Saturday, November 26, 2016

My time with some Latter Day Saints

I've finally decided to put together this post about my time spent with the Latter Day Saint missionaries I've been regularly meeting with. I met them several months ago while I was working on homework at the local mill pond, while keeping an eye out for the Jehovah's Witnesses that regularly post up by the nearby park. I recognized them as a pair of the door-to-door types, but I didn't recognize them as LDS missionaries until I got close and began speaking with them.

That day we had an hour and a half conversation getting to know each other. They're both around 20 years old or so; one is newer to the area and the other has been in Michigan a while and Brighton for a shorter time. For my part, I enjoyed our conversation, as I had never sat down and talked with Mormons before. They took my number and I theirs, and we agreed that we would sit down again and chat.

My interest was piqued, so when they texted me asking to meet the next week I agreed. We sat down and I began asking some of the basic questions about their religion. My initial interest was in questioning their Gospel presentation. When I am engaged with proselytizers I want to find common ground, and the Gospel is as foundational as it gets. I let them know as much, and asked, "What is your answer to the question 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'" (Acts 16:30-31). Their answer was as straightforward as Paul's: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."

This was as good an answer as I could ask for, although I knew that there were some underlying issues with who Jesus was in the Mormon religion, and what "saved" might mean, etc. But at face value, this statement, and their explanation of Christ's substitutionary atonement, was sufficient to bring someone to salvation. I want to affirm that, because if someone heard only that from these missionaries, and agreed and believed it, then they would be justified by God. In this matter, I believe, Paul would agree, because the result is that "Christ is proclaimed" (Philippians 1:15-18).

I spent some time with them every week for several weeks after that. I took time out of a weekend to watch their semi-annual conference, where their apostles and prophets preach and teach to all LDS members. It was around this time that I began reading the Book of Mormon for the first time as well. The missionaries and I discussed the anachronisms in the book, as well as the historical unverifiability of it.

Eventually after questioning the content, the story, and the purpose of what I had read so far, I let them know that, despite the glaring anachronisms and historical falsehoods, I would actually be willing to set that aside if the theological teaching in the Book of Mormon was in agreement with biblical teaching. On the contrary, if I found a doctrine in the Book of Mormon that was contradictory to the teaching of the Bible, I would be unable to accept the Book of Mormon as true. They understood and agreed to work with me on those premises.

I did some more reading the following week and came across a particularly interesting passage: 2 Nephi 2:22-23.

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin."

The reason this was interesting to me is that the Bible makes no such claim anywhere. We can speculate about what would have happened had Adam and Eve not sinned, about how death would not have entered into the world, about how long Adam and Eve would have lived, etc. But the Bible never makes anywhere near so specific a claim about their ability to reproduce.

We'll come back to this idea, but first I want to mention another doctrine the missionaries and I discussed. Mormonism teaches that all humans are co-eternal with God in the form of "pre-mortal souls." These pre-mortal souls were, for some reason, incapable of "growth" and therefore incapable of fully appreciating God. God did not want them to stay this way, so God devised a plan to allow these pre-mortal souls to grow: being born into mortal bodies with the purpose of having them experience the choices between good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness (which, coincidentally, the Book of Mormon teaches are codependent; righteousness cannot exist without unrighteousness, etc.; see 2 Nephi 2:11ff.)

It is safe to say that God wanted all pre-mortal souls to be born, choose righteousness in their mortal lives, and then come back to God after death to fully appreciate God. According to the missionaries this doctrine and teaching can be found in the Book of Mormon in Alma chapters 34 and 42. I confess I read through these chapters and found only glimpses of what could be interpreted as this doctrine. But the missionaries assure me that this is official LDS teaching, and the LDS website confirms such ideas. (For the idea of co-eternality with God see Doctrines and Covenants § 93.28. See also the LDS page on pre-mortal life at https://www.lds.org/youth/article/what-we-know-about-premortal-life?lang=eng)

Now I will return to the idea that if Adam hadn't transgressed, they would not have had children. If you couple this explicit teaching with the ideas about pre-mortal life, and that God desires that all pre-mortal souls be born, then what we must conclude at the very least the entire plan of God is founded upon a sin, and at the worst we might conclude that God wanted Adam to sin. This last point is debatable; maybe God wanted pre-mortal souls to be born, but not for people to sin, but knew that the only way for people to be born was for Adam to sin, and planned accordingly. I would argue that in this scenario God still, on some level, desires that Adam sin, in order for the rest of his desired plan to take effect. I use the image of a vaccination: I don't want to get a shot because it hurts, but I know that it is the only way to get the vaccination into my body effectively, so on some level I do want the shot.

