On February 25th (2014) the Mormon Church posted a new article in its Gospel Topics section: “Becoming Like God.” Deseret News says this essay accomplishes “explaining the faith’s doctrine” on the topic, and the Salt Lake Tribune likewise says it “explains Mormon teaching” on humans becoming like God. The essay is 3,500 words long, includes 56 footnotes, and reflects a “contribution of scholars.” Yet for all of this, readers learn surprisingly little of what “becoming like God” actually means within Mormonism.
The essay provides descriptive phrases such as:
- Latter-day Saints… consider every person divine in origin, nature, and potential
- Each possesses seeds of divinity
- all people may “progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny”
- the divine nature that humans inherit can be developed to become like their Heavenly Father’s
- [God]…can help each willing, obedient child of God receive of His fulness and glory
- men and women have the potential to be exalted to a state of godliness
- to live as God lives, to love as He loves
And on it goes, talking about “humanity’s divine nature and potential,” but never plainly defining what that actually consists of.
The essay shifts into apologetics mode to defend the Mormon doctrine of deification. The reader learns that the Bible talks about men becoming gods – after all, it tells us that humans are created in God’s image; Paul says we are the offspring of God; and Psalm 82:6 says “Ye are gods,” children of God. Early Christian church fathers spoke of human divinity. Yet, in the midst of this 800-word apologetic section, we are told, “What exactly the early church fathers meant when they spoke of becoming God is open to interpretation…” Thus far in the essay, the reader does not know what the Mormon doctrine of “becoming like God” specifically means, nor does he know what the Christian concept of deification means, but he does know that both faiths use the word “deification.” A footnote further clarifies, “There are likely important differences as well as similarities between the thinking of the church fathers and Latter-day Saint teachings.”
When the essay arrives at Joseph Smith’s teachings and LDS scripture citations, the language becomes a bit more pointed, speaking of people receiving “a fulness of God’s glory and be[coming] ‘gods, even the sons of God,’” being “made equal to Him.”
“[T]hose who keep covenants, including the covenant of eternal marriage, will inherit ‘all heights and depths.’ Then,’ says the revelation, ‘shall they be gods, because they have no end.’ They will receive ‘a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.’” (Essay quoting D&C 132:19-20)
Though this language provides a little more insight into Mormon exaltation or deification, it is still not very clear. What does all this strange-sounding jargon mean? It would have helped had more of D&C 132:19-20 been included, because that further explains that these people who keep covenants “shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths…Then shall they be gods because they have all power, and the angels are subject to them.”
When the essay quotes “Joseph Smith’s most detailed known discussion of divine nature and exaltation” found in the King Follett Discourse, readers learn that
“God ‘was once as one of us’ and ‘all the spirits that God ever sent into the world’ were likewise ‘susceptible of enlargement.’ Joseph Smith preached that long before the world was formed, God found ‘himself in the midst’ of these beings and ‘saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself’ and be ‘exalted’ with Him.
“Joseph told the assembled Saints, ‘You have got to learn how to be a god yourself.’ In order to do that, the Saints needed to learn godliness, or to be more like God.” (Essay quoting from several different versions of the King Follett Discourse, all found at josephsmithpapers.org)
While Joseph Smith’s teaching could be a very helpful tool in understanding Mormon exaltation/becoming like God, the essay informs readers that, due to the wind blowing on the day the Prophet spoke and “the limitations of transcription techniques,” all that is available of this important doctrinal sermon is an “imperfect” account that “is not canonized” so “it should not be treated as a doctrinal standard.”
Following Joseph Smith, the essay tells readers, “the doctrine that humans can progress to exaltation and godliness” was taught by fifth LDS President Lorenzo Snow in his “well-known couplet: …As God now is, man may be”; affirmed by LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley; captured in song by early Latter-day Saint Eliza Snow; and included in a 1995 Ensign article by Mormon apostle Dallin Oaks when he wrote that Mormon theology “begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”
Thus ends the portion of the essay that was provided to “explain” the Mormon doctrine of “becoming like God.” Honestly, an explanation of this doctrine using the exposition found in the Achieving a Celestial Marriage student manual would have been much more clear:
“God is an exalted man who once lived on an earth and underwent experiences of mortality… The progression of our Father in heaven to godhood, or exaltation, was strictly in accordance with eternal principles… By definition, exaltation includes the ability to procreate the family unit throughout eternity… All who obtain this exaltation will have the privilege of completing the full measure of their existence, and they will have a posterity that will be as innumerable as the stars of heaven… The Father has promised us that through our faithfulness we shall be blessed with the fulness of his kingdom. In other words, we will have the privilege of becoming like him. To become like him we must have all the powers of godhood; thus a man and his wife when glorified will have spirit children who eventually will go on an earth like this one we are on and pass through the same kind of experiences, being subject to mortal conditions, and if faithful, then they also will receive the fulness of exaltation and partake of the same blessings. There is no end to this development; it will go on forever. We will become gods and have jurisdiction over worlds, and these worlds will be peopled by our own offspring.” (1976, pages 129 and 132; emphasis retained from the original)
Here, in under 200 words, “exaltation” is clearly defined; “fulness” is clearly defined; “becoming like him” is clearly defined; and human “godhood” is clearly defined.
Instead of clarifying and explaining this Mormon doctrine that is said to be “central to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” the recent Gospel Topics essay uses 3,500 words to say next to nothing about it. But then, the Church’s essay does seem to identify clear teaching such as that found in the student manual quoted above as “cartoonish” or a “caricature” of the doctrinal reality.
Rather than spell out the official tenets of Mormonism, the Church essay informs readers of how Mormon members “imagine exaltation,” seeing “the seeds of godhood” in nurturing and loving children, in giving service, and in the order of the universe. The closest the essay gets to revealing the actual meaning of “exaltation” (as historically taught by Mormon leaders) is this:
“[W]hile few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.”
LDS author Richard Bushman told the Salt Lake Tribune that the “Becoming Like God” essay “defines a boundary of what we truly believe and also tries to make it as appealing as possible.”
It’s pretty obvious that the Church was trying to make Mormonism sound appealing (and mainstream), but do people really come away from this essay with clarity regarding the Mormon doctrine of exaltation?
Apparently not, for since the posting of this essay dozens of media outlets have been proclaiming, “LDS church affirms that its faithful won’t get their own planets in afterlife” and “Mormon Church reveals people do NOT get their own planets in the afterlife” when in fact the essay actually says no such thing — if it did, it would be at complete odds with Mormonism’s historic official doctrinal teachings on exaltation. (Check out the MRM website and two related Mormon Coffee posts here and here to read about authoritative and clear Mormon teachings on Mormons, planets and the afterlife.)
In the end, the Mormon Church’s lengthy Gospel Topics discourse leaves readers with little more than a few “hints” of this crowning doctrine of the “restored” gospel – that is, the eternal future that Mormonism promises is awaiting those who become Gods.