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The Mormon View of Creation is the title of an episode of the Reasonable Faith Podcast, recorded on February 16, 2010, in which William Lane Craig, a renowned Christian apologist, philosopher and theologian, was interviewed about his contribution to the book The New Mormon Challenge.

In a nutshell, the main objection stems from William Lane Craig's famous Kalam cosmological argument, which argues against infinite regresses and concludes that the universe was brought into being ex nihilo by an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, eternal uncaused cause -- contrary to the Mormon view of creation.

Question: How do Latter-day Saints respond to William Lane Craig's philosophical objections to their view of creation?

Below a few relevant quotes from the interview (emphasis mine):

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, you had the opportunity to contribute to an article in a book called The New Mormon Challenge. [1] The book is very good in that there are many essays that contrast a Mormon view with a Christian view on a very philosophical level. You had the opportunity with Paul Copan to contribute an article on creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing or from nothing, [2] which Mormon theology tends to have a problem with. They don’t hold to (apparently, at least the bulk of Mormon theologians) creation out of nothing. They teach that God had preexisting material from which he crafted the universe. So he had some things to work with. Now there seems from the get-go to be some problems there. Would that say that there is some kind of matter or stuff that is co-eternal with God?

Dr. Craig: Well, yes. In fact on the Mormon view God is a material object. This is one of the strange things about Mormonism that I think most people don’t realize. In fact, probably I suspect many Mormons don’t even realize what Joseph Smith and the Mormon church has traditionally taught. [...] Joseph Smith believed that God is a material humanoid being who lives on a planet in outer space who is the product of physical intercourse from his parents, and who will in turn beget children of his own, and that this regress is infinitely into the past.

Kevin Harris: In other words, there was a god before him and a god before him and a god before him. Then we got the problem with an infinite regress.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. It wasn’t long after I had published the kalam cosmological argument that some people who were involved in ministries to Mormons came to me and said this argument is absolutely devastating, if it goes through, to Mormon theology because it is inherent in Mormon doctrine that not only did the world not have a beginning (as you say, the material universe has always existed) but that God is part of the material universe. God himself is a physical object which has been begotten by other physical gods before him. So Mormonism is a form of polytheism of the crassest sort, namely, that there are material, physical humanoid gods and goddesses that are responsible for the creation of worlds and who are the gods over these different worlds and universes.

[...] Dr. Craig: No. God is an imminent object in the universe. It is quite astonishing. I mean, really Kevin, this is like Roman and Greek polytheism in many ways. Of course, this view is very difficult to reconcile with modern cosmology because the universe is expanding which means at some time in the past it was contracted down to a superdense, hot state. What happened to all of these deities if you go back in time and contract down? Did they all get squished down to nothingness? Or are they like ball-bearings in a loaf of bread that are just sort of stuck in there? It is very, very strange.

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  • (Up-voted +1.) Is this still contemporary teaching . . . a material humanoid being who lives on a planet in outer space who is the product of physical intercourse . . . . a physical object which has been begotten by other physical gods ?
    – Nigel J
    Jul 15 at 2:28
  • @NigelJ - to be honest, I didn't fact-check that claim. I just quoted verbatim the interview's transcript. Jul 15 at 2:32
  • I assume we will find out by being informed . . . . . .
    – Nigel J
    Jul 15 at 2:33
  • This is a severe misrepresentation of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Joseph Smith has been paraphrased very, very badly. I have a lot of respect for Dr. Craig's skill in debate and his defense of the resurrection (you may have noticed me quoting him on SE :-) ), but his NMC presents a strawman that I find disappointing, particularly from a philosopher of his caliber. There's a lot to unpack here--are you principally interested in a discussion of creation ex-nihilo, the nature of God, or Theosis? Jul 15 at 5:23
  • One of the more exhaustive responses to The New Mormon Challenge is Blake Ostler's work here. A discussion of much of the relevant theology (by my favorite theologian of the 20th century!) is found here pp. 15-20 Jul 15 at 5:26
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I'll offer a response in two parts:

  1. Creation ex-nihilo
  2. Theosis & the Nature of God (in a separate answer for readability)

Creation ex-nihilo


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not accept creation ex-nihilo. Members of the church hold that creation ex-nihilo is neither taught in the canonical scriptures (for Latter-day Saints that's the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price), nor in the teachings of modern prophets.

