Deep issues
Truth and changes God and angels

The universe

Free will, slavery, sin

Free will, slavery, sin...
Surprising, complex, or challenging issues:
"If the gospel is true, how can this be?"


Truth is never entirely predictable. Always we discover surprising things, facts that are not easy to accept at first. But when we see the bigger picture, everything becomes clear. Here are some typical hard questions:

See also: consciousness | deep doctrine | race and priesthood | obedience | burning witches

Free will

If God knows everything (and all the evidence suggests that he does), is that because everything is fixed forever (and free will is an illusion), or is there some other explanation?

Is everything fixed (predestined) forever?

If this was the case, there would be no need to make any effort, or to make any choices, since what will happen will happen anyway - including our thoughts and desires and actions. The scriptures teach that we do need to make effort, we do need to choose, and we are free to do so. So we can quickly dismiss the idea of rigid predestination. So, how can God know everything if everything is not fixed?

Does God exist outside of time as we know it?

The easy solution to the problem is that God is outside of time. He does not know things "before" they happen, because there is not such thing as "before" and "after" to him - everything is present. The scriptures do use this kind of language, and it is very likely that this is true in a way that we do not yet understand. See science and the spirit world for details. However, since we do not understand this higher dimension, it is very dangerous to draw conclusions from it. For example, many Christian theologians have concluded that because God is beyond time and space as we know it, he fills the immensity of space yet can dwell in your heart. Taken literally, this is a dangerous blasphemy, because:

  1. It is self-contradictory, so any thinking person will tend to reject the whole notion of God
  2. It makes God un-knowable, yet we are told that eternal life consists in knowing God
  3. It leads us to reject other truths about God. For example, if God is literally unchangeable, Jesus Christ could not be God, since he changed - he was born grew up, increased in wisdom etc.
  4. It creates a God who cannot be easily explained to children, and leads to endless debates between philosophers - hardly a sign of revealed truth!
  5. It implies that God cannot act, since actions imply the passage of time. God becomes so distant as to be meaningless.
  6. The usual response - that God reveals himself through Christ, isn't helpful. Since he ascended into heaven, the Lord has shared all these characteristics of unworldliness, according to the traditional Christians.

All in all, we should not take the statements about "yesterday, today and forever" on their own, without considering other scriptures.

How else can God know the future?

When we consider what else we know about God, the "problem" of omniscience disappears.

So, in conclusion, God has such complete knowledge and power in the present, that he is able to ensure that the universe follows his plan in every detail, while allowing each of us as much genuine freedom as we can cope with.

Our free will is like the freedom to control one chess piece in a chess game. The other player is God. He has already calculated every possible combination of moves. He controls every other piece. He knows exactly what we are thinking. He knows how we have acted and thought in the past and why. He invented the game, and designed the rules with this match in mind. It is fair to say that he knows what the outcome will be. Even though we have complete freedom of action, he is able to control every step along the way as and when he wishes to.

Face it, people. We are seriously outclassed!


It appears, from the few texts that we have available, that the New Testament church did not openly oppose slavery. The apostles did teach that slaves and masters were equals (a revolutionary concept that would ultimately lead to the end of slavery), but they did not openly say "free all slaves." The modern day church took a much stronger line against slavery, so why did the ancient church not do the same?

The church lives in the real world

It is easy to oppose slavery, hunger, and all other injustices from an arm chair. But actually making a difference is not so easy. This is the problem that politicians face. Everyone hates politicians because they make compromises, and their weakness and selfishness (which everyone has) are sometimes visible to the whole world. But if you want to make changes in the real world, you have to deal with real people, you have to make compromises, and you have to make hard choices. And some of these choices are to do things that the armchair critic thinks is wrong.

To be fair, some critics do get out of their arm chairs and try to do something. But nobody has the scope or vision of Jesus Christ. He did not teach single issue politics. He did not even teach social reform as an objective. He taught nothing less than changing human nature - to ultimately solve ALL problems of EVERY kind! Naturally his methods are somewhat different from what we might expect. And the really miraculous thing is - they worked! Even a corrupt and apostate version of Christianity, with just the smallest spark of the original fire, was able to change the whole world.

