Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Is It Important to Know Specific Things About God?

We may feel the hand of God in our lives--but do we really need to know specifics about the nature of God?

I was studying Chapter 1 of Gospel Principles, "Our Heavenly Father," in particular a section on the nature of God. This section concludes with a simple but deep question (p. 6):

Why is it important for us to understand the nature of God?

It is fashionable to be quite indistinct about the nature of God, to leave it all to generalities like "God is love" (which is true, but which begs the question, 'how is that so?'). We live in an age that all but revels in its ignorance about matters religious and theological. As we slowly come to realize that we live in a multicultural world, it is most stylish to deal with our religious differences by glossing over them, ignoring them, being almost wilfully ignorant of the specifics of our individual faiths (let alone anyone else's). (Those interested in checking on these claims are invited to read Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy, an excellent book for all.)

In this context, the Latter-day Saint faith seems positively old-fashioned in its insistence on specific details regarding the nature of God. We teach about the physical nature of God; the Father and the Son as separate beings; the 'mission statement' of God being to bring about our immortality and eternal life, that is, to make each of us a god--each doctrine, a positive scandal to the dominant churches of Christianity. But its not just that the details of LDS belief about God's nature are controversial; the mere fact that there are details at all seems so out of touch with the spirit of the age.

Yet this is just another instance where the spirit of the age can be seen for the ephemeral, passing fancy that it is.

Next to that question in the Gospel Principles manual--"Why is it important for us to understand the nature of God?"--I found a note that I wrote two or three years ago:

  1. In understanding God's nature, we understand what our own perfected nature is.
  2. We must understand the nature of the One whom we worship in order to worship God satisfactorily.
And these are surely powerful truths (although I'll just focus on the first of them here). For the Saints, God is not just the Ultimate Ground of Being, as some modern non-LDS theologians would have it; rather, God is our Ultimate Role Model. This sort of idea has powerful consequences for how human beings think of themselves, how they think of the universe and their place within it, how they behave from day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. What we think about God makes a difference in how we think about ourselves. Of course, how we think about ourselves--our potentials, our possible futures--makes a big difference in terms of how we live, and what kind of people we become over the course of our lifetimes.

So, yes, it is important to know specific things about God. Another book by Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One, describes different ideas about God in the major religions of the world. As it happens, the Latter-day Saints have very specific and highly distinctive claims about the nature of God the Father, Jesus, and the Godhead--and the LDS scriptures describe a process whereby a person can know whether these claims are true (see, in the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:3-5). It behooves each person to find out for herself or himself whether the LDS claims about God are true.
- - -
Feel free to leave your questions about LDS beliefs, practices, or history on the “Your Questions” page, through the link in the upper-right-hand corner of this page.

I invite you to become a “follower” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner of this page, to be informed of future posts.

I discuss the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in my book, The Rise of the Mormons, published by Seventh Street Books. (Described here, available here.)

Mark Koltko-Rivera on Twitter: @MarkKoltkoRiver .

Visit the “Mark Koltko-Rivera, Writer” page on Facebook.

Visit Mark Koltko-Rivera’s website.
[The photo is a detail of the vault of the apse of Sant Climent de Taüll in Catalonia, Italy. It was uploaded to Wikipedia by D. Bachmann, and is in the public domain because it depicts, unaltered, a piece of artwork created so long ago that its copyright has expired.]

(Copyright 2013 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved. Permission is hereby granted to post the contents of this post in non-commercial contexts, with attribution to the original author and blog.)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Does the Physical Universe Prove the Existence of God?

Does the existence of the natural world--in all its order, beauty, and variety--prove the existence of God?
I was studying this, the opening paragraph of Gospel Principles, Chapter 1, "Our Heavenly Father" (p. 5):

Alma, a Book of Mormon prophet, wrote, “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). We can look up at the sky at night and have an idea of what Alma meant. There are millions of stars and planets, all in perfect order. They did not get there by chance. We can see the work of God in the heavens and on the earth. The many beautiful plants, the many kinds of animals, the mountains, the rivers, the clouds that bring us rain and snow—all these testify to us that there is a God.

It is important to note that "to testify" and "to witness" do not mean "to prove." The Saints and other believers sometimes act as if the existence of the physical universe somehow 'proves' that there is a Creator, and as if those who do not accept the physical universe as proof positive that God exists are somehow mendacious, stubborn, or simply dense. This is neither true nor fair.

