12. Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God

Ernst W. Benz, “Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 201–22.

Imago Dei: Man in the Image of God

Ernst W. Benz


What is the meaning of the Genesis phrase that man is in the image of God? Traditionally one is told: Man is free, man is moral, man has reason. There is too the Hebraic idea that there are divine sparks within man. And there are the related theories that make man a portion—usually a finite and degenerate portion—of some cosmic totality.

Mormonism cannot say a wholehearted yes to any of these traditions. Its vision is more than that man is a little lower than the angels; he is a little lower than the gods. He has the potential to be crowned with glory and honor—or to degenerate to the condition of Satan. The “adding upon” of a body is a step which Christ himself took, not downward, but upward. For the Mormon, man may fall into two debilitating errors: the prideful claim that he is not at present in a fallen and needful state, or the blasphemous humility of considering himself a worm.

Yet in the wake of the Vatican Council more than one Catholic writer has acknowledged that the Mormon understanding of man is in “the small print” of the early Fathers. And though Protestant writers, much inclined to speak of man’s finitude and pride and depravity, tend to find the Mormon hope excessive, even Bonhoeffer, the patron saint of those who speak of the “post-Christian age,” has in his Cost of Discipleship stunning statements that refuse to see man as anything less than a potential Christ. Through such eyes, and the recent Nag Hammadi literature, theologians are looking anew at the New Testament.

Professor Benz brings Mormonism into comparison and contrast with mysticism and ends by showing that the sacred Mormon vision “as God now is, man may become” can be found in Athanasius in the second century—”God became man so that we may become God.”

He then addresses himself to how this view revolutionizes the perceptions and misperceptions of Augustine, of Schelling, and of the mystics, and traces the burden and self-sacrifice, as well as the joy, that arise from accepting fully the heritage and promises of Christ.

T. G. M.

Our understanding of Imago Dei—Man in the Image of God—begins with Augustine, who laid the groundwork for the Christian view of man in all occidental theology through his work about the Trinity.

Augustine poses the question of how one can in an understandable manner depict the mystery of the Divine Trinity; then, after many futile attempts, discovers the following (and in his opinion only) way: Man is created in the image of God; God is triune; therefore, traces of divine trinity—”Vestigia Trinitatis”—must be found in man as the image of God. Augustine now asks a further question: In which aspect of man can such traces be found? As a former Manichean it is obvious that for him such traces are to be found not in the realm of the body but only in the human intellect. He begins with an analysis of the human epistemological process and ascertains that even in the simple act of sensory perception there exists a trinity composed of the viewer (the “mens”), the viewed object, and the impulse of the will which focuses the “acies mentis” on the object and triggers the act of recognition. He then sees the same trinitarian principle again in a higher form involving spiritual understanding, where the object of understanding is not a tangible object in the superficial world anymore but an abstracted idea stored in the “belly of the memory”—“venter memoriae.” The final stage, then, is the act of self-recognition in which the viewer, the mens, takes itself as its own object of understanding and discovers itself as the “Imago Dei.” And lastly, in the highest spiritual act, the mens, driven by its love of God, turns toward the divine Archetype itself.

It is not necessary to dwell here on further details; the important thing is that for this context Augustine’s entire perception of the relationship of God’s image to man’s image is based on the symbol of the mirror. The Imago Dei is a reflection of the Archetype in the human spirit. The symbol of the mirror provides many graphic possibilities: For one thing, the Archetype is only fully mirrored in the reflected likeness when the mirror is fully turned toward that Archetype, when the reflection is completely attuned to the Archetype. Further, the correlation between Archetype and reflection is extinguished or disturbed when the mirror turns from the Archetype toward other objects or when the mirror itself is darkened.

The symbol of the mirror clearly brings forth yet another thought, namely, that for Augustine there exists no essential cohesion between Archetype and reflected image. The reflected image is “a symbol, but alas, only a symbol.” It has nothing of the nature of the Archetype: it mirrors the Archetype on a fundamentally different ontological basis: it is a reflected creatura which has nothing in common with the Being of the Archetype. Ontologically there exists a total discontinuity between Archetype and reflected image. The Augustinian opinion even suggests the thought that the relationship between Archetype and reflection is totally one-sided: reflected man is dependent on the Archetype; he exists only as long as the Archetype cares to mirror itself in him. The Archetype, on the contrary, is not dependent on its reflection. Its freedom—one is even tempted to say its moods—dictates whether it reflects itself or not. Its Being is not impaired whether it is reflected.

Thus the doctrine of Imago Dei has given rise to many different theoretical reflections on the relationship between God and man. Indeed, this concept of man has accompanied the whole history of Christian theology and has been a traditional component of scholarly dogmatics.