Every issue should be seen in context.

It should be remembered that the New Testament existed in a certain time and place - the height of the Roman empire. Compared with other times and places, slavery in the empire was generally humane. This was for sound political reasons. The empire needed a large army, but most citizens were too comfortable to want to fight. So laws were passed to allow millions of slaves to obtain their freedom. Those who remained in slavery needed to be kept from rebelling, so they were given some civil rights, the right to decent housing, the right to earn enough money to buy their own freedom, etc. In contrast with other issues, the issue of slavery was relatively minor. Yet opposing it straight away could have cost the church its existence.

In contrast, the slavery in the nineteenth century could be opposed without affecting the other priorities of the church, so in the nineteenth century (and today) the church was openly anti-slavery.

Why do we assume the early church did not oppose slavery?

If the early church opposed slavery, we would probably not know. Such a teaching would oppose the Roman world and encourage persecution. Other dangerous teachings, like "all other churches are wrong," appear to have been kept hidden. See the discussion of the last twelve verses in Mark for details. We do not have all the documents from the First Century. What we have was gathered together in the next two centuries, by people who were drifting from the original truth, people who enjoyed owning slaves. No doubt, faced with a choice, they would rather not quote from documents that criticized their position. There is a precedent for potentially unpopular teachings being kept out of the official public scriptures -

But for now let us assume that the New Testament account faithfully reflects the church's attitude to slavery. (The Old Testament position reflects quite different circumstances - a diluted law, jubilee years, etc. - and is not discussed here.)

If God said "social reform" If God said "treat your slaves as equals"
The church would destroy itself.
The church is not a single-issue pressure group! It is wrong to attack one issue and leave others that are just as bad. Slavery is not limited to formal ownership. To overcome all forms of enforced labor, you would need to attack this, plus the issues of debt bondage, plus education (which keeps many in effective slavery), plus social reform (many have no choice but to care for weaker family members), plus unfair economic practices, plus crime, plus military activities - all these things take away freedom, often in a more disturbing way than carefully legislated slavery (hence people will sometimes choose slavery as a way out of something worse). The church at the time was small and weak. If it spread itself so thinly, it would achieve nothing and probably dissipate and die.
More good is achieved.
This attacks all the problems at the root cause: treating others as yourself. If this message gets across, all the other problems gradually begin to be solved.
Very few slaves would be freed.
Most early Christians were either servants themselves or did not have much property (such as slaves). Christians were very unpopular, so this would have no effect on non-Christians.
Slaves would be freed.
The most committed Christians - those who would have obeyed any command to free slaves - would probably get the message and free them anyway.
The slaves would probably go to a worse place.
Most Christians could not afford ex-slaves as paid servants, sot the slaves would end up as servants or slaves in a less caring household.
Slaves would have a better life.
The slaves - already relatively well cared for under Roman law - would gain unprecedented quality of life.
Fewer slaves would have their life improved.
Slave owners who intended to become Christians - thus improving the life of the slave - would be far less likely to.
The message of love would reach more people.
The church would be unable to do anything.
Slavery was an integral part of Roman society. To attack this would be to attack Rome. Persecution from Rome would increase at a time when the church was already under great pressure - limiting or even ending any improvements it could make
The church would send a confused message.
This would conflict with the message that the inner person should be cleansed first, and that we are all servants anyway (of Christ and each other).
Result: more bondage Result: more freedom

This probably does not satisfy the critics. But the church does not exist to satisfy the critics. The church exists to make a real difference in the only way possible - starting from within.


The issue of war - as in, how can believers fight on both sides of the same conflict, is very similar to that of slavery. let us take the Second World War as an example. Mormons fought on both sides (though admittedly there were far more in America than Germany, which no doubt affected German Mormons' attitudes to the war). In theory, the church should tell its members which side is right. But in practice, this would do little good, but a lot of harm. The real objective is to change human nature, and to have each member decide for themselves what is the right thing to do in each circumstance.

