Why Do We Need So Many Gods?

800px-AlexanderNevskyCathedral-Sofia-6The idea of a godhead fascinates me. If a god is omnipotent, then why do we need three of them (or more, depending on your interpretation)? Here’s my entirely-speculative take on it. (Now including advice on how to raise your kids, too! I know, I know, it’s hard to find people who are willing to offer unsolicited parenting advice. You can thank me later.)

One of the hardest parts of being a parent is figuring out when to be strict and when to be lenient. When your child throws a temper tantrum over something trivial, do you snuggle him and say, “I bet you’re tired and hungry. Here, let me make you some soup and read you a story,” or do you say, “This is unacceptable behavior,” and put him in time out?

Kids need both, but we can only do one of them at a time. Over time, our kids develop an expectation of how each parent is likely to react in a given situation. Impressions aren’t especially nuanced, so kids tend to paint their parents with broad strokes, e.g. “My mom is so strict”, even if the mom is in fact pretty even-handed, but tends to err on the side of caution over permissiveness.

But what if you were a perfect parent? What if you knew exactly when to indulge and when to challenge? The sad truth is that it wouldn’t matter much. The child would still develop an impression over time, accurate or not, that you are soft or hard (or some other overly broad generalization). This is how impressions and relationships work — they develop subjectively, independent of the objective actions of the relationships’ participants.

This is one advantage of having two parents. The parents together provide a spectrum of responses that, I imagine, would be harder for single parents. It means having two reference points for perspective, like having two eyes provides for depth in vision. Together, the parents can provide simultaneously provide two different experiences — a stereo relationship — which is impossible for any parent to do alone, no matter how perfect.

(This isn’t a criticism of the immense and amazing work that single parents perform. This limitation of perspective isn’t due to a failing on the parent’s side; it due to a limitation in how we subjectively perceive others.)

Our perspective on divinity especially emphasizes the attributes of mercy and justice. We believe in a God who is both merciful and just. I imagine that both Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are equally merciful and equally just, and either one of them has the power to execute the plan of salvation. However, just as we pigeonhole people into categories like “strict” or “lenient”, we tend to force gods into a false dichotomy of being either merciful or just. The godhead addresses this by giving us two separate gods to paint. This allows us to work around the limitations of an oversimplified mental model, since now we have one God who can be the Just One, and one God who can be the Merciful One. In other words, we have multiple gods in our godhead, not because they just aren’t almighty enough to do the work alone, but because we aren’t intelligent enough to conceive of a being as both merciful and just.

I like this model, though I certainly don’t believe it’s at all doctrinal (however, I don’t think it contradicts any doctrines either). As a limitation, it doesn’t really explain why the Holy Ghost is necessary. However, on the plus side, it breaks out from the commonly held, idiotic godhead roles of a God who can’t forgive His children unless He excruciatingly punishes His Son first. I don’t know how the atonement works, but I’m sure it’s not like that.

38 comments for “Why Do We Need So Many Gods?

  1. Some people believe the Holy Ghost is the most accessible member of the godhead, to answer one of your concerns.

    In the ancient Syriac language and I think also in Hebrew, the Holy Ghost was identified as female. Many early Christians, as I understand it, thought of the godhead as a family. Now that’s a shocking idea!

  2. “However, on the plus side, it breaks out from the commonly held, idiotic godhead roles of a God who can’t forgive His children unless He excruciatingly punishes His Son first. I don’t know how the atonement works, but I’m sure it’s not like that.”

    Be careful Dane. Immutable law and the demands of justice for broken laws is central to LDS doctrine. Any of the great discourses in the Book of Mormon on the atonement expounds on this. We escape eternal punishment through the atonement, but the demands of justice are met somehow. God can’t just pretend it didn’t happen and the consequences–both spiritual and temporal–won’t follow, or He will cease to be God. Maybe I’m missing some intended nuance here, but your comment seems a bit flippant.

  3. Don, I hadn’t heard that before. I’ll have to think about that one a bit.

    Dave, I agree with you that the atonement is centered around the demand for justice, and that Christ’s work fulfilled that demand. What I’m speaking against here is the oversimplified (and often taught) atonement theory that works like this: “I invited some friends to my house for dinner. One of them spilled her grape juice on my nice white carpet. I shouldn’t have been surprised; she’s got Parkinson’s disease, so I knew there was no way she could have gone through the whole meal without spilling something. However, I’ve got a rule in my house that anyone who spills on the carpet has to leave and never return unless I kill my son. I know it sounds harsh, but a rule’s a rule. She was hungry and didn’t want to go, so I shot my son instead and we enjoyed the rest of our dinner together.” Justice is central to our theology, but there’s no justice in that story.