It appears to me that the words of the Christian mystics contain reference to new questions which have suddenly made the topic of Imago Dei pertinent again, and they seem to be important to a new religious anthropology which would do justice to our modern feeling about and consciousness of the world. For the mystics are able to overcome precisely the two weaknesses which adhere to the Augustinian comprehension of Imago and his orientation toward the mirror symbol, namely, the limitation of Imago to the purely intellectual sphere, and the absence of any substantial connection between Archetype and reflected image.

The mystics’ view of man is immediately and profoundly determined by their own religious experience, by their personal encounter with the transcendental. Their view of man itself is not an abstract model based on theological premises but is an attempt to think through, to mentally order their own experiences, their overpowering, stirring, and transforming encounter with the transcendental, and to ask: “How is it possible that this kind of experience could take place within me?” Only after this point is reached can the more general reflections begin about the question: “How must man be, how must God be, so that this kind of encounter can take place? What are the spiritual and psychic presuppositions for this in the structure of man that such an outpouring of the transcendental can occur?”

Mystical theology, therefore, whose major component is a certain view of man, is the a posteriori generalization of and the subsequent attempt to logically understand an overpowering experience which was at first incomprehensible. The differences in the interpretations of the mystics depends not so much on differences in the a priori spiritual bias of each mystic given by his religious training and theological instruction, but primarily on differences in the experiences themselves. In the case of one mystic the central sphere of experience is a God mysticism, in which a unification with God is attained; in the case of another, the central experience is an experience with Christ, in which a unification with Christ, the divine Logos, the resurrected Lord, is experienced. Neither type of experience in any way excludes the other.

In the same way contact with the transcendental differs, depending on the spiritual sphere in which the encounter itself occurs. There is a characteristically intellectual mysticism, in which the encounter with the transcendental is perceived as an illumination of the mind, as a brightening of the intellect; and again there is a mysticism in which the encounter with the transcendental is perceived as a unification of the divine and the human will, as a breakthrough of a new divine impulse, as an affective harmony with the divine will, as the ecstasy of the heart, transported into divine rapture. This diversity of mystical experience (intellectual, volitional, and affective mysticism) naturally affects the intellectual interpretation of the experience itself and the conceptual exposition of each individual mystic’s view of man.

Modern theology is widely opposed to every kind of mysticism because it interprets mystical experiences from a purely psychological point of view as mere interior processes which have nothing to do with the transcendental and which, in the last analysis, simply amount to the psychological experiencing of mystical conditions of happiness. But it is simple to see that one cannot explain away the phenomenon of Christian mysticism by means of a certain psychological interpretation. The fact is that mystical experiences exist, and the fact is that these experiences have a powerful effect—in the form of a creative transformation—on the lives of the mystics. The whole history of the Christian Church shows that its very backbone is composed of such personalities, in whom the content of historical Christian revelation—transmitted through documents and mediated through the sacraments and symbols of the Church—was realized and actualized by direct personal encounter with God by having Christ dwell within and by experiencing the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. Thus they became the ones who proclaimed the gospel in the most convincing manner.

When one interprets individually these basic concepts, however, certain thoughts become noticeable in Christian mysticism which overstep the bounds of a traditional dogmatic exegesis of fundamental Christian teachings. For this reason, in the Middle Ages mystics were almost always in conflict with the Inquisition, and Protestant circles led regular disputes with Church authorities.

Of course, even the starting point for the mystical interpretation of the relationship of man to God is boldly presumptuous. The great mystics, who themselves had experienced the “unio mystica” with God, see their experience in a whole new light; they recognize with bewilderment in the encounter with the Divine Thou that God and man are dependent upon each other, that they need each other to fulfill their being. This is perhaps the most radical interpretation of the thought that man is created in the image of God.

Man finds his fulfillment in God, but on the other hand, also, God finds fulfillment for his being only in man, in the unio mystica. The longing of man for his Archetype, God, is fulfilled, as well as the longing of God for his image, man. Here the symbol of the mirror is not prime, but rather is that of God’s “self-portrayal” in man through procreation and birth. God’s “self-portrayal” ensues in the form of his self-realization in the sphere of corporeality. God as “mens manifestativum sui” actualizes himself in his highest form in his image as man by procreating and bearing his own image in man. Long before the historical birth of Jesus Christ, the creation of man already prefigures the “mysterium incarnationis.” Angelius Silesius, who gathered the most important experiences and thoughts of medieval mysticism into aphorisms of the most linguistically perfected kind—made possible no doubt by his own mystical experiences—expresses this ardent mutuality of the God-man relationship in the following epigrams from his Cherubinischen Wandersmann (“The Cherubic Pilgrim”):

God is as much on me, as I on him, dependent, His Being I help be, mine he helps be, resplendent.

