FAIR is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Question: How can Latter-day Saints reconcile having other people receive spiritual experiences that motivate them to believe in and become part of other religions?
Question: How can Latter-day Saints reconcile having other people receive spiritual experiences that motivate them to believe in and become part of other religions?
Introduction to Criticism
As a part of their epistemology, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that commitment and/or belief may be established by spiritual experience. This experience is known as having an experience with the Holy Ghost or "Holy Spirit." As part of the experience of feeling the Spirit, members will frequently report (among other sensations and phenomena) feelings such as swelling motions in their chest, warmth in the chest, clarity of mind, and revelation of knowledge.
Primarily secularist critics of the Church and other Christian critics of the Church have charged that this mode of receiving knowledge is challenged by the existence of competing religious claims or spiritual experiences had by those adherents of other faiths. If they are to receive spiritual experiences motivating them to believe in the truthfulness of their sacred texts, religious structures, and so forth, what makes the Latter-day Saint claim to knowledge unique? What is the basis for claiming that one "knows" that the Book of Mormon is from God and/or that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s “only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” today?
For example, consider this video, often shared by former members of the Church, with people describing their spiritual experiences that have motivated them to become part of other religions.
So we have all of these people claiming spiritual experiences that suggest to them the truthfulness of what they're believing. How can Latter-day Saints therefore claim to be special with their religious knowledge?
This argument, mutatis mutandis, is the argument from inconsistent revelations in the philosophy of religion for Latter-day Saints. Thus, this article can be viewed as a solution to that problem from a Latter-day Saint perspective.
This article seeks to respond to this criticism in depth. We’re going to need to respond well since this is a question that, according to some research, may be one of the major reasons that people withdraw membership from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the belief of the author that Latter-day Saints have a full theology that addresses this criticism and it may reveal some special insights regarding religious epistemology and morality. We’re going to need to outline all of that theology in depth to respond adequately to this argument. We will show, by study out of the best books and also by faith (as required by scripture for those that do not have faith), how one can rationally believe their spiritual experiences are reliable guides to truth.
Some may argue that we’re guilty of not following Occam’s Razor for how many assumptions we introduce into this response; but it should be kept in mind that Occam’s Razor is not a logical law but an application of preference in deciding between two equally valid causal explanations for the same phenomena.
This video explains this in more detail:
Additionally, it will be argued that there are not equally valid explanations for spiritual experiences outside of the Latter-day Saint framework.
So, yes, we are going to introduce a lot of material to explain our point of view on this argument; but responding with an attempt at applying Occam's Razor will do nothing to hurt our rebuttal.
Another argument in response to this article might be that it engages in “mental gymnastics.” This is when a person engages in long and convoluted reasoning in order to defend the allegedly indefensible. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, if a longer explanation is needed to understand an argument or rebuttal, that the person making the explanation is trying to defend the indefensible. People sometimes deploy this accusation when they simply don’t want to exert the mental effort to understand something complex. Be assured that the author believes they have a rational response laid out for this problem in this article.
We hope that you'll choose our side. In the words of Father Lehi in his valedictory, “[we] would that ye should…choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit[.]” One may see where the choice of belief and eternal life comes in as we progress through this response.
Don't let the ease of simplicity in one solution take you away from the greater light and truth of one with some added complexity as demonstrated in this cartoon.
Prior work on this issue has tended to not care for defending a more orthodox Latter-day Saint perspective on this issue. Thus, the author hopes to add something new to this conversation that adheres more closely to traditional paradigms.
With that, let’s get to our rebuttal of the criticism.
The immediate conclusion that the secularist critics want us to draw from the reality of others having spiritual experiences is that spiritual experiences can be the function of anything including neurochemical reactions in the brain. Humans are simply religious animals, they'll say. We should set up the rest of our response by focusing on this assumption.
We can begin to address this by constructing a tautology. A tautology is a statement that is always true. So “It is either raining outside or it is not raining outside” is a statement that, no matter the circumstances, is always true. Here’s our tautology to address the assumption made by critics:
- Claimed spiritual experiences motivating people to become part of different religious faiths are the function of either brain chemistry, a bevy of material spiritual beings corresponding to Latter-day Saint theology that are fighting for control over human hearts, a bevy of material spiritual beings that do not correspond to Latter-day Saint theology, an immaterial, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god like the one worshipped by mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims, or an evil god just trying to cause confusion.
That is a statement that is always true, no matter the circumstances. There may be other ways of constructing/expressing this tautology, but we believe that this expression/construction is adequate for our purposes.
One of these spiritual experiences can be the right one to have and the others wrong. There could be material spiritual beings that interact with material humans to try and get them to not become part of the true religion. That is what Latter-day Saint theology teaches. Let’s lay out what all those spiritual beings look like and what they are trying to get people to do and not do since we need to make this a legitimate, plausible, logical option for understanding spiritual experience in contrast to the critics’ option.
