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There are some theological issues that matter more than others. For example, theologians have hotly debated God’s passibility (ability or willingness to feel our pain), the workings of grace, and the nature of the virgin birth. Untold gallons of ink and the blood of saints have been spilled trying to settle such issues (Jenkins, 2010). Yet clear and final answers on marginal issues are not necessary to a life of faith.
The same principle can apply to us. There are many issues related to the restored gospel that we may not fully understand. We can become quite unsettled by them. Or we can keep our focus on the principles that matter most.
In my view, there are three religious questions that matter most of all—that have practical and eternal significance: What is God like? How does He guide us? What must we do to be with Him? The answers to these questions can guide our lives and change our eternal outcomes. Let’s consider each of them and examine Joseph Smith’s contributions. Did the prophet of the Restoration clarify God’s doctrines? Did he hit the target—or even come close?
What is God like?
A naïve reader of the Bible would read of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and readily conclude that they are separate and distinct beings who work together for the benefit of humanity. Their distinct personages and purposes are evident everywhere—from Jesus’ baptism to Jesus’ intercessory prayer (John 17) to Stephen’s vision of Jesus standing on the right hand of God. The obvious truth got swallowed up by theological debate until the modern religious world can no longer make sense of Them.
Joseph Smith taught the simple and sensible truth that was obvious and commonplace in ancient times. He saw the Father and the Son. And what he saw agreed perfectly with the Bible and common sense. Ironically, Joseph and his followers are considered oddballs in today’s theological world. Yet our understanding of the Godhead is more comfortable in the Bible than the Nicene creed is.
Consider this incisive observation by Edwin Hatch, D.D., of Oxford University:
It is impossible for any one, whether he be a student of history or no, to fail to notice a difference of both form and content between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed. The Sermon on the Mount is the promulgation of a new law of conduct; it assumes beliefs rather than formulates them; the theological conceptions which underlie it belong to the ethical rather than the speculative side of theology; metaphysics are wholly absent. The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts and partly of dogmatic inferences; the metaphysical terms which it contains would probably have been unintelligible to the first disciples; ethics have no place in it. The one belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers. The contrast is patent. (The Hibbert Lectures, 1907/1890, p. 3).
When religion was co-opted by Greek philosophy, it departed from its humble Christian roots. It became a battlefield for theologians and philosophers. The simple, obvious, and unsophisticated truths were obscured by philosophical wrangling.
Joseph did more than restore the original understanding of the Godhead; He restored an understanding of our relationships to them. He taught us that we are the literal children of God—not mere clay in the hands of a potter. We are His children and He is our Father! This truth is completely comfortable in the Bible but was jettisoned in a philosophical debate that made us completely unlike God and disconnected from Him.
The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8:16-17)
When we understand that we are His literal children, we begin to suspect that we may be designed for great things in the life to come. Paul describes the purpose of the Church as to bring us to “the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). The idea that we might become like God—that we might become helpers and partners in His redemptive work—is a belief that is still very much alive in the Eastern Orthodox tradition but was squelched by the Western or Roman tradition.
Our intimate connection to God and His noble purposes for us should fill us with joy! We are not mere craft projects that are likely to be tossed aside when we prove to be tiresome or flawed. No! We are His children and He is working devotedly to bring us back to Him and make us like Him and His beloved Son!
Notice that the restored doctrine is completely comfortable in the Bible AND it revives a holy vision of our heritage and purpose. The prophet Joseph Smith delivered from heaven the most rational, inspiring, and biblical answers that have been heard since the first apostles walked the earth. A bullseye!
How does God guide us?
Philosophy teaches us that there are five primary epistemologies or processes for knowing anything (See Butler, 1968): empiricism, rationalism, intuitionism, authoritarianism, and revelation. What place does each have in the religious world and in Latter-day Saint practice?
