What Are the Odds?

POSTED BY: holzapfel


Several years ago, a former student wrote me to express his concerns about our doctrinal teaching that the Church of Jesus Christ was the “only true and living church” (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). He had come to believe that such a position was arrogant and prideful. Additionally, he questioned the idea that he could have been so fortunate to be in the right church when so many others were not. He thought this was so statistically unlikely that it was illogical to believe it.

Certainly I recognize that, like all nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and any other formal or informal groups, the Church of Jesus Christ contains both good and bad members?some who attempt to live close to the ideals of the gospel and others who do not. However, I have come to categorically reject broad generalizations about any group?whether they be about Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, or the politically liberal or conservative. In my study and experience, I have found that no denomination, group, family, or nation can be so easily defined by such stereotypes.

In the years since this exchange, I have often thought about my former student’s notion that it is illogical for a person to believe that he had been born into the one true Church, because it is statistically improbable that he would have been one of the lucky few, given the billions of people who have lived and will live upon the earth. Consider the logic of his approach. As I told students in a world history class I teach, “No ancient monarch or ruler lived as well as you do?you have clean water, abundant food sources (both in terms of quality, diversity, and quantity), dental and medical services, educational, recreational, and entertainment choices, and finally economic and political freedoms beyond anything that people living in the past could have even imagine.” If my former student were right, it would be illogical to accept that we could be so favored to live in an age of opulence, convenience, and comfort enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the earth’s inhabitants.

I have reflected often on the idea that believing that we belong to the one true church would necessarily make a person arrogant and proud. Certainly there are plenty of privileged people who are arrogant and proud because of their good fortune. But there are many, many others living in modern pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous societies who instead feel that their many blessings place great social responsibilities on their shoulders. They feel duty-bound to devote their time, resources, and energy to helping others less fortunate. And that is precisely the answer to my former student. There are some, perhaps many, in the Church who are indeed arrogant and proud, but there are many others who understand that the privileges of membership also require us to devote everything we have to helping others obtain the same advantages that we enjoy. Where much is given, much is required.

I do not know why I was born in the West in a time of such unprecedented opportunities with all the miraculous inventions, life-saving technical and medical advances, and expanded freedoms and liberties that are available. But I do know that we are now living a lifestyle that most in earth’s history could not imagine. Such knowledge has humbled me and compelled to me be sensitive to the larger world by learning about the challenges people face and to do something about it by helping, supporting, and donating to other worthy causes that help people have food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, and educational opportunities—beyond contributing to the Church’s humanitarian fund.

What are the odds of being so blessed? I don’t know, but I realize that I have an opportunity to do something with what I have been given.


  1. What are the odds of being born in the lineage of that wonderful emerald isle of Ireland? Truly one of the greatest blessings ever bestowed upon a lowly human in the history of mankind!

    Comment by Michael — April 16, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  2. It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that the blessings of the more-than-adequate accessibility to food, shelter, clothing, etc., might be seen as being barely sufficient to offset some of the more undesirable aspects of modern living; temptations abound to pervert the technologies that we take for granted, and the abundance of “food” has made many of us overweight and obese, and that tendency is on the increase.

    As a IT worker, my skill sets are of little value to others in the ward who might be in need of more traditional, physical skills should they be in need of help with obtaining better shelter. Other ward members who do construction work, or have plumbing, electrical, foundation-pouring, and roofing skills, for example, serve the other members of their ward more readily than I. I can volunteer to grab a sledge hammer and do demolition work, for example, but beyond that, I’m not much help.

