A Review of the Mormon-Evangelical Discussion
– Dr. Brad Wilcox and Dr. Steven Crane
On June 8 2017 the Civic Auditorium in Idaho Falls was nearly full for a discussion between a BYU professor and a Boise-area pastor. There seemed to be a high level of support and interest from both LDS and evangelical Christian attendees. Idaho Falls, as many know, is a predominantly Mormon city. Of the 76% of the population who consider themselves “religious,” nearly 60% consider themselves LDS. Of the remaining 16 % nearly half are Catholic,* leaving less than 10% as evangelical Christians and other religions.
There was a particular flow to the discussion that I, and others, seemed to have taken the wrong way. From what I saw, close to 75% of the speaking was done by LDS professor Dr. Wilcox. The pastor Dr. Crane was mainly posing questions and offering only brief feedback. I thought that this tilted the conversation to one side. Even though it wasn’t a debate format, each man was representing a position, but the time dedicated to representing that position was heavily in favor of the LDS representative. Now there is another perspective in this; the one posing questions does not have nearly the pressure as the other and he has a much lower risk of being caught saying the wrong thing. All in all, I was hoping to see a more equal amount of questions and responses from both sides.
This appearance of tilting toward a one-sided dialogue was a misconception (although that doesn’t cover for the frequent interruptions). In talking with Dr. Crane afterwards, the format was laid out as he wanted–and as they agreed to. It was Dr. Crane’s intention to ask questions and learn. He wanted to open up the dialogue and allow Dr. Wilcox to explain the LDS perspectives on different theological issues. Dr. Wilcox typically sought to emphasize the similarities, while Dr. Crane indicated that his goal of bringing major differences to light was fulfilled. He wanted to ask questions that would reveal that there are serious differences between LDS doctrine and evangelical Christian doctrine.
What were these differences that were exposed? I arrived late, but noticed that Dr. Crane seemed to, somewhat systematically, steer the questions toward the core topics of theology–God, Jesus, salvation, heaven and hell, and ultimate authority. Let me briefly highlight the contrasts in these 5 areas.
Dr. Crane brought up Isaiah 43:10 and 44:6:
“Before Me there was no God formed,Nor shall there be after Me.”
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:‘I am the First and I am the Last; Besides Me there is no God.”
In response to this, Dr. Wilcox, representing the LDS position accurately added two words that all but overthrow the original meaning: “for us.” This contrast is not insignificant. Does God know of other Gods? Isaiah plainly says, “no.” LDS doctrine says yes, there are other gods, but we are not to pay attention to them or worship them.
Thinking through this, I wonder why we are not to worship them if they are given similar honor and authority as the God of the Bible. I wonder why worshiping another “god” would be such a heinous crime, as the Bible makes it out to be, if these other gods do actually exist as exalted men in a similar way as Yahweh. Philosophically, it is impossible that God have a beginning. God is the uncaused first cause of all contingent things. Therefore anything created by God cannot itself ever become God. God is the greatest possible being. Anything equal with God must have no greater or lesser attributes, therefore no distinctions. This means that a supposed additional God would be indistinguishable from the original God, and thus would be the same God.
Dr. Crane made a very interesting point on the LDS view of Jesus. He said that if it is necessary for spirit children to live an earthly life in order to attain the highest heavenly fulfillment and rewards, then how could Jesus be God in nature before coming to earth? God the Father was and is an exalted man. But Jesus Christ was God from the beginning. Dr. Crane quoted the first few lines of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
To their credit, I think the LDS have steered their view of Jesus in the direction of Jesus as he is described in the Bible. Yet, during the discussion there was still the issue of viewing Jesus as literally born from God the Father and a spirit mother (and later Mary). Dr. Crane helped clarify the biblical usage of the term “begotten” as picturing Jesus as the one with the full rights of inheritance rather than the one born of sexual union between God and a woman. Again, just applying some more critical thinking, I do not understand why/ how a physical God the Father and heavenly mother would produce a non-physical child.
