Monday, June 1, 2009

Theosis, or Deification

      Mormonism is one of a few Christian religions (the others being primarily Eastern Orthodox) that teach the doctrine of theosis or deification, meaning that human beings have the potential to become gods. In Mormonism, theosis/deification is also called exaltation. This doctrine has been a favorite target of critics, many of whom portray it in an exaggerated way to make it appear ridiculous.

      One of the purposes of religion is to answer the questions “Why are we here?” and “What is the purpose of life?” Nearly all religions appeal to beliefs about life after death in order to answer questions about the meaning of life. But mainstream Christianity faces a dilemma when it comes to teaching about the details of this subject: No one regards the popular image of angels strumming harps and sitting on clouds as an accurate conception of heaven, but very few people have any better idea what it will be like. Any specific proposal would seem pitifully insufficient as an explanation of the realm of God and what we will be doing there for an infinite period of time.
      The very little that the New Testament has to say on the matter hints at something far greater than we can comprehend: “Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:7). “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17). “All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (John 16:15). “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Revelation 3:21).
      The power of the Atonement of Christ can make faulty, sin-prone humans into beings similar to God. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Jesus Christ affirmed the truth of the Psalm: “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” (John 10:34; Psalm 82:6)
      That can be a disconcerting idea. Mediocrity is comfortable, and it may be more appealing to avoid the question than to recognize the magnitude of what God has in store for sincere followers of Christ. Others question whether the idea that humans can become like God is blasphemous. They believe that such a doctrine would threaten the greatness of God by narrowing the divide between God and man.
      In Mormon theology, God is glorified, not diminished, when His children become more like Him. God is and always will be the omnipotent, omniscient, supreme ruler of the universe, and the idea that humans may eventually become gods does nothing to threaten Him. According to Mormon doctrine, people who are “exalted” will live in the presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ, enjoy their family relationships throughout eternity, and become gods, assisting the Father and Jesus Christ in their work of saving souls.
      Although the idea of humans becoming gods may seem strange or scary to some modern Christians, the early church fathers were quite familiar with it. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (ca. A.D. 130-200), wrote, "Do we cast blame on [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods?" Athanasius (ca. A.D. 296-373), bishop of Alexandria and author of the doctrine of the Trinity, wrote, "The word was made flesh in order that we might be enabled to be made gods. . . . Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life." Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 354-430) wrote, "He himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. `For he has given them power to become the sons of God' (John 1:12). If then we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods."
      Some may argue that when the early church fathers made these statements, they had something very different in mind than the Mormon concept of exaltation. Both teach that humans may, through the Atonement of Christ, become heirs of all that God has and thus become gods. In order to obfuscate the striking similarities, anti-Mormons often paint a caricature of Mormon doctrine, supplying details that were never a part of our teaching. They claim that Mormons believe they will rule their own (choose one: planet, solar system, galaxy), that Mormons will become gods while everyone else will be their minions, and many other ridiculous embellishments meant to make Mormonism sound like science fiction. In reality, the doctrine of exaltation finds strong support both in the New Testament text and in the writings of the early fathers of the Christian church.

In summary
Argument: Mormons believe that humans can become gods in the afterlife. That is blasphemous and threatens the divinity of God.
Response: The Mormon belief that humans can become gods does not threaten God as the supreme ruler of all creation. Far from being a heresy original to Mormonism, it is an age-old doctrinal truth found in the New Testament as well as in the writings of the early church fathers.

Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” Book 4, Chapter 38; 4.11.
Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 1.39; 3:34.
Augustine, "On the Psalms," 50.2.
Robert L. Millet, Mormon Faith: Understanding Restored Christianity (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 193-194.
Russell, Norman. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Sally said...

An interesting explanation to a most disturbing belief. Are you saying that man can be a lesser-type god? Exaltation is just being 'god-like'? I had always understood that the ultimate goal of LDS men was to become a god just like God the Father is. The LDS belief is that God use to be a man, living a mortal life including sin and temptations just like we are experiencing now. By his own efforts he was able to achieve perfections and righteousness and earn exaltation. Once he reached the level of godhood, he then created this universe, conceived spirit children and sent them to earth to be tested, and allow them to work out their salvation so they can also be exalted. Didn't Joseph Smith say "As man is God once was, as God is man may become"?