The arm-chair solutions do not work. This was brought home to me with great force when I watched a TV program about the Nazi secret police. After the war, most of their records were destroyed. But some remained, and what they revealed was surprising. It is usually assumed that in a war, a small number of evil leaders terrorize the innocent population. In the case of wartime Germany, it was assumed that the secret police spent their time looking for people to terrorize. But this as apparently not the case. Most of the time, the secret police were busy following up leads provided by the public. It was the public who were happy to betray their neighbors. The public were fully behind the war! If a few Mormons had stood up, they would have got themselves killed, but very little else.

The critic may have several arguments against this:

"It would have ben the moral thing to do anyway." Would it? By what standard? By the standards of "doing the most good," it would not be moral. By the standard of following God, it would not be moral. By the standards of following one's conscience, nobody has a right to judge someone else for following their conscience differently.
"It would have shown an example for others." But would it? If the others were generally happy to report subversives to the secret police, it would have just been a very brief and futile gesture. When people have been whipped up into the frenzy of war, they are less likely than ever to think clearly and see a rebellion as a good thing.
"But this course effectively supports the Nazi regime"? Those who did the most good in Nazi Germany - the Oscar Schindlers of this world - did it by not creating a fuss, but by undermining the system quietly from the inside.
"But even if one person listened, it would be worth it." It could perhaps do some good. But this must be balanced against the harm it also does. For every active campaigning Later-day Saint in Nazi Germany, there was his or her family, their extended family, and five or ten people who were nominally linked to the church. A rebellion had better be pretty successful to justify sending to many innocent people to the concentration camps. And what of other countries? Other dictatorships are watching, and if they see that Latter-day Saints oppose the government, they will simply ban the church.
"It is imperative that you show your opposition." Opposition is not the way to get things done. That is the way of the world. For example, after the First World War, the victors felt it was essential to punish Germany in a way that would hurt. The sanctions imposed are generally agreed to have led to the feelings of injustice that led to the Second World War.

The attitudes that cause war take a long time to change. So, for example, Germany and Japan are only now beginning to accept what happened in World War Two, just as America is only beginning to accept that racism is wrong, Britain's took a long time to see the evils in colonialism, and Australia took a long time to recognise what had been done to aborigines. In the long run, hearts are only changed slowly, and if someone is to change someone else, it generally happens by making friends, not enemies. By helping them see what is wrong, rather than by condemning them. Sooner or later the church must adopt a policy of "love thine enemy" and "agree with thine enemy quickly," just as Jesus taught.

The bigger issue of patriotism and loyalty is also relevant here. But these are big issues in their own right, and so will not be discussed here.

Historical evidence for shocking claims

Shocking sex secrets!

Sorry for the crude title. But some claims are only designed to shock. Once we realise this, we can calm down and get closer to the truth.

One such shocking claim is that "Joseph Smith married a 14 year old, without Emma Smith knowing, and consummated the marriage!" Shock! Horror! This is quite an anti-Mormon classic. it has everything! Sex, lies, child abuse - this scores 10/10 on the disgust meter. O.K., that is the shock over with. Now comes the boring part. Let us calm down, step back, and see what the truth might be.

The claim can be broken down into seven parts:

  1. Evidence - is there any?
  2. If there is any evidence, should we see Joseph in a bad light?
  3. Does the evidence mean what we think it means?
  4. Did Joseph marry more than one wife?
  5. Did Joseph marry a fourteen year old?
  6. Did he not tell Emma (his first wife)?
  7. Did he consummate the marriage?
  8. Is his prophetic calling in any doubt after this?

Evidence - is there any?

