Latter-day Saints are sometimes accused of having an antibiblical theology because they believe that God is a glorified being of flesh and bones—not just a spirit essence. Some who write anti-Mormon pamphlets insist that the LDS concept of Deity is contrary to what is recognized as traditional Christian doctrine. In this they are quite correct. The traditional view about the Trinity is well over a thousand years old, and time has a way of hallowing ideas, whether or not they are true.
One of the most demonstrable truths from the Bible is the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus came forth from the tomb, he showed himself to his Apostles. Even they thought him to be a spirit, but he said: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.”
Then he showed them his hands and feet, and when they were still skeptical, he asked for meat and honeycomb and ate before them. (Luke 24:36–43.) Then they saw he was no apparition.
Thomas was not present at the first appearance to the Twelve, so he remained skeptical. He told the others: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24–25.)
One week later, Jesus again appeared to the disciples. This time, Thomas was among them. The Lord greeted them, then spoke to Thomas: “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”
Thomas could only exclaim, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:26–28.) That day he became a special witness of the Lord’s literal resurrection.
After Jesus was resurrected, more than five hundred also saw him and testified of his physical resurrection. (1 Cor. 15:5–8.) The Apostles, too, were witnesses of his ascension into heaven when two angels told them that Jesus would return in like manner as he had ascended. (Acts 1:9–11.)
We also know that at his second coming, Christ will appear with a physical body. John testified that “every eye shall see him.” (Rev. 1:7.) Zechariah prophesied that “his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives” (Zech. 14:4; italics added), and the beleaguered Israelites “shall look upon [him] whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him.” (Zech. 12:10.) And then “one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” (Zech. 13:6; italics added.)
With such an abundance of biblical testimony from the ancient Apostles and prophets, how did traditional Christianity come to the idea that somehow Jesus’ bodily identity was dissolved into spirit essence? How did the Christian sects come to accept the idea that though three personages comprise the Godhead, they are one immaterial spirit? Certainly the ideas are not apostolic in origin.
The early Apostles took the gospel into a Greco-Roman world that espoused Neoplatonism—a philosophy derived from Plato’s teachings on idealism. One idea that came down from Plato was that matter is essentially evil. (James L. Barker, Apostasy from the Divine Church, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, pp. 229–35.)
As long as Apostles led the Church, they opposed the philosophies of the day. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is an example of this. Apparently, some who held to the belief that matter was evil were baptized but had difficulty accepting the physical resurrection of Jesus. They reasoned that since Jesus was perfectly good, he could not have a material body. In his letter, Paul addressed the Greek belief in the body’s corruptibility by bearing testimony that a resurrected body, like Christ’s, is incorruptible. (1 Cor. 15:3–8, 12–20, 35–42.)
Likewise the Apostle John asserted in his gospel and epistles that Jesus was a divine being of flesh in mortality to counteract the heresy that he was not or could not have been flesh because matter was evil. (John 1:14; 1 Jn. 1:1–3; 1 Jn. 4:3.)
The dilemma of the church after the first century was how to sustain a unified church without a body of general authorities. By the early second century, the church had gone through three major persecutions by the Roman emperors Nero (A.D. 54–68), Domitian (A.D. 81–96), and Trajan (A.D. 98–117), and apostasy and heresy were rampant. The Apostles were gone—all martyred except for John—and church leaders who had known the Apostles but did not have their apostolic keys, like Papias, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp, were dead.
The defenders of the church in the late second and third century were Christian apologists and scholars, many of whom were trained in Greek philosophy and in rhetoric and logic.
They brought the classical culture of Greece into the church for two reasons: first, to rhetorically and logically “prove” the Christian gospel to a world steeped in Greek culture; second, to make Christianity intellectually respectable. Their efforts were an understandable human reaction to counteract the persecution that the church had suffered for two centuries. But it made the church compatible with the very culture the church had once disdained.