The Latter-day Saint Conceptions of God, the Devil, the Holy Ghost, False Spirits, Good Angels, Bad Angels, and Light
Latter-day Saint theology teaches that there is a spectrum of light, understood to be synonymous with "truth" by faithful adherents, that one can receive in this life that comes from God. This light is known in Latter-day Saint vernacular as “The Light of Christ.” All people are given the Light of Christ as their material spirits connect with their material bodies--presumably sometime after conception and before birth. When one receives more of God’s truth, one thus receives more Light. When one rejects Light, is persuaded towards rejecting the truth and Light that one has already received, or one deliberately chooses to remain without the Light that God has revealed, one stays away or moves away from Light. This is seen as sinful.
The Holy Ghost and many righteous angels are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the Light. The Holy Ghost works through the Light of Christ. The Light of Christ is understood to give a spiritual energy and life to all things. Since it gives this life to all things, it follows that the Holy Ghost, working through this Light, can work on our spirit and/or our body in order to produce sensations in the heart and bring revelation to the mind. The Holy Ghost works in unity with God's purposes.
Satan, false angels, and many false spirits are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the darkness.
All spiritual beings—including the Holy Spirit, false spirits, good angels, bad angels, and Satan—are claimed to be made of matter.
Latter-day Saints claim to have the fullness of Light that one can receive in this life, thus being on the (say) far right of the spectrum. The darkest part of the spectrum is perhaps the intentional disobedience of all of God’s commandments and worshiping Satan.
As one receives more Light, one is more receptive to receiving additional Light and is seen as being able to recognize the Holy Ghost and the truth that God has revealed through prophets easier. As one moves away from the Light, they are less and less able to perceive Light. If a person has gained Light but subsequently lost it through sin or being persuaded by a false spirit to accept darkness, it is seen as more difficult to regain it. It can become progressively more difficult to regain the Light depending on how much Light one receives and how much they give up when moving into the darkness. The amount of Light one has and the ability to perceive it can ultimately be diminished entirely. As Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has taught:
As we yield to that influence, to do good and become good, then the Light of Christ increases within us. As we disobey, Light is decreased and can ultimately be diminished.
Thus, these spirits are acting on both our body and our spirit, connected together intimately (called the “soul” in Latter-day Saint theology), to persuade us to accept, reject, or stay indifferent to Light and truth. When these spirits act on us, they produce physically felt sensations accompanied most often by revelation to the mind. Latter-day Saints believe that all human beings have the ability to perceive that which is of God from that which is of the devil through the same power given by the Light of Christ. It is generally believed that what God has revealed to prophets and has had them record in scripture, taken cumulatively, is the fulness of light and goodness one can achieve.
Eliminating the Other Possibilities: The Disjunctive Syllogism
Now we can begin to address the tautology. To do it, we will construct a disjunctive syllogism. A disjunctive syllogism is a form of argument that takes several possibilities as potential causal explanations for a given phenomenon (or set of phenomena) and eliminates each one until only one explanation is left. A syllogism usually comes in two premises and a conclusion. A disjunctive syllogism would thus look something like this:
- P1) Either A, B, C, or D
- P2) Not A, C, or D
- C Therefore, B.
So what is our disjunctive syllogism?
- P1) Spiritual experiences motivating people to become part of other religious faiths are the function of either brain chemistry, a bevy of material spiritual beings that are fighting for control over human hearts that correspond to Latter-day Saint theology (this is our desired option), a bevy of material spiritual beings that do not correspond to Latter-day Saint theology, an immaterial, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god like the one worshipped by mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims, or an evil god just trying to cause confusion
- P2) Spiritual experiences motivating people to become part of other religious faiths are not the function of brain chemistry, an immaterial, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god like the one worshipped by mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims, an evil god just trying to cause confusion, nor a bevy of material spiritual beings not corresponding to Latter-day Saint theology.
- C) Therefore, spiritual experiences motivating people to become part of other religious faiths are the function of a bevy of material spiritual beings that are fighting for control over human hearts that correspond to Latter-day Saint theology.
We will try to prove premise two over the course of the rest of this response.
Not Just Neurochemistry: The First Modus Ponens
We'll first focus on neurochemistry. Our next step in refuting the notion that spiritual experiences are just a product of brain chemistry is to construct a modus ponens argument.
A modus ponens argument is an argument with two premises and a conclusion. One of the premises is an if/then statement like “If it is raining, then the streets are wet.” The second premise is an affirmation of the if portion of the if/then statement. The conclusion is the affirmation of the then portion of the if/then statement. Thus a modus ponens argument would go:
- P1) If it is raining, then the streets are wet
- P2) It is raining
- C) Therefore, the streets are wet.
So let’s construct our modus ponens argument:
- P1) If it is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans, then it is likely that spiritual experiences are not the result of merely neurochemical reactions.
- P2) It is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans
- C) Therefore, it is likely that spiritual experiences are not the result of mere neurochemical reactions.
