On March 6, 2020 Kwaku El and I debated on the topic of “Is Jesus Enough?” at Utah Valley University. Our subtopics were:
- Is salvation by faith alone?
- Was there a Great Apostasy?
- Are families forever?
Part 1 will of this review be a high-level overview of the debate and a response to Kwaku’s latest video wherein he depicts me as Hitler.
Part 2 will dive more into the content of the debate, with a focus on the topics we had agreed to cover.
Jesus is enough
I took pleasure in uplifting Jesus. Jesus is enough to justify, adopt, and seal his people by empty-handed faith. Enough to fully save a murderer on his deathbed. Enough to serve as our final and sufficient proxy. Enough to plant a kingdom and build a church protected and preserved until the final judgment. And enough to satisfy us forever in the highest sense in a broad forever-family of our siblings in Christ, as we worship and adore the Lamb. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12)
Terrorist deathbed conversion
Kwaku thinks it ridiculous that a life-long murderous terrorist could be saved with a genuine deathbed confession. But oh, how I glory in this! The gospel isn’t about someone being morally qualified. It’s about the blood of Jesus completely covering our sins. Even those of a mass murderer.
This is offensive to Kwaku for all the normal reasons Christians expect from non-believers. The gospel violates our fallen sense of what is fair. The empty-handed faith of a mass-murderer on his deathbed, trusting in Jesus as his final and sufficient proxy, is instantly forgiven and given eternal life. Not because he is worthy, but because Christ is worthy.
This doesn’t lessen the crime of murder. It elevates the value of the blood of Jesus. Murder is terrible, but Jesus is enough to cover the sin of murder. The cross satisfied the demands of justice. Jesus kept “celestial law” on our behalf.
Ted Bundy vs. Hindus?
In his recent video depicting me as Hitler, Kwaku represents me as thinking Ted Bundy (a murderer) to be a better person than Hindus (idolaters). Kwaku misunderstands the evangelical line of thinking. Both deserve hell. That Ted Bundy could get into heaven isn’t because his sin was somehow less severe, but because he had received the blood of Jesus. The blood of Jesus covers the sins of murder and idolatry.
The best-behaved sinner, not truly trusting Jesus, will go to hell. The worst-behaved sinner may be utterly forgiven and definitively transformed by empty-handed, weak faith in Christ. Jesus says to such a person, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Not stuck afterward in a lower kingdom that occasionally Jesus visits or just looks at from afar. But with Christ. Forever. So glorious.
Kwaku acts surprised when I say Anne Frank deserved to go to hell, that she was under condemnation and had a corrupt nature. He also claims I am anti-semitic for saying she was sent by God to hell (provided she never received the Messiah on earth).
Kwaku introduces Anne Frank as a lovely Jewish teenager. She was! But she was not righteous before God. She did not deserve to go to heaven. “None is righteous, no, not one… All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10, 23) Kwaku seems to think that she escaped the universal fallen condition that his own scripture teaches of (Mosiah 16:3).
Anne Frank had a dark side. She had a broken relationship with God. She needed the gospel. She needed forgiveness. This wasn’t because she was Jewish. It’s because she was a fallen human. Kwaku knows already that this is straightforward Christian theology that applies to everyone. Jesus himself told the Jews, “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) Construing this (coupled with or without any Christian idea of foreknowledge or predestination) as Hitler-supportive anti-semitism is ugly slander, and fellow Mormons should be embarrassed by his sensationalism.
Kwaku doesn’t think he or most others deserve actual hell
Kwaku writes to me, upset that I allegedly said (Kwaku’s paraphrase of me here): “You don’t want Anne Frank to be in Hell bc you don’t think you deserve hell.” (emphasis added) This is not what I said. Here are my words: “The real reason why Kwaku doesn’t think Anne Frank deserved to go to hell is that Kwaku doesn’t believe he deserves to go to hell.”
I don’t want anyone to go to hell. But everyone deserves to go there. Kwaku however doesn’t believe that human beings in general, including himself, deserve to go to what evangelicals call hell — compare this with Mormonism’s “outer darkness”. But this is the basis of Christianity. We all deserve to be eternally condemned in outer darkness. To say that Kwaku deserves to go to this hell — that he is corrupt — doesn’t put him in a special category of bad people.
