The Mormon View of Jesus

Since it is Easter, it seems appropriate to write about Jesus. Putting together my own thoughts about Jesus is a big task. (To understand my religious views more generally, see my post “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.”) Today, I am going to follow the easier path of telling you about the views of Jesus I grew up with in Mormonism–which in many respects echo traditional Christian beliefs, though there are some key differences from traditional Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant beliefs. The biggest difference between Mormon beliefs about Jesus and Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant beliefs is that Mormons believe Jesus is a separate being from God the Father, as illustrated by the depiction of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” above. Jesus literally stands at the right hand of God the Father. (It is worth remembering that the Trinitarian doctrine of a three-in-one God that the picture above violates had to be decided by early Church Councils precisely because it was not clear in the Bible itself.)

Mormons believe in the Bible and what it says about Jesus–including, of course, Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Luke reports Jesus saying this after returning to life:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. Luke 24:39

But let me illustrate Mormon beliefs about Jesus mainly from the other three volumes of Mormon scripture that Mormons believe are also inspired by God. 

In the Book of Mormon, one can find this description of Jesus’ ministry: 

… behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and the Son of God cometh upon the face of the earth. And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God. And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Alma 7: 9–12. 

While in many respects traditional, this passage is theologically interesting because it suggests that even a god can learn, and as a result become further empowered.

Next are two revelations to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, as they appear in The Doctrine and Covenants. The first describes the glory of Jesus:

This Comforter is the promise which I give unto you of eternal life, even the glory of the celestial kingdom. Which glory is that of the church of the Firstborn, even of God, the holiest of all, through Jesus Christ his Son—He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; which truth shineth.

This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; as also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; and the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand. 

And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.

Now, verily I say unto you, that through the  redemption which is made for you is brought to pass the resurrection from the dead. And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul. And the redemption of the soul is through him that quickeneth all things, in whose bosom it is decreed that the poor and the meek of the earth shall inherit it. Doctrine and Covenants 88: 4–17.

To me, the importance of this passage and others like it is the emphasis on truth. Indeed, another way in which Mormonism emphasizes truth is in the frequent, heartfelt testimonies by Mormons in exactly these words "I know the Church is true" and “I know the Gospel is true.” (The words “the Church” mean “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and are sometimes expanded to exactly that. “The Gospel” means the entire body of teachings of the Mormon Church.) I like the message in the fact that the Mormon Church and its teachings are constantly being affirmed by reference to truth. I no longer believe in Mormonism (nor in anything else that is supernatural), but I get emotional thinking about the value of truth

Mormonism has a strong emphasis on Jesus as Savior and Redeemer, as the second passage I have chosen from The Doctrine and Covenants illustrates:

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. Doctrine and Covenants 19: 16-19.

Relative to Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant beliefs, the unusual aspect of this passage is that Jesus’ saving act, or in an old word, the atonement of Jesus Christ, takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than on the cross. This is a big part of the explanation for the almost complete absence of the cross in Mormon iconography. It is very hard to find any crosses or crucifixes anywhere in a Mormon church building, except inside a Sunday School manual or perhaps on an outside visitor’s necklace. Instead, in order to symbolize Jesus’ saving act, Mormon church buildings often have a picture like this of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:

The theological importance of having Jesus’ saving act in the Garden of Gethsemane is that the supernatural pain Jesus suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane as he took on the sins of the world is viewed as being enormously greater than the pain he suffered in being crucified. In Mormon belief, Jesus’ death on the cross was the easy part of the task the Father had sent him to do, compared to Jesus’ suffering the weight of all the sins of the world in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The final passage I have chosen is from the Pearl of Great Price.  This passage tells how, in the Council in Heaven when all human beings were still only spirits, and none had yet been born physically, Jesus took a stand for freedom, while Satan argued for forced obedience:

And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever. Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down; and he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice. Moses 4:1–4.

Among Mormons this story of the Council in Heaven is often referred to in order to emphasize the importance of freedom. The strong drumbeat for obedience to Mormon Church leaders–encapsulated in the admonitions “Follow the Prophet!” and “Follow the Brethren!”–weakens the force of this message of freedom in relation to the Mormon Church itself. But among most Mormons, that message of freedom is taken very seriously in relation to government power.