“Evangelicals have a small view of salvation,” said Dr. Wilcox. More and more in discussions like this I am hearing more of an emphasis on grace coming from the LDS. This is another thing that is probably tending away from historic LDS teachings. I’m not sure the meaning of the terms “salvation” and “atonement” were defined well enough for this to be a substantive point. My understanding has been that Mormon salvation is by grace, after all we can do. Dr. Wilcox said that this Moroni 10:32 passage does not necessarily imply that salvation is works based until the end, then grace kicks in. I see his point as a good one; maybe Christians do try to overuse that verse. Dr. Crane, however, did not retort with the LDS teachings that more blatantly describe salvation through earthly works such as priesthood, baptism, marriage, tithing, etc. DR. Wilcox described LDS practices such as these, as a means of more grace and opening up more of one’s salvation. Interesting.
What I am still waiting to hear from Mormons, such as Dr. Wilcox, is an healthy view of the ugliness of human sin in light of the holiness of God. (This may have peaked when Dr. Wilcox said that Mormons celebrate the original sin of Adam and Eve.) The difference in the view of the holiness of God was made very evident during their discussion on the goal of salvation. Obviously, LDS doctrine teaches that “as man is God once was; as God is man may become.” To this, Dr. Crane stated that God’s nature is such that we could never attain it. For instance, God is omnipotent, omnipresent… Dr. Wilcox responded, “But my faith kicks in, realizing that God is not so far off and distant.”
A clarification needed to be made here. The beauty of Christianity is not in God’s distance from us, but in His closeness in spite of the great chasm between our natures. This gets to what I believe is a core difference in the goals of a biblical Christian faith and the LDS faith. The exaltation of man appears paramount in the LDS view of sin, salvation, heaven and hell, and God. Yes, Christians may struggle with this too, but from a biblical standpoint our aim must be the glory of God. Our sin, His grace, our salvation, His payment, our place in heaven, His throne room of worship.
4: Heaven and Hell:
I was not anticipating that he would do this, but Dr. Wilcox explained that the LDS teaching is basically universalism (this is very similar to the universalism that Rob Bell espouses in Love Wins). Universalism in this case implies that there is a “hell,” but it is little more than a temporary training center.
This is not the classical Christian view of hell–a permanent punishment for those who die apart from Christ and his forgiveness for their sins. The Bible nowhere implies a “second” chance (which might actually be a 200th chance) to receive God’s forgiveness and salvation after death. Instead, the Bible teaches that we die once and get judged (Hebrews 10:27). Jesus, speaking of the rich man and Lazarus, taught of a permanent separation between the saved and unsaved: “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’”**
Dr. Wilcox said that God always puts people where they are most comfortable. After a certain amount of time in “training” in hell, a person will feel appropriate and comfortable with a lower level of heaven. But how can this doctrine be held in light of the aforementioned story in Luke 16:19-31? The rich man is not comfortable (to put it mildly). These two teachings are contradictory. Therefore one must choose whether to side with the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Bible or with LDS leaders and teachers.
The challenge of needing to side with one authority or another is not foreign to Dr. Wilcox and the LDS community. The only time I recall him citing a Bible passage was a vague reference to 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul references a sect of people who apparently baptize the dead.*** He said that this verse is not the reason that he practices baptisms for the dead. He performs the ritual because it has been instructed by church authority. Then, rather shockingly, he took it one drastic step further: “We would keep doing [baptisms for the dead] even if the Bible told us not to.”
This sent many heads in the auditorium shaking. Many of those listening must have been thinking, “How can they claim to be biblical and the true church if they have the opportunity to disregard what the Bible itself instructs?”
Simple. The LDS stance is that the Bible is true insofar as it is translated correctly. This simple nuance on Scriptural authority leaves open the opportunity to unravel any major Bible teaching. Furthermore, Dr. Wilcox stated that the inner council, the 1st Presidency of the LDS church, has the same authority to declare and determine doctrine as Peter, James, and John. Coupling this with what was previously stated, if a doctrine or instruction came from any of those in the upper authority (I believe he was referring to the Quorum of the 70) that contradicted a teaching in the Bible, he would go along with the LDS authority.
Dr. Crane was asked why he considers himself unified with 19,000 other denominations, but considered the LDS church to be an outlier. His response has been circulating for centuries: “In essentials, unity–in non-essentials, liberty–in all things charity (love). For the 5 major doctrines briefly addressed above, as well as others, the LDS church remains out-of-unity in essential doctrines consistent within the Christian faith for 20 centuries.
I appreciate the two coming to discuss these matters. They both did a good job. I hope that this has sparked an interest for more dialogue the matters that matter most.
** Luke 16:26
*** 1 Cor. 15:29- “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?”