by Fred W. Anson
This was the very first article that I wrote in Mormon Studies. It’s pretty old (if you couldn’t tell by the term “Bulletin Board” in the title). As I recall, was only written a few years over a decade ago, but it seems like a different lifetime now. Much has changed in Mormonism, much has changed in Mormon Studies, and much has changed with me. 

Case in point, Jim Spencer, my wonderful first Mormon Studies mentor, liked this article so much that he published it on his “Maze Ministry” website. And like Jim, that website is now deceased. I miss them both. I’m not thrilled with parts of my presentation and some of the content. But, none-the-less, I think that it makes a good point and issues a much-needed warning that’s just as relevant today as it was back then. If Jim were still with us today, that he would agree.  I hope that you do too. 

I was raised Christian. My brother converted to Mormonism in the late 1960’s. He was converted by my Uncle who lives in the Bay Area. And, of course, growing up and living the Southwest United States I’ve had many, many Mormon friends. I like Mormons and have a lot of respect for them.

However, thanks to good books like James Spencer’s “Beyond Mormonism”, I have come to appreciate that Mormonism is not only a fraud but a very dangerous fraud. If you are still doubting the veracity of that statement and/or Mr. Spencer’s book I would refer you to any or all of the following books:

“Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith” by Martha Beck
(written by the daughter of well-known Mormon Apologist and BYU Professor, Hugh Nibley)

“No Man Knows My History” by Fawn M. Brodie
(written by the niece of ninth LdS President, David O. McKay) 

“Wife no. 19” by Ann Eliza Young
(written by the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young) 

“Mormonism Unveiled” by John D. Lee
(written by the adopted son of Brigham Young)

After attempting to reason with True Believing Mormons on I was frustrated and confused. It felt like I was talking to a “wall of glass” most of the time. This had been my experience with my Brother too. I didn’t feel like they were listening – or even open to listening to anything but LDS Church dogma.

Now I agree with Elizabeth Browning who once said, “Always learn from experience – preferably someone else’s” so I knew that I needed to get expert advice from those who had gotten out of Mormonism. I was clearly missing something – insight, and wisdom. And I thought I knew where to get it!

Being Internet literate my first thought was to turn to the ExMormon Internet boards. The most popular and well known ExMormon site is (often referred to as “RfM” as in “Recovery from Mormonism”).

In fact, I had used that site for a lot of my research into the history and theology of Mormonism. So I signed up for their forum and asked the following question: “Is reasoning with True Believing Mormons [in an attempt to bring them to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ] a waste of time?” Now remember up to that point all my experiences on the site had been positive so you can imagine my surprise when I got flamed to a crisp in about 15-minutes with innumerable responses like:

“That’s like asking which idiot is the biggest!”
“You’re both nuts so what’s the point?”
“Crazy wanker! Why should I waste any time reasoning with YOU?”
“As if YOUR so-called-god is any better than their so-called-god?”

All this vitriol was because in my post I made the mistake of revealing that I am an Evangelical Christian. I didn’t know at the time that the bulletin board has a reputation for quickly flaming any person of faith to carbon — be they Mormon, Christian, Muslim, Jewish or anything other than Atheist.

So, still needing to get my question answered, I found via a Google search. I explained what had happened on and got my question answered straightaway (the answer is, “Maybe, it depends on the TBM that you’re trying to reason with.” by the way). They were very nice, respectful and accommodating. They answered my questions. They asked me questions. I learned a lot about both Mormon History and Culture. I felt great, they felt great.

So far so good.

I am a computer Engineer and while I’m watching status bars on computers go by I kill idle time by doing posts – like this one – on subjects that interest me. I put up a lot of posts (and I mean A LOT – about 20 per day) on and got a generally good reception. I was careful, per the board guidelines, to qualify all my opinions with “IMO” or “from my perspective” or equivalent. To my knowledge, I never once told anyone what they should believe. And if I did it was a lapse and not deliberate – I hate that stuff. However, I did speak from my life experience – the majority of which has been lived as a Christian – and I did try to provide food for thought (just like everyone else was doing)

And, yes, I spoke in unflinching terms about what I see as the errors of Mormon Theology and the problems that I see in Mormon Culture. (However, what I said was far less incendiary than what was displayed by most of the Ex-Mormons on the board)

However, through it all, I refused to recant from my Evangelical Christian beliefs. Again, I was always clear on I was and what I believed. I honestly didn’t think that would be a problem on a board that’s called “” as opposed, to say, “”, “”, “”, “”, or “”

Never-the-less, at some point, the board founder must have decided that these posts from a Christian perspective were a problem. To give you some perspective the board founder attended a Baptist church after he left the LDS Church and in his words (from his exit story on,

“I reached the conclusion that the New Testament is pretty much the same kind of white-wash-sell-job as the Book of Mormon. A few basic common sense concepts and a lot of whitewashing and holy sounding stuff. So I quit going to the church.”
(Jeff Ricks, “The Lord in the Bahamas”, website)

He started “calling me out” by taking direct aim at Theism in general and Christianity in particular – directly calling it “Bullshit”. His arguments were well-formed and consistent. He was very impressive and persuasive in style, delivery, and substance.

Unfortunately, once he started, a gang of militant Atheists lined up behind him and all the faith-based belief systems, got a thorough “stompin’ ‘n’ trashin'”. To show you how bad it got some of the posters even advocated banning religious advocacy altogether. Others implied (or simply overtly stated) that non-Atheists were at the very least unenlightened and at the most mentally ill. Suddenly I felt like a Jew surrounded by Nazis on Crystal Nacht. It was, to say the least, unsettling.

I did my best to present a Christian voice in the midst of the fray but it was hard to keep my head above water – there were several anti-Theist threads running concurrently and there were simply too many angry, militant Atheists on the board. I had a few allies but still, I felt overwhelmed.

Then the board founder started a new thread called, “Really, what good is Jesus?” and this new thread unleashed an avalanche of unbridled hatred and scorn on Christ, Christianity, and Christians. That was when I decided that enough was enough. I silently slid out the door and quietly shut it behind me.

After I left, I discovered that my experience on these ExMormon boards is not unique. Here’s what others have had to say about

“I [an ExMormon] am now a mainstream Christian. Not someone [who] is very accepted on the postmormon board. So I would say unless you do not believe in God; you will not have a great experience there.”
(Lil Daisy, comment on Mormon Coffee website, June 24, 2007)

“. . . they [] won’t welcome me because their communities are not about lifting up Christ. My faith is the sheer contrast. I believe in God who declares absolutes. They are angry at this conception. So it makes heart ministry to post-Mormons extremely difficult.”
(“ Has Come to Idaho Falls”, Heart Issues for LDS website, June 7, 2007)

If I could have one “wish” for both and it would be that they would exercise full disclosure on their true agenda – which appears to be to convert True Believing Mormons into True Believing Atheists.

I agree with Mormon Researcher, Sharon Lindbloom who blogged:

“I love the idea of available support for people struggling with the problems they encounter in questioning or leaving Mormonism, but seems to be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Truth is freely available to all; yet the ability to know the truth is not an illusion. By embracing this ideology is merely replacing one deception with another.”
(Sharon Lindbloom, “Validating Post-Mormons”, Mormon Coffee website, April 11, 2007)

As for me, I have left and I have shaken the dust of off my sandals (Matthew 10:11-15). I advise other Christians to not make the same mistake that I did — twice.

These non-Christian, ExMormon sites are simply not safe places for people of faith! So unless God calls you there, don’t go. There are much better, healthier, safer ways to learn Mormon History and Culture than these sites. In fact, the one that you’re on right now [this is a reference to Jim Spencer’s now-defunct website] is one of the best.

Yeah, being a theist on these Atheist Ex-Mormon boards is kinda like being on the receiving end of that.

If you’re wondering why my introduction was vague on when that article was first written and published it’s because I honestly don’t know. My record-keeping back then wasn’t what it is now. That said, I’m guessing that it was sometime in either 2007 or 2008. So that, of course, raises the question, what has happened in the ensuing decade both with myself and the Ex-Mormon websites mentioned in the article. The short version on these websites is that theists are still, to this day getting fried to a crisp on and has been down since 2017 due to being hacked. Further, both sites seem to only be shells of their past glory days now as, as of this writing, most folks have moved to the various Ex-Mormon groups on Facebook or the r/exmormon forum on Reddit. Thankfully, today’s groups seem to be less openly hostile to theists even though they’re still generally hostile to theism.

That said, the longer version is that after the above article was published, the founder of the board caught wind of it and cyberstalked me onto the Concerned Christians discussion board (now also defunct) which had become my “home” after my experience. He informed the audience there that I was full of it, a liar, a deceiver and that I was nothing more than a bitter, angry ex-member who was out to harm because I had been offended while I was still a member there. He even went so far as to put up a post on about how I had “betrayed” them all with this article. I was then demonized by the other members with the most common accusation that I had really just been lurking all along so I could someday pursue my real, secret agenda – to convert them all to mainstream Christianity.

Friends, does any of this sound familiar?

If you’re thinking that it sounds very similar to what the LdS Church says about Ex-Mormons – like all those folks on the board – you would be right. In the ensuing years, I have noticed that many Ex-Mormons may have physically left the Mormon Church but culturally, mentally, and emotionally they’re still very Mormon. Some even brag about and nurture this mindset. Hence, some in Mormon Studies refer to Mormon Culture as a “spectrum” that includes Ex-Mormons.

To be sure, overcoming a lifetime that includes indoctrination and acculturalization that started when the Ex-Mormon was in diapers surely ain’t easy! After all, I still see remnants of my upbringing as a good Nazarene boy bubbling up from time-to-time – and as of this writing, I’m 59-years old Calvinist and Charismatic, in many ways, the polar opposite of the Nazarene Wesleyanism of my parents. Some things, apparently, last a lifetime. However, the fact that many – no, I’m going to say most, based on my own first-hand experience – Ex-Mormons come out of the LdS Church and unconsciously project Mormonism onto mainstream Christianity despite the vast differences between the two.