First of all, I do not have detailed information on this claim. But I have seen others like it, so I would very surprised if this was any different. Probably someone in the nineteenth century (perhaps the girl in question, perhaps someone else) made the claim. Most likely years afterwards. No doubt some other people said things which appear to support this. Is this clear and simple? Unfortunately, no:

  1. Anything from that long ago is going to be based on patchy records. All the people involved are long dead, records are seldom made, ad records get lost.
  2. This deals with personal and private matters, which are even less likely to be recorded.
  3. Some key statements were no doubt written years after the event.
  4. This deals with emotions, so even with the best intentions, people's memories are likely to be distorted. If you have ever dealt with people a a social or political level, you will now that people can understand the same words or facts in totally different ways.
  5. Joseph Smith had a lot of enemies back then, and even more now, so here is every reason for the truth to be distorted.
  6. The early nineteenth century was a different world from ours - some things that seem shocking now were considered normal back then, and vice versa.

It is frustrating to admit, but history is never clear cut. The evidence is usually ambiguous. This is not to say that we cannot draw some conclusions, but the only thing we can be sure of is that we do not understand the situation properly.

If there is any evidence, should we see Joseph in a bad light?

All major Christian leaders are attacked in this way.

I once had an anti-Christian pamphlet from around 1900 that claimed Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier (called Panthera, I think), and that Mary was not as pure as tradition suggests. The pamphlet claimed to have documentary evidence. More recently, films like "The Last temptation of Christ" have suggested that Jesus was sexually sinful, and had homosexual leanings. No doubt some scholars felt a case could be made. Then a controversial Christian minister suggested a few years ago that the apostle Paul was gay (and that this was the "thorn in the flesh" he complained of). As for the restored church, Nibley notes (in "No, Ma'am, That's not History") that stories of sexual orgies in the temple were quite common, even though critics admit that there was no real evidence.

Beyond this, the church has its fair share of enemies. If they can persuade someone to say something bad about the church, they will. Even when Joseph Smith was alive, some prominent men in the church left, became bitter, and made shocking claims against the church. yet some of these same men later returned to the church and said they regretted saying what they said, and it wasn't really quite like that. But once something is written it is written, and critics of the church will use it forever after.

In conclusion, we should not be surprised to hear stories like this about Joseph Smith. We should not be surprised if critics make the evidence sound compelling. That is to be expected. Indeed, since sexual allegations are by far the easiest way to attack a religious leader, Joseph would not be much of a religious leader unless he attracted at least a few such claims.

Does the evidence mean what we think it means?

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." - l.P. Hartley , The Go-Between

A lot of what we read from a hundred (or more) years ago is not quite what is seems. the language was different. The assumptions were different. Take this for example: "And as taught by their martyred prophet himself, it was acceptable for LDS 'friends to lie down together, locked in the arms of love to sleep and wake in each other's embrace.' (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 1995, page 110) D. Michael Quinn found this statement, and wrote an article about how early Mormons were in favor of homosexuality. Seems pretty clear, right? Wrong. The wider context shows that "sleep" refers here to death. The original author was suggesting that men are buried in the same grave, so when they are resurrected there will be at least someone they recognise. Even anti-Mormon authors now accept this is what the passage meant. But the confusion was understandable.

Another example relates to polygamy (see below). The records show that large numbers of women chose to be married to early church leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But many were married after those men died. How? Why? Quite simple - the Lord has revealed that families can be together forever. This is a great blessing. Also, the Bible teaches that, when God commands, (and the man is worthy and the women want it), a man can be married to more than one woman. Some single women decided that, in the eternities, they would rather be a plural wife of a great man than the only wife of a less desirable man. Most women did not feel that way, but some did, and that was their freedom. So they were "sealed for eternity," by proxy, after the man died. Some of these wives may never have met the man before he died!

Did Joseph marry more than one wife (while he lived)?

A common attack on the church is against plural marriage (which ended in 1890). Many people are shocked to learn that Brigham Young (for example) had more than one wife. Strangely, people seem less concerned that modern people have several wives one after the other. It seems that what really disgusts people is the idea of a lifetime commitment and responsibility! But why was polygamy wrong? Because it was against the law? The church at the time existed in - and beyond - the frontiers of U.S. territory, so that was not really an issue. Or because it was against God's law? No, not if God commanded it. Or because it was against the Bible? Quite the opposite - the Bible practically demanded it.

