Larsen and Wright argue that a number of Book of Mormon passages imply the doctrine of theosis – the ability to become like God. This includes the existence of a divine council, the implication that we can be enrolled in that same council through baptism and the Atonement, the transcendent experiences of people like Alma2 and Lamoni, and human involvement in the work and power of the divine.
In this article, Val Larsen and Newell D. Wright work to counter the notion that the doctrine of theosis is merely a late addition from Joseph Smith during the Nauvoo period, arguing that aspects of this doctrine are present in the Book of Mormon itself. This includes the implication that God is not alone in his divinity, being joined by others in the divine council, or Sôd, including the figure of a divine Mother, the symbolism of which appears in the visions of Lehi and Nephi. Larsen and Wright highlight baptism as a covenant that brings us into that same council. They also argue that the transcendent experiences and demonstrations of divine power rendered by Book of Mormon figures suggest the ability for mortals to become like God.
Larsen and Wright begin by briefly outlining the doctrine of theosis (distinguishing soft from hard theosis, with Latter-day Saints believing in the latter variety), and then go on to describe the purported loss of that doctrine and knowledge of the Sôd through King Josiah’s deuteronomistic purge. They argue that Lehi’s story shows the fingerprints of the Sôd in his apocalyptic visions. The Spirit, for Larsen and Wright, plays a vital and consistent role in theosis, and it’s the Spirit that carries Lehi in God’s presence, which, based on a quote from Welch, makes him “functionally, if not constitutionally…one of [the Heavenly Host’s] members”. The twelve he sees descending from heaven are described as ones who will sit in judgment, a role associated with the divine. According to Larsen and Wright:
The descent of the Twelve from heaven affirms two vital truths: a) the Twelve and all of us are divine beings passing briefly through mortality, whose proper telos is to rejoin the Sôd Elohim with our divinity fully expressed, and b) the Gods develop our inherent divinity by involving us in their divine work.
Lehi’s dream also affirms the symbolism associated with the Sôd, with the sacred Tree linked with Asherah, the divine Mother. This tree represents the destination that Lehi is heading to, and from which his sons are drawn away toward the great and spacious building. Though Lehi’s dream has apparent significance for his own life and family, Nephi’s corresponding dream expands on this meaning, with Larsen and Wright connecting each person with the dream with a member of the divine family. They place emphasis on Nephi’s vision of the baptism of Christ, reinforcing baptism as a spiritual rebirth, one that, with the reception of the Holy Ghost, leads us to “speak with the tongue of angels”. Nephi’s future appearance at the judgment bar suggests to Larsen and Wright that this transformation makes us more than just angels – it makes us gods. The covenants made by those under undergoing baptism echo the covenant made by God to comfort his children and to ease their burdens.
Larsen and Wright also see hints of theosis in the experiences of later Book of Mormon prophets. As with Lehi, Alma2 is brought to the throne of God, and afterward seeks to “speak with the trump of God”. His own burial “by the hand of the Lord” speaks to his potential divine attributes. Lamoni’s comparable theophany is framed by Larsen and Wright as a symbolic narrative with each figure representing members of the Sôd. Ammon, Abish, and Lamoni’s names may themselves mean or incorporate words for “God” (with Abish’s name itself suggestive of theosis, potentially meaning “my Father is a man”). Ammon’s demonstrations of divine power cause others to believe that he is himself the Great Spirit. Nephi, the son of Helaman, shows similar power along with his brother Lehi, who are miraculously freed from prison, whose faces show a divine glow, and who converse with angels. Nephi’s will is characterized as aligned with God’s, and his death, like Alma’s, is not recorded.
As Larsen and Wright themselves suggest, “there is no reason to believe that Joseph saw theosis in the Book of Mormon when he translated the book, or that he developed his understanding of theosis from reading [it]…What he clearly states is only implied in the Book of Mormon”. Nevertheless, to them, “our understanding of theosis is made richer by these related but distinct articulations…We return to the Father, the Book of Mormon suggests, by coming to the Mother and Son, the Tree of Life and its fruit…We know them, we become like them, only to the degree that we become one with the being who is one with them, the Holy Ghost.”
Larsen and Wright do well to highlight the ways that the Book of Mormon is consistent with the doctrine of theosis. I find their discussion of Lehi’s vision particularly compelling as they outline the special pre-mortal status of the Twelve and the divine post-mortal duties assigned to them (the included quote above also serves as a succinct overview of their overall argument). My only question is whether those outside the Church would see those things as inconsistent with a softer theosis. I don’t see our friends in other Christian faiths particularly balking at the idea that God would grant divine strength and power to mortals and recruit them to assist in the work of salvation, without necessarily granting them status as gods. For that kind of direct, hard theosis, I think you do need a Joseph Smith to truly restore that doctrine. The ideas and parallels Larsen and Wright see in the Book of Mormon appear in comparison as pale, implied echoes, ones that might nevertheless help us better understand how theosis works and how we can slowly work toward it in our journey through mortality.