Mormons (a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) believe in God, but their beliefs differ in some significant ways from the beliefs of other Christians. Their God is the same God as is found in the Bible, which the Mormons consider scripture. These beliefs about God affect all our other beliefs and they also affect Mormon lifestyle choices, goals, and worldviews. The Mormon view of God may be unusual to you, but you’ll find it fascinating and reassuring because it emphasizes the loving nature of God and His absolute fairness.
Mormons and the Trinity
Mormons, while believing in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, don’t accept the trinity, a concept that developed after New Testament times. Jesus spoke of Himself as separate from His Father.
Mormons believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are unified perfectly in love, doctrine, and purpose, but not in any physical sense. We take the doctrine that Jesus is God’s Only Begotten Son literally.
Many people misunderstand statements in the Bible in which Jesus says He and His Father are one:
If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, 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 14:6-9)
When we want to understand the Bible we have to study it as a whole, rather than isolating bits and pieces. If you click on the scripture reference above, you’ll notice the verse after this quote is also highlighted. People using the above verses in their attempt to justify trinity tend to leave this verse out, but it is essential to read it in order to understand the context of Jesus’ words.
Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
So we know God and Jesus are not the same being in any material sense, since Jesus says they’re His Father’s teachings, not His. Then, if you go a little further to verse 20, you learn what Jesus means when He says that He and God are one: “At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.”
Since the apostles are not part of the trinity, it is clear He is speaking in terms of unity, not Being. He says the apostles are one with Him and with God in the same way Jesus and God are one. My personal favorite illustration of this topic is in the vision of Steven, who saw God. Jesus stood on His right hand. He saw them separately. Of course, in modern times, the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, also saw God and Jesus at the same time, so for a Mormon, little more proof than that is needed.
How, then, do Mormons view God? The Mormon apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland, explained it to an audience at the semi-annual General Conference in 2007:
Our first and foremost article of faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” We believe these three divine persons constituting a single Godhead are united in purpose, in manner, in testimony, in mission. We believe Them to be filled with the same godly sense of mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, forgiveness, and redemption. I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true.
Indeed no less a source than the stalwart Harper’s Bible Dictionary records that “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the [New Testament].”
So any criticism that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not hold the contemporary Christian view of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost is not a comment about our commitment to Christ but rather a recognition (accurate, I might add) that our view of the Godhead breaks with post–New Testament Christian history and returns to the doctrine taught by Jesus Himself. —
Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 40–42
We Knew God Before We Were Born
The Mormon belief that we are all truly God’s children—even those who reject Him—and that He loves us finds strength in a foundational story of Mormonism. This is known as the Plan of Salvation or the Great Plan of Happiness. For Mormons, this wonderful teaching answers the great questions of life:
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Why are we here?
What will happen to us when we die?
Mormons teach that we began our existence as uncreated intelligences and that God shaped these intelligences into spirits, making Him the literal Father of our Spirits. Our spirits had the form of mortal beings even though they were only spirits without a physical body.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations (Jeremiah 1:4-5).
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
As the scriptures above show, we were with God before coming to earth. (We can’t return to a place we’ve never been.) This was an amazing time when we began to decide who we wanted to be without the complications of mortality. We had agency—the ability to choose for ourselves—and we used it to decide just how much God and His plan mattered to us. We developed much of the persons we are today. Any parent knows a child seems to come to the world with previously-developed personality, talents, and interests. Some of these were developed in that premortal life.
When it came time to graduate to the next level of our education, we had to make a choice. We knew of God’s plan for us on earth, but we also learned that Lucifer wanted to overthrow that plan. He felt there were too many risks in God’s plan. God wanted this to be a time of learning and choosing. We’d come to earth without our memories of our time in Heaven and we’d be expected to find God and Jesus Christ and choose to follow them. We’d have help along the way. The Holy Ghost would tell honest seekers when they had found the truth. Jesus Christ volunteered to be our Savior. He would come to earth as both the Son of God and the son of Mary and live a perfect life. This would enable Him to atone for our sins, making it possible for us to return to Heaven if we repented of our sins and tried to live a Christ-like life. Those who did not have a real opportunity to choose Christ would be given a chance when their lives ended. This would provide an entirely fair situation for those who died too young to make an informed choice, who lived before Christ was even born, or who simply didn’t receive that opportunity.
Satan tried to woo people away from God’s plan, however. He convinced them there was too much risk and that they would be better off letting him be their savior. He tried to convince them he would make them live perfectly while on earth, taking away all the risk (and eliminating the need for a Savior willing to suffer for others, since Lucifer wasn’t interested in suffering). However, he would expect everyone’s full worship in exchange. In other words, he was trying to dethrone God and put himself in God’s place.