Join the club, Kwaku. We all deserve outer darkness. Anne Frank deserved it too. That’s why we need the gospel. You need to know yourself lost in order to know your need for salvation.
Comparing heinous sins
The point was lost on Kwaku when I said that idolatry was qualitatively worse than a multitude of murders.
Consider another (less dramatic) scenario: A man curses his own mother. But he also curses a hundred strangers. Which is “worse”? Categorically considered, cursing one’s mother is much worse than cursing a stranger. It’s even qualitatively worse than cursing a hundred strangers. It doesn’t matter how much you multiply the latter, it will always categorically and qualitatively be different.
This idolatry vs. murder comparison works when you’re comparing the focal point of each sin. Idolatry more directly violates the greatest command (love God). On the face of it, murder violates the second greatest commandment (love neighbor). Murder takes the life of an innocent neighbor. Idolatry is worse than murder when murder is considered for its mere human-harming element. God is more important than one’s fellow neighbor.
Consider the ranking of the ten commandments. What comes first? “You shall have no other gods before me.” The second? “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”
Brigham Young’s abominable idolatry (i.e. teaching Adam-God, ancestry of gods, polygamous gods, different saviors for each cosmic region) is, in this line of comparative thinking, categorically worse than murder (murder considered here as a sin against man). And this idolatry wasn’t without quantitative impact: Brigham’s idolatry has been perpetuated in various forms throughout a false religion that leads millions to hell. Jesus said, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1)
Keeping idolatry in Biblical perspective
It’s tempting to think of idolatry in more superficial terms, like owning figurines of deities for the corner of your living room. Kwaku treats Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching as a mere interpretative mistake, like misreading a road sign, or clicking the wrong button in a multiple choice test.
But idolatry has a more substantial definition. Idolaters have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” (Romans 1:25) Idolatry settles for something less than the all-satisfying glory of the Most High. It represents God as something fundamentally different than what he is.
Israel defiled its own land with bloodshed. But what was its chief sin for which it was exiled? The “high places.” The Baals and Asherahs. Idolatry.
What is the root sin that humanity is guilty of in Romans 1, for which God hands people over to inordinate sexual passions? Idolatry.
What did God consider the greater evil, David’s murder of Uriah, or Jeroboam’s idolatry?
“You have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.” (1 Kings 14:9)
What is chiefly bad about murder?
Mormon missionaries are taught to refuse to baptize anyone who has committed murder. The rationale that Mormonism gives for the ultimate unforgiveability (maximal sense) of murder is that one can’t pay restitution for another man’s life. You can’t restore the victim.
Mormonism sees murder as unforgiveable not chiefly because it offends God or offends his glory, but chiefly because it irrevocably hurts another human being. This shows a man-centeredness instead of a God-centeredness.
God’s own rationale for capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 is that man is in the image of God. David was confronted by the prophet Nathan after murdering Uriah. David then confesses, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13) For this sin David confesses to God: “Against you, and you alone have I sinned!” (Psalm 51:4)
That is astounding! He had just violated Bathsheba and killed her husband. But against God alone he has sinned? Think on that. Murder is not ultimately wrong because it hurts people. It certainly does hurt people. But it is chiefly wrong because it sins against God himself.
The idolatry vs. murder comparison, while it works at some level, only goes so far. Why? Because murder itself is rooted in idolatry. How we treat people stems from how we think about God. If one murders they have deeper issues than just hatred of people. They have issues rooted in idolatry. Genocide itself results from idolatry. It is rooted in a rejection of God, which is the greater sin. Why is genocide so bad? Because it sins against the Lord.
On throwing Reformers and prophets under the bus
In the debate I said I was happy to throw Martin Luther and John Calvin under the bus where they contradict Biblical theology or ethics. In his latest clip, Kwaku leaves that context out and includes the clip where I say I’m happy to treat Calvin and Luther like Kwaku treats Bruce McConkie and Brigham Young. Kwaku then says he likes Bruce McConkie and Brigham Young. This gives the impression that I approve of Luther or Calvin at their worst sins.
But this isn’t true. It wasn’t the point. I wasn’t defending Luther or Calvin. The point is that Kwaku throws his own apostles and prophets under the bus when they teach things he disagrees with. Brigham Young taught horrific things about race. Kwaku throws Brigham under the bus for this, as he should. Martin Luther taught horrific things concerning the Jews. I throw Luther under the bus for this, as I should. I am to throw any Reformer under the bus when they stray from Scripture. We honor Luther for his contributions to the Reformation, but we kick him hard under the bus for his vile remarks against the Jews.