There’s no greater proof of this than the fact that many long term Ex-Mormons – some who have been out of the Mormon Church for decades and who have studied mainstream Christianity from non-Mormon sources – will still take umbrage over the fact that Mormonism isn’t Christian even though it doesn’t even meet the most basic and essential criteria for inclusion in Judeo-Christianity: Monotheism.

A common, but wrong, assumption by most Ex-Mormons is that because they know Mormonism, they know mainstream Christianity too. But I will tell you from first-hand experience helping numerous Ex-Mormons transition out of the LdS Church, they don’t. Stated plainly, the LdS Church doesn’t teach members Christianity. Rather, it abuses Christian scripture, terms, and forms to teach members a bastardized, twisted, neo-pagan religion that is to Christianity what Islam is to Judaism: Two completely different and distinct religions albeit with a modicum of similarities.

Further, because Mormon Culture prefers bifurcation to nuance (“Everything is either black or white – there is no grey!” v. “There are many shades of grey.”) mainstream Christianity tends to simply be labeled “just the other side of the same bad penny” in Ex-Mormon culture. And it doesn’t help the cause when you have far too many Christian fanatics bashing the culture that these people came from with the same mindless, passion, and zeal that we see coming from true-believing Mormons. Yes, friends, mindless fanaticism is everywhere – including atheism.  But, that said,  not everyone in every religious group is a mindless fanatic. This is something that the folks on the boards in question often seemed to fail to grasp even when they themselves demonstrate the same polemic, “take no prisoners”, fanatical zeal for Post-Mormon Atheism that we’ve come to expect from Mormon Apologists.

As they say, “Different flame, same moth.”

This became more yet more evident to me over the years after my experience when I discovered that the key players, moderators, and administrators (including the founders of both and were board members of the Ex-Mormon Foundation. When I was new to Mormon Studies, The Ex-Mormon Foundation was a wonderful group that was committed to helping former members of the Mormon Church find support and help in their transition out of the LdS Church via resources up to and including an annual conference in Salt Lake City each year. Yes, one would find the same kind of processing of anger and bitterness that one found on the boards at these conferences, and one would find the same militant atheism among some members but disabusing people of religious faith wasn’t core to its mission. I was even a member of the Ex-Mormon Foundation for several years and supported them financially even though I never attended the annual conference. I saw it as a force for good in the world.

Then, over time I noticed that the focus of the official, public speaking agenda at the annual conference slowly transitioning from being focused solely on education on and opposition to Mormonism to public opposition to theism in general and Evangelical Christianity in particular. By the time of the Foundation’s eventual demise, each conference would feature at least one speaker who was militantly anti-religion and some conferences even featured speakers who were explicitly anti-Christian. And, I believe, not coincidentally, at the height of this disturbing trend, the President of the Ex-Mormon Foundation was a well-known Administrator on


And, ironically, while all this was happening we’re being told both that neither these groups or this formerly fine foundation are anti-religion or anti-theism. Well, as the saying goes, I can’t hear what you’re saying because what you’re doing is too loud.

Friends, this is a challenge to these Ex-Mormon groups and boards to simply exercise the same kind of honesty of themselves that they so rightly and appropriately demand of others. If you’re going to be anti-religion, then fine, be anti-religion – but don’t say one thing and then do another. Don’t claim that mainstream Christianity and other religions are viable and reasonable options on the Mormon Spectrum and then take every opportunity to disabuse mainstream Christian theists of their faith should they naively wander into your Anti-Religion bashing group. If your real agenda is to turn True Believing Mormons into True Believing Atheists, fine.  Then be true to what and who you are and state it plainly and boldly upfront. Just be forthright honest so that those of us who aren’t interested in joining your gang know not to walk down your street and get mugged.  But just knock off the pretense of neutrality, please! You’re not neutral, just say it. Own it.

In the end, I have learned a lot from my hard experiences with Ex-Mormon atheist Internet groups. So when I finally started my own Ex-Mormon transition groups I explicitly included the word “Christian” in the group names and stated plainly in the group description that the profession of non-Mormon, mainstream Christianity is a requirement for membership. The group rules in these groups also politely ask members who become atheists in the course of their transition out of Mormonism to remove themself from the group. After all, a Christian group is a Christian group, right? We don’t represent ourselves as something that we aren’t and we don’t claim to be neutral, because we aren’t.

Finally, and in the end, I would hope that we mainstream Christians and Ex-Mormon Atheists could find a way to engage in peaceful co-belligerence against Mormonism. After all, history has shown us what great things can happen when folks who normally are in opposition to each other can engage in cooperation against a common enemy. That was my hope when I wrote my article back in the day, and it remains my hope today.

“History has shown us what great things can happen when folks who normally are in opposition to each other can engage in cooperation against a common enemy.” The “Big Three” at the Yalta Conference in February 1945: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin. The Yalta Conference was held after Nazi Germany was defeated by the Allies.


Robert Weingarten, “Jackson Pollock #1” (2007)

compiled by Fred W. Anson
The issue
“As an Evangelical, I’m being told that Charis is a reciprocal ‘covenant’ and also that Strong’s Greek is ‘outdated’. One of the sources that this LDS individual is using is Evangelical, Douglas Moo’s article, ‘John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift and the New Perspective on Paul,’ The other is Latter-day Saint, Stephen O. Smoot’s ‘Saved by Charis: A Review of “Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis”’ (with thanks to Cynthia Debban Petermann and Paul Nurnberg for providing this issue clarification)

Rob Bowman’s response
It’s complicated. This claim is also being made by some non-LDS scholars, although how it is understood or applied in the NT isn’t always the same.

First, I thought Douglas Moo’s article, “John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift and the New Perspective on Paul,” was excellent.1

Second, the Greek word “charis” (χάρις) does not mean “covenant.” Nor is the word necessarily associated with a covenant, though of course, the “new covenant” in Christ has grace as a key aspect. The Book of Hebrews, which uses the term “covenant” more than the rest of the NT combined (see especially chapters 7-10), tells us that Jesus is our high priest seated on the throne of God in heaven, ready and able to give us “grace” and “mercy” with sympathy for our weaknesses (Heb. 4:14-16), having died as a sacrifice for our sins in order to save those who come to him (7:26-8:6). So we can agree that the grace of God is associated with the new covenant, for which Christ is our mediator with God.

Third, describing the new covenant as “reciprocal” requires some explanation. It is reciprocal in the sense that a covenant is a relationship between two parties, in this case, God and believers (the church, if you will, considered as one party). It is therefore reciprocal in that God expects those who have entered into the covenant to remain in it in order to continue receiving the benefits of it. Remaining in the covenant entails continuing to honor the Benefactor in order to continue receiving his generous gifts. But those gifts can never be earned. There is no payment plan for reimbursing God, our Benefactor, for the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.

Fourth, the evangelical doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone do not mean that Christians are not expected to do good works. We are not saved by our works (Eph. 2:8-9), but because we are saved we do good works (2:10). Salvation consists not *only* in forgiveness of sins but also in regeneration (the new birth), the indwelling and sealing of the Holy Spirit, sanctification (being set apart or consecrated to God as his holy people), and eventually glorification in which we become sinless, absolutely holy, loving, good, and righteous people. No one can be saved who wants forgiveness without the rest of the blessings of salvation. You can’t tell God, “I’ll take forgiveness but I don’t want you messing with my life.” Let me re-post some material that I have posted on FB a couple of times in the past:

What is the evangelical view of faith and works? Let’s look at some representative statements.

First, here is Luther’s comment on Galatians 5:6:

Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides.”
The Epitome of the Formula of Concord, a Lutheran confession:
“But after man has been justified by faith, then a true living faith worketh by love, Gal. 5:6, so that thus good works always follow justifying faith, and are surely found with it, if it be true and living; for it never is alone, but always has with it love and hope.
(Martin Luther’s Bible Commentary, Galatians 5)  

John Calvin, in his Antidote to the Council of Trent:

I wish the reader to understand that as often as we mention Faith alone in this question, we are not thinking of a dead faith, which worketh not by love, but holding faith to be the only cause of justification. (Galatians 5:6; Romans 3:22.) It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness,
is the alone instrument of justification:
yet is it not alone in the person justified,
but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces,
and is no dead faith, but works by love.
(Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2)

To conclude: Evangelicalism teaches both “faith alone” (i.e., faith is the sole instrument of justification) and “faith not alone” (i.e., faith is never alone but produces love that does good works). This is not a contradiction but merely reflects the fact that the two statements use “alone” in different ways.

This is what evangelical theology teaches.

Jesus did say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 14:21). I think we need to take that seriously. I also don’t think it conflicts with salvation by grace alone. God’s grace saves us not only from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin. Love and good works are the fruit of genuine salvation.

1 Just a clarification: As I just mentioned, the article is actually by Douglas Moo, not John Barclay. Moo is discussing Barclay’s book and the scholarly context in which it was written.

About the author: 
Rob Bowman is the former Executive Director of the Institute for Religious Research (IRR). He left IRR in 2019 to pursue a career in theological research, writing, and teaching. Previously he served as Manager of Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism for the North American Mission Board (2006-2008). For ten years Rob taught graduate courses in apologetics, biblical studies, and religion at Luther Rice University (1994-99) and Biola University (2001-2005). He has also worked with other apologetics and discernment ministries, most notably the Christian Research Institute (1984-91), the Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project (1994-99), and Watchman Fellowship in Alabama (1999-2000). Rob has spoken at over a hundred churches and at some three dozen conferences and debates. He has five years of experience hosting call-in radio talk shows focusing on apologetics, including the nationally famous Bible Answer Man show.

Rob Bowman earned the M.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, did doctoral studies in Christian Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at South African Theological Seminary. He is the author of roughly 60 articles (e.g., in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Review of Biblical Literature, Christian Research Journal, Moody Monthly, Pastoral Renewal, Mission Frontiers, and Journal of Evangelism and Missions) and 13 books pertaining to apologetics, religion, and biblical theology, including two winners of the Gold Medallion Award, An Unchanging Faith in a Changing World (1997) and Faith Has Its Reasons (2001; 2d ed., 2006). His most recent books are Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (co-authored with Ed Komoszewski, 2007), which received numerous endorsements from such scholars as Ravi Zacharias and Richard Bauckham, and What Mormons Believe (2012).

