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January 1, 2020, 11:00 AM

Who Writes the Script? Thoughts on "Saturday's Warrior"



“Saturday’s Warrior” is a Mormon musical/movie from 1974 about a singing family whose lead guitarist gets drawn away into a successful hippie rock band. However, what the show is really all about is how the eight children in the family, and various other characters, all make promises to each other in the Mormon preexistence before they were born, and how those promises play out on an earth where they remember little if any of their previous life.

When the littlest girl is afraid she’s going to be left behind in the Preexistence, the oldest brother (the one who becomes a rock star) promises her that he will make sure she joins them. The oldest girl falls in love with a guy with whom she spends an eternity together (so they claim) before they must leave for earth. They promise to rejoin each other on earth, but are not sure how they will recognize each other. Meanwhile, a future LDS missionary is boasting to his future missionary companion that he’s going to work his way up to becoming an apostle by age 25.

How do these plots work out? You’ll have to watch the movie. (I got it as a Christmas gift! I have a whole collection of Mormon comic books, a few romance novels, and now a famous movie.)

I found the plot to be fascinating and thought-provoking. What if our life scripts were all determined by decisions we made in a previous life that we can no longer remember? The difficulties of reincarnation also apply to the LDS preexistence: why should we be rewarded or punished for a life we don’t remember? Given the importance of the LDS belief in free agency (see here), I would think it would be better to insist that we write the script in the here and now; it’s all up to us. However, I think it would be even better to believe that God is writing the script, and that even when we think that we are writing the plot, the truth is that God is calling all the shots (Proverbs 16:9, 19:21), according to a grand plan that will turn out to be even more exciting than decisions made in a previous life in “Saturday’s Warrior.”

(My discussion of the Biblical case for and against the Preexistence is available here. Surprisingly, it is the least read blog post I’ve ever written, which is strange, given the huge importance of this belief to LDS believers. One ex-LDS Facebook friend said she had the hardest time adjusting to the truth that she did not exist in a previous world. Note that the movie said not one word about Joseph Smith or the claimed Restoration of the true church, but a ton about the previous life. The song “There’s Got to Be More” is not about the spiritual dimension in general, but about the belief that there has to be a previous world to make sense out of this world.)

I see God’s plan in the way he directed me to find and eventually marry a girl 2000 miles away from my home, even though both of us almost chose not to show up on the day we met. I also see God’s plan in the way God arranged for me to meet the LDS on that same youth group trip from St Louis to Oregon on which I met my wife. What God had in mind by putting a 42+ year heart for the LDS has been a much more confusing question. I thought God was calling me to be a Protestant pastor in Utah, which has never happened. Now, I see that God was probably equipping me in all sorts of different ways to write my recent book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith (see http://www.historicaljoseph.org/).

I find the doctrine of predestination (which I don’t write about in my book – see here instead) to be comforting and reassuring. I don’t think the idea that God preplans most of what happens to us in life makes me into a robot. For me, this means that life becomes an adventure, a treasure hunt to see what God’s plan is going to look like when the puzzle is finished. Life is a constant stream of decisions that are not always clear. I don’t always make the best ones, but there are numerous times where I am convinced that God has put me exactly where I am, for a reason.

According to Ephesians 1:4-5, God chose me (and all those who believe) before the foundation of the world. That’s better than a fabled preexistence. Paul goes on in Ephesians 2:10 to say that God has prepared in advance the good works that he created us to do. That reassures me that those deeds will get done! And Paul’s famous formulation that in all things God works (literally “synergizes”) for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28) reassures us that God can and will take even the worst that happens to us in life and bring good out of it. I’m happy to have a God like that calling all the shots.

In the words of an old Vacation Bible School song: “Before the beginning / before there was time / before there was earth and before there was sky / before he made the mountains / before he made the sea / God loved you and me.” For me, I’m thrilled enough that I existed in the mind of God before the universe was made. From there, I’m on a lifelong hunt to see what else is in the script.




December 20, 2019, 6:00 AM

The Mormon Jesus in the Manger



As the LDS and Biblical Christians celebrate Christmas, is it the birth of the same Jesus? It depends on how important you consider the differences to be. When I get asked this question, I find it hard to give a short answer.

