In order to keep this blog somewhat relevant, I spend more time than I used to reading criticisms of the LDS Church. These range from misstatements due to clumsy research in the mainstream media to the foaming-at-the-mouth, Mormons-are-going-to-eat-your-children type of stuff coming from the fringes. In doing so, I have noticed that some of the same sound-bite attacks are thrown up repeatedly, often with little explanation of what the complaint is really about.
One example of this is the one-sentence indictment: “Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers!” Apparently that statement standing alone is proof positive that Mormons are nutballs, so no explanation is needed as to why.
Before we talk about what Mormons really believe, let me rhetorically throw a couple of questions back at the critics: Who is this Satan guy, anyway? Is there some traditional Christian doctrine regarding the identity and history of Satan that Mormon doctrine offends?
My understanding always has been that Christians generally believe that Satan (or Lucifer, the devil, or any other host of names for him) is a fallen angel. He and other angels rebelled against God and were cast out of Heaven. That much, at least, can be derived from the Bible, in which the prophet Isaiah writes: “How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how are thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” (Isa. 14:12-15).
Beyond that, the Bible gives us little of Satan’s origin story. The nature of the devil is so unclear from the Bible that in some Christian traditions he has all of the trappings of a creature of Norse mythology, with animal-like features. Most thinking Christians, I assume, reject the pointed-tail picture of Satan, but it is unclear what they replace it with.
Just taking the passage from Isaiah, we should be able to get a few hints about the nature of the Adversary (the English word closest to “Satan.”) First, at some point he dwelled with God in Heaven. Second, he had some level of prestige, reflected by the title “Son of the Morning.” Third, he was cast out of Heaven because he sought to make himself equal to or greater than God.
Mormons believe all three of those things. So far, so good. But we also believe that all of us who live on Earth existed before this life as spirits, dwelling with our Father in Heaven. So all of us are children of God, the eldest and greatest of whom was Jesus Christ. He was chosen before he came to this Earth to be the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh, and the Savior and Redeemer of mankind.
Everyone’s still with me, right?
Well, here is the kicker: We believe that Satan was one of those spirits. He sought to take the glory of God for himself and consequently was cast out of Heaven, along with the spirits who followed him. He became Satan, Lucifer, the devil…the adversary of Christ and man, still determined to stir up rebellion and hatred against God.
So, yeah, as one of the spirits who lived in the presence of God, Satan was Jesus’s “brother,” in the same sense that any of us would be Jesus’s brother or sister. If you assume that God created everything, including our spirits, that conclusion really is inescapable. If Satan as an “angel,” as the “Son of the Morning,” was not God’s creation, then who created him? If he did not once dwell in the presence of God, then where did he fall from?
In my mind, what makes Satan the devil is that he is the personification of abomination, which in the religious context frequently carries the sense of something good turned evil. Satan is worse than an adversary: He is a traitor. He has personally witnessed the perfect love and majesty of God and wilfully rebelled against it. If he were just some shmuck with a pitchfork, he would not represent such a great evil, just as Judas’s crime against Christ would not have been so ugly if he were just a member of the crowd instead of a trusted apostle.
So the sense in which Mormons believe that Satan is Jesus’s brother is neither a slight to Jesus nor a compliment to Satan. We certainly do not contend that Satan was ever Christ’s equal, nor do we believe that he ever was “Begotten” of God in the same way that Christ was. Rather, Satan is the most tragic of figures, a being who wilfully and knowingly rebelled against God, and surrendered every blessing for which we, through the mercy of Christ, still have hope.