By Eric Johnson
The following is an article by apologist Michael Ash, which is found in the April 2013 Ensign magazine, an official periodical of the LDS Church. Mr. Ash’s words are underlined and intact. My response is in regular type.
The Restoration and Early Christian Teachings: Historical research shows that truths revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith were taught by early Christians.
BY MICHAEL R. ASH
Mormons who like to glance through their church magazine are given plenty of hope, especially with the unfounded subtitle. Let’s consider the author’s evidence and see if there is reason for Mormons to have hope in his findings.
From the day the Prophet Joseph Smith received the gold plates in 1827 until his martyrdom in 1844, the floodgates of revelation were opened as he restored scripture, doctrines, and priesthood authority. The Restoration not only reestablished the original Church of Jesus Christ but also reestablished teachings that had been lost.
Herein lies the major presuppositions of this article (and ultimately, of Mormonism itself). First of all, the author has to assume there were real plates. (See here and read the section titled “Gold Plates.”) Then he calls Smith’s death a “martyrdom.” (For more information, see here and here.) Next, he must presuppose that there was a need for a “restoration” (because of the “Great Apostasy”), which required the restoring of “scripture, doctrines, and priesthood authority.” All of these are necessary for the LDS Church to have any claim to the authority held by the New Testament church.
Many teachings and practices that distinguish Latter-day Saints from other modern Christians are now known to have been believed and practiced by the early Christians as well. Here are a few of them.
Mr. Ash says there are “many teachings and practices” of the LDS Church that were “believed and practiced by the early Christians.” He says he’ll provide “a few of them.” I’m supposing he will give us the best he has to offer. Let’s see what he is able to give us.
Our Premortal Life
Though the doctrine of premortal life is hinted at in the Bible (see Jeremiah 1:5), many Christian theologians before Joseph Smith had taught that humans and their spirits are created from nothing. The book of Abraham reveals that we had a premortal life with our heavenly family and that we chose the plan of salvation presented by our Heavenly Father (see Abraham 3:22–23).
Jeremiah 1:5 is used to support the doctrine of premortality. However, Jeremiah 1:5 says this: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Here Jeremiah is told by the sovereign God of the universe that He has a plan for the prophet, and that plan was formed before Jeremiah’s birth. Does this mean that humans had a relationship with God in premortality? The answer is, quite simply, no. Notice that this verse says God knew Jeremiah before his birth; nowhere does it intimate that Jeremiah knew God. If God is omniscient (all-knowing) and sovereign, we would expect Him to know Jeremiah. The Bible is full of passages stating that God is in sovereign control, and, as such, His plans cannot be thwarted by anyone. In fact, it’s clear that God has a plan for everyone. It was God who determined who our parents would be (thus determining where we would be born), the color of our skin, the number of hairs on our head, and even our natural temperament. Nothing about our existence surprised God. He knew us, but nowhere is it inferred that we knew Him before birth. The only other verse he uses is from the unique LDS scripture the Book of Abraham. This has been shown to be a fraud. The Institute for Religious Research (IRR) has done plenty of study on this topic, so go here for more information. Also, we recommend this video (available for free on the Internet) for more information.
Why was a restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ needed?
A general falling away from the truth occurred after the death of Christ’s Apostles. This is called the Apostasy (see Amos 8:11–12; Acts 20:29–30; 2 Timothy 4:3).
After the Apostles and many righteous Church members were killed and other members departed from the truth, the Lord took the priesthood authority and His Church from the earth. Without God’s priesthood authority, the Church no longer functioned as Christ had established it. The ordinances were changed, and many plain and simple truths were lost. While many good people and some truth remained, the original Church was lost.
The Apostle Peter prophesied of the “restitution of all things” before Christ’s Second Coming (see Acts 3:19–21). Having been lost because of the Apostasy, Christ’s Church and His authority were to be restored to the earth.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision marked the beginning of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. In subsequent years, Christ restored His priesthood and reorganized His Church. He has continued to reveal truths to His prophets and to restore the blessings that were taken from the earth for a time. (See Restoration in FAQ on Mormon.org.)
At the end of the article, “key teachings” are listed to show how there was a Great Apostasy. This is what is listed:
• Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord restored truths that had been known and taught by Christians in the first, second, and third centuries.
