Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"Why do I do what I do?" or, "What motivates my decisions?"

The recent discussion in the comments section of a previous post has me wanting to further explore why exactly it is we make the decisions we do and incorporate these thoughts into the universalism debate.

As far as rational humans are concerned, I believe the motives an individual has for choosing x are quite limited. Taking ice cream as an example, an individual will choose or not choose a flavor depending on the foreseen consequences of such a choice. In scenario A, an individual chooses mint chocolate chip because he sees it as a good or desirable choice. Perhaps it is his favorite flavor, or perhaps he chooses it because he has never tried it before and wants to expand his horizons. Regardless of his motives, what we can almost certainly say is that he will not make a choice that he sees as harmful. If our subject knows mint chocolate ice cream causes him to break out in a painful rash, if it tastes like bile, or any other of a number of unpleasant possibilities, it is very probable, if not guaranteed, that he will not select that specific flavor.

Rational human beings do not typically choose things that are undesirable simply because they are undesirable, and as the level of undesirability increases, the likelihood that it will be chosen decreases. Our very nature and biological make-up screams out at us to avoid such decisions. As you read this you may think to yourself "I could go make an undesirable choice right now if I so wished." Perhaps you have in mind touching a hot stove and you think this would prove my case wrong, but keep in mind that, while burning your hand in and of itself is undesirable, the further satisfaction of winning an argument turns this action into one that is desirable. I am confident that you would not intentionally hold your hand to a hot stove if not for some sort of satisfaction. Our motives cannot be separated from the berceived outcomes and subsequent benefits that arise from such a decision.

Let us now incorporate the above into the question of who goes to hell and why they go to hell. Within what may be called the high church circle, comprised of (but not limited to) Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians is an idea that God does not forcefully send souls to hell against their own will. Instead, those who find themselves in that most horrendous of states are there by their own choosing. As C.S. Lewis states in The Great Divorce, the gates of hell are locked from the inside, by those who choose by their own volition to remain in their suffering.

This view is a lot more easy to swallow than the idea that God forces us into the abyss against our own will, but upon closer examination I believe it may make less sense. If we hold that to really choose something, in a "you are responsible for your decisions" sort of way, is to understand what you are choosing, it becomes difficult to imagine how choosing eternal damnation could even be a possibility. If we say that hell isn't actually that bad, perhaps akin to Mormonism's Telestial kingdom where souls can still be happy, then the choice seems much more plausible, but most Christians want to maintain that hell consists only of suffering, perhaps the worst sufferings imaginable. Could an individual in possession of their faculties really choose endless suffering?

Perhaps one could fall into eternal suffering as a result of insanity, but would a good God allow such insanity to persist? Perhaps an individual could initially reject God but eventually regret his decision. Does God's mercy and willingness to forgive cease after death? Perhaps we lose our ability to choose after death. Without free will, can we still be considered human?

We make our choices based on perceived desires. Seeing that the characteristics of hell make it less desirable than eternal joy or peace it necessarily follows that a rational human being will not make a decision that will leave them without satisfaction.

I would like to note that my inclination towards Christian Universalism is not rooted in its being easy. I have altered my opinion of difficult things before after considering the arguments for and against (abortion, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation). I am a universalist for the same reason I am pro life. I considered the arguments both for and against and found universalism more compelling, both intellectually and emotionally. That being said, I strive to be open to changing my perspectives if they are false and for this reason I welcome any comments on this matter.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The not-so unique beliefs of Latter-day Saints

Many of my LDS friends and acquaintances are familiar and well-read in both their own and other faith traditions. They are aware of the problematic aspects of LDS history and some even acknowledge problems in LDS theology that lead them to question and struggle with their faith; however they persevere and choose to remain faithful in spite of these struggles. One reason that has been given for this continued commitment is the unique truths that the LDS Church has revealed and/ or preserved. There are certainly things unique to the LDS tradition, and the specific amalgamation of beliefs is certainly unmatched, but taken individually many of these supposed truths are seen to be more of a polemical misunderstanding or can be found in other faith movments and traditions that predate the foundation (or restoration if you believe the claims of Joseph Smith Jr.) of the LDS faith. In this post I will look at just a few examples: Eternal Marriage, Eternal Families, continuing revelation, and Baptism for the Dead.

Note: I acknowledge the reality that the similarities between the LDS faith and other faith traditions by no means disproves the faith, and are even to be expected if it truly is a restoration of an ancient form of Christianity. My goal in this post is not to disprove the LDS faith, but to reveal similarities between LDS beliefs and the beliefs of other faiths of which people may be unaware.

Eternal Marriage
I think it first important to note that the use of eternal in this phrase is dissimilar from the way in which eternal is used elsewhere. When Mormons speak of Eternal Marriage they do not mean timeless, having always existed as many Christians and other theists often mean when they use the term, but rather everlasting. Thus Eternal Marriage might be better communicated as everlasting marriage, since the classical theist might otherwise think Mormons believe they have always been married to their spouse.

To my knowledge the belief in eternal marriage, at least in the West, is not widespread, but there are two traditions that come to mind that share the LDS belief in eternal marriage: Swedenborgian and Islam.

Emanuel Swedenborg
Emmanuel Swedenborg
Swedenborgians, also known as the New Church, is a Christian movement shaped by the writings of the 17th century theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg. In his work The Delights of Wisdom Pertaining to Marriage Love, Swedenborg states "Marriage that is truly spiritual lasts forever, even in heaven after death. There, the two remain male and female as to form, and become one angel as to their soul. As a couple they live a life of useful service in the Lord's Heavenly Kingdom, which is perfected to eternity. If a person dies unmarried he or she will find a spouse in heaven." While this statement highlights some differences between the LDS and Swedenborgian concept of heavenly marriage, it also highlights striking similarities, such as the idea that those who do not marry on earth will marry in heaven.

A major part of the Islamic view of heaven is the idea that one will experience both spiritual and physical pleasures in their heavenly bliss, marriage being included among these pleasures. The website Questions on Islam has the following to say:

"Eating, drinking and marrying are regarded among the highest bounties of Paradise. According to the statements of the Quran and hadiths, the family life that is established in the world will continue forever if both spouses deserve to go to Paradise; their marital relations will go on endlessly..."


"The believing men and women who died before they got married in the world will be married in Paradise; all of the single people will be married there."

The Christian belief in temporal marriage, and how it is often misunderstood by Mormons

The popular position pertaining to marriage, being that marriage ceases at death, stems from Matthew 22:30, where Christ states "For in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven." Because of the unique way in which Mormons are conditioned to view marriage, the idea of marriage ending is a horrible thought. I wager that this is so because Mormons equate marriage ending with two individuals being separated from one another. By better understanding the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, one discovers that the relationship between a husband and wife in this life does not end at death, but is instead transformed. This is because of what sort of thing the marital union is, according to the Christian.

