Mormons often promote their religion as a branch of "Christianity," and their basic doctrines may indeed give the appearance of being mainstream. However, when you delve below the surface you find differences in the most fundamental areas. Here are some of the questions and issues that arise from the unique claims of the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
The Book of Mormon As History
The Book of Mormon tells us that a group from Israel came to the Americas and founded a great civilization. It documents many places, persons, and events. The Native Americans are claimed to be the modern descendents of these people. However, there does not appear to be any archeological, manuscript, linguistic, or genetic support for this version of history. [See Various Inconsistencies]
The Old and New Testaments are so richly supported by the record of history – even skeptics will concede as much. Why doesn't The Book of Mormon – with much of its history being even more recent – have this same kind of support? Why does the consensus of science consistently point to a much earlier North-eastern Asian descent?
The Apostate Church
So many of the teachings of Joseph Smith are foreign to the Bible, the earliest writings of the church fathers, and the beliefs of the vast majority of the church throughout history. In fact, the Eastern Church, Rome, and Protestant Christianity are united in a variety of essential beliefs (see the Nicene Creed for example) that are at odds with Mormonism. Even most of the historical heresies of the church seem like minor disputes in comparison with the doctrinal claims of Mormonism, e.g., God was once a man, he has a wife, we existed prior to this life, Jesus and Satan are our elder brothers, etc.
The Book of Mormon seems to justify the discrepancy by saying that "many plain and precious things have been taken away from [the Bible]" (1 Nephi 13:26-29), and that all of mainstream Christianity has become apostate - "all their creeds are an abomination" (Joseph Smith–History, 1:19). Yet all the ancient New Testament manuscripts that we uncover – and some of these go back to within a generation of the original – testify to the reliability of what has been transmitted to us through time. Even most critical scholars accept that the preservation is impressive and will date authorship to the first century. The Old Testament is vindicated by the fact that the separately maintained Christian and Jewish versions remain in harmony, and by way of favorable comparison against the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date before the Christian era.
See The Bible... Then and Now
Not only do the number of manuscript copies of the New Testament far surpass the number of copies of any other ancient document, but the New Testaments 6,000 full, or partial, Greek manuscripts, the roughly 8,000 Latin translations, the copies and fragments in various other languages, and the copious quotes by early church writers, make the New Testament the best authenticated ancient document... miles ahead of any of the others. Additionally, the length of time between the original Biblical document and the earliest copies is the shortest, by far, of any ancient writing.
So, how, when, and why did this corruption occur? What evidence could be given to support the claim that it had?
It seems that it must have happened in the very generation of the apostles. This means that Jesus' teaching ministry fizzled out almost immediately. Why should we believe that Joseph Smith could succeed in founding the true and incorruptible church when even Jesus, Himself, failed to do so?
Additionally, some other religions, like Islam, are based on curiously similar claims. According to Islam, the Injil (Gospel) of Jesus has been corrupted and Muhammad was visited by an angel who restored the truth in the form of the Qur'an. Why should we believe Joseph Smith over Muhammad?
Mormonism claims that its leadership has the power and authority to speak for God, just as did the prophets of old. These Mormon prophets have not only abrogated Biblical doctrines but also decrees of prior Mormon leadership. For example, in 1890, the sanctioning of polygamy was reversed, as was the prohibition against blacks in the priesthood in 1978. It can be granted that there are changes between Old Testament and New Testament practices, but these are due to the fulfillment and closure that the Messiah provided. For example, the priestly class and temple sacrifices were merely pointers to Christ, and many of the laws and customs were intended to set Israel apart from the world as the bearer of God's revelation, which has come in full to all in the form of Jesus.
Unless God is fickle and indecisive, we should not expect Him to change His decrees without just cause. What were the justifications for the change in policy regarding polygamy and blacks?
These things seem to occur at the very time that the Mormon Church was experiencing its greatest external social and legal pressures in those areas. Is this a matter of new phases in God's redemptive plan or of Mormonism conforming to the world?
Even so, there is a difference between changes in policy and changes in theology. While we might be generous toward an explanation as to why God would command changes in practices and rituals among His people, it is certainly irrational to think that two different prophets or prophecies of God can offer two different depictions of something as substantial as the very nature of God.
Joseph Smith informs us that "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!"
Brigham Young stated: "He is our Father – the Father of our spirits, and was once a man in mortal flesh as we are, and is now an exalted being."
And the fifth President, Lorenzo Snow, said, "As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be."
However, in a 1997 Time Magazine interview, the current President, Gordon B. Hinckley, when asked if the church still holds that God was once a man said, "I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. . . . I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it."
Which is the truth? Why would the current president deny this long-standing teaching; or if he is the head of the church and a prophet if God, why would he be ignorant of it?
There are spin-off churches of Mormonism, such as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Community of Christ), the Church of Christ - Temple Lot, and various "fundamentalist" groups. These each claim to be the true church by virtue of their leadership authority, fidelity to the original doctrines, or the apostasy of the mainline LDS Church. For example, the fundamentalists insist that polygamy should never have been abandoned.
Why should we not take one of these other groups to represent authentic Mormonism? Why should we not believe that mainstream Mormonism has become apostate, much like they believe mainstream Christianity to be? Due to the fact that Mormon theology claims that there are modern day prophets and that new decrees have and will occur, and are permitted to supersede the old, how could one know in principle who the false prophets are?
Mormons claim to revere the Bible, but a plain reading of the Bible suggests a very different picture than Mormonism teaches with regard to matters such as God, salvation, and the afterlife. Those places where it differs explicitly Mormons often blame on corruption.