• Among the early Christian teachings restored through Joseph Smith are premortal life, salvation for the dead, the degrees of glory, and our ability to become like Heavenly Father through Christ’s Atonement.
• As we study and pray, we can receive a witness from the Holy Ghost of the truthfulness of these teachings.
Scholars now recognize that baptism for the dead was an authentic ancient Christian practice.
Scholarly studies have buttressed the claim that the Prophet restored doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the meridian of time.
According to the first “key teaching,” there was still truth being taught in the first three centuries. This seems purely optimistic if there really was something called the “Great Apostasy,” as taught throughout the decades by Mormon leaders. Consider Apostle James Talmage, who wrote a book titled (what else?) The Great Apostasy; he described this period of time as beginning with the early apostles:
“From certain utterances of the early-day apostles it is made plain to us that the great ‘falling away’ had begun even while those apostles were living. The preaching of false doctrines and the rise of unauthorized teachers were referred to as conditions then actually existing in the Church, and not as remote developments of the distant future” (The Great Apostasy, p. 39). Based on the writings of John’s letters to the seven churches of Revelation, Talmage taught how there was “ample” “proof that even before the ancient apostles had finished their earthly ministry, apostasy was growing apace” (p. 45).
Page 90 of the 2009 Gospel Principles church manual reads,
“The New Testament shows that this Church organization was intended to continue. For example, the death of Judas left only eleven Apostles. Soon after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the eleven Apostles met together to choose someone to take the place of Judas. Through revelation from the Holy Ghost, they chose Matthias. (See Acts 1:23-26.) Jesus had set a pattern for twelve Apostles to govern the Church. It seemed clear that the organization was to continue as He had established it.”
This idea of apostolic authority—including the necessity for this trait in today’s church—plays a huge role in Mormonism. Gospel Principles says that the “pattern” was for twelve apostles, no more and no less. If the pattern was for twelve apostles, yet the disciples quit choosing new apostles after the death of Judas (see Acts 1:12ff), then how could the early church have had any authority after the death of the apostles? One LDS teacher has said there was too much persecution and therefore the apostles didn’t have a chance to nominate new ones. Is this true?
The first apostle to be killed was James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John; his head was cut off by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) in AD 44. While the dates of the martyrdoms of the other disciples must be determined solely by tradition, James’s death is ascertained by scripture. If twelve was the necessary number necessary for church authority, shouldn’t an election for a new apostle have been a priority? It’s not as if the apostles never gathered together. For example, we know that they were together at the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15) just a few years later. According to Mormonism, having eleven, nine, or five apostles in the early church was not an option. As mentioned above, the Gospel Principles manual stated how twelve men were needed if “the organization was to continue as He had established it.” President Ezra Taft Benson told a General Conference crowd, “The apostasy had started during the days of the Apostles, and was referred to frequently by them” (Conference Reports, October 1949, p. 26). BYU professor Kent P. Jackson explained, “The apostasy did not happen because the Apostles were gone; the Apostles were taken because the apostasy had occurred” (“Early Signs of the Apostasy,” Ensign, December 1984, p. 16).
The lds.org website says,
“It is apparent from the New Testament that after Jesus established His 12 apostles that the group or Quorum of 12 was to continue from the events of Acts Chapter 1 where the 11 apostles, under the direction of Peter, choose Matthias as the new apostle to replace Judas. Paul, an author of a number of books in the New Testament, was also chosen as an apostle. Paul indicates that the church is built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:19-20) and lists their functions to ‘bring us to a unity of the faith’ (Ephesians 4:11-14).”
If there were not twelve apostles on the earth—why, the early church didn’t even bother to nominate new apostles, which seems to not in disagreement with a church that taught in the importance of having twelve at a time!—how could this church have any authority left in the first place?
While twelfth President Spencer Kimball doesn’t give specifics, he made it sound like the Great Apostasy took place soon after the crucifixion and loss of the apostles. He said,
“This is not a continuous church, nor is it one that has been reformed or redeemed. It has been restored after it was lost. It was lost – the gospel with its powers and blessings – Sometime after the Savior’s crucifixion and the loss of his apostles. The laws were changed, the ordinances were changed, and the everlasting covenant was broken that the Lord Jesus Christ gave to his people in those days. There was a long period of centuries when the gospel was not available to people on this earth, because it had been changed” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 423).