  4. Of course the doctrine of the atonement isn’t framed in that story. It’s usually presented in some form of “He took my whipping for me,” but the principle is the same. God makes a rule that we can’t obey. We fail to obey it and must be punished. Jesus comes in and is punished instead, and the rest of get off the hook. There’s no justice in that, just mercy and a disgusting cosmic legal system.

  5. Dane I see your point. Perhaps I have not heard the same poor analogies of justice/mercy/punishment ad nauseum like you seem to have. I agree that over-simplistic theories can lead to a distorted conception of the truth.

  6. Dane,

    I think you set up a false premise with the phrase “God makes a rule that we can’t obey.” I think the whole point of the punishment is that we CAN obey, but that we don’t. That was the example that Christ set – that it could be done, that a man could be perfect. And that is the commandment we refuse to follow – Be thee therefore perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

    We WILL make mistakes and be punished because we have weaknesses. But God has said that he will show us our weaknesses and that we can overcome them and make them strengths (Ether 12:27) We overcome our weaknesses one at a time until we too become “just men made perfect” and have to weaknesses – even in mortality.

    The eternal principle is really simple: the price for disobedience is suffering. I don’t think this is our Father’s rule, but an eternal one that He cannot change. That is why living with disobedience is contrary to the nature of happiness (Alma 41:11, Hel 13:38) Because of our disobedience SOMEONE was going to suffer, HAS to suffer. Christ’s suffering wasn’t part of His justice, it was part of His mercy – so that we didn’t have to. His justice comes when he later causes to suffer all of those who don’t repent (D&C 19: 16-17).

  7. When it comes to the atonement, you also have to realize that the Savior wasn’t punished unknowingly. He volunteered, he wasn’t killed, he let himself go. He knew the pain was temporary and it was worth it in seeing his spiritual family being saved. Justice is blind, but our spiritual family isn’t. Just like any other true family, they did what they could to help us in our eternal goals.

  8. Tekla, the whole point of justice is that it isn’t blind, at least not in the sense you’re talking about. It actually matters who is punished. I can’t give my life for Jeffrey Dahmer so that he can go free. Now it may be that there is some cosmic law of sin that allows one person to be voluntarily punished in place of another person, but you can’t describe that law as “just”. That Christ’s sacrifice was voluntary makes Him merciful, but it doesn’t make the law just.

    Jax, your interpretation is a more tenable one. To say that the demands of justice are met through the suffering of the unrepentant rather than through Christ’s suffering is an interpretation that allows Christ to be merciful and the law to be just. I’m not sure that I agree with that particular theory on the atonement, but at least it can claim to be both just and merciful.

  9. I’m re-reading the post. Very insightful. I also think of each of the Godhead as equally just, merciful, perfect, etc. I think of them falling into roles just as a sports team might include a forward, a fullback, and a goalkeeper for the purpose of optimizing the score. Each of the Godhead has a role in optimizing the immortality and eternal life of man. They are one, i.e. have one purpose and are identical in certain salient eternal attributes. Omnipotent is a tricky word. Where agency comes into play there must be principles that bind the Godhead in their endeavor to save as many souls as will be saved. I truly believe that the plan of salvation–including the atonement–is the most elegant solution to the problem of soul-saving and that the roles of judge and advocate follow the constraints imposed by the problem. I think that moment “every tongue shall bow and every tongue confess” will be the when all gain a full and logical appreciation of the fact that of all the ways that God could go about his work and glory, this one is the optimal one. It is then that even those of telestial glory will declare that God is just and fair.

    In addition, our relationship with members of the Godhead is inherently different also. God the Father is our spiritual father. Jesus Christ is our adopted father (through baptism, Mosiah 5). Moreover where is our seemingly silent Heavenly Mother?

  10. Don it’s true that in the Semetic cultures there typically was a pantheon of deities with a head deity. Lots and lots of scholars think this is true of Hebrew culture as well. And there are tons of remnants in the OT. How one reads into that theologically really depends upon how one views the evolution of scripture and especially its human element. While I’m pretty sympathetic to these readings I do think it pretty dangerous to go too far.