For those who believe in the triune God of historic Christianity, the manger is where the Incarnation takes place: the God of heaven becomes and is born as a human child, without ceasing to be the God who also reigns on the throne of the universe. He is the only child who ever existed before he was born. In his flesh, he was conceived by a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit, without the seed of any human male. The mission for which he was born was to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we should have died.

The Mormon Jesus starts out as a spirit child in the Preexistence, produced by Heavenly Father and a heavenly mother, to be followed by the births of Lucifer and the billions of human spirit children begotten by them since then. The future role of Savior is then offered to Jesus and also to Lucifer, to be decided by who offers a better plan of salvation. Jesus wins the contest, Lucifer is denied the privilege of having a physical body, and Jesus proceeds to receive his.

Already, this Jesus in the manger is not the “only begotten Son of the Father.” (John 1:14)

Here's where it gets even more complicated. Spirit children are given bodies through the biological process of human conception. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus gets his body from Heavenly Father himself, who is an exalted human being who still has a now glorified human body. As an exalted human with a physical body, Heavenly Father pre-empts the marriage of Joseph and Mary temporarily to mate with Mary to conceive the human Jesus.

Now, the manger scene is starting to look very different. Mary is no longer a virgin.

The above reconstruction comes from the prophet Brigham Young and from Orson Pratt, one of his apostles. Brigham preached the puzzling theory that Heavenly Father is actually Adam (today’s LDS have disavowed this particular teaching from their prophet). Orson Pratt speculated as to whether Heavenly Father gave Mary to Joseph only temporarily, and would take her back as one of his wives in the resurrection. Both of these leaders deny categorically that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost. Otherwise, they said it would be dangerous to lay hands on women to bestow the Holy Ghost on them, lest they likewise conceive unplanned children.

There is one more, huge problem. At what point does Jesus become a god? In historic Christianity, he is born already God in the flesh, the same God who simultaneously sits on heaven’s throne. Our Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, and was always God. But in LDS teaching, Jesus must start out human, and then be exalted to godhood. (Although both Brigham Young and Orson Pratt taught that we are all gods in embryo.) In 1838, Joseph Smith was teaching that Father and Son are two glorified bodies of flesh and bone, both of them distinct Gods rather than a tri-unity. So when does Jesus get exalted to godhood? It is not clear, but probably not until sometime after his birth in Bethlehem.

Our LDS friends might object that I have distorted the picture. The message they proclaim is that Jesus was born to be the Light of the world. To some extent, we can agree, although we do not agree on who exactly he was. But there has to be more to the story. By itself, the fact that Jesus is the Light of the world comes as bad news if we recognize that Jesus is an impossible act to follow. He is the one truly good kid that makes us all look bad by comparison. If all that Jesus came to give us was the highest example, we are toast. The historic Christian Jesus came to give us far more. He came to take away all of our sin and put us right with God forever, which the LDS Jesus never came to do.

The average Latter-day Saint does not necessarily believe all that their prophets teach about the Jesus that was born in Bethlehem. Many Latter-day Saints may be celebrating the same story told in the historic Christian church. But sooner or later, the truth will catch up to them – hopefully, not at the throne of judgment.

Wishing you a joyous celebration of the Incarnation!




December 14, 2019, 11:00 AM

Predestination and Mormon "Agency"



Latter-day Saints, from temple Mormons to jack Mormons, virtually all reject the idea that God predestines some people to be saved, and not others. They reject the idea that God controls our lives so decisively that no one can tie God’s hands, back God into a corner, or veto or frustrate God’s plans. To put it in fancy language, the LDS God is not a sovereign God, but must always yield to human free will, or what the LDS tradition calls “agency.”

Today’s LDS theology teaches that this life is a proving ground, where people are tested to see what choices they will make, to see if they are worthy to become gods. Their placement here is determined by choices they made in the Preexistence before they were born on earth. It’s all about worthiness and performance. It’s all about exercising your agency.