Benson taught the following to a 1988 general conference:
“I testify that a world so wicked that it killed the Son of God soon began killing the Apostles and prophets and so plunged itself into a spiritual dark age. (See 2 Thes. 2:2-7.) Scripture ended, apostasy spread, and the church that Christ established during His earthly ministry ceased to exist. (See 2 Ne. 27:4-5.)” (“I Testify,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1988, p. 86).
In 1924, Andrew Jensen explained:
“What can we say of the original Church in the light of history, after it had existed one hundred years? There was very little left of it. The apostasy which commenced to show itself in the days of Paul had spread to such an extent that after the great lights of the Church had fallen as martyrs, the great majority of the Saints had turned away from the gospel as originally taught by the Savior” (Conference Reports, April 1924, pp. 136-137).
A 1999 church manual says that the Apostasy took only a “few decades” to complete:
“Explain that after Jesus Christ was crucified, His Apostles presided over the Church. But soon persecution, divisions, and apostasy increased. Within a few decades, there was a falling away from the Church, as the Apostles had prophesied (Acts 20:28-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:3-4). This falling away is known as the Great Apostasy” (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, 1999, pp. 11-12).
Since the last apostle living was John—traditionally, he lived until the 90’s—and if we take few to mean “three or four,” then this means that the Great Apostasy must have been complete around AD 130.
Several BYU professors are in agreement with this timeline. Stephen E. Robinson explained, “First of all, it should be noted that the Latter-day Saints do reject the authority of traditional Christianity after the death of the New Testament Apostles” (Are Mormons Christians? p. 34). Robert J. Matthews points to the Great Apostasy being complete by the second century when he wrote, “The great apostasy and loss of the priesthood 1800 years ago resulted not only in a loss of authority to perform ordinances in the Church, but also in a loss of truth pertaining to every phase of life on the earth. It has affected man’s thinking and reasoning in political, economic, educational and social fields as well (“The Pear; of Great Price Encounters the Modern World – An Appraisal,” The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations From God, H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate, eds., pp. 30-31). Robert L. Millet gave an estimate of around AD 130-150: “With the death of the apostles, within approximately one hundred years of the crucifixion of Jesus, the power to act in the name of God, was lost from the earth. …Latter-day Saints teach that God’s divine authority was not to be found in the Old World by the middle of the second century A.D.” (A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, pp. 39-40. Ellipses mine).
Yet no LDS leader seems to point to a particular date, saying, “This is it.” However, many leaders not only say that the Great Apostasy had its roots during the days of the Apostles but that it seemed to be prevalent within a few years after their deaths. With no apostles holding the keys of authority, how, then, could these early Christians had the necessary authority to speak authoritatively? Yet later in this article, Ash wants to quote Early Church Fathers to somehow validate the unique LDS teaching of premortality! If he wants to do this, he must explain why he believes that these post-Apostolic men had any authority, whatsoever. If these men were tainted by the Great Apostasy, possibly even sans the priesthood, why should a Mormon consider anything they say as truthful?
We now know that this doctrine of premortal life was also accepted by many Jews and Christians around the time of Christ. According to one Jewish scholar, Jews in the first few centuries after Christ believed that the soul existed in a heavenly “spiritual reservoir” before being placed into a body, as evidenced by the Apocrypha’s reference to spirits waiting in “chambers of souls” before birth.
Mr. Ash pulls out a quote from an obscure 1950 book to show how souls were placed in bodies. He also quotes from the Apocrypha to support his case (2 Esdras 4:41), a book (some commentators say it wasn’t produced until AD 100) that is accepted by neither Evangelical Christians nor Latter-day Saints. In fact, the Apocrypha is not even part of the standard canon for the Jews. The passage deals with Ezra’s confusion about why God would allow Gentiles to overtake Israel (v. 23) and what God would do about the injustice (v. 25). The angel Uriel says that patience is needed. Then Ezra asks “why are our years few and evil?” (v. 33). In verse 35, Uriel answers, “Didn’t the souls of the just in their resting places ask about these things…?” Ezra asks again in verses 38-39, “Supreme Lord, we all are also full of impiety. Is it perhaps because of us, and because of the sins of those who live on earth, that the harvest of the just is delayed?”