The author says “likely” since
- We can’t see the Holy Ghost nor false spirits since, again, they're made out of incredibly refined matter and can only be seen with refined spiritual sight according to Latter-day Saint scripture. Thus we can't know empirically that they are working on us. We might infer very rationally that believing in a bevy of material spiritual beings is the best explanation for what we have experienced. But, without seeing them, we cannot demonstrate it conclusively. Thus
- Spiritual experiences are a form of experiential knowledge. You can't share experiential knowledge with anyone. How do you describe the taste of salt? The color green? The feelings you had when you lost your first loved one to death? You can't share these things with others. They can only be known by you.
Thus the argument that follows that helps establish that spiritual experiences come from outside of us can only be evaluated by those that actually seek spiritual experiences and obtain them. It will only be helpful for those that experiment with prayer to ask God for these experiences and actually have them.
With all that established, let’s isolate our second premise in the modus ponens and see if we can give good evidence that it is true.
It is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans
There are four lines of argument that we can elucidate that give evidence that spiritual experiences are not merely a function of brain chemistry.
- When you feel something touch you that is foreign to you, you can recognize that that thing is foreign to you. Place your hand on your chest. Don’t look at your chest while you place your hand on there. You know that there is something on your chest that isn’t your chest. It’s something additional to it. You don’t see it, but you feel its influence and know that it is foreign to your chest. In a similar way, the Holy Ghost and other material spiritual beings can affect us. It is unlikely that our brain could just randomly produce this type of sensation. This is what the author will call The Feeling of Foreign Influence Argument. Some may argue, based in knowledge of the human Agent Detection Bias, that these experiences might just be humans assuming that a spiritual agent has caused these experiences when there really was no agent. These critics would argue that "we think we feel 'presences' all the time." But it seems that whether or not an agent has actually contacted you is best evaluated by you. Subjective experience is one of our most reliable ways of forming beliefs about reality. Indeed, there are even things that can only be known subjectively. The taste of salt, seeing the color green and knowing what it is, and the feeling of a warm towel as it comes out of a dryer are things that can only be known by subjective experience. Objectors will still come up with other ways to make us doubt our senses. They'll bring up things like the possibility of being deceived by Descartes' Demon, being in The Matrix, being a brain in a vat, or being in The Truman Show. These are all possible, but they're merely assertions.They have no evidence. We don't need to believe in these propositions until we have any evidence that they are true and no solid evidence has been forthcoming.
- In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members often claim to receive knowledge that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For instance, Blake Ostler relates how when he was a sophomore in high school, he was given a spiritual impression to tell a girl he knew to stop thinking about killing herself. Experiences similar to these are reported all the time in the Church. This is what the author will call the Knowledge You Wouldn’t Otherwise Have Argument.
- Theist philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne has argued that, as a basic principle of rationality, we should assume that things as they appear are things as they really are until we have compelling evidence to disbelieve in the existence of God. This is what he calls the Principle of Credulity. Latter-day Saints have simple yet effective solutions to all arguments from atheists.
FAIR has also produced a long article on all of the other claimed neurological counter explanations for spiritual experience. Be sure to check that out if interested.
These explanations not only provide evidence that spiritual experience is not merely the function of brain chemistry, but that one can receive veridical spiritual experiences: ones that actually give someone knowledge of something.
Having thus substantiated the second premise in the modus ponens, we can therefore rationally conclude that spiritual experiences are likely the function of material spiritual beings that are fighting for control over human hearts.
Not An Immaterial God: The Second Modus Ponens
We'll construct another modus ponens against the possibility of an immaterial God causing these spiritual experiences. To fully appreciate this argument, it is suggested but not necessary that one be familiar with the mind-body problem and solutions to it in the philosophy of mind.
There is no evidence of a totally unembodied, totally immaterial mind that can cause things to happen in the material world. If the immaterial can cause things to happen in the material world, it must either emerge from the material (emegentism) or be a property in tandem with the material body (property dualism). Mainstream theistic philosophers will want to deny this since they believe that a completely unembodied, immaterial God created the universe ex nihilo, but Latter-day Saint philosopher Blake T. Ostler, adapting arguments from philosophers such as Graham Oppy, has shown that the arguments in favor of creatio ex nihilo do not hold up. So, if you have a spiritual experience, it's much more likely that your experience was caused by a spirit having matter rather than a totally immaterial one. The author is careful to say that there is no evidence of such rather than saying that it is impossible.Our modus ponens then proceeds as follows:
- P1) If I have had a spiritual experience, then it is more likely that my experience was caused by a material rather than immaterial spirit since things that feel foreign to me are most likely material interacting with my material being.
- P2) I have had a spiritual experience
- C) Therefore, it is more likely that my experience was caused by a material rather than immaterial spirit since things that feel foreign to me are almost always material interacting with my material being.
Not an Evil God: Moving Forward
This is perhaps the most difficult of the possibilities to eliminate since it seems at least equally plausible as the Latter-day Saint possibility to the author. Along with eliminating the possibility of an evil material God causing the confusion, we need to provide evidence that the material spiritual beings correspond to our theology: the Latter-day Saint conception of angels, spirits, and so forth.