Rob and his wife, Cathy, have been married since 1981 and have four children, three of them still living at home.

This compilation was derived from the following Facebook discussion threads: and
(note this is closed Facebook group that you must be a member of in order to view group content. Click here to apply for membership in the group:
It has been republished here with the kind permission of the contributors on Facebook. 

by Fred W. Anson
Patristic Studies is a specialized area of study within Religious Studies focusing on the period from the end of the Apostolic New Testament era (c. AD 100) to either AD 451 (the date of the Council of Chalcedon or to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 depending on which Church Historian you talk to.1 It’s an area of study that few Protestants are aware of or have knowledge of. As Religious Studies Scholar Chris Welborn notes:

The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches typically have held this period in higher regard than have other churches. This is not surprising, since they share many points of theology and morality from this period. These churches also claim a line of divine authority from the New Testament period through the patristic period to this day.2

So given how other churches have used Patristic Studies to establish their direct lineage from primitive Christian, it should come as no shock when Mormon Apologists do the same. As Mr. Welborn observed in an article published in 2006:

Mormons have studied patristic writers increasingly since the middle of the twentieth century so as to use them to justify their church’s claim to be the true church. In doing this, they presuppose without qualification that Mormon theology and practice are true, and that the same Mormon theology and practice that are prevalent in the present day also were normative in the New Testament period. They then examine patristic writings to find similarities and dissimilarities to their theology and practice. The similarities, they say, were a remnant of authentic New Testament belief. The dissimilarities, however, they blanketly attribute to Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy, which they suppose entered and corrupted the church after the apostles died.3

This is fully aligned with Mormon Great Apostasy dogma which Mormon Missionaries explain to investigators of the faith like this:

Without the Apostles, over time the doctrines were corrupted, and unauthorized changes were made in Church organization and priesthood ordinances, such as baptism and conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost. Without revelation and priesthood authority, people relied on human wisdom to interpret the scriptures and the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

False ideas were taught as truth. Much of the knowledge of the true character and nature of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost was lost. The doctrines of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost became distorted or forgotten. The priesthood authority given to Christ’s Apostles was no longer present on the earth. This apostasy eventually led to the emergence of many churches.4

It’s also explained to these investigators that due to this universal apostasy a restoration of the Christian Church back to its original pristine, primitive state is required. Citing these Patristic sources, it’s asserted, is both proof of this apostasy and validation that the LdS Church alone holds the key to this required restoration.

The full image of the Origen icon from this article’s banner art.

Enter Origen
A particular favorite of Mormon Apologists seems to be Origen of Alexandria (c.184 – 253AD). The following excerpt is from Methodist, Church Historian, Justo Gonzalez’s popular and influential book, “The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”. In it, the knowledgeable student of Mormonism will see hints of the Latter-day Saint doctrines of pre-existent spirits (all humans were spiritual beings in heaven prior to coming to earth and inhabiting a physical body), ex-materia creation (the cosmos was formed out of pre-existing matter, not created ex-nihilio – out of nothing), and universal salvation (aka “universalism”):

Origen feels free to rise in great speculative flights. For instance, since the tradition of the apostles and of the church gives no details as to how the world was created, Origen believes that this is a fair field of inquiry. In the first chapters of Genesis there are two stories of creation, as Jewish scholars had noted even before the time of Origen. In one of these stories, we are told that humankind was created after the image and likeness of God, and that “male and female created He them.” In the second, we are told that God made Adam first, then the animals, and then formed the woman out of Adam’s rib. In the Greek version of the first narrative, the verb describing God’s action is “to create,” whereas in the second it is “to form” or “to shape.” What is the meaning of these differences? Modern scholars would speak of the joining of separate traditions. But Origen simply declares that there are two narratives because there were in fact two creations.

According to Origen, the first creation was purely spiritual. What God first created were spirits without bodies. This is why the text says “male and female”—that is, with no sexual differences. This is also why we are told that God “created,” and not that God “formed.”

God’s purpose was that the spirits thus created would be devoted to the contemplation of the divine. But some of them strayed from that contemplation and fell. It was then that God made the second creation. This second creation is material, and it serves as a shelter or temporary home for fallen spirits. Those spirits who fell farthest have become demons, while the rest are human souls. It was for these human souls—fallen preexistent spirits—that God made the bodies we now have, which God “shaped” out of the earth, making some male and some female.

This implies that all human souls existed as pure spirits—or “intellects,” as Origen calls them—before being born into the world, and that the reason why we are here is that we have sinned in that prior, purely spiritual existence. Although Origen claims that all this is based on the Bible, it is clear that it is derived from the Platonic tradition, where similar ideas had been taught for a long time.

In the present world, the Devil and his demons have us captive, and therefore Jesus Christ has come to break the power of Satan and to show us the path we are to follow in our return to our spiritual home. Furthermore, since the Devil is no more than a spirit like ours, and since God is love, in the end even Satan will be saved, and the entire creation will return to its original state, where everything was pure spirit. However, since these spirits will still be free, there is nothing to guarantee that there will not be a new fall, a new material world, and a new history, and that the cycle of fall, restoration, and fall will not go on forever.5

But before you’re baptized into the Mormon Church…
So, given all that, are you ready to be baptized into the Mormon Church? Sounds like a convincing case that Mormonism is teaching restored Christianity, doesn’t it? Well, Mr. Gonzalez certainly doesn’t think so. He immediately continues as follows:

In evaluating all of this, one has to begin by marveling at the width of Origen’s mental scope. For this reason, he has had fervent admirers at various times throughout the history of the church. One must also remember that Origen proposes all of this, not as truths to be generally accepted, nor as something that will supersede the doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculations, which ought not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.

However, once this has been said, it is also important to note that on many points Origen is more Platonist than Christian. Thus, for instance, Origen rejects the doctrines of Marcion and of the Gnostics, that the world is the creation of an inferior being; but then he comes to the conclusion that the existence of the physical world—as well as of history—is the result of sin. At this point there is a marked difference with Irenaeus, for whom the existence of history was part of the eternal purpose of God. And when it comes to the preexistence of souls, and to the eternal cycle of fall and restoration, there is no doubt that Origen strays from what Christianity has usually taught.6

And Mr. Welborn concurs. As he correctly points out regarding the Mormon use of Patristic sources:

In using patristic sources, Mormons have scoured unorthodox as well as orthodox Christian writings. Many of these Mormon scholars are competent in their various fields, but their constant motive to validate Mormonism often distorts the conclusions of their study of this period…

Certain conclusions of Mormon scholars concerning the patristic period are accurate and helpful. Their sectarian motive of trying to justify the belief that the Mormon Church is the true church, however, has led them to examine the field in an incomplete, patchwork manner. Further, in order to support their theology, Mormons sometimes have interpreted patristic works in ways that force meanings onto the texts that the authors never intended and distort the authors’ intended meanings. In such circumstances, these Mormons are predisposed to drawing faulty conclusions.7


An icon of a young Origen of Alexandria holding a communion chalice containing Christ’s body and blood.

A Heretic By Any Other Name …
What Mormon scholars also often fail to consider is that even if their cherry-picked sources taught the same doctrine that modern Mormonism does, that doesn’t make it normative for that time or orthodox today. Unlike Mormonism, which tends to skew strongly toward Ex-Cathedra,8 Protestants are Prima Scriptura.9 Therefore, any Patristic teachings that contradict, or exceed, the words of canonized scripture are not authoritative, period. This is especially important because as Reformed Theologian, James R. White has often pointed out, Patristic writings are just like today’s Christian Bookstore where the works of heretics like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn sit next to the works of Luther, Calvin, and Spurgeon. In other words, just because it’s there, that doesn’t make it true or reflective of Biblical orthodoxy. As Justo L. Gonzalez observes:

The many converts who joined the early church came from a wide variety of backgrounds. This variety enriched the church and gave witness to the universality of its message. But it also resulted in widely differing interpretations of that message. Such different interpretations should not surprise us, for at the time Christianity was still ill-defined—to the point that it would probably be better to speak of “Christianities,” in the plural. There certainly were in it varying views and emphases, as any reader of the New Testament can still see when comparing, for instance, the Gospel of Mark with John, Romans, and Revelation. But, were all the existing views and interpretations equally valid or acceptable? Was there not the danger that, within the still undefined limits of Christianity, there would be interpretations that would threaten its integrity? The danger was increased by the syncretism of the time, which sought truth, not by adhering to a single system of doctrine, but by taking bits and pieces from various systems. The result was that, while many claimed the name of Christ, some interpreted that name in a manner that others felt obscured or even denied the very core of his message. In response to such threats, what would become known as orthodox Christianity began to define itself by reaffirming such elements of its Jewish heritage as the doctrines of creation, of the positive value of the created world, of the rule of God over all of history, of the resurrection of the body—a doctrine learned from the Pharisees—and a coming final reign of God. In order to reaffirm such doctrines, it developed a series of instruments—creeds, the canon of scripture, apostolic succession—that would set limits on orthodoxy and would long remain central themes in Christian life and teaching. Thus, even those whose views were eventually rejected by the church at large, and came to be known as heretics, left their mark on the church and the way it understood itself.10

Thus many of Origen’s views were controversial in their day – heterodox to be exact11 – and very correctly declared fully heretical later. As one commentator points out:

Some of Origen’s ideas were unorthodox and put him at odds with fellow believers. For instance, Origen believed in the pre-existence of souls and that one’s status in the present world was proportional to one’s commitment to God during this pre-existence. His negative attitude toward the material world wasn’t much different than that of the Gnostics he so strongly opposed. He also considered the Trinity a ranking, not an equality, and believed that everyone, even demons, would one day be forgiven and purified by God. These claims were key to his being declared a heretic by various councils in the centuries after his death.12

He’s sure preaching somethin’… 
Of course, Origen was able to hold to heterodoxy because the type of top-down religious hierarchy that one sees in today’s Mormon Church simply didn’t exist. The Christian Churches of Origen’s day were decentralized, local, and autonomous. There was no First Presidency, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, Quorums of the Seventy, Stakes, or Wards guarding, maintaining, and enforcing orthodoxy. That very Roman Catholic invention came much, much, much later. So Origen (and other Patristic Fathers) could hold to – and even publicly preach – unorthodox views and oddball personal opinions without much, if any consequence.

