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The “Mormon Wager”

pascalHere’s a little anecdote that I suspect is more widespread than my experience. It’s not about Orthodoxy, but rather about Mormon-Protestant relations.

Many Mormons in the United States employ the following “wager” when dealing with the Protestants that very likely surround them (if they’re outside the Jello Belt).  This isn’t intended to be framed as a solid logical proof, just a sort of fluid line of reasoning that typifies one kind of Mormon argument:

  1. On Protestantism, all you have to do is “believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved.”  Anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned.
  2. On Mormonism, if you are a Mormon and endure to the end you can eventually be like God and live with your family for eternity.  Anyone who rejects Mormonism and/or doesn’t endure to the end still gets a pretty good existence (Terrestrial or Telestial Kingdoms).
  3. If Mormonism is true, then Mormons will have a great reward, and Protestants will have a lesser, but still good reward.
  4. If Protestantism is true, then Protestants will have a great reward, and Mormons will, too (because Mormons “believe in Jesus” and therefore they will also be saved).
  5. It is therefore rational to be a Mormon, because you are maximizing your reward either way.

Here’s a table of the possibilities.

Belief in Mormonism Belief in Protestantism
Mormonism True Huge Reward (Celestial Kingdom) Good Reward (Telestial or Terrestrial Kingdom)
Protestantism True Huge Reward (Heaven) Huge Reward (Heaven)

Now first we could talk about a number of Protestant objections to this reasoning:

Protestant Objector: But there’s more to it than just “believe in Jesus!”  You have to believe that He came down to Earth, that He’s God, that He will save us from our sins, that salvation only comes through Him, etc.

Mormon response:  Mormons believe all that.

Protestant Objector: But Mormons don’t believe Jesus is God, but rather, that He’s a God.  You must believe in the Trinity – that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity.

Mormon response:  Now where in the Bible does it say anything about the Trinity?  Most of your tracts leave out the fact that you must believe in a Trinitarian God.  Furthermore, it is not clear that the earliest Christians had any real conception of the Trinity, just that Jesus was somehow divine.  Would you really deny salvation to those people?

Protestant Objector: Fair enough.  But you don’t believe in the same Jesus!

Mormon response:  Umm, I believe in the Jesus that lived around 0-33 AD, who was born of a virgin, who did miracles, who was crucified and rose on the 3rd day, who had many apostles and disciples who saw Him after He was resurrected, who had a Bible written about Him.  How are we not talking about the same Jesus?

Protestant Objector:  But your Jesus is brothers with Satan!  He was married with multiple wives!  He was born on another planet!  Etc.

Mormon response:  Those are all based on misunderstandings and distortions of Mormon beliefs.  In any case, the Mormon church doesn’t require its members to believe the “backstory” necessarily or any particular creed.  It just expects a bare minimum of belief in the Mormon church and its authority, priesthood, prophets, etc. and active membership in the Church.  In theory a Mormon could be a Trinitarian and still an active Mormon in full fellowship.

Protestant Objector:  But you’re creepy teetotalers!  You have temple rites!  Etc.

Mormon response:  Sticks and stones…

Well it seems our Protestant Objector is in a bind!  The only way she could really disqualify the Mormon from her version of Salvation is to tighten the restrictions and requirements (baptism by immersion?  Trinitarian belief?  a certain code of conduct?), but this may also push out other Protestant or Christian groups whom they might have no qualms with.  But if the requirements are incredibly broad (“Believe in Jesus, the end.”) then who knows if Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or even (*gasp*) Muslims or atheists might qualify depending on what exactly it means to believe in Jesus?

Now there are (of course) numerous real objections to the “Mormon Wager,” and some of them sound rather like the objections to the Original Wager:  Pascal’s.  First, it assumes that Protestantism and Mormonism are the only options, but there are certainly many more options out there (Catholic and Orthodox churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaism, eastern religions, etc.).  Second, it assumes that God rewards probabilistic wagering and word games rather than sincerity.

However, I think the major problem I have with the Mormon Wager is that it is entirely concerned only with the destination of humans: where will I end up when I die?

But what about a real relationship with God, based on a correct understanding of His nature right now?  What if salvation is a process, not simply a destination you’re hoping to get to at some future point?

In other words, what if choosing the right religion is not about “getting to Heaven” so much as it is being more in touch with God at this very moment?  In that case it does matter what religion you’re in, inasmuch as you will be able to more closely get in touch with God right now based on correct information.

This is, in my opinion, one of the strongest Orthodox critiques of Protestantism.  Protestantism’s emphasis on “being saved” and “getting to Heaven” is a rewards-based system that puts all of one’s attention on a future payoff.  But the Orthodox way is to start the path of theosis at this very moment, and live reality more fully right now as you participate more in the Reality of God.  But in terms of a Protestant response to the Mormon Wager, I’m not sure I’ve seen a decent response to it yet.

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4 thoughts on “The “Mormon Wager”

  1. “But in terms of a Protestant response to the Mormon Wager, I’m not sure I’ve seen a decent response to it yet.”

    Me neither. And I agree with you that Protestants are in a bind in this scenario. They can’t really insist on certain doctrines since one of their own essential doctrines is sola scriptura (the other being sola fide), which in turn implies that each man must interpret the scriptures for himself rather than obey other men.

    And they can’t insist on membership in a particular Christian church for basically the same reason: Doing so would imply that authority is vested in that particular church, which would tend to undermine sola scriptura. It would also undermine sola fide since it would require something in addition to bare faith, i.e. membership.

    Some of them have taken the tack that if you deny either one of the solas then you’re not saved, which enables them to scratch off Catholics and Mormons (as well as Orthodox). But that undermines the doctrine that faith in Christ is all you need. And indeed I’ve encountered others who find themselves forced to admit that Catholics are saved since they believe in Christ with no further qualifications. Those same ones would probably insist that Mormons are still out due to the “different God” problem, but you’ve already answered that above.

  2. Yep, exactly. Now one other response might be that it’s not really fair to lump all Protestants together on this, since they all have slightly different requirements and doctrines, etc. However, on issues of salvation, in my experience, most Protestants lump themselves all together – a member of the Disciples of Christ tends to think that Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, are all different facets of the same club, and they see denominational differences as differences in “flavor” and not necessarily substance. I think there’s enough overlap for this “wager” to hold true in most cases.

  3. I think logic of your conclusion breaks down at point 4 because most Protestants (particularly conservative and fundamentalist Protestants) don’t think that Mormons will be saved. For them, what you believe about Jesus is important. So , since Mormons have incorrect beliefs, they will definitely be damned.

    Of course, as you know, the Orthodox Church holds dogmas in the highest regard, but they don’t resort to the nonsense of the fundies. Salvation is foremost a mystery and we can not (indeed we dare not) speculate as to who will be damned. Conservative Protestants seem to have no probs condemning people to hell.

  4. I disagree with respect to the first part of this post.

    Protestants can say that Mormons are in trouble because, generally speaking, they have a tendency to place their trust in the ordinances/traditions of the LDS Church and the prophetic status of Joseph Smith in contrast with good Protestants who only place their trust in the person of Jesus Christ. Moreover, and conveniently for Protestants, the same line of criticism can be easily adapted to work against many other non-Protestant traditions.

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