Are Mormons Christians? Is the Mormon church aligning with historic Christian doctrine? And how do we best share the good news with our Mormon friends, neighbors, and co-workers? Sean and Scott interview author, scholar, and missionary Eric Johnson about these questions and more.
More About Our Guest
Eric Johnson serves with the organization, Mormonism Research Ministry, as a scholar, writer and speaker. He co-hosts the daily program, Viewpoint on Mormonism, and is the author of several books on Mormonism, including the one featured in this podcast.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here with the friend of mine, Eric Johnson, who is an author of a recent book, a co-author along with me called Sharing The Good News With Mormons. Eric also works with the Mormon Research Ministry, which when people ask me for a resource in terms of reaching out to Mormons that is both scholarly and practical, I always suggest MRM.org. Eric lives in Salt Lake City and has a regular relationships and ministry to Mormons. Eric, thanks for coming on.
Eric Johnson: Thanks for having me on, guys.
Scott Rae: Yeah. We appreciate you coming on with us, Eric. Let me start with a question that I suspect a lot of people in the church who have not thought about the connection between Christianity and Mormonism might hold, and that is, "Why do Mormons need the gospel at all? Isn't Mormonism Christian?"
Eric Johnson: We get that a lot. A lot of Latter-Day Saints will claim that they are Christians too. In fact, Jesus Christ is in the church's name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The problem is that when you get past the terminology ... We have similar terminology. When you say God, Jesus, Salvation by grace, the Latter-Day Saint will say, "I believe that too", but the problem is that they mean different things than what the Christian, the evangelical Christian will believe, and so we end up talking past each other, and so I think one of the things that I want to do when I'm talking to a Latter-Day Saint is make sure I don't tell the Latter-Day Saint what he or she believes.
I ask the question, "What is it you believe about that? Why do you believe that?" Those kinds of questions I think can be helpful when you're asking about terms. "What do you mean when you say salvation by grace?" When you get through the exterior and move down further, you're going to be able to see that there are huge differences, and I'm just going to say straight out Mormonism denies or distorts every fundamental teaching of the historic Christian church from, "Who is God?"
They don't accept the same God we have. They believe that God was once a Man who lived on another world and became a God of this world. Mormons hope to someday become a god. That's not the god that I worship. They don't believe the Trinity.
When they say 'Salvation by grace', they don't mean that everybody gets to go to heaven, except that they do believe that there are three levels of kingdoms of glory, and those three kingdoms are where you get to go because you were obedient in a previous life, called the 'Pre-existence', and Mormons hope that they can get to the top of those kingdoms by basically not only grace, but also through works. There's individual salvation, exaltation or 'Eternal life' is what they call it, and it's through good works. Christianity doesn't teach that salvation comes through good works. It comes through the grace of God.
Scott Rae: Okay. If you had to summarize then what are the two or three main major differences between Mormonism and Christianity, what would you say they are?
Eric Johnson: I think two of the most important ones would be, "Who is God?", and, "How does a person receive salvation?" We understand that again, as Mormonism teaches, fifth President Lorenzo Snow gave a couplet, "As man is, God once was", "As God is, man may become", and when we understand that that God who has a body, a flesh and bones according to their unique scripture called the 'Doctrine and Covenants', Section 132, when that God had once lived in this world, somehow died in that world, became a God of this world, that Mormons can become god. I think that's huge. Then also, the idea that a person can somehow do things that will actually give them eternal life. That includes getting baptized into the Mormon church, going to the church services, being active in the church, going to the temple, getting married not just for time, but for eternity.
Mormons hope that someday, they'll be with their families, and that they'll be able to continue on what Heavenly Father started. In this world, they'll be able to becomes gods of their own right. These are some major issues that I think need to be discussed.
Scott Rae: Great. I think that's really helpful I think for our listeners to hear really crystallize what are some of the major differences, because those sound like they are really big significant differences.