Anciently, God gave multiple wives to prophets like Abraham and Moses, and kings like David and Solomon. As this is the dispensation of the restoration of ALL things, as spoken of by all the prophets (see Acts 3:21), then polygamy too had to be restored for a while. Otherwise the scripture would not be fulfilled. Having fulfilled the scripture, the practice was then ended again in 1890 (since then, anyone who practices polygamy has been excommunicated from the church. Click here for details.)

The situation becomes even more complex, when we read of women who were sealed "for eternity" to Joseph Smith (or whoever) while he was still alive, even though there was no intention of the marriage being for this life. If this wasn't complicated enough, add the fact that Joseph Smith (and other prophets) used to ask people to do things as a test. For example, Abraham spent his life fighting against the cults of human sacrifice that were common at the time, and then God told him to sacrifice his own son! How could God ask such a thing? God sometimes tests us in incredible ways, just to see if we trust him even when things seem strange. Truman Madsen, in his popular series of tapes called "Joseph Smith the Prophet," recalls a time when Joseph asked someone if he would allow Joseph o ask for his the man's wife in marriage. What a test of faith! The man was naturally distressed. He could not eat or sleep. Finally, he prayed and received the answer that this was just a test. His wife, who had been told nothing, received the same knowledge through prayer. It was all just a test, and they passed.

This is not to say that Joseph did not marry more than one wife in this life as well as the next. Madsen (in the tapes referred to) noted that Joseph's wife, Emma, gave her consent for this on at least four occasions. However, it must have been extremely difficult for her, and I think it is probably best to allow her and Joseph their privacy and not delve too deep on this deeply personal matter.

Did Joseph marry a fourteen year old?

Probably not. For the reasons given above, and the fact that Joseph kept the highest standards in other areas, it is highly likely that the evidence is misunderstood. But some people say the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith married Helen Mar Kimball, then aged fourteen.

Did Joseph Marry a fourteen year old? This claim must make the critics salivate. Nothing can destroy a reputation like an accusation of child abuse. But wait a minute. Even if it was true (which is in doubt), what is actually being claimed? First, in Biblical times it was common for girls of fourteen and younger to be married. Even in the west in later centuries, particularly among the nobility, it was not unusual for a child to be married when much younger, in order to seal some political allegiance. (The marriage would not be consummated until the child grew older, of course.) In fact, until recently, people were considered to be adults at fourteen - boys would leave school and go straight out to work at fourteen or younger. Life was hard and people grew up fast. It is only since the 1950s that the idea of a "teenager" - a space between childhood and marriage - became fashionable.

It seems strange to us today, but in most cultures in this world's history, a fourteen year old bride would seem nothing strange. And people mature emotionally at different rates. To illustrate this fact, in recent weeks (I write in mid January 2000), two newspaper stories have caught my eye. First, the newspapers in Britain have carried a story of a twelve year old girl who gave birth. Second, on a lighter note, the singer Britney Spears is having great success, "at the top of her tree", making millions of dollars. She is a highly experienced professional, and has been in the industry for years. Yet the last I heard, she was still only seventeen! So, we cannot assume that "fourteen" means "child". Fourteen can also mean "adult". Thus the issue is not of child abuse, but of an adult (by the standards of the time) choosing to marry, of her own free will and choice. The age difference (Joseph would have been about twice that age) is also a cultural thing - if we have hang-ups, it says more about modern western culture than anything else.

Did he not tell Emma (his first wife)?

Emma was no fool. And she and Joseph kept their private life private. In my experience, people usually know more than they admit to, or than others think they know. Also, if agrees to something and later changes their mind, they may remember differently in later years. I do not know what the evidence is for Emma not knowing of this (if it even happened, which I doubt), but I don't think we can accept these things on face value. Marriages at the best of times are complex and personal. If we think that we can understand Joseph and Emmas'a marriage at this distance, we are only fooling ourselves.