    Beyond that though I really think it dangerous to read too much into grammatical gender. Holy Ghost is feminine in Hebrew, neutral in Greek. Comforter as used by John in that gospel is masculine. When Jesus in that gospel speaks of the Spirit a masculine pronoun is used. (There are counterarguments that get technical) Be all that as it may, I’d not read too much into it due to such things. For one I tend to doubt that level of grammar was intended to be theologically significant. For an other sometimes feminine imagery is used to refer to male characters. (Say some of the metaphors of Christ)

    Ultimately though I’m just skeptical it matters right now given that we don’t have any particularly clear information.

  11. All the scriptures (including the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon) combine to repeatedly tell us there is one God, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one God. How can that be, one might ask, when I can count three (or more)? I don’t have an answer hat will satisfy anyone here, except that God himself repeatedly tells me there is ONE GOD, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are ONE GOD. I’ll take God at his word, and I’ll avoid any circumstance where I use words to indicate there is more than one God. There is only one God in Mormonism.

  12. I would say the doctrine of the Godhead is simply an abbreviated way of explaining the doctrine of exaltation, and giving a fundamental hint as to the nature and origin of divine power in the first place.

    I completely agree with ji. “Gods” with an uppercase G is a grammatical error, and always has been. It is logically incoherent.

  13. I was really hoping to read more discussion about Justice and Mercy. How did this get into a discussion on the components of “God”?

    25 For there is a time appointed for every man, according as his works shall be.
    26 God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;
    27 Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;
    28 A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be ONE GOD OR MANY GODS, they shall be manifest.
    29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Emphasis added)

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 121:25 – 29)

    the sciptural cross references are Rom. 3:30 (28–31); 1 Tim. 2:5

  14. Jax, for what it’s worth, the main topic of the post was regarding “the components of ‘God'”, namely, the reason for multiple gods in a godhead, so I think that’s how the discussion got there :)

  15. The Book of Mormon states several times that the thing that keeps us from returning to the presence of God in our sinful state is the guilt and suffering we would feel in his presence in such a state. Mormon chapter 9 is the clearest example of this, but there are several more places this is discussed (Alma 12:14 would be a good example). I believe this is what is called the justice of God – its not because he doesn’t love us, its because we can’t endure his presence and it seems to be related to us, not Him.

    The suffering of Christ was necessary in order to give him the power to make us clean from our sin so we would not feel this guilt (loosening the bands of justice, so to speak). Mosiah 15:7-9 states “Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the bflesh becoming subject even unto death….giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men— …standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.”

    His suffering and death gave him power to make intercession – to cleanse us from sin. How did it do that? I have some ideas, but I don’t understand it completely. But I don’t believe it was that the Father just needed to punish someone because a law had been broken or some reason like that, as it is sometimes taught in the church. I believe the suffering was a necessary step that the Savior needed to go through in order to allow him to make each of us clean.

    These are my own ideas, by the way, I’m not advocating them as doctrine or the final word or anything. I know its a little off topic of the post, but I was hoping to help with some of the discussion in the comments on justice and mercy.

  16. I think I can buy that. In fact, its psychologically pretty astute.

    Another perspective is that the Trinity is a model for and a downpayment on the promise of the Infinity–the expanded Godhead that includes . . . us.

    Like other commenters above, I continue to believe that the Incarnation and the Atonement were genuinely necessary for our salvation, which suggests that you need at least two gods anyway. I’m pretty sure your reaction to the folk explanation of the Atonement is as much due to your limitations as it is the limitations of the explanation, and in fact it was kind of jarring to see that little bitter detour at the end of your post. Because your model is not about and does not explain the Atonement. At. All.

    Some related thoughts:

  17. I like to think that Heavenly Father has progressed as a parent much the way we do. When our children are young, and when we are young and experienced in parenting, we tend to be harsh. Children are punished for behaviors to teach them what is right and wrong, and what is dangerous. When they grow a little older, our discipline techniques change, perhaps soften. We include incentives for good behavior as well. In later adolescence, we have taught them everything we can and have to let go, letting kids learn from the consequences of their own choices.

    In the days of the early Old Testament, God was a harsh disciplinarian. Mankind was young and needed the rod, so to speak. As time went on, God stopped killing everyone who disobeyed him, instead blessing those who followed him and withdrawing from those who didn’t. Today, God seems to be sitting back and letting mankind make their own choices and deal with the accompanying consequences. We are in our adolescence, and God has mellowed with time, just like many parents soften a bit with maturity. Patience and compassion develop over time.