Eric Johnson: They are, and again, you don't want to ever assume that a Mormon believes everything that the LDS Church teaches, but what their leaders teach. They have a President who's known as the 'Prophet'. Right now, it's 17th President Russell M. Nelson. He has two counselors. Those three men are called the 'First Presidency'.
There are 12 apostles. They believe that they are the church for today that Joseph Smith reinstituted the church back in 1830 when he founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Those men, when they speak at general conference twice a year are speaking the scripture. Then, you also have not only their teachings, but you have four written works. They do believe the Bible. As far as it's translated correctly is commonly the way that a Mormon would talk about the Bible, the King James version.
I do believe in The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Those are the authority sources for them, and they believe that Christianity actually lost all of its authority in what's called 'The Great Apostasy'. The Great Apostasy took place soon after the death of the apostles, and therefore, for almost 2,000 years, there was no authority, no 'Priesthood authority', as they call it until Joseph Smith reinstituted that by founding the church. He had in 1829, he claimed to have had Peter, James and John, as well as John the Baptist come and bestow upon him two types of priesthood, the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. That's the priesthood that Mormon males are able to have. That gives them the authority that evangelical Christians don't have.
Sean McDowell: Eric, do you believe the LDS Church is moving to more historically biblical position or are there just efforts publicly to downplay some of these theological differences and historical difficulties that you've mentioned?
Eric Johnson: That's a great question, Sean, and I do hear a lot of that coming especially from scholars, and no, I don't believe that the LDS Church is moving to a more historically biblical position. Their language has become more Christian-y if you want to call it that, but when you look at it, Mormon doctrines remain the same. There was a couple of years ago, well-known apostle, Jeffrey Holland said that, "Mormons could get credit for trying as far as salvation is concerned." Many Mormons have interpreted this as somehow saying that, "God will overlook their sins because they have been trying", but when you look closer at a talk like that, he wasn't saying what many Mormons are claiming he said. His words are just meant I think to pacify many because they still will cite the same scriptures like 2 Nephi 25:23.
It says, "For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God, for we know that it is by grace we are saved, after all we can do." When you cite that verse to a Latter-Day Saint, they will say, "Yes. Of course, we're saved by grace after all we can do." What does that mean? As I mentioned earlier, the general idea of salvation that everybody gets one of three kingdoms of glory, that's certainly a very prominent teaching in the LDS Church that we were somehow obedient in a pre-existence spirit life and chose Jesus as our Savior and refused Lucifer.
One third of our spiritual brothers and sisters did not accept Jesus, and we're cast out to become the demons, so because we are righteous there, that's the salvation by grace, but after all we can do, that's Mormonism. We haven't seen that go away, so I think we need to be really careful to suggest that somehow, the church is moving to this more historical biblical position. They're just talking the language better.
Sean McDowell: Eric, when I met you probably 17 or 18 years ago, you were teaching high school at Christian High in San Diego worldview theology, taking students on awesome trips, and then a number of years ago, you transitioned, moved to Salt Lake City to become a missionary. Tell us your story a little bit. What motivated you to do that, and what's it been like?
Eric Johnson: In 1987, I went on a short-term mission trip to Salt Lake City. I had been studying the cults of Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups for almost a decade. In fact, I really started in 1978 when Jim Jones and a thousand people committed suicide in the jungles of Guyana. I grew up in a Christian home, and I asked myself, "Am I really believing the truth?", so I started to do a lot of research, but in '87, I did that. I met my future wife here actually in Salt Lake City.
We ended up getting married in 1988, and in 1989, I met Bill McKeever of Mormonism Research Ministry, and so I have been working with Bill as an associate minister for almost three decades now. I was at that time attending Bethel Seminary San Diego, and in 1991, I got my M.Div., and then in 1993 as you mentioned, I started to teach at Christian High, and I stayed there for almost two decades. When Bill moved to Utah in 2004 because this is really where the action is when you're ministering the Mormons, he kept asking me every year to move with him to come, and it took me six years, but in 2010, I moved my family. We've been here for eight years. Haven't looked back.
