He is Not the Same: LDS Cosmology and Gods

cosmology joseph smith latter-day saints philosophy

This article is from the September 30th, 2023 edition of the Exploration Society Journal.

The difference in dress code is the first difference someone would notice, but I imagine it wouldn’t be the last. The Latter-day Saint missionaries had their standard uniform on. Crisp white button-down shirts, pressed khaki dress pants, and polished shoes. Their name tags had the word “Elder” before their last name. I was wearing my standard uniform as well- golf shorts, flip flops, and a black t-shirt. We had sat there for an hour chatting about their two year mission and how it had been going. Anytime I speak with LDS missionaries I am careful to remember that they are young. An average age of 18-22, they spend a short amount of time at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Then they are sent somewhere around the world for a 2 year mission, sometimes 18 months for young women. They are neither apologists nor scholars, so I don’t seek a debate. I had sought these two out to have a conversation about their belief in god. I also wanted to let them know that despite the fact I and my friends disagree with them, they will never have the door slammed in their faces by me or the people at the church I pastor. In this instance, my friend Jake and I had told them we wanted to hear about their beliefs about “Heavenly Father”, their typical term for God. They did a tremendous job sharing the standard information I had heard from other LDS missionaries. It was a combination of information found in the four LDS canonical books: the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. It also included revelation handed down throughout time by the Presidents of the Church who function as modern day prophets. To someone unfamiliar with LDS doctrine, these introductory lessons seem like the teaching found within Christianity. Yet all it takes to show the differences is to ask a simple question.

“Have you found significant differences in what you believe about Heavenly Father and what the rest of Christianity teaches?” I asked the missionary that had finished sharing.

“There are a lot of differences between all Christian groups and denominations. So yeah, I guess we believe a lot of different things than you about God,” he answered.

I appreciated his willingness to admit that there were differences. Many LDS missionaries have fallen into the same trap that some evangelicals have fallen into. They pretend as if there are no disagreements at all and settle for a unity founded on false agreement. This is the reason why many Christians have no idea why Latter-day Saints are not accepted by the rest of Christendom as theologically orthodox.

“Are you guys familiar with what Latter-day Saints believe about Heavenly Father’s past life in a different sphere of existence?” I asked. His soft laugh and glance to his partner told me their was likely no script for this question.

“Well yeah, but that isn’t something we talk about a lot,” he said.

“Great,” I said, “let’s talk about that because I am fascinated by it!” I got up from the table and ran across the coffee shop to grab a napkin.

“Let me explain the differences the way I do in my class and you guys tell me if I am representing your belief well.” They nodded and I began drawing on the napkin.

On the first side of the napkin I drew a point and a line that represented God creating everything out of nothing. On top of that side I wrote “Creatio ex Nihilo” and explained that this was the position held by most Christians throughout history. Then I flipped the napkin over. I began to talk about the words of Joseph Smith and his teachings about Heavenly Father having lived a past life as a faithful saint in a different “sphere of existence”. After this life he was given the opportunity to become a god himself, along with his wife. I then draw what looked like a tic-tac-toe board and explained that presumably other faithful saints would have had the same opportunity. They too would be gods with their own spheres of existence to create and populate with spiritual children. I circled the tic-tac-toe board and said, “Some people might use the word ‘multiverse’ to describe something like this.” I looked up and saw looks of amused bewilderment on their faces. “Am I representing your belief fairly?”

“Yeah, but you should know that a lot of that isn’t necessarily official church doctrine,” replied one of the missionaries.

“Absolutely,” I replied, “but it seems like it would be the logical conclusion of what the church teaches...right?”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“Awesome, so here’s the question then. If we could tear down the wall between our sphere of existence and another one, and the Heavenly Father we find there is more perfect than yours…would you worship him instead?”

Defining LDS Cosmology

The sentiment expressed by my young LDS friend is one of the difficulties in defining terms within Latter-day Saint thinking and theology. Some of the things I drew on that napkin are not official church teachings, but they are not rejected either. The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints has always depended on revelation that has continued since the days of Joseph Smith. It comes from the lineage of modern day prophets that they consider to be as inspired as the original apostles who wrote the scriptures. While much has been said about Heavenly Father and his nature, there has not been extensive revelation given in regards to his origins and past. This has allowed LDS authorities to avoid the difficulties and problems presented by their adopted cosmology (study of the origins of existence) and theology proper (study of God). The request that a Latter-day Saint follow the logical conclusions that their revelation presents is a fair one to ask. It also presents a huge set of dilemmas for them to overcome. The same request should be asked of anyone who has come to the conclusion that the God of Christianity is the same god found within Latter-day Saint theology.