This is what verses 40-43 say:
He answered me, “Go ask a pregnant woman whether her womb can keep the baby inside her when she has completed her nine months.” I said, “It can’t, Lord.” He said to me: “The underworld and the resting places of the souls are like the womb. As the one who gives birth hastens to escape the distress of giving birth, so these also hasten to give back those things that were entrusted to them from the beginning. Then you will be shown the things you want to see.”
This passage appears to be talking about those who had already lived and then died; they are the “underworld and the resting places of the souls” that “are like the womb.” It certainly is not talking about souls in “premortality” who are awaiting their first-time bodies! Instead of pulling something from a Jewish scholar and the Apocrypha, perhaps the Ensign author could find additional biblical passages to support a teaching that is so very important in LDS theology.
The pseudepigraphical book of Enoch, which some Jews and early Christians considered scripture, taught that “all the souls of the children of man have been before they came down to the world.”
The author does not provide the exact reference from Enoch. (To find it, I would have to read the entire book just to find out from where this quote originates! Or, I would have to read Hugh Nibley, whom he quotes. I’ll pass.) The reference comes from the pseudepigrapha, which is even further away from the canon than the Apocrypha. It too is not accepted as scripture by Evangelical Christians, Mormons, or Jews. Instead of providing evidence that both Christian and Mormon can accept with confidence, Mr. Ash fails to point to biblical passsages in support of his view. If premortality is an early Christian teaching, the evidence should be very clear. And more, if Joseph Smith retranslated the New Testament, why is there no hint in the Inspired Version about this teaching?
Salvation for the Dead
Though some Christian denominations disagree with each other regarding the necessity of ordinances and works, they all agree that in order to be saved, we must accept Christ and make His sacrifice fully effective in our lives, acknowledging His divinity and the wonderful gift He gave us. However, since the days of Adam, only a small fraction of God’s children have ever had the opportunity to hear the gospel, much less accept it.
Mormonism’s teaches that everyone can hear the LDS gospel, whether in this life or the next, a trait that attracts many to this religion. Consider, thought, that it was Jesus Himself who said in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” The Bible is clear that all people have been given General Revelation (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18ff.) There is also Special Revelation, as Paul said in Romans 10:14-15, “ How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
The Mormon could assume that Paul here is talking about spirits who present the gospel to those in spirit prison, but this is taking the apostle way out of context. We must once more accept another LDS presupposition, which is the idea that everyone will have a chance (even a second chance) to hear the gospel. But neither Jesus nor Paul says this. In fact, Paul says everyone will live his or her life before the Judgment comes (Hebrews 9:24; 2 Corinthians 6:2). Even the Book of Mormon, one of Mormonism’s Standard Works, teaches this very thing. Alma 34:31-35 explains,
“31 Yea, I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you. 32 For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. 33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. 34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. 35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.”
Thus, to accept Mormonism’s teaching that there is a chance of salvation after death, the Mormon must be willing to disregard the teaching of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. This is a dangerous precedence!
Thanks to modern revelation, we know that ordinances necessary for individual salvation can be performed by proxy for those who didn’t have the chance to receive them while in mortality. A loving and just God allows all His children the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel and its necessary ordinances.
Notice what has been said. This belief in salvation after death requires “modern revelation.” The author then adds that “a loving and just God allows all His children the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel and its necessary ordinances.” LDS theology appears to teach that everyone, me included, will receive some form of salvation in one of the three levels of heaven, even if they reject this message in this life. I have never been LDS, and I think I’m a pretty good person—perhaps deceived, if you ask my Mormon friends–who generally has good motives. Thus, it would appear that even I am a good candidate for the terrestrial kingdom. At worst, I think I’m entitled to nothing less than the telestial kingdom? Adolph Hitler should also have a chance for this bottom level because his work is complete via the temple. See here.