I know that without me, God cannot live a minute. If I should come to harm, He must give up the spirit.[1]

No mystic perceived this dual relationship between God and man more strongly than Master Eckhart. His perception can be expressed in the following simple thought: God does not want to be alone. His innermost Being is love. Love, however, can only be fulfilled in the presence of love, freely given in return. God created man in His image and gave him therewith the freedom to turn his full love toward Him and to respond to His love in return, but with this freedom also came the possibility of turning from Him. Indeed, man has misused his freedom; he has loved himself instead of directing his love toward God. But God cannot stop loving man and expecting from him the fulfillment of His love through love freely given in return. He awakens divine love in man by procreating and bearing His Son in human form. The divine, aboriginal fundus is an abyss, out of which divine love wafts before pouring into the human soul to fulfill itself therein.

In one point of the Christian mystic’s view of man, traits are found which were neglected or forgotten in traditional church teachings. These touch mainly on the Christian understanding of man in his relationship to the universe and to nature. The Reformation of the sixteenth century led to the emphasis of all religious and theological concern being shifted to the question about the nature of faith, or, as Luther formulated it, to the question, “How do I acquire a merciful God?” When the theology was confronted with this, the relationship between man and the universe was relegated more and more to the background. The fact that theology ceased to concern itself with the problem of a Christian understanding of the universe did much to emancipate the natural sciences from a theology which had lost its view. Only in the area of mystical anthropology was the old knowledge retained—that in the Creation, the Fall, and in salvation there is a real, eternal connection between man and the universe. This connection was still expressed by mystics like Master Eckhart, who treats it as clearly self-evident, and it is expressed in three ideas which occur again and again in later mysticism, as for example in Johann Arndt, the author of the Four Books on True Christianity.[2] But it is prominent also in the natural theology of Jacob Bohme and his heirs, right down to Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, until it achieved its last universal audience in the nature philosophy of Hegel and Schelling.[3]

The first idea is that there exists an inner connection between man and the universe even so far as the Creation is concerned, since man was created as the “epitome” and “quintessence” of the universe. This is the old Neoplatonic idea of man as the microcosm being resurrected within the framework of Christian Anthropology, naturally in a substantially altered form, not anymore the reflection but the quintessence, the epitome, the “extract” of the universe. In man, all the powers and forms of the universe are brought together; he is the point of intersection and the point of aggregation of all forms and developments of the universe; he is the “final creation” in an almost evolutionary sense. These are ideas that are found again in the Christian mystics among modern anthropologists and paleoanthropologists like Edgar Dacque, for whom the figure of man has always stood as an inner model and key image behind the whole range of forms of life in the plant and animal kingdoms; and, recently, Teilhard de Chardin, who also sees the evolution of life determined by a “hominization” that strives toward its future fulfillment in a greater cosmic Christ.[4]

The second idea is intimated and expressed in the words of the apostle Paul: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the [revelation][5] of the sons of God . . . because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. . . . For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain [with us][6] together until now” (Romans 8:19, 21, 22.) Expressed here is the idea that by the revolt of man against God and by sin, not only man fell to the status of captive, but also the entire creation was pulled downward by man in the Fall and now awaits with man the day of its liberation through God. The idea in its completely natural sense is not so far removed from our thinking today, when we contemplate the devastation of t h e animal kingdom, the pollution of the waters and the atmosphere, and the destruction of nature by industrial and commercial plundering.

The third idea, however, is that God’s work of salvation is not limited to man but encompasses the whole universe. In the renewal of man, and with the restoration of the original divine image in mart, the universe is also brought back into the original order. These thoughts were expressed most clearly and powerfully by Johann Arndt in his Four Books on True Christianity.[7] Behind the title “Four Books on True Christianity” lies the idea of the fourfold self-revelation of God:

1. God revealed himself in man, whom he created in his image.

2. He revealed himself in Jesus Christ, in whose person he returns to man the divine promise of salvation which man himself betrayed.

3. God revealed himself in the holy scriptures, which expound the saving desire of God and awaken faith which leads to salvation.

4. And he revealed himself in nature, which itself is a self-revelation of God.

The fourth book of Johann Arndt, which treats the self-revelation of God in nature, became the basis for all subsequent drafts of a theology of Nature. Nowhere else in mysticism is the unique nobility of man on the one hand, and the inner connection between the salvation of man and the salvation of the universe on the other, so clearly expressed as in Johann Arndt.