God has been very good to us. We've been able to do a number of things because we're really where Mormonism is happening.
Scott Rae: Eric, as you talk to Mormons in Utah and in other parts of the country, what are some of the clearest openings for the gospel among Mormons today? Where do you get traction for the gospel today?
Eric Johnson: I'm going to say right now, we have been dealing with a lot of history with the Mormons. In fact, we're seeing a mass exodus out of the LDS Church, and it's because people are finding out things that they never knew before. They call these the 'Gospel Topics Essays', and from 2013 to 2015, the church decided to deal with some of the things that were on the internet, which are actually historical and true what people were saying, and to actually talk about these things in an honest way, as honest as they could be, so they ended up producing about a dozen essays. They include an essay on Joseph Smith using a magic rock called the 'Seer stone' to translate the gold plates of The Book of Mormon before 2014. Many Mormons didn't know that.
In fact, when you would look at a painting, a portrait of Joseph Smith translating the plates, he would have the gold plates out, and Joseph Smith using his finger to follow along the Reformed Egyptian, but now they've admitted that he used a seer stone, a magic rock that he put into a hat. That's how he got the translation. They also admitted that The Book of Abraham is not a traditional translation, but rather, the papyri that was used by Smith, these were ancient funerary papyri from Egypt, that was used to inspire him, and so it was an inspired translation, but it wasn't a literal translation. A lot of Latter-Day Saints didn't know that. Then, they also admitted in an essay in 2015 that Joseph Smith was married to 30 to 40 women.
A third of them were teenagers, as young as 14, and another third were married to living husbands. That's not polygamy. That's polyandry. That astounded many Mormons, and so I actually volunteer at Sandra Tanner's bookstore in Salt Lake City downtown, and it's called the 'Utah Lighthouse Ministry'. It's a place where people know they can go and they can talk. I volunteer on Saturdays.
There's hardly a Saturday that goes by that I won't have somebody coming in and asking me about the history, so we have found in these last few years that the history really does matter. In fact, the chapter written by Bill McKeever in the book, 'Sharing The Good News With Mormons' deals specifically with two historical issues, the First Vision, and also The Book of Mormon, and there are tremendous historical problems. For many Latter-Day Saints, this is huge. This is a big problem. I was just talking this past week with three returned missionaries down at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and they admitted that many of the things in Mormonism is very embarrassing when it comes to history. In fact, one of the three returned missionaries is a student at BYU, and he's a history major, and he admitted that the Mormon Church was a racist organization until 1978 when they allowed blacks to hold the priesthood.
Before them, the blacks could not go into a Mormon temple and get all of the ordinances done for them as anybody else could have done. He also admitted to some other major problems, and I said, "You're still a faithful Latter-Day Saint, I take it", and he said, "Yes, I am." I said, "Why?" He says, "I just put those on the back shelf. I have prayed about the church, and I believe it is true", and so you'll find with a lot of Latter-Day Saints, even with the history coming out, they acknowledge that it's there, but it's not troubling to them, but for many others like I say, we have seen a mass exodus coming out of the church, and for a big part, I say the history is responsible.
Sean McDowell: Eric, tell us the church responding to this. I asked because maybe five or six years ago, I brought a group of students, were meeting with you there. Brett Kunkle, our friend, he and I went and met with some of the top scholars in the Mormon Church on The Book of Abraham, and we just asked some honest questions, and I felt like they were just ... The guy was talking about post-modernism, trying to push us off, and not even dealing with the questions that we are trying to ask. Was that a unique experience or is that indicative of how the church as a whole is maybe dealing with some of these historical difficulties?