Perhaps as we illuminate the rest of our response, the ordered system that scripture presents about how to interpret and react to the spiritual experiences of people from other faiths will provide some evidence that there is a good God who is a God of order and that there are material spiritual beings (that correspond with conception of them provided by Latter-day Saint scripture) working on us. Furthermore, as Latter-day Saint scholars continue to give good evidence for the authenticity of Latter-day Saint scripture, we will cumulatively provide good evidence that there is indeed a good God and material spiritual beings (that match the Latter-day Saint conception) working on us.
What is that system? What is that line of evidence substantiating the authenticity of Latter-day Saint scripture more and more? Let's keep moving forward with our response and outlining it.
The Interpretive Matrix: Latter-day Saint Theology of Spiritual Beings in Practice
So now we’ve established that there are good reasons to believe that material spirits exist and that they are acting on us to bring us either further into Light or away from it. But now the question arises of how we should react to all of these different spiritual experiences of people from other faiths. How should we make sense of them within Latter-day Saint theology?
First, we should establish that Latter-day Saints believe that God’s truth has been given to all nations through various religions. Many official texts establish this. The prophet Mormon taught on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon that Jesus Christ was/is "manifesting himself unto all nations". The prophet Nephi taught that God has inspired the production of many religious books. The Prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon taught that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.” Another scripture clearly states that "we believe religion is instituted of God[.]" Other biblical scriptures clearly indicate that God inspires other groups outside of his covenant group with truth, light, and miracles. A 1978 official statement from the First Presidency of the Church states that "[t]he great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals." This makes it so that Latter-day Saints believe that truth can be found in many religions and that people can be converted to it. It should be remembered that not all religions confirm the truthfulness of their beliefs by spiritual experience. That said, Latter-day Saint scripture is open to other religions receiving inspiration and revelation from God and their adherents having spiritual experiences that convert them to those religions.
Second, for Latter-day Saints (and, indeed, even our critics), there is a difference between the actual experience we have and how we should react to or interpret that experience.
Moroni in the Book of Mormon wrote
- 14 Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
- 15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
Our critics react to all spiritual experience by saying that it’s all just a function of neurochemical reactions in the brain, an immaterial God, or just an evil God. How do Latter-day Saints react to different spiritual experiences?
Latter-day Saint scripture offers four different types of experiences that are seen as positive:
- A Softening of Heart to the idea of a God, a Christ, the Restored Gospel or an idea from it, or a Religion in General (Alma 16:16–17). It's interesting to note here that Latter-day Saints do not believe that a spiritual experience must commit you to a proposition that they believe is true. Spiritual experiences can just be given to soften your heart to the idea of God, Christ, the Restored Gospel, or religion in general.
- A Conversion to God (Moroni 7:13; Doctrine & Covenants 84:46–47).
- A Conversion to Christ (Moroni 7:16).
- A Conversion to the Restored Gospel (Moroni 10:3–5).
- A Conversion to a true proposition from the Restored Gospel (Moroni 10:5). These are recorded in Latter-day Saint scripture, the only source of official doctrine of the Church. This scripture can be updated by revelation given by God through the President of the Church (and only him).
And there are five experiences that Latter-day Saint scripture views as negative:
- Intentionally Lying About the Reality of an Experience (Alma 30:60). These people are who the Latter-day Saint scriptures might describe as those that "pervert" the Gospel.
- Experiences Caused by the Devil (Alma 30:53; Moroni 7:17).
- Experiences Caused by False Spirits (1 John 4:1–2; 2 Nephi 9:9; Moroni 7:17-18; D&C 50:1–3; D&C 50:31–33; D&C 52:15–19).
- Being persuaded by False Christs (Matt 24: 5, 24–28; Mark 13:22–29; Words of Mormon 1:15).
- Being Persuaded by False Prophets (Matthew 7:15; 3 Nephi 14:15).
We can then summarize these experiences into eight discrete interpretive formulas that help us decide if we or another has been influenced by a false spirit or the Holy Spirit.
- The experience softens your heart to the idea of God, Christ, the Restoration, or a true proposition given by the true Latter-day Saint Church = Holy Spirit
- The experience converts you to a God, a version of Christ, a sect of the Restoration, and/or a true proposition given by the true Latter-day Saint Church = Holy Spirit
- The experience leaves you stagnant in progress towards or away from converting to the true God, the true Christ, the true Latter-day Saint Church, and/or a true proposition given by the true Latter-day Saint Church = Holy Spirit
- The experience converts you away from the true God, true Christ, true Latter-day Saint Church, and/or a true proposition given by the true Latter-day Saint Church after you had previously had an experience that converted you to one or more of them = false Spirits
- The experience suggests to you that you shouldn’t establish commitment to the true God, true Christ, and or true Restoration when you intend on receiving an experience that does motivate you to establish that commitment = false spirit (2 Nephi 2:18; 9:9; Moses 4:4)
- The experience converts you to worshipping Satan = false spirit
- No experience = no spirit
- Unsure of provenance of experience (whether just emotions or an actual visitation from what feels like a material spiritual being) = Continue seeking a more dynamic confirmation.
