We are encouraged to study and ponder the nature of God. Spencer W. Kimball wrote that “to know God, one must be aware of the person and attributes, power and glory of God the Father and God the Christ.” (Faith Precedes the Miracle at 86). Along those lines, this post proposes a theory on the nature of Christ.
We know from the teachings of Joseph Smith that God the Father was once a mortal being like us. Lorenzo Snow stated that “as man is God once was, as God is man may be.” Joseph Smith wrote that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man.” (TPJS at 345).
An eternal marriage and family is required for exaltation. We can reason that if God followed the same path to exaltation that we are expected to follow, then He had children during His mortal life, and was sealed to them, and remains connected to them for all eternity. They are our elder siblings, so to speak, because we are God’s spirit children, while they were God’s physical children while He was completing His mortal journey.
Might Jesus be one of these original, elder siblings?
A few thoughts that come to mind:
1. This theory may find support in the numerous statements about the unique, “only begotten” nature of Christ. Does Jesus’s “only begotten” state derive solely from His physical birth on the Earth? Or could it refer to a prior parentage — that Jesus was the “only begotten” among us because His origin actually came prior to ours, during God the Father’s mortal life? There are several things to think about.
a. It is not entirely clear from scripture what “only begotten” means. But the modifier “only” is intriguing. After all, the scriptures confirm that we are all “begotten sons and daughters unto God.” How then does Christ’s “only begotten” nature differ from the “begotten” nature of all humankind? Perhaps it is an indicator of a different kind of begotten-ness.
b. In addition, we see repetition of a curious phrase that the Only Begotten was “with [God] from the beginning.” We see variations of this language in D & C 76:13, Moses 2:26, Moses 4:1, Moses 5:9. It’s not entirely clear what “the beginning” means, but one possibility is that it means the time prior to God’s attainment of Godhood. (But cf. D & C 93:23-29).
c. We find Christ referred to throughout the Book of Moses, and throughout the early Book of Mormon, as the “only begotten.” Yet at that point in time, Christ had not yet attained His status as being the only physically begotten child of God in this world (which is, according to the standard explanation, the triggering event for the title Only Begotten) because He had not yet been born of Mary. Is this an indication that His Only Begotten nature was already effective at that time? (Of course, perhaps the title was being used presciently or omnisciently).
d. A curious phrase which is sometimes used by church leaders is that Jesus is “the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh.” Previously, I had assumed that “in the flesh” referred to Jesus. But this phrase could refer to Jesus as being the only begotten of “the Father in the flesh” — that is, God during His mortal tenure.
e. Finally on this prong, let me ask — if Christ were actually an “original” child of God, how would He be described? How exactly would He be set apart from the rest of us? It would probably be through mention of His divine parentage. Isn’t that exactly what the repetition of “Only Begotten” does?
2. Jesus speaks of following the example that He has seen the Father do.
Thus, we read in John 5:19 that: “Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.”
This statement was elaborated by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith taught that “the Son doeth what He hath seen the Father do: then the Father hath some day laid down His life and taken it again.” (TPJS 312). This is a curious description, by John and confirmed by Joseph Smith. Jesus is doing what He has seen the Father do. Not heard about. Not been told of. Seen.
And how would Jesus see the atonement performed by God the Father — unless He was one of the physical children 0f God the Father, who was present at that time of that atonement?
3. In order to be exalted, we must be married for eternity. It’s a requirement. And of course, we know that Jesus Himself has been exalted. Given these two premises, the elephant in the middle of the room — one which has long been a problem for the idea that marriage is required for exaltation — is that there is absolutely no scriptural discussion of Jesus’s marriage.
There has been speculation, including some by church leaders, that Mary Magdalene may have been Jesus’s wife. (Dan Brown thinks the same). This speculation has never attained the level of doctrine, but it sorta-kinda helps fill the uncomfortable scriptural silence about Jesus’s wife.
But another possible explanation could be this original-child theory. Perhaps Jesus didn’t marry in this life because He didn’t need to at all. He had already been married, sealed, and exalted, during His previous mortal life.
4. Jesus seems in so many ways to be substantively different than the rest of us. Jesus’s worldmaking powers and His extreme power as Jehovah, prior to His earthly ministry, are intriguing, and unlike the powers which other non-exalted beings seem to have. Might this difference in power be evidence of His having already reached His exaltation, as an exalted mortal child of God the Father?