Only recently did I come to recognize how important “agency” is to LDS practice. While eating at Chuck-a-Rama (Utah’s popular buffet), I overheard someone saying they were trying to exercise their “agency” (probably to curb their appetite). A Lutheran evangelist in Idaho tells of overhearing a conversation where three LDS women were discussing whether someone’s daughter should marry a man they disapproved of, and one of the women said, “She needs to exercise her agency!”

A 1987 article in the official LDS Sunday School paper The Ensign states that “Free agency…is the great alternative to Satan’s plan of force.” Here we see why LDS opposition to the idea of predestination runs so deep. Yes, it is based on a mischaracterization thereof, but logically, any religion where salvation must be earned by good works will oppose the idea that God chooses anyone irrespective of merit.

And yet, that is exactly what the true Biblical God does. In Romans 9:11-24, Paul speaks of God choosing between Jacob and Esau when they were “not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.” Paul then goes on to quote what God says to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then,” Paul argues, “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” Paul then argues that God made Pharaoh stubborn, “that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”

Paul then voices the LDS question: “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Precisely the point of Jeremiah 18!)

The Greek terms for “destine” and “predestine” (orizō and pro-orizō) convey more than signaling intention. They refer to determining or locking-in what will happen. In the Greek translation of Numbers 30, orizō is used for being “bound” by a vow. The Bible refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as such a “locked-in” event: Jesus was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (pro-orizō – Acts 2:23). “The Son of Man goeth, as it was determined” (pro-orizō – Luke 22:22). Peter preaches that Jesus’ enemies joined together “to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (pro-orizō – Acts 4:28). Peter says Jesus is the one “ordained of God to be the judge the quick and dead” (orizō – Acts 10:42).

Ephesians 1:5 says that God has “predestinated (pro-orizō) us unto adoption as children.” The “us” to whom Paul refers is the Ephesian Christians, not the whole human race. Paul goes on in verse 11 to state that in Christ “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated (pro-orizō) according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” Paul writes to the Romans, “For whom he (God) did foreknow, he also did predestinate (pro-orizō) to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

Alas, the LDS claim that God makes these advance decisions based on our performance in the Preexistence, like being destined to go to Harvard versus Podunk Community College, based on how well we did in high school. Biblical Christians reject the Preexistence, which shoots down this explanation (see my “Pre-Existence: Is It Biblical?”).

The LDS will quote 1 Timothy 2:4, that God "wants/wishes/wills [the verb theleō can mean any of these] all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth." Yes, but we see from the scriptures that I just cited that God does not choose or predestine all to be saved. Predestination versus free will is not a Biblical contradiction, but a place where we need to use all the puzzle parts to get the picture right. The same John who writes “whosover will” in John 3:16-17 also reports that Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). (See my “Drag Versus Draw".)

The LDS will argue that “God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11) They argue that God is picking favorites by choosing without regard to worthiness. But Romans 9 (see above) teaches that God plays no favorites precisely by choosing us without regard to any externals, including merit. And while the LDS argue that God chose people like Abraham or David because of their merit, Biblical Christians focus on why Abraham and David did not merit being chosen, but God chose them anyway. Calvinists like me are profoundly grateful that God overrules our free agency, like God did with Saul of Tarsus, or like Lot (dragging him out of Sodom against his will), with no reason why God should do this for us and not for others.

Those of us who believe that God can, does, and must overrule our agency when necessary, believe this because we are totally pessimistic about our human ability to do what is right when necessary. To me, it is a comfort that God does what I never could have made myself do: open my eyes to God’s truth, and empower me to obey. The Book of Mormon agrees that we are born destined to become devils (2 Nephi 9:9, Jacob 3:11, Ether 3:2), but it teaches that the atonement of Christ takes away that total depravity (to use Calvin’s term) for the whole human race. Biblical Christians object that the cross of Christ does no such thing; rather than empowering us to earn our salvation, it takes away our sin and puts us right with God apart from any good works (Galatians 2:16,21).

Predestination is not an essential of faith; it is a logical conclusion that you may or may not be persuaded to draw. More important is for you to believe that God is a sovereign God who exercises indisputable rule over all, a God whom we cannot arm-twist or checkmate. Any other God is unworthy of the title. But what is all-important is for us to stop believing that we can earn our way to heaven. Grace – salvation that can never be earned – is the heart of the Gospel. We are lost without it.