In the Christian worldview, marriage carries with it several purposes. It is a monasticism of sorts wherein the individual is able to learn to better love and serve another, overcoming the vice of self-centeredness and allowing one to grow closer to God. Marriage also acts as a conduit for the creative powers that allow for the nurturing of new souls that can come to know God and eventually live in his presence. Thus the purpose of marriage, and thus the kind of thing marriage is, is to unify one's self to another individual in a way that distinct from other relationships one may have and provide a nurturing environment for any children that may result from this union. In light of this definition one can see reason Christians don't believe in marriage in heaven- it isn't needed. Unity will have been achieved and procreation will no longer be necessary. This does not mean that one will no longer know and love their former spouse. They may even spend time together, walking around heaven hand in hand. Who knows? It just means their union will no longer meet all the requirements for what a marriage is, and thus will not be a marriage in this sense. 

Eternal Families

Much of what has been said above regarding Eternal Marriage can be applied to the idea of eternal families. It is not that Christians and other non-Mormon faiths deny that we will be together in heaven; instead it is that they understand the nature of these families differently. Mormons believe that, in order for the family bond to be preserved in the hereafter, a special rite called "sealing" must be carried out. Traditional Christians and individuals of other faith traditions believe that no such rite is necessary. If you make it to heaven you are automatically integrated into one big happy family consisting not only of the family members you had on earth, but everyone else in heaven as well.

For further reading on this subject, my friend at "Saints and Saints" has written a post titled Top 11 Things Every Mormon Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy in which he addresses this subject.

Baptism for the Dead

The reasoning behind this practice is pretty straight-forward. Christ and his disciples teach that one must be baptized to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Since baptism, from the earliest days of the Christian movement, has been done by water, many Christian faiths have continued this practice. Where the LDS faith is unique among modern Christian faiths is their practice of baptizing on behalf of the deceased.

Christ's very words explicitly command baptism: "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit." (John 3:5, NIV) Either salvation is limited to the relatively few humans who have been baptized by water during their mortal existence, Christ's words here are not to be taken literally, or there must be a means by which those who have died may be baptized. Many Christians, uncomfortable with the idea that salvation should be a lottery of sorts, or completely predestined against our will, have rejected the first view. They may say that only those who know they ought to be baptized must be baptized. Others argue that there is more than one way to be baptized. Some are baptized by water while others experience a spiritual baptism in the life to come. Regardless of which idea they choose, it seems difficult to get around Christ's own words.

The LDS faith believes they have solved this problem through the practice of Baptisms for the Deam, a ritual in which a living person is baptized in the name of a deceased individual. Other faiths, including early fringe Christian sects, the New Apostolic Church, Old Apostolic Church, and the non-Christian Mandaeans in Iraq also have a similar practice. On one level this ritual makes a great deal of sense, especially in light of Christ's statement; however there remain two problems. First, only those for whom the LDS church has genealogical records may have this baptism-by-proxy done in their name. This means that the vast number of individuals who have and will come into the world that evade the LDS radar are still out of luck. Second, when a person is baptized, it is their whole person, body and spirit, that is being immersed. It seems that in order for a baptism-by-proxy to be efficacious, the spirit of the deceased individual would have to somehow become the person being baptized, which I believe the LDS faith rejects.


In 7,000 years of recorded human history various religious and spiritual ideologies have arisen. It is no surprise, then, that the LDS faith is found to be less unique in some respects than many Mormons believe. That being said, it remains unique in its combination of beliefs. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Bishop of Rome in the Early Church

Numerous issues and disputes prevent reconciliation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. Among these issues and disputes none is more crucial than the role the Roman Church and its bishop ought to play in the Christian Communion as a whole.

The Roman Catholic Church claims that this primacy belongs not to the Church of Rome, but the Bishop of Rome, or Pope, who is held to be the apostolic successor of St. Peter, the prince of the apostles. This primacy is believed by Roman Catholics to carry with it the authority to exercise universal authority over the Christian Communion as a whole. Additionally, since the first Vatican Council held from December 1869 to October 1870, the Roman Catholic Church has declared that, when speaking Ex Cathedra, the Bishop of Rome is able to make infallible decrees, binding on the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome.  

The Eastern Orthodox Communion acknowledges that the Church of Rome did indeed hold primacy in the pre-schism Church, and many Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that if the Church of Rome reunited with the Eastern Orthodox Communion, this primacy would be restored. It should here be noted that Eastern Orthodox Christianity typically sees primacy as first belonging to the Roman Church and second to its bishop. While there is disagreement among Orthodox Christians regarding what exactly this primacy entailed, they are in agreement that it is not the universal supremacy Roman Catholicism claims it to be.

Better minds than mine have debated the issue of Roman Primacy from both sides of the dialogue for centuries, and thus I likely won't have much, if anything to add to the discussion, but I will offer my unique perspective on the matter. I hope that because I am not yet heavily invested in either tradition I will be able to offer a more fair and impartial consideration of the issue. I welcome any insights, criticisms, and corrections you are willing to offer. 

St. Peter and the Apostles

The Roman Catholic claim of Papal Supremacy is founded primarily on the Apostle Peter and his role among the Apostles and early Church. The first argument typically offered by Roman Catholic apologists is Matthew 16:18-19, wherein Christ claims that He will build his Church upon "Petros" or the rock which seems to indicate Peter. There has been much debate over the true meaning of these verses. Some have highlighted that in Greek, believed to be the original language of the New Testament gospels, two different conjugations of the the word for "rock" are used. From here it is argued that two different metaphorical rocks are being sopken of in this passage. I personally don't find this reality significant for two reasons. First, both uses of the Greek for "rock" seem to indicate Peter. Second, Christ would have spoken Aramaic, a language that has only one word and conjugation for "rock."  

Another area of dispute lies in understanding what exactly Christ is saying to Peter in verse 18. Some, including Early Church Fathers, have argued that when Christ says to Peter "you are a rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church" He is referring to Peter's confession and not Peter himself. While I agree that Peter's confession plays an important role in this conversation, it seems silly to claim that in calling Peter a rock he is referring solely to his confession. If this is so, why did Christ not instead say "your confession is a rock"? Further, why would Peter's name change if it was solely his words and not he himself to which Christ referred? It seems clear that Christ's words refer to the person Peter at least in some sense.

Even acknowledging that Christ is in some sense indicating the man Simon-Peter as the rock in verse 18, there exist two legitimate criticisms of the Catholic interpretation and use of this passage. First, I believe a legitimate interpretation of Christ's statement is "because of your confession of faith you are a rock," and thus anyone else who makes a similar confession is also a rock. At this point the Roman Catholic may object, asking "If that is the case, why is it only Peter's name that was changed?" To this I would reply that Peter's name may not have been changed because he was granted a special authority, but rather as a special recognition that he was the first to make such a confession.

Even though I believe there are criticisms of the Roman Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 worth consideration, I am also comfortable accepting that Peter held a special role among the apostles and in the early Church, and, as stated previously, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy recognize this role. If one grants that Peter was a leader among the apostles and first Christians some may consider the case closed. However, there remain several key questions to consider before considering the matter settled, including a determination of what Peter's leadership entailed, whether he passed on this leadership role, whether the Bishop of Rome and he alone is the successor of Peter in this role, and what this role would entail.

From the perspective of those outside the Roman Catholic Church, the claim of universal jurisdiction and papal infallibility were inventions originating around the time of the Schism and dogmatized at the first Vatican Council, respectively. Rome, however, claims that these Papal roles are legitimate developments tracing back to the very origins of Christendom. In light of this claim, it seems the first place to look in order to solve this question are the writings of the Early Church Fathers themselves. Below I will consider what I believe to be the passages that best support the Roman Catholic case, being that universal Papal jurisdiction and infallibility have existed since the establishment of the Church. These passages will be followed by a personal analysis of said passages:

St. Cyprian of Carthage
“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).  
Here Cyprian clearly speaks to the Primacy of Peter, which being agreed upon by both East and West is not an issue. What is significant to the disagreement is Cyprian's concluding questions which make the crucial implication that unity with the Chair of Peter is essential. If one understands "the Church" as Roman Catholics, being one, single, universal body headed by one supreme bishop, then the Roman Catholic case seems bolstered. However, if one understands "the Church" as Eastern Orthodox understand the term, meaning one of several bodies of believers headed by the chair and successor of Peter who is that regional church's bishop, then the passage takes on a radically different meaning. Instead of seeing Cyprian's implication as the necessity of being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, one may instead interpret his implication as the necessity of being in communion with one's regional bishop, who is one of several successors of Peter. This interpretation harmonizes with the statement of the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who referencing Matthew 16:18-19, states "As Roman Catholic scholars now concede, the ancient Christian father Cyprian used it to prove the authority of the bishop—not merely of the Roman bishop, but of every bishop" Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (NY: Abingdon Press), p. 78.

What the Roman Catholic apologist often omits is that St. Cyprian, who was the Bishop of Carthage, saw himself as sitting in the chair of Peter, believing that all bishops are his successors. His additional statements seem to further refute the idea that he viewed the Bishop of Rome as the modern Roman Catholic Church:

"For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another." (The Seventh Council of Carthage Under Cyprian, The Judgment of Eighty-Seven Bishops on the Baptism of Heretics, 250 AD) 

I admit that, in light of the Eastern Orthodox perspective, it seems odd that St. Cyprian would state that "there is but one Church and one chair." However, I do not believe that this statement explicitly affirms the Roman Catholic position. Rather, Cyprian may intend to state that there is but one Church under each bishop, to which the adherent is subject and Christians should not divide themselves from this unity. To the Alexandrian, there is only one church to which they should submit, being the Church of Alexandria, and the same would go for the Antiochian, Athenian, Corinthian, and so on. Given his other statements, and his own understanding of Petrine succession, I believe this is a more reasonable interpretation.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

"Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority [propter potentiorem principalitatem] – that is, the faithful everywhere – inasmuch as the Apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those who are everywhere." 

In claiming that "every Church should agree with this Church," that is, the Church in Rome. Irenaues seems to make the Roman Catholic case for papal infallibility. If it is indeed true that all churches must necessarily agree with the Church in Rome what else can this mean but supremacy? 

This passage has been controversial due to how the Latin phrase "conveniere ad" has been translated. While it is possible to translate "conveniere ad" as "agree with," it is also possible to translate said phrase as "assemble at." In fact, the English word "convene" which is derived from the Latin "conveniere" means "to come together" or "to cause to assemble." Thus a possible translation of this passage is not that every Church should agree with the Church of Rome, but that all Churches should come together or assemble in Rome. For more on this topic I recommend this link, which better explains the Latin Vulgate.
Beyond controversies of translation, it is interesting that Irenaeus points not to the Bishop of Rome, whom Roman Catholics argue holds primacy, but to the Church of Rome, which, according to Irenaeus, it holds due to its faithfulness and not any special, unchanging authority. This emphasis harmonizes with the claim that Rome holds primacy not due to its unique succession, but because of its honorable and political standing in Christendom. Honorable because it was established by, as Irenaeus states, "the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul" and because it was often an example of fidelity to Christian doctrine; political because Rome was the seat of the Roman Empire in terms of power and culture. Christians in Rome would have no doubt additionally been praised for their faithfulness under oppression.
St. Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna
"We exhort you, honorable brother, to submit yourself in all things to what has been written by the blessed Bishop of Rome, because St. Peter, who lives and presides in his see, gives the true faith to those who seek it. For our part, for the sake of peace and the good of the faith, we cannot judge questions of doctrine without the consent of the Bishop of Rome." [Letter 25:2 to the Priest Eutyches in PL 54:742D-743A]

I personally find this quote to be the most persuasive of the lot. Here St. Peter Chrysologus commands that one should submit to all the writings of Rome's bishop because of St. Peter the Apostle, which implies succession from the Prince of the Apostles. Further, Chrysologus states that decisions regarding doctrine cannot be made without first receiving consent from the Bishop of Rome.

While I do think this quotation lends some support to the Roman Catholic position, it is important to highlight what is not being said and the historical context in which Chrysologus was living. To the former, he makes no mention of infallibility or supremacy so it is unclear as to whether he commands obedience to Rome because of these attributes, or because that particular bishop and his successors, up to that point, have shown themselves to be worthy of submission. In other words we can ask whether the Bishop of Rome is to be followed because he follows church teachings, or because he possesses some special, infallible authority not held by other bishops.

If Rome was seen as a bastion of orthodoxy during the period in which Chrysologus wrote it provides further reasons for why he would give such a command. He may be saying something akin to "Rome has been unwavering in its Christian faith for the past few centuries, and it holds hierarchical primacy among the churches, therefore it is essential that we seek council with Rome before we make any judgments." This view would be one perfectly acceptable to Eastern Orthodoxy.   
My objective here has not been to prove the opposition's case, as I recognize that the authors of these quotations could very well have viewed the Bishop of Rome in a way similar to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. Rather, I wish to highlight alternative interpretations to quotations that Catholic pop-apologists so often think are a knock out proof of their position. Contemporary historical consensus among both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox historians seems to be that the early Christian Communion was governed in a much more collegial fashion than the contemporary Catholic Communion, but the Bishop of Rome may yet have held more authority than some Eastern Orthodox Christians are willing to concede.