The fact that honest, rational, intelligent people have devised ways to account for the existence of the physical universe without positing the existence of God is itself sufficient to demonstrate that the existence of the physical universe does not conclusively prove the existence of God. To say otherwise is to fall into the trap that believers so often fall into:
  1. We know, spiritually, that something is true.
  2. We insist that nonbelievers accept our testimony as proof that it is true.
  3. By insisting that evidence- and logic-driven people accept a spiritual testimony as conclusive proof, we actually disqualify our spiritual truths from serious consideration by nonbelievers.
Far better would it be to take the prophets at their word, and put forth the existence of the physical universe as a "witness" or a "testimony" of the existence of God.

We LDS share our testimonies, for example, at Fast and Testimony Meeting. We Saints often stand as witnesses of various Gospel principles, in classes, private conversations, and so forth. But no sane Saint expects that this is somehow conclusive proof to someone else hearing that testimony or witness.

Hearing or reading someone else's testimony or witness is, in a logical sense, merely suggestive evidence. In a sense, someone else's testimony or witness is an invitation to the listener to inquire of God as to the truth of that which is testified or witnessed. For only that personal testimony, a gift of God alone, can really stand as proof of any spiritual truth.

And that is as it should be. If spiritual truths could be conclusively proved by logic, that would damn any logician or scientist (or any other rationale being) who refused to follow that truth. Besides, logic shifts according to its premises, sometimes supporting this conclusion, sometimes that. Only truth is eternal--and the final word on truth can only be instilled, with convincing power, within the heart of the seeker, by God alone. That is personal revelation, the foundation of personal testimony.

So, yes, the physical universe testifies of and gives witness of the existence of God--but it does not conclusively prove that existence. Let us believers not demean those nonbelievers who insist that the physical universe does not constitute conclusive logical proof. Rather, let us agree with them, offer the witness and testimony found in the physical universe as suggestive evidence, and then help them to gain that personal testimony through spiritual revelatory means that lead to the only conclusive proof possible in this world. (See Moroni 10:3-5.)

[The photo of Hopetoun Falls in Australia was taken by David Iliff, who posted it to Wikimedia Commons on 27 July 2005. It appears here under License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 .]

Copyright 2012 Mark Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Permission is hereby granted to share this content non-commercially with this author's attribution.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Are Mormons Christian?

Are the Mormons Christians? This is a a crucial matter—but it is a matter of definition. Let me share with you how the Latter-day Saints (LDS) address this question.

Although it is not a creed, the LDS Articles of Faith serve as a compact summary of some of the Saints’ most important beliefs. The First Article of Faith states, in its entirety:

We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. (Pearl of Great Price, Article of Faith 1)

More specifically, we believe that Jesus is divine, and is the second of the three members of the Godhead. He is the Firstborn of the Father, and the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh. We believe that Jesus is the anointed Messiah, the Savior of the World, and that he performed the ultimate atonement for our sins.

The true name of the LDS or Mormon Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We perform all sacred ordinances (what some might think of as sacraments) in Jesus’ name. We always pray to the Father in Jesus’ name.

We believe that Jesus atoned for our sins and died at the Crucifixion, having the power to lay down His life, and take it up again. We believe that He is the first person ever to be resurrected from the dead (as shown in the painting above). We believe that He ascended into heaven, that He now reigns at the right hand of the Father, and that He will return to the Earth in glory.

We believe that salvation is through faith on His name, a living faith that is shown through obedience to His commandments.

As far as the Latter-day Saints are concerned, this means that Mormons are Christians. Mormons recognize as Christian anyone who believes in Christ as the divine Savior of humankind.

There are those who say that other Mormon beliefs somehow disqualify Mormons from being Christians. Some of these beliefs include the following:

  • Mormons believe that God communicates with His people today through a living prophet, someone having the same gift and authority as such ancient prophets as Moses and Peter.
  • Mormons have scriptures, received through modern-day prophets, in addition to the Bible. (These include the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.)
  • Mormons believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are actually three separate beings, albeit united in one Godhead in perfect unity.
  • Mormons believe that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones, as tangible as any man’s.
  • Mormons believe that God will make his faithful full inheritors of all that Christ has, including making them gods.
In response to those who claim that these beliefs are unchristian, Mormons claim that each of these beliefs is actually biblical. In future posts on this blog, I shall address the biblical nature of each of these beliefs.

Online Resources:

Printed Resources:

  • Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Bookcraft, 1991).
  • Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans, 2005)
Feel free to leave your questions about LDS beliefs, practices, or history on the “Your Questions” page, through the link in the upper-right-hand corner of this page.

You are also welcome to become a “follower” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner of this page.

[The image of Antonio da Correggio’s ca. 1534 painting, “Jesus and Mary Magdalene,” is in the public domain, and was found on Wikimedia Commons.]