Further, weakening the Mormon Apologist’s case is the fact that the Patristic Fathers were the very Church Leaders that Mormonism condemns as those who lead the pure and pristine Christian Church into apostasy after the death of the original Apostles and the end of their apostolic period. Consider this from Mormon Apostle, James Talmage:

We affirm that with the passing of the apostolic period the Church drifted into a condition of apostasy, whereby succession in the Holy Priesthood was broken; and that the Church as an earthly organization operating under Divine direction and having authority to officiate in spiritual ordinances ceased to exist among men.13

And an official, correlated LdS Church manual agrees with him:

One by one, the Apostles were killed or otherwise taken from the earth. Because of wickedness and apostasy, the apostolic authority and priesthood keys were also taken from the earth. The organization that Jesus Christ had established no longer existed, and confusion resulted. More and more error crept into Church doctrine, and soon the dissolution of the Church was complete. The period of time when the true Church no longer existed on earth is called the Great Apostasy. Soon pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians.14

… but it sure ain’t Christianity or Mormonism!
It is both illogical and irrational to cite from the very men that according to Mormon dogma were instruments of Satan in leading Christ’s Church into apostasy as proof that your church isn’t apostate, isn’t it? After all, as the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, said so well, “Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” (Joseph Smith, Jr., as quoted in B.H. Roberts, History of the Church 1:XL)

So in the end, agenda-driven, confirmation bias fueled, Mormon Apologists can cite and argue from cherry-picked Patristic sources and writings all they like, it proves absolutely nothing. Further, since these Patristic sources didn’t preach modern Mormonism, by doing so they are actually undermining and discrediting it, aren’t they?

A modern icon of Origen of Alexandria teaching the Saints throughout the ages.

1 Wikipedia, “Patristics”.
2 Chris Welborn, “Mormons and Patristic Study: How Mormons Use The Church Fathers to Defend Mormonism”;
3 Ibid.
4 LdS Church, “Preach My Gospel: A Guide To Missionary Service” (2003 edition), p. 35.
5 Justo L. Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”, pp. 94-95. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
6 Ibid.
7 Welborn, Op Cit.
8 A Latin term meaning “from the chair” and the basis of the Roman Catholic concept of Papal Infallibility, whereby the voice of the Pope seated on his Papal throne is the ultimate authority for defining orthodoxy for Christ’s Church on earth. The Wikipedia article is a good primer for those new to this concept: Wikipedia, “Papal infallibility”.
9Prima scriptura is the Christian doctrine that canonized scripture is “first” or “above all” other sources of divine revelation. Implicitly, this view acknowledges that, besides canonical scripture, there are other guides for what a believer should believe and how he should live, such as the created order, traditions, charismatic gifts, mystical insight, angelic visitations, conscience, common sense, the views of experts, the spirit of the times or something else. Prima scriptura suggests that ways of knowing or understanding God and his will that do not originate from canonized scripture are perhaps helpful in interpreting that scripture, but testable by the canon and correctable by it, if they seem to contradict the scriptures.” (see “Prima Scriptura”, Wikipedia)  
10 Justo L. Gonzalez, Op Cit, pp. 69-70.
11Heterodoxy in a religious sense means ‘any opinions or doctrines at variance with an official or orthodox position’. Under this definition, heterodoxy is similar to unorthodoxy, while the adjective ‘heterodox’ could be applied to a dissident.
Heterodoxy is also an ecclesiastical term of art, defined in various ways by different religions and churches. For example, in the Apostolic Churches (the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of the East, the Anglican Communion, and the Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Churches), heterodoxy may describe beliefs that differ from strictly orthodox views, but that fall short either of formal or of material heresy.  (see Heterodoxy”, Wikipedia)
12 GotQuestions website, “Who was Origen of Alexandria?”.
13 James Talmage, “The Vitality of Mormonism”, pp. 109-110.
Official LdS Church manual, “Gospel Principles” (2009 edition), p. 92.

Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.

All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.

For it’s only in Your will that I am free,
For it’s only in Your will that I am free,
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.

(words and music by Robin Mark)

Revival In Belfast

As originally performed on “Revival in Belfast”

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.” (Genesis 1:1-2 KJV)

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace,
whose mind is stayed on thee:
because he trusteth in thee.
Trust ye in the Lord for ever:
for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength:
(Isa 26:3-4 KJV)

by Paul Nurnberg
The Great Prologue
A pastor friend of mine has a favorite axiom that he coined: “Truth is discovered, not downloaded.” By this, he means something akin to what American novelist and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner meant when he said, “All theology is biography.” In another clip, Buechner spoke of the sense we have:

That life is a plot, yes, the sense you have sometimes that life is trying to take you someplace, it’s not just — it is random events — I mean, who knows why things happen the way they happen? And you could say it’s just a sort of a farce, a black comedy, that all, that everything ends in death and dissolution. But once in a while, the sense that it was not entirely by accident that you found yourself wandering into a church at Madison Avenue and 74th Street where there was a man named Butrick who brought tears to your eyes and changed your life. You know that somehow or other something is at work in the world to take you someplace or show you some thing… Just a sense of a plot, of a shape to life.
(Frederick Buechner, “Life as a plot”, transcribed from YouTube video, Published Nov 26, 2012) 

There are several stanzas from William Kistler’s poem America February that move me deeply. It is a poem about visiting his father’s grave in middle age. Kistler writes of World War I:

Thousands are plunging through the open
door of death in fear and shock,
their souls and furthest memory lost
to the life of their bodies and falling
back across time suddenly and without harmony
as automatic weapons fire World War One lead
at uncontrollable rates. Picasso, Cocteau,
Satie and Massine are creating the forms
for the movement of the new century
in the towers and walking typewriters
of the jazz, cubist, dance-ballet, Parade.

They are gone now, the framers of the pure line
and the moving geometry of the twentieth century.

He is gone too. And though they spoke for him
in a way he did not understand and though
he lived in a commerce they could not accept
they were of the same urban, individual,
democratic freedom. Grain to our grain, but
darker more determined in their discovering
of the hidden shapes of the spirit . . . [4]

Kistler draws starkly contrasting images here; bodies — round and fully shaped — falling, cut down, while every numinous part of them, their souls and memories, are lost. They are also captive to the life of their bodies, though “they” would, perhaps, do differently? They die and fall back across time without harmony — that singing harmony of which Buechner spoke — the sense that “life is trying to take you someplace.” And of course, by “life” is meant “God.” What a place for those young men to be taken! It’s no wonder that WWI made unbelievers of so many.

“and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 KJV)

Kistler juxtaposes that imagery with the “pure line” sought by the Cubists. With their themes of mechanization and modern life, the Cubists nevertheless are “darker more determined in their discovering of the hidden shapes of the spirit.” It is that line and that word that I used — numinous — that now gives shape to my conception of God. It’s not lost on me that a word that conveys non-materiality gives shape to my faith. That’s the beauty. The mystery.

When I was younger, my Evangelical uncle sent our family a wall hanging. It contained a print of a painting of Jesus, after the resurrection, revealing himself to Mary Magdalene, and the text of the Great Prologue from the first chapter of John’s gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:1-14 ESV)

And the Word was God. [ . . . ] And the Word became flesh. If I were to speak hyperbolically, I might say, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again [ . . . ].”[5] The wall hanging was placed in our home where I saw it often. I read those lines over and over. I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was sore. I’d been raised on the God of Joseph Smith’s First Vision [the canonized 1838 version], which aligns well with Smith’s later teachings of an embodied God.[6] I’d imbibed at my mother’s knee the arc of the LDS Plan of Salvation that makes gods in embryo of humanity — an eternal progression from intelligences to spirit children to mortals, and finally after much obedience to gods and goddesses. This same arc it has been said was passed through by the Son of God, and the Father himself. I believed it because Lorenzo Snow’s couplet told me so. On this view, God is embodied, material, tangible — and became such as part of the necessary eternal progression to exaltation.

On John’s view, the Word was already God before the Incarnation. I wondered at such a claim. It didn’t fit the path laid before me by LDS scripture and doctrine. Later, when I was graduating high school and LDS Seminary, my stake president gave to each graduate a hardcover gift copy of The Lectures on Faith with our names gold-embossed on the front cover. As I read the teachings there about God, I became even more flummoxed in my mental efforts to reconcile John 1:1 with D&C 130:22. Lecture Fifth: The Godhead contains statements clearly demarcating a difference between the Father and the Son — The Father being “a personage of spirit, glory, and power” and the Son being “a personage of tabernacle.”[7]

The confusion was especially acute because the Publisher’s Preface in my edition says that the Lectures “consist of seven theological and doctrinal treatises prepared chiefly by the Prophet Joseph Smith (with perhaps some assistance from other brethren)…”[8] I didn’t yet know that The Lectures had once been the “doctrine” part of the Doctrine and Covenants, or that the extent of Smith’s direct influence on their content has been contested. I recognize in the Lectures now, as I do in the Book of Mormon, the Campbellite doctrine of Sidney Rigdon, an individual, with his theological training, more likely to have written the type of structured theological treatises found in the Lectures, than the unlearned farm boy who we are told could hardly compose a letter. But all of that encapsulates a decade and more of study and wrestling through my theology. Still, the Christology of the Lectures aligns better with traditional Trinitarian doctrine than with later LDS doctrine on the nature of God and man. It makes more sense of John 1:1-14.


“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:2-3 KJV)

God is Love
During late spring and summer of 1998, I was a Mormon missionary laboring in the southern part of Budapest, on the Pest side of the Danube River. I had been on a mission for over a year and had anxiety about not being a fruitful missionary. Success was measured in obedience and baptisms. The obedience part, I was certain, I had locked down, mostly. We worked hard and followed mission rules, but baptisms hadn’t come. I was doing my part! Why wasn’t God leading us to humble people who would join the LDS Church? In my prayers, I bargained with God. I set unrealistic and arbitrary goals for the number of baptisms I wanted to realize before the two years were up. I wanted converts, but not for their sake. I felt the pressure of not wanting to return to Utah without having baptized many members. That would be a failure. I didn’t want to disappoint my family or the good people in my congregation back home. Mostly, I didn’t want to dissatisfy God. When I didn’t see results from my work, I looked for reasons. If a contact ceased meeting with us, I wondered if it was because I’d hit the snooze button once before I got up and showered. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was sure God did as well.

My companion and I had a standing Monday night appointment with the Mission Leader in the small branch in which we served. I was a senior companion for the first time, so it fell to me to prepare a message to share with this couple. On one Monday I was preparing my message on the bus ride out to their house. I had a red pocket-sized New Testament — the kind printed for members of the military. I thumbed through the topical guide looking for passages about God’s love — I needed that message — and hit on 1 John 4:7-12. As I read through the passage, I was struck by the grammar: “God is love.” My LDS mind spun trying to understand the implications of that. It didn’t say, God has love, God loves, or God is loving. It said, “God is love.”

Partway through the trip, we had to transfer to another bus. This couple lived several kilometers to the south, and well outside the city. As we sat waiting at a bus stop, I watched people pass by on bicycles or in Trabants, and let my mind roll over that statement. How can a God who exercises judgment and wrath be love itself? The passage worked on my heart. It was a key to something I couldn’t yet grasp. My view of God at that time, though I presumed to serve Him, was not a pretty picture. I was terrified of God. Not because I had a healthy view of God’s holiness. Rather, I viewed God as eager to punish, and I worried that I fell far short of the demands my religion taught me he levied.

When I was a kid, my mom showed my siblings and me a science project with a bowl of water, black pepper, and Ivory soap. We had to check the results, so we replicated the experiment far more times than our family’s pepper and soap budget — and our mom’s patience — could bear. We would shake the pepper into the bowl until the surface of the water was covered with a black film. Then we would place a corner of the bar of soap into the water and watch as it repelled the pepper towards the side of the bowl. The way this passage of Scripture worked on me was like that — pushing aside black shadows that held my mind and heart bound to a false view of God.

As I shared 1 John 4:7-12 with that couple that night, one verse, in particular, stuck in my mind. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” My Mormon upbringing had placed a heavy emphasis on another Johannine passage: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15), and it is true that love of God and of Jesus leads to obedience, but the way that this was taught then in Mormon life and culture gave the impression that obedience proved our love to God.

That night south of Budapest, as the sun set, my mind was racing. We sat in their small kitchen, having eaten an amazing meal of pot roast and potatoes. Synapses and connections were firing in my mind that were radically shifting my conception of God. The translation in my Hungarian Bible was more direct than the KJV (“Herein is love, not that we loved God . . .”). The Hungarian reads something more like, “Love is not in the fact that we love God, but rather . . .” I spoke rapid Hungarian, trying to convey to my audience the new understanding I was seeing in this passage. The man and his wife could tell that I was animated, and listened patiently, but something was getting lost in translation. After several minutes of me trying to explain how this passage was moving me, the man said, “Well, I’ve never seen it that way, but it is interesting.” Then he keyed in on the first sentence of verse 12 and asked how that could be the case given Joseph Smith . . .

“And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” (Genesis 1:4-5 KJV)

A Moral Pain and Loss
Recently, I sat speaking with a pastor who has served me as a mentor and friend. We were discussing a major upheaval that has flipped my life upside down and inside out. It is the result of moral evil; the kind that made me crave cold justice and sent my religious mind careening jarringly against the barriers of mercy. It represents pain and loss so severe that I have been left completely adrift and in free fall — in that darkest of silences within the hiddenness of God where theology rings hollow, but light, glorious light, is not overcome. Since the last time I had spoken with my friend, I’d been to an apologetics conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Frank Turek had been one of the speakers. I confessed to my friend over coffee and eggs that I had watched many videos on YouTube of Dr. Turek speaking at similar conferences, and had judged him to be arrogant and unfeeling, but that I recognized that my impression was likely colored by the click-bait style tags appended to the videos (e.g. “Frank Turek Destroys Atheist!”).

My friend listened as I recounted how I was pleased to find my impression to be misguided. Dr. Turek had told a story about a man and his sons who had questioned him at a conference in Michigan the year before. The tenderness with which Dr. Turek spoke of this man and his sons, and the backstory for their wrestling the angel showed me that he understands those who have deep and painful and legitimate reasons to ask, “If God, why evil?” In our breakfast conversation, my friend and I spoke of the Gordian Knot of determinism — either theological or material — and the implications for who is culpable for moral evil (such things to discuss over breakfast!). My friend alluded to the story I’d told him and then said something that I’ve been rolling over in my mind in myriad ways since. He said, “I don’t let God off the hook.”

Batter My Heart
A favorite band of mine, Jars of Clay, recognize that we are all culpable for evil. The lyrics to their song Oh My God nail every one of us to the cross. All are placed on equal footing in that song with regards to causing injustices — and needing relief from them. After making that point by reference to different groups of people representative of all of humanity, Dan Haseltine sings: “saviors always say” — noting that even Jesus himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At 4:18, the song moves into the climax, which I find to be among the most convicting and powerful in music. Haseltine sings of the recognition that he is among the fallen while the other members of the band lift their voices in mournful, soulful praise-singing from the depths of broken, wounded, guilty souls.

Sometimes I cannot forgive
These days mercy cuts so deep
If the world was how it should be
Maybe I could get some sleep

While I lay, I dream we’re better
Scales were gone and faces lighter
When we wake, we hate our brother
We still move to hurt each other

Sometimes I can close my eyes
And all the fear that keeps me silent
Falls below my heavy breathing
What makes me so badly bent?

We all have a chance to murder
We all feel the need through wonder
We still want to be reminded
That the pain is worth the plunder

Sometimes when I lose my grip
I wonder what to make of Heaven
All the times I thought to reach up
All the times I had to give up

Babies underneath their beds
Hospitals that cannot treat them
All the wounds that money causes
All the comforts of cathedrals

All the cries of thirsty children
This is our inheritance
All the rage of watching mothers
This is our greatest offense.[9]

The questions. O, my God! The questions. I don’t have simple answers. In the face of both natural evil and moral evil, I have desired not answers, but presence. That is the beauty and the mystery of the Incarnation. Buechner said in one clip, “I used to think, as a minister, you know, you’re supposed to know the answers. That you go to somebody who’s going through a terrible time and you tell them something that’s going to make them feel better or give them something to hold onto. I’ve decided since that’s the least of what you do. You go and simply are with them.” The mystery of the Incarnation. God with us! The very concept of mystery in relation to the nature of God was neutered in the LDS teachings I received as a child and young man. I find in the Trinity and the Incarnation a beautiful mystery — the way in which God did not let even Himself off the hook. In Holy Sonnet 14, John Donne pleads, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” I’ve come to see the longing inherent in that line to be the key.

I love God, because he first loved me.

“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31 KJV)

[4] Kistler, William, “America February,” America February (Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 1991), 25.

[5] Joseph Smith — History 1:12a-c.

[6] See Doctrine and Covenants 130:22.

[7] “Lecture Fifth: The Godhead,” Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1985), 59. Available online here:

[8] Ibid. v.;

[9] Songwriters: Charlie Lowell / Dan Haseltine / Matt Odmark / Stephen Daniel Mason; Oh My God lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
— A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy

“. . . there began to come moments when I could feel moving into my mind, like a physical presence, the conviction that all was quite absurd. It made no sense at all that anything should exist. Something like nausea, but deeper and frightening, would grow in my stomach and chest but also at the core of my spirit, progressing like vertigo until in desperation I must jump up or talk suddenly of trivial things to break the spell and regain balance. And since that time I am always aware that that feeling, that extreme awareness of the better claim of nothingness, lies just beyond the barriers of my busy mind and will intrude when I let it.”
–Eugene England, “Enduring” in Dialogues with Myself

by Paul Nurnberg
In my last post, I invited readers to continue with me “the tragic quest” and promised in this post to tackle a simple subject: God. That was, of course, tongue in cheek. For if God were simple, then we could not describe the quest to know Him as tragic, which is Eugene England’s terminology that I have adopted. He defined what he meant by tragedy:

. . . it would seem that the central issue in tragedy is justice, specifically ultimate justice; the extreme anguish which tragedy confronts and forces us to confront derives, not from mere pain and loss, but pain and loss that touches our deepest concerns, those about the nature of the universe itself. And those concerns are by definition religious.1

A Natural Pain and Loss
On September 11, 2003, my wife Angela packed a lunch for us and surprised me at work with a positive pregnancy test she had taken that morning. It was wonderful news, especially considering the horrific events that had taken place on that date two years earlier. We were very excited to be adding to our young family, which already included two daughters and a son. I had just returned to my schooling carrying a full-time course load and working toward a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

Twelve weeks into that pregnancy, on a Sunday night in October, Angela noticed signs that something might be wrong with the pregnancy. She asked me to give her a priesthood blessing. As an LDS husband, it was excruciating to see the fear in her eyes and the look of deep pain and loss already stealing across her face. I laid my hands on her head and blessed her. I wanted to tell her everything would be fine  —  the baby would be fine  —  but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I sensed that this was out of my control.

The next morning, we went to the OB/GYN for an ultrasound. After waiting for what seemed forever in muted hope that all was right, an Ultrasound Tech led us to a treatment room and silently performed the imaging procedure. She said the doctor would need to speak with us.

Angela immediately sensed what the doctor would tell us. She began crying uncontrollably. I gave what comfort I could, but I was numb. The ultrasound tech returned and took us to the doctor’s office. While waiting there for several minutes, I looked at his diplomas hanging on the wall — evidence of his expertise and training in these matters. He came in and explained that miscarriages are just statistical anomalies that unfortunately happen in a percentage of pregnancies. He explained that based on the ultrasound measurements the baby had only progressed to about six weeks and that they had been unable to detect a heartbeat. I remember feeling at once comforted by his explanation and horrified by it. “These things just happen sometimes.”

