Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano
Jesus Christ and the Mormon Pantheon
[p.60]In most religions the godhead is the primary mystery. Because of the apparent clarity and certainty of Joseph Smith’s eventual awareness of God, Mormonism has been unappreciative of the often inscrutable complexity associated with God concepts in other religious traditions. Ironically, the simple and straightforward concept of deity of popular Mormonism stands in stark contrast to the complex teachings on the godhead found in Mormon scriptures and prophetic statements. This tangle begins with the first vision itself. In 1832 Joseph Smith dictated the earliest known report of the first vision, a theophany which has since been accepted as the genesis of Mormonism. In that account he states that in the spring of 1820 while praying in a grove near his father’s upstate New York farm, “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph … I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world” (PWJS, 6). Later in an 1835 account of the same vision, Joseph stated: “[A] personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; and I saw many angels in this vision” (ibid., 75-76). In his 1838 version, which was officially canonized in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph stated: “When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (Joseph Smith 2:17).
Who did Joseph Smith see in this vision? Was it Jesus alone as suggested in the 1832 version? Was it Jesus and an unidentified personage, an angel perhaps, who testified of the Son of God as suggested [p.61]by the 1835 version? Or was it the Father and the Son as suggested by the 1838 version? This is not to imply that we think these versions are inaccurate or false. We accept them as statements of truth and believe that the discrepancies in them can be explained or harmonized. But what do they really tell us about the godhead?
Is the godhead a unity made up of a single deity as set forth in the Old Testament? And if so who is this one God? Eloheim? Jehovah? Or is the godhead a duality made up of two beings of equal glory and dignity as implied in the fifth Lecture on Faith? And if so who makes up this godhead? Is it the Father and the Son as the lecture states? Or is it the Heavenly Father and the Heavenly Mother as suggested by other Mormon commentators? Or is the godhead a trinity, as stated in the New Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants (John 14; D&C 20:28)? If so who are its members? The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Elohim, Jehovah, and Michael as implied in the Mormon temple endowment? The Father, the Mother, and the Son? Or is the godhead really a council of gods as stated by Joseph Smith and suggested in the Book of Abraham (Abr. 3:22-28)?
And who are the gods behind these titles? Jesus is the Son of God, but who is the Father? And does the Father have a father? And what are we to make of the nineteenth-century Mormon teachings about Adam? Was Adam really Michael as Joseph Smith taught (WJS, 8-13)? Is Michael-Adam also God the Father as suggested by Brigham Young (JD 1:50-51)? If so is Eve the Mother Goddess, the “Mother of All Living,” as stated in the temple ceremony and as taught by Brigham Young? And how does Jesus relate to these other deities? Is he their God or are they his? And what of the Holy Ghost? Is she a female personage as suggested by the dove symbol and the nurturing functions? Or is he a male as is usually taught? And Mary the mother of the son of God? Is she a deity too as suggested by her marriage to God the Father? And if so who is her divine consort? What is the nature of these beings? Are they resurrected? If so, who resurrected them? Or are they spirits? And if so, will they enjoy a future resurrection? Are they equal in their godhood? Or are some superior to others? Is one of them supreme? If so which one? And what is the basis of their ranking? Seniority? Sacrificial service? Function? And what of the angels? Are they lesser gods? And what of devils? Are they fallen gods?
The point of these questions is that for Mormonism as well as other religions, the godhead remains the primary mystery. This is not to say that Mormons know nothing about God. Our religious texts have a [p.62]great deal to say about the being we pray to, trust in, rely upon, and connect with spiritually—the being whom the prophets proclaimed and for whom the martyrs died.
We believe that the clearest revelation of the divine nature was given to us in the person of Jesus. Before Christ, the God of the Hebrews was often perceived as an awesome personage of supreme power, passionate intensity, fierce holiness, and relentless justice. God if not totally other was inaccessible to all but a few of his chosen people. This perception did not so much encourage love as fear. Though fear may prevent humans from doing their worst, it is not likely to encourage their best.
One of the primary purposes of the incarnation of Christ was to proclaim the good news of God’s unconditional love for us. Thus we have a basis to love him in return rather than merely fear him: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17). Christ’s mission was not primarily to reveal the character, nature, and day-to-day lives of the members of the godhead but to establish that the right attitude toward God is not fear but affection. Jesus’ messianic mission was to show us that God loves us much more than he hates our sins, that he loves us in our sins, that he willingly takes the burden of our sins upon himself, that he prizes us above his own divinity, and that he loves us no less than he loves holiness and truth. Yes, Christ came to save us from death and hell, but he also came to save us from the fear of God. Whatever else we learn about God as a result of this tremendous act is incidental but not trivial.