    We claim that as man is God once was, and God is man may become. Maybe, God is still progressing, too. The Hebrew words which our Bible interprets as “I am that I am,” can also be interpreted as “I shall be what I shall be.”

  18. My wife was surprised to discover that I believed many people in the Church thought of God the Father as dealing out Punishment (Justice) and Christ as dealing out Compassion (Mercy). But then she started to hear people say it at church. I think that idea is sick, inaccurate, and damaging and that such an idea is part of what Dane is responding to (correct me if I’m wrong).

    I do like Dane’s discussion here as a method to help those who have “God the Father” complexes – like I once did (perhaps because of my childhood difficulties with my father) – to better see God the Father as equally full of compassion.

    Brief diversion: Christ is referred to as a God before he accomplished the atonement. He didn’t have a perfect body, etc. Following the whole “all things are present to God” idea, that makes sense. But so would calling anybody else a God who will one day become a God. It’s a title, as far as I can tell – and it’s not very clear to me that what it denotates is consistent, in scripture or in common parlance.

  19. Brian, that seems like a fairly understandable reading of Alma 42. I’m not saying it’s right. But it makes sense to see it as a conflict between the two and trying to figure a way to resolve it. I’d be a bit hesitant to call it sick. The error is of course in assuming Jesus is doing his own plan when it seems to me his role in part of God’s plan.

    Laurisa, I’m not sure I agree with the idea that God in the OT was a harsh displinarian because the people needed it. I tend to see the issue more as Israel ignoring God. But then I also think a solid case can be made for a lot of corruption in the OT. Remember that it wasn’t compiled until after the Exile from Babylon and not by prophets but by scribes. (For a nice overview see FPR post in terms of scholarship; for a scriptural account see 1 Nephi 14 among other places)

  20. Clark. Yes, I’m aware of many scriptures, and analogies, which present Christ as stepping in between the Justice of God the Father and us. I do think that’s sick (in that it is a degenerate, unhealthy view); it’s not complete. I believe God the Father is just as full of compassion as is, and that Christ is just as full of justice as God the Father is.

    One could, perhaps just as easily, say that God the Father wants to deal out Compassion, but a Justice-driven Christ stands between us; so this life is about trying to get him on our side by respecting his sacrifice.

    Bottom line: for me, to think of one as Justice and one as Mercy is incomplete. Perhaps some people need to think of it that way. Perhaps some of those same people play the “nice” parent while the other plays the “mean” parent, I wouldn’t advocate that, ever.

  21. @ Mark D: You may have noticed in the OP, when Dane writes about ‘God’ as a group, he uses a small ‘g'( ie: godhead). But when he writes of them as individuals. he uses a big ‘G’.
    If all of these different terms are for me to understand God/god(s), they hasn’t.

  22. I’d love to agree with you that a Godhead is like a marriage, but I can’t.

    The comparison is bone dry when you consider that, according to most Mormon interpretations, exalted beings are already married, and not to their sons (i.e. Jesus) or disembodied spirts (i.e. the Holy Ghost).

    No, unfortunately, the Godhead (as portrayed to us) is much more like a stake presidency… with the glaring exception that one of them (the Holy Ghost) gets to get inside people’s hearts and minds. I don’t think *anything* compares to that, so I’ll have to settle on the stake presidency comparison.

    Maybe you can go on and say how stake presidencies are supposed to emulate marriages in the way they’re supposed to work with each other, give and take, counsel with each other, and so on, but stake presidencies still aren’t marriages. Only marriages are marriages.

    So why do we need a Godhead and not just a God? I’ll twist the original question and ask: why do we need exalted marriages if we have marriage-like Godheads? One or the other is redundant if the whole reason for having more than one individual is to have shared responsibility like a marriage relationship.

    There has always been a great, almost insurmountable tension between the church’s doctrine of exalted marriage and the doctrine of the Godhead. Unless, of course, you really do think that the Godhead is just like a glorified stake presidency, and the wives of these figureheads are relegated to being nothing more than the invisible wives of figureheads. I, for one, have much higher hopes for the women among us than that.

  23. A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be ONE GOD OR MANY GODS, they shall be manifest.

    Jax, that is not the original capitalization. The actual verse is rendered as follows:

    A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.

    Compare D&C 20:28:

    Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.

  24. You may have noticed in the OP, when Dane writes about ‘God’ as a group, he uses a small ‘g’( ie: godhead). But when he writes of them as individuals. he uses a big ‘G’.