Over the next several months, I did my best to be there for Angela in her grief. We talked a lot, most times late into the night after I got home from long days of work followed by night school. I listened as she shared her grief and growth through that process. I ate my own feelings of sadness and loss, trying to put on a strong face for her. My father has struggled throughout his life with bipolar disorder and bouts of deep depression, so I knew intellectually that shoving my feelings down inside wasn’t healthy, but I had responsibilities to provide by working hard and continuing my studies. I couldn’t allow emotions to shut me down.

“So went Satan forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.” (Job 2:7 KJV)

I turned to writing, a favorite outlet. I wrote a piece of short fiction that I called “God Lets the Wheat Grow Up with the Tares.” The protagonist and narrator is a Mormon pre-teen girl whose father abandoned the family when she was young and who now lives with her mother, older brother, and grandfather. At age 11 — not 8 — she finally forgives her father and allows her brother to baptize her “in the clean waters of the baptismal font in the new church building.” Her grandpa is a Jack-Mormon farmer who regrets selling a large portion of his land to developers and who harbors a hatred of God stemming from the death of his wife. Near the end of the story, he takes his granddaughter, on the evening after her baptism, to swim in the irrigation ditch. He asks her about her baptism, and in that muddy water, he performs his own bittersweet re-creation of the ordinance that he was barred from performing earlier that day.

The story contains an episode in which the grandpa rails against God. His daughter, Lucy, suggests that it was the Utah sun that got to her mother trying to present a “nicer” image of death for her own daughter. The grandfather explodes:

“It wasn’t the damned sun that got to her!” Grandpa said. “God took her from me, Lucy. Don’t fill your child’s head with things that just ain’t right. You and me both know that God don’t like me a bit. He did, he wouldn’t of brought those damned city folk out here to this part of the valley. I built me up a good farm here. But I was too proud, I suppose. Thought I did it all by myself, and I did! It was my arms that worked, my legs that walked, my muscles that pushed and toiled to bring that crop to harvest every year.”

“Dad!” Mom protested.

“What?” Grandpa asked. “‘He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.’ Well, he ain’t never made it to fall on my crop long enough to make it plentiful no matter how just I tried to be. I had to dig them irrigation troughs in my fields. It was my arms that hung weary after weeks of digging. Hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep at night. And even then there were some years that there wasn’t enough snow in the mountains to make irrigating any good. But I built it up. This farm — I built it with my two hands.”

His anger continues to flow despite his daughter’s tears until Lucy, exhausted and troubled by his outburst, begs him to stop:

Mom was sobbing when he finished. “Please, Dad, don’t . . .”

“Don’t what?” he asked. “Tell the child like it is? Your mother didn’t deserve the cancer God gave her, Lucy. But he gave it to her anyway. He burned her for my sake, to get back at me. Well, he won’t break me, Lucy. He won’t!”
(Paul Nurnberg, “God Lets the Wheat Grow Up with the Tares”, unpublished fiction)

A Clearing of the Mind
I was deeply involved during this time in a private discussion group made up of Mormons and former Mormons. The group consisted of a Mormon philosopher and future Mormon Transhumanist Association founder, a Mormon Canadian public servant, an ex-Mormon atheist politico, an ex-Mormon evangelical Christian, a Mormon Wiccan, a couple young return Mormon missionaries with young families [raises hand], a Mormon Buddhist, a female Mormon who knew the founder of FAIR just as that organization was getting off the ground and who deeply studied Kabballah, and a serving Mormon bishop. Views were varied and conversations were always challenging. We had all moved from discussing Mormonism on the boards at BeliefNet to a private forum developed by one of the group’s members. In early 2004, we decided to gather in Salt Lake City for an in-person meetup. I was just kicking off my career and working my way through school so I couldn’t afford the plane ticket, but this kind group of people acted together to cover my costs.

During the gathering, it was proposed that we allow two members of the group to undergo a Clearness Committee, a process used by Quakers to help a person gain clarity around a decision. Angela had been pleading with me to not just listen to her grief but to share mine with her, and I was stubbornly turning inward. I knew it would be healthy, healing, and ultimately strengthening to our relationship to open up to her, but I harbored a lot of fear because the anger I had toward God was severe, and I didn’t want to affect her faith. She was a convert to Mormonism, and I felt a heavy burden not to damage her faith.

“And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.” (Job 2:12 KJV)

I completed a write up describing the problem, and at the meetup, I underwent a Clearness Committee. It was an intense experience. Although the members of the group were sensitive and careful in their questions and I already knew of their kindness and desire to be of help, their probing and my responses laid bare just how much I was struggling with questions of justice in the face of natural evil and how opposed I was to the idea of a sovereign God.2 What follows are some of their questions and my responses. They were recorded verbatim and I share them to give readers a sense of my mindset at the time. After a question asking me to identify what God felt like to me at the time — I indicated that God was like a Mormon bishop in my mind — the following questions were posed to me:

Q: What would you tell him [a church leader] about your baby?
I would tell him that for me, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it means to have lost my baby: what it means in a religious sense. I feel like I’ve missed out on something infinitely precious. I feel like the relationship I might have had has been stolen from me  —  well, not necessarily stolen, but not available to me now. It hurts not to be able to have that relationship come to fruition.

Q: How would he [a church leader] react?
I think he would probably tell me that I could be with that child in the next life. But I think that would be callous; it skirts the issue of the pain I feel now. It’s only theoretical.

Q: What kind of reaction would not skirt the issue of the pain you feel now?
An answer that didn’t imply that everything is just going to be all right. An answer that addressed the pain and the sense of loss I feel. An answer that explored those things with me; one where I was able to feel that the person really cared, and realized that the pain and loss is real.

Q: You mentioned a statistical anomaly. Is that how you feel about this? Do you blame anyone or think there’s any reason for it?
No; that’s something Angela and I discussed. We don’t believe in a God who would punish us or take something as precious as having children away as a result of something we did. We decided that seeking for a reason behind this would be futile. That feels right, but at the same time, the question of “Why?” is still there. Maybe it is just part of being mortal. For some reason, our bodies biologically get sick, reject pregnancies  —  it’s just part of being alive, perhaps. But that doesn’t feel like enough. There’s still the desire, the need to seek for a reason  —  if there’s not a reason for the pain…

“The Just Upright Man is laughed to scorn.” (Job 12:4 KJV)

Q: Did God kill your child?
No; I don’t believe that. I guess that’s one of the areas where this has been especially difficult for me. I don’t believe that. The God I want to believe in doesn’t do those sorts of things. He doesn’t give us bad experiences for the sake of bad experiences  —  or even give us bad experiences at all. Bad experiences are a result of being human in the world we live in. The doctor tried to comfort us the day we found out: “It’s just a statistical anomaly.” That lines up with my view of the world: there are statistical anomalies and it depends on how we deal with them. But then I wonder, “What’s the point of believing there’s a God? If everything is just a statistical anomaly, what’s the point?” But I realize that reaction may be part of the anger stage of grief. Angela said she went through something similar.

Q: Did God have the power to make this decision?
I want to say no. But that’s more because I don’t believe he makes those sorts of decisions. Whether he had the power to, I don’t know. But I don’t’ believe he makes those sorts of decisions for our lives.

Q: Did he have the power to stop it?
Maybe. Did he have the power to stop the suffering that Christ went through in Gethsemane? Christ seemed to think so; he asked for it.

Q: Would it be all right, if God were here, to be angry, even if he was not responsible, but because he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop it?
For me, I don’t think so. If I believe that he’s not responsible, I wouldn’t feel that it would be conducive to a relationship with him, which I desire, for me to be angry with him.

Q: Does someone or something need to be responsible for you to be angry?
No, I don’t think so, but my experience is that if you’re angry, you usually direct that at someone.

Q: Do you feel helpless that you feel anger but don’t know where to send it?
Yes, in a sense. I think I recognize that in life when we’re angry, many times we direct our anger at people who don’t deserve it, people who aren’t responsible. But I feel like that’s immoral, to direct your anger at someone who doesn’t deserve it. So it would be immoral for me to direct anger towards God or anyone. Is anyone responsible for it? It’s just something that happens.

Q: Do you think you could be angry that there is no one responsible, that the universe is just that way, and still feel that life has meaning?
I think I struggle with that. If the universe is random – if it’s a “statistical anomaly” – what meaning does it have? I think I’m coming to believe more and more than the meaning it has is our relationships with others, and what we’re able to build there. But I feel angry that that can be taken from us without justification or reason.

Q: If God were here and it was acknowledged that it was just a statistical anomaly and there was nothing he could do, what would he say to you as you expressed your anger and/or grief?
I would hope he could explain to me what the implications of that are for existence. If all there is — is what we have with others, the relationships we build with others, and those can be taken from us — what point is there to being? What’s the big picture?

“Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.” (Job 3:3 KJV)

My paternal grandmother also experienced the loss of a child. Even when she was in her seventies and eighties, the pain of that loss was still with her. I remember her speaking of her still-born daughter. She never talked about her without sharing the idiomatic sentiment taken from Job 1:21, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” My grandma’s purpose in making that statement was an expression of her faith and trust in God. That despite the pain that she carried throughout her life over the loss of her only daughter, she still loved and worshipped God.

Job’s sentiment written poetically is similar:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
(Job 1:20-22 NASB)

It would be many long years following the loss of our child before I would be able to say, “Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

The Better Claim of Nothingness . . .
At the end of my last post, I shared a poem that encapsulates my journey of knowing God. Nothingness is a recurring theme in that piece. When I first read Eugene England’s essay “Enduring” years ago, I recognized a kindred spirit. One willing to acknowledge the doubt, fear, and darkness he experienced in his life.

There were moments when I was younger when doubt was nearly crippling. I remember one in particular. I was lying on my bed. It was afternoon. Probably a Sunday. Yes, very likely a Sunday. In my early teenage years, I wandered away from weekly church activity. My mom would try to get me out of bed, and I would feign sleep until she stopped nagging me and left for church. The questions I was asking myself that day made me sick to my stomach. What if there is nothing? No God? No purpose? Nothing.