One of the most direct discussions of creation ex-nihilo comes from Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse:

You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end. (see here)

Additional scriptural statements include:

Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. (Doctrine & Covenants 93:29)

The elements are eternal (Doctrine & Covenants 93:33)

Thus "create" is understood in the sense that the word is used in virtually all non-theological discussions--"create" means to organize. In the process, the creation is often imbued with attributes it did not previously have.

Blake Ostler has written extensively in defense of this view--here are 3 of his major arguments:

Most Latter-day Saints reject creation ex-nihilo because they have a personal testimony of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the prophet Joseph Smith, and therefore conclude that God has given them reason to trust the doctrines taught by Joseph Smith (for a Biblical parallel, this is like saying most Christians believe the Gospel is intended for both Jews & Gentiles, because they believe what was recorded by Luke, Paul, etc.).

A few Latter-day Saints have additionally explored the history and the philosophy of creation ex-nihilo and reject it on those grounds as well.

--

'To Create' in Hebrew

From Ostler:

There are three words in Hebrew scripture that can be translated in English as create. [b_r_’, ‘asah, yatsar]...But a sharp distinction between organizing preexisting material for ‘asah and absolute creation where before there was nothing in any sense for b_r_’ is simply an oversimplification. God made Israel out of preexisting people [Isaiah 43:15] and a clean heart out of an existing heart [Psalms 51:12]

On the other hand, these three verbs are often used interchangeably and in parallel structures showing that they have essentially the same semantic field. In Hebrew poetry, when words are placed in a parallel form (parallelismus membrorum is the technical term) the words are often used as synonyms or antonyms.

...

Isaiah [43:6-7] uses all three words for create to describe what God has done for those called by his name. Moreover, none of these uses of the word create in Hebrew mean to create ex nihilo, for they address how God has taken an existing person and created a new personality in that person to manifest his glory.

...

[B]oth b_r_’ and ‘asah are used in parallel form in Isaiah 45:12 to describe the creation of the earth and man: “I have made (‘asah) the earth and created (b_r_’ ) man upon it.” In the same chapter of Isaiah, God is said to create (yatsar ) the earth: “God himself that formed (yatsar) the earth and made (‘asah) it; he created (b_r_’ ) it not in vain, he formed (yatsar) it to be inhabited.” (Isaiah 45:7, 18) It is abundantly clear from this verse that b_r_’ , yatsar and ‘asah are used interchangeably, for God creates the earth in all three senses.

...

However, the use of the verb b_r_’ does show that God accomplished a marvelous act of creation with absolute ease by speaking and dividing asunder preexisting realities. God makes by dividing asunder. He created Israel by separating her from the existing nations in the same way that he created the earth by dividing it from the primeval watery chaos. In Hebrew thought, the cosmic world mirrors the social structure of the Israelite nation. They were brought out of a state of chaos and a desert waste to a sacred society ordered by God’s law and covenant. However, there is always the threat of returning to this chaos if Israel rejects God. Joseph Smith’s assertion that the verb b_r_’ as used in Genesis 1:1 means that God organized a preexisting chaos is actually quite plausible in context. (see section 3.1 here)

--

A universe from nothing

As noted in the OP, the overwhelming majority of modern cosmologists agree that the universe as we know it had a beginning. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not take a contrary position. To ask what was before the Big Bang is technically not the right question to ask (before doesn't mean much if there's no spacetime)...but one way this question has been posed is, if the Big Bang represents a boundary, what is on the other side of that boundary?

Christian apologist John Lennox responded on several occasions to Stephen Hawking's claim that the universe came from nothing. On one occasion Lennox pointed out:

How do you get a universe from nothing? And he’s trying to solve it...and he fails because he doesn’t get a universe from nothing at all, because what he calls nothing isn’t nothing; it’s a quantum vacuum or something else. (see here)

Modern cosmology is less certain on the details of what is on the other side of the Big Bang boundary...but it isn't nothing.

What about Hebrews 11:3?

[One] translation states: “It is by faith that we understand that the ages were created by a word from God, so that from the invisible the visible world came to be.” What this text says is that God created visible things literally “from” invisible things...However, the invisible things are not nothing; they already exist (section 4.0 here)

The Greek here is εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐκ φαινομένων τὸ βλεπόμενον γεγονέναι.

I give it as my opinion that if these invisible things included dark energy, God saw wisdom in not inspiring the author of Hebrews to reference dark energy in the epistle.