In his famous funeral sermon for King Follett, an early Latter-day Saint, Joseph Smith described Heavenly Father:

“God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world its in orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible- I say, if you were to see him today you would see him like a man in form- like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.”

Here Smith introduced the belief that God is a man with flesh and bone who lived life in a past “sphere of existence”. When he introduced this teaching in front of around 20,000 at the April General Conference of 1844, it was shocking to the early saints. Smith was suggesting that everything they knew to be true about God was wrong. His nature was not as mind and spirit, but the same as theirs in exalted form. This was the beginning of the LDS belief in eternal progression and exaltation that remains at the core of their belief today. While the ultimate hope of most Christians is spiritual resurrection in this life, a bodily resurrection at the end of days, and a reunion of God with his creation for eternity, the LDS hope is quite different. They hope one day each of them might be able to achieve what their Heavenly Father has achieved- godhood. With it the opportunity to create and reign over their own creation populated with their own spiritual children. Orson Pratt, one of the early leaders of the LDS Church, agreed with Smith’s understanding of deity. Pratt said, “The true God exists both in time and space, and has as much relation to them as man or any other being. He has extension, and form, and dimensions, as well as man. He occupies space; has a body, parts, and passions; can go from place to place- can eat, drink, and talk, as well as man.” Lorenzo Snow, another early LDS leader, phrased it how it is most often known, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now man may be.” The differences between the LDS view of Heavenly Father and what the church has historically believed become painfully obvious even upon initial glance.

The two sides of my napkin that day in the coffee shop represented two views on eternity past. Joseph Smith, again in King Follett discourse, described how Heavenly Father created the world we inhabit. “You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, 'Doesn’t the Bible say he created the world?' They infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means…to organize the world out of chaos- chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time he [God] had. The pure principles of element which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end.” Smith here is suggesting that the Christian teaching known as “Creatio ex Nihilo”, is wrong and unbiblical. He suggests instead that matter is eternal and exists in some sort of chaotic state until an exalted saint fashions it into a new sphere of existence, or universe. In Smith’s theology, matter is the true alpha and omega, that which “…had no beginning, and can have no end.” James Talmage, an early 20th century saint and member of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, sought to reconcile the historic biblical understand of creation with the LDS view. “By [God] matter has been organized and energy directed. He is therefore the Creator of all things that are created.” In the LDS view, this explanation satisfies texts such as Colossians 1:16, “ For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”

The unspoken aspect of these theological suggestions is the answer to an important question- "What came before this universe?" Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, stated “How many Gods there are, I do not know. But there never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals [mortality] that we are now passing through. That course has been from all eternity, and it is and will be to all eternity.” So the cosmology of Smith and Young suggests that there is a past infinite regression of gods. All of these gods exist in the form of exalted humans having lived lives on past spheres of existence. The worlds they created fashioned out of eternal matter. These various universes exist apart from one another, yet exist simultaneously. Simply, LDS cosmology is a multiverse.

While not official church doctrine, this explanation of LDS belief has grown in popularity among Latter-day Saints. Dr. Kirk Hagen, a professor of engineering and Latter-day Saint, explains the concept in an article called “Eternal Progression in a Multiverse”. He suggests that the multiverse model might be an essential component of LDS theology:

“In a Mormon multiverse, a being who progresses to godhood brings about a universe for which that god has dominion. To provide suitable worlds for their children, the gods endow their universes with the required physical properties…to sustain life. In Mormon theology, gods exist, “simultaneously”, so separate universes coexist in the eternal multiverse. In a given multiverse “epoch”, each universe in the ensemble may be anthropomorphically characterized as a ‘newborn’, a ‘child’, an ‘adolescent’, an ‘adult’, or a ‘senior citizen,’ depending on the age- i.e., the time that has passed since its own big-bang ‘birth’ into the multiverse ‘family’… The spirit children of the god of a given universe presumably must finish their mortal probation, progressing to the degree of glory prepared for them, long before their universe fulfills its purpose. The children who achieve the highest degree of glory- those who achieve godhood- eventually bring about their own universes and populate them with their children. And the cycle continues, eternally.”

Hagen likely represents a growing number of saints who are pleased by the growing popularity of multiverse models both in the field of cosmology and in popular culture. Our world has been dominated by cosmological theories like the Big Bang theory and the theological “creatio ex nihilo”, both of which suggest that creation came from a single point in a created time. The Latter-day Saints find great solace in a theory that suggests that a universe can seem to have come from a single point of creation while not actually coming from nothing. So while this is not doctrine of the LDS church, Hagen should be commended for doing what I asked my missionary friend to do- follow the logical conclusions of the doctrine that has been officially endorsed by the church. Despite this commendation, both the official cosmology of the LDS and the attempts to reconcile it to the world of science and logic fail to stand up to the critical eye. The logical conclusions that come from this part of LDS theology are enough to call the entire faith into question.

