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The Mormon View of Creation

February 16, 2010     Time: 00:20:17
The Mormon View of Creation


Conversation with William Lane Craig.

Transcript The Mormon View of Creation


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, you had the opportunity to contribute to an article in a book called The New Mormon Challenge[1] The book is very good in that there are many essays that contrast a Mormon view with a Christian view on a very philosophical level. You had the opportunity with Paul Copan to contribute an article on creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing or from nothing, [2] which Mormon theology tends to have a problem with. They don’t hold to (apparently, at least the bulk of Mormon theologians) creation out of nothing. They teach that God had preexisting material from which he crafted the universe. So he had some things to work with. Now there seems from the get-go to be some problems there. Would that say that there is some kind of matter or stuff that is co-eternal with God?

Dr. Craig: Well, yes. In fact on the Mormon view God is a material object. This is one of the strange things about Mormonism that I think most people don’t realize. In fact, probably I suspect many Mormons don’t even realize what Joseph Smith and the Mormon church has traditionally taught. Mormonism is one of the strangest cults ever to arise out of American soil. Joseph Smith believed that God is a material humanoid being who lives on a planet in outer space who is the product of physical intercourse from his parents, and who will in turn beget children of his own, and that this regress is infinitely into the past.

Kevin Harris: In other words, there was a god before him and a god before him and a god before him. Then we got the problem with an infinite regress.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. It wasn’t long after I had published the kalam cosmological argument that some people who were involved in ministries to Mormons came to me and said this argument is absolutely devastating, if it goes through, to Mormon theology because it is inherent in Mormon doctrine that not only did the world not have a beginning (as you say, the material universe has always existed) but that God is part of the material universe. God himself is a physical object which has been begotten by other physical gods before him. So Mormonism is a form of polytheism of the crassest sort, namely, that there are material, physical humanoid gods and goddesses that are responsible for the creation of worlds and who are the gods over these different worlds and universes.

Kevin Harris: Wow. Have you had any Mormon scholars or theologians interact with you on the kalam? Have they written you or anything?

Dr. Craig: A little bit. One of the things that I got to know or understand about Mormonism is that Mormon theology is not very highly developed and sophisticated in the way that Christian theology is. Mormonism doesn’t have a sort of creedal statement. So it is very fluid, and indeed in this book The New Mormon Challenge one of the offers that we hold out to Mormons is that given the fluidity of their doctrine, why can’t they go ahead and embrace orthodox views of God and orthodox views of Christ and the Trinity? So there aren’t very many Mormon scholars per se – Mormon philosophers, Mormon theologians – with whom one can interact.

But what Carl Mosser and Frank Beckwith who edited this book wanted us to do is to not offer the sort of superficial dismissive refutations of Mormonism that you often find in counter-cult books. They said we want you to read the best of Mormon scholarship on this topic and interact with it in a substantive, charitable, and responsible way. So you will find in the article that Paul and I did on creation out of nothing that I interact with some Mormon astronomers and cosmologists who have thought about this question 16of the beginning of the universe. Mormon theologians and philosophers are really as scarce as hen’s teeth and they don’t tend to talk about these subjects. But there are a few Mormon astronomers and scientists who have touched on this. So I do interact with their views in this article. There is also a Mormon lawyer – his name is Blake Ostler. He has responded to the cosmological argument. [3] Now, he is just an attorney, but he is a sort of self-appointed Mormon apologist and he has interacted with the kalam argument and tried to refute it as well.

So it has occasioned some reaction from the Mormon side of the equation.

Kevin Harris: Being that Mormon theology is so underdeveloped and fluid and all over the place, the best you can do is just try to point to influential or important Mormons, spokespeople, scholars, and founders, and so on. You quote in this article B. H. Roberts. He is an important LDS theologian. He was also a member of the First Council of the Seventy. He declared that creation ex nihilo – creation out of nothing – assumes that God is transcendent of the universe. He doesn’t believe that.

Dr. Craig: No. God is an imminent object in the universe. It is quite astonishing. I mean, really Kevin, this is like Roman and Greek polytheism in many ways. Of course, this view is very difficult to reconcile with modern cosmology because the universe is expanding which means at some time in the past it was contracted down to a superdense, hot state. What happened to all of these deities if you go back in time and contract down? Did they all get squished down to nothingness? Or are they like ball-bearings in a loaf of bread that are just sort of stuck in there? It is very, very strange.

Kevin Harris: If you held that they were spiritual beings, there wouldn’t be any problem with that. But they don’t hold that. They hold that they are in fact material. So they would be subject to physical law.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that’s right. And all of the problems of thermodynamics and the expansion of the universe would affect these beings. What is interesting about Mormon theology is that, given its fluidity, a number of Mormons have been coming over to a more orthodox view of God and starting to enunciate views of God as being a transcendent being beyond the universe. This is a trend that the editors of this book and as well as ourselves really want to welcome and to encourage. I understand that a lot of Mormon theologians at BYU and elsewhere are very deeply appreciative of C. S. Lewis, for example, and are deeply influenced by Lewis’ view of God. So there is some real hope here that just as the Church of God (that Garner Ted Armstrong cult) eventually embraced trinitarian doctrine and became orthodox, the hope would be perhaps that the LDS church could abandon its heretical aberrations and become orthodox.

Kevin Harris: Wouldn’t that be great?

Dr. Craig: It would be absolutely revolutionary if that were to happen because this is a very, very large church.

Kevin Harris: We see glimmers of it every once in a while. But if that were to happen, boy, you sure would have to get rid of a lot of things that Joseph Smith said and taught and wrote, and what Brigham Young taught. It would be a tough road to hoe.

Dr. Craig: Well, yes. And we talk about this a little bit in the chapter that Paul and I wrote. We try to make it as easy as possible for the Mormon theologian to distance himself from these early authors. There are ways to finesse this by saying that these early authors maybe really didn’t mean what they appeared to say. And you can try to kind of nuance their views in such a way as to allow the contemporary Mormon to adopt an orthodox view without having to sort of renounce all of his Mormon heritage and so forth. So the hope would be that members of the LDS church would be able to embrace trinitarian orthodox doctrine of God as a transcendent being, creator of time and space, and even though they might still call themselves Mormon or LDS nevertheless the church would change and would adopt new doctrine. As I say, they have no doctrinal confession or statement so this isn’t impossible.

Kevin Harris: It would be a trickle down effect – wouldn’t it? – if the Mormon leadership were to embrace more orthodox views. The hope would be that then the congregation would follow.

Dr. Craig: That would be the easiest way because then the leadership would spearhead the movement. I think it is highly unlikely that the Prophet – the so-called head of the church – will do this. But I think it is not impossible that, for example, theologians at BYU could begin to teach and enunciate more orthodox views of God. [4]

Kevin Harris: I have seen glimmers of that in my own reading. There are some BYU professors in the last several years that have kind of stirred things up a little bit in their move away from some of the traditional things of Mormonism.

Dr. Craig: Yes, you may remember that book How Wide The Divide that Craig Blomberg was involved in with a Mormon theologian. When Craig would say, “Mormons believe this and this, and it is unorthodox,” his Mormon respondent would say, “I don’t believe those things. That is not my view.” It is very clear that this Mormon theologian felt quite free to disagree with the Mormon tradition and to break free of it and enunciate views that were more orthodox. So we are challenging Mormons to think in that direction of having a more orthodox, and I think more plausible and defensible, worldview.

Kevin Harris: I think that you brought up a good point earlier, Bill, and that is most Mormon material educating Christians on Mormons is highly inflammatory, very sensationalistic, anti-Mormon, and what the Mormons would call obnoxious or Mormon bashing. While a lot of it may be true as well, I like the tone of the book in that: let’s really get to the philosophical, theological, and biblical issues here and not just talk about you guys and your polygamy, your unfortunate background in that, and the unsavory character of Joseph Smith in a lot of ways. We beat them over the head so much with that. Let’s get down to some issues.

Dr. Craig: I think that is right. It is to Carl Mosser’s credit – the editor of this book – that he insisted on this sort of approach where one would take Mormon scholars seriously as scholars and not just engage in Mormon bashing.

Kevin Harris: At the same time, I think we need to be as aggressive and assertive as we can be in that there are some things that just really need to be straightened out – biblically, philosophically.

Dr. Craig: Right. You can’t compromise the truth.

Kevin Harris: Of course.

Dr. Craig: But you can speak the truth in love.

Kevin Harris: In the Mormon church – the LDS – they have a horrific PR problem and they know it. So they are always launching multimillion dollar campaigns to try to shore up the image of Mormons and Mormonism. They even wanted to get rid of the term “Mormon.” A lot of the PR campaigns go toward Latter Day Saints or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which sounds a lot more Christian.

Dr. Craig: Oh, it does. And this represents a very, very significant change from traditional historic Mormonism. Traditionally, Mormons have emphasized that they are not Christians, that Christianity is what Joseph Smith called The Great Apostasy. That for centuries the church has existed in this apostate state of rebellion against God until Joseph Smith came along and reclaimed the original revelation. So Mormons have traditionally sought to distance themselves from Christianity and say how they are not part of these apostate denominations and churches. But now you’ll notice the PR campaign is very different. Now Mormonism is cast as just another Christian denomination, akin to Methodists or Presbyterians or Episcopalians or Baptists. Mormons, or members of the LDS, are simply another Christian denomination and therefore have a place at the table. So it is a very different self description and self understanding that contemporary Mormons have.

Kevin Harris: My own recent observation is Mormon missionaries try to downplay or soften what has been thrown at them so much, and that is the view that all of us (Mormons in particular) have an opportunity to become gods ourselves. What they are saying now, at least in this latest PR campaign that is on major websites all across the country is, no, we believe that we can become like God – more like God – rather than become God.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and that can sound very innocuous, doesn’t it?

Kevin Harris: Yeah, because we are supposed to be more like Christ, and God is conforming us to the image of Christ. But that is wholly different than becoming gods ourselves and the God that we worship actually starting out as a man and then growing to become like God. But that is what traditional Mormonism has taught.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that was Joseph Smith’s view – that God, Yahweh, Jehovah was once a human being and was elevated to the position of being god of this universe and that some day you and I, if we obey good Mormon teaching and are married in the temple and do all the other necessities, will become god over our own universe and we will be god of that world and will be worshiped by the people in that world. [5] So it is a polytheistic view that even involves the apotheosis, or the divinization, of human beings into becoming gods.

Kevin Harris: Many saw it as a really positive move for understanding among Christians and Mormons when Ravi Zacharias was invited to speak there in Salt Lake City. That got some press. You had two reactions. You had those who write a bunch of anti-Mormon material that said he wasn’t strong enough and he should have gone after them after all their polytheism and their heretical views. He should have gotten after them more. And others said, no, he was very gracious and opened up doors that need to be opened up perhaps. I’m for the latter approach in that there is plenty of publications out there that point out the idiosyncrasies of Mormon theology. Now maybe we need to get down to some nitty-gritty.

Dr. Craig: Right. If Ravi had gone into that situation and treated it as though he were speaking in just another Christian church, I think that would have been a mistake. That would have been detrimental because that would have given the Mormon church the authentication that it so desperately craves. But I don’t think Ravi did that. I remember reading his speech and it was very strong, I thought, on orthodox, trinitarian theology. Therefore, it was really a talk that was very much in your face so to speak. I thought that was good that he did that.

Kevin Harris: There were no signs of compromise.

Dr. Craig: No, not at all. He, as you say, was gracious but uncompromising in his proclamation of the Gospel.

Kevin Harris: We have plenty of material on creation ex nihilo at Let’s end today’s podcast just kind of talking about that view – why it is important to hold that orthodox Christian view rather than the view that there was preexisting material that God used to fashion. Because, again, Mormon theologians are going to say it was in an unordered state but there did exist material for all eternity.

Dr. Craig: The doctrine of creation out of nothing underlines in the strongest of terms the difference between creator and creation. It makes God the source of all reality outside himself. On a dualistic view where you have God as one supreme entity and you have matter or energy as the other supreme entity you have a sort of metaphysical pluralism where there is no ultimate single source of reality. You have principals that are co-equal and in a sense in contradiction with each other because God has to subdue matter and shape it into the world that he wants it to be. It has its own properties and powers to resist what God would do with it. But on creation out of nothing God speaks the very matter and energy into existence, and he is the pinnacle of all reality (that peak of the pyramid, so to speak) from which all reality comes as his creation. It exists only by his pleasure and is sustained in being by God only so long as he wills. So I think the doctrine is very important in differentiating a creator from creature and thereby from any sort of dualistic view or pantheistic view that would identify God in the world. [6]