--

The origins of creation ex-nihilo in Christian thought

One more quote from Ostler:

It is extremely significant that when the first “scriptural” arguments in history were formulated to support the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo by Irenaeus (about 185 A.D.) and Origen (220 A.D.) they do not cite scriptures from the canon accepted by evangelicals and Mormons. Rather, they cite The Shepherd of Hermas and 2 Maccabees 7:28. The reason they cite these texts rather than other scriptures is obvious – they did not know of any scriptures which supported the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. It is ironic therefore that even these two texts do not teach the dogma of creatio ex nihilo. It is also significant that Hermas adopts the technical language for creation from relative non-being ek tou me ontos which makes it fairly clear that God created what is from potential being, not from absolute nothing or ex nihilo. (see section 5.1 here)

--

Conclusion

Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus (known pre-mortally as Jehovah), created the worlds under the direction of our Heavenly Father. We believe that "create" in both the Old & New Testaments (and the Book of Mormon if anyone is counting), describes not a creation out of nothing, but an organization of eternal elements.


Disclaimer - my comments are the product of my own study and do not constitute official statements by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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To begin with, Dr. Craig's presentation of what LDS believe doesn't seem to be quite accurate. It is unfortunately not uncommon among those who would minister to LDS to set up philosophical strawmen which they may then demolish.

First, if the LDS believe that God has a tangible body of flesh and bone, one might ask, what kind of flesh, what kind of bone, composed of what kind of matter? What kind of body did Jesus have after His resurrection, that he could be handled and felt, but appear and disappear from closed rooms and ascend into heaven? One may legitimately question whether modern cosmology has anything to say about beings on such a different plane of existence. According to D&C 131:7, all spirit is matter, although it is more fine or purer and is inaccessible to our ordinary senses and instruments. Cosmology has nothing to say about that, either.

Second, while LDS may believe in the existence of other gods, they do not worship them, so "crass polytheism" is a rather pejorative description of LDS belief.

Third, LDS would claim that revelation from God (as in D&C 93:33) is superior to any philosophical or even scientific argument. Scientific understanding is always subject to revision, or if it is sufficiently speculative, complete reversal based on new evidence and new discoveries. Any philosophical argument can be debated or challenged.

And fourth, what revelation we do have is insufficient to resolve any philosophical conundrum (such as the infinite regress) that may be propounded. "We don't know, it hasn't been revealed yet, and it's pointless to speculate without evidence." Indeed, LDS belief (as per D&C 101: 32-34) is that Christ will reveal such things when He comes.

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My response comes in two parts:

  1. Creation ex-nihilo (in a separate answer for readability)
  2. Theosis & the Nature of God (this answer)

(Sorry, no money-back guarantee for those anticipating a 3-part answer)


Theosis


Depperm has written an excellent answer describing the Biblical basis for theosis.

I'll add 4 non-Biblical quotes as well:

Irenaeus of Lyons:

our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, of His boundless love, became what we are that He might make us what He Himself is (Against Heresies Book 5, Preface)

Clement of Alexandria:

the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god (Exhortation to the Greeks, 1)

Augustine:

But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God’. If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.(On the Psalms 50.2)

CS Lewis:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, revised edition, p.18)

Polytheism

I'll offer the following distinction.

In a polytheistic world, the ancient Greeks (for example) had to worry about pleasing Zeus, and Athena, and Poseidon, all without upsetting Hades too much, and so on. Their deities were in conflict and would (in ancient Greek lore) pit humans against one another. Polytheists found themselves casting their worship in multiple directions.

In a monotheistic world, worship goes in one direction. I suggest that one cannot truly worship the Father without worshipping the Son, and one cannot please One with pleasing the Other. To Latter-day Saints, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are 3 distinct beings, and these members of the Godhead have perfect unity in purpose and plan. Our worship goes in one and only one direction.

Summary

We believe very literally Paul's statement "And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ" (Romans 16:9)

Theologian and former Brigham Young University Dean of Religion Robert Millet has written:

Latter-day Saints do not believe that human beings will ever be independent of God, or that they will ever cease to be subordinate to God. They believe that to become as God means to overcome the world through the atonement of Jesus Christ (see 1 John 5:4—5; Revelation 2:7, 11). Thus the faithful become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ and will inherit all things just as Christ inherits all things...There are no limitations on these scriptural declarations; those who become as God shall inherit all things (see here p.15)

The Church's statement on the topic can be found in the essay: Becoming Like God.


The nature of God


The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us. (Doctrine & Covenants 130:22)

Much speculation has been pursued regarding beliefs on God's past. I consider this speculation futile because God has said so little about it.

The most direct statements that have been revealed on the matter can be found in Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse.

Two summary quotes from this discourse are worth repeating here, in an effort to emphasize what Joseph Smith did say, and what he did not say:

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!