December 1, 2019, 6:52 AM

Homosexuality and the Historical Joseph



Is there evidence for homosexuality in either the life or teachings of Joseph Smith? There are rumors out there, but I remain unconvinced by the evidence. That’s why I did not even include the subject when I wrote my recent book on Jesus and Joseph. Scholars have looked under every rock for traces of a gay or at least gay-friendly Joseph. What few traces have been identified do not rise to the level that I consider historical bedrock. By examining here what few traces have been cited as evidence, I hope to prove that such bits and pieces prove nothing.

The top researcher on this subject is D. Michael Quinn, former BYU professor of history, author of Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example. One of Quinn’s sources is Hyrum and Helen Andrus’ book They Knew the Prophet, a collection of memories from hard-to-find diaries and interviews with early followers of Joseph.

Joseph taught nothing specific about homosexuality, either approval or condemnation, although there is evidence that one of the sins for which John Bennett was excommunicated was bisexual behavior. In the July 27, 1842 edition of a local Mormon newspaper called The Wasp, Joseph’s brother William is quoted as follows: “Gen. [Joseph] Smith was a great philanthropist [in the eyes of Bennett] as long as Bennett could practice adultery, fornication, and – we were going to say (Buggery,) without being exposed.”

The fact that Joseph temporarily looks the other way on Bennett’s offenses does not imply that he approves of any of these named behaviors. Nor does the fact that Joseph blames Sodom’s destruction on its inhospitality (to use Ezekiel 16:49-50’s language, as many liberal interpreters do today) does not mean that he rejects the clear picture of why Sodom was destroyed that we find in Genesis 19.

There are a few small shreds of evidence worthy of note. One is from William Clayton’s diary entry for June 23, 1843, where Clayton remembers how Joseph jokingly apologizes to the wife of his personal secretary, Robert Thompson, for taking up so much of his time: “Sister Thompson, you must not feel bad towards me for keeping your husband away from you so much, for I am married to him.” Thompson’s wife agreed that “they truly love each other with fervent brotherly affection.” After Thompson died in 1841, Joseph gave an unusual explanation to his next secretary during a discussion of sexual misconduct: “He said [Robert B.] Thompson professed great friendship for him but he gave away to temptation and he had to die.” (Quinn, 136) Whatever was behind that statement, I see no reason to take Joseph seriously here where he claims to be “married” to Thompson.

Another piece of data comes from a sermon on April 16, 1843, where Joseph says, “It is pleasing for friends to lie down together locked in the arms of love, to sleep, and [awake] locked in each other’s embrace and renew their conversation.” The five pages of surrounding context, however, are all about the circumstances of death and future resurrection, and are part of an extended quote by Joseph from a letter to a newspaper written by a third party, given at a funeral. (See the transcript of the sermon in Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 366.) I don’t buy this supposed piece of evidence at all.

William Taylor, a younger brother of LDS president John Taylor, describes an extended visit by Joseph to his family in 1842, when Taylor was 19 years old: “I have never known the same joy and satisfaction in the companionship of any other person, man or woman, that I felt with him [Joseph Smith], the man who had conversed with the Almighty… Sometimes in our return home in the evening after we had been tramping around in the woods, he [Joseph Smith] would call out: ‘Here, mother, come David and Jonathan.’” (Quoted in Andrus, 161)

There are also several anecdotes such as in 1826, when Joseph at age 20 boarded with the Knight family, whose teenage son later writes: “Joseph and I worked together and slept together” (quoted in William Hartley, They Are My Friends, 18-19), or the claim of Dan Jones that on the night before Joseph’s death at Carthage, Joseph “lay himself by my side in close embrace.” (Letter to Thomas Bullock, January 20, 1855, in BYU Studies, volume 24) Such anecdotes are misleading: such sleeping arrangements were overwhelming common in the 1800’s, with nothing sexual about them.