Sadly, a third of the spirits voted for imaginary safety and aligned themselves with Lucifer. Of course, Lucifer didn’t have the power to overthrow God, so they merely found themselves cast out of Heaven with their new leader and denied the atonement they had knowingly rejected. The rest of us headed for earth in our own turns. This loving beginning in which we chose God and Jesus Christ set the stage for our time on Earth.
Created in His Own Image
When God created Adam and Eve He created them in His own image. Just as an earthly child looks like his or her parents, we look like God. God loves us too much to give us less than He has Himself. Therefore, Mormons believe that God has a body, although His is perfected and glorified, while ours is not yet. Our bodies might be seen as beginner bodies.
People often hear that Mormons believe they will become gods themselves someday and receive their own planets. LDS.org, the official website for Mormons, explains these concepts and misconceptions:
Latter-day Saints believe that God wants us to become like Him. But this teaching is often misrepresented by those who caricature the faith. The Latter-day Saint belief is no different than the biblical teaching, which states, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).
Through following Christ’s teachings, Latter-day Saints believe all people can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
Do Latter-day Saints believe that they will “get their own planet”?
No. This idea is not taught in Latter-day Saint scripture, nor is it a doctrine of the Church. This misunderstanding stems from speculative comments unreflective of scriptural doctrine. Mormons believe that we are all sons and daughters of God and that all of us have the potential to grow during and after this life to become like our Heavenly Father (see Romans 8:16-17). The Church does not and has never purported to fully understand the specifics of Christ’s statement that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2). (See Mormonism 101: FAQ.)
Justice and Mercy of God
Mormons believe strongly that God loves all His children very much. We believe He sent each one of us here to succeed and if we all chose to make the right choices in life, we all could return home to Him. No one is predestined to fail.
However, God understands that we won’t all come to Earth in ideal situations. He also knows we aren’t going to be perfect. Although the laws of justice would require us to live perfectly in order to return home, He authorized the laws of mercy to allow another being to atone for our sins. This is Jesus Christ, who, as mentioned above, volunteered for this project. We could not possibly save ourselves because we cannot live a perfect life. Only Jesus Christ could fill the role as our Savior, and if He had refused or if He had backed out on us, we would not be able to return to God. However, He kept His promise to us. Mormons believe the atonement is a gift of love from both God and Jesus Christ.
Because of the atonement, we can choose to repent, and if we do, our sins are forgiven us and forgotten. This is a tremendous blessing of comfort for those who learn what is right later on in life or who simply make mistakes—and we all make mistakes.
Mormons believe that God is completely fair and just. This is a hard concept for many people to understand, but it is one that matters to Mormons. It makes the hard parts of life understandable. In the next sections, we’ll look at how God balances justice and mercy in everyday life.
What Happens to Babies That Die?
Those who believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, and who also believe God is kind, loving, and fair, struggle with this question. They have worked out a range of possible solutions, but none really balance the issues of justice and mercy. One suggestion is that God knew they weren’t going to choose Christ anyway, so He let them die before they were old enough to choose. Others baptize infants, which means they are baptized, but without informed consent, and this does not help babies that die too quickly or who aren’t eligible for baptism.
Mormons teach a different explanation, one that perfectly answers the question of how God handles a baby that dies. It is an answer that brings great comfort to parents who lose a child. The explanation for Mormon beliefs on this subject is found in the Book of Mormon, which Mormons use as a companion to the Bible. An ancient prophet named Moroni wrote it to get some of his followers back in line on the subject of infant baptism.
Mormons teach that children younger than age eight do not need to be baptized. The atonement of Jesus Christ covers the sins of Adam and in fact, Mormons believe all people are accountable only for their own sins and not for the choices made by Adam and Eve, since the atonement overcame the effects of the fall.
Children are born perfect and whole. Until they are eight, Satan can’t tempt them. Their mistakes are merely the mistakes of those who are young and learning. During these first seven years of life, Mormon parents work hard to teach their children their faith and to help them learn what is right or wrong. They teach them to apply these teachings to everyday situations and they also teach them how to make wise choices. They learn how to pray. They are even taught how to ask God what church is true. They are expected to pray for a testimony of their religion before they turn eight. Mormons do not underestimate God’s children.
When a child dies before his eighth birthday, he (or she) dies sinless and perfect, just as he was the day he was born. He returns directly home to God. This also holds true for people who do not reach an intellectual age of eight due to disability. Parents of these children understand that they have been given a very unique and special child.
By reserving baptism for those who reach the age of accountability, the requirements of justice and mercy are met, and we see the fairness and kindness of God. Moroni explained it this way:
And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins. But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!
Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell. Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell. For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism (Moroni 8: 11-15).
We can see then that this helps to defend the Mormon belief that God loves all His children equally. He doesn’t randomly save some children and not others and He doesn’t send anyone here to fail. If we fail, it is through our own choices, not His.
What Happens to People Who Didn’t Know About Jesus?