But let’s flip it. If premortality is true and a third of our spiritual brothers and sisters were cast out of heaven because they did not choose Jesus, then they must live for eternity without bodies. Their final destination? Outer darkness. If Mormonism’s teaching on premortality is true, then these spirits can’t even have work done for them in proxy by Latter-day Saints. Now reread Mr. Ash’s statement about “a loving and just God (who) allows all his children the opportunity…” You can’t have it both ways. Why don’t disobedient preexistent spirits get the same opportunity as those of who somehow were good enough to make it to this world and disobedient throughout their lives? (I include myself in that latter comment.)
Baptism for the dead is mentioned in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 15:29), as is the fact that the Savior delivered the gospel to those in spirit prison (see 1 Peter 3:18–19; 4:6), but before Joseph Smith’s day most Christian theologians taught that these passages were simply anomalies or ambiguities that didn’t really describe early Christian practices and beliefs. More recently, however, non-LDS scholars have written about ancient Christian traditions describing Christ’s preaching to the dead in the spirit world and having taught that baptism was the key to their release.
First of all, 1 Corinthians 15:29 has been taken out of context. It says: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” For more information on this verse, see here. Mormons like to use the 1 Peter 3 passages to show that Jesus gave those who were already dead another chance to accept the gospel. That verse says that He “went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Because there is not much background information available to us, there are many interpretations of this verse. As New Testament scholar Mark Strauss says, “The verse is enormously difficult to interpret and we simply don’t know what it means,” adding that proposed interpretations “all are educated guesses.”(email message dated Oct. 11, 2011).
One possible interpretation given by Christian commentators is that the verse “refers to Christ’s announcement to departed spirits of the triumph of his resurrection, declaring to them the victory he had achieved by his death and resurrection, as pointed out in the previous verse.”(Geisler and Rhodes, When Cultists Ask, p. 296). According to this view, the Greek word for “preached” means “proclaimed.” Even those who rejected God in their earthly lives will acknowledge the lordship of Christ, for Philippians 2:10–11 says every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. However, not all who bow their knees will be able to call Him Savior. The people described in 1 Peter 3:19 are awaiting the final judgment in the same place as the rich man in Luke 16:19–31; they are not being invited to accept a postmortem salvation.
Another popular interpretation connects 1 Peter 3:19 with the reference to Noah in verse 20. Christian commentator Gleason Archer explained that this event “took place, not when Christ descended into Hades after His death on Calvary, but by the Spirit who spoke through the mouth of Noah during the years while the ark was under construction (v. 20). Therefore v. 19 holds out no hope whatsoever for a ‘second chance’ for those who reject Christ during their lifetime on earth.”(Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 424). Thus, according to this interpretation, the people in Noah’s day had their chance to receive the truth while they were alive, but they rejected it and are now awaiting the final judgment.
Joseph Smith claimed his vision also gave him understanding of 1 Peter 4:6, another ambiguous passage. It says in part, “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.” The New International Version translates the last portion of this, “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.” While the word now is not found in the original Greek, it was used by the translators because the context suggests that the preaching of the gospel had been delivered in the past to those who were now deceased. In order to support the Mormon view of a second chance to hear the gospel message and receive salvation after death, the first verb would need to be present tense (i.e., “for this cause is the gospel preached also to them that are dead”). It is not, which is a clear blow to the Mormon interpretation. To suggest that living people can become “saviors” of those already dead is not a Christian teaching and must therefore be rejected.
Some of these early traditions suggest that just as John the Baptist’s birth preceded the birth of the Savior so that he could herald Jesus’s ministry, so likewise John was killed before the Crucifixion to herald Jesus’s coming in the spirit world. Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian writer of the late second to early third century, said that “Christ went down to Hades [the spirit world] for no other purpose than to preach the gospel.” Clement claimed that Christ not only “visited” and “preached” to the dead but “baptized the just men of old, both gentiles and Jews, not only those who lived before the coming of the Lord, but also those who were before the coming of the Law.”
Once more, if the apostasy began during the days of the apostles, and Clement lived when the office of “apostle” had apparently ceased (since there were not twelve anymore), how can a Mormon quote somebody like this (in good conscience)? Much of what Clement of Alexandria said, including his view of how men can become deity and his view of salvation (espousing universalism), is controversial. Clement’s star pupil was Origen, whom many consider a complete heretic. Maybe the Mormons ought to pick Clement of Alexandria and Origen as their own patron saints!
