Christian bookstores sometimes sell personalized bookmarks listing your name, its meaning, and a Scripture verse that goes along with it. Youth leaders gave these to me often while I was growing up, and they would say something like this: “BRIDGET / Irish: ‘Strength’ / ‘The Lord is my strength and my song.’ ~ Psalm 118:4.” I grew up thinking my given name meant “strength,” which I guess is okay as names go. It wasn’t until I was a pregnant adult in my mid-twenties beginning to research names for my future daughter that I learned the other meanings of my name: “exalted one” or “high goddess.” “Strength” isn’t incorrect, but it is one of the least potent interpretations of the name. Why do the makers of cute personalized Christian bookmarks shy away from describing us Bridgets in more divine terms?
I think it has to do with Western Christianity’s phobia of theosis, also known as deification or divinization. Theosis is the doctrine of men becoming gods or, as the Eastern Orthodox church beautifully puts it, “becoming by grace what God is by nature.” I think it’s safe to say that evangelicals don’t actively believe in theosis. I’ve been a practicing evangelical for the last eleven years and a less active evangelical for six years before that, in which time I’ve been to all kinds of evangelical conferences, retreats, Bible studies, youth camps and festivals, and I have never once heard theosis preached from the pulpit, taught as a lesson or discussed with a small group. None of the evangelical devotional books I’ve read have discussed it, either.
Not only do evangelicals not preach theosis, but when we hear that Mormons believe in a version of it (usually referred to as “exaltation”), we become outright opposed to it. We start arguing that wanting to become a god is sinful, that the notion of becoming “like God” was part of Satan’s temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:5). We don’t bother to stop and examine the Bible for ourselves to see whether or not there could be any biblical basis for the doctrine, nor are we aware of the strong history of theosis among Christian writers whom we consider orthodox. As Greg Johnson said in Bridging the Divide, “We react to each other’s theological emphases … and we almost conclude that if, doctrinally speaking, the Mormons are headed east then we had better head west.” (p. 29-30) Theosis has Mormon cooties on it now, so we don’t want it.
Biblical & Historical Basis for Theosis
In my opinion this is unfortunate because, not only is the doctrine of theosis beautiful, it is clearly biblical, was taught by many historic Christian thinkers, and harmonizes well with the traditional Protestant doctrine of sanctification. Latter-day Saints are fond of quoting Psalm 82:6 in support of exaltation (“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High'”) which was echoed by Christ in John 10:34, but I actually think this is one of the weaker passages since it is clearly idiomatic. Neither the traditional doctrine of theosis nor the LDS doctrine of exaltation teaches that we are gods now. Here are some of the passages which I think provide better support:
2 Peter 1:3-4 ~ His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
Philippians 3:20-21 ~ But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
1 John 3:2 ~ Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Many early church fathers taught theosis (see the quotes at that link), but my favorite teachings on it come from C. S. Lewis. In the essay “Man or Rabbit?” found in God in the Dock he wrote (Eerdmans, 1970, p. 112):
The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear—the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.
And in Mere Christianity he also said (Macmillan, 1952, p. 174):
The command “Be ye perfect” is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.
So there is room for traditional Christians to believe in becoming gods. If that’s the case, what’s the difference between what Christians traditionally have believed and what Mormonism teaches now?
Traditional Theosis v. Mormon Exaltation
Here is an excerpt from a mock dialogue in The God Makers by Ed Decker and Dave Hunt which seeks to illustrate the LDS doctrine of exaltation, emphases mine:
“Do you realize the implications of this doctrine as far as you are concerned?”
“I think so. If God became God by obedience to all of the gospel law with the crowning point being the celestial law of marriage, then that’s the only way I can become a god.”
“But I thought godhood meant freedom. If I have to do things to become God, am I really free?”
“You have got it wrong. It was the Savior who said, ‘If ye continue in my word,’ that is, obey the law, ‘ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ (John 8:31, 32.) So by obedience to law, we learn truths by which we become free—but not free from the law. Can you see that?”