In Christ we learn that God is a real individual with body, parts, and passions. Christ was revealed to us in the person of a Jewish carpenter so that we could picture him and relate to him as a commoner, as a young man stripped to the waist perhaps, his muscles working, his brown skin wet in the hot, dry air as he smooths down a wooden surface with a sharp plane. He wants us to approach him, interrupt him, and speak to him. He wants us to know that he will turn from his work, wipe the sweat from his face, and look us in the eye, that he will offer us a drink and sit with us in the shade to hear our complaints, our heartaches, and our disappointments—to weep with us perhaps. He is after all a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We know from his story that he pities the blind, the deaf, the halt, and the lame. [p.63]Sometimes he heals them. More often he comforts them. And he knows things—about wealth, farming, fishing, law, and medicine, about sheep and goats and sacrifice and worship. He knows what is in the Law and in the Prophets and in our hearts. He knows what is said in this city and in that tribe. He understands foreigners, their languages and customs. He seems to know their gods. He knows about hate and cruelty, about disillusion and despair. He knows about miracles, about birth and life and death and eternal life. Yes he knows many things.
But the longer we are with him, the less we seem to know him. There seems always to be more, some new side to him we had not expected. Who is he, this Jesus? What should we think of him? The New Testament tells us that he is the Son of Man, the son of God, the promised Messiah, and more: “Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). Could this be? Could Jesus be God? Was he not merely God’s son, God’s messenger, God’s mouthpiece, someone who spoke by divine investiture of authority as if he were God?
According to its title page, the Book of Mormon was brought forth to convince “Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.” In this book the prophet Amulek is asked, “Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?” His answer is, “Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last; And he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name” (Al. 11:38-40). In the Book of Mosiah, where Christ is called “the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father” (16:15), we are presented with the prophet Abinadi, who was slain for teaching that “Christ was the God, the Father of all things, and … that he should take upon him the image of man. … and take upon him flesh and blood, and go forth upon the face of the earth” (7:27). And that “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people” (15:1). And that Christ was both the Father and the Son: “The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh, thus becoming the Father and Son—And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth” (vv. 3-4).
This means that the being worshipped as God the Father condescended to manifest himself in the form of a human being. The Father [p.64]became a son in order to make himself accessible to us, to suffer with us, and to suffer for us, so the will of God could be accomplished: “And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people. And after all this, after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Mos. 15:5-6).
How is this possible? Theologically how can the Son be the Father? Are they not two separate and distinct beings? Did not Christ pray to the Father and proclaim the Father? Was he not proclaimed by the Father at his baptism? The answer to these questions, we believe, is yes. But Christ’s God and father is not our God and father except through Christ, our intercessor. The scripture tells us that “we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:23; D&C 76:59). Our God and Father is Jesus: “Behold, I come unto my own … to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh” (3 Ne. 1:14). In the text of the Book of Ether, Jesus explains: “Behold, I am he who was prepared from before the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters” (Eth. 3:14). When Jesus appeared to the Nephites as a resurrected being, he identified himself as “Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. I was with the Father from the beginning. I am in the Father, and the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name. … And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God [Jesus Christ]” (3 Ne. 9:15, 17).
Perhaps the most radical theological concept of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon assertion that Jesus Christ is the God of the Old Testament, “the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth” (3 Ne. 11:14): “Behold, I am he that gave the law [of Moses], and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled. … Behold, I am the law and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life” (15:5-9). What the Book of Mormon proclaims more clearly than any other book of scripture is that Jesus is our Heavenly Father.
[p.65]But how could Jesus be the Father if, as Mormons believe, Jesus was but one of many pre-mortal spirits sent to earth to receive a body of flesh and bones? The answer is that he could not have been merely another pre-mortal spirit. He was a deity who had been resurrected, perhaps many times. He like his god and father had power within himself to lay down his life and take it up again. Jesus voluntarily disembodied himself in order to assume a new mortality and bear in his own person the sins of the world. This concept, the mystery of the condescension of God, was revealed by Jesus at the time he appeared to the brother of Jared: “Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh” (Eth. 3:16). Here, the words “body of my spirit” are nearly always understood by Mormons to mean “spirit body.” However, Jesus does not say “spirit body,” but rather “body of my spirit,” in other words the resurrected body in which his spirit dwelt.