You quoted Psalm 82:6 as Biblical support for this belief. The word translated as 'god' is the Hebrew word 'elohim' which is used of God referring to his office as a judge & diviner of justice. In this psalm God is condemning men who have perverted their office as a judge. In verse 7, their humanity is addressed: "ye shall die like men..."

In Isaiah 44 God said through the prophet Isaiah, "I am the first, and I am the last, and beside me there is no God." (v6) "Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God, I know not any" (vs8) and in chapt. 43 vs 10 the Lord says "before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me."

There is only one God. He has always been God. We can trust him because He is unchanging, He is holy, He is righteous. He is sovereign. We who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation have become adopted into his family and have become his children. But we are not and never will be gods.

The word 'exaltation' means 'to be exalted', which means to 'raise in status, dignity, power, honor and to praise and glorify."

Only God should be exalted, not ourselves. All eternity will not be enough time to praise and give glory to my God and my Savior for all that was done for me. It was Satan's plan to become a god.

Travis Brinton said...

As you've stated it, the belief is indeed somewhat disturbing. But your description of this belief is anything but the doctrine of the LDS church. No doubt there are many Mormons who have a similar conception to what you described, perhaps due to Sunday School teachers deviating into doctrinal speculations and 'gospel tangents' rather than sticking to the lesson and the scriptures. Whatever the origin of this representation may be, let me try to clarify:

LDS scriptures teach that men may become gods. They do not go so far as to say exactly what that means, and definitely do not say that men may become gods just like God the Father. D&C 132:20 says that they are called gods "because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them." I am reminded of the story of Nephi, son of Helaman, whom God promised that whatever he desired would be done, with the explanation that God knew that Nephi would not desire anything contrary to the will of God (Helaman 10:5, the Book of Mormon). Yet Nephi was just a mortal man. The point is that the term "all power" should not be interpreted to mean "equal to God."

LDS doctrine specifies that humans who become gods may have be joint-heirs with Christ of "all power" and "all the Father hath," will enjoy eternal family relationships and posterity, and will dwell in the presence of God, participating in His work. Beyond that (much of which comes from the New Testament), further details are speculation.

Regarding the nature of God: It is not LDS doctrine that God once lived a mortal human life, and it is certainly not doctrine that he sinned or earned his way to perfection by his own efforts. Simply nothing is stated about such particulars--except perhaps by the aforementioned rogue Sunday School teachers.

The couplet "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become" is from Lorenzo Snow, not Joseph Smith, although that might not make a difference. The real questions are, "In what way was God like man?" and "In what way and to what extent may man become like God?" The least controversial interpretation would be to point out that God the Son, Jesus Christ, lived and died like man, and that man may become resurrected like Jesus Christ. Or one could draw all the assumptions out of it that were in your interpretation. I have often wondered what the truth of this question is, but there is no authoritative interpretation.

To very briefly address the two scriptures: Psalm 82:6 is basically saying, "You are children of the Most High and gods in the sense of your divine nature and potential, yet right now you are mortals and are subject to frailness and death." That seems to me how Christ understood it in John 10:34.

No passage affirming that there is only one God should pose any problem. These scriptures were directed at people who lived among pagan religions that believed in a pantheon of gods who were anything but perfect and often at odds with each other. It was necessary to emphasize that there is only one God, not separate gods of the sun, the sea, wine, war, love, agriculture, etc. It was not a case of Jehovah being the god of Israel and Baal the god of Phoenicia and Bel the god of Babylon, as many imagined it. The point was that only Jehovah was God and not a human invention, unlike the gods of the other countries. The scripture isn't about whether other gods exist in the eternities, who, at any rate, people in this world would have nothing to do with.

Joran said...

I was recently talking with a religious scholar about the doctrine of deification. According to him, it is also a doctrine in the Roman Catholic church, but it is one that is "swept under the rug." By this, I mean that it is on the books as being the official doctrine of the church, but you would be hard pressed to find a catholic who would agree with that doctrine, as it is not emphasized anymore.

From a historical and purely scholarly point of view, it is probable that deification is original to Christianity and not the Protestant version of salvation. It is therefore a strange, academic irony that the "heretical" doctrine is now viewed as the norm, whereas the original is now viewed as blasphemous.