Some non-LDS scholars now recognize that baptism for the dead was an authentic ancient Christian practice. One historian reports that in the early Christian Church “the necessity of Baptism is such that the Apostles and teachers … who preached the Gospel had to go down to limbo, there to teach and baptize the just already dead.”
Mr. Ash makes use of an obscure 1910 work—more than a century old—to make his point. The person he was quoting was Joseph Tixeront, a Catholic writer. I tried to find the book on the Internet, including Google books, but I could not find the book or the quote. Again, by mixing and matching his sources—from heretics to little known Catholic writers—Mr. Ash can make hocus pocus happen and support his original thesis, which is “scholarly studies have buttressed the claim that the Prophet restored doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the meridian of time.” If he is going to use “scholarly studies” and “buttress” in the same sentence, perhaps he ought to deliver the goods rather than providing little bits of nothing. While he claims there are “some non-LDS scholars” in support of his view, he quotes only one, and that is someone whose simple biography cannot be found on an Internet research. This is not impressive.
Degrees of Glory
While Christian teaching had traditionally maintained that the dead go either to heaven or hell, Joseph Smith learned that there are many degrees of glory in the hereafter. Jesus once taught in a parable that we will reap what we sow and that some will bring forth fruit “an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:8). Irenaeus, an early Christian writer of the late second century, explained this passage to mean that there will be varying degrees of reward in the hereafter:
“Then those who are deemed worthy of abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city. … There is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundred-fold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold: … it was on this account the Lord declared, ‘In My Father’s house are many mansions’ [John 14:2; see also D&C 98:18]. For all things belong to God, who supplies all with a suitable dwelling-place.”
While Mr. Ash acknowledges that the idea of heaven and hell is the traditional teaching—perhaps this is because the Bible teaches this?—he acknowledges that believing what Joseph Smith said is even more important. He must assume that Evangelical Christians would disagree with Irenaeus’s assessment. If so, he is wrong in his assumption. There are differering rewards in the next life. The judgment of works is only for Christians, as non-believers will be judged at the Great White Throne. Their “good” works will be insufficient, as Jesus explained in Matthew 7:22-23, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
Within heaven, there will be “degrees of reward.” Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15: “Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” Mormonism’s three degrees of glory has no biblical basis whatsoever.
Heirs to the Father
Latter-day Saints believe that our Heavenly Father wants us to inherit all that He has so that we can become like Him and His Son. The Epistle to the Hebrews taught that Jesus is “appointed heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). Paul taught that the righteous will become “joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), and Peter taught that they would be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
Many early Christians believed that the righteous could become like the Father. Irenaeus wrote that Jesus Christ became “what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”
Clement of Alexandria wrote that Jesus became man so that we may “learn from man how man may become God” and explained that because the righteous will become so “near to the Lord, there awaits them restoration to everlasting contemplation; and they are called by the appellation of gods, being destined to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places by the Saviour.”
Even as late as the third century, Hippolytus, bishop of Portus, explained that the righteous will become “a companion of the Deity, and a co-heir with Christ, no longer enslaved with lusts or passions, and never again wasted by disease. For thou hast become God.”
The early Christian writings on deification are so extensive that non-LDS scholar G. L. Prestige stated that the early Christian Church “taught that the destiny of man was to become like God, and even to become deified.”
Once more, Mr. Ash relies on the testimonies of those who were living after the deaths of the apostles and who certainly must have belonged to the Great Apostasy. Yet he quotes leaders who wrote after this time in a way to support his hypothesis.
Mr. Ash assumes that Christians don’t accept Hebrews 1:2, Romans 8:17,or 2 Peter 1:4. Yet they do! The doctrine of being glorified with Jesus is called glorification. Paul talks about the resurrected body in 1 Corinthians 15. Certainly true believers will be heir of all things, joint-heirs with Christ, and partakers of the divine nature. What this does not mean, though, is that Christians hope to become “gods” of their own worlds, which is what was taught by Joseph Smith and other LDS leaders; it is not a biblical teaching in any way, shape, or form. For more information on this topic, see here.
These and other authentic ancient Christian teachings were restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith because he sought the Lord in study and prayer. From Joseph Smith’s First Vision—which came after he read James 1:5—we find that many of the Prophet’s revelations were precipitated by his hunger for scripture study and asking Heavenly Father for divine insight. Teachings which had been lost after the demise of the early Apostles were once again given to the Saints of Christ’s restored Church.