“I think so. I can be a god only if I act like God.”
“Exactly right. Can you imagine the state of the universe if imperfect gods were allowed to spawn their imperfections throughout space, if beings who did not have law under their subjection were free to create worlds?”
“I guess that would be pretty disastrous. But I’m not sure I see why celestial marriage becomes the crowning apex of this progression. Marriage doesn’t seem directly related to the creation of the universes.”
“Oh, but don’t be limited by your mortal perspective. God himself has declared his own reasons for existing. Remember, he said, ‘For this is my work and my glory. . . .'”
“I see his purpose is ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.'” (Moses 1:39)
“Which involves giving birth to spirit children and setting them on the road to exaltation. And if that is to be done, you must have an exalted man and . . .'”
“An exalted woman.”
“Exactly, an exalted man and woman who have been joined together in an eternal marriage. If this man and woman were obedient to all gospel laws except celestial marriage, what would be the result?”
“They still could not be gods. Now I understand. Celestial marriage is the crowning ordinance of the gospel.”
Did I say that was an excerpt from The God Makers? I was just kidding. It comes from the official LDS student manual for the Achieving a Celestial Marriage course (Intellectual Reserve, 1992, p.4-5), and I didn’t get it from evangelical anti-Mormons. I bought it at the Distribution Center under the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Temple Square when I first visited Salt Lake City in 1999. I think the ACM manual is outdated (it was originally published in 1976), but I bring it up because it clearly illustrates the traditional LDS teaching on exaltation and what that entails, and I pretended it was from The God Makers because I think that if an evangelical said, “Mormons believe in becoming gods of their own worlds and giving birth to spirit children with their goddess wives,” he’d be accused of misrepresenting LDS beliefs. But that’s exactly what the ACM manual teaches, in almost those exact words. I’m okay if Mormons want to move away from those teachings, but the church did once teach that, quite recently even.
As I see it, there are two key differences between the LDS teachings on exaltation and the traditional Christian doctrine of theosis:
1) Our different teachings on the nature of God. While some Latter-day Saints seem to be abandoning the notion that God was once a man who had to progress to become God—and if you want to discard that teaching, don’t let me stand in your way—this is one divide that otherwise isn’t going to get any less wide than it is. As Eric commented on the other thread, Mormons essentially believe that God and man are the same species, while evangelicals hold that mankind is God’s creation. This fundamentally changes what each camp thinks it means to “become a god.”
2) Our different teachings on what godhood entails. As the ACMM excerpt demonstrates, in the past Mormons have taught that becoming a god means creating and ruling new worlds and becoming to other souls what God currently is to us. The traditional doctrine of theosis is about being made perfect in Christ; the exact nature of our function in the next life is unclear, but I certainly don’t think it involves being put over our own worlds. It is important to note that both camps believe in being eternally subordinate to the current God. Mormons do not believe in replacing or usurping the current God, that is a poor caricature of their beliefs.
I would like to see more awareness of the traditional Christian doctrine of theosis among evangelicals. While I think the doctrine of sanctification fills a similar role, we shouldn’t be afraid of becoming divine creatures, even creatures that could be called gods. We believe in it already whether we know it or not.
As far as LDS exaltation goes, I think we need to qualify our complaints in light of our disagreements on the nature of God and the future of the human race. Protesting that “Mormons believe in becoming gods!” isn’t just short-sighted and misleading. It’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Scratch that, it’s like bringing a floppy balloon sword to a gun fight. I’d rather bring a gun.
I also think that all the “Bridget” bookmarks Christian bookstores sell need to be changed to say: “BRIDGET / Irish: ‘Exalted One’ / ‘We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him.’ ~ 1 John 3:2.” I would buy one of those.
Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis ~ See, I’m not the only evangelical who wants to embrace theosis.
Godhood and Theosis at Mormonism Research Ministry ~ Bill McKeever’s response to LDS attempts to link exaltation to theosis. He’s much more polemical than I am, but essentially makes the same point: they’re different because of the different teachings on the nature of God.