The synthesis of Greek philosophy and the Christian gospel is well documented. H. I. Marrou describes how Origen and others caused the church to embrace Hellenistic culture and ideas. (A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. George Lamb, New York: Mentor Book, 1956, pp. 424–29.) Edwin Hatch, in his definitive work on the subject, wrote that the early Christians’ study of Greek philosophy created a certain “habit of mind”:
“When Christianity came into contact with the society in which that habit of mind existed, it modified, it reformed, it elevated, the ideas which it contained and the motives which stimulated it to action; but in its turn it was itself profoundly modified by the habit of mind of those who accepted it. It was impossible for Greeks, … with an education which penetrated their whole nature, to receive or to retain Christianity in its primitive simplicity.” (The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, New York: Harper & Row, 1957, p. 49.)
As the church entered the third century, many ridiculed Christianity because they regarded it as polytheistic—that is, it had a theology of three Gods: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. By this time the more sophisticated had rejected polytheistic pagan deities and had become monotheistic, accepting but one God. So the issue for the church was how to make Christian theology accord with respectable opinion.
Tertullian, a lawyer, offered this solution: The true God was composed of immaterial spiritual substance, and though the three personages that comprised the Godhead were distinct, this was only a material manifestation of an invisible God. As for how three persons could be one, it was explained that the persons were legally conceived entities, “just as a corporation is composed of various people though it is not the people.” (T. Edgar Lyon, Apostasy to Restoration, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1960, p. 113.)
Fusing the ideas of church theologians, such as Irenaeus, Origeu, Tertullian, and Athanasius, the Trinitarian formula of three spirits in one was finally accepted as official doctrine by the council of Nicea in A.D. 325. (Lyon, pp. 144–53; Barker, pp. 249–71.)
The key issue through these early centuries was whether Christians would accept a God who was corporeal and material, or one who was pure spirit. Here Greek philosophy prevailed, with its antipathy to materialism, opposition to polytheism, and revulsion to the idea that God had a body.
The unsurpassed intellectual in Christian history was Augustine. He was the one who thoroughly fused the theology of the New Testament with Platonism. In examining Christian doctrine, Augustine confessed to a strong preconception—a repugnance to the idea that God had a body. (The Confessions, V, x:19–20; VII, 1:1. In Great Books of the Western World, vol. 18, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, pp. 32, 43.) He acknowledged that he had labored on the thesis of the Trinity for fifteen years without “ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion.” (Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, p. 86.)
Finally he rationalized that if one accepts the Platonic idea that spirit essence is the purest manifestation of reality and that matter is the most corrupt, God must therefore be an immaterial being. He was then able to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. (Confessions, IV, xvi:29, 31; V, x:19–20; VI, iii:4–iv:5; The City of God, VIII, ch. 5–6. In Great Books, vol. 18, pp. 26, 32, 36, 267–69.) As Plato had done before him, Augustine decided that since God is the ultimate good, he cannot be associated with anything material.
Augustine’s personal theology became that of the Roman Empire and remains an influence in historic Christianity to this day. Such is the basis for traditional Christianity’s teaching on the Trinity—a belief described by modern clerics as a mystery.
In view of biblical teachings on the nature of God and the historic development of the concept of the Trinity, we might ask, Which view is more biblically defensible?
As a child reared in a Protestant home and educated in a parochial grammar school, I vividly recall many occasions when teachers would vainly attempt to explain the mystery of the Trinity. We were told that there were three persons, but not three Gods. The three persons were one spiritual substance, so there could not be three separate beings.
One explanation likened the Trinity to water, steam, and ice, which are different formations of the same element. Another likened the Trinity to writing a book. The author starts with an idea, then the idea becomes incarnate when the writer converts the idea to words. Then when others read the words of the book, it has an effect on the reader. The Idea is the Father, the Word is the Son, and the Effect is the Holy Ghost.
It was hard to fathom a Deity of this nature, let alone love him. But even more significant, the great teaching of Paul that we are God’s literal offspring (Acts 17:28–29) is not even taught in traditional Christian theology. Unfortunately, because of this misunderstanding of God’s true nature, millions of our Heavenly Father’s children have failed to understand their true identity.
In contrast to the preponderance of scriptural support for the physical body of the Lord, there is meager evidence in the Bible to support belief in a God who is a spirit essence. The most frequently cited passage is a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans had a corrupted form of Jewish and heathen worship. The Savior said to the woman:
“Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship. …
“But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
“God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:22–24; italics added.)
By revelation, the Prophet Joseph Smith translated verse 24 to read “For unto such hath God promised his Spirit. And they who worship him, must worship in spirit and in truth.” (JST, John 4:26.)
The Prophet’s interpretation not only harmonizes with the other passages and episodes in the scriptural records, but it also demonstrates how taking one isolated passage out of context creates false theology. Even without Joseph Smith’s changes, the passage makes sense. One can say that God is a Spirit, just as it can be said, “Man is spirit.” (D&C 93:33.) President Gordon B. Hinckley explained:
“Of course God is a spirit, and so are you, in the combination of spirit and body that makes of you a living being. …
“Each of us is a dual being of spiritual entity and physical entity. All know of the reality of death when the body dies, and each of us also knows that the spirit lives on as an individual entity and that at some time, under the divine plan made possible by the sacrifice of the Son of God, there will be a reunion of spirit and body. Jesus’ declaration that God is a spirit no more denies that he has a body than does the statement that I am a spirit while also having a body.” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 49.)
An important point to remember with regard to doctrinal teachings is that the Lord’s church functions on the basis of two fundamental principles: (1) the testimony of apostolic witnesses, who know by personal experience the reality and truth of the Lord and his teachings; and (2) the testimony of each member, based upon knowledge, faith, and the witness of the Holy Ghost.
A modern prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., provided the world with an eyewitness testimony of God’s true nature. Concerning a glorious visitation by the Father and the Son, Joseph testified, “I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17.)
Joseph Smith saw a confirmation of what Jesus had impressed upon Philip long ago: “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” (John 14:9.) Jesus was apparently informing his disciples that he and his Father were alike in attributes, in power, and in bodily appearance.
How different from the prevailing beliefs that were propounded from the pulpits at the time of Joseph Smith! The resurrected Jesus declared to the Prophet that those creeds were “abominable,” for so strongly were they riveted to the hearts of men that their hearts were drawn away from their Heavenly Father. (JS—H 1:19; D&C 123:7.)
The greatest contribution of the Prophet Joseph Smith to this modern era is the Book of Mormon, which contains a testimony of the resurrected Christ and his ministry to the people of the Western Hemisphere after his resurrection in Jerusalem. The Book of Mormon records that 2,500 people saw and heard the Savior and testified of his bodily resurrection of flesh and bones.
Compare with the idea of an all-powerful yet immaterial three-in-one spiritual essence these two sentences from Joseph Smith, who was speaking as revelation dictated:
“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit.” (D&C 130:22.)
“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure.” (D&C 131:7.)
Living prophets and Apostles today continue to teach of God’s true nature. They testify that Jesus Christ is a living, resurrected being with a body of flesh and bones. How do they know? Like Apostles of old, they are his special witnesses.
With regard to the second principle, each individual may receive confirmation of spiritual truths by the power of the Holy Ghost. As Moroni in the Book of Mormon urges us to do:
“Ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Moro. 10:4.)
On the basis of knowledge prompted by the Holy Ghost, we can know that the nature of God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, as taught by the Bible and as revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, is true. Those who have received their understanding about God from errant traditional Christianity need no longer struggle with that confused and confusing doctrine. The Prophet’s inspired declarations about the Godhead are in total agreement with the biblical evidence that Jesus and the Father have distinct, material bodies.