Eric Johnson: That's an interesting point you're bringing out, Sean, and in fact, there's one professor at BYU who actually said that, "You shouldn't answer the question that was asked, but rather, you should answer the question they should have asked", and so to get you off-topic. I think that's important when you're doing any kind of a conversation in an evangelistic way with the Latter-Day Saint, is don't get off-topic because so often, you're right, I've talked to many people, and they just want to skirt whatever issue you're talking about, and The Book of Abraham, let's just be honest is a very embarrassing issue for many, including the scholars because when they rediscovered the manuscripts in the 1960's at the Metropolitan Museum, we had thought they were lost back almost a hundred years previously. They discovered these, and what it showed is that Joseph Smith did not have the ability to translate a simple funerary papyri. If he couldn't do that, and he just made things up as he went along, then how do we know The Book of Mormon is supposed to be true, that we should really trust that? So many Latter-Day Saints pray about it.
That's great, but if the history doesn't support it, then why should it believed? Going back to your question, yes, I think you're going to have a lot of people who will skirt issues. You just need to try to say, "Wait a minute. That's a great issue you're bringing out, but can we talk more specifically about whatever the issue was?" In your case, it was The Book of Abraham.
Scott Rae: Eric, you've pointed out the handful of these historical issues that for some Mormons are really compelling reasons to leave the LDS Church. What are some of the other reasons besides those historical factors that you've found that are reasons why people leave the Mormon Church?
Eric Johnson: Occasionally, you're going to get somebody who actually reads the Bible and realizes that the Bible is not teaching what Mormonism is. In fact, a strategy that we didn't really talk too much about in the book, but we interviewed Micah Wilder for a spotlight interview. We actually took a look at several different folks who are in full-time ministry and talked about what they did. Micah Wilder was a missionary back in 2005 in Florida, and he was very gung-ho, a big-time missionary, and he went to a pastor, a Baptist pastor and he tried to convert him. The pastor took him into the office, he and his companion, and they talked, and the pastor was very kind to him, and he said, "Son, I've read the Bible, and what you're telling me is opposite of what the Bible is."
Micah said, "What do you want me to do?" He says, "I want you to read the Bible like a little child." Micah did that. He went and read the Bible all the way through. In fact, I think if I'm not mistaken, on his mission, which is only two years, he claims that he read the New Testament 30 or 40 times through, and he ends up becoming a Christian. We have seen that happen, so I'm going to suggest the Bible, the Word of God can certainly have a very powerful effect on people who are searching, but here's the problem.
When you're trying to talk to somebody who's a Latter-Day Saint, there's a lot of baggage that we may not fully understand. In fact, they won't head directly to Christianity most times when they do laeve the church, and that's why I think we wrote the first section of our book to deal with the issues, such as the existence of God, as Sean wrote about, or the reliability of the Bible because we have found that 80% who do end up leaving the church, because of the history, not so much because they read the Bible, but that they're heading to Atheism and Agnosticism, so what we're trying to do is understand that idea, and then try to give them a few ideas as far as the Christians go as to how we can approach somebody who's disgruntled. I think very clearly if you have a relationship with the Mormon and they're willing to read the Bible, it's part of their standard works, the four scriptures that I mentioned earlier, then I think having the Bible read is going to be very powerful.
Scott Rae: That's a really good insight that when Mormons become disaffected with their faith, it's not usually in other religious faith like Christianity that they turn to. It's Atheism or Agnosticism. That I think would come as a surprise to a lot of people, but it makes a lot of sense why that would be the case. Now Eric, I've got not a lot of people in our social network, but a decent number of friends and neighbors who are Mormons. Some of my kids' best friends have been Mormons. My youngest son took a Mormon gal to their senior prom, and we've got good relationships with a lot of Mormon families, and have had some discussions about faith with them.
Eric Johnson: Right.
Scott Rae: I remember feeling like, "How on earth do I get started with this?" This just seems to daunting because these are just the nicest, best people that I've been around in a really long time. I guess my question is, "What are some common mistakes that you see people make in trying to reach out and communicate the gospel message to Mormon friends?"