Did he consummate the marriage?

Allegedly. But when? Years later? Consummating a marriage is not a sin. However, so little is known of the whole allegation that the whole thing must be taken with a healthy degree of skepticism. Critics strain to make it seem like Joseph had "full marital relations" (whatever that meant back then) with his alleged wives. But there is a fatal flaw in their argument. The whole of LDS theology is based around the family. our glory is our children (those who do not have the opportunity in this life, and are worthy, will have that opportunity in the next). If Joseph, as the critics suggest, consummated other marriages, and given his obsession with children, why did he have so few, and only by Emma?

Is his prophetic calling in any doubt after this?

In conclusion, the whole issue is probably a non-event.

So what is all the fuss about?

We should be careful before we judge past generations. How will future generations judge us? Will we be condemned because we destroy the environment? or because we use (and thus fund) banks and other businesses that squeeze money from the poorest nations of the world? We all do things that seem innocent, but can also be seen as horribly cruel. Let us "judge not, that we be not judged."

let us imagine for a moment that he is guilty

Finally, even if we take a worst case scenario - let us assume that Joseph Smith did something very foolish - what then? I do not think the evidence is strong enough to assume that he did anything foolish, but some want to believe that and they are entitled to their belief. Lavinia Anderson was once a church member, but has spent some time criticizing the church from a feminist viewpoint. She felt that Joseph had done what the critics allege, and she put it this way:

"I love Joseph Smith. I do not feel betrayed and angry if Joseph was wrong or mistaken or misled--and I think that he sometimes was. Those times were direct results of his free agency. Certainly, God spoke to him. God speaks to everyone. But Joseph listened better than a lot of us... "

"Let me be more specific. I was shocked and disgusted to discover that Joseph Smith married a fourteen-year-old girl, fully consummated that marriage, and concealed it from Emma, My image of "prophet" did not accommodate this kind of behavior. I could not begin to find holy motives for such behavior. I also felt deeply guilty, naturally, to feel this way about a prophet--not just a prophet, either, but the Prophet. I took my indignation and guilt to the Lord in prayer over a period of time. I don't recall being particularly sophisticated or eloquent in my petition. It was more along the lines of, "If Joseph Smith did this--and it looks as if he did--then he was a real jerk. What do You have to say about it?" You know, on some level, I wasn't even expecting an answer. But I got one. From that attentive, loving Presence--gently, tenderly, and with finality--came the words, "Joseph is mine. He is in my hands." God did not agree with me that Joseph was a jerk. He did not even agree that Joseph had made a mistake. He acknowledged my grief and upheld me in those same hands that were holding Joseph and that upheld Helen Marr Whitney, not only at age fourteen, but for the rest of her long life."

- Lavinia Fielding Anderson, Sunstone, October 1990

I do not agree with Ms Anderson that the evidence is clear cut. But the point is, even at the worst case scenario, if a prophet sins, it shows he is human. It does not invalidate his prophecies. Incidentally, this passage illustrates how little we know of the subject. Ms Anderson is an intelligent and articulate feminist, with access to as much information as anyone. If anyone understands the background to the story, it is she. Yet she apparently even got the name wrong. The next edition of Sunstone contained a letter pointing u that the name was Helen Mar (one "r") Kimball, not Whitney. If we can get even the most basic facts wrong, we probably do not know the story as well as we like to think.


King David committed worse sins than Joseph Smith is ever accused of (David had an innocent man killed so that he could sleep with that man's wife). And some of David's wives, given him by God, were probably very young, as was the custom. Do you reject the book of Psalms, because it was largely written by David? Do you reject Christ because he called himself the son of David? Do you reject a prophet because his critics attack him - when he is likely innocent of all charges? God's prophets are not on trial. We are.


The bottom line:

God's thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways. His ways will always look strange to us. But he knows what he is doing.


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