In this theophany the brother of Jared was given to understand that Jesus was a resurrected being before his incarnation, a point underscored in the following verse: “And now, as I, Moroni, said I could not make a full account of these things which are written therefore it sufficeth me to say that Jesus showed himself unto this man [the brother of Jared] in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites” (Eth. 3:17). Jesus appeared to the brother of Jared “in the spirit,” that is in the brilliance of his glory. But he appeared “in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites.” In other words, he appeared to him in a resurrected body in the likeness of the resurrected body in which he later appeared to the Nephites. When the brother of Jared understood this, when he saw the body of the Lord, he fell down and worshipped him. And Jesus said to him, “thou shalt not suffer these things which ye have seen and heard to go forth unto the world, until the time cometh that I shall glorify my name in the flesh” (v. 21). The Book of Mormon further explains: “And in the day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are” (4:7).
Though for many, Jesus is the incarnation of God, we believe that he is and has been worshipped in many other names—as Yahweh, [p.66]Elohim, Adonai, Allah, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Ouranous, Kronos, Zeus, Jupiter, Jove, Apollo, Dionysos, Hermes, Vulcan, Thor, Odin, Osiris, Horus. He is the Unknown God, the God known by countless names, the God of countless faces. We think that all these names represent but labels for differing clusters of attributes that only approximate the divine attributes of the true God we worship. This means that our own concept of Jesus is only an approximation of the reality. In Jesus, we have a revelation of the divine, but not a complete one. As Christians, then, we may expect in the next world to be as surprised by the nature of the true God as any one else. In this life, however, each of us worships the name we know and the face we see. This does not mean that every idea about God is correct, that no heresies exist, or that every event attributed to God is an act of God. It does mean that those who seek divine love and truth and goodness by any name and in any tradition are worshippers of the true God.
Most Mormons accept from Joseph Smith that God has a body, that God progresses, and that God is not exactly as the Catholics and Protestants have described him in the creeds. But what we fail to see as clearly is that the God referred to by Joseph Smith in his revelations, in his visions, in his sermons, in the King Follett discourse, is Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Instead most of us think of God the father of Jesus as the person who created a plan for the earth requiring a savior. This concept is derived from a misreading of certain verses in the Pearl of Great Price: “And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first” (Abr. 3:27). The “Lord” in these verses is thought to be God, the father of Jesus. The “one like unto the Son of Man” is thought to be Jesus. And the third person, the one referred to as “another,” is thought to be Lucifer. This interpretation depicts God choosing between two sons volunteering to become the savior. We do not interpret these verses in this way. For us Jesus is the “Lord.” Michael, an archangel, is the one “like unto the Son of Man” (in fact in Hebrew the word Michael means “one like unto God”). The third person is the angel Lucifer. What is being depicted here is not a contest over which angel—Christ or Lucifer—would be the savior, but which angel—Michael or Lucifer—would be chosen to become Adam, the first man.
[p.67]The point is that “all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state” (Mos. 16:4) and that “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Al. 42: 15). For this reason the Book of Mormon seeks to persuade us “that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out” (2 Ne. 25:29).
God did not send someone else to be crucified to redeem his people. He did not shift the sacrificial burden onto anyone else’s shoulders. God bore the cross himself. This is in part what is meant in the Book of Mormon by the condescension of God ( 1 Ne. 11:13-18). Jesus is the father we always feared or held in awe. Jesus is the son we can love and reach. Jesus is the spirit of truth (John 14:17-18) which lights every one coming into the world and nurtures them (15:5; D&C 93:2). He is the one who calls us home. Jesus is the keeper of the gate, where he employs no servant (2 Ne. 9:41). He, the Son, will reveal himself as the Father and will also show us the Mother, who is his Bride. But in his earthly ministry, Christ did not make all the mysteries of the godhead clear to us. Instead they were to be kept in reserve for a time “in which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest” and “all thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ” (D&C 121:28-29). Until this time comes for making the mysteries clear, we must content ourselves with looking through the dark glass of personal revelation and speculative theology.
We are admonished by the scriptures to seek for the revelation of God’s mysteries (1 Ne. 10:19; Al. 12:9-11; D&C 11:7, 42:61, 63:23). This process is by its very nature speculative. This is not bad. Speculative theology can be an antidote for dogmatism. It can break open new categories. Mormonism presents plentiful substance for such speculation, but we shy away from the process largely because of our fear of being deceived, of encountering mysteries that might challenge our faith or lead us into apostasy or unbelief. These are real concerns. But they should not frighten us more than the opposite danger of being deceived [p.68]by our accepted traditions and unofficial creeds and catechisms. The danger of doctrinal chaos is not greater than the danger of doctrinal stagnation.
The proper purpose of speculative theology is not to create a new gospel or a new church but to move us more deeply into our religion and to help us find hidden treasures of spiritual truth. Seen this way speculative theology is a process of mythmaking or myth interpretation. It is an attempt to harmonize and unify disparate elements in our theological story, to make sense of our religious experience.