Yet Mr. Ash has not shown definitively that these were really “ancient Christian teachings.” If they weren’t, then could it be that Joseph Smith created them based on heresies from others? When it comes to James 1:5,this was taken out of context to make it say something the original author never intended. See here. And I don’t buy that Smith’s revelations “were precipitated by his hunger for scripture study and asking Heavenly Father for divine insight. This is the same Joseph Smith who said:
“I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I” (May 26, 1844, History of the Church 6:408-409).
“God made Aaron to be the mouthpiece for the children of Israel, and He will make me be god to you in His stead, and the Elders to be mouth for me; and if you don’t like it, you must lump it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 363).
“I combat the errors of the ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the Gordian knot of powers; and I solve mathematical problems of Universities: WITH TRUTH, diamond truth, and God is my ‘right hand man’” (Times and Seasons 4:375).
Speaking about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young explained the role of the founder this way:
“Joseph Smith holds the keys of this last dispensation, and is now engaged behind the vail in the great work of the last days. I can tell our beloved brother Christians who have slain the Prophets and butchered and otherwise caused the death of thousands of Latter-day Saints, the priests who have thanked God in their prayers and thanksgiving from the pulpit that we have been plundered, driven, and slain, and the deacons under the pulpit, and their brethren and sisters in their closets, who have thanked God, thinking that the Latter-day Saints were wasted away, something that no doubt will mortify them-something that, to say the least, is a matter of deep regret to them-namely, that no man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith. From the day that the Priesthood was taken from the earth to the winding-up scene of all things, every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are-I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent. He holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation-the keys to rule in the spirit-world; and he rules there triumphantly, for he gained full power and a glorious victory over the power of Satan while he was yet in the flesh, and was a martyr to his religion and to the name of Christ, which gives him a most perfect victory in the spirit-world. He reigns there as supreme a being in his sphere, capacity, and calling, as God does in heaven. Many will exclaim- ‘Oh, that is very disagreeable! It is preposterous! We cannot bear the thought!’ But it is true” (October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses 7:289. See also Search These Commandments, 1984, p. 133).
Would Smith have protested how high Young lifted him up? I doubt it.
Thanks to the restoration of these lost teachings, we rejoice with the early Christian Saints in the knowledge that we once lived a premortal life with our Heavenly Father. We know that God is merciful and loves all humankind and has established a plan so that every one of His children will have the opportunity to hear the gospel and receive the ordinances of salvation—even if they never had the chance while in mortality. We also learn that Heavenly Father expects us to participate in the work of bringing salvation to those who died without hearing the good news. With our early Christian brothers and sisters, we can rejoice in the knowledge that Heavenly Father is just as well as merciful and offers different degrees of glory according to our faithfulness and willingness to follow His Son. Lastly, and most importantly, we learn that we really are God’s sons and daughters and that He wants us not only to become like Him but also to share in his glory and become partakers of His divine nature.
Again, these are all presuppositions: the premortal life, work done on behalf of the dead, different degrees of glory, and the opportunity to become gods and goddesses. Mormons are free to believe whatever they wish, but do not have the right to call these “early Christian teachings.”
In the more than a century and a half since the days of Joseph Smith, scholarly studies have buttressed the claim that the Prophet restored doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the meridian of time. The eternal truth of these teachings, however, can be confirmed only by the Spirit. Only by aligning ourselves with God can these teachings bless our lives, help draw us closer to the Father, and eventually lead us back to our heavenly home.
I believe this article will be much beloved by Latter-day Saints, treasured and even shared with Christian friends and family members. I imagine they will hold the article out for others to see and say “I told you we were Christian,” especially to those not belonging to their church. So, for “faith promoting, Mr. Ash did his job, even though few will look criticially at the details as they accept the article at face value. This is because the vast majority of current Latter-day Saints place far too much trust in their leadership. While Mormons may revel in this, they would do much better to check the Bible to see what it has to say on these topics. If the Bible does not teach these things, then Mormonism is not a restoration of biblical Christianity and then the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be a true church.
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