The difference is that I don’t sustain Calvin or Luther as prophets or apostles. I feel free, as I said in the debate, to throw all of Calvin, et al., under the bus if necessary. Kwaku was confused by this, which shows he profoundly misunderstands a Protestant’s relationship with the Protestant Reformers.
If my religion celebrated Luther as a prophet or apostle, then I’d have to change religions. As I repeatedly said: I wouldn’t want to be in a religion that has to throw its apostles and prophets under the bus. There is a higher standard of accountability prophets and apostles are held to. Evangelicals agree in principle with Mormons who say that the Lord would never permit a prophet “to lead you astray.” But this should apply to any true prophet’s teaching. If they are the real deal, you won’t need to throw them under the bus for what they teach. Mormonism has to kick — and kick hard — their own prophets and apostles under the bus for teachings they today find embarrassing or heretical or evil.
My fervor and forcefulness in preaching was ridiculed by Kwaku and his followers as mere “yelling” or “shouting”. But Kwaku acknowledged from the beginning that I was speaking in a way that didn’t fit his own religious tradition. He already knew my preaching from the prior debate. In both debates I preached in the presentations. This is moreso recognized in my own religious circles as exuberant passion.
A few friends suggested that I should have dialed it down for my particular audience. I resonate with this concern. My aim in preaching is clear, “brokenhearted boldness”, and I regret if I fell short of this. If I had to do it over again, I would cut more content and slow down. That would have given me more opportunity to show softness and kindness with the audience.
It is immature and culturally myopic of Kwaku and his followers to depict this as crazed anger. This passionate mode of speech has a rich historic evangelical tradition. Some of us preach at times like this to our own people, in our own churches. I am an evangelist at heart. I was pleading for your souls in a hearty, evangelical, urgent way.
The word of God, truth, lies, ultimacy, life, death, God, idolatry — this isn’t an interesting (push glasses up) intellectual game. It concerns transcendent reality and deserves blood-earnest passion, especially at a public debate with a false teacher about whether “Jesus is enough.”
To those who have complained that my high-volume closing remarks are still “ringing in your ears”: I was pleading with you to reject Joseph Smith and to not give up on Jesus. To gorge yourself on the words of Jesus. Let me trumpet that so you never forget it. Let me rattle you with a serious sense of severity and urgency. Now I invite you to have a gentle conversation with a local evangelical and let them water seeds that have been sown. Let them show you love in a relationship. This is much of what evangelicals do in evangelism. You are deeply loved.
Invitation to talk
I am happy to have a video conference with you where we can have a friendly, gentle conversation. After the Coronavirus season, I’d also be happy to take you out for breakfast (my wife joining us, if needed) in the Salt Lake Valley or Utah Valley. I’d love to give you a book and hear your thoughts, complaints, and questions out. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kwaku’s convenient edit
In Kwaku’s upload of the video, he leaves out the very last part where I invited Mormons to sit down for a gentle conversation, and where I explained the reason why the debate context itself wasn’t appropriate for gentleness. This was cut. He chose rather to end with his dig at me.
A regretful moment
Kwaku asked me if I thought God had predestined the Mormons in the audience to be Mormons. I then turned to the crowd and said I thought many of them would be burned over by Mormonism in 10 years, and wouldn’t be Mormon anymore. That I would be trying to share the gospel with them as ex-Mormons someday.
I wish here I had used the opportunity to speak with more tenderness and compassion. I continued the bold force I was otherwise using and turned it at the crowd for a moment. I regret that. I had in mind Mormonism’s “scorched earth policy” and all my wounded ex-Mormon friends in Utah who have been grievously lied to by Mormonism. Heavy. But I know in my conscience that it was not a suitable moment for my harsh tone, and I failed here to speak empathetically.
Apology for premature interruption
Not many are familiar (or comfortable) with the intense format of cross-examination, and the general freedom a questioner has to quickly move onto the next question. There is a quick judgment call one makes as to whether one’s debate partner is refusing to answer or hedging. It doesn’t have the normal niceties of a polite living room conversation. That’s OK. But in my amped-up, rapid, forceful series of questions in round 1 (particularly with the question about Psalm 51:1), I prematurely cut Kwaku off a few times — that was rude. I apologize for that, Kwaku. Please forgive me. The moderator was right to push back on me for this.