Eric Johnson: I think one is we really want them to become a Christian, and so we can become overbearing and forceful, and by doing that, we push people away. I think we need to have good tactics and good manners, and not overbear ourselves. In fact, in 1 Peter 3:15-16, which is those are my life verses, it talks about being gentle and respectful. It does say that we're always supposed to have an answer for everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope we have, but so many people do that first part, and they forget to be gentle and respectful. Our family and friends, they mean so much to us that they, it's frustrating I think that we want to badly have them see the truth, but if we remember one thing, I think it would be helpful that we as Christians are only in sales, but God is in production. We can't force that issue, but we can certainly be a witness that can hopefully maybe introduce somebody to Jesus in a way that they never knew before.
Sean McDowell: Eric, you and I co-edited the book, 'Sharing The Good News With Mormons', and I have told everyone who's asked that you did an enormous amount of work on this. It was a great partnership, but it was initially your idea. Tell me how you came up with this idea and what makes the book unique, and why you think it's so important today.
Eric Johnson: Back in 2016, I was asked once again the question, "What's the one approach or strategy I could use to win my Latter-Day Saint friend?" If I had a nickel for every time that somebody ask me that question, I'd be a very rich man because it's common. I mean, we want to know. Get right to the chase. What's the best tactic?
I remember telling that person back in 2016, I get that asked a lot of me, and I would just say, "I wish somebody would write a book with all the different tactics", and I could show you that there's not just one way. I went to bed that night, and I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought, "That's a book that needs to be written." I'm not the person to write it, but maybe I could help organize it, and so then I started to get some of my friends together, and everybody said, "Yeah. I'll write about what I like to do, and this person would write what they were going to do." Then, I talked to some different people including you, Sean, J. Warner Wallace, Andrew Rappaport.
All of you guys encouraged me to maybe try to get this thing published, and there are not very many books that are going to be published on a unique evangelism tactic to a unique people, a specific people group, the Mormon people, but Harvest House has been awesome in working with us, and I think that just having this diversity of people, and yet, we had a unity of purpose. All of the people that are in the book, everybody from Sandra Tanner, Bill McKeever, we've got J. Warner Wallace, Mark Mittelberg, so many, they take evangelism to Mormons very seriously. They just used different approaches. Then again, to have Harvest House say, "Yeah. It's not going to be a best-seller, but we think that there are enough people who need to know this information that we're going to go ahead and publish this", and it's been a great ride here in the last year.
Scott Rae: Eric, I'm looking through the table of contents in the book, and one of the chapters here was written by a graduate of our Philosophy Program here at Talbot, Rob Sivulka, who's got a fairly controversial approach to the sales that you're talking about to Mormons.
Eric Johnson: Right.
Scott Rae: Can you tell us just a little bit about Rob's approach and what you think of that?
Eric Johnson: One of the things that, when I talk to Sean about this originally, and I said, "I want to include people that maybe are not exactly what we would put in our own book", and we wouldn't put that chapter perhaps in our own book, but I wanted it in there because it's a very successful tactic. Chapter 20, 'Website Advertising: The Sign Approach', Rob goes out to different LDS events, and he has a sign, JosephLied.com. Now, that sounds pretty offensive in a sense, but I'm telling you that people will take it seriously. They'll actually go look it up. It's hard to forget that website sign and what it's saying, and then they'll ask Rob regularly, "What did he lie about?"
It opens up a conversation. He can tell them about Joseph Smith's wives, and he can tell them some other things that Joseph Smith did on his website, JosephLied.com. That's not a tactic that everybody's going to use. I actually have used website signs in a number of ways. Not necessarily JosephLied.com, but they've been very helpful, and so when somebody's reading a book, I want them to be able to say, "Okay. There's 24 chapters."