Copyright 2012 Mark Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Do Mormons Teach that Jesus and Satan Were Spirit Brothers?

Among the many objections that some have made to the LDS faith is the idea that Mormons somehow teach that “Jesus is the spirit brother of Satan.” The implication seems to be that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are either equal or even in alliance; certainly this would be consistent with the notion, found among some anti-Mormons, that the Latter-day Saints worship the devil. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However, as with most anti-LDS claims, this one takes a truth and twists it in a false direction.

Latter-day Saints believe that we are all the spirit children of God the Father, and that we all lived with Him in heaven before the creation of the world, in what Mormons call the pre-mortal existence. That means everyone: you, me, Pocahontas, George Washington, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, the ancient emperors of Africa and China, and all the hunters, farmers, artisans and merchants, “all the mommies and daddies and their children” (as my kids said it when they were small) through all of human history—and Jesus and Lucifer, and many billions more besides.

So, for Mormons, the relationship between Jesus and Lucifer is just an implication of the idea that all of us are alike the spiritual children of our Father in Heaven. Mormons give no special weight to the idea that Jesus and Lucifer are “spiritual brothers”; far more important to the Saints is the concept that we ourselves are spirit children of the Father, and that Jesus is what Mormons call our “elder Brother,” who suffered and died for us and loves us still. What is crucial to the Saints is that Jesus is the Only Begotten of the Father, the anointed Messiah and divine Savior of the human race.

The following three links are to sources of authoritative LDS teaching on this topic:

            Online essay, "We Lived With God."

            Online essay, "Jesus Christ is the Way."

            Gospel Principles manual, Chapter 2, “Our Heavenly Family.”

Here as elsewhere, some evangelical authors contrast the Mormon position with what the evangelicals describe as mainstream or historical Christian beliefs. As one author put it, instead of believing that humans are literally the spirit children of God, historical Christianity teaches that “we become a child of God at conversion” (R.P. Roberts); instead of believing that the spirits of humanity existed before the creation of the world, historical Christianity supposedly holds that “one’s spirit is formed on earth as they [sic] begin life within the womb” (R. Abanes), which does seem to be the consensus among contemporary Roman Catholic theologians as well.

            However, careful investigation into history and scripture shows that the Mormon positions on these issues are indeed plausible as Christian belief. In the Bible, one can find evidence, not only for the idea of the premortal existence of human spirits, but for the notion of a Council in Heaven.

            Concerning the idea of God as the Father of our spirits, it would be hard to find a clearer statement on this issue than that given by the author of the biblical Epistle to the Hebrews, when he wrote the following about the need to endure the chastening, rebukes, and trials sent by God:

… we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? (New Testament, Hebrews 12:9)

            There are those who would interpret the idea of God as “the Father of spirits” as mere metaphor, a strategy that effectively ends all discussion. However, the real point of dispute between evangelical and Mormon Christians involves the notion of the premortal existence of spirits; this is an issue that admits of no such hand-waving and explaining away, and it is to this that I turn my attention.

            In the Jewish Bible, we read a section called the Song of Moses very close to the end of the Torah:

            Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee.

            When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. (Bible, Deuteronomy 32:7-8)

            This is a decent rendition of the accepted (or Masoretic) Hebrew text. However, some scholars think that the Hebrew of this passage was altered at some time in the past, that it originally read differently. This idea is supported by the reading given in the Septuagint, the 3rd century bc Greek translation of the Jewish Bible that was used by Greek-speaking Jews in the time of Jesus and earlier. In the Septuagint, the end of this passage reads: “… according to the number of the angels of God,” which seems to have been the original reading of this passage in the Hebrew Bible.

            Why would God use a census of the angels to apportion land to an earthly people? This would make sense if the “angels” mentioned here were actually the premortal spirits of the people of the various nations of the earth, including Israel. This was certainly the opinion expressed by Origen (185 ad-254 ad), an important early Christian teacher during the period between the death of the original apostles and the controversial Council of Nicaea, as published in one of his major works, De Principiis: “Other nations … are called a part of the angels; since ‘when the Most High divided the nations, and dispersed the sons of Adam, He fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.’”

            Of course, with the passing of the apostles and the ultimate adoption of a version of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, much changed in the early Christian Church. It is significant that, as of the turn of the fifth century ad, such a monumental figure as Augustine of Hippo could not decide among four theories for the origin of the soul, two of which involved a premortal origin (see his On Free Choice of the Will, III.21). Certainly, if the idea of the premortal existence of the soul was up in the air for such a figure as Augustine, the Mormon version of this idea is at least plausible as being a Christian notion.

