Dustin Phelps, a Mormon writer on the “Happiness Seekers” website, has written a blog article on “The Alarming Truth about Anti-Mormonism.” Within a few days it had over 30,000 “shares” on social media. In his article, Phelps claims “to expose what anti-Mormonism is and what its objectives really are.” The objective is to make Mormons become atheists:
Anti-Mormonism isn’t just about getting people to lose faith in our Church, it’s about getting people to lose faith in God, in Christ, in revelation, in religion. Once you’ve tasted the sweetest and most perfect form of Christianity, where else will you go when you leave?
Phelps arrives at this conclusion by the following reasoning:
- “Basically every reason to doubt Mormonism is a good reason to doubt Christianity.”
- Thus, arguments against Mormonism are really arguments against Christianity.
- Once people lose faith in Christianity, they become atheists.
- Therefore, presenting arguments against Mormonism turns Mormons into atheists.
He also restates his argument as follows:
- Any arguments against Joseph Smith being a prophet also apply to the biblical prophets.
- Thus, once one accepts arguments against Joseph Smith being a prophet, one has no sources of revelation about Christ and God that one can accept.
- Therefore, any arguments against Joseph Smith as a prophet lead people to abandon belief in Christ and God.
Let’s look at these arguments, both of which turn on their first premises. Phelps explains why reasons to doubt Mormonism are also reasons to doubt Christianity. For example, he writes:
Not enough archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon? Feel like some of the archaeological evidence might contradict the Book of Mormon? The same is true of the Bible.
This common LDS claim is quite erroneous because it does not characterize the problem with the Book of Mormon accurately. The problem is not that there is not enough archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon or that some of the archaeological evidence appears to contradict the Book of Mormon. The problem is that there is zero manuscript evidence for the existence of the Book of Mormon in any form prior to 1829, zero copies of any portion of it in the supposed original language, zero archaeological evidence for Israelites in the Mormons’ preferred location for its claimed ancient events, zero evidence for any of the individuals said to have lived in the New World, and abundant evidence (from archaeology, genetics, compositional analysis, comparison with the King James Version, the treasure-hunting context of the Book of Mormon, the convoluted response to the loss of 116 pages of the manuscript, and so on) that the Book of Mormon is a modern fiction. Its peoples arrive in the New World at the wrong times and from the wrong places; they speak the wrong languages and adhere to the wrong religious beliefs to be the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica. They have the cultural values, theological controversies, and religious issues of Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century Anglo-American society and not of ancient Mesoamerican society. You could count on one hand the number of non-Mormon scholars who have taken anything at all in the Book of Mormon seriously as history and still have fingers left over.
The situation is dramatically different with the Bible. There is a continuous stream of manuscript evidence for the New Testament writings going back to the second century and for the Old Testament manuscript evidence as early as the sixth century BC. In both cases there is a plethora of manuscripts in the original languages. The major physical locations of the Bible—rivers, seas, lands, cities—have always been public knowledge. No one disputes, for example, where to find the Jordan River or the Sea of Galilee or Macedonia or Ephesus. In some instances we know the precise spot, within a few feet, of where specific events took place, especially in Jerusalem. Many of the individuals mentioned in the Bible are known from outside sources, including many of the Israelite kings and the Gentile rulers with whom they tangled, the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius mentioned in the New Testament, and even John the Baptist and Jesus himself. The peoples, languages, religions, cultures, and issues addressed in the Bible reflect the ancient settings of the biblical writings.
Mormon scholars have some explanations for these and other dramatic differences between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but the point is that no explanations would be necessary if the evidence for the Book of Mormon was comparable to the evidence for the Bible. It isn’t, and that’s the problem.
Don’t like polygamy or that two of Joseph’s plural wives were 20 years his junior? You’ll see the same trend for the prophets of old.
In my article responding to the now infamous 2014 Gospel Topics article discreetly entitled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” which is actually about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, I explain that the age differences between Joseph and some of his teenage plural wives was not the main problem. I identified six ways in which his polygamy had no precedent in the practice of the patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament (“The LDS Church Addresses Joseph Smith’s Polygamy”):
- Joseph claimed that God commanded polygamy on certain occasions—contrary to the Bible.