Although the critic can point to many actual and potential problems stemming from Papal Supremacy, there are many apparent benefits to such a leader. Roman Catholics can much more clearly indicate what their church believes regarding certain moral and doctrinal matters, such as contraception. The unity experienced under the Pope also seems to have allowed for an efficiency of sorts, which may be seen as both a positive and negative attribute. When disputes arise the Roman Church a council is assembled in relatively quick fashion. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Communion seems to have been planning their next council for the past 500 years or so, or they claim that another council isn't necessary.

In the end the only question we ought be concerned with in our pursuit for truth is whether the authority held and occasionally exercised by the Bishop of Rome, as claimed by the Roman Catholic Church, has a legitimate historical and theological basis. In light of the above the position seems at best debatable, if not altogether erroneous.

For further information regarding this topic I recommend this audio resource from the Orientale Lumen Conference, where Catholics and Orthodox Christians gathered to discuss the topic "Rome and the Communion of Churches: Bishop, Patriarch or Pope?”

Friday, July 12, 2013

"From the Latter-day Saints to the Communion of Saints"

A blogosphere acquaintance of mine recently began this blog in which he plans to discuss his conversion to the LDS faith, and why he decided to revert to Roman Catholicism. As a now former Mormon considering conversion to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy his project resonates with me.

I look forward to his future posts and I hope you will check it out as well!


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Is it possible to choose Hell?

Until relatively recently in my life I viewed the Christian perspective of Heaven, Hell, and who goes there in a base, karmic "If you life a good life, you go to Heaven; if you live a bad life, you go to Hell" sort of fashion. A few years ago I discovered that soteriological opinions are much more complex and diverse than this. On the end which I will deem "fundamentalist" exist theists who hold that living well isn't sufficient, or isn't relevant at all. What is crucial is the beliefs the individual holds. For instance, regardless of how saintly a person was in life, a certain sort of Christianity may claim that they are going to Hell because they did not believe Jesus (and it must be the correct Jesus) is their savior. A more intriguing and merciful perspective I first encountered in C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce, which, similar to Dante's Divine Comedy, tells the story from the perspective of a character traveling through Hell and then Heaven.

Rather than being forced into the treacherous abyss by a God set on punishing sinners for their crimes, the damned in Lewis' Hell remain by choice. Some refuse to forgive, others refuse to let go of pride. By holding onto such vices these souls cannot let go and enter into Heaven. The doors of Lewis' Hell are locked from the inside, suggesting that if the damned soul wishes, he or she may leave.

Faith traditions such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism hold a similar view to that presented in Lewis' tale: the damned are such because they freely reject God's love and forgiveness. Unlike Lewis, the Roman Catholic Church has denied the idea that a soul may potentially escape Hell if they so choose. Instead, the Magesterium holds that a soul damned will remain so for eternity. Many in Orthodox Christianity are in agreement with their Western brothers; however, there exists a school of thought in Orthodoxy that argues, in similar fashion to Lewis, that Hell is not necessarily permanent, and forgiveness remains possible after death. An example of this lies in the words of Met. Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church who, according to this source, states "God is Love, all He created and sustains is always loved by Him. Even the creation that rejects Him continues in existence by His love. This unfathomable Divine Mercy can even make hell* "Gehenna," temporary."

This is all a disorganized introduction to the question presented in the post title: Is it possible to choose Hell? After considering what free will is, I aim to argue that if an individual remains in Hell only as long as they freely reject God, the actor will eventually cease this rejection. Additionally, I will argue that confining an individual to Hell merely because they were in a state opposed to God at death is pointless and runs counter to the mercy of God. 

I believe that the only reasonable way to understand free will in matters of morality is the ability to choose between perceived goods. Some may argue that free will is the ability to choose between good and evil, but I believe the following example demonstrates that this view of free will is incoherent:

Imagine coming across a man wailing in agony as he saws off his own hand. Now, before reading any further ahead (don't cheat!) take a few minutes to speculate about why on earth he is doing such a thing.

Done speculating? Okay. Perhaps you notice he is in a
Road Warrior scenario in which he is desperately attempting to escape an imminent explosion to which he is handcuffed. Perhaps he is just sitting there in no apparent danger and thus you assume that he must be deranged. In either case I would wager you wouldn't assume it is just a perfectly reasonable, sane man sawing off his hand for no reason.

As rational actors we have reasons or motivators for making decision, and we make these decisions because we see them as desireable or good. This isn't to say that our desires or perception of the good can't be off. Most of us at one time or another are victims of less than ideal desires or perceptions, but when we make a decision we are choosing what we perceive as desirable, and this is what is important. 

Someone may object, claiming that they have knowingly made a bad decision. I think there is merit to this objection. I can imagine myself intentionally burning myself to prove a point, knowing it is bad to act in such a way. However, I would wager that I, and anyone else, would eventually reach a point at which they would no longer make the free decision to burn themselves. For example, imagine that, instead of having an intense burning sensation only during contact with the hot surface, the sensation remained for an extended period of time, be it 10 minutes, 10 hours, 10 days, and so on. My guess is that, assuming you are relatively sane, you would no longer be willing to act in such a way. This is because as rational actors we make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis.

If we apply the above to our consideration of damnation, a few things seem to necessarily follow:

1. We don't choose Hell at all, since a rational actor wouldn't make such a choice. Instead our damnation is a punishment enforced against our will.

2. We choose Hell only until we realize that there is a more desirable option, or that the cost is no longer worth the choice.

3. We remain in Hell because our ability to choose the good is compromised. Perhaps we don't know heaven is an option, or perhaps we are so mentally ill that we don't have the capacity to make choices at all. Would a loving God let us remain in such ignorance or dementia, or would the God who is Love grant us clarity so we can act rationally?

4. We choose Hell because the alternative would be worse. I don't mean appears to be worse, but is actually worse. Perhaps in Hell you are roasted for 8 hours a day, but in Heaven it is 10 hours a day. This example is ridiculous on a number of levels, including that it completely reverses our perspective of what is and isn't desirable.  Nonetheless it remains one of the only ways in which I could imagine a soul remaining eternally in Hell.
In addition to the above questions, I think it is essential when considering the idea of eternal suffering to ask "What is the point?" There are many potential answers to this question, the most common of which include "to respect humanity's free will," "so God can exercise His perfect justice," or "to punish people for their choices."

The first has been covered above. I argued that at some point a person would no longer will such a thing, and their damnation would only continue against their will due to ignorance, divine force, or other impairment.

I have heard the second answer, "so God can exercise His perfect justice/ punish sinners," numerous times from Christians of all stripes. I have never been able to understand how a person can see eternal punishment as just. Even if we hold that the punishment should fit the crime, it seems that it would always be finite. Hitler would be forced to experience all of the suffering he caused, and this may amount to 600 million years worth of pain, but it would end. Because we can only ever choose or cause a finite amount of suffering and sin, the punishment could only ever be finite. 

