A friend of mine and I were discussing in the comments of a recent post whether or not the writers of the Gospels were entirely truthful in their accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. I suggested that they may have had motivation to embellish or distort the truth. My friend countered that Jesus' disciples did not gain personally for what they said and that his disciples all believed whatever he was teaching enough to be willing to die for them. Since they weren't benefitting personally, what motivation could they have had for saying the things they did other than that they were true?
In 2003 South Park aired an episode titled "All about the Mormons." (It's season 7, episode 12 if you want to watch; it is indeed quite hilarious.) The character Stan meets a Mormon family that has moved to town and learns about their beliefs. As they tell him the story of Joseph Smith, and as Smith's claims become more and more outrageous, they repeatedly respond to Stan's incredulity with, "Why would he make that up?" It's an argument I heard frequently growing up in the Church. It's true that Joseph Smith endured a lot of pain and difficulty because of the things that he taught. Why would he have chosen that kind of life if he knew that what he was saying wasn't true?
C. S. Lewis said, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell (from Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity)." LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland made a similar proposition about Joseph Smith: "Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase (from an address given in 1994)."
How often is anything ever that cut and dry, especially where human beings are concerned? (And before you jump in with, "But Jesus wasn't a mere human; he was God!" we have no evidence that he was God other than that he said he was and his followers believed he was, and he was neither the first nor the last person to convince people that he was God.) No human is either all good or all bad. This Bushian sort of all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us proposition seldom holds any validity in the real world.
I would venture that Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith were probably very much alike. Here my Mormon friends are saying, "Yes! Joseph Smith was very Christlike!" and my Protestant friends are saying, "How can you possibly put that charlatan in the same category as the Lord?!" Let me finish. Both were teaching something radical: Jesus, that he was God incarnate; Smith, that he had seen God and that he was a modern prophet of the same order of Moses. Both built on religious traditions already in existence: Jesus claimed he fulfilled the prophecies of Judaism; Smith claimed he was restoring ancient Christianity in its original and pure form. And while they both had devoted followers, they both also had just as many people who hated them. Indeed, both died for what they taught and who they claimed to be.
For reasons I didn't quite understand--because I found it absolutely suicidal to his argument--my friend also cited as examples the cults of David Koresh and Heaven's Gate.
You can believe in something strongly enough that you're willing to die for it, and still be dead wrong, pun intended.
My friend later explained that he was only trying to say that whatever Jesus taught, it must have been more radical than just "be nice" in order for the disciples believe it was worth dying for, though I still don't quite see how that's different. (Sorry, Patrik. I still like you! Feel free to comment if you feel like I'm misrepresenting what you were trying to say.)
Let's go back to the dichotomy proposed by Lewis and Holland: A good man wouldn't claim to be the Son of God --or a prophet--unless he actually was. If he was lying, then he was evil, and, supposedly, his only motivation could have been for personal monetary or political gain. We know this couldn't have been the motive for Christ nor Smith because neither was wealthy, and each gave up his life rather than back down from the cause.
I don't buy either of their claims. So what was his motive? Why would he make that up?
C. S. Lewis' statement has also been summarized thusly: Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Mark chapter 3 gives an account of Jesus' friends trying to "lay hold on him" because "he [was] beside himself (vs. 21)." In other words, they thought he needed some help. Later, when his mother comes for him, he doesn't receive her, but instead turns to his followers and declares that they are his family. (Charles Manson had a "family" too, remember.)
Margaret Toscano thinks we need to explore more middle ground possibilities for Joseph Smith as well. She says, "To me there are so many things in between the fraud and the completely truthful prophet that we haven't explored yet (from an interview given in 2006 for the PBS documentary The Mormons)." She also says, "[E]very religion, when it starts out, usually has a charismatic, chaotic stage, where in order to found a religion, you often have to have this kind of troubling, charismatic leader that later we have to cover over all the embarrassing things of a leader."
Dictionary.com defines the word "cult" as: "a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader." By that definition every religion begins as a cult. The only difference between a cult and a "legitimate" religion is that some cults catch on and stick around and others don't.
Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith weren't very different from any charismatic cult leader who has come along, except that what they taught struck a chord with a particularly large number of people and their followers grew until there were enough of them that they were no longer considered cults.
Why did they make that up? Well, the all-or-nothing statement is partially true, which is what makes it a particularly difficult conundrum from which to extract oneself. I grew up believing the argument that my religion was either all good or all bad, and I knew that there was some good, so I performed all sorts of intellectual acrobatics to rationalize the bad. Either a person is lying or he isn't, right? Well, yes, but human imperfections lead to a messy middle ground. He might be telling a partial truth. Perhaps he had a vision of some utopian society where he believed people would have happy, wonderful lives and because of his good intention, he was able to rationalize the deceptive means he needed to employ to achieve his vision, in which case he wouldn't have been "all bad." Maybe he was, as Richard Dawkins suggests in chapter 3 of The God Delusion, genuinely mistaken. Perhaps he had some kind of mystical experience (because I don't deny that those experiences occur, even though I don't think God is the explanation for them) which caused him to believe that what he was saying was true, and so even though he was technically lying, he wasn't being intentionally deceptive, and therefore, again, not "all bad." Maybe he suffered from megalomania.
There are many possible explanations, all of them more probable than a fatherless man rising from the dead or a farm boy translating an ancient record left in New York by Israelites who emigrated to America.