    Comment by Mark N. — April 16, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  3. I say the next time a student presses you on a question like that you just point out that there is room for universalistic thinkers in Mormonism. No need to have someone fall away over things we don’t really understand after all.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 16, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  4. I would suggest that even if you chose any of the world’s largest religions, you’re student would face essentially the same dilemma. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, etc, etc, with their hundreds of millions and billions. It doesn’t matter which of those you pick, the clear majority of humanity has lived without knowing pretty much anything about them. Now granted, several of the eastern religions have philosophies that say that doesn’t matter. But here’s the rub: in a way, we kind of say the same thing! Not that ultimately knowing truth isn’t the matter. But whereas Hinduism or Buddhism and the like say you’re on an eternal path (in their case of reincarnation) that can eventually get you where you’re going no matter what kind of life you were born into now, well we too answer the question in a similar way saying we’re on an eternal path and that whatever circumstances this life tosses you are the ones you need to get to your eternal mansion. Yes, in a very different way from eastern philosophies, but we’re basically saying that the Restored Gospel (or the ancient version before it needed to be restored) is the full package, and that if you don’t get a chance in this life, well you’ll be judged on what you did with what you did have in this life and then the rest’ll get filled in in the Spirit world before judgement day.

    That is how I’ve always thought that question is adequately answered. Or at least one of the key parts of how to answer it.

    Comment by Jamal — April 16, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  5. Well put. I have often reflected on the same.

    Comment by Deila — April 16, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

  6. I remember reading something a while back that said (in effect) that the laws of probability not only reflect the odds of a given circumstance, they also reflect the necessity of its possibility. Essentially, if the odds are one in six that I roll a given number on a six-sided die, the odds are against me. But the odds also state that that number must come up at some point.

    The odds may be against one particular person being born into the church, but it has to happen to somebody.

    Comment by Palad — April 17, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  7. Fantastic.

    And I would add that no matter what background you come from, believer, atheist, agnostic,
    whatever virtually all human beings have the reason and judgment to
    choose between good and evil. They can choose to abuse or take care of
    their bodies. They carry the same godlike powers of procreation. I do
    not think the fact that the vast majority of humanity will never grace
    the doors of an LDS chapel in any way frustrates God’s plan, or
    exempts them from the essential tests of mortality.

    Comment by ADH — April 17, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  8. God works within the realm of ‘odds’? I don’t think that the issue stated by this student is the issue. Perhaps a review of faith would be helpful – beginning with the characteristics, attributes and perfections of our creator.

    Comment by David James — April 25, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  9. There is only one true and living Christ who wrought out an infinite atonement for all humankind. He is the Savior and Redeemer of the world. It is He who directs His true and living Church. Just as there is only one true and living Christ there is only one true and living Church. He has called prophets, seers, and revelators in order to communicate His will to the inhabitants of the earth.

    As has been so eloquently and forcefully reiterated by one of his servants:
    “[Jesus] said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”7

    Jesus Christ is the Way. He is Light and Life, Bread and Water, the Beginning and the End, the Resurrection and the Life, the Savior of the world, the Truth, and the Way.

    There is only one way to happiness and fulfillment. He is the Way. Every other way, any other way, whatever other way, is foolishness.

    He offers a well of living water. Either we drink and never thirst more, or we don’t and foolishly remain thirsty still.

    He is the Bread of Life. Either we eat and hunger no more, or we don’t and foolishly remain weak and hungry still.

    He is the Light of the World. Either we follow Him and see clearly, or we don’t and foolishly remain blind and in darkness still.

    He is the Resurrection and the Life. He said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”8 Either we learn of Him and have life more abundantly,9 or we don’t and foolishly remain dead still.

    He is the Savior of the world. Either we accept the blessings of His Atonement and are made clean and pure, worthy to have His Spirit, or we don’t and foolishly remain alone and filthy still.

    He is the Way.” Indeed.

    Comment by vwm — April 28, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

  10. Yes that is true. I do believe that everything does and always will happen for a reason. SO maybe these so called arrogant people are about not to be a menace but to test our faith to the one above. I think the same could be said for all religions too.

    Comment by Wakefield Plumbing — May 1, 2009 @ 4:35 am

  11. I very much agree with you that we have been born at a wonderful time with numerous opportunities, and because of that we have a responsibility to share. I often hear youth today (and in our day as well) comment about being the “Chosen Generation” and I tell them that means they were “chosen” to do the work–missionary, temple, service etc.

    Comment by Lori Wagner — May 7, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

  12. Very good article, very usefull!!

    Comment by Emerson — May 23, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment