The nature of God in Mormonism is a package deal, with several attributes that might be called logical conclusions of the others. This isn’t surprising, but it’s worth acknowledging since normal, everyday discussions about the nature of God between Mormons and Christians will typically focus on the whole package rather than one specific aspect of it. However, for my purposes here I am attempting to break this package down into smaller pieces for discussion even though they are very often treated as the same. For instance, Mormonism teaches that God (or Heavenly Father) is an exalted man who achieved Godhood. This logically includes the ideas that:
We can see that each aspect of this Mormon concept of God brings up its own issues and concerns that need to be fleshed out and addressed. Last time, I looked at the Mormon belief that God was not always divine but rather became God at some point in the past. Today, I’m going to look at the Mormon belief that God has a physical body.
Speaking For THemselves
First, as always, let's look at what Mormon scriptures, the LDS Church and its leaders have said regarding this teaching:
Pretty clear, right? In addition to statements like these, Mormons will also point to biblical passages that seem to refer to God’s physical body in order to show how their position is correct or, at very least, compatible with the bible rather than opposed to it. There are many such passages, but for the sake of time I will give only two as examples:
Repeatedly through this passage we see references to physical body parts that God appears to possess. We read about his ears, his nostrils, his mouth, his feet. In other passages we read about God’s hands, arms, and eyes. Surely, according to the Mormon, these constant references to God’s body must mean that God has a physical body. Right?
Another passage used to show that God has a physical body is in Exodus, where Moses, after years of faithful service, asks God a favor: to see his Glory:
Here again we see clear statements from the lips of God himself referring to his face, hand, and back.
The Christian position
The Christian position rests on several points.
God is Spirit
In his discussion with the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus makes a very clear statement about the nature of God: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (v. 24). I have heard Mormons scoff at this verse before in a sort of “Is that the best you have?” manner, but I have to ask in response, how many times does Jesus need to say something in order for it to be true? After all, the passage is extremely clear. If we are to dismiss this verse, we must either conclude that Jesus was wrong (and wouldn’t he know better than anyone else?) or that he was lying.
God is Omnipresent
While the word “omnipresent” is not in the bible, the overall testimony and description of God lead us to a concept summarized by the word. God is omnipresent, or “present everywhere” which would be impossible for a finite entity constrained to a physical existence within a body.
In this passage, David is saying that there is nowhere he can go to get away from God. Literally everywhere he goes, from the heights of heaven to the depths of the world of the dead to the farthest reaches of the earth, God is there. A similar passage appears in Amos 9:
God says no one will escape him or go somewhere that he will not be able to reach them.
Here, God is speaking to Israel and asking a rhetorical question: “Am I suddenly off doing my own thing? Do you think I don’t see what you’re doing?” A physical being with physical eyes and ears to see and hear what is going on in the world would never be able to make such a claim, being unable to be in multiple places at once. God even states it clearly, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” The idea of God “filling” heaven and earth conjures images of God filling the physical and spiritual realms the way air fills a room. It’s everywhere.
There’s a lot in this passage, but there are a couple things I want to point out: God does not live in temples, God is “not far from each one of us” or God is not “far away” as he stated in the Jeremiah passage, and “In him we live and move and have our being”. Again, the imagery Paul invokes here is almost that of someone swimming around in a pool. No matter where they go in the pool, they’re surrounded with water.
At the dedication of the first temple, Solomon recognizes the silliness of thinking that the puny little building they built can actually serve as God’s “house”. “Heaven and the highest heaven” in Hebrew terminology refers to the stars and planets and sky as well as the spiritual realm, but neither can “contain” God. God himself confirms this idea with another rhetorical question in Isaiah 66:
God is indiscernible to the senses
Twice in his first letter to Timothy, Paul states that God cannot be seen.
Images of God are Forbidden
In his dealings with Israel, God was very clear that he was not to be represented in any way by an image, or some sort of physical depiction. It was not God’s intention to allow the children of Israel to think of God in incomplete terms. This would make no sense if God did indeed have a physical body. Think of it this way: when Moses was up at the top of Mt. Sinai receiving the law, the Israelites down below created a golden calf and started worshipping it. Aaron’s words are important to consider. Aaron does not introduce the calf as a new or different god, he said “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" They were not replacing God, but saying that God was best represented by a cow.
Now, think about what that says about God. Using a calf as an image of God, we could perhaps say that God was pure or gentle. Maybe we could see the calf as a sign of new life. But do you know what else we could say? Cows are stupid! God forbids us from using any sort of image to depict him because anything we could devise would be imperfect and ultimately do more harm than good.