Wanting and Desire
In the face of this better claim of nothingness, many succumb to it. Many who like me have left the LDS Church or other institutional religions subscribe to the tenets of atheism. As the now-famous Atheist Bus Campaign in London proclaimed, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I’m reminded of a story a friend told me. He and his wife were preparing to leave the house for a social event and he had gone into their bedroom to put on his shoes. While there, my friend became lost in thought about God. His wife called to him several times from the front room, trying patiently to get his attention. Finally and exasperatedly she walked to the door of their bedroom and found him sitting on the foot of their bed without a single shoe on either foot. “You’re thinking about God, aren’t you?” she asked him. Jolted from his thoughts, he sheepishly told her that he was. She then asked him if he could stop that for long enough to get to the event on time.

Just get on with the business of life! Frankly, that answer does little more for me than the religious leader who I imagined would tell me in the face of our loss and pain that all would be right in the next life, but wouldn’t make the effort or take on the danger of getting into my messiness and just sit in the darkness with me. Of course, in the face of loss and suffering, we all must “get on with it” at times, else we succumb to the darkness. But looking beyond the here and now, what meaning is there to loss, to suffering, to life itself, if there is nothing, no ultimate resolution, justice, or Love?

Soothsaying? Wishful thinking? Infantile desires? These are the contrary claims. But we all feel the longing to understand, to see, to know. The question is why is this the case?

“So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning…” (Job 42:12 KJV)

Eugene England, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,”Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), p.1 (emphasis mine)

2 See Romans 8:28

(Banner Art & Illustrations from “William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job” with thanks to Wikipedia Commons) 

Joakim Skovgaard (1856-1933) “Christ in the Realm of the Dead”

compiled by Fred W. Anson
1 Peter 3:18-19 is the foundational, biblical proof text for Mormon “spirit prison” and “proxy baptism for the dead” dogma. Here is how that passage reads:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.
— 1 Peter 3:18-20 (NKJV)

Here’s how the passage is typically interpreted and applied by Mormon Leaders:

Christian theologians have long wrestled with the question, What is the destiny of the billions who have lived and died with no knowledge of Jesus? With the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ has come the understanding of how the unbaptized dead are redeemed and how God can be “a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

While yet in life, Jesus prophesied that He would also preach to the dead. Peter tells us this happened in the interval between the Savior’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (see 1 Peter 3:18–19). President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) witnessed in vision that the Savior visited the spirit world and “from among the righteous [spirits], he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness. …

‘These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, [and] the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands’ (D&C 138:30, 33).

The doctrine that the living can provide baptism and other essential ordinances to the dead vicariously was revealed anew to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 124; 128; 132). He learned that the spirits awaiting resurrection are offered not only individual salvation but they can be bound in heaven as husband and wife and be sealed to their fathers and mothers of all generations past and have sealed to them their children of all generations future. The Lord instructed the Prophet that these sacred rites are appropriately performed only in a house built to His name, a temple (see D&C 124:29–36).
(D. Todd Christofferson (Mormon Apostle), “Why Do We Baptize for the Dead?”, New Era magazine, March 2009)

Again, that’s how you will see Mormons interpret and apply this passage in your discussions with them on the Internet and in person. However, and frankly, no one seems to know with absolute certainty what this passage means. While we have may all have opinions, I don’t think that many mainstream Christians would build an entire theological system on it – as the LdS Church has – or die for their interpretation of it. I know I wouldn’t.

Frankly, a tight, precise interpretation of this vague, enigmatic, and unusual passage is just not that important since no essential doctrine of the faith is impacted by it or derived from it. As the saying goes: The main things are the plain things – and this thing just ain’t plain!

That said, here is a compilation of a number of perspectives that Evangelicals may want to consider in responding to Mormons on the Internet and elsewhere when they bring up 1 Peter 3:18-20.

"The Harrowing of Hell" National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Benvenuto di Giovanni, “Harrowing of Hell” (1490) oil on canvas (National Gallery, Washington D.C.)

“I understand, then, the “proclamation” [to the spirits in prison] to be in the resurrection/ascension itself. It is precisely this which announced to the demons that their world had been ravaged and that Christ is Lord and that they are subject to Him. I think this gives due consideration to all the details of the text and allows the simplest understanding of the words. The “harrowing of hell” idea and the idea of “Christ preaching through Noah” are ideas that must be imported into this text; they do not come out of it.

One Final Contextual Note
So how does all this fit in context? Peter has been dealing with the sufferings of Christians at the hands of the world. He no doubt sees behind it all the activities of Satanic forces. But not to worry — Christ also suffered at their hands and as our example. Moreover, He has invaded their very own realm and has emerged triumphant over them. Even they are subject to Him. Peter wants to assure “you”10 that your enemy will not survive forever; he is a defeated foe.”
(Fred Zaspel, “Christ’s Message to the Spirits in Prison: An Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-19”)

3:19 preached. Between Christ’s death and resurrection, His living spirit went to the demon spirits bound in the abyss and proclaimed that, in spite of His death, He had triumphed over them (see notes on Col. 2:14, 15). spirits in prison. This refers to fallen angels (demons), who were permanently bound because of heinous wickedness. The demons who are not so bound resist such a sentence (cf. Luke 8: 31). In the end, they will all be sent to the eternal lake of fire (Matt. 25: 41; Rev. 20: 10).”
(John MacArthur, “NKJV, The MacArthur Study Bible, eBook: Revised and Updated Edition” (Kindle Location 203794). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

3:19 Proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. Who or what were these “spirits,” and where were they “imprisoned”? There is an important connection with Peter’s words and the noncanonical book of Enoch, which elaborates on the story of Ge 6:1–4, claiming that fallen angels were imprisoned in a terrible place of darkness (1 Enoch 10:4–6; 21:10; see note on Ge 6:4). 4 It’s possible Peter had in mind nonhuman spirits or angels, much like the book of Enoch (compare 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6). It is not clear, however, where the spirits were imprisoned. The author may have had in mind what we would consider “hell,” or he may have been indicating a place to await judgment, much like the book of Revelation suggests (see Rev 20:1– 2). Many of the church fathers, however, understood that Christ descended into hell, which eventually became the dominant view as stated in the Nicene Creed.
(“NIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian Context” (Kindle Locations 107406-107416). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

Andrea Da Firenze, “Descent into Hell” (1366-67), Fresco (Cappellone degli Spagnoli, Santa Maria Novella, Florence)

3:19 he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. The three most common views on this passage are: (1) Between Jesus’ death and resurrection, he preached to the dead in Hades, the realm of the dead (the view of many church fathers, citing 4:6). Greeks had myths about heroes such as Heracles or Orpheus descending temporarily to Hades. (2) Christ preached through Noah to people in Noah’s day (the view of many Reformers). (3) Before or (more likely) after his resurrection, Jesus proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels (the view of most scholars today, citing v.22) Early Christians nearly always used “spirits” for angelic or demonic spirits rather than human ones, except when explicitly stating the latter. The Spirit raised Jesus; by the Spirit (and thus, in this context, presumably after his resurrection) Jesus “made proclamation”; in v.22, his exaltation declared his triumph over fallen angels. Most ancient Jewish readers believed that Ge 6:1– 3 refers to angels who fell in Noah’s day (v. 20); after the flood, they were said to be imprisoned (so also 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6), either below the earth or in the atmosphere (cf. v.22; note on Eph 2:2). Then, according to a well-known Jewish tradition, Enoch was sent to proclaim God’s judgment to them; here Christ is the one who proclaims their demise.
(“HarperCollins Christian Publishing. NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible”, Hardcover, Red Letter Edition: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Kindle Locations 282228-282241). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

3:19 The familiar Apostles’ Creed affirmation that Jesus descended into hell is based chiefly on two references from 1 Peter, one of which (3:19) is more direct than the other (4:6), supported by implications to be taken from two other New Testament verses (Ac 2:27; Ro 10:7). The term is in harmony also with the language of Paul, where he spoke of Christ’s descending “to the lower, earthly regions” (Eph 4:9), and with John’s mention of “the First and the Last,” who holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:17–18). The lowest regions were recognized as the habitation of the disembodied spirits of the dead, but 1 Peter 4:6 may instead refer to fallen angels (cf. Jude 6).)
(Kaiser Jr., Walter C.; Garrett, Duane, “NIV, Archaeological Study Bible, eBook: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture”, (Kindle Locations 156585-156593). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

3:19–20a Three main interpretations of this passage have been suggested: (1) Some hold that in his preincarnate state Christ went and preached through Noah to the wicked generation of that time. (2) Others argue that between his death and resurrection Christ went to the prison where fallen angels are incarcerated and there preached to the angels who are said to have left their proper state and married human women during Noah’s time (cf. Ge 6:1–4; 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6). The “sons of God” in Ge 6:2,4 are said to have been angels, as they are in Job 1:6; 2:1 (see NIV text notes there). The message he preached to these evil angels was probably a declaration of victory. (3) Still others say that between death and resurrection Christ went to the place of the dead and preached to the spirits of Noah’s wicked contemporaries. What he proclaimed may have been the gospel, or it may have been a declaration of victory for Christ and doom for his hearers. The weakness of the first view is that it does not relate the event to Christ’s death and resurrection, as the context seems to do. The main problem with the second view is that it assumes sexual relations between angels and women, and such physical relations may not be possible for angels since they are spirits (see note on Ge 6:2). A major difficulty with the third view is that the term “spirits” is only used of human beings when qualifying terms are added. Otherwise the term seems restricted to supernatural beings.
Perhaps a more satisfactory view would be to translate v. 19: “And in that [resurrection] state, by means of (his) ascension [see v.22, where the same Greek verb form is used of Christ’s ascension] he made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” The latter phrase most likely refers to the disobedient spirits (“ angels, authorities and powers,” v.22). Thus Christ’s ascension “into heaven” (v.22) was itself a victory proclamation to them (cf. Eph 3:10 and note).
(“Zondervan. NIV Study Bible”, eBook (Kindle Location 303325-303345). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

