not unity, when it comes to the heritage of their origin. One is there from the very beginning who has always been God, continuing in that role forevermore–nobody is His equal (Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 43:10, 44:6-8).
Mormonism teaches that matter is eternal, which was then used by Jesus to organize the world. Somebody has to be wrong because both views cannot be correct.
In the third section of their article “Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo” (The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement (Beckwith/Mosser/Owen, Zondervan, 2002—article can be found here. and the book is recommended), philosophers Paul Copan and William Lane Craig explain the rationale defending the argument for the doctrine of creation ex nihilo by using this syllogism:
- The temporal series of past physical events either had a beginning or is beginningless.
- If the temporal series of past physical events had a beginning, the beginning was either created or uncreated.
- The temporal series of past physical events is not beginningless.
- The beginning was not uncreated
- The temporal series of past physical events had a beginning.
- The beginning was either created or uncreated.
- The beginning was created.
Using the argument for the impossibility of an actual infinite (called the Kalam Cosmological Argument), the authors provide their deductive argument:
- An actual infinite cannot exist
- An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
- Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.
To show this to be true, an illustration called “Hilbert’s Hotel” is used to show the absurdity of a hotel with infinite rooms that could never be filled. I recommend you consider this argument, either on video or in article form (search “Hilbert’s Hotel”). The authors write on page 132 that “since an actual infinite cannot exist and an infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite, we can conclude that an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist; that is to say, the temporal regress of events is finite.”
Critics have attacked Craig’s reasoning, and my point in this article is not to provide a full defense against the criticisms. However, I have read many of these rebuttals and believe that twisting and turning of the argument do not effectively counter Craig’s explanation. Mormon apologist Blake Ostler has written a rebuttal as well, to which Craig has responded.
When it comes to determining from where we came, there are only two possibilities. When we consider the history of the teaching as well as the biblical roots, the viewpoint traditionally accepted in biblical Christianity contains more biblical evidence and history than the alternative offered by Mormonism.
For more on the topic of God and the nature of the Godhead, click here.