In light of this, what good is the Bible and what confidence can we have in any of its teachings? How much "Bible study" is actually done in Mormon circles? It seems that if we know that it is corrupt in some areas, we must suspect it in all. Yet Mormons look to the King James Bible as one of their primary scriptures. In fact, the King James Version seems to be particularly favored by the Mormon Church.
In light of the many ancient source-language manuscripts that have been discovered in modern times, and the improved interpretive skills relating to these languages, should there be any objection to Mormons using some of the newer translations like the NIV, NASB, or HCSB?
In Mormonism, the highest reward is to achieve godhood. In order to do so one must be faithful in this earthly existence – even God has supposedly done as much in His own progression toward deity. Now according to Mormonism, we are all the offspring of God, including Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Mormonism is tri-theistic rather than Trinitarian). This implies that Jesus could not have been a "god" when He came to us on earth, since He had not yet earned His deity. This also implies that the Holy Spirit cannot be "god," since He is only a spirit and has not incarnated onto earth at all.
How is it that the Holy Spirit is considered to be a god? How is it that Jesus, being merely another being as we are (particularly so while on earth), can earn salvation for any but Himself? If God is merely a glorified being like we are and is generally understood to have a physical body and live in a particular place (near the star Kolob according to the Book of Abraham), in what sense can He be omnipresent and sovereign over the earth? How does he hear and address all prayers?
The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon was supposedly translated by inspiration through Joseph Smith from gold plates that were given by inspiration. It is claimed to be "the most correct of any book on earth." Since Joseph translated these into English, there should be few "interpretive" issues that stand in the way of an accurate understanding of them. In light of this, it is troubling that there should be so many inexplicable things found in the Book of Mormon.
For example, why does Jacob 7:27 contain the French word "adieu," which is from a language unknown to, and later than, the authorship of the Book of Mormon? What are italicized words from the King James Bible (indicating their absence in the Hebrew and Greek) doing in the Book of Mormon? (A comparison of Mosiah 14 and Isaiah 53 will provide several examples.) What about the many references to plants and animals in the New World, which were not found there prior to European import? For example: wheat (Mosiah 9:9), barley (Alma 11:7), grapes and figs (3 Nephi 14:16), cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, asses, elephants (Ether 9:18,19), and silk (Ether 9:17). How does one account for the references to steel (2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Ether 7:9), which is the product of advanced technology and was unknown to the Jews of the time and absent from the Americas? [Also See The Book of Mormon]
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the character of Joseph Smith, his legal dealings, his prophecies, and his marital practices – much of it by way of testimony from those closest to him and his family. For example, "the three witnesses" to the Book of Mormon each had fallings out with Smith and suffered excommunication. This is in stark contrast to the apostles, who went to their deaths in the defense of Jesus and what they had preached and written on His behalf.
In light of this and the lack of empirical support for the claims of Mormonism, why should we believe that his unique version of Jesus' teachings are to be trusted? The whole system of Mormonism really hangs on Joseph Smith and his testimony. What confidence can we have that he was honest and credible, and that his claims were inspired? Why should we believe that all of the historical testimony against Joseph Smith is merely persecution rather than legitimate grievance?
Burning in the Bosom
When all the chips are down, the Mormon missionary will often suggest that one pray about the Book of Mormon and God will provide a feeling (a "burning in the bosom") as testimony to its truthfulness. But all religions claim religious "experience," and no person holds any belief or philosophy he or she does not "feel" to be true at some level. If a Christian and a Mormon and a Buddhist all "feel" that they are right, then clearly feelings are insufficient for validating truth claims. Additionally, even if the true religion does happen to offer the most intense subjective support it is impossible to objectively measure one person's subjective feelings against another's. For example, a child's infatuation and an adult's marital bliss may seem exquisite to each, but one is certainly more meaningful than the other.
Why should we think the religious experience of Mormonism any more profound or meaningful that that of other religions? Why should we depend on such fickle and problematic things as feelings for making judgments about truth claims? What about the possibility that feelings might come from somewhere other than God (prevailing circumstances, imagination, demons, etc.)? If Mormonism has the appearance on its very surface of a false religion, what sense does it make to ask God for confirmation that it is actually true? Aren't we justified in looking for reasonable evidence before bothering to entertain faith and prayer on the matter? If not, then why should we not also pray over Islam, Buddhism, and Satanism? Additionally, since many of the most distinctive doctrines of Mormonism are to be found in other sources, is it fair to ask the proselyte to pursue a commitment on the basis of the Book of Mormon alone?
According to classical Christianity, Jesus' finished work on the cross is sufficient to cover our sins – past, present, and future [See Salvation]. We have merely to accept this atonement and the lordship of Christ by faith in order to find our places as adopted children of God. The works that we are to perform are merely a response to our salvation, not the cause of it. In Mormon theology, faith in Jesus seems only a start; works and obedience to law and temple rites seem to be an essential part of the road to exaltation, and the results are very much dependent on self-effort. [See The Myth of Faith Alone].
What is it that Jesus has done for you, and what remains for you to do? Why was it necessary for Him to do anything for you? If you are ultimately responsible for your fate, why can't you do it all? How well are you keeping the laws and living a virtuous life? Do you count even your impure thoughts, your general self-centeredness, and even those things done in carelessness and ignorance? What do you do with the mounting debt of your inevitable shortcomings? How can you know if you are acceptable before a perfectly holy God?
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