These eight formulas cover the whole range of experiences an individual may potentially have. They are faithful to Latter-day Saint scripture. This is how Latter-day Saint scripture asks us to interpret the reported experiences of those from other faiths. Again, we can't experience what other people feel so we need a way to react to their reports and this is how scripture asks us to do it. Keep in mind that attached to the right side of the equals sign of any of these formulas can be delusion or wishful thinking. Thus, for any experience, Latter-day Saints believe that the experience comes from true spirits, false spirits, delusion, or wishful thinking. These formulas do not have to be the definitive account of how to interpret different experiences. If another feels that these formulas can be added to or slightly modified, then they are welcome to devise their own formulas provided that those formulas adhere closely to scripture.
Now, another question arises: How is it that people are supposed to recognize that there is more light to be had and seek out different spiritual experiences? How are they supposed to abandon what they believed prior spiritual experiences seem to have told them?
The Savior gave us this counsel for avoiding false prophets in the Bible
- 15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
- 16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
- 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
- 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
- 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
- 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Thus it is by the fruits of these different religious systems that we are supposed to judge them by. What are these fruits? Perhaps the intellectual soundness of these religious systems. Indeed, this is likely why Joseph Smith told that Saints that we should “[bring] to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them[:]” because “there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it[.]”
It will be helpful to now discuss briefly how this will all work out in the afterlife according to Latter-day Saint theology since it may be the case that not everyone will have a fair opportunity to have an experience from God that converts them to our faith.
How God Judges People in the Next Life: Soteriological Inclusivism
Understanding how Latter-day Saint scripture talks about the afterlife will be important. We want to know how people will be judged by God in the next life if they do not accept the truth by that time.
After a person dies and before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints believe that a conscious, living spirit will be separated from our mortal body and be transported to something called the Spirit World. The Spirit World is merely a place where the spirits of the dead await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to the earth. The Spirit World is divided into two realms: Spirit Paradise and Spirit Prison. After resurrection, Jesus will make his second coming to the earth and usher in a period of time known as the Millennium. After the Millennium, all the spirits of mankind will be judged by God and placed into one of three kingdoms of glory (levels of heaven, so to speak): the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, or the Telestial Kingdom.
Latter-day Saints gain most of their knowledge about the Celestial Kingdom from a vision experienced by Joseph Smith and his associate Sidney Rigdon in February 1832 that is now recounted in Section 76 of the Doctrine & Covenants. Joseph and Sidney report here that they saw each of the Kingdoms and that it was revealed to them what qualifications someone must meet in order to enter the Celestial Kingdom.
When reading the requirements for the Celestial Kingdom and the Terrestrial Kingdom, the revelation seems to stipulate only that someone must receive a testimony of Jesus Christ being the Savior of the World and be valiant in that testimony in this life as a minimum requirement for reaching the Celestial Kingdom. Thus, Latter-day Saints espouse a form of soteriological inclusivism: belief that people of other religious faiths can make it to heaven without necessarily having to accept the true religion in this life. Thus, the goal is likely to get as many people as possible converted to Christianity in this life by getting them to listen to true spirits to the point that they accept him. All else will be sorted out by vicarious ordinances done by Latter-day Saints in temples or by the vicarious work done in the Millennium by both angels and mortals. Latter-day Saints would thus do well to help Christian scholars and apologists in defending their faith while also expressing the important differences between mainstream Christianity and the Restored Gospel.
God and the Historical Plausibility of Scripture: Supporting our Interpretive Formulas and Vision of the Afterlife
These interpretive formulas and this vision of the afterlife have been derived from Latter-day Saint scripture. Latter-day Saint scripture claims to have been given by revelation and inspiration from God. In order to have been given by revelation and inspiration from God, we would need to assume (at the very least) the following:
- That there is one God, the Latter-day Saint God (our spiritual father with a body of flesh and bone), that exists and that he has a way of communicating with his children by the Spirit.
- That there has been a line of men called prophets whom God has authorized by priesthood beginning with Adam and stretching all the way to the current President of the Church to reveal his word including the canonized scriptures of the Church upon which we (FAIR) have built those interpretive formulas.
- That there hasn't been anyone outside of this line of prophetic succession authorized to reveal God's will to humanity.
Both of these assumptions can be substantiated by establishing the historical plausibility of scripture (since proving of scripture historicity in many cases is impossible) and making sure that the priesthood can be passed to all the people we need it to be passed to.
Giving Evidence for Latter-day Saint Possession of the Priesthood
We have an entire article that we have written giving evidence for the Latter-day Saint possession of God's priesthood. We encourage readers to see it and evaluate the article for themselves.
Giving Evidence for the Historicity of Latter-day Saint Scripture
Latter-day Saint scholars and apologists have been making a well-reasoned, well-documented case for the historical authenticity of Latter-day Saint scripture for many years now. Readers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with this evidence. Scholars are encouraged to continue to research the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and Joseph Smith Translation in order to substantiate this claim. Further reading included in the citation. Readers are encouraged to get familiar with this scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to continue to provide this scholarship to help give further evidence to establish this vital premise in our solution to this issue.