The mystical comprehension of the idea of Imago Dei, of the self-portrayal of God in man through the procreation and birth of the Son in man, leads directly, in the last analysis, to the concept of the apotheosis of man. This concept disappeared from church doctrine in the fifth and sixth centuries and never spread to the Roman Catholic Occident, even in the period of the Ancient Church, but it always remained alive in the tradition of Christian mysticism by virtue of the continuity of the mystical experience. Yet European believers who dared to speak about apotheosis in the Christian sense of the renewal of God’s image in man are not to be discussed here, but rather the representatives of an American Church, which—based on the experiences and doctrines of its visionary founder—has made the idea of deification the very foundation of its anthropology, its concept of the community, even its social structure: the Mormon Church. In examining this, of course, I break a European taboo, namely, the rule which is still widespread in European theology even after half a century of ecumenical movements—“Americana non Leguntur,” and the specific prejudice of German theology that Germans somehow have a hereditary right to theology and that American theology does not even exist.

That American theology which bases itself on a continuation of Old and New Testament revelation in the form of a further, definitive one, especially intended for America, is comprised of the teachings of the Mormons, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[8] A unique transformation of the concept of God is the basis for the teachings of Mormonism; that is to say, in the last analysis, the teachings of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith, the founder of this church, maintained, was written on golden plates brought to him by an angel and translated by himself into English with the aid of the Urim and Thummim. This unique transformation of the idea of God led to the astounding achievements which this church has accomplished, achievements that can be demonstrated by the fact that the Church has established Zion anew in a unique cooperative effort in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert in the territory of the modern states of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and California, after enduring persecutions of all kinds and overcoming obstacle after obstacle in first attempting to establish this new Zion in the state of Ohio and later in Missouri.[9]

It is unknown what spiritual tradition provided Joseph Smith (who as the son of a simple settler in Sharon, Vermont, grew up under the difficult conditions of colonization) with his new understanding of God. As a boy he heard the revival sermons of various preachers from various sects who came among the settlers. But what is characteristic about his religious development is precisely that he obeyed the angelic warning to join none of the existing sects, but to prepare himself for the imminent revelation of the eternal gospel whose herald he himself was to be. Today, historians of Christian theology might presume that he picked up by accident some half-understood bits of Schelling’s idea on theogony, the idea of a God who evolves himself in his creation, who grows with it and in it becomes more and more aware of himself—but among the settlers of the Wild West there was no such possibility.

And so the complete reinterpretation which the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes of the orthodox Christian view of God is all the more surprising. To be sure, the holy books of Mormon revelation—the Book of Mormon itself, as well as the Doctrine and Covenants—also speak in an apparently completely orthodox manner about the omnipotence and omniscience of God; they testify that he is the Lord of Creation and of salvation. But what is decisively new about Joseph Smith’s view of God is the idea that God himself participates in the fundamental law of the universe, namely, the law of eternal progression. God himself develops himself with his creations and participates in eternal progression.

Connected to this is, in Joseph Smith, the idea that God did not create the earth out of nothing—the elements of the earth are eternal and uncreated. In this eternal universe there is no dead matter. Matter is full of power and energy; even spirit is matter; spirit and energy belong to the eternal nature of the universe. The activity of God does not consist, then, of creating the universe out of nothing, but of bringing the existing universe of matter, spirit, and energy into a progressive order, to form this given universe more purely and more perfectly, to bring forth order out of chaos. In this activity he himself grows in power and glory as God. The Mormon view of God is a theology of progression and evolution.

But what was God in the beginning? The Mormons’ startling answer to this question is that in the beginning God was man. His relationship to the universe is the same as man’s relationship to the universe. He attempts to rationally form the given universe and make it useful to him. Since he is subject like man to the law of progression, this has to mean that

God must have been engaged from the beginning, and must now be engaged, in progressive development, and infinite as God is, he must have been less powerful in the past than he is today. . . . It is clear also that, as with every other being, the power of God has resulted from the exercise of his will. . . . As knowledge grew into greater knowledge, by persistent efforts of will, his recognition of universal laws became greater until he attained at last a conquest over the universe, which to our finite understanding seems absolutely complete. . . . We may be certain that, through self-effort, the inherent and innate powers of God have been developed to a God-like degree. Thus, he has become God.[10]

This naive formulation of that which Schelling made the basis of his natural theology—the doctrine of theogony—presupposes that the form in which God undertook the progressive organization of the earth was the human form.

Universally accepted among the Mormons is the idea that God has attained his present state of Godhood through his own efforts to organize the universe. In place of the God of conventional orthodox churches, who has always been complete, Mormonism knows of a God who has attained by his own activity, by progressive creative organization of the eternal, material, power-laden universe, a relative dominion over the world—a task which in no wise is complete and which needs further refining by means of more eternal progression. The universe is not yet complete; God has not yet attained the highest degree of his “Godhood.” He has accomplished a great deal since he engaged as an exalted man in the organization of the universe, but he has yet much to do. Progression is infinite.

