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Can God Change?

Does God change, or does God remain forever the same? A related question: Can God change his mind or his plan? Can God change his rules, or is everything that God decrees an expression of unchanging divine principle?

In one of his last sermons before his death, Joseph Smith issues a new doctrine that God was once a man who became God: “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea.” (Journal of Discourses 6:3) Here in this sermon is where the central LDS doctrine of eternal progression gets its start (,_etc.).

Like his ancestors before him, the LDS God starts out as a human being, becomes God, and is now in the process of becoming an even greater being. That’s change, on steroids! Not even today’s process theology proposes such radical change for God.

The LDS God is also very capable of changing his mind on major issues. The best example is the 1978 revelation giving the priesthood to all worthy male Africans, to whom priesthood status had been denied ever since 1836, when Elijah Abel was ordained. (To clarify the significance here, all male members in good standing hold the LDS priesthood, not merely a select few.)

The reason blacks were denied the priesthood is because they were cursed because they had not been worthy in the pre-mortal spirit world. Brigham Young even declared that interracial marriage with blacks was a capital crime: “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This shall always be so.” (Journal of Discourses 10:110)

(Here we see the courage of the late prophet Thomas Monson. After the 1978 revelation that decriminalized African descent, Monson, who was an apostle at the time, was the first official who dared to perform an interracial temple marriage. The 1978 statement did not explicitly set aside the words of Brigham Young.)

How can such extraordinary change take place? The LDS understanding is that the word of God’s living prophet at the moment (the functional equivalent of a Pope) supersedes all previous revelation, written or oral.

Apostle Bruce McConkie, a strong defender of the previous doctrine on blacks and the priesthood, totally changes his tune as soon as the revelation comes out (indeed, he helped write the new revelation). Shortly thereafter, he tells a public audience at BYU, “It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.” ( In other words, forget all that I ever wrote on the subject!

My problem with this approach is that we end up with a God who is always changing his mind about matters that ought to remain settled. God may issue a firm statement this year, but who knows what God will think next year? Who can rely on the word of such a God?

Bedrock principles do not change with time. Don’t tell me racism is wrong today but was OK with God in the days of Jim Crow, or that sex outside of marriage was wrong in the Victorian age but is right today. If racism is wrong today, it was always wrong, whether we acknowledged it or not. Don’t drag God into it, as if God can’t make decisions for all time on such matters.

Objection: Doesn’t God set aside the Law of Moses for Christians? And what about God’s seeming turnabout on eunuchs, who are forbidden to enter God’s sanctuary in Deuteronomy 23:1, but who receive a blessing from God for doing what is right in Isaiah 56:4-6?

Jesus is central to our answer to the question of God’s law. Jesus has harsh words for anyone who would relax even one tiny letter of God’s law (Matthew 5:17-19, Luke 16:17), yet according to Mark (7:19), he was implicitly “cleansing all foods” (i.e. setting aside the kosher food laws) when he declared that nothing that goes into a person can defile a person (Mark 7:14-23). In another radical move, Jesus says that God permitted divorce in the Law of Moses “because of your hardness of heart…but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8)

How can Jesus make such breathtaking pronouncements? Because Jesus is our authorized interpreter of God’s law. Being God in the flesh, he is uniquely qualified. This means that no one else is authorized to issue any such radical updates to God’s law. And because Jesus says that he came “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), Jesus makes all of the Hebrew sacrifices unnecessary, because he has already offered the ultimate sacrifice that takes away sin on the cross (Hebrews 9:23-26).

Isaiah’s declaration of God’s blessing on eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and do what pleases God does not throw out the ceremonial law on who is permitted to enter the Temple, any more than Jesus’ heart for the handicapped (Luke 14:13-14) sets aside the ceremonial laws about them (Leviticus 21:16-24). Isaiah 56 and Luke 14 merely clarify that God still loves these classes of people, and that the Temple ceremonial laws are not intended to convey otherwise.

Can God change his mind (= repent)? We are told that God “was sorry” (nicham) to have made the human race in Genesis 6:6, that God “was sorry” to have made Saul king (1 Samuel 15:11), and that God “changed his mind” about destroying Israel (Exodus 32:14) and Nineveh (Jonah 3:10 – all the same word). But the Bible also says that God is not a human being, that he should repent (same word – see Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29).

The same word can and does cover both meanings. Should we suppose that God did not know what would happen under Plan A, so God changes his mind to a better plan? As a Calvinist, I prefer to think that God’s mind does not change, but that God enacts first one course of action that God knows will be disastrous, then switches to a better course of action, purely by sovereign choice, to prove what would happen under Plan A.

Does the Calvinist solution sound complicated? To me, it sounds a lot better than the prospect that God keeps making bad decisions that have to be changed. How do you make a deal with a God who can’t be counted on to keep promises? If those promises were conditional, we can understand why they would be withdrawn, but not if they were mistaken planning on God’s part.

Having a God who can always change his mind and issue a new revelation may be convenient, but it’s not true to life. Having a God who is too much like us always leads to messy complications. How much better to have a God who does not change! (Malachi 3:6)