The biblical tradition is filled with revelation. The Bible is the fruit of revelation. It also supports the use of empiricism: “Prove [or test] all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Theologians have favored rationalism. Catholicism has privileged authoritarianism—the Pope is the infallible guide. There are many traditions in Protestantism with some favoring biblical authority and others preferring other ways of knowing. Most of Christianity today believes that the time for biblical-style revelation ended long ago.
The Restoration opened with a blindingly unexpected revelation from heaven. The Father and the Son visited an earnest seeker and gave him instructions. A boy who wanted to know where to worship experienced a whole train of heavenly messengers over the years that followed. No one was more surprised than Joseph himself. Revelation of biblical proportions was back.
And Joseph became himself a heavenly messenger. He “translated” the Book or Mormon, revealed the Doctrine and Covenants, brought inspiration to refining the Bible, and added revelations from Moses and Abraham. As if that weren’t enough, the Book of Mormon illustrates heavenly connections between heaven and earth that, if we took them seriously, would lead us to expect a stream of heavenly intelligence into our own lives.
Thus, Terryl Givens (2007) observes that the Restoration has collapsed the sacred distance. Not only are we intimately related to God, He is anxious to participate actively in our lives.
The Restoration arms us for the challenges of latter-day living with a rich and complex epistemology. We have a wealth of scriptural revelation to teach us patterns and principles (revelation/authoritarianism). We have God’s continuing voice delivered through the authority of his fifteen designated messengers (revelation/authoritarianism). He invites us to learn from experience (empiricism) and to seek personal revelation to guide our lives (a combination of revelation and intuitionism). We have a uniquely rational theology (rationalism) that benefits from discussions with good science. The Latter-day Saints are remarkably equipped to discover truth.
On a practical level, most of us draw heavily on the teachings of scriptures and leaders. We also seek personal application through the influence of the Spirit. Thus, we value a wide range of ways for God to guide us. Never in the history of this earth has a people had such a rich method for discovering and applying God’s guidance in our lives. Again, the legacy of the Prophet is a bullseye.
What must we do to be with Him?
Christianity has had confusing, convoluted, and disheartening messages about the methods and prospects for returning to God. Most faiths teach that only the very few who follow their specific prescriptions have any hope. Most Christians have been more than willing to condemn the vast majority of God’s children to everlasting suffering.
This is nonsense. This idea could not possibly come from a loving Father. What kind of God creates a plan in which most of His children will never have a chance or will utterly fail in the attempt to become what He demands and then, in consequence, will condemn them to unimaginable suffering? Many good Christians (e.g., Bell, 2011; Cox, 1878; Farrar, 1881; Pinnock, 1992; Plumptre, 1885; Walker, 1964) have protested this characterization of God and His plan.
Joseph Smith delivered the most hopeful message heard in millennia:
Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring glad tidings of good things, and that say unto Zion: Behold, thy God reigneth! As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them! (D&C 128:19)
Every single child of God will have a full-fledged opportunity to hear and personally respond to the gospel invitation. Not one person in the wide sweep of earth’s history will be excluded. If we have sins that we are not willing to give to Jesus, we may suffer for them ourselves in the process of having all dross burned out of us. Even for the reluctant, Jesus begs that they surrender their sins to Him so they will not have to suffer as He did (D&C 19). And then, based on our willingness to receive His glory, every single child will receive all the glory he or she can stand.
The lone exception to the awarding of glory is those hostile souls who refuse to accept anything from God. They live everlastingly in their own self-chosen and self-created hell.
All the rest of God’s children are sent to eternal careers that bring unimaginable joy. Even “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie” (D&C 76:103) will have their sins expiated by His suffering or theirs and then will be delivered to a glory that “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89). They will fill the measure of creation and have immense joy in it. They will enjoy an eternal career that is perfectly suited to their interests and preferences.
Even the LDS find this idea beyond comprehension. We keep trying to make the telestial kingdom into a lesser hell when God has designated it as a specialized heaven ideally suited for those who choose it. This declaration of redemptive purposes is “so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: ‘It came from God.’” (History of the Church, 1:252–53).
