In 2009, I wrote an otherwise routine piece for LiveScience.com about doomsdays and apocalyptic beliefs. It’s pretty standard stuff, a subject I have written about many times over the years. And yet it remains in some ways one of my more controversial pieces, generating at least a handful of indignant emails every few months.
In the piece, “10 Failed Doomsday Predictions,” I briefly discuss apocalyptic beliefs and give ten examples from history, including the Heaven’s Gate cult, the Millerites, and others.
The Seventh-Day Adventists don’t email me to complain that I misrepresented their original founder, William Miller, in his failed doomsday claims. But the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) make their displeasure clear.
The offending passage is one sentence long: “Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, called a meeting of his church leaders in February 1835 to tell them that he had spoken to God recently, and during their conversation he learned that Jesus would return within the next 56 years, after which the End Times would begin promptly.”
My source for this is Doctrine and Covenants 130:14–17, written by Joseph Smith:
14. I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:
15. “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.”
16. I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.
17. I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.
This case offers an interesting glimpse into the religious mind and what happens when logic is applied to scripture. My purpose here is not to bash or criticize Mormons; those who know my work know that I’m an equal-opportunity critic of all religions when their claims conflict with science or logic. In this case, I am the one who has been accused of misrepresenting Mormon scripture. I offer this as a case study, and I am pleased to let readers make up their own minds.
Below are two representative email exchanges I had with Mormons about whether Mormon scripture suggests that Joseph Smith predicted the end of the world.
Cory: Please check your facts—there has never been a Mormon Armageddon prophecy. You are confusing this with the Church of Christ and other faiths that began in that time period, many of which set several end times dates. The stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) is and always has been that no one knows the time and place of the second coming. When you print misinformation like this, you perpetuate the ignorance of the American people. Please consult with official church sites when gathering information—it is the first rule of journalism: Go to the source.
Ben: Hello Cory. Actually, perhaps you should check your facts, and re-read the passages, especially this one: “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let his suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.” It’s pretty clear that Joseph Smith is being told by God that he shall see Jesus before he turns 85—unless you’re saying that God did not know whether Smith would die before then?
Cory: I have read it, and am familiar with it. An omniscient God knew that Joseph would be killed before he reached the age of 85. IF the world would have been a kinder place and would not have reviled against the Prophet, it is possible that the Second coming may have taken place at an earlier time. But, as God knew, this would not be the case. The church’s official position has never been that of “knowing the date.” Never. Even wikkipedia [sic] has this right. You have only read 2 verses of the entire section, a common mistake for journalists who do not actually research their material, but take portions from other people’s opinions. Go to the official website, read from the official website. Don’t profess to be expert in an area without doing the hard work that accompanies it. Read the Doctrine and Covenants, or at least verses 16 and 17. I have spent 41 years in the church, having served as bishop and other positions of authority. I have taught decades of lessons, and have served a 2-year mission in Argentina. I have 2 bachelors and a masters degree from Purdue University and Indiana University, as well as 4 years of seminary and an additional 4 years of theological institute. I am very comfortable discussing religion, but I would never attempt to discuss another religion’s beliefs—I am not qualified. Just as you are not qualified to discuss mine. Please do not be offended, I am simply pointing out an error in your information. Thank you for your response and your polite conversation.
Ben: Thanks for getting back to me. . . . I’m glad to get the opportunity to better understand this passage from someone with 8 years of study in Mormon theology. I think we can both agree that God is omniscient (and thus knew when Smith would die, and whether or not he would see “the face of the Son of Man”). Just so I’m clear: Your interpretation of this scripture is that God deceived (or, at best, intentionally confused) Joseph Smith by telling him that he would see Jesus return if he lived to be 85, with God knowing full well that this would not occur? Is this correct? Or is there another logical interpretation I’m missing?
