Joseph Smith has gotten a lot of flack for things he said in his last discourse, The King Follet Sermon. Much of the Christian world sees what he taught as heretical, unbiblical, and unchristian. I’m going to make the argument that they do this because they’re steeped in their own traditions and biases rather than actually pursuing truth. Pride is an awful thing. It’s one of the fastest ways to keep God from teaching you more (Alma 12:9-11). If God can’t teach you more, how will you ever know Him?
So what exactly did Joseph teach? Well, we’ll get there. But let’s start by talking about something else: the Hebrew word “elohim.”
Christians will readily recognize the word “elohim” as being associated with God; as a matter of fact, it’s the Hebrew word that is translated to “God.” The suffix “-im” actually renders elohim plural. The direct translation would look something more like “gods.” Now, whenever the biblical authors make reference to Jehovah, they use the plural word “elohim,” but use singular verbs. We don’t have an exact way to conceptualize this in english. The closest approximation might look something like “they wants,” or “they speaks” (instead of “he wants,” or “he speaks”). Why would you use a singular verb with a plural noun? Well, more can be said about that another time. For now, this video does a good job explaining this word:
So, God, angels, and the heavenly hosts are all properly identified as the elohim (or the gods). The word elohim refers to the family of “God,” not just the Father. For example, there’s a reason Michael, Gabriel, Rafael, Uriel, etc. (angels), all end in the suffix “-el.” It’s intentional. It has connection to the world elohim because they are all considered the elohim.
If we drop our western lens on Christianity and open the bible as though we know nothing about it, we read in the very first chapter:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
If you haven’t noticed this before, you might ask yourself who God is talking to here. More importantly, who does He share an image and likeness with after whom He can fashion mankind? He wouldn’t turn to the trees and animals and say “let’s make man in our image.” Only to somebody who was already in His image. Are there other gods in whom Adam and Eve’s image are inspired?
If we keep reading to chapter 3, the Serpent tempts Eve to take the fruit by saying, “in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
At the conclusion of the chapter, after Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden for partaking of the fruit, we read: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…” (Genesis 3:22).
The man has become as one of “us.” Are there other gods that Adam and Eve have become like?
He was speaking to the elohim. The gods. Although the Father is the Elohim of elohim, He is not the only one. He is the greatest. There are none like Him. He’s the Father. We worship Him alone. The title “god” (lower case “g”) doesn’t in any way demand our worship. It doesn’t in anyway diminish God’s status. Though we aren’t accustomed to referring to angels as gods, they are in fact members of His family, and are even referred to as “the sons of God” (Job 1:6).
Much of what belonged to early Christianity has been lost to mainstream Christianity today. Ancient Christians believed and practiced many things that would be foreign to modern Christians. One might argue if Christ came today as He had anciently, most modern Christians would hold Him in contempt. Many of His teachings are offensive to our Gentile ears, not because they’re unkind or unloving, but because our hearts are so hardened against anything unfamiliar–anything we don’t immediately understand. We’re too eager to dismiss any teaching that disagrees with, or challenges, our beliefs.
Ironically enough, there are many mysteries in the bible alone that Christians have to admit they don’t understand. Because they’re in the bible, however, and it’s pretty much all-or-nothing, they live with it. If most people were exposed to some of God’s dealings with ancient Israel in the Old Testament as apart from the bible, they’d write those off too. Seeking God is not about what you think is right, it’s about what God says is right. But I’m getting off on a tangent.
One belief that belonged to original Christianity that is absent today is called “deification,” or “theosis.” Some aspects of this teaching remain, but if you used the same language as the early Christian fathers you’d be met with a lot of resistance anywhere south of Tennessee.
One facet of this that remains a part of today’s Christianity is the belief that, in the resurrection, we’ll be given holy bodies. Concerning the resurrection, Paul wrote, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). A spiritual body is the kind that those in God’s space occupy. It’s the kind of body that God has: glorified, perfected.
If we’re made in the likeness and image of the elohim, and by obtaining knowledge have become like the elohim, and through the resurrection obtain perfected bodies like the elohim, and through adoption are made the sons of God, where does that leave us? What was Christ redeeming us for, exactly?
The apostle John wrote, “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)
Like Him? What all does that entail?
Paul wrote to the Romans, “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 it so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together.” (Romans 8:16-17)
What does it mean to be an heir of God? What does it mean to be a joint-heir with Christ? What is the inheritance?
Augustine, considered one of the greatest Christian fathers, said, “…but 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. (Augustine, On the Psalms, 50:2.)