5. Christ’s sinlessness suddenly seems much more understandable. Perhaps He was truly able to put away Satan because He was a fully exalted being.
All in all, it seems that a number of questions relating to the Gospel could be answered by this theory.
Also, this theory potentially adds another dimension to God’s sacrifice for us. When John writes that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son,” maybe he is doing more than casually mentioning Jesus’s physical parentage in this world. Perhaps he is writing of a Father who gave us the only Child He ever actually physically held in His arms, cuddled as a parent, rocked to sleep with a lullaby. Perhaps John is talking about giving up a flesh-and-blood child, for a mass of spirit children who God the Father has never been able to touch. That adds a touching new dimension to God’s love for us.
Despite the possible strengths of this theory, it also has to overcome some serious obstacles. Here are a few of them:
1. Virgin birth.
There are a number of statements made in the scriptures about the paternity of Jesus, and all of them seem to indicate that He first received His mortal body when He was born of Mary. Can these be explained?
Well, what do we know? Mary was pregnant with Jesus. The Holy Ghost conceived the child. She “brought [him] forth” (Matthew, Luke). She is called Christ’s mother, in various locations. However, the word “born” is only used twice directly — Alma 7:10 and Matthew 1:16. Alma 7:10 already has one other broad generalization that is wrong on the specifics (Christ’s birthplace), and Matthew 1:16 uses the term in the context of a genealogy. So there is not a strong direct statement that “Jesus was born of Mary.” Nevertheless, the inference is certainly present. Thus, any explanation would have to hinge on giving a non-traditional reading to the word “born.”
How might Jesus enter mortal life, a “born” being, after having lived previously and been exalted? Here are a few thoughts:
a. We know that heavenly beings are able to disguise their true nature. Perhaps Christ concealed His nature as an exalted being. This is a little tricky. How would Mary have appeared pregnant, if Christ was merely concealing His true nature? I don’t know.
But hey, the alternative is virgin birth. So either way, we’re dealing with strange phenomena. :)
b. Upping the ante on strangeness, it seems like a theoretical possibility that a fully exalted Christ could have used His omnipotent powers to shrink Himself back to embryonic stage, and place Himself in Mary’s womb. If Jesus is a fully exalted, resurrected being prior to our entire cycle of existence, then His taking on the form of a human might simply be the act of an all-powerful God, who can take on whatever form He pleases.
This option is decidedly weird, and definitely triggers the ick factor. This also smacks of reincarnation. (Just what we need — the anti’s already accuse us of polytheism, now we’re reincarnationists.) But it does seem like one possibility for an omnipotent being.
c. Alternatively — and this is even higher up on the weird scale, though substantially less on the ick scale and the reincarnation scale — Jesus could be a child of God who, for some reason, never tasted death while He was a mortal in God’s mortal world. This could lead to a status not of fully exaltation but of some kind of quasi-exaltation.
That is, in God’s original world, perhaps Jesus was the equivalent of one of the Three Nephites, or of John. In that role, He never tasted death. He was transformed and exalted (or at least quasi-exalted). But because He had not actually died, He remains a spirit — able to enter into a body in this world, and taste of death here.
This is intriguing because it suggests that, in future worlds (where Jesus is the creator-God), the Three Nephites and/or John and/or other “taken” people (e.g., Elijah) could perform similar atoning acts. In particular, note the fact that Jesus said that he had “seen” the Father perform His atonement — and the disciple John was present at both Gethsemane and Golgotha. John saw Christ’s atonement. If the pattern is being followed, then perhaps John will be a Messiah in a world over which Jesus presides.
Do any of those three possibilities get around the virgin birth problem? Maybe. Recalling the relatively weak textual evidence explicitly affirming birth, it seems possible that one of these options is viable. Or perhaps I’m missing other workarounds.
2. This theory does explain Jesus’s lack of a wife; it does not, however, explain Jesus’s participation in a few key ordinances on earth. Why be baptized here, if He’s already been baptized before? Doesn’t the “to show an example” rationale apply equally to marriage? (Unless perhaps there is some good reason that Jesus, being a different kind of being, can be baptized but cannot be married).
3. There are various statements made by prophets in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon about Christ’s lack of a body. I don’t know that any of them are particularly insurmountable. Like most scriptural statements, they contain a fair amount of wiggle room and could accommodate this theory. (Or perhaps not). We may view some of them as indication that Christ was a spirit prior to His birth. I don’t know that they aren’t amenable to this reading as well.
In the end, I don’t know if I’m convinced by my own theory. I think that I would like to be convinced, however. The idea intrigues me. And it seems to me that this theory, if correct, could add some great depth and richness to our understanding of Christ.
Special note about pre-comments:
I floated an early draft of this among the bloggers, mostly because I was worried that I was going too far in speculation. I got some great comments back. Some of them related to areas that I was further fleshing out, and have become less relevant as a result, or look kind of dated. But many of them remain very useful critiques, and they’ve all got interesting observations. Also, they were incredibly helpful to me, forcing me to think about how I was explaining this idea.
I tried not to use the pre-comments as a “must respond to this” template — I don’t want to leech off of my co-bloggers’ intellectual horsepower — but in some cases, the comments touched on revisions that I had already planned to make. Also, if you look carefully, I’m sure that you can see some amount of interaction between the pre-comments and my finished post.
Here are some relevant pre-post comments:
It doesn’t make much sense to me. I think our doctrine is fairly clear that before he was born of Mary, Jesus did not have a physical body (the brother of Jared story, for example). And I don’t think any of the things you point to really support your speculation. Heresy? Nah. Out in left field? Probably.
It seems to me, in any case, that you yourself make a very strong case against the speculation. We do, after all, believe that he was born of the virgin Mary.
Whenever I attend the Temple I am struck by Jehovah’s role as creator. We think of creation as being a task of the gods. Yet, according to LDS theology, in order for us to become gods and godesses and emulate God in this role we must become like him, which requires us to receive a body. It has long been a curiosity to me that Jesus seems to be an exception to this. Jesus was a god (Jehovah of the Old Testament) before he ever received a body.
But, my flights of imaginative speculation to explain this are not quite as theologically problematic as I think yours is. At the end you write, ” If Jesus is a fully exalted, resurrected being prior to our entire cycle of existence, then His taking on the form of a human might simply be the act of an all-powerful God, who can take on whatever form he pleases.” There are all sorts of difficulties with this. First, we don’t actually believe that God is omnipotent in the way that this suggests. There are many things that an embodied being, existing in time and space cannot actually do. We also know that God is bound by eternal laws. There are things that were God to do, He would cease to be God (incidentally I think this is one of the most fascinating of all LDS doctrines).
Second, there is a more logical problem. Are you seriously suggesting that God’s only begotten son’s spirit would have been housed in two different bodies? Since a resurrected being cannot die, where would Jehovah’s body have been while his spirit was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth? Do you mean to imply that the body of Jehovah would have been as though dead during Jesus’ mortal ministry? That seems to be the only option if its life force (his spirit) were somewhere else. But, since an immortal body cannot be as though dead, you’ve got a problem. [Editor's note: The prior draft I e-mailed was really unclear on this point, and Melissa's e-mail was key in forcing me to clarify a few things.]
Finally, I’ve always thought that the only reason why God, our Father, wouldn’t have performed the sacrifice of the Atonement for us was the fact that He could not die as a resurrected immortal being. Since the death of the sacrificer was necessary for the Atonement, the Father could not do it. Someone else had to volunteer on our behalf. If Jesus already had a glorified, immortal body, why would he have been the best choice for the Atonement? It seems to me that if Jehovah were already immortal someone still unembodied would have made more sense. However, if immortality could somehow be overridden in the way you suggest, it seems to me that the Father would have performed the Atonement for us Himself.
If you are arguing for “shrinkage and reentry,” into Mary’s womb (which really does sound crazy) then you must be arguing that Jehovah not only had a body in the pre-mortal world (which scripture contradicts) but also that that body was mortal since it was that body that bled and succumbed to death. At the same time you are trying to suggest that God, the Son as Jehovah (for lack of a clear way to discuss this) was already glorified and immortal and omnipotent such that He could do such an amazing feat. This is either an absurd contradiction or you lost me somewhere.