Cory: As Joseph petitioned the Lord repeatedly, at the behest of many members of the church (you will remember that at this time the religious fervor in the US was very high, and many churches were talking about end of days scenarios), he finally received revelation of this nature. It was the Lord’s intent to let Joseph and the early members of the church understand that the time was not at hand. There was no confusion intended, nor deceit. It is much like a father telling his child that should certain conditions take place, then a promised event would occur. Our Heavenly Father does not wish for us to know of the time or place, but rather to live each day as though it were our last (i.e., repenting and living the gospel). After wearing the Lord, as the Savior taught, he was given an answer—that the time was NOT near at hand, for both HE and Joseph knew that he would die as a martyr. Hope that helps. Again, Mormon.org is a great place to go for questions such as these. Also LDS.org. Both are official church sites.
Ben: Thanks, but I’m still not following your logic. You wrote:
“It was the Lord’s intent to let Joseph and the early members of the church understand that the time was not at hand. There was no confusion intended, nor deceit.”
Actually, the next line makes it clear that there was confusion, whether God intended it or not: “I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.”
“It is much like a father telling his child that should certain conditions take place, then a promised event would occur.”
Except that in your analogy, the father is not omniscient. A father who tells his child that if certain things happen (or certain conditions are met, i.e., obedience) then a promised event would occur (i.e., a party or trip to a park) does not know if the child, who has free will, will meet those conditions or not. An omniscient God telling Smith that if certain conditions are met that something will happen (knowing with certainty that they will not be met) is indeed deception, is it not?
If a doctor who has seen medical test results indicating with certainty that you have a month to live tells you that if you stop smoking and lose 20 pounds you’ll live another 10 years, would you consider that deceptive? If he knows that you will not stop smoking and lose 10 pounds in a month, and that you’re going to die anyway no matter what you do, is that not lying? How is that different than what God told Joseph Smith?
Cory: I just don’t see the deceit as you see it. Much of prophesy and promises the Lord makes throughout the scriptures is contingent on our choices, else all would be set in stone and our freedom to act would be negligent. You and I have had different experiences in our lives that have lead us feel differently regarding religion. In this matter we will never truly convince the other to believe or feel otherwise, so the need to “agree to disagree” is apropos. I would only hope that you would follow up with the church sponsored websites as a means to gathering more information and understanding, as I do not speak for the church. Again, thank you for your cordial replies.
Ben: I think you’re right; we just view these things differently. My purpose was not to degrade Mormons or anyone else. I think the real lesson I take from this is that people interpret scripture very differently—and each person believes that his or her own interpretation is the correct one. I doubt I’ll be writing about this again any time soon (that piece is actually a year or two old), but if I do I’ll add a caveat that others disagree with that interpretation. All best, BR.
A few months later I got another email:
James: I’m writing to address your list I read on Live Science, “10 Failed Doomsday Predictions.” Your claim about Joseph Smith predicting the 2nd Coming is wrong. The passage you’re referring to comes from the Doctrine and Covenants 130:14-17 which never gave a date for the Second Coming. All it said was that if he lived until 85, he would see the face of the Son of Man. I’ve included the passage for you below (highlighting the verse showing his uncertainty). No doomsday event was ever anticipated by members then nor now. Please do some more research before publishing these lists. We believe in Matthew 24:36 that no one knows the hour of the Second Coming.
Ben: I wrote that piece quite a while ago, but I’m happy to hear from you. You wrote, “All it said was that if he lived until 85, he would see the face of the Son of Man.” I fail to see a difference between what you wrote, and what I wrote. It seems quite clear from the quote. Are you interpreting this to mean that God did not know whether Smith would die before he reached 85? Or are you just saying that God’s words weren’t clear enough for Smith to understand them? I’m not sure what, exactly, you’re saying. . . .
(I never got a response.)
Religious scripture is, of course, notoriously open to interpretation. (Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn replied to me that “It’s best you never write about the time Joseph Smith prophesied that there were people living inside the moon, and one of his apostles would live to preach Mormonism unto them. . . .”) Different sincere people can read the same passages and come to very different conclusions about what the words mean. My inclusion of Joseph Smith as a failed doomsday prophet was not intended to disparage the Mormon faith but instead a historical fact based on Smith’s own writings. If other Mormons or religious scholars can explain why my interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants 130:14-17 is incorrect, I’m happy to hear it. Until then I stand by my work—at least until Armageddon.
Note: This piece is adapted from a February 1, 2013, CFI blog post of the same name.