- Joseph’s plural wives included at least one mother and daughter, Patty and Sylvia Sessions. The Bible explicitly prohibits such marriages (Lev. 18:17).
- Joseph’s plural wives included three pairs of sisters—Zina and Presendia Huntington (both married), Emily and Eliza Partridge, and Maria and Sarah Lawrence. The Bible explicitly forbids a man to take a woman and her sister as wives (Lev. 18:18).
- Joseph’s plural marriages were done in secret and against the law of the land. This was of course not the case with the Old Testament polygamists.
- Joseph’s plural wives included at least a dozen women who had living, legal husbands. There is absolutely no biblical precedent or justification for this practice.
- Joseph lied about practicing polygamy even while his own scripture denounced the practice; no biblical patriarch, prophet, priest, or king did that.
The Phelps article continues:
Joseph Smith offends Western sensibility? Not nearly as badly as prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. A quick gander at the Old Testament shows that Joseph Smith has a relatively immaculate record (based on Western standards) compared to many of the prophets who came before him.
The astute reader will notice that this is the second time Phelps has compared Joseph Smith to Old Testament prophets who lived well over a thousand years before Christ. You might be wondering why Joseph is not being compared to Peter, Paul, or John. The question practically answers itself. The Old Testament prophets whom Phelps mentions here lived during eras when few if any of the books of the Bible had yet been written, when virtually everyone around them were outright pagans, and when Jesus had not yet come, taught, died, and risen. Joseph lived 1800 years after Jesus’ coming and had the Bible and eighteen centuries of developing Christian culture and values from which to learn. To hold Joseph to the standard of men who lived three and four thousand years ago and even longer is ridiculous. Even if those men’s behaviors would be deemed as offensive as Phelps suggests (he gives no specifics whatsoever, so his claim is at this point empty), Joseph clearly should be held to a higher standard.
Notice also that the basis for this comparison is vaguely said to be “Western sensibility” and “Western standards.” That is simply not the basis on which we view Joseph as a false prophet. He is a false prophet because he claimed to be a prophet but failed every biblical test of a prophet.
Phelps concludes with this statement:
So, for LDS members (particularly RMs [returned missionaries] and life-long members), Christianity itself hinges upon the question, “Was Joseph Smith really a prophet?”
They may very well feel that way. However, clearly they are mistaken. The following three statements are all hypothetically conceivable:
- Jesus rose from the dead and appeared as the risen Son to Joseph Smith.
- Jesus rose from the dead and did not appear as the risen Son to Joseph Smith.
- Jesus did not rise from the dead and did not appear as the risen Son to Joseph Smith.
However, the following statement is not hypothetically conceivable:
- Jesus did not rise from the dead but he appeared as the risen Son to Joseph Smith.
The first statement envisions the scenario in which Mormonism is true. The second statement envisions the scenario in which Christianity (in some form, not necessarily evangelical or orthodox Christianity) is true but Mormonism is false. The third statement envisions the scenario in which Christianity (in some form) is false and so is Mormonism. All three of those statements make sense; hypothetically, apart from any consideration of the facts, all of them are coherent, possible ideas. The fourth statement, however, is simply incoherent. It is impossible for Jesus to have appeared as the risen Son to anyone if Jesus did not rise from the dead. The fourth statement is self-contradictory, since it both affirms and denies that Jesus rose from the dead.
What we see from these four statements is that the truth of Mormonism depends on Christianity (in some form) being true, but the reverse is not the case: the truth of Christianity does not depend in any way on Mormonism being true. For Mormonism to be true but Christianity false, the fourth statement would have to be true, but it cannot be true because it is self-contradictory. On the other hand, Christianity can be true and Mormonism be false (statement #2). Thus, in order for Mormonism to be true, Christianity in some form must be true; but if Mormonism is false, it does not follow at all that Christianity is also false.