In our age of space travel it is astonishing to see that this farm boy Joseph Smith, with his violently opposed visions, built his view of the world into a system of plurality of worlds which opens up all the possibilities of a macrocosmic theology. Each system of worlds has its God, who advances with it, who—one is tempted to say—tinkers with it, perfects it, and attempts to organize into higher forms its reluctant powers of spirit and matter, intelligence and energy. Parley P. Pratt, the great first-generation Mormon leader, said in 1855: “Gods, angels and man are all of the same species, they comprise a great family which is distributed over the whole solar system in the form of colonies, kingdoms, nations, etc. The great decisive difference between one part of this race and the other consists in the differing degrees of intelligence and purity and also in the difference of the spheres, which each of them inhabit, in a series of progressive Being.”[11]

There is, therefore, a great number of spirit beings who are all engaged in the climb toward godhood. In “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33) numerous gods, who are all subject to a “Supreme Head,” are still involved in eternal progression.

This idea has also been retained in modern Mormon theology. Apostle John A. Widtsoe writes in his book, A Rational Theology, which appeared in 1937:

Some may be approaching God in power, others may be immeasurably far from the Lord in power, nevertheless immeasurably far above us mortal men of the earth. Such intelligent beings may be as gods to us for they possess to a greater or less degree the quality of Godhood.[12]

Thus, the image of God and man join in the image of the Eternal Man. Man is an image of God because he progressively becomes more and more a god and approaches godhood. The anthropology of the Mormons is expressed in the colossal statement of Lorenzo Snow which became proverbial even in the early days of Mormonism: “As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may become.” Again, it is clear that the image of the Divine Man stands behind this concept. “Man was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29). Man and God are eternal intelligences, members of a great society of eternal beings. In a certain sense, future progression is therefore inherent in the Eternal Man. “We were begotten spirits by God, who thus became our Father, and we his sons and daughters.”[13]

But this eternal man does not enter the world in a completed form; he himself has grown in the Creation of the world, has become that which he is by a gradual progression, and he is not finished by any means. Through endless ages man has risen by slow degrees to his present state. Here begins the eschatology of the Mormons: only in the kingdom of God on earth will human progress attain its highest degree. The goal of the progressive development of man is the divine man. Man is eternal and as such the possessor of “Godlike attributes,” but these must first be formed, improved, developed and perfected in a series of progressive changes, in order to arrive at the fountainhead, the standard, the climax of Divine Humanity. Man is of the same family as God and the Gods, but like God himself he must first unfold his being in an act of self-creation through eternal progression.

How is the step taken, however, from heavenly man who was with God from the beginning, or from the heavenly spirit beings, rather, the heavenly intelligences, to a concrete man of this earth? In the answer to this question, the Mormons’ decisive fundamental anthropological attitude and religious feeling for life is clearly revealed: the heavenly spirits can only develop and perfect themselves in this world of matter, energy, space and time. The spirits press for incarnation in this world of time, space, power, and matter. They receive permission from God himself to take this decisive step which directs their progressive realization of self into the sphere of the body and makes it possible.

Of course, this presupposes one thing: an insistence on the ultimacy of human freedom. The Book of Mormon states: “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way to eternal life.” (2 Nephi 10:23.) In 1830, Joseph Smith proclaimed that the Lord has said of man: “Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself “ (D&C 29:35.)<

Hence the single human individual lived free and unembodied in his heavenly homeland as a rational spirit being—”intelligence,” “acting upon its own agency”—and independent in its own sphere as all rational beings are. (See D&C 30.) On the basis of its own free choice, the heavenly spirit being comes down to this earth to test its abilities in dealing with “coarse” matter and to develop itself in the realm of the body and in mortal time and space. Heavenly man did not ignorantly throw himself into this world, driven by sheer lust—as the Gnostic myth of redemption teaches—but came in full knowledge of the difficulties awaiting him here.

For the descent of the heavenly man into this world was preceded by the “great council in heaven,” in which God taught man that it is possible to develop his power and knowledge with a full consciousness of the difficulties, including death, awaiting him here. The spirit beings who press for incarnation know that death is a condition of corporeal life in time and space, and that suffering death is one of the tasks they have to perform in this world. This great plan was laid before the free spirits for their decision. In a decision of the free will, man continues on the path of eternal progression, under that great law of increasing complexity, “the law of endless development of all the powers of man in the midst of a universe becoming increasingly complex.”[14]

Especially revealing in context with this anthropology is the reinterpretation of the devil. Satan participated in “the great council in heaven.” He proposed to God that in view of the difficulties of man’s test in this new condition of terrestrial existence his agency, his freedom of choice, be taken away, and in its place that he, Satan, be allowed to lead the human family by the “Fuhrer principle” in order to bring each and every one to perfection without allowing anyone’s wrong decisions to endanger him. But God forbade Satan to encroach upon man’s freedom and to make him subject to his will. Rebellion at this refusal of God is the reason for Satan’s fall from the presence of God (Moses 4:1–6). As a result of his expulsion from heaven Satan now attempts to thwart the great plan of God on the earth and rob man of his free will. (See D&C 93:39.) Thus man comes to this earth to continue his development in a universe which is itself still in development.

A lessening or stealing of freedom is evil. This explains why Mormons refuse all stimulants like alcohol, tea, and coffee, as well as sedatives, in most instances, so that they will not be in a condition in which their free-thinking and decision-making processes are hindered.

This anthropology represents the most radical counter-pole to the Calvinistic doctrine of original sin. Mormons do not deny the existence of sin, but they stress that sin often means the choice of wrong means of self-actualization and self-progression. Consequently there is no original sin and therefore no punishment for original sin: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” (Second Article of Faith.) The reality of death belongs to the earthly process of the perfection of man. The heavenly spirits already know in advance that death awaits them as a condition of being in the earth in space, time and corporeality, but they choose this form of progression in the full consciousness that overcoming these difficulties is a means of progression; at this point salvation through Christ begins to acquire meaning.

For this progression of man does not end in death, but continues on in life after death. This further progression, too, is dependent upon the fulfillment of God’s commandments in full freedom and clear understanding. In a revelation of the Lord to Joseph Smith we read: “For if you will that I give unto you a place in the celestial world, you must prepare yourselves by doing the things which I have commanded you and required of you.” (D&C 78:7.) Earthly life is a preparation for future life, a preparation which consists of keeping the commandments of God as they have been given through the revelations of the Bible and of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

The mode of existence after death is also of a corporeal character. Mormons do not hold with a pure, that is, bodiless existence. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes.” (D&C 131:7.) An immaterial being is a contradiction in terms. Immaterialness is just another word for nothingness and is the negation of all existence. Spirit is just as much matter as oxygen or hydrogen. Likewise the concept of the resurrection of the body plays an important role in Mormonism and determines in a decisive way a Mormon’s expectation of the coming kingdom of God.[15]

Mormon marriage practices are of two types—marriage for time, and marriage for time and eternity. Marriage for time binds the marriage partners until “death do you part”; this is the less desirable form of marriage. The second and preferred form of marriage is “marriage for time and all eternity.” It is based on a sacramental ordinance performed in the temple, the “sealing” of the marriage partners and their children to each other for eternity.

Historically Mormons have practiced a third form of marriage, “marriage for eternity.” This form of marriage is performed for men or women who have already died, in instances where the woman either was not married in life or had only been married “until death” and is hence marriageable again after death, that is, eligible for “marriage for eternity.”

These marriages “for time and eternity,” as well as those “for eternity,” will be continued in the next life. Marriage for eternity, therefore, provides the basis for the mutual cooperation of the partners in the infinite progression of the universe. The fathers and mothers of great families will find their fullest exaltation in the life to come and “. . . they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things. . . .” (D&C 132:19.) Thus marriage, by which a husband is sealed into an eternal family unit, is the true path to godhood, and the way of eternal progression which best leads man above.

The theory and practice of birth control naturally finds many vigorous opponents among Latter-day Saints. “There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles. Now, what is our duty? To prepare tabernacles for them; to take a course that will not tend to drive those spirits into the families of the wicked, where they will be trained in wickedness, debauchery, and every species of crime. It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can.”[16]

In no other Christian doctrine is the connection between God and man so closely conceived, the idea of man as the image of God so concretely and literally interpreted, man brought into such close proximity to God, and God, on the other hand, so strongly directed to man, as in Mormonism. The thought of apotheosis in mysticism, which expresses itself there in the idea of the spiritual divine birth in man and in the spiritual procreation of the Son in man and in the progressive deification of man, has been translated here into a theology of evolution and progression, where the path that man travels from his prehistoric to his earthly form of existence to his future corporeal mode of existence in the kingdom of heaven is understood as the path of eternal progression determined by the “Great Plan” of God, which makes possible man’s ascent to godhood. It is not the path, however, of the lonely, celibate mystic, but the way of a great and ever-growing family of Saints in whom the creative, conscious organization of the universe is perfected.

One can think what one wants of this doctrine of progressive deification, but one thing is certain: with this anthropology Joseph Smith is closer to the view of man held by the Ancient Church than the precursors of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin were, who considered the thought of such a substantial connection between God and man as the heresy, par excellence. We must remember here that for the Ancient Church salvation stood in direct correlation to embodiment. Athanasius, the great Bishop of Alexandria, the head of the Church in all Egypt, summarized the Christian doctrine of salvation in the words, “God became man so that we may become God.” The goal of salvation is deification, and Athanasius invokes in this context the words of Jesus: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48.)

A study of the Bible interpretations of the Greek fathers, on which their dogmatic doctrines were based, leads to the surprising discovery that a passage of holy scripture which plays an outstanding role in the biblical foundation of anthropology has totally disappeared from occidental sermon and liturgy, namely Psalm 82:6: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” (“Ego dixi, Dii estis et filii excelsi.”)

In the Gospel according to John, this concept plays a decisive role in the understanding of man and the portrayal of the messianic self-consciousness of Jesus. In John 10:22, the discussion between Jesus and the scribes is depicted. There Jesus speaks the colossal phrase which comprises the key to his messianic self-consciousness: “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30.) This phrase appears to the assembled orthodox Jews to be such a great blasphemy that they raise stones to extract—right on the spot—the punishment prescribed by the law to the party guilty of such blasphemy:

For blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God. Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? (John 10:33–36.)

Jesus takes the passage from Psalms literally as a promise spoken about mankind generally: “Ye are gods,” with a view to the fact that the Word of God came to man, to which thing Jesus clearly attributes the power of deification. Jesus specifically insists that this promise made by God to man—”ye are gods”—has and will retain its validity. The further thought process of Jesus is a conclusion which is common to rabbinic exegesis, “a minori ad Maius”: If God calls all those “god” to whom he has directed his promise, how much more then is that true for me! Jesus interprets the promise, “Ye are gods,” in the sense of salvation for everyone, a divine promise to all men. He does not dispute the universal validity of this phrase but intentionally emphasizes it and brings it out in order to then draw the conclusion about his own divine Sonship.

The theologians of the Ancient Church were not afraid of making the phrase “Dii estis et filii excelsi” the basis of their theological anthropology, nor of connecting it with their doctrine of man as the image of God. Thus Clement of Alexandria, the teacher of the Alexandrian School of Catechism, writes about the perfection of the true Gnostic:

The same occurs with us, whose archetype the Lord was:

By baptism we are illuminated

By illumination we receive the Sonship

By Sonship we attain perfection

By perfection we gain immortality.[17]

He states: “I have said: Ye are gods, and all together are sons of the most high.” The same Clement of Alexandria writes in another part of his “Miscellanies”: “This Gnosticism leads to an infinite and perfect goal.” He describes the life which is attained in this goal as a life which

is given unto us according to the will of God, in the community of the “Gods,” after we are freed of all chastisement and punishment which because of our sins, we have to endure, for the sake of our betterment, which brings salvation. After this release from punishment, praise and honor are granted us, for we shall attain perfection. . . . If we have become “of pure heart” then renewal awaits us in the form of our Lord throughout an eternal present, and such people then receive the name of “Gods,” since they are enthroned together with other “Gods” who have received the first place under their Saviour.[18]

Now, this idea of deification could give rise to a misunderstanding, namely, that it leads to a blasphemous self-aggrandizement of man. If that were the case, then mysticism would, in fact, be the most sublime, most spiritualized form of egoism. But the concept of Imago Dei, in the Christian understanding of the term, precisely does not aspire to awaken in man a consciousness of his own divinity but attempts to have him recognize the image of God in his neighbor. Here the powerful words of Jesus (Matthew 25), which the church fathers connected to Imago Dei, are appropriate. Jesus speaks here about the last judgment and describes the great surprise of those who are being judged. The judgment of the ruling Son of Man will be either acceptance into the kingdom of God or expulsion from the kingdom of God, depending on the attitude of each individual toward the Son of Man. The Son of Man says to those on his right hand:

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

The blessed ones on his right hand are astounded by this communication, and ask:

Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

Thereupon they receive the answer:

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

And the corresponding answer is repeated for the damned at his left hand:

Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matthew 25:34–40, 45.)