Perhaps it could be the case that each piece of evidence could be used in Bayesian style to weigh the probability that these books of scripture are authentic and ancient. Such analysis has been begun by author Kyler Rassmussen and readers may be persuaded by his conclusions.
It is encouraged that readers do not make scriptural scholarship their idol i.e. basing their entire testimony on whether or not there is good empirical evidence. As Blake Ostler has observed, this is not what is most basic in Mormonism. What is most basic about Latter-day Saint commitment and belief is that we have had an experience where we individually have opened our hearts to the influence of God's spirit and received God's spirit as we have prayed about the Book of Mormon, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, and/or the prophetic calling of the current President of the Church. Our eternal being has connected with God's eternal being: the Holy Ghost. That is what we hold most dear; at our center. Everything else that we add on to our testimony like scriptural scholarship and other evidence is merely trying to provide a "reason for the hope that is within us" and "to seek learning, even by study and also by faith" for those that do not yet have faith. Some might say “but why should we trust an experience?” It’s a good question. Perhaps it might be said that you can trust your experience just like you trust that you’re not in the Matrix or the Truman Show: it’s what you have experienced. You’re as certain as you can be that that experience told you that the Book of Mormon is true. You’re as certain as you can be that you’re not in the Matrix or the Truman Show because your immediate experience feels really, really real and suggests strongly—as strongly as it can suggest—that you’re not.
Entering Into Genuinely Loving Relationships: The Why for Revelatory Epistemology
It's necessary now to discuss the question of why we have to deal with an epistemology that favors revelatory spiritual experiences in the first place.
Latter-day Saint theology teaches that all men and women had a personal pre-existence as spirits before coming to this earth. Latter-day Saint scripture teaches that in premortal realms, a counsel was convened between God and his spirit children (us) where he taught us his plan to send us here to earth to gain a body, learn the difference between good and evil, and do what is good. In the Book of Moses where this counsel is portrayed in the most detail, God strongly emphasizes the importance of human agency. This agency gave humans the ability to enter into relationship with God freely. Part of the definition of love is to freely enter into a relationship.
As Blake Ostler has explained:
To have a genuine relationship, it was necessary for persons to leave God's presence and enter into a situation [mortal life] where His existence, glory, and power were not obvious to make room for both moral and religious faith--a situation where persons could freely enter into a genuine relationship without being coerced to do so by the obviousness of His overwhelming power and glory. Thus, God has set us at a cognitive distance from Him out of respect for our freedom. Because such distance is necessary to permit faith, God's existence must be ambiguous. The world must be capable of appearing as if there were no God precisely to make room for us to come to a genuine relationship with him.
Thus, we need freedom in order to enter into genuine relationships with God. And that freedom would be coerced if we had an empirical proof of his existence. That can make mortal life a bit scary. Indeed, we live in a world that is dark and dreary as represented in Lehi’s dream. We don't know with 100% certainty that we are on the right path back to God's presence. But it is the Spirit that gives Light in that darkness and it is the best mechanism by which we can commune with God without being coerced into entering into a relationship with him. Spiritual experiences sit in this nice little space between the rational and the empirically provable. We can rationally believe that God has communicated to us, by his Spirit, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. But we can't prove such empirically. It further elucidates just how much exaltation is a matter that must be worked out by each individual. Yes, there are those in the scriptural record who have experienced theophanies, christophanies, and angelophanies. God knows that these provide people with greater assurance of his existence. But, as the Doctrine and Covenants testifies, with greater light, there is a greater condemnation when we turn away from that light. God won't give us those types of manifestations out of loving, tender mercy. So, we work with spiritual experiences and we move forward with faith. Consider how the Book of Mormon prophet Alma frames our coming to knowledge of the Lord. He says that we have a spiritual experience and by it know that what we have experienced is just good. He then says that a series of these experiences will grow into a firmer and firmer testimony that will preserve a place for our souls in heaven. Latter-day Saints truly believe in a different, more sacred form of knowing than other people. Spiritual experiences connect the gods and eternities to you and you to the gods and eternities. They illuminate your heart: what we as Latter-day Saints know through the scriptures as the source of authentic identity and being.
God has a means by which we can judge good from evil, and that is the word of God as revealed to the prophets and recorded in scripture. Indeed, the iron rod of Lehi and Nephi's dream that leads us to salvation is the Word of God: scripture. God's word provided by prophets gives us the means by which we can discern the spirits whether they be false or true and work our way back to God's presence in the Celestial Kingdom.
Prophets teach us how we are going to enter into a relationship "of one heart and one mind" with God, the human family, and the rest of God's creation. They are instructing us in the fullness of the principle of love. The Spirit will guide people to the prophets so that they can do that. Indeed, getting total unity of the human family requires that we direct all of them to the same source of knowledge so that we can all live by the same morality.
