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When the Mormons (also known as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) come to my door, I always ask them the same question because it’s a question Mormons can’t answer. I do this because this question is essential to their beliefs.
Many years ago, I was going to teach on Mormonism at a church and I decided that I should get the advice of Sandra Tanner, one of the most respected missionaries to Mormons. Now Sandra and her late husband Jerald Tanner are the founders of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, and I have appreciated their work since I first started studying apologetics in the 1970s. So, I called their ministry and Sandra answered the phone. I asked her what line of reasoning she would use when the Mormons came to her door. What she told me is the reasoning I’ve used ever since.1
The question I ask regards why Mormons believe Mormonism is true, which they believe to be true because they had a subjective personal inward witness of the truth of it. The book of Moroni encourages seeking this inward witness (what follows is on the first page of one of my copies of the Book of Mormon): “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things….that ye would 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” (Moroni 10:3–5).
This is also known as the “burning in the bosom.” In their Doctrine and Covenants, which Mormons also consider to be inspired scripture, it says, “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (9:8).
Now obviously if any person believes that they have received a personal revelation — directly from God — that something is true, then that can trump just about any other arguments about the truth of whatever they believe. Therefore, if a Christian chooses to argue with a Mormon about any other doctrine, it’s unlikely to change their minds because they have received what they believe is a subjective personal assurance directly from God that Mormonism is true. Therefore, my question concerns the trustworthiness of their subjective personal experience.2
After we exchange the usual pleasantries (I’ve never encountered a Mormon who wasn’t pleasant), I always ask them this question: “Why do you believe Mormonism is true?” The conversation typically flows as follows:
Christian: Why do you think Mormonism is true?
Mormon: Because our lives are improved since we became Mormons.
C: My life is better too since I became a Christian.
M: Well, our church does a lot to help the poor.
C: My church does that too.
M: We send missionaries out all over the world.
C: We Christians do that too.
M: We emphasize family values.
C: We do too.
(Basically, whatever a Mormon says about this kind of thing I’m always able to say “we Christians do that too” because, well, we Christians do that too. This may go on for some time but sooner or later…).
C: So why do you believe Mormonism is true?
M: I asked God if Mormonism is true (or if Joseph Smith is a prophet, or if the Book of Mormon is inspired — something along those lines) and I received an inward witness that it was true.3
C: So, you’re saying that you believe that Mormonism is true because you had a subjective personal experience. But Catholics have visions of Mary; some in the New Age movement say they have flown over rooftops through astral projection; some people born biological males or born biological females believe they were born in the wrong body. A subjective personal experience isn’t very reliable, is it?
M: Well, that’s all you have! Your faith is also based on subjective personal experiences.4
C: No, my faith is based on the objective evidence that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. It’s true that I also have had subjective experiences that encourage me that Christianity is true, but those experiences are absolutely not the foundation of my faith in Jesus. Again, my faith in Jesus is based on the historical fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”5 So, if someone could prove that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then I would absolutely stop being a Christian.
There are many verses testifying to the resurrection of Jesus, but I’ll give only two:
1 Corinthians 15:3–8: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Acts 17:31–32: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (emphasis added).6
Our faith is based on this evidence. So, how could it be wise for you to believe that Joseph Smith received a direct revelation from angels based on a subjective personal experience?7 Paul even warns specifically in Galatians 1:8–9 that even if “an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one we preached to you,” he was accursed — but seeing an angel is exactly what Joseph Smith claimed.8
M: I can see that this isn’t getting anywhere so we’re going to go.
C: Okay, and if you ever can answer this question, then please come back and let’s talk!
We want them to walk away questioning the trustworthiness of their subjective personal experiences. If we can do that, then this shakes the foundation of their belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that Mormonism is true.9
You might also be interested in: Clay Jones, “A Question Jehovah’s Witnesses Can’t Answer,” https://clayjones.net/2010/08/a-question-the-jehovahs-witnesses-cant-answer/. —Clay Jones
Clay Jones is a visiting scholar for the MA in Christian Apologetics program at Talbot School of Theology and the chairman of the board of Ratio Christi, a university apologetics ministry. His most recent reflections can be found at www.clayjones.net.
1 Here’s Sandra Tanner’s own article on this subject: “How Do We Test a Prophet?” Utah Lighthouse Ministry, http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/howdowetestaprophet.htm (accessed August 22, 2022).
2 I’m by no means suggesting that there aren’t other good approaches to witnessing to Mormons, this is just my favorite.
3 They may ask it in different ways, but the end result is that they are confident that Mormonism is true because they believe that they received a personal revelation from God.