John Hess writes that when he was 14, Joseph “used to take me up on his knee and caress me as he would a little child… I became very much attached to him, and learned to love him more dearly than any other person I ever met, my father and mother not excepted.” (Quoted in The Juvenile Instructor, volume 26, 202) Finally, Joseph's last words to George Rosecrans as he departs to soon die in jail: “If I never see you again, or if I never come back, remember that I love you.” (Quoted in Andrus, 182)

That’s the whole kitchen sink on Joseph and homosexuality. No, we must be highly skeptical of the claims that Joseph Smith was bisexual or gay-friendly. Yes, he swerved from the Biblical teaching on marriage in his plunge into plural marriage, but he gives no false teaching or immoral example on same-sex intimacy.

Today’s LDS church teaching on homosexuality, in my opinion, is faithful to the Biblical sexual ethic (see my Patheos post "What Does Jesus Say About Homosexual Behavior?"). They’ve also paid a hideous price for the stand they are taking. Even though we have different gospels, we should consider the LDS our cobelligerents in this struggle for moral truth.

I also think we must be wary in our approach to those who are leaving the LDS church because of its moral stand, on a subject where we in historic Christianity happens to agree with the LDS position. I’d hate to see the LDS surrender to falsehood on this issue, after they have paid such a steep price defending the truth. (My thoughts on the LDS policies on same-sex marriage may be found in a separate post.) We do no good if we encourage those who are leaving the LDS faith who are merely exchanging one error for another.

I admire the young LDS man in Jana Riess’s The Next Mormons who rejected the label “gay,” preferring the identity “same-sex attracted,” who looked forward to someday having the wife and children required for him to be exalted to godhood, and who looked to other gay men who were married to women as his example. Better for him, however, to have a Savior who does not require a spouse and children for salvation, a Savior whose undeserved love meets the needs of our hearts more completely than any human desire ever can.

We may disagree on whether polygamy was ever God’s will, but now we and today’s LDS must defend the Biblical sexual ethic together. For more resources on the Biblical sexual ethic, see my "Ham Sandwiches and Gay Sex", "Same-Sex Marriage in Biblical Times", and "God's Sex Mandate: The Two Shall Become One Flesh".




November 28, 2019, 7:00 PM

Thoughts on the LDS Gay Policy Revision



It is interesting to see the LDS church’s recent revision of its policies on same-sex marriage and on baptism of children of same-sex couples. (See https://www.sltrib.com/religi…/…/04/04/lds-church-dumps-its/.) Because the LDS church does not baptize any child until age 8, it only made sense to remove the ban on baptizing children of such couples, since all responsibilities connected to LDS baptism appear to fall entirely on the child. According to the writer of this article, blessings can be done on younger children on the same basis that they can apparently be done even for the children of non-Mormons, who will then be followed up until they are old enough to be baptized. One can only wonder what they would have done if they had practiced infant baptism, since the faith of the parents would then become an issue, as it is for us.
As for same-sex marriage, the decision was to no longer treat them as “apostate,” which would call for disciplinary action, i.e. excommunication. Homosexual behavior remains sin according to the LDS church, but it is to be treated the same as heterosexual immorality. Adultery and fornication have often been disciplined by excommunication in the past, but apparently is being handled less drastically at the moment.
I am glad to see that the LDS church is remaining firm on its moral convictions regarding the law of chastity (as they call it). In recent years, they have paid a hideous price for their stand, which is a stand many of us agree with. The central Biblical ethic proclaimed by Genesis, Jesus, and Paul, “The two [a man and a woman] shall become one flesh,” is worth defending.
Joseph Smith appears to have said nothing specific about homosexual practice, although there have been strained attempts to find homoeroticism in Joseph, such as the sound bite where he calls a male personal secretary of his at Nauvoo his “wife” because they spent so much time together. I would say, don’t believe it.  I will say more about this in my next post.
If I were advising the LDS leaders, however, I would encourage them not to invoke “revelation” as the basis for their decisions. In his book Thus Saith the Lord, Duane Crowther makes an important distinction between “policy” and divine revelation. The current prophet, Russell Nelson, made the mistake of identifying the previous policy as based on revelation made by God to the previous prophet. Don’t let your policies rise to the level of revelation. The God of the Biblical apostles and prophets is not a human being, that he should change his mind.


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