Because speculation or mythmaking appears to be the only mechanism available to us for dealing in a non-dogmatic way with the God-concepts of Mormonism, we will use this approach to present our view of Jesus Christ and the Mormon pantheon and their relationship to the story of creation and redemption. This then is our version of the myth:
In the First Place there was God, male and female. These two beings were mystically united and were the First Parent. With them were many other gods, also male and female, also mystically united. These beings constituted the godhead and were one in glory, power, mind. They were agreed as to their purpose.
These beings did not always exist as members of the godhead nor were they required always to be contained within the godhead. The story of how they came to be one in the godhead can best be understood through the story of how we, their children, may become one with them.
In the beginning the head God, who was the Mother and Father of All Living, took counsel with certain of the gods. These gods were united and had spirit offspring, who desired to be incarnated and become like their parents.
The head God said to the gods that an earth would be created according to the ancient pattern by which many worlds had previously been made. This new world would be peopled with the embodied spirit offspring of these gods. The purpose in doing this was to allow these children to know for themselves good and evil, pleasure and pain, light and darkness, spirit and element. Through these experiences they would obtain knowledge and become one in the godhead.
A time came when the first man, male and female, was to be chosen from among the noble and great ones, that is from among the gods. There was one, male and female, whose name was Michael (which means “in the likeness of God”) who said send us. And there was another, Lucifer, who said send us. And God said, we shall send the first. Lucifer was angry at this rejection and left the godhead, and many of their spirit offspring and the offspring of others followed after them. Lucifer, which is Satan the male and female, desired to bring about life without suffering [p.69]death and for this reason left the council. When they appear it is often in the sign of God, which is a serpent. For this reason the serpent signifies both light and darkness, both life and death.
After the departure of Lucifer, God sought for a world which the spirits could inhabit. An old world depleted of life forms was found in the darkness of chaos. And God let their glory fall upon the earth. And God created the atmosphere and the sea and the land and the rain and the plants and the animals and planted a garden eastward in Eden for the habitation of man, male and female.
Then God summoned Michael, male and female, and said, here is the earth which we have made. But none of our children inhabit it. We must go down and be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth. To do this we must break the circle of our perfection and make ourselves low so that our children might be raised up and be like us.
And they went down to the earth. And the head God blessed Michael and divided Michael the male from Michael the female by parting them as it were at the rib. In this way they were no longer mystically one. Then the head God, male and female, condescended to be divided themselves in this same way.
Michael the female was taken up into heaven and became the consort of the Father. In turn the Eternal Mother, the mother of all living, became the helpmeet of Michael the male, called Adam. In this way Michael the male would marry the Eternal Mother. And Michael the female would marry the Eternal Father. This is the pattern of the sacred marriage.
It was the plan of the Gods that the Eternal Mother should condescend to be the helpmeet of Adam. Her name would be Eve. And by her suffering and death, the way would be opened into mortality and temporality for the spirit offspring of the gods. Adam was selected to be her husband, her helpmeet, in bringing time out of eternity. And in the process he would learn to relate to her not as a son but as an equal. Together they would provide bodies for the spirits of the gods of the council.
It was the plan of the gods that in the meridian of time, the Eternal Father would become one of the descendants of Adam and Eve. He would be called Jesus. Through his suffering and death, the way would be opened into immortality and eternal life for all the sons and daughters of Eve and Adam. Michael the female was selected to be the mother of the son of God according to the flesh, the gateway through which eternity would be born out of time. Because it was their plan that the incarnated god be part human and part divine, Michael the male was selected to return to earth as a resurrected being and to beget the body of Christ upon Michael the female, that is, the Virgin Mary, Michael’s divine consort.
These strange doings were carried out by the gods as they had planned. Other members of the godhead, the noble and great ones, condescended to suffer death for their children and to be incarnated on this earth to [p.70]fulfill the purpose of God in the creation and redemption of the world. These incarnations are possible because the gods have the power to play many parts, to lay down their lives and take them up again, and to go from exaltation to exaltation until they acquire the power to resurrect the dead.
The Eternal Father and Mother because of their exalted status were the ones to make the greatest sacrifice. The lesser gods participate and in so doing achieve a more glorious resurrection. If we accept their love and sacrifice, then we shall become like them with power in the fullness of time to participate with them if we desire, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of our joint creation.
This is just a myth. It is a synthesis of many ideas. It is asserted to demonstrate the mythmaking process. It is harmless speculation because it is not asserted authoritatively as doctrine or dogmatically as the basis of a claim to a new dispensation. It is not an answer let alone a final answer. The final answers will probably not be relayed to us in words but in experiences, such as the parousia promised by Jesus. Until the day when our eternal parents take us home, we believe we must continue to speculate harmlessly and at the same time to hold fervently to the revelation of the divine in the person of Jesus Christ.