The term Mormonism denotes a religious group currently headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, who call themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But since the foundation of Mormonism, there have been at least 400 splinter groups of the LDS church that began with the founder, Joseph Smith. Mormons believe that God, through Joseph Smith, restored the teachings of the church after hundreds of years of apostasy.
If you speak with a Mormon about their religion, it is very likely they will try to focus on the similarities between their theology and our own. They will say things like “Jesus died on the cross for our sins,” and may even say “we are saved by grace.” They have an entire vocabulary that sounds nearly identical to our own.
It isn’t until you dig a bit deeper into how they define their terms that the dissimilarities become more apparent. They call their deity God, but he's as different from the one true God of Christianity as your mother is from my own, despite the fact we may each call ours Mom.
So that brings us to the ultimate question, what are these “restored” truths that make the Mormon church distinct from—and thus ultimately not just a subsection of—orthodox Christian teaching?
Polytheism vs. Trinitarianism
When we consider the Mormon view of God and the traditional Christian view of God, Mormonism seems a bit more like Hinduism, or maybe even Greco-Roman paganism. They have more gods than we would even count in Hinduism, with an infinite array of gods going back eternally and, presumably, forward eternally as well. Additionally, their understanding of these gods is not unlike the anthropomorphic deities—with hands and fingernails and toes and eyeballs—of the Romans and the Greeks. Both these ideas are incompatible with the God of the Bible.
Although a full unpacking of the doctrine of the trinity is beyond the scope of this post, it is enough to say that the traditional Christian view of God excludes the possibility of any other gods. That we worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should not be seen as polytheism because we know that the three persons of God exist eternally, equally, as one God. In Mormonism, not only are Father, Son, and Spirit not a single being, they aren’t really equal beings, either.
As it turns out, the Mormon concept of God is essentially an exalted and perfected version of a human. They believe that God began as a man and, like all gods had done before him, became a god. Even before he was man, he was a preexistent spirit in some preexistent world, the offspring of an older god and his celestial wives. Mormon doctrine holds that, after he became a god, he and a heavenly mother had spirit children that include you, me, Jesus, and even Lucifer. God, according to Mormons, wasn’t always God; his deity was the result of living an exceptionally holy life.
And this brings us to the next doctrinal issue that separates Mormonism from orthodox Christian teaching.
Eternal Progression vs Creator/Creation Distinction
In the Mormon church, there was an apostle named Lorenzo Snow. He was a contemporary of Joseph Smith and became Mormon in 1836, six years after the publishing of the Book of Mormon. Lorenzo Snow coined a phrase: “As man is, God once was; As God is, man may be.” This is what Mormons call the law of eternal progression.
This doctrine teaches that humans have a destiny to follow in the same footsteps as God, and as God did for his god, and his grandfather god, and great-grandfather god, and so forth. However, there is a bit of a rift in the Mormon church over the question of how this progression can be rectified with the idea of God’s power. Does God continually progress forever, gaining bits and pieces of knowledge along the way in a never-ending existence that puts him closer and closer to omniscience? Or did God somehow, at the exact moment he became a god, gain the full knowledge of all things? The Mormon prophets have actually castigated one another, each calling the opposite view dangerous and false. In this respect, Christians agree with both sides, because either way, this doctrine is dangerous and false!
The Mormon church will pull out Bible verses, especially 2 Peter 1:3-4 to support this idea, claiming that even the Bible teaches that humans can become gods. But that verse, when taken in context and in light of the entire narrative of Scripture, is talking about how we participate together in our relationship with God. It’s called divinization or theosis, and it’s not the same as the Mormon teaching that we become gods, real divine beings.
For Mormons, the range from humans to angels to God is a matter of degree, with each falling at a different stage of glory along the same spectrum of existence. Mormons would assert that humans, angels, and gods are all the same beings, but with different degrees of glory. No monotheistic religions—not Islam, not Judaism, and certainly not Christianity—have ever taught this. Christian doctrine teaches that God is God, and He created angels, humans, and everything else.
Thus, for Mormons, the entire distinction between who is Creator and who are creatures is erased. According to Mormon theology, each of us, prior to earthly conception, existed as a spirit child and literal sibling of Jesus. This teaching denies that Jesus is the creator that John 1:3 declares Him to be. So even though a Mormon might speak about God being eternal, their view of him is no more eternal than their view of you or me.
As you can imagine, this idea has serious implications on the doctrine of salvation, which is another significant deviation to be aware of.
Salvation by Works vs Salvation by Grace Through Faith
Growing up in the Mormon faith, I believed a little saying: “Try, try your best, and God will make up the rest.” There was no urgency; God sent a Savior, and you would be just fine as long as you were a relatively good person. But at the same time, the book of Mormon seemed to teach mission impossible; you’ve got to reach perfection in this lifetime, or else. So I struggled as a young boy.
I was taught that baptism in the Mormon church creates a blank slate. I asked, “Well, what if I sin after this?” The understanding was that I’d get marks on my slate again. That worried me greatly! I knew that no unclean thing could enter celestial glory with Heavenly Father, so I figured I would beat the system by waiting until I was 88 years old, rather than 8—the traditional age—to get baptized.
But then I lived in fear for the next year, haunted by thoughts like what if I got hit by a semi-truck having failed to do what I knew I should have done? So I capitulated and got baptized. All that to say, Mormonism teaches a works-based salvation—grace plus works. I was never told just how many works.
In fact, it reminds me a little of Catholicism right before the Reformation. Martin Luther would go to his confessor, von Staupitz, at all hours of the night with his sin. He did so reasoning that to get to heaven, I need to repent and confess, but to repent and confess, I need to remember my sin—if I wait, I might forget. This burden continued until he came to the realization that Scripture taught differently: “the righteous shall live by faith.”
In Mormonism, it’s similar. Part of what’s required for salvation is faith, but part is also repentance. And once you get into understanding what repentance means to them—going to the point of no return without having the thought, urge, or desire to sin again, according to one of their prophets—you realize that you have to repent all the time!
However, just like in other discrepancies, a well-studied Mormon will try to assert that their view isn’t really any different. They will look to Wesleyans or Methodists—those who take an Arminian perspective and may believe that you can lose your salvation—to say that their view does align with orthodoxy, but it really doesn’t. Scripture makes it clear in Ephesians 2:8-10 that we are saved so that we can do good, not saved by the amount of good we do. Grace isn’t a safety net in case you fall short, it’s the solution to the fact that we all do.
If we consider just these essentials of our faith regarding who God is, who man is, and how man is saved, all of which find their answer in the person and work of Christ, we do well. And the only conclusion we can draw is that Mormonism isn’t a denomination of Christianity, but a complete diversion from Christianity.
Dr. Corey Miller is the President/CEO of Ratio Christi (2015-Present). While he grew up in Utah as a seventh-generation Mormon, he came to Christ in 1988. He has served on pastoral staff at four churches and has taught nearly 100 college courses in philosophy, theology, rhetoric, and comparative religions. He is also author or co-author of Leaving Mormonism: Why Four Scholars Changed their Minds (2017), Is Faith in God Reasonable? Debates in Philosophy, Science, and Rhetoric (2014), In Search of the Good Life: Through the Eyes of Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas (2019), and Engaging with Mormons: Understanding their World, Sharing Good News (2020).