Hence, the concept of Imago Dei does not lead toward self-aggrandizement but toward charity as the true and actual form of God’s love, for the simple reason that in one’s neighbor the image of God, the Lord himself, confronts us, and that the love of God should be fufilled in the love towards him in whom God himself is mirrored, that is, in one’s neighbor. Thus, in the last analysis, the concept of Imago Dei is the key to the fundamental law of the gospel: “Thou shalt love God and thy neighbor as thyself,” since thou shouldst view thy neighbor with an eye to the image which God has engraven upon him and to the promise that he has given about him. This comprehension of one’s neighbor as the image of God is contained best in a phrase upon which Ernesto Buonaiuti bases one of his Eranos Lectures, the words of the Lord, not contained in the canonized Gospels but passed on to the Latin fathers of the second century, especially Tertullian. It is certainly authentic, for it represents a summary of the Lord’s words just cited from the Gospel of Matthew: “Vidisti fratrem, vidisti dominum tuum”—”If thou hast seen thy brother, then thou hast also seen thy Lord.”[19]


[1] W. Bölsche, ed., Des Angelus Silesius Cherubinischer Wandersmann, 1675 authorized edition (Jena and Leipzig, 1905). Includes an essay: “Uber den Wert der Mystik für unsere Zeit” (“On the Worth of Mysticism for Our Time”).

[2] J. Arndt, Vier Bucher vom Wahren Christentum, 4th ed. (Berlin: Evangelischer Bücher-Verein, 1853).

[3] Ernst Benz, Schellings Theologische Geistesahnen (Wiesbaden, 1955). See also Ernst Benz, Les Sources Mystiques de la Philosophic Romantique Allemande (Paris, 1968).

[4] Ernst Benz, Schöpfungsglaube und Endzeiterwartung (Munich, 1965).

[5] Translator’s note: Here the King James and Luther Bibles differ. Luther translates Offenbarung (revelation), but the King James has manifestation.

[6] Translator’s note: Here Luther adds “mit uns,” which can only be inferred from the Greek.

[7] J. Arndt, op. cat.

[8] The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1961).

[9] Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago, 1966); Nels Anderson, Desert Saints: The Mormon Frontier in Utah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); and R. Mullen, Die Mormonen: Geschichte einer Glaubensbewegung (Weilheim, 1968).

[10] John A. Widtsoe, A Rational Theology, 5th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1946), pp. 24–25.

[11] Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 7th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1915), p.39.

[12] Widtsoe, op. tit., p. 26.

[13] Ibid., p. 32.

[14] Ibid., p. 23.

[15] Directly connected to the concept of these heavenly intelligences desiring a body out of free will and in order to be tested and perfected here on this earth, is a doctrine which was of the greatest significance to the preservation of the Mormon community but which is so strange to others that they would hardly make the connection, namely, the teaching and practicing of polygamy. Spirits press forward to earth and desire a body. The ruling system of monogamy in nowise does justice to the population pressure of the heavenly world of spirits. The problem of overpopulation is a problem for heaven, not a problem for the earth. Earth has room for all, but the process proceeds too slowly; the spirits who press for incarnation are getting impatient. Monogamy offers only modest possibilities, with the help of only one spouse, of doing justice to the spirits who desire bodies. So the establishment of polygamy makes room here, shortens the queue for those spirits waiting for incarnation. Joseph Smith had exactly the opposite concern as his contemporary, Pastor Malthus, who died in 1834, four years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, and who in his alarming treatise, “Essay on the Principle of Population,” which first appeared anonymously in 1798, depicted the menacing danger of the overpopulation of the earth. Joseph Smith’s optimistic doctrine of the eternal progression and development of life in the universe would have made Malthus’s fears seem laughable to the Prophet Joseph—in the event he knew about them—because he was concerned about the overpopulation of heaven, the population pressure of the heavenly spirit beings who wished to come down to this earth to get the chance to perfect themselves, but who were hindered in their arrival on this earth by laws requiring monogamy which had been passed by apostate Christians of the first centuries in contrast to the order of polygamy of the Old Testament.

Mormon polygamy, which later was repealed under the pressure of United States legislation and after a highly brutal campaign of federal police against Mormon polygamist families, was taken from the earth but kept intact by Mormons for the coming paradise in heaven—one can today as a Mormon take more than one wife from among those who are deceased. Mormon polygamy has nothing to do with sexual debauchery but is tied to a strict patriarchal system of family order and demonstrates in the relationship of the husband to his individual wives all the ethical traits of a Christian, monogamous marriage. It is completely focused on bearing children and rearing them in the bosom of the family and the Mormon community. Actually, it has a very great measure of selflessness, willingness to sacrifice, and sense of duty.

The purpose of polygamous marriages is not fulfilled only on this earth. Polygamous marriage is an essential part of the process of perfection and eternal progress and reaches beyond this earth into eternity; at least the true, religious marriage does.

[16] Brigham Young in Journal of Discourses, vol. 4, p. 56.

[17] Clemens von Alexandrien, Werke, ed. O. Stählin, in the series Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte (1905–1936).

[18] Ibid.

[19] E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, Neutestamentliche Apokryphen in Deutscher Ubersetzung. Vol. 1, Evangelien (Tübingen, 1959); Vol. 2, Apostolisches, Apokalypsen und Verwandtes (Tübingen, 1964).