Many people lived before Jesus Christ was born, including some of the world’s greatest prophets and Old Testament heroes. While Jesus was on the earth, only a small portion of the world’s population heard His message and had the opportunity to receive a Christian baptism. Since that time, billions of others have lived and died without hearing of Jesus. Still others, although hearing of Him, never sought and received a witness from the Holy Ghost testifying to their hearts that God is real and Jesus is the Christ. Others learned about Jesus but didn’t learn the full gospel. What happens to those people when they die?
Many, in discussing this problematic issue, have used the same theories they used to explain what happens to children. We know that God knows everything. All the same, He loves us deeply and wants us to succeed. He gives us every opportunity to make the right choices and to make it back home. Even if He knows some of His children will choose to reject Him, He gives us the chance to do so by accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, there are still people who never had the chance to hear it and to be baptized. What happens to them? If Noah, so faithful and valiant in the face of deep persecution, died before Jesus Christ was born, does this mean he could not return to God? That doesn’t make much sense, does it? In fact, it appears that Joseph, the good man who helped Mary raise her child, died before Jesus’ ministry began and possibly before John began baptizing. Would Jesus allow Joseph to be condemned? Of course not.
There is a tiny little tidbit tucked into the Bible that many people overlook. It has the answer to the question, but few people understand what it means. The answer is found in two verses of the New Testament:
For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit (1 Peter 4:6).
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29).
Peter tells us that the gospel is preached to those who are dead. If they can’t be saved, why bother preaching to them? Peter says it is so they can be judged according to men in the flesh. It says, though, that they may live according to God in the Spirit. Then, in Corinthians, we see Paul trying to help his followers understand that there really is a resurrection. He uses baptism for the dead to help prove there really is a resurrection. Some have said this referred to a false practice, but that makes no sense. You don’t use a false practice to prove something is true. He doesn’t explain what it is because everyone already knows—in his own time. They are practicing it but don’t, apparently, understand why.
Mormons understand why.
Mormon temples are built, in part, to address the very issue of what happens to people who die after the age of accountability but without the ordinance of baptism by a person who holds the authority to do so.
When someone dies who didn’t have the gospel, Mormon doctrine teaches that they will be taught it upon arrival in Heaven. They will then have a chance to either accept it or reject it, just as they would have on Earth. God won’t force us to accept eternity with Him. It may seem odd that some people would reject it even if they know it is true. However, accepting it also brings a requirement to live it. Not everyone will want to live the life expected of them forever. Mormons teach that there are multiple places in Heaven and that we will spend eternity in a place that is comfortable for us. The best possible place is with God, but not everyone will make that choice or be willing to become worthy to be in the presence of God. Mormons believe only a very few will be denied a place somewhere in Heaven and that being Mormon is not a requirement for entering Heaven.
However, to be with God does require specific ordinances to be performed in the right way by the people who have the proper authority. Those ordinances can only be done on Earth. This means that a person who dies without baptism can’t get baptized in Heaven even though baptism is required. To resolve this problem, Mormons perform baptism and other saving ordinances by proxy.
Here’s how it works: Mormons do their genealogy and submit the names of ancestors who died without the necessary ordinances. Then they or others receive those ordinances in their name.
What comes next is the part most non-Mormons leave out when they write about this practice. Having the ordinance done does not make them Mormons. Mormons don’t believe in forced conversions. The person who receives the proxy ordinance will either reject it or accept it. It is entirely his or her decision. We don’t know who accepts or rejects, so we don’t put them on our rolls as Mormons. Our job is merely to record that the work was done. God takes it from there.
My father, who was not Mormon, told me I could do his ordinances when he died. He said, “If it isn’t true, God will ignore it, the way he ignores anything that isn’t true. If it is true, I’ll be desperate to get it done. I can’t seem to lose in this deal, can I?”
Without the opportunity to learn the gospel, God would not be able to treat all His children fairly. Their fate would be too dependent on the circumstances of their lives. It is God who placed them in their time and place, and so He must allow them to succeed even if the time and place in which they existed in mortality was not really favorable to learning the gospel.
How Do Mormons See God?
These examples of Mormon teachings on God help us to see God as:
- The Creator
- Our Father in Heaven
- The literal Father of our Spirits
- Actively involved in our daily lives
- Completely fair and just
- Completely loving toward His children
- A Father who longs for the safe return of His children
- The Being we want to spend eternity with
Mormon apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said:
“I bear personal witness this day of a personal, living God, who knows our names, hears and answers prayers, and cherishes us eternally as children of His spirit. I testify that amidst the wondrously complex tasks inherent in the universe, He seeks our individual happiness and safety above all other godly concerns. We are created in His very image and likeness, 16 and Jesus of Nazareth, His Only Begotten Son in the flesh, came to earth as the perfect mortal manifestation of His grandeur.” (See Jeffrey R. Holland, The Grandeur of God, October 2003 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
Watch the video of the complete talk by Elder Holland to better understand the Mormon view of God.