Many years ago I spoke at length with a minister of another Christian faith about the LDS belief in eternal progression, the notion that the ultimate aim of men and women is to become like our Father in Heaven. As we ended our conversation (which was remarkably peaceful), he shook his head and told me, “You Mormons think too highly of Man.” My response was, “Actually, I believe you think too little of God.”
That went over well.
What I meant by that statement is that the Mormon belief in eternal progression has nothing to do with self-glorification, although it often is characterized that way by our critics. Mormons (at least the sane ones) do not believe that we are on the cusp of Godliness, so righteous that we are a mere step away from being like our Father in Heaven. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, the doctrine rests upon our understanding of God as the perfect Father, willing to share all that He has with His children.
Mormons view our relationship with God as a family relationship. We believe that God is the Father of our spirits. He knows each of us individually, loves us perfectly, and wants nothing more (or less) than our happiness. Like any good parent, He wants His children to enjoy every blessing that He has. For that reason, He prepared a plan (discussed in Part I of this post) by which we can, someday, be like Him. Granted, we are no more like Him now than an acorn is like an oak tree, but we believe that there is a divine seed in each of us, and that our Father in Heaven intends to water and cultivate that seed until potential becomes reality.
While this doctrine gives critics of the Church apoplexy, the doctrine was not foreign to the early Christian church. The Apostle Paul taught, “And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” (Galatians 4:6-7, emphasis added). Paul taught this same notion of being a “joint heir with Christ” in his epistle to the Romans. What does it mean to be an “heir” of God if He is holding blessings back from us?
The Apostle John taught the same thing: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he [Christ] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2, emphasis added). In his revelation to John, Christ taught plainly: “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, emphasis added).
If imperfect men and women can possess a sufficient love to desire that their children inherit all that they have, a perfectly loving God would have no less of a desire for His children. Clearly the New Testament apostles were not bashful about this doctrine, teaching that we have the potential to become heirs of God through Christ, worthy to share a throne with Him. Ironically, after being criticized for giving too little weight to the Bible, it is the Mormons who take such promises literally.
I believe that where this doctrine leads to controversy is in the use of the word “gods.” Critics of our belief in eternal progression label the hope of godliness as “polytheism,” with the implication being that we worship more than one god, and consequently marginalize the preeminence of our Father in Heaven. But this represents a fundamental distortion of the doctrine.
If you look at the revelation to Joseph Smith which explains this doctrine most succinctly, there is no suggestion that we worship anyone other than our Father in Heaven. The description of the ultimate end of eternal progression is that “they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject to them.” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:20). The most important word in that verse, to me, is “then.” We are talking about the hope of man after an eternity of progression. It has nothing to do with our position now, nor our relationship with Heavenly Father. We worship no one else. Unlike some Christians, we pray to no one else. We elevate no man, save Jesus Christ, to the position of Godhood.
Granted, this is a bold claim that the Mormons make, that Man’s ultimate destiny–if we are obedient–is to someday become heirs to all that God has to offer. But it is no more bold a claim than was made by the early Apostles themselves, nor more bold than the promise given to John by Christ. Not everyone will agree with it; but personally, I find the alternative sorely lacking. I have a hard time understanding a God whose glory is defined by the distance He keeps between Him and His children.
Regardless, what I am confident of is that the doctrine of eternal progression does not, as many argue, “prove” that Mormons are not Christians. Rather than minimize the position of Christ, the doctrine teaches that His sacrifice and power are exponentially greater than most of Christianity teaches. The doctrine gives literal meaning to the New Testament admonition to become “perfected in Christ.” It teaches that Christ can make more of sinful man than we ever imagined, for the ultimate victory over sin means being like Christ, who is like His Father.