The Problem with an Actual Infinity

The very foundation which LDS theology sits upon is faulty. The system founded on an infinite past and an infinite future erodes the integrity of LDS theology. Simply put, an actual infinity cannot exist in a finite world. David Hilbert, an influential 20th century mathematician, fashioned the classic “Hilbert’s Hotel” argument to prove this. Imagine you are the proprietor of a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and each of those rooms has a guest in it. A traveler walks into the lobby and asks if there are any vacancies. Before you can say “no”, you have an idea. You have each of the current guests move one room to their left. Room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 3, etc. By doing this, room 1 is now vacant. Since there is an infinite number of rooms all other guests are still accommodated. Before you can celebrate your success, an even larger problem arises. An infinite number of travelers makes their way into your lobby, each looking for a room. Before you lose hope you have another idea. You have each of your current guests go to the room number that is double their current room. Room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 4, room 3 to room 6, etc. Now all the even number rooms have guests in them, but every single one of the odd numbered rooms is now vacant. You have added two infinite sets together where it appeared that it was impossible.

This silly story proves a very serious point. The multiverse system that is the logical conclusion of LDS theology is likely impossible. It would require an actual infinity to exist in an actual set of worlds. This would only be possible if the entirety of the multiverse system existed within a larger infinite environment. The belief that each universe’s existence hinged upon the existence of a past universe creates an endless chain of universes as far back as one could imagine. This also undercuts the notion that this universe came from nothing- a theory that is as agreed upon by secular cosmologists as it is conservative theologians. In all its appearance, this universe leaves no room for the matter existing in it to have been eternal as it seems to have come from a single point of creation. In fact, the universe is in a constant state of expansion from that point. To suggest that this universe is made up of pre-existent matter and is part of a larger infinite system of similar universes is to ignore all the evidence and logic that seems to suggest otherwise.

The Problem of a Meta-Morality with No Moral Law Giver

I imagine that if I were a young Latter-day Saint missionary who traveled far away from home for two years, there is one question that would rattle around my brain. Exploring a foreign part of the world and knocking on doors to tell them of a new gospel about a new kind of god, I would go home each night and lay awake asking, “So who decided what makes a ‘good saint’ in those past universes?!” As we have observed a past regression of universes in the LDS system, we also stumble upon a past infinite regressions of morality. The question is- where does this morality which governs a saint’s eternal progression come from if the very god they serve was once subject to it as well? Over each of these supposed multiverse “spheres of existence” lies a meta-morality that has no original author or source.

Are we to believe that the morality by which these universes are governed is pre-existent with no personal author? Or does each Heavenly Father get to impose upon each universe a new morality, thereby existing relativistically from the moralities found in other universes? These questions seem to point in nonsensical directions, which continues to hurtle us towards the rising mountain of glaring issues found in the cosmological section of LDS theology.

The Problem with Terminality and the Cosmological Argument

The Latter-day Saint suggestion of a multiverse system still leads us to the question that every human wonders at one point- “Where did it all come from in the first place?” As one plays out the thought experiment of how this regression would have played out, there are two possible outcomes. Either the line of universes is in fact past infinite, which as we have seen presents an issue in itself, or there is in fact an ultimate creator being at the beginning of it all. This is who created this primordial matter and who set the wheels in motion. A useful tool in demonstrating this is the famous cosmological argument. Pioneered by 12th century Muslim theologian Al-Ghazali, he phrased it, “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.” Framed as a philosophical proof, it becomes clearer:

- Everything that begins to exist has a cause

- The universe began to exist

- Thus the universe has a cause

This seems simple enough, and at this point even the Latter-day Saint cosmologist would nod in agreement. Yet, the cosmological argument necessitates that we inquire about the nature of this “first cause” of the universe and wonder what kind of nature it must have had. William Lane Craig describes the necessary nature of this being:

“…as the cause of space and time this entity must transcend space and time and therefor exist timelessly and non-spatially (at least without the universe). This transcendent cause must therefore be changeless and immaterial since anything that is timeless must be unchanging and anything that is changeless must be non-physical and immaterial since material things are always changing on the molecular and atomic level at least. Such a cause must be beginning less and uncaused at least in the sense of lacking any prior causal conditions since there cannot be an infinite regress of causes.”