Further, it is often held that the purpose of punishment is behavioral correction. A child is grounded or scolded in an attempt to deter them from deviant behavior in the future. If we hold this view of punishment, then eternal punishment is a nonsensical concept, since it would fail to be corrective.

A final argument I would like to consider is that damnation is eternal because when an individual dies he or she leaves time, and because actions or choices are possible only in a temporal setting it becomes impossible. This argument is easily (and quickly) refuted, especially if one believes in a literal, physical resurrection:

1.A physical body can exist only in a spatial environment.
2. A body can move and think in a spatial environment
3. When a body moves and/ or thinks it exists temporally, since to move from one state to another requires a temporal before, during, and after.
4. Therefore, humans will exist in a temporal afterlife.

A heaven in which we cannot think or act as we do now is a heaven in which we would no longer be human. Thus if one maintains that we will be something similar to ourselves as we exist now, it cannot be said that we leave time when we enter into God's kingdom.

In light of the areas I have touched on above, I cannot help but be inclined towards universal reconciliation. If Hell exists only as long as it is chosen, then I firmly posit that it cannot be necessarily permanent.  I may be completely in error on these subjects, and if so I hope for a reader who will provide his corrective insights.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Where to go from here?

I feel my absence of posts reflects my recent position, being that I am not certain where to go from here. When I began this blog I was set on converting to the Roman Catholic faith, but as I have immersed myself in the tradition and history of the Eastern Orthodox faith I have increasingly felt drawn in this direction.

This all brings up an interesting question: How do we know when we are on the right path? Finding the answer to this question is obviously a complex matter, and as I stated in an early post I don't think an individual can rely solely on subjective experience. That being said, I wonder if I haven't been giving personal experience enough weight in my consideration.

I am still inclined to believe that reason can inform us that there is a God, and philosophy and history might even provide an argument for which faith tradition seems most valid, but relying solely on these methods for our relationship with the Divine misses the mark. It is akin to choosing a spouse solely based on compatibility figures. This method may indeed lead to success, but once the relationship begins it is not these figures that make the relationship great, but the growth, beauty, and love that comes with the experience. Likewise, facts, figures, and arguments have their place in establishing one's faith, but once one moves from "dating" God as it were to wedding his or herself from God, perhaps the basis of the relationship should change as well.

If someone asks me why I love my wife, my first thoughts do not consist logical arguments, but memories and images my words would fail to adequately express. Ideally, I believe our initial answers for why one is a theist should be similar.

Because I am still in what I perceive as the initial stages of my journey with God, I will continue to consider issues from a rational perspective, but I thought it important to express my view of what faith should be.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


It has been some time since my last post because my perspective of things has changed as I have continued my journey with Christ. This change of perspective brings with it changes to this blog, the primary of which being that I will be giving the Eastern Orthodox faith more consideration. In the past I was unfair in my assessment of Eastern Orthodoxy, and I hope to make amends for that from here on out.

From now on this blog will not be concerned only with the LDS and Roman Catholic faiths, but also the Orthodox faith.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Points of division: Part I- Introduction

As I have thought about where I want to take this blog I have considered what sort of questions I should be asking, and of these questions which are the most important. In ruminating on this point it becomes obvious that the first thing to be done before continuing in my critique of specific Mormon and Catholic beliefs is to identify the most important differences between the faiths, since it is these differences that separate the two bodies. The following is a list of what I perceive to be the main differences between the LDS faith and traditional Christianity that also serves as an outline of posts to come. In these posts I will consider the different approaches each faith offers to these subjects and reveal what I believe to be the strengths and weaknesses of each respective approach.

Part II- the universe and its origin: This post will consider the ex nihilo (created from nothing) view of the universe held by Catholics (and most other contemporary Christians) and the LDS view that space, time, spiritual entities, and matter have always existed. The philosophical arguments pertaining to these views will be considered along with the historical understanding of the universe and its origins within Judaism and Christianity. Whether God created the universe has many further implications for issues such as the problem of evil.

Part III- God: Catholics view God as an unmoved mover that exists independent of space and time, whereas the LDS faith typically views God as a human being that has advanced to godhood. These views will be compared and critiqued.

Part IV- Heaven and Hell: Unlike the Catholic faith, which holds that human beings end up in either Heaven or Hell, members of the LDS faith tend to believe in an afterlife divided into three kingdoms, each better than our current existence, where humans will be assigned based on factors such as their acceptance of God and the choices they made as mortals; however, there has been wide speculation regarding the afterlife in Mormon thought.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Catholic Claim to Apostolic Succession, and Catholic vs. LDS (Mormon) view of Apostolic Succession

I recently encountered an argument from an LDS blogger that, other than Matthias and possibly Paul, the original twelve apostles didn't ordain a next generation of twelve apostles at all since, according to his view, the bishops and priests ordained in the early church should not be seen as successors of the apostles. In this post I will assess the Catholic claim to unbroken apostolic authority by consider the argument from LDS sources noted above as well as the argument that valid apostolic succession did take place but at some point was severed.

What is apostolic authority?

The Catholic Church claims that, through St. Peter and the other apostles, Christ established a special apostolic authority for acting in his name for the preservation and growth of the Church. This authority includes binding and loosing, forgiving sins, and having power over demons (Matthew 16:19, 18:18; Luke 9:1). The attribute of apostolic succession most relevant to this post is the ability to ordain others for the mission of the Church. This is seen in Paul's Message to Titus:

For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldest ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee:
If any be without crime, the husband of one wife, having faithful children, not accused of riot, or unruly.
For a bishop must be without crime, as the steward of God: not proud, not subject to anger, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre.
This ordination process involved the laying on of hands as it is still done today in multiple apostolic denominations (1 Tim. 4:14).

Evidence of continuity?

Note: The exact dates and chronological order of the books in the New Testament have been disputed. For my dates I am using this source.

One may concede that apostolic authority and succession was implemented by Christ, and further that there was a structure and hierarchy preserved by this authority, but they may question the Catholic Church's claim of unbroken continuity. There may have been a line of apostolic authority and succession that was established and continued for a generation or two, but how do we know it continued beyond that? To answer this question, let us consider the records we have and their respective dates:

2 Cor 1: 21-22 (57 AD): Paul speaks of being confirmed, anointed, and sealed.
Acts 1:20-26 (64 AD): Matthias is ordained to fill Judas' bishopric.
Acts 14:23 (64 AD): Speaks of presbyters (priests) being appointed to each church.
Titus 1:5 (65 AD): Paul instructs Titus to ordain priests and bishops in the cities of Crete.
1 Tim. 4:14 (65 AD): Ordination given "with imposition of hands of the priesthood."
Heb 7:23 (67 AD): Verse speaks of other priests being called to replace those who have died.