The false pretense of agreed-upon topics
I came prepared to talk about the topics we actually agreed upon. That was the structure and nature of the debate. This had a social contract built into it: we were to prepare for and at least generally focus on our topics at hand. Kwaku violated this social contract and used nearly the entire time of his presentations and cross-examinations for parts 1 & 2 to talk about predestination and the sins of Protestant Reformers. We already had a previous debate (May 11, 2018) wherein we focused for a time on predestination. These aren’t off-limits topics. They certainly could have been mentioned. But they weren’t the advertised focal point of this debate.
If Kwaku really wanted to mainly focus on predestination and the sins of Protesant Reformers, then he should have proposed it overtly as an intended topic. This way the debate could have been advertised and prepared for accordingly. We really could have unpacked those topics, defined our terms, and explained our distinctions. Reframing the debate was disrespectful of Kwaku to the audience, to the sponsor, to those that helped advertised on campus, and to me. Kwaku agreed to this debate under false pretenses.
On “ordained” history
There is seemingly a definitional misunderstanding over the word “ordain.” Mormons use it to refer to either ceremonial ordination or moral prescription, but never to a divine decree that something in history should certainly come to pass.
When I say God predestines and ordains things that he hates, I am saying that God has a mysterious way of rendering events certain and inevitable, yet morally condemns anything evil that happens in such events. He condemns murder, yet he “predestined” the cross (Acts 4:27-28), the most dramatic murder in all of human history. The cross was rendered inevitable. He “sent” the Assyrians against Israel, and then punished the Assyrians. Through Nathan God tells David, “I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.” (2 Samuel 12:11) He does this without coercing or tempting anyone (James 1:13).
How does this ultimately work? I don’t know. But I maintain the distinctions of primary and secondary causes (more on that below). God created everything in its pristine, good, sinless condition. Any evil that follows is another’s distortion of the goodness of his created order.
Whatever happens in history was ultimately a part of the plan. Nothing is a surprise to God. Nothing is plan B. If it happened, God *ultimately* intended for it to happen. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20) We can trust his wisdom and goodness in that.
Is God the author of evil?
I don’t believe that God is the creator, author, or origin of evil. Here’s how one moment went down. Kwaku: “If God ordained things that are bad, is God then the father of sin?” Aaron: “He’s not the father of the sin [mumble here] he’s the morally culpable origin. God has a way of being the…” Kwaku: “God is the origin of sin?” Aaron: “He can be the primary cause of all things without being morally culpable for secondary causes.”
I was told we only had seconds to finish this out, so my lips were racing against the clock. A sympathetic listener will see I already corrected my verbal gaffe in the next sentence with the primary/secondary cause distinction. But perhaps hostile listeners won’t pick up on it. Here is what I meant: “He’s not father of the sin [in the sense that] he’s the morally culpable origin… He can be the primary cause of all things without being morally culpable for secondary causes.”
I wrote to Kwaku to explain this gaffe on my part, but he nonetheless then exploited it for his gain. This is a petty form of a “gotchya.” For those that care to know what I meant, here is the language from the Westminster Confession I was alluding to:
“God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass, (Eph 1:11; Rom 11:33; Hbr 6:17; Rom 9:15; Rom 9:18): yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, (Jam 1:13; Jam 1:17; 1Jo 1:5); nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established, (Acts 2:23; Matthew 17:12; Act 4:27-28; John 19:11; Proverbs 16:33).”Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 3
Mormonism’s broad rejection of Christian theodicy
Mormonism tries to exempt God from the “problem of evil” by:
1) Denying that God truly created any individual “intelligences” (persons), i.e. moral agents capable of evil.
2) By suggesting that evil was a reality before God reached his own exaltation. Or even that evil is eternal.
3) By denying that God knows the definite future (particularly what humans will choose).*
This last point is called “open theism” and is found among Mormon scholars, apologists, or those dabbling in philosophy. It has an asterisk because it is not a mainstream LDS position. There is a huge disconnect between lay Mormons (who simply assume God knows the future) and other Mormons who (often quietly) jettison the whole idea of definite divine foreknowledge.