Rather than groan in dogmatic protestation that God has mandated that most of His children go to hell, the Restoration plan challenges us to comprehend God’s immense wisdom and grace. The message is so transcendent that all of God’s creation explodes in joyous adoration:
Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers! (D&C 128:23)
The plan of redemption sets us up for success. And what must we do to be with our beloved Father and participate with Him in the sacred work? Simply said, we cooperate with Him in our earthly education.
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; (Moroni 10:32)
Again the Restoration hits a perfect bullseye!
Any rifleman who could consistently hit a bullseye on shot after shot would rightly be considered a marksman. If he could hit bullseyes on distant targets while riding a horse, we would be astonished. If he did all this with no training, we would be dumbfounded!
That is exactly what the prophet Joseph Smith did. On the most important religious questions, he consistently hit bullseyes even when his life was in turmoil. The fact that he did it with no theological training leads us to believe that he was a spiritual genius, a prophet of God, or both.
Three bullseyes is amazing! Of course the Restoration also hits bullseyes on everything from pre-earth existence to priesthood. Eternal families. Ordinances. Repentance. The insights God has delivered in the last days are breathtaking.
While there are lots of things I don’t understand—like the eternal role of polygamy, the process for translating the Book of Mormon, and the point of high council talks—on the three doctrines that matter immediately and eternally, Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Restoration, hit three bullseyes. Everything about the Restoration doctrine agrees with the Bible and renews the vision of God as a loving Father, a glad participant in our lives, and a creative and loving redeemer.
Even if we wrestle with some issues that confuse us, we have solid reasons to hold onto and lean into our faith—the faith that offers us the clearest and most spiritually affirming insights to life’s most important questions.
The reader might also be interested in David Paulsen’s Are Christians Mormons (available in both an article in BYU Studies and an expanded form as a book) in which he argues that many doctrines in Christianity today are trending toward traditional LDS belief.
I am keenly interested in theology. I love the theology of the Restoration. Yet there are additional reasons to suspect that there is something special about the latter-day movement: High levels of scriptural knowledge and Christian behavior among LDS youth (See Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean). High levels of education among the saints. Chart-topping levels of charitable giving. High levels of chastity.
Anyone who knows Latter-day Saints knows they are not perfect. Yet there is something in their culture that causes sociologists and demographers to scratch their heads (See Tim Heaton). The fruits of their faith are evidence of what we would expect a good Christian community to impact.
There is so much more to consider in the discussion of religion. No short essay can do justice to the issues. Yet there is another thing that appeals to me about Restoration belief. It is bold! It claims that God is a loving father who intends to give us vital experience and then bring us Home to join Him in the family business. He sends abundant and vibrant messages from the beauties of nature to the words of prophets and assurances of His spirit. All of His creation is organized to bless us.
I am grateful to know and love such a Father.
This is the season for gratitude! I would like to help you build that spirit in your family and among the people you love. I am offering five copies of my children’s book, God’s Trophies, for $25, free shipping in the US. The book features a wonderfully illustrated, joyful story that helps children to learn about gratitude for all of God’s creations and teaches them that they are each God’s most beloved creation. The book would make an excellent holiday gift for any special people in your life!
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Bell, R. (2011). Love wins: A book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived. New York: HarperOne.
Butler, J. D. (1968). Four philosophies and their practice in education and religion. New York: Harper & Row.
Cox, S. (1878). Salvator mundi. London: C. Kegan Paul & Co.
Farrar, F. W. (1881/1904). Mercy and judgment. New York: Macmillan Company.
Givens, T. L. (2007). People of paradox. New York, Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, P. (2010). Jesus wars. New York: HarperOne.
Pinnock, C. H. (1992). A wideness in God’s mercy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing.
Plumptre, E. H. (1885). The spirits in prison. London: Wm. Isbister Limited.
Walker, D. P. (1964). The decline of hell. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful editing of this article.