Implications for God's Veracity
It will be necessary to deal with the implications of this response to this criticism for God's veracity. God's veracity is his capacity for telling the truth. Some Christian theologians believe that God ethically cannot lie and never has lied.
Titus 1:1–2 reads as follows:
- Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness; In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began;
1 Corinthians 14:33 reads:
- For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.
The highlighted portions of these verses and the implications of it will cause some stress for readers dealing with this criticism.
In the case of Titus, it is important to understand the underlying Greek of the passage. The part of the passage translated as "God, that cannot lie" is ὁ ἀψευδὴς θεὸς (pronounced "ho ahp-say-oo-days thay-ohs"). Literally translated, this just means either "the truthful God" or "the God without lie". This passage likely means just that God did not lie in promising eternal life before the world began.
The second passage is a bit more tricky. One might be tempted to say that Paul is speaking merely to the Corinthians and saying that God doesn't sow confusion among them. But that seems unlikely. Additionally, we do have to deal with the reasonable question of why God, who theoretically wants the exaltation and eternal life of his children, would want to provide powerful spiritual experiences to his children that motivate them to start and convert to other religions. This scripture would seem to support such an assertion.
Perhaps the best way is to keep in mind the above interpretive matrix for dealing with spiritual experience. It will lead one to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints if followed. The orderly system it provides may be enough evidence to show that God inspires all of his children and loves them while also not being the author of confusion.
We Need to Defend the Church's Moral Standards
Given that there is at least mild epistemic uncertainty inherent in what the Church teaches about how one comes to know that it is true, it will become the duty of every faithful Latter-day Saint to defend the goodness of what the Church teaches about what it means to be righteous and what it means to be sinful. Think of it. If the Church might not be true, then doesn't that mean that going against what it teaches and sinning might not actually be sinning? Might not actually be morally wrong? It's not a bad question. That is why, again, every faithful Latter-day Saint should defend the Church's moral teaching as integral to true human fulfillment and flourishing. This is particularly true for things pertaining to the Law of Chastity and the Word of Wisdom. We have gathered a compilation of articles elsewhere on the FAIR wiki that give defenses of the Church's current moral teachings.
Click here to be taken to that compilation.
This article will illuminate the directions that Latter-day Saint scholarship needs to go in order to continue to have a persuasive answer to this criticism. In the author's view, it will also illuminate the beauty of the Latter-day Saint understanding of God's plan for humanity and the care that he has taken to preserve our ability to freely come into loving relationships with him and thus take on his nature of love. We thus learn something important about epistemology and morality while following what Latter-day Saint scripture teaches us about our purpose as humans on earth and the heavenly awards that await us as we patiently follow God.
So: how much can you rationally conclude from the spiritual experience you've had telling you that the Church is true and that you should be a member of it? Enough.
- Moroni 10:3–5.
- Grant H. Palmer, Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 130–33; Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts (n.p.: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 75.
- Doctrine & Covenants 1:30
- In some cases in the above video, it may be that their spiritual experiences led them into death. Such is the case with the Heaven's Gate group. How, if it was indeed a spiritual witness that led them to that group, could that happen? We have an article on the wiki that may give some helpful answers.
- Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millenials are Changing the LDS Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 224–25. Reactions to Riess’ work have been mixed. For a positive review, see Armand L. Mauss, “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church by Jana Riess,” Journal of Mormon History 45, no. 3 (July 2019): 133–42. For a slightly more critical review, see Stephen Cranney, “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” BYU Studies 58, no. 2 (2019): 177–83.
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:118; 109:6–7
- 2 Nephi 2:28. Emphasis added.
- Dennis Potter, “Restored Epistemology: A Communicative Pluralist Answer to Religious Diversity,” Element 1, no. 2 (Fall 2005): 85–95. Important exceptions exist: Blake Ostler and Corey Ostler, “EP70-FAITH, REASON, & SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE - VOL 5,” January 20, 2019, in Exploring Mormon Thought, podcast, MP3 audio, http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/01/topics-discussed-of-religious.html?m=; “EP71-KNOWLEDGE IS BEING (PT 1) - VOL 5,” January 27, 2019, in Exploring Mormon Thought, podcast, MP3 audio, http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/01/topics-discussed-a.html?m=1; “EP72-KNOWLEDGE IS BEING (PT 2) - VOL 5,” February 03, 2019, in Exploring Mormon Thought, podcast, MP3 audio, http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/02/ep72-knowledge-is-being-pt-2-vol-5.html?m=1; “EP73-MORMONISM AND OTHER FAITHS - VOL 5,” February 17, 2019, in Exploring Mormon Thought, podcast, MP3 audio, http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/02/ep73-mormonism-and-other-faiths-vol-5.html?m=1.
- Doctrine & Covenants 84:45
- Moroni 7:16. Here the term used is “Spirit of Christ." It is understood that this is synonymous with “Light of Christ.” See Alan L. Wilkins, “The Light of Christ,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), 521. See also Doctrine & Covenants 84:46. On the materiality of spirit, see Doctrine & Covenants 131:7.