I posed this to the missionaries, that God actually wanted Adam to sin. Their response was one of contemplative silence. I gave them a moment to think about it, then followed up with the biblical teaching that God would never want anyone to sin (e.g. Habakkuk 1:13). They attempted some answers, but as we worked through them we discovered that none was able to solve the original problem of God wanting someone to sin.

I let them know that I would be pausing my reading through the Book of Mormon until I had an official answer to this particular dilemma. We didn't meet for some two weeks after that. Some of those two weeks I spent putting together a case against various answers I anticipated. Finally we scheduled a meeting. I asked if they had an answer ready for me, to which they replied that they did.

Fast forward to the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We sat down in my living room as we always do and got right down to business. The official answer begins with what they say is the official interpretation of the Book of Moses 3:17, viz. that the choice to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil was not explicitly a sin, but a choice that God gave them. God let them know that if they ate of it they would die, but that it was their choice to do so. God didn't prohibit them from eating it, such that eating it would be a transgression. Simply put, it wasn't a sin that Adam ate the fruit.

Let's take a break here and look at just one biblical passage that deals with the result of Adam's chomping into that fruit: Romans 5. Beginning in verse 10 we learn that we were enemies of God. Woah, that's not good! Reading on we learn in verse 12 that sin entered the world through one man, and that through sin death entered into the world, and then since everyone after that sinned everyone would also die. And in verse 14 we hear Paul refer to what Adam did as a transgression. Paul is saying that, even though not everyone transgressed in the same way Adam did, they still had death reigning over them.

This word transgressed is the Greek word παραβασις. This word denotes "sin in its relation to the law, i.e., to a requirement or obligation which is legally valid or has legal force" (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume V, pp. 739-40). In this passage παραβασις is interesting, in that while v. 13 informs us that "sin was in the world" between what Adam did and when the Law was given, what Adam did was something beyond αμαρτια or "sin." Hence the term "transgression" or παραβασις is used for what Adam did. Adam specifically violated a known law of God. There is no escaping the fact that what Adam did was immoral, evil, wrong, and any other negative synonym we could come up with. Read the rest of the Bible and you get the same idea. The account in Genesis goes something like "God told Adam not to eat. Adam ate. God punished Adam."

This is what the Bible teaches. And yet, the LDS religion teaches that what Adam did was not a sin. In fact, on the LDS website (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/gs/fall-of-adam-and-eve?lang=eng) it explicitly states that "Latter-day revelation makes clear that the Fall is a blessing and that Adam and Eve should be honored as the first parents of all mankind." This teaching is absolutely contradictory with what the Bible teaches.

I challenged the missionaries with the biblical position on what Adam did. I made it clear that the Bible taught that what Adam did was morally wrong, and that the consequences are contradictory to what God wants for humanity. And I made it clear that LDS teaching and LDS books are in direct contradiction to what the Bible teaches. I challenged them specifically to go back through the passages I mentioned, and other passages about the fall of Adam, and to read them with an open mind. I asked them to do this with integrity and intellectual honesty, and then to ask themselves if the Bible takes even a neutral stance on what Adam did, let alone such a strongly positive stance found in LDS doctrine. Finally, I challenged them to think about this contradiction, and to question their own teaching in light of what they read. I made it clear that one cannot hold both of these opposed doctrines at the same time. The Bible teaches Adam sinned; LDS writings teach that Adam did not sin. I told them that if they wanted to continue to be LDS members that is fine, but that they would necessarily be unable to accept the Bible as authoritative, given that it is in direct violation with the other writings LDS members hold to be authoritative.

We ended our meeting on that note, after several awkward silences. Throughout our time together everyone has been very respectful. I developed rapport with these missionaries over the course of several weeks, engaging them and asking questions, listening and learning, and doing for them what I would want anyone to do for me. This rapport allowed me to issue such a strong challenge without being offensive. This kind of relationship is incredibly important for witnessing and challenging other people.

My purpose in this post is twofold. First, Mormon teaching is in direct contradiction to Christian teaching, and no one is capable of holding both the Bible and LDS writings to be authoritative at the same time. Second, go out of your way to listen to other people. That is how you make a space for yourself to speak. Respectful dialogue is imminently important in our age.