·         Book: Terryl L. Givens. (2010). When souls had wings: Premortal existence in Western thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[Note: Some of this post comes from the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Mormons: Who They Are, How They Think, What They Believe, and Why They Succeed.]

[The opening image is a photo of a mosaic of Christ’s temptation. (See the New Testament, Matthew 4:1-11.) The mosaic is to be found in Monreale Cathedral in Palermo, Italy. The photo was taken by Sibeaster, who placed it in the public domain. I found the photo on Wikipedia.]

Copyright 2012 Mark Koltko-Rivera.

Rebooting the "LDS 101" Blog

Responses to my recent post on the Yahoo Contributor Network regarding why many evangelicals oppose Mormonism brought home two things to me:

  1. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation that is actually believed by people concerning the LDS faith.
  2. There are some people who are earnestly searching to know the truth in the midst of all the misinformation.
Consequently, I am rebooting this blog. I will discuss here the sorts of misinformation that I come upon, especially as it emerges during the current election cycle. So drop on by. Feel free to mention questions in the comments section of any post; you my find that I address that issue in my next post. And feel free to become an official "follower" of this blog, through the box in the upper-right-hand corner of the page.

Monday, April 6, 2009

We Believe in Christ

The first thing to know about the Latter-day Saint (LDS) faith is that we believe in Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to say that?

Jesus Is the Christ

Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus was the literal physical son of God the Father, making Jesus--in the traditional language of Christianity--"the only begotten of the Father." Thus, Jesus was not just a wonderful human being: Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and lives today. Jesus will return to the Earth at some time in the future, in a very obvious manner: the Second Coming.

Beyond this, we believe that Jesus is "the Christ." The Greek word Christ means "Anointed One"; the word occurs in the Greek New Testament as an equivalent of the Hebrew word mashiach, that is, "Messiah." We believe that Jesus is the Messiah, chosen by God the Father with a very special mission. That mission is encompassed in the word, "Atonement."

The Atonement of Christ

The Atonement of Christ is the central doctrine of the LDS faith. In its essence, the Atonement is simple to state, but its implications are immense.

We are, each of us, a literal spiritual child of God. Our human destiny is to inherit the kind of life that God has, which Latter-day Saints call eternal life. ('Eternal life' thus involves a great deal more than just immortality, or living forever.) However, as human beings, we have all sinned. (This covers a great deal of territory, involving the breaking of any of the commandments of God, including: failure to love God; failure to love others; lack of honesty; much, much else.) The effect of sin is to separate us from God, and make it impossible for us to achieve our destiny, eternal life.

Through the Atonement, Jesus took upon himself the penalty of our sins, and made it possible for us to return to God the Father and achieve our destiny. This aspect of the Atonement is voluntary: if we want to have the Atonement effective in our individual lives, we must show this through obedience to God.

This is the heart of the LDS faith. I have mentioned several terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader: 'Atonement,' 'eternal life,' and so forth. I plan, in future posts, to go over each of these, and much else besides. However, the important things to understand about LDS beliefs, at this juncture, are the following points:
  • The Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus is the Christ, or divinely chosen Messiah of the human race, and that Jesus lives today.

  • Through the Atonement of Christ, people are able to have their sins truly forgiven, and achieve their destiny: eternal life, the kind of life that God has.
Where Latter-day Saints Differ

The Saints differ from much of the accepted wisdom of the world at large regarding Jesus:
  • In the world at large, many believe that Jesus never really existed, but was just an invention of some people in the first century AD. The Saints regard Jesus as a real, historical person--who not only lived, but lives.

  • Of those people who do believe that Jesus lived, many believe that Jesus was a great teacher, and a great human being, but not divine. In contrast, the Saints believe that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, divine, a member of the Godhead (along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit).
Although the two points above are held by the Saints in common with many other Christians, there are ways in which the Saints' beliefs are quite distinct. Possibly the most important of these is the following:
  • The Saints believe that God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit are actually three separate individuals--united in purpose, to be sure, but nonetheless three separate beings.
I plan to address the nature of the Godhead in LDS belief in a future post. For now, the most important thing to know is that the Saints consider Jesus Christ and his Atonement to be at the very center of their faith.

A Personal Note

I do not hold these beliefs because someone else taught them to me. I believe this because I have prayed to know whether or not these principles are true, and in my prayers I felt the influence of the Holy Spirit testifying to me that this is indeed the truth. I realize that this proves these beliefs to no one but myself; however, I would invite you to pray yourself to find out about the truth of these things.

Any questions or comments?