- Doctrine & Covenants 50:24
- See “Darkness, Spiritual in the Scripture Index on churchofjesuschrist.org
- 2 Nephi 32:2–3; Doctrine & Covenants 84:47
- Moroni 7:16; Doctrine & Covenants 84:45–46
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:11–13
- Doctrine & Covenants 8:2
- Moroni 7:17; Doctrine & Covenants 50:2–3
- Doctrine & Covenants 131:7
- Doctrine & Covenants 123:11–17
- Alma 24:30; Alma 47:36
- 1 Nephi 17:45; Jacob 6:8
- David A. Bednar, “Patterns of Light: The Light of Christ,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed October 5, 2019, video, 1:45, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/inspiration/latter-day-saints-channel/watch/series/mormon-messages/patterns-of-light-the-light-of-christ-1?lang=eng.
- Moroni 7:14
- Moroni 7:20–25; Joseph Smith–Matthew 1:37
- Doctrine & Covenants 131:7–8
- See Blake Ostler, "The Doctrine Of Creation Ex Nihilo Is A Big Fuss Over Nothing," FAIR Papers, accessed September 13, 2021, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/archive/publications/reviews-of-the-new-mormon-challenge/the-doctrine-of-creation-ex-nihilo-is-a-big-fuss-over-nothing; "Part 3: Do Kalam Infinity Arguments Apply To The Infinite Past?," FAIR Papers, September 13, 2021, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/archive/publications/reviews-of-the-new-mormon-challenge/the-doctrine-of-creation-ex-nihilo-do-kalam-infinity-arguments-apply-to-the-infinite-past. Young Latter-day Saint philosopher Joseph Lawal has also created a video on the subject. Joseph Lawal, “William Lane Craig's Attack on Latter-day Saint Cosmology (Part 1)," YouTube, August 20, 2020, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG2EUGsLh4k.
- One may notice here that this argument has been carefully crafted so as to not rule out a Latter-day Saint believing in emergentism in the philosophy of mind. The author and indeed other Latter-day Saint philosophers are attracted to the view as it preserves free will.
- 2 Nephi 29:11–13
- Alma 29:8
- Doctrine & Covenants 134:4
- Amos 9:7; Jonah 1; Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8. These four are affirmed to mean that God inspires other nations and people with light in James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 44. See also Luke 9:49–50.
- “Statement of the First Presidency regarding God’s Love for All Mankind,” February 15, 1978.
- Joseph Smith left clear revelation that the canonized scriptures should govern the Church (Doctrine & Covenants 42:12–13, 56–60; 105:58–59).This since they have been revealed by the Lord's duly appointed prophet (the only one authorized to receive revelation on behalf of the entire Church) (Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5; Doctrine & Covenants 28:2), submitted to and approved by all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve,(Doctrine & Covenants 107:27), and submitted to the general body of the Church for ratification (Doctrine & Covenants 26:2; 28:13). Scripture should be read contextually (that is, in the historical context of the people who would have first heard the revelation) and holistically (seeing everything scripture has to say on the topic at hand) to acquire accurate theological conceptions that members judge every person's doctrine against. This article explains in more detail how to read the scriptures.
- Doctrine & Covenants 123:12–13.
- Some Latter-day Saints believe there are multiple levels in the Celestial Kingdom but it has been persuasively demonstrated that this belief rests on a misreading of scripture. See Shannon Flynn, "Three sub-degrees in the Celestial Kingdom?" By Common Consent, April 18, 2018, https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/04/18/three-sub-degrees-in-the-celestial-kingdom/.
- Doctrine & Covenants 76:50–80
- On historical plausibility, see John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, "Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study," in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 63–98.
- See Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2013); John Welch, ed., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For an overview of evidence for the Book of Abraham, see here. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014). For the Joseph Smith Translation, see Robert J. Matthews, "A Plainer Translation" - Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985).
- Kyler Rassmussen, “Estimating the Evidence Episode 0: On Quantifying Skepticism,” The Interpreter Foundation, June 30, 2021, https://interpreterfoundation.org/estimating-the-evidence-0/
- Blake T. Ostler, "Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment," (presentation, FAIR Conference, Provo, UT, 2007).
- Abraham 3:18
- 1 Peter 3:15
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:118
- Abraham 3:22–23
- Moses 4:1–3.
- Blake T. Ostler, Fire on the Horizon: A Meditation on the Endowment and Love of Atonement (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 17.
- 1 Nephi 4:7, 8
- Philippians 2:12
- Doctrine & Covenants 82:3
- Alma 32:28–43. Blake Ostler has characterized Alma’s approach to knowledge as a reliabilist and pragmatic form of epistemology. See his insightful analysis in Blake T. Ostler, “An Ingenious and Inspiring Literary Analysis of Alma 30–42,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 45 (2021): 127–29.
- 1 Nephi 11:25; 15:24; Moroni 7:20–25; Doctrine & Covenants 42:56–60
- 1 Nephi 11:25
- 1 John 4:8