Clement (98 AD):
"And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture a certain place, 'I will appoint their bishops s in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.'... Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry...For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties." Pope Clement, Epistle to Corinthians, 42, 44 (A.D. 98).
Ignatius (110 AD):
"For what is the bishop but one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority, so far as it is possible for a man to possess it, who according to his ability has been made an imitator of the Christ off God? And what is the presbytery but a sacred assembly, the counselors and assessors of the bishop? And what are the deacons but imitators of the angelic powers, fulfilling a pure and blameless ministry unto him, as…Anencletus and Clement to Peter?" Ignatius, To the Trallians, 7 (A.D. 110).
... and the list continues here if you are interested.

There is abundant evidence that an apostolic structure that began during the ministry of Christ continued long after his death and resurrection; however we must acknowledge that it is technically possible that somewhere along the line one of these bishops or priests wasn't validly ordained, but for apostolic continuity to be completely severed there would have to have been a complete disappearance of validly ordained clergy. Given the spread of Christianity into various regions, a complete disappearance of apostolic authority seems unlikely. Further, such an event would contradict Christ's promise that "... I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," (Matt. 16:18) and "...behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world." Even if we disregard these verses, it is hard to believe God would establish an apostolic Church only to let it die.

Apostles aren't Bishops?

This is an argument I recently heard which is essentially that because the original apostles are only recorded as having ordained bishops, but not successors to fill the role of apostle, apostolic succession ceased. Underlying this argument is the idea that the early church had a priesthood office of "apostle" that was higher and distinct from that of bishop or priest. Put simply, apostolic succession stopped because the apostles ordained bishops, not apostles. However, there are two factors that I believe defeat this argument.

1. The idea that "bishop" and "apostle" are completely distinct from one another is refuted by Acts 1: 20, which states, referring to Judas ".. let his bishopric another take." Judas, who was an apostle, is also referred to as a bishop.

James, another of the original twelve apostles, is widely held to have been the first bishop of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
"...one cannot help but immediately focus on the figure of St. James the Just who, without question, functioned as the one-man monarchical leader of the Jerusalem city-church after the Apostles ceased to permanently reside there. Indeed, both Scripture and the universal witness of the Fathers illustrate this fact most clearly. For example, Eusebius of Caesarea, drawing from much earlier sources, directly states that the Apostles Peter, James [bar-Zebedee], and John appointed James the Just as the monarchical head ("bishop") of the Jerusalem city-church.

Similarly, in Galatians 2:12, as St. Paul complains about some Judaizing Christians from the church of Jerusalem, he does not say that these Jewish brethren came "from Jerusalem" or from "the presbyters of Jerusalem," but rather "from James" -- thus equating James with the church of Jerusalem itself. Also, in Acts 12:17, as Peter flees Jerusalem after his miraculous escape from prison, he does not command the local flock to "report this to the presbyters"; but instead directly says, "Report this to James," thereby revealing that James was the leading authority." (source)
2. This argument presupposes that, like bishop, apostle is a priesthood office. What is important to remember, however, is that the apostles were referred to as such prior to receiving priesthood authority; thus the word apostle cannot be necessarily tied to a priesthood office. The word apostle ("apostolos" in greek) means only "one who is sent." This definition is easily applied to both the original twelve apostles and the bishops and priests who were called and sent for the good of the Church.


There are a few instances where there are minor absences of evidence for apostolic succession when the record is silent for a few decades, but there exists no evidence of the absence of a continuing apostolic structure. Further, there is nothing to suggest that the office of bishop is wholly distinct from the roles held by the original twelve apostles. In fact, there is evidence that some of the original twelve apostles were bishops. The term "apostle," meaning "one who is sent," is applied equally to apostles, bishops, and priests alike. There is no evidence that apostolic succession was severed, or that apostolic succession necessarily required the apostles to ordain other men who carried the title "apostle." Having established that there did indeed exist a structure of apostolic succession and ordination in the early Christian Church, the onus of proof is on those who doubt the Church's claim to unbroken apostolic succession.

Update (8 March 2013): Last night I ran into a Lutheran friend of mine, and we got to talking about this subject. As a Lutheran (ELCA), he believes in baptism, the celebration of the eucharist, and a church hierarchy; however, he does not believe in apostolic succession. Instead, he informed me that Lutherans (ELCA) believe the pastor assigned to each church merely fills an employment position of sorts in the church structure. Thus a priest does not have to celebrate communion or be ordained by other priests, strictly speaking. I thought I would consider this claim by examining the New Testament and Early Church Fathers along with the other claims already considered.

(My Friend's) Lutheran View of Apostolic Succession 

First off, it is important to note that there is no uniform view of apostolic succession among Lutherans. Many churches in Scandinavia still hold apostolic succession as important and trace their authority back through pre-Reformation bishops. Therefore I will only be considering my friend's view of apostolic succession, being that it is unnecessary.

Power to Bind and Loose

In Matt. 16:19, Christ gives unto St. Peter the power to bind and loose, meaning that if he establishes something or discontinues something on earth it will also be so in heaven. Further, John 20:21-23 speaks of Christ sending his apostles and giving them authority to forgive or not forgive sins. If we do not understand this authority in the sense that apostolic churches understand it, as a priesthood authority, how else might we understand it?

Perhaps we could hold that the powers to bind, loose, and forgive sins belongs to the priesthood of all believers. This would mean than anyone who is a Christian possesses these powers. This poses a problem: what if some Christians want to bind, for instance, the admittance of women to the priesthood and other Christians are opposed to this binding? Who would have the final say? Perhaps we can conclude that when Christ told St. Peter that he would give him the power to bind, loose, and forgive he intended it to be a power of consensus by which Christians can vote on issues and make them official doctrines. It is important to acknowledge, however, that any time Christ speaks of giving authority to someone it is restricted to one or all of the apostles, not all believers.

While I believe the evidence up to this point remains in favor of the importance of apostolic succession it is not conclusive. Moving on, then, the next question to consider is whether the New Testament ever states that priests must receive authority from one already imbued with apostolic authority. In Ephesians 2:19-20, Paul speaks to the local community, saying "...you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." This verse, along with Matt. 16:18-19, does imply that the church is founded upon the apostles to whom Christ gave special authority, but it may simply be interpreted to mean that Christianity is built upon the tradition preserved and declared by apostles and prophets. A reality that is difficult to overlook is that in every instant where someone is baptized, given the holy spirit, or given the authority to do these things it is done by Christ, the apostles, or one given authority from the apostles, such as Titus and Timothy (Acts 8:14-24; 1 Tim. 4:14, Titus 1:5).

The Old Testament further reveals a priesthood, established by God through Moses, that was exclusive and hierarchical as is the apostolic priesthood today (Exodus 18:25-26, 40:15; Numbers 3:3, 16:40, 27:18-20; Deut. 34:9).