We can look at it another way. Consider the following argument:
If Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith, then Jesus rose from the dead (and Christianity is true).
Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith (if Mormonism is true).
Therefore, Jesus rose from the dead (if Mormonism is true).
The above argument is a logically valid argument. The conclusion (“Jesus rose from the dead”) follows logically from the two premises. On the other hand, the following argument is not logically valid:
If Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith, then Jesus rose from the dead (and Christianity is true).
Jesus did not appear to Joseph Smith (if Mormonism is false).
Therefore, Jesus did not rise from the dead (if Mormonism is false).
The above argument is not valid; that is, the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. It commits the formal fallacy known as denying the antecedent. (“If Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith” is the antecedent; the statement in the second premise, “Jesus did not appear to Joseph Smith,” denies the antecedent.) An argument that reaches a conclusion by denying the antecedent is logically invalid. (Here’s another example of the same fallacy: If John is a husband, then he is a man; John is not a husband; therefore, John is not a man.) If Jesus did not appear to Joseph Smith, this tells us that Mormonism is false, but it tells us nothing about whether Christianity is true or false.
Thus, even if Mormons feel that they cannot believe in Christ if they can no longer believe in Joseph Smith, their feeling is not in accord with the truth. They are not thinking rationally if they draw that conclusion; rather, this feeling is subjective. It tells us something about them and specifically their state of mind, but not about whether Christianity is true. What about people living in the year 1720, a century before Jesus supposedly appeared to Joseph Smith? Did they have no reason to believe that Christianity was true?
I have nothing but sympathy for Mormons who subjectively feel that if Mormonism is false they cannot believe in Christ at all. It is totally understandable that a Mormon who has discovered that Mormonism is false would become disillusioned with all religion. Most people who leave their religion go through at least a temporary period of time in which they retreat from religious activity. Mormons are especially reluctant to consider other forms of Christianity. The LDS Church has fed its people lies about traditional Christianity: They have been told over and over again that Mormonism is Christianity, that the LDS Church is the only true church, that any form of Christianity without the Mormon priesthood is devoid of spiritual power, and that non-Mormon Christianity is apostate and inspired by the devil. Mormons are taught that traditional Christians do not know the purpose of life, do not know about God’s love for them, and worship a false god and a false Christ. No wonder that former Mormons are averse to other ways of following Christ.
The reality is that the evidence shows that Jesus rose from the dead but did not appear to Joseph Smith. This is just one of many good reasons to conclude that Christianity is true but Mormonism is not. The purpose of Christians seeking to share this perspective with Mormons is not to make them atheists but to encourage them to rest their faith in Christ on a solid, secure foundation that will not give way when shaken by the facts. There are indeed atheists that are trying to tear down not just Mormonism but all forms of Christianity. They will continue to do so unfazed by Phelps’s alarm, since they want Mormons to become atheists like them. What we as Christians seek to do is to present Mormons with an alternative to the false either/or. One does not need to choose between believing Mormonism—despite the uncomfortable facts about the religion and its history of cover-up and prevarication—and disbelieving in God. What is often called “anti-Mormonism” is, for us, an act of service to Mormons in the name of Jesus Christ, an attempt to speak the truth in love to honor the Lord and to help those who are struggling between two unacceptable options.
If you are a believing Mormon and are confident in your religion, that is your business and I have no interest in forcing my criticisms of Mormonism down your throat. Read what you choose to read and reach your own conclusions. If you are a doubting Mormon or a former Mormon, I want you to know that even if you conclude that the evidence shows that Mormonism is false, you can still believe that God loves you and that Christ died for you. Moreover, you can find a firm foundation for that faith in the Bible. All is not lost. Christianity as a religion, as a movement of hundreds of millions of people, is far from perfect, but we have a solid hope that we would love to share with you. Christ has risen. The biblical gospel is true. You can know God. Let us help you. We will answer your questions to the best of our ability. If you wish, we will connect you with former Mormons who have struggled with the same kinds of issues you are experiencing, either in online forums (both open and closed) or one-on-one online. We ask nothing from you in return. We would love to hear from you.