More About This Topic

The website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a page specifically about LDS basic beliefs regarding Jesus as the Savior.


My thanks to Florance S. Jacobsen for posting the photo of the Christus statue, above, on her "LightPlanet" page.

Welcome to "LDS 101: The Latter-Day Saint / 'Mormon' Faith"

Welcome to "LDS 101: The Latter-Day Saint / 'Mormon' Faith." In this post, I describe for whom this blog is intended, its purpose, the topics I plan to address, how this blog is different from other blogs about the faith of the Latter-day Saints, how I am qualified to write about this, and aspects of my personal background. I plan to post new material to this blog once or twice weekly, although I'll try to read and respond to readers' comments daily. I plan for each post (except this one) to run no more than 800 words (not including references and so forth); thus, posts on this blog are just a big longer than an Op-Ed piece in a typical newspaper.

The Intended Audience and Purpose of This Blog

I write this blog for the person who is interested in learning something about the Latter-day Saint (LDS) faith, or what is popularly called "Mormonism." My purpose in writing this blog is not to convert anyone. However, there is much falsehood, innuendo, and misleading material published about the beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter "LDS Church"). My purpose is to tell the truth about LDS beliefs and practices, from the position that better and more widespread understanding about different religions is a good thing overall, in a multicultural world. At the same time, of course there will be some people who are considering becoming a Latter-day Saint, and I wish to help them obtain accurate information about the LDS faith.

Topics I Plan to Address

I plan to describe the basic beliefs, practices, values, philosophy, and history of the LDS faith. From time to time, I may comment on news reports regarding the LDS faith or prominent Latter-day Saints. In addition, I may respond to accusations that are occasionally made against the LDS Church.

How This Blog is Different

While I certainly cannot claim uniqueness for this blog, there are some characteristics of this blog that may stand out for the reader:
  • Having come from a different religious background myself, and having learned something about comparative religions over the course of my life, I can write about the LDS faith with some sense of where it connects with, and diverges from, other traditions. I shall not make derogatory comparisons with other faiths, but I hope to be clear about where the LDS have common ground with other faiths, and where the LDS are distinctly different.
  • This is not a bulletin board of articles. I am interested in a conversation with readers. Please feel free to comment on the posts, ask questions, raise issues.
  • I shall address the controversies that come up regarding the Latter-day Saints most directly.

How I Am Qualified to Write About This

First and foremost, of course, I am an observant Latter-day Saint. Since I became a Latter-day Saint in 1975 (as a college sophomore), I have spent somewhere over ten years, here and there, teaching adult Sunday School classes based on the LDS scriptures; I also served as a full-time LDS missionary for two years, teaching LDS beliefs in Japan. In addition, I have served in other positions in my LDS congregations over the years, including some in local church administration. Thus, I am reasonably familiar with LDS doctrine and practice.

Personal Background

I understand that readers may be curious about what sorts of perspectives inform my opinions. Here are some items about my background:
  • Name: Mark Edward Koltko-Rivera
  • Demographic characteristics: 52 years old; married, with four grown children from a former marriage.
  • LDS background: Convert. Returned full-time missionary; served honorably in the Japan Okayama Mission (1978-1980). Have served as a counselor to the bishop in two LDS congregations (a position similar to that of the associate pastor in another Christian church). Have also served on an LDS stake high council (a position similar to that of the panel of advisors to a bishop or archbishop in another Christian church). I currently serve as a 'ward missionary' in my congregation, which means that I help to teach LDS beliefs to people who have expressed an interest.
  • Home town: The Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. (Currently I reside on the Upper East Side.)
  • Where I've lived: New York City (Manhattan; Astoria, Queens; Brook Avenue in the Bronx). Florida (Winter Park, just north of Orlando). New Jersey (Newark). Pennsylvania (Haverford and Bryn Mawr). Connecticut (New Milford and West Hartford). Japan (Hiroshima, Okayama, Matsue, Matsuyama, Tokushima).
  • Ethnicity: Polish and Puerto Rican.

Although directed at people who are not Latter-day Saints, anyone is welcome to read and comment upon these posts, as long as the rules are followed: No personal attacks. No profanity at all. No posting of anti-LDS / anti-Mormon websites or URLs, or attacks on the LDS Church.



This website and its content have no official connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I, Mark Koltko-Rivera, am the only person responsible for content on this site; any mistakes are mine and mine alone. The LDS Church does not sponsor the site, and neither suggests nor edits content, either officially or otherwise.

The photo of a Mormon family, above, was obtained from the website, "Why Mormonism?," to which I offer my thanks.