These ideas are incomprehensible to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did;

--

A summary of church teachings on a Mother in Heaven can be found here.

Eliza R. Snow, former general president of the church's Relief Society, included the following in a poem (full text available here) now published in the church's hymnal:

I had learned to call thee Father, Through thy Spirit from on high,

But until the key of knowledge Was restored, I knew not why.

In the heavens are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare!

Truth is reason, truth eternal Tells me I've a mother there.

--

Church teachings are consistent with the possibility of more than one universe, but God has elected to tell us virtually nothing about any other universe (see Moses 1:35). There is no church doctrine, as Dr. Craig mused, of antecedent deities squished into this universe now or at any time in the past.

Further Reading:

  • Joseph Smith & the Recovery of Eternal Man by Robert Millet (video & transcript)
  • What do Latter-day Saints mean when they say that God was once a man? by Robert Millet & Noel Reynolds (here pp. 19-21, including a discussion of the concept "everlasting to everlasting")

--

Conclusion

From 1 Cor. 8:

5 For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)

6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ

Latter-day Saints believe that God offers limitless opportunities to His children.

This is explored further in this video on my channel.


Disclaimer - my comments are the product of my own study and do not constitute official statements by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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When revelation and human philosophy clash, it's not philosophy that wins as far as LDS are concerned.

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

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  • Honestly though, between these two sides, I wouldn't say one side is necessarily any more philosophical or fact/evidence-based than the other side. the universe was brought into being ex nihilo by an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, eternal uncaused cause doesn't seem to me to be any more or less conjecture than God had preexisting material from which he crafted the universe. So he had some things to work with. Just seems like two people musing on how the universe started, and they mused differently.
    – TKoL
    Jul 15 at 11:52
  • 2
    @TKoL If you don't believe what is claimed to be revelation to actually be divinely revealed, then your comment makes sense. But the point is: the claim is this is revealed by God through a prophet, and as such of different quality than the musings of man. Not everything Joseph Smith has ever said is divinely inspired, he liked to muse a lot, too. But in this case, D&C 93:33 has "the elements are eternal". Verse 29 has "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be". This is canon scripture for LDS. No ex nihilo.
    – kutschkem
    Jul 15 at 13:45
  • I don't believe that, but my comment is actually coming out on the LDS side of this from the perspective of NOT assuming its divinely revealed. If we don't assume it's divinely revealed, then the so-called philosophical position about the eternal uncaused cause is imo on equal or near-equal footing to anything Joseph Smith came up with. I would not describe the other view as necessarily the more philosophical one either.
    – TKoL
    Jul 15 at 15:56
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There is no problem with infinite descent. Space is infinite. Eternity extends infinitely in both directions. What would be problematic is if you were to find a child having no parents. No such critter exists. The doctrine of non-descent is absurd because it requires impotent nothingness to be fertile; descent only occurs in the same manner as God ordained that it should be on this Earth. The only rational explanation is that only self-existent beings can be fertile. "Nothingness" cannot be fertile. Darwinism expects people to be stupid by telling them that everything was created by nothing, and demanding that they believe it. We do not hold that view. The reality of infinite descent and eternal existence is infinitely more rational than anything ex nihilo. This is true no matter which direction particles or galaxies appear to be moving in the present snapshot. What I have heard renowned scientists claim regarding so-called black holes and the posit of the alleged "big bang" is that "the laws of physics cease to apply" in such situations. They take us all for morons by so saying, and admit that they have no explaining power because they are not honest. "From such turn away". There is no such thing as a condition in which eternal laws cease to apply. All true laws that govern the universe are eternal. To fudge on this point is to admit oneself to be Satan's servant.

The archetypal absurdity is the non-conservation of matter or non-conservation of intelligence (or in other words, being). The conservation laws of physics, which we can strengthen with these further rational arguments, are eternal. Neither matter nor intelligence (non-fungible identity and consciousness) can be created or destroyed.

What is further worth remarking on is the fact that all ex nihilo arguments tend to promote "ad nihilo" worldviews, or in other words, nihilism. One cannot believe that we were created from nothing without also believing that we are destined for nothing. Every physical thing that had a beginning will have an end. Nothing that has no beginning will ever end. This is sound logic.

The doctrine of annihilation is false, the same as the doctrine of nonexistence spawning existence. Wm. Craig's logic is flawed in that regard.

We are the children of God, therefore we are co-eternal with God. To say otherwise is to blaspheme against God, and rebel against His plan. We never had a beginning. Neither did He. We shall have no end. This is sound logic.

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