Aside from the Bible, the Early writings of the Church Fathers reveal that apostolic succession and the episcopal structure of the Church was uncontroversial, and the very method by which one's authority was judged, as is demonstrated by this passage from Tertullian:

But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst Of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,--a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. …To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine…Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith." Tertullian, Prescription against the Heretics, 33 (A.D. 200).
and further in this passage:
"Therefore the power of remitting sins was given to the apostles, and to the churches which they, sent by Christ, established, and to the bishops who succeeded to them by vicarious ordination." Firmilian, To Cyprian, Epistle 75[74]:16 (A.D. 256). 
There are many more passages such as these that can be accessed here and here.


There are many implicit evidences of apostolic succession found in the New Testament, such as priesthood authority being exercised only by the apostles and their successors. Further, the apostolic model of priesthood authority is akin to the Levitical priesthood structure found in the Pentateuch (first 5 books of Old Testament). Finally, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, as early as the first century, clearly show a Christian church that fully accepted the episcopal structure and the importance of apostolic continuity. Any Christian, or Christian body, that denies the importance of apostolic authority and continuity stands against the evidence presented by the early Church. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Joseph Smith's First Vision

fvNote: Before I officially embark on this in-depth assessment of the truth claims of Catholicism and Mormonism, I wanted to first state the goals I have for this project. As I have explored the internet for arguments both for and against the claims of the Catholic and LDS faiths I have found that the arguments against them have often been uncharitable and unfair. Critics often lower themselves to relying on straw men and other deceptive claims about these traditions. My intention is to be as fair and charitable as possible in my assessments. I will seek to utilize only accurate evidence and the best arguments I can muster. As part of this intention I welcome and encourage those who may come across my posts to challenge and correct me where needed.  

It has been difficult trying to figure out where exactly to begin assessing the claims of the LDS faith. Having failed to come up with any creative way to address the Mormon movement, I figured I would begin where the story begins chronologically. I will first provide the account of the first vision the LDS faith holds to be official. I will then consider some of the issues surrounding the First Vision account and then determine whether these issues are reconcilable with, or problematic for the position of the LDS faith.

The Official Version

The account of the First Vision taught by Mormon educators and missionaries reads as follows:

In accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction--not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being--just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other--"This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)--and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof." He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. (Source: lds.org)
This is the official version of the story that was firt recorded in 1838. I have highlighted select excerpts in red since they will be most relevant in considering possible issues with this vision.

Problems with the First Vision Story

A problem apparent from the above text, is that Joseph Smith claims to have experienced this vision in 1820, but the record above does not arise until 18 years later. In fact, the first recorded instance of Joseph Smith recording this vision is not until 1832:
...I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in (the) attitude of calling upon the Lord (in the 16th year of my age) a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the (Lord) opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph (my son) thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy (way) walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life (behold) the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not (my) commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which (hath) been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud (clothed) in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart  … (Source: History, 1832, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp.2,3)
The first issue, and a minor one that I don't find very problematic, is that Joseph claims in the official version to have been 14 years of age, whereas in this version he claims to be in his 16th year, which can be interpreted to mean either that he was already, or going on, 16 years of age. Sometimes I forget exactly how old I was when something happened to me, too. Ultimately this minor discrepancy does not do much harm to Smith's claims.

The second issue, on the other hand, is quite problematic since Joseph Speaks of only one personage, the Lord, being present in this vision, and further idetifies him with Christ. Why is it, if the official version is accurate, that Joseph left out the crucial detail that two separate persons appeared to him in his first version? The Mormon apologist may argue that just because Smith doesn't mention a second person doesn't mean the second person wasn't there. I concede this possibility; however, there is a pivotal detail that many often overlook.
In the time preceding and even following the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, the evidence strongly suggests that Joseph Smith Jr. held a sabellian view of God, meaning he believed Christ and God the Father to be the same person. The Book of Mormon itself seems to speak of God in a sabellian fashion:
"And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son... And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation..." (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 15: 1, 2, 5)
"Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have light... they shall become my sons and my daughters." (Ether 3:14)
In light of these factors, Smith's first recorded account of his vision seems to fit perfectly well with the theology he held at the time. If he truly saw the two personages of Christ and God the Father in a vision, we are left to wonder why he left out such a crucial detail, and further, why the Book of Mormon speaks of God as one person rather than two. Further, history suggests that until 1835 the Mormon movement as a whole adhered to a sabellain view. (New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 1993, pages 82, 96-99, 103-104, 110)

Further, unknown to many modern Mormons, is the fact that the official account of the vision did not begin to be taught until 1842 (source), 22 years after it supposedly happened, and 12 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. This likely means that the Mormon movment prior to 1842 would have been grounded far less on the Joseph Smith's encounter with God, and instead on the Book of Mormon itself.

Other Visions of the Time

Another complication for Smith is that visions like his were not that uncommon in the early 1800s, and more troublesome still is that many of these other visions had striking similarities to his own:
"I saw two spirits, which I knew at the first sight. But if I had the tongue of an Angel I could not describe their glory, for they brought the joys of heaven with them.  One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man.  His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a cloud.  In looking steadfastly to discern features, I could see none, but a small glimpse would appear in some other place.  Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man---His face was not ablaze, but had the countenance of fire, being bright and shining.  His Father's will appeared to be his! All was condescension, peace, and love." (Norris Stearn, 1815)
"... I went into the woods ... a light appeared from heaven.... My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb.... The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly.... It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation ..." (The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith, Portsmouth, N.H., 1816, pp.58-59)
There have been multiple versions of Joseph Smith Jr's first vision that have been circulated far and wide. Some of the discrepancies between visions are minor, such as the exact day or year that he had the vision, while others are details that have serious theological implications. A further problem for Smith's account is that there are multiple vision accounts preceding Smith's that have striking similarities to his own. While there indeed seem to be a few crucial problems with the First Vision, perhaps LDS apologists provide insight into how Mormons can overcome these problems.

LDS Apologist Responses to First Vision Problems

From the official website of the LDS Church, Milton V. Backman Jr. writes the following:

The four surviving recitals of this theophany were prepared or rendered through different scribes, at different times, from a different perspective, for different purposes and to different audiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that each of them emphasizes different aspects of his experience. When Latter-day Saints today explain this remarkable vision to others, their descriptions often vary according to the audience or circumstances that prompt such reports. If one were relating the incident to a group of high priests, for example, he would undoubtedly tell it somewhat differently than he would to individuals who had never heard of the restoration of the gospel or of Joseph Smith...