There's probably going to be 10 or 12 chapters that I would never do. I would never hold up a website sign, but maybe there's another chapter in there that just really gets them interested. Maybe they don't do it the same way, but maybe it gives them ideas on how they could use that approach, and that's the power I think of this book. I love Rob and he does a great job out on the street. It's not the way that I do it exactly, but that's okay because again, I talked about the diversity and the unity, and we have both here in the book.
Sean McDowell: Let's talk about the way you do it, and you have a number of different ways you reach out to people. Tell us a little bit about your approach, Buddy the Elf, and then second, your chapter in the book 19, 'The Miracle of Forgiveness', which is based on the book, 'The Miracle of Forgiveness' written by former apostle, Spencer Kimball. Give us a sense of the two approaches that you take, even though you take many more as well.
Eric Johnson: The first one you mentioned, Buddy and Santa, we've been doing this since 2010 going out to Temple Square dressed up as Buddy and Santa. My friend, Randy Sweet is Santa. People wait in line to get pictures with us, and we have these million dollar bills with our picture on the front and an evangelism message on the back. We've had it out over 40 or 50,000 of those in the seven years that we've done that, which has been incredible. We didn't put that in the book, but at the same time, it is something that Randy and I like to do, but the chapter that I wrote on 'The Miracle of Forgiveness', this is a book written by the 12th President of the Mormon Church, Spencer Kimball.
All the Mormons know about Spencer Kimball. In fact, he was the one that got the revelation to allow blacks to hold the priesthood in 1978, but he wrote this book in 1969, and he exegetes the unique LDS passages found in the Doctrine and Covenants and The Book of Mormon that tell a person what they have to do. What they have to do, it's been very clear, clearly put forth that the Mormon is capable of doing all the commands of God. Now, they need to go and do it, and so we go out on the street at Mormon events like at the conference events that they have. We'll go to BYU football games. We'll hand out 30 or 40 copies of this book that we have purchased at the Deseret Thrift stores.
These are Mormon Church owned thrift stores, and people give these books back, and so we purchase them there. We highlight the books, and we have handed out, gosh, over 400 copies of this book in the last, since 2014, so the last four years, very successful. We get into great conversations with people on the issue of salvation, and what I write about in the book, you don't have to give the book away, but maybe buy the book and highlight the parts that I talk about. You can go to our website, SharingwithMormons.com, and I have all of the places where you can highlight, and then ask your Mormon friend about the parts in this book. Now, a lot of Latter-Day Saints who are under 40 have never read the book.
Those who are over 40, we have found about 90% of the time, that they're faithful, they've read this book and they don't like it, and the reason they don't like it is because it's telling them that they can do something that they know is impossible to do.
Sean McDowell: Eric, I'm guessing our listeners right now are Googling Eric Johnson and Buddy the Elf to see what images come up.
Eric Johnson: We have a website, BuddyandSanta.com, so if they want to go to BuddyandSanta.com, they can see more about that.
Scott Rae: Something tells me they don't do this just during Christmas season.
Sean McDowell: That's right. That's right. Hey, Eric. Thanks for coming on. It's been a real privilege to have you on the program, and also want to say, such a joy to work on this book with you. I want our listeners to know as they look in the book, you've really written this for anybody who just has a heart to reach out to Mormon people, not just those who live in Salt Lake City, but people with Mormon family members, with friends, with co-workers, and you look at the topics here, and some of these are using surveys.
They have conversations sharing the truth with LDS women. When the elders come to your door, listening approach, invitation approaches, there's really a lot of practical stuff here, and the idea is not that someone would do all 24 approaches, but they'd take two or three they're comfortable with, and just give it a shot, and remarkably, it's amazing how God uses us when we're just willing to step out and love people in a thoughtful way. Eric, thanks again for coming on. I hope our listeners will check out the recent book that we co-edited, 'Sharing The Good News With Mormons'. Also, check out Eric's ministry, that he works with the Mormon Research Ministry, MRM.org. This has been an episode in the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture.
To learn more about us and today's guest, Eric Johnson, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.