The apostle John also quoted Christ saying, “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)
Clement, an early Christian leader in Alexandria, also taught the doctrine of deification: “Those who have been perfected are given their reward and their honors. They have done with their purification, they have done with the rest of their service, though it be a holy service, with the holy; now they become pure in heart, and because of their close intimacy with the Lord there awaits them a restoration to eternal contemplation; and they have received the title of ‘gods’ since they are destined to be enthroned with the other ‘gods’ who are ranked next below the Savior.” (Stromata 7:10 (55–56).)
Irenaeus was an early Christian father, and arguably the first biblical theologian among ancient Christians. He studied under a man named Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the Beloved. He taught on this topic repeatedly:
“But of what gods [does he speak]? [Of those] to whom He says, ‘I have said, Ye are gods, and all sons of the Most High’ (Psalms 82:6). To those, no doubt, who have received the grace of the ‘adoption, by which we cry, Abba Father.'” (Against Heresies, Bk. 3, Ch. vi, ANF, Vol. I, pp. 418-419)
He also taught, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.” (Against Heresies, V.)
And also, “We were not made gods at our beginning, but first we were made men, then, in the end, gods.” (Against Heresies, “Bk. 4, Chapter XXXVIII)
“How then will any be a god, if he has not first been made a man? How can any be perfect when he has only lately been made man? How immortal, if he has not in his mortal nature obeyed his maker? For one’s duty is first to observe the discipline of man and thereafter to share in the glory of God.” ( Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius )
Justin the Martyr said in 150 A.D. that he wished “to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons… in the beginning men were made like God, free from suffering and death, and that they are thus deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest…” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 124.)
Clement, an early Christian leader in Alexandria, also taught the doctrine of deification: “…if one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God… His is beauty, true beauty, for it is God, and that man becomes god, since God wills it. So Heraclitus was right when he said, ‘Men are gods, and gods are men.’ (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 3.1; see also Clement, Stromateis, 23)
And also, “…yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, 1)
However, you trace one of these quotes to Joseph Smith and… cry heresy, throw dirt in your hair and tear your clothes because no prophet would ever teach something as arrogant as, “Here, then, is eternal life — to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.” (Joseph Smith, King Follett Sermon)
What it Does Not Mean
Joseph was not teaching that the moment you’re resurrected to Celestial glory you’ll be like God the Father. Even Irenaeus taught that progression was gradual. Joseph said in the same sermon,
“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.” (King Follett Sermon)
The process is “from one small degree to another,” “from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation.” This life is just one degree. There are principles of progression (exaltation) that will still be learned beyond this present state of probation.
Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Of this verse, C.S. Lewis wrote,
“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ (Psalms 82:6) and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 205-206.)
This life has a purpose that goes beyond surviving from day to day while trying to avoid as much suffering as possible.
I remember I had one companion on my mission who grew up Episcopalian. He said for years, he’d open up to Genesis and read “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” but always wondered: “why?” And it’s a fair question. What has God actually been up to since what Genesis calls “the beginning?” Was He bored? Many Christians will rightly answer that the purpose of life is to worship God, but to what end? Did He create us because He needed someone to worship Him? If no, was He just being arbitrary? Is God ever arbitrary? Whatever God’s purpose was in creating us ought to be our personal purpose in life as well.
In the same sermon, Joseph said, “If a man learns nothing more than to eat, drink and sleep, and does not comprehend any of the designs of God, the beast comprehends the same things. It eats, drinks, sleeps, and knows nothing more about God; yet it knows as much as we, unless we are able to comprehend by the inspiration of Almighty God. If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”
The answer to this question is also the answer to “why does God allow suffering?” and “why does God ask us to do anything?” and ultimately even “if God really loves us, why can’t He just say ‘you’re good’ and let us into heaven?” These are all fair questions if we suppose He’s all powerful and loves us.
There’s a reason we refer to Him as “God the Father,” or “Heavenly Father.” What does a Father/Parent do? Raise their children to be like them. Teach them what they know. Why is experience, both good and bad, so vital to that? Why is locking your daughter in a tower like Rapunzel to never experience the bad actually wrong? Why is trying to help a chicken hatch from its shell bad?
The purpose of life is to learn, to grow, and to progress. There are some experiences that we have to have in order to develop certain attributes. Our lives have all been organized to give us experiences we need. We all have different lives, because we’re not all born the same. We were individuals before this life. But we’re made in God’s image, and a parent allows a child to have experience, and teaches them along the way, so they grow up to be like them. What father doesn’t want that?