The Heavenly Father found within LDS theology does not fit the necessary requirements given the belief in exaltation and eternal progression. Yet, it would be unfair to claim that Latter-day Saints claim their Heavenly Father does meet these qualifications. Within LDS cosmology the only possible being that could fit these necessary requirements for a “first cause” would be a terminal being at the beginning of the endless stream of past universes. This “uncaused cause” would then serve as the Heavenly Father over all human Heavenly Fathers.

These are the two options available to the Latter-day Saints who follows the logical conclusions of their church doctrines. Either there exists an impossible past-infinite regression of actualized worlds, or there is a higher being that set forth this line of universes with their own creation out of nothing. The former is a problem in logic. Yet the latter is a scary one for the Saint who allows their curiosity to venture that far back, as it brings us back to the napkin, the drawing, and the pointed questions of who we should worship.

A Lesser God

If the Latter-day Saint chooses to believe in the past-infinite regression of universes, they find themselves in a position that is difficult to defend. If they choose to believe that there might be a terminal deity that created the multiverse system, then they must also realize that the Heavenly Father of this sphere of existence is in fact a lesser god. The terminal being proven by the cosmological argument would be one who exists outside of space and time, and is infinitely more consequential than a deity who rose to that position from an imperfect human state. The LDS Heavenly Father is an exalted man who presumably has at one time lived a sinful life. Some even believe that he may still be progressing in exaltation. Along with this, there remains the existence of other gods in other universes, who may actually be further along in this progression.

The God found in historic Christianity is unique and alone in his supremacy and infinite nature. He does not fail the logical tests that the LDS gods do. John 4:24 says that, “God is spirit” and Psalm 90:2 says he has been God from “everlasting to everlasting”. Malachi 3:6 says that he never changes, and Solomon proclaimed in 1 Kings 8:27 that the heavens cannot contain God. Yahweh is revealed through the entirety of his scriptures as an immense God of infinite power and magnitude. In his created order, which is the entirety of all things ever created, he is the only one worth worshiping. Even more amazing, he actually chooses to interact with humanity in his plan to redeem them. Meanwhile, LDS salvation hinges on a lesser Heavenly Father and a lesser Jesus who is merely spiritual offspring of two exalted humans. In almost every way, LDS revelation is only a shell of the historic orthodox revelation it has robbed its nouns and verbs from. It offers up a god and a salvation devoid of the significance and power of the true good news of Jesus. The Gospel means that the god who actually did create all things became a human to become the curse we were enslaved to. In turn, Joseph Smith and the line of presidents who have come after him have reversed the order of events and made it where humans are the ones who become gods. In doing so they have reduced the office of god to that which can be achieved through obedience to a law that has an origin that no one can be quite sure of. The Heavenly Father that Latter-day Saints believe presides over this universe is no god at all. No matter the lofty language used to describe him, he is a shadow of a god and stands as one more way humanity has sought to ascribe their worship to tsomeone other than the one true god who created this universe out of nothing.

The Napkin

“Well, I don’t know. That’s a question I’ve never thought of before.”

My Latter-day Saint friend stared at me and then looked over at his co-worker who shook his head as if he had nothing to add.

“I don’t believe that a god who might pale in comparison to another should be worshiped in the first place,” I said. “I don’t believe we worship the same god, the god you guys worship is completely different than the one we worship.” I don’t mean for my words to sting in an offensive way, but I can tell that these two young men are at a loss for words. We continue talking about the logical points that I’m bringing their attention to, until one of them finally formulates his response.

Pointing at the napkin, he says, “All of this seems to make sense, and I can tell you’ve really thought it out…but I continue to choose to believe this,” as he puts his hand on the Book of Mormon laying between us one the table. “I believe this to be true.”

“Well…I don’t,” I say gently but without apology. “And I think you should keep thinking about these differences.”

The conversation turns lighter as I don’t want to press further. Even as we finish talking, I begin to pray internally that the Holy Spirit would plant this conversation in their heart and that at some point it would bear fruit. That one day these guys might realize there is a God that is over all things, but it isn’t the one Joseph Smith described in King Follett’s funeral sermon. As we end our time together and begin planning the next time we’ll meet up to keep talking, the young man who had done most of the talking turns and points at the napkin on the table.

“Could I keep that?” He asks.

I smile and hand it to him.

“Absolutely,” I say.

My friendship with those guys would last a couple more months as they hung around my town. We had more conversations, but none more pointed as that one. I imagine that the napkin might have found its way into a trashcan. It’s possible it fell into the hands of a mission president who used it as a training tool for how to deal with problematic evangelicals. That’s fine by me though. All I hope is that more Latter-day Saints, and more Christians for that matter, might come to the realization drawn out on that napkin. That the God I worship is not the same as theirs. He is different, he is unique, he is infinite, he is the only one worth worshiping…and I am not, and I never will be.

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