4 I have talked with many Mormons in the last 30 years, and I don’t remember ever hearing another reply.
5 Bible quotations are taken from NIV1984.
6 That our faith is based on evidence is found in many passages. Here’s a post I wrote: “Should We Use Evidence in Witnessing?,” https://clayjones.net/2010/09/should-we-use-evidence-in-witnessing/.
7 At this point, Mormons typically argue against the reliability of the Bible. Here’s what Mormons believe about the reliability of Bible from their own website: “The eighth article of faith says, ‘We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.’ In Joseph Smith’s day, the word translate didn’t just mean to take something from one language into another; it also could mean to transfer, convey, interpret, or explain. And although errors do appear in various renderings from the original Hebrew and Greek, the bigger issue is that in the delivery of the ancient texts to the present day, ‘many plain and precious things [were] taken away’ (1 Nephi 13:28). So, as the Bible texts were transmitted to us, certain teachings were lost. That’s one reason people have so many different interpretations of the Bible, as Joseph Smith experienced (see Joseph Smith — History 1:12). So one way modern revelation helps clarify and confirm the truths in the Bible is by restoring other truths that were lost (see 1 Nephi 13:39–40).’” “What Does the Eighth Article of Faith Mean When It Says, ‘We Believe the Bible to Be the Word of God as Far as It Is Translated Correctly’?,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2015/09/to-the-point/what-does-the-eighth-article-of-faith-mean-when-it-says-we-believe-the-bible-to-be-the-word-of-god-as-far-as-it-is-translated-correctly?lang=eng (accessed August 22, 2022), emphasis in original.
You could then ask, but why do you believe these statements about the Bible if it weren’t for the fact that you got a subjective personal experience that led you to believe that Mormonism is true and this is a part of Mormonism?
Now some Mormons will have read books critical of the New Testament from secular skeptical authors (e.g., my former Mormon neighbor read some of Bart Ehrman’s books) and in that event you might refer them to my article published in the Christian Research Journal on the reliability of the transmission of the New Testament: “The Bibliographical Test Updated,” (https://www.equip.org/articles/the-bibliographical-test-updated/). The New Testament has been reliably transmitted to the present day!
8 “Angel Moroni,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/angel-moroni?lang=eng (accessed March 28, 2023).
I’ll give just one example of what the Mormons believe that is different from what is taught by the Bible. Mormons believe that there are many gods. Joseph Smith wrote, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man….We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.” Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:305, https://byustudies.byu.edu/online-chapters/volume-6-chapter-14/ (accessed March 28, 2023).
The Prophet Lorenzo Snow: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” Prophet Lorenzo Snow as quoted in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, https://web.archive.org/web/20100109173034/http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Godhood, captured by Internet Archive on January 9, 2010 (accessed March 28, 2023).
Former President Spencer W. Kimball: “Brethren, 225,000 of you are here tonight. I suppose 225,000 of you may become gods. There seems to be plenty of space out there in the universe. And the Lord has proved that he knows how to do it. I think he could make, or probably have us help make, worlds for all of us, for every one of us 225,000.”
Spencer W. Kimball, “The Privilege of Holding the Priesthood,” The Ensign, November 1975, https://web.archive.org/web/20220702104318/https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1975/11/the-privilege-of-holding-the-priesthood?lang=eng, captured by Internet Archive July 2, 2022.
But the Bible teaches that there is only one God. Here are some passages on that.
Isaiah 43:10: “Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”
Isaiah 44:6: “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.”
Isaiah 45:21: “And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.”
Isaiah 46:9: “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.”
Deuteronomy 32:39: “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me.”
1 Corinthians 8:4-6: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live.”
John 17:3: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (emphasis added).
9 It’s interesting that questioning the reliability of these personal subjective experiences is addressed on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There the question is asked, “How can I know when I have received a revelation and not just a thought of my own?” Their answer? “If you’ve asked this question, you’re not alone. For many of us, revelation sometimes can be hard to recognize. In part, the answer depends on how you’re living and how humble you are. If you do your best to be worthy of the Spirit and strive to be humble so that the Lord can direct you, answers will come (see D&C 112:10).”
See https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2014/05/questions-and-answers-revelation-or-my-own-thoughts?lang=eng (accessed March 28, 2023). In other words, if you didn’t get such a personal revelation, then there’s something wrong with you — you aren’t living right or aren’t humble enough. Or, just maybe, you are right to question the reliability of subjective personal experiences as a guide to truth about God!