One sticking point in the Mormon narrative, to me, is the concept of the Great Apostasy. I suppose the general idea that God’s authority and church could be removed from the Earth isn’t so objectionable per se, but the idea that it could be gone for such a long time seems to make the claim much more difficult to believe.
Some Mormons temper this absence of authority by suggesting that God was, of course, present in the world and did many remarkable things through people such as Muhammad, Confucius, etc. The only thing that was missing was his priesthood, and therefore, his church. But think about what that means. That means maybe 1700 years and millions of people – Christian believers even – without proper baptism. Millions of families without the blessings of temple sealings. Millions of fathers with sick and dying children that they couldn’t properly bless. True, these people still could have been enlightened by some things, and received the Gospel in Spirit Prison, and maybe one day be baptized and endowed in the Millennium, but it still remains the case that in mortality, the blessings of the Gospel that Mormons today take for granted were withheld from them.
So the narrative goes, the people rejected the Apostles and Prophet, and God took his church from the Earth. He did not call a prophet in 100 AD to rectify the situation. He did not call a prophet in 200 AD either. Neither did he call one in 300 AD. And so on.
So if this were posed to Epicurus, he may likely ask the following question: Was God unable to call a prophet at those times, or was he unwilling? Let’s think about the possibilities, both of which have been considered by Mormons I’ve talked to.
1. God was unable to call a prophet before 1820.
The “impotent God” idea does have a place in Mormon thought. Recently, Russell Stevenson, the “Mormon History Guy” has suggested as his main thesis to explain the priesthood ban for people of African ancestry (as he stated on his recent RadioWest interview) that the wickedness or hardheartedness of members of Christ’s church can truly shut up the windows of Heaven and prevent revelations from happening, against God’s objections. In other words, our free will is so powerful that God simply cannot override it.
So people espousing this line of thinking might be likely to say that God had to wait for the conditions to be perfect: he needed the Reformers to challenge the monolith of the Roman Catholic Church by breaking away and bringing the Bible to the people, then he needed some of those people to sail across the world to a safe place, then he needed them to found a nation based on religious liberty, then he needed to place the Smith family in just the right spot, etc.
However, there are a number of objections that could be raised at this point. First, God didn’t seem to need such perfect conditions to call prophets in the past – Micah, Enoch, Isaiah, Moses, John the Baptist, and even Jesus were certainly not born in nations with religious liberty after 1000 years of political negotiation and Reformations, etc. God raised them up in settings that were downright hostile to begin with, and many lost their lives. But it seemed that God still felt it was worth it to raise up these prophets, even when their efforts seemed wasted. During the Great Apostasy, there were no prophets bringing back priesthood at all.
As I read Jacob 5:47 in the Book of Mormon, I have reflected often on the line: “But what could I have done more in my vineyard?” This Lord of the Vineyard worked as hard as he could over many seasons to bring as much good fruit as he could out of his trees, and lamented that despite his best efforts, bad fruit was abundant. Is a God who doesn’t call a prophet for 1700 years doing as much as he can? Must he really work in such subtle, backdoor ways that it takes 1700 years and millions of souls to get things working perfectly?
Compare this to a hypothetical timeline where God calls a prophet every 100 years, 17 times, no matter how difficult or hostile the situation. Say he calls Joseph Smith in 100 AD. Then, if he was killed, he could call another prophet in 200 AD. If that prophet was killed, why not call another in 300 AD? But maybe God didn’t want to see 17 prophets get killed. Maybe that’s too emotionally painful for God. This brings us to our second option.
2. God was unwilling to call a prophet before 1820.
Maybe there are various factors making God unwilling to call so many prophets. Maybe he hates seeing prophets wasted on the unwashed masses. Maybe he was so angry at those who killed the Apostles that he stormed off and sulked for 1700 years. Maybe it was to teach humanity a lesson (“that man of sin be revealed,” perhaps). Maybe he didn’t like the people who lived for those 1700 years. Maybe I’m not giving this option a fair shake, but to me it reduces God into a petulant child. I just don’t see why he would punish people in 200 AD for the sins of those in 50 AD.
A fairer notion might be simply that God had reasons for not calling any prophets or restoring the priesthood for 1700 years, we just don’t know what those reasons are.
But I really hate “mysterian” positions, as they seem to just be a major cop-out. Compared to a God who is both able and willing to keep a church together for 2000 years, providing all the full blessings of the Gospel to all those millions of people on at least three continents, the Mormon God just seems like he has “some explaining to do.” Was God Almighty, Creator of Heavens and Earth, so helpless, bound and gagged, that he was completely unable to prepare the Earth for a prophet for 1700 years? Or alternatively, was God Almighty, Creator of Heavens and Earth, so angry at people in the 1st Century that he’d really get so angry and storm off, causing millions of people over the next 16 centuries to be denied the full blessings of the Gospel in mortality? Is there some other alternative that I’m missing due to my own prejudices?
1700 years is a long time.