    Bob, there is a reason for that. The indefinite article ‘a’ indicates the term following is an indefinite noun. The definite article ‘the’, on the other hand, implies that the term following is a definite noun. Proper nouns are capitalized. Generally speaking, indefinite nouns aren’t, because they are hypothetical. “a cat”, not “a Cat”.

    No one would normally write “the godhead”, they would write “the Godhead”. The term “a god” is similar. “a god” is indefinite. “a God” is a grammatical error, unless you believe that “God” is some sort of brand name like “Ford”. “the God” is redundant, except under the same conditions. No one says “the Hawaii” either.

    So one might get away with the strange locution “Gods” as long as he or she rejects monotheism, and admits that each and every “God” is in no sense omnipotent or all powerful in any reasonable way – in other words not God as nearly everyone everywhere has understood the term (if they are familiar with it at all) for two or three thousand years now.

  25. No one had commented on the image yet. Did you serve in Bulgaria? That’s a great shot of Xp. Aleksandur Nevski. :)

  26. No, ‘fraid not Curtis. When I want a picture for an article I go to commons.wikimedia.org and find the picture of the day there. All the Wikimedia photos are free to use, so if the picture is even remotely related to what I’m writing, I’ll go with that. Ack, the secret is out! Ah well, I don’t expect that more than 3 people will read down here to comment #30 on this post… :)

  27. Do we need so many Gods or did our Heavenly Father’s plan require that many members (with their own functions).

  28. Alan, that’s the question I’m asking. Our conventional church rhetoric teaches as you suggest, that Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost each has a specific role to which he is particularly suited. I’m not opposed to that interpretation (particularly since it indicates that celestialized beings are not homogeneously identical — I like the idea of eternal diversity and eternal individuality). However, one side-effect of the “specific roles” approach is that it means that each member of the godhead isn’t “omnipotent”, but rather that there is a heavenly specialization-of-labor curve, like the “guns and butter” we learned about in high school economics.

  29. Omnipotent is a funny word.

    We already believe that there are certain things God can’t do or he would cease to be God.

    We are also taught that there are certain things that the Holy Ghost can do because of his lack of a body, implying that a celestial being with a body can’t do those things.

    In fact, the whole need for an atonement seems to imply that God can’t break universal laws.

    Can a god be all powerful without being omnipotent in that way?

  30. #4 Dane: “She was hungry and didn’t want to go, so I shot my son instead and we enjoyed the rest of our dinner together.”

    Another way to look at this is that the son wants this person back in the house so bad that he would willingly do whatever it took to get the stain out of the carpet. He knows He is the only one with the ability to clean the carpet and looks upon the temporary separation from his friends as worth the eternity they eventually get to spend in the house together. And with a clean carpet. And most importantly, He was not killed but gave His life willingly because He loves clean carpets.

  31. Sure Mike, that makes Christ merciful, but it doesn’t make the law just. In that interpretation, we have mercy but no justice.

  32. Dane,
    Just curious I goggled that phrase. And got a handful of BoM references. Then goggle suggested to change supposeth to supposed. And I got a “Gentleman’s magazine” (sounds like old Playboy or something, but it’s not) from the 1700s detailing a murder scene.

    “the servant maid, a lusty young woman, was found at the entrance of one of the rooms, a spit half bent by her side, with which it it supposed me had made resistance her hair was clotted with blood…”

    You can find a few more references of “it supposed me” in google books. So apparently it was used back then and “supposeth” is just the more biblical sounding version.

  33. Chris, thanks for your research, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe you meant to reply to one of Royal’s posts instead?

  34. Alan J, I would say that a strict conception of “all powerful” leads to classical theism – a timeless God without body, parts, or passions standing alone and aside from the world – and that is the pleasant version. A temporal or quasi-temporal all powerful God (as in Calvinism and some varieties of Islam) is potentially much scarier, at least from a rationalist perspective, because anything goes. At its extreme, reality as pure will.

    The main thing here in my opinion is that although we occasionally speak of “Gods” [sic], at best the capitalization has to be metonymical, because there is no way for more than one individual to each independently qualify as “all powerful” even in much more finite senses.

    The only way for “all powerful” to mean anything coherent is either if only one individual is all powerful and the rest are subsidiary (as in Arianism, more or less), or if the “all powerful” attribute is contingent on the mutual agreement of the exalted.

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