Kwaku elsewhere has favored open theism. He attacks Calvinism, but in reality he seems to oppose any theistic worldview that affirms God’s definite divine foreknowledge and creation ex nihilo. Any such worldview is incriminated by him as making God the author of sin. For God to knowingly create anyone who will inevitably be damned for sin is seen by him as anathema.
In every major stream of Christian thought (Arminian, Molonist, Calvinist) God purposely creates some people ex nihilo that he knows will ultimately and inevitably be damned for what they do in this life. Judas is a classic example. “It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). If Kwaku thinks this makes one a Nazi-minded anti-Semite (since this includes God knowingly creating Jews that he knows will inevitably never receive the Messiah), then (as he has done to me in his latest video) he might as well Photoshop Hitler-mustaches on all evangelicals.
Three strategic mistakes
My mode of speech was to respond to hard questions with bold, unapologetic, unembarrassed, straightforward answers. Three regrettable strategic mistakes on my part:
1) I should have declined to go far down Kwaku’s off-topic trails. This would have respected our sponsor, our audience, and all those that helped advertise the debate. Sorry, friends.
2) At least for parts 1 and 2, Kwaku wasn’t interested in unpacking the actual topics of the debate. He was going for sound bites. I should have fleshed out my short answers more and not played his game.
3) I should have explained why an evangelical might (provisionally) assume someone like Anne Frank or Mother Theresa is in hell. It needs theological context. There’s no ax to grind against either.
Drawing Aaron with a Hitler-mustache
Kwaku showed up to the debate 30 minutes late with ~300 people waiting. He made personal attacks on me into the first minute of his first presentation. He didn’t genuinely focus on (or evidently prepare for) 2 of the 3 actual topics we had agreed to address. He told us Protestants that we were a few steps away from becoming fans of mass murder, the holocaust, and American slavery. Afterward, he uploaded the debate video (using footage we courteously provided to him), cutting out my final remarks, and attaching a dishonorable, degrading thumbnail. Then he claimed that I didn’t really want the video up because I made “anti-semitic… remarks.” (Remember: I threw Luther under the bus during the debate for his anti-semitic remarks.) Then he uploaded a clip which Photoshopped me with a Hitler mustache and interspersed it with Nazi clips and Nazi background music. He then messaged me on Facebook and said I needed “therapy”, and that I was “mentally, and socially unhinged.”
This reminds me of a comment he made toward evangelicals last June:
“Every single person I know who once had a testimony of the restored gospel who has gone into this right wing evangelical Calvinistic Christianity is miserable. They have poor mental health. They’re depressed. And they’re sad. Every single one of them… You cannot worship that [God] and be mentally stable… If you think Anne Frank is being tortured [in hell], you need therapy.” (June 25, 2019, “Talking to Anti-Mormons at the Manti Pageant”, 18m30s)
At such slander my ex-Mormon evangelical friends (of all sorts) joyfully smile.
I have a lot of good Latter-day Saint friends, and Kwaku’s behavior doesn’t represent the best in them that I know. Kwaku and I will undoubtedly vigorously oppose each other over our respective messages and ministries. I overtly oppose him as a false teacher and a bad influence who is contemptuous of Christians trying to reach Latter-day Saints. But even as we criticize each other I still would expect basic civility, common neighborly courtesy, and apologies where either party falls short in that regard.
Theology: Not a silly game
Kwaku complains, “I felt this entire debate was a sham on your part to ‘save the Mormons live at a debate.'” Kwaku, I am an evangelical Christian pastor. I am an evangelist. As I addressed the topics we agreed to, I preached my heart out at social cost, structuring my arguments, preparing my material, appealing to the authority of Scripture, and overtly warning of Joseph Smith’s errors. I lifted up the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ in salvation by faith, in preserving his church, and in providing a forever-family that is even better than marriage. I pled with Mormons, laboring, begging them not to throw Jesus out as they someday leave Mormonism.
This wasn’t a game to me. This was a YouTube stunt to you. Kwaku, repent of all this madness. A beginning moment of genuine, empty-handed faith alongside broken-hearted repentance would bring you instant forgiveness. You might also be surprised at how quickly the Christians you have been nasty to, including me, are willing to forgive you and call for a clean slate going forward.
“You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word… My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words… I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.” (Psalm 119:114, 139, 162)
“Let God be true though every one were a liar.” (Romans 3:4)
Part 2 will dive more into the content of the debate, with a focus on the topics we had agreed to cover.