Fresco of Christ’s descent into hell in an Eastern Orthodox Church. (painter and location unknown)

3:19,20 There are various interpretations of the meaning of these verses, primarily because of the ambiguity of the phrase spirits in prison. The Greek term translated spirits can refer to human spirits, angels, or demons. There are three main interpretations: (1) Some interpret these verses as describing Jesus as going to the place where fallen angels are incarcerated and declaring His final victory over evil in His work on the Cross. These commentators suggest that Peter is referring to the days of Noah because these fallen angels were typified by the gross immorality of those “spirits” who married human women at that time (see Gen. 6:1– 4; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 1:6). Depending on the commentator, this proclamation is assigned to the time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, or to a time after Christ’s ascension to heaven. (2) Others hold that spirits refers to human spirits. Thus Christ preached to human beings who had died in Noah’s day and were in the realm of the dead (hell or Hades). Although some have insisted that Christ’s preaching included an offer of salvation to these people, this is at best unlikely and at worst misleading, for Scripture never concedes a “second chance” for sinners after death. The content of Christ’s preaching was most likely a proclamation of His victory over sin. (3) Finally, another major interpretation understands this passage as describing Christ preaching through Noah to the unbelievers of his day. Since they rejected Noah’s message of salvation, they were presently in prison— that is, hell.
(Nelson, Thomas, “NKJV Study Bible, eBook: Full-Color Edition” (Kindle Locations 279460-279464). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

3:19–20 spirits in prison. The Greek term translated spirits can refer to human spirits, angels, or demons. There are three main interpretations: (1) Some interpret these verses as describing Jesus as going to the place where fallen angels are incarcerated and declaring His final victory over evil in His work on the cross; (2) others hold that spirits refers to human spirits; thus Christ preached to human beings who had died in Noah’s day and were in the realm of the dead (hell or hades); and (3) another major interpretation understands this passage as describing Christ preaching through Noah to the unbelievers of his day.
(Nelson, Thomas, “KJV, Foundation Study Bible”, eBook (p. 1338). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

And preached to the spirits in prison. The meaning of this preaching and the spirits to whom he preached are much debated. It is commonly understood to be: (1) Christ’s announcement of his victory over evil to the fallen angels who await judgment for their role in leading the Noahic generation into sin; this proclamation occurred sometime between Christ’s death and ascension; or (2) Christ’s preaching of repentance through Noah to the unrighteous humans, now dead and confined in hell, who lived in the days of Noah. The latter is preferred because of the temporal indications in v. 20a and the wider argument of the book. These verses encourage Christians to stand for righteousness and try to influence their contemporaries for the gospel in spite of the suffering that may come to them. All who identify with them and their Savior will be saved from the coming judgment, just as in Noah’s day.

tn after they were disobedient long ago. This reflects a Greek participle, literally “having been disobedient formerly,” that refers to the “spirits” in v. 19. Many translations take this as adjectival describing the spirits (“ who had once been disobedient”; cf. NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, TEV), but the grammatical construction strongly favors an adverbial interpretation describing the time of the preaching, as reflected above.”
(Biblical Studies Press, “NET Bible First Edition (with notes)”, (Kindle Locations 202282-202291). Biblical Studies Press. Kindle Edition)

3:18–20 As Noah preached righteousness, suffered unjustly, and rescued those who were with him, so also does Christ. Christ descended to those in darkness and death that light might shine on them and He might deliver them from death. As Christ fearlessly faced His tormentors, death, and hell, so we through Him can confidently face mockers and tormentors— and, yes, bring His light to them.
(Nelson, Thomas, “NKJV, The Orthodox Study Bible, eBook: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World”, (Kindle Locations 103704-103707). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

Maestro dell’ Osservanza, “The Harrowing” (c. 1445) Painting (Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

3:19 Verses 19, 20 constitute one of the most puzzling and intriguing texts in the NT. It has been made the pretext for such unbiblical doctrines as purgatory on the one hand and universal salvation on the other. However, among evangelical Christians, there are two commonly accepted interpretations.

According to the first, Christ went to Hades in spirit between His death and resurrection, and proclaimed the triumph of His mighty work on the cross. There is disagreement among proponents of this view as to whether the spirits in prison were believers, unbelievers, or both. But there is fairly general agreement that the Lord Jesus did not preach the gospel to them. That would involve the doctrine of a second chance which is nowhere taught in the Bible. Those who hold this view often link this passage with Ephesians 4:9 where the Lord is described as descending “into the lower parts of the earth.” They cite this as added proof that He went to Hades in the disembodied state and heralded His victory at Calvary. They also cite the words of the Apostles’ Creed—“ descended into hell.”

The second interpretation is that Peter is describing what happened in the days of Noah. It was the spirit of Christ who preached through Noah to the unbelieving generation before the flood. They were not disembodied spirits at that time, but living men and women who rejected the warnings of Noah and were destroyed by the flood. So now they are spirits in the prison of Hades.

This second view best fits the context and has the least difficulties connected with it. Let us examine the passage phrase by phrase.

By whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison. The relative pronoun whom obviously refers back to Spirit at the end of verse 18. We understand this to mean the Holy Spirit. In 1:11 of this Letter the “Spirit of Christ,” that is, the Holy Spirit, is described as speaking through the prophets of the OT. And in Genesis 6:3, God speaks of His Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, as nearing the limit of endurance with the antediluvians.

He went and preached. As already mentioned, it was Christ who preached, but he preached through Noah. In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is described as a “preacher of righteousness.” It is the same root word used here of Christ’s preaching.

To the spirits now in prison. These were the people to whom Noah preached— living men and women who heard the warning of an impending flood and the promise of salvation in the ark. They rejected the message and were drowned in the deluge. They are now disembodied spirits in prison, awaiting the final judgment.

So the verse may be amplified as follows: by whom (the Holy Spirit) He (Christ) went and preached (through Noah) to the spirits now in prison (Hades).” But what right do we have to assume that the spirits in prison were the living men in Noah’s day? The answer is found in the following verse.

3:20 Here the spirits in prison are unmistakably identified. Who were they? Those who formerly were disobedient. When were they disobedient? When once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.  What was the final outcome? Only a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. It is well to pause here and remind ourselves of the general flow of thought in this Letter which was written against a general background of persecution. The Christians to whom Peter wrote were suffering because of their life and testimony. Perhaps they wondered why, if the Christian faith was right, they should be suffering rather than reigning. If Christianity was the true faith, why were there so few Christians? To answer the first question, Peter points to the Lord Jesus. Christ suffered for righteousness’ sake, even to the extent of being put to death. But God raised Him from the dead and glorified Him in heaven (see v. 22). The pathway to glory led through the valley of suffering.

Next Peter refers to Noah. For 120 years this faithful preacher warned that God was going to destroy the world with water. His thanks was scorn and rejection. But God vindicated him by saving him and his family through the flood. Then there is the problem, “If we are right, why are there so few of us?” Peter answers: “There was a time when only eight people in the world were right and all the rest were wrong!” Characteristically in the world’s history the majority has not been right. True believers are usually a small remnant, so one’s faith should not falter because of the small number of the saved. There were only eight believers in Noah’s day; there are millions today.

At the end of verse 20, we read that a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. It is not that they were saved by water; they were saved through the water. Water was not the savior, but the judgment through which God brought them safely.

To properly understand this statement and the verse that follows, we must see the typical meaning of the ark and of the flood. The ark is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ. The flood of water depicts the judgment of God. The ark was the only way of salvation. When the flood came, only those who were inside were saved; all those on the outside perished. So Christ is the only way of salvation; those who are in Christ are as saved as God Himself can make them. Those on the outside could not be more lost.

The water was not the means of salvation, for all who were in the water drowned. The ark was the place of refuge. The ark went through the water of judgment; it took the full brunt of the storm. Not a drop of water reached those inside the ark. So Christ bore the fury of God’s judgment against our sins. For those who are in Him there is no judgment (John 5:24). The ark had water beneath it, and water coming down on top of it, and water all around it. But it bore its believing occupants through the water to safety in a renewed creation. So those who trust the Savior are brought safely through a scene of death and desolation to resurrection ground and a new life.
(MacDonald, William. “Believer’s Bible Commentary” (p. 2258-2259). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

Christians are to live their lives according to the shape of Jesus’ own passion, resurrection, and ascension. It is not only that Christ’s sacrificial acts are worthy of imitation but also that these acts are atoning. “For Christ also suffered … in order to bring you to God” (3:18).

There follows a description of the passion and resurrection of Christ that has puzzled Christian commentators through the ages. The first part is clear enough. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (3:19). The claim is not strikingly different from that in Rom. 1:3–4. Peter is not arguing that only Jesus’ spirit was made alive, but that he was made alive in the power of the Spirit.

Now comes the particularly puzzling description of what the living Jesus did after his resurrection: “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (v. 19). The connection of these spirits with the flood (Genesis 6–9) suggests one of two possibilities. Perhaps these spirits are those of the disobedient people who perished in the flood. Or perhaps these spirits are the offspring of the “sons of God” and mortal women described in the puzzling passage Gen. 6:1–4. William Joseph Dalton argues persuasively that this passage fits with other first-century texts that speculate on the fate of these human/divine offspring. He further suggests that when the risen Christ preaches to these spirits, they are imprisoned in a kind of holding place located between earth and the upper heaven, where God the Father dwells. Jesus preaches to the spirits as part of his ascent.

The author now uses the reference to the ark and the flood to remind the readers of their own baptism. The flood prefigures baptism, but of course only in a kind of striking reversal. Noah and his family were actually saved from water; Christians are saved through water.
(Gale A. Yee (Author), Matthew J. M. Coomber (Editor), Margaret Aymer (Editor), Jr. Page, Hugh R. (Editor), et. al, “Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set”, Kindle positions 56143 -56152, Fortress Press. Kindle Edition)

Jacopo Tintoretto (Robusti), “The Descent into Hell”, (1568) oil on canvas