However, in the context of Mormonism, this command makes no sense. Why would God be opposed to being depicted as a physical entity if he is, in fact, a physical entity?
God created all physical reality
The creation of the physical world depicted in Genesis 1 has always been understood by Christians to be an ex nihilo creation, literally a coming-into-being-from-nothing. “Before” Genesis 1 there was no matter, energy, or even time or space. This is also congruent with the most widely accepted and most firmly established models of the beginnings of the universe. All time, space, matter, and energy according to standard cosmological model (or Big Bang Cosmology) literally did not exist at a finite point in the past. This puts the Mormon concept of God in a state of outright incoherence. How can a physical being create all physical reality?
As a side note, I do recognize that the orthodox Mormon view of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is not ex nihilo creation, but ex materia “organization”, where God creates the universe out of preexisting material. I plan to address this in depth later, but for the moment I will simply say that this idea is firmly out of step with all of the best philosophical and scientific evidence we have about the history and origins of the universe.
As I said, the overarching concept of God’s nature presented in the bible is that of a non-physical and omnipresent being. So what then do we do with the passages cited by Mormons?
The bible, especially the Psalms, often uses poetic language in order to convey a concept or meaning, but this poetic language should not be taken literally. When we look at passages like Psalm 18, we should understand these as anthropomorphisms, or speaking of God in human terms, and not literal descriptions of God’s eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. To be clear, this is not special pleading in order to get away from a problematic passage, it’s simply good hermeneutics. The Psalms are, by definition, poetry and songs, and we should expect poetic or non-literal language to be in use. Futhermore, the bible is filled with descriptions of God that seem to be physical in nature. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, referring to the work of Herman Bavinck, says:
If we are to take the descriptions of God’s eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and arms literally, then we must also take literally the passages that refer to him as a tower or a shadow. Jesus calls himself bread (John 6:35,48,51), light (John 8:12; 9:5), a door (John 10:9), and a vine (John 15:1,5). Should we conclude that Jesus can be buttered and eaten, has hinges, glows and produces grapes? As Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig summed up, “God would turn out to be a winged, fire-breathing monster, if you take all of these descriptions of God as literal.”
Clearly, this is a silly approach, but it’s the logical conclusion if we are to take all of the passages describing God in physical terms literally. At the same time, it would be arbitrary and inconsistent to pick out the verses that support Mormonism for literal interpretation and reject the rest. Instead we should understand these passages referring to God in physical ways to be metaphors describing other non-physical attributes of God. For instance, God’s “arm” refers to his reach and his power. His “hand” refers to his acting and moving in the world. His “ear” refers to his attentiveness. His “eyes” refer to his omniscience and knowledge of what it happening in the world.
Again, this is not a case of arbitrary special pleading. These meanings and metaphors are obvious in the text.
But God’s “Face”?
We still need to examine the conversation between Moses and God in Exodus 33. However, rather than starting at verse 20, I think it’s important to start at verse 18.
Notice that what Moses is asking for is not to see God’s physical body and presence, but his glory, the radiance and beauty of his existence, the same glory that the disciples got a sneak peek of on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9). God’s reference to his “face” should be best understood in that manner, referring to his countenance and his glory rather than a physical face. Again, William Lane Craig explains:
So, when God says in the Exodus passage that no man can see his face and live, he’s talking about seeing his glory unhindered and unveiled by using terminology that would have been clear to the people he was speaking to at the time. It’s for this reason that he allows Moses to see a diminished form of that glory, his “back” so to speak.
This is just one of many issues that I have called “deeply problematic”, meaning that these are the biggest and most severe differences between Mormonism and historic Christian denominations. These are gospel-related issues like the nature of God, the nature of Jesus, the path of salvation, etc. These are the sorts of things we should be talking about with Mormon missionaries at the doorstep, as well as with friends, family members and coworkers about.
When we speak about the nature of God, whether or not he is a physical being with a flesh-and-bones body is far more important than the issues that divide Christian denominations. We’re not talking about when someone should be baptized or if a church should have elders, deacons, bishops or some combination of the three, we’re talking about the essential nature of God. It should be clear even after the few posts I’ve done in this series (with many to come) that the God of the bible and the Heavenly Father of Mormonism are too different in fundamental ways to be considered “the same God” which, of course, means that one of us is worshipping a false god, a god made after the imagination of Man.
Something to think about, Mormons.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.