...Indeed, there are long-standing precedents for differing accounts of the same spiritual experience. For example, the four Gospels do not correspond exactly concerning the great events at the garden’s empty tomb. There are variations as to the number of women and angels who were present and whether the angels were sitting or standing. Although the Prophet Joseph Smith in his inspired translation clarified some of these details (and others cited below), minor disparities remain in the four descriptions of this event (compare 
Matt. 28 with Mark 16, Luke 24, andJohn 20). The differences, however, are not important—they may have resulted from incorrect transmissions or translations, or may be the result of recording the event from different perspectives. The glorious fact remains that the tomb was empty because Jesus had risen as the first fruits of the Resurrection.
As I stated previously, there are certain discrepancies that I would expect and not make a big fuss about. If a Mormon was recounting the Smith's story and got the year wrong, for instance, I wouldn't think much of it. However, when an account differs in a significant, theological way and also happens to correspond with the view of God Joseph Smith Jr. held at the time of the recording, it seems unlikely that such a major detail as God the Father being present along with Christ would be left out simply due to forgetfulness. Further, this was not the only time that a record of Smith's visions differed significantly from the official version:
Joseph Smith's First Vision and His Conflicting Accounts

If there exist such extreme discrepancies between New Testament accounts, I would indeed be a hypocrite to hold them to a lesser standard, so let us consider whether there are any such discrepancies. Backman states that "There are variations as to the number of women and angels who were present and whether the angels were sitting or standing" and provides Matt. 28Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 as examples. Let us look at these verses.

Matt: 28
And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre.
And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow.
And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men.
And the angel answering, said to the women: Fear not you; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come, and see the place where the Lord was laid.
In this account two women come to the tomb and one angel greets them.
Mark 16

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought sweet spices, that coming, they might anoint Jesus.
And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they come to the sepulchre, the sun being now risen.
And they said one to another: Who shall roll us back the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
And looking, they saw the stone rolled back. For it was very great.
And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed with a white robe: and they were astonished.
Who saith to them: Be not affrighted; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he is risen, he is not here, behold the place where they laid him.
But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee; there you shall see him, as he told you.

Once again, two women named Mary, and one being speaking to them. The only discrepancy is that this being is referred to as a man rather than an angel; however he is description sounds like that of an angel.

Luke 24

And on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared.
And they found the stone rolled back from the sepulchre.
And going in, they found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
And it came to pass, as they were astonished in their mind at this, behold, two men stood by them, in shining apparel.
And as they were afraid, and bowed down their countenance towards the ground, they said unto them: Why seek you the living with the dead?
He is not here, but is risen. Remember how he spoke unto you, when he was in Galilee,
Saying: The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
Two people go to the tomb once again. Given the earlier gospels it seems reasonable to assume that these two beings are the Marys. This time, however, the account speaks of two angelic beings.

John 20
And on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalen cometh early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre; and she saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
She ran, therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith to them: They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

This seems like a condensed version of the three previous accounts, and this is no surprise, given that the Gospel of John is more of a theological than historical work. It would be akin a condensed version of Smith's account, such as "God the Father and Jesus appeared to me. Jesus told me not to join any of the churches in existence because they are all wrong."

Having put forward all these scriptural examples, let us now consider whether the discrepancies are on par with the serious discrepancies in Smith's accounts by first determining what are the most important  aspects of these vision.
The central theme of the four gospel accounts above is that Christ is risen. The number of women present, or number of angels revealing this reality to the Marys does not change this key theme of the story. In other words, what is significant is not who came to the empty tomb, but that the tomb was found empty. Further, Backman acknowledges that these verses have had two thousand years to be altered and changed, which would give an additional reason as to why there are minor discrepancies.

In Smith's vision, the central theme, as the LDS church has promoted it, is that God and Christ have appeared to Smith and Christ has informed him that none of the religions are correct. It is important, given LDS theology, that the Father and Christ are identified separately. Thus anything that takes away from these important elements is a serious problem. Smith getting the day, year, or exact words Christ used when speaking to him would not change the central theme, but a change with theological bearings would. Hence, the discrepancies between Smith's accounts are more problematic than the discrepancies between the empty tomb accounts in the gospels.

An article from the (unofficial) LDS apologetics site FAIR puts forward the following argument:
Even though the Savior makes a direct reference to the Father there is no indication in this portion of the 1832 document that God appeared to Joseph Smith alongside His Son.
This type of pattern is seen in the Book of Mormon, translated in 1829: The Book of Mormon begins (1 Nephi 1:8-10) with Lehi's vision of God on his throne. One [Christ] followed by twelve others descends from God to speak with Lehi—thus, Jesus and the Father are here both separate, and the role of Christ in giving instructions to the prophet while the Father looks on and approves is followed, just as it was in Joseph's First Vision. Here too, Lehi is described as praying to "the Lord," and yet has a vision of both God the Father and Christ.
The apologist here makes a good case for the belief that God and Christ being in some way distinct from one another is present in the Book of Mormon. What we are then left to ask is why other parts of the Book of Mormon speak of God and Christ as the same being. The Mormon may hold that such a discrepancy is easily accounted for, since the books comprising the Book of Mormon were penned by different authors who had different beliefs about God. Perhaps it is possible to reconcile the 1832 account with the 1838 if we grant that Smith did indeed hold the same view of the Godhead that Mormons now hold. However, evidence seems to suggest that this is not the case. As Thomas G. Alexander highlights, "...the doctrine of God preached and believed before 1835 was essentially trinitarian, with God the Father seen as an absolute personage of Spirit, Jesus Christ as a personage of tabernacle, and the Holy Ghost as an impersonal spiritual member of the Godhead." If this is indeed the case, then the FAIR apologist reaches too far in his defense by implying that God and Christ were seen as seperate in the modern Mormon sense. He instead might have used the word distinct or different.topic, see the following:

The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology" by Thomas G. Alexander 


It has here been shown that there are issues with the First Vision accounts offered by Joseph Smith Jr. that may indeed be irreconcilable with the truth claims of the LDS faith. The arguments of the apologists I considered fail to make distinctions between minor discrepancies, and further, present claims that seems to run counter to the historical evidence. Even if one believes Joseph Smith Jr. really did experience a vision of the divine, or at least believes it possible, key questions remain:

1. Why doesn't Smith mention the Father in the 1832 account?

2. Why does the 1832 account of the first vision seem to coincide with the theological perspective Smith happened to have at the time? If Smith had really seen God and Christ as separate beings, why would both the Mormon movement and Smith continue to hold a view of God that varied from trinitarian to sabellian?

3. Why wasn't the First Vision taught in the LDS faith until 1842?

4. How do we account for the similarities Smith's vision has to visions that preceded his own?

5. Is it more likely that the discrepancies between the view of God in the Book of Mormon and the view of the Godhead held by the modern LDS faith is a result of ancient Mesoamerican authors having  trinitarian/ sabellian views of God, or that it was penned by 19th century authors that lived in a Protestant America where trinitarian/ sabellian views of the Godhead were the norm?

For further reading on this topic as a whole, see the following:

"Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision" by Milton V. Backman, Jr.
Mormonthink on the First Vision