The primary goal of FreeThinking Ministries is to equip the church to engage the culture. In my opinion, no one is doing that better than MAVEN, an organization founded by Brett Kunkle focused on helping the next generation “know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty” (to learn more about MAVEN, click here). FreeThinking Ministries is also devoted to bringing rational discussions about Christianity to college campuses. In my opinion, no one is doing that better than Ratio Christi, which is Latin for “reason for Christ.” This organization can be found on college campuses all across the nation (to learn more about Ratio Christi click here).
I jumped at the opportunity when FreeThinking Ministries had the chance to partner with both Maven and Ratio Christi on a mission trip to Salt Lake City, Utah! I was asked to lead this expedition into the Rocky Mountains of Utah. I was asked to be what Brett Kunkle refers to as the “Field Guide.”
Here are a few highlights:
We kicked off the week Monday morning listening to Sandra Tanner, who is a great granddaughter of Brigham Young. One would think this would be a talk friendly to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but it was anything of the sort. Tanner is a proud “ex-Mormon” and founder of the Utah Lighthouse. She is down-to-earth and has a good grasp of apologetics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Tanner and her team are always willing to have deep conversations with anyone. I encourage folks to visit her website at utlm.org.
Since our desire was to get a “balanced view” of Mormonism, after listening to Brigham Young’s rebellious granddaughter we immediately departed to the Temple Square for the sole purpose of “fact-finding.” We did not want to presuppose that we “know it all.” Rather, we want to go to the source — the heart of LDS theology — and learn.
We instructed the team not to engage in debate or argumentation in this particular trip to the Temple Square. So, our team divided and over the course of the next few hours visited the Museum of Church History and Art, the Conference Center, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the Beehive House (Brigham Young’s home), and some of us viewed the Joseph Smith movie in their impressive theater.
For a “religious movie” it was well done. In fact, although I have reason to believe Joseph Smith was either confused (at best) or a con-man (at worst), this movie reeled me in and I found myself cheering for Smith! Imagine the impact it would make on one who does not know that Smith was a fraud.
After the movie, we went back to our host church where we met Rob and Tara Sivulka (JosephLied.com). Rob is a fellow Biola Eagle with an MA in Christian Apologetics. Tara is an ex-mormon and they provide a powerful 1-2 punch.
After breakfast, we hit the ground running with Bill McKeever of Mormon Research Ministries. He provided some great insights into LDS doctrine. Armed with some good teaching, we loaded the vans and left to the local university with the specific intent to start conversations. Most of the team split up and dispersed across the beautiful campus. When I was asked where I was going, I immediately replied: “The cosmology department!”
When asked why I was going to that specific department my answer was simple:
“University professors take science seriously. However, all the scientific data today — the same scientific data that Mormon cosmologists affirm — contradicts LDS doctrine. That is to say, LDS doctrine says that the universe did not begin to exist, science says otherwise!”
On a related note, LDS doctrine says that the universe created God (or multiple gods). Orthodox Christianity, however, affirms that God — a Maximally Great Being — created the universe. The latter is consistent with scientific data, the Latter-Day Saints, however, seem to be opposed to Big Bang Cosmology and the BGV theorem of 2003 which demonstrates a “mother of all beginnings.”
I discuss the evidence for this “mother of all beginnings” in this talk I recently gave with Frank Turek at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (btw: make sure to subscribe to the FreeThinking Ministries YouTube Channel)!
My colleague Glenn and I had in-depth conversations with two BYU cosmologists. Both scholars were also gentlemen and we thoroughly enjoyed our time together. After considering the Kalam Cosmological Argument, one of them admitted that science did seem to point to an ultimate supernatural, immaterial, space-less, timeless, beginning-less, uncaused, powerful, volitional mind who was the “First Mover” who caused and created the universe from nothing.
I asked him how he reconciled that with Mormon doctrine. He replied, “I think it’s compatible.” I responded: “Is it though?”
His colleague, however, seemed to see the problem and asserted that he did not think the scientific data necessarily implied that all matter began to exist. He claimed that “unorganized matter” could exist eternally without beginning, but that there would have to be an “Organizer” of this pre-existing unorganized matter.
I asked, “Where did this organizing mind come from?” I followed, “Is this intelligence co-eternal with matter?” I pointed out that this mind could not be something contingent upon organized matter since matter would have had yet to be organized. This intelligence could not have been comprised of “organized matter” if this mind were to have organized all matter. Since human bodies are made of “organized matter” the first “Organizer” could not be made of matter and could not have a body of flesh and bone, as Joseph Smith described God’s nature.
We left the Cosmology wing of the university with new friends and new things for them to consider. We were invited to come back the following day to continue this conversation with other scientists.
“Hump day” began by listening to a lecture from another member of the Mormon Research Ministries team, Aaron Shafovaloff. We were told that he was scheduled to engage a bright Mormon in debate that upcoming Friday. We listened to him as he passionately explained some of the problems in LDS doctrine — namely that they do not hold that salvation is by grace alone. For Mormons, it is by grace plus one’s good works that gets them the best God has to offer.
After Shafovaloff’s lecture we departed for Provo where our team could go door to door (which Mormons are used to) to engage people in conversation.
Glenn and I, however, returned to the campus to continue our discussions with the cosmologists. To our surprise, we ran into LGBTQ protest at the university. I told Glenn, “Our plans just changed!”
This was the last thing I expected to find on a Mormon campus! Indeed, this is a minority view of Mormons, but nearly 200 students were wearing their rainbow colors, chanting through megaphones, and even occasionally causing havoc! One large man left the LGBTQ march and physically assaulted another student. This occurred right in front of my face!
I had no idea why this was happening, but instinct took over and Glenn and I rushed to the scene to break up what was sure to get much worse. Fortunately, reason prevailed and no more violence occurred. Be that as it may, “F-bombs” and “middle fingers” were offered in abundance from the LGBTQ activist as he departed.
When I questioned the student who was attacked, he said that the activist was angry because he was wearing a shirt that said, “I LOVE POLYGAMY!” This young Mormon wore the shirt in hopes to start conversations with the protestors. He noted that they would probably be opposed to polygamy, but they are for “everything else.”
I asked the protestors if anyone wanted to have a rational conversation about these issues. Most of them, however, seemed content to shout through their megaphones: “LOVE IS LOVE… LOVE IS LOVE… LOVE IS LOVE!”
This was frustrating to say the least, but eventually a BYU student who was part of the LGBTQ protest spoke with us. This young lady really impressed me in that she was willing, contrary to the majority of her fellow marchers, to engage in a respectful conversation.
I began by making it clear that I am not a Mormon, but I just wanted to know how she logically reconciled her “gay rights activism” with LDS theology. I will never forget her response. She said that she was “on the ropes” with her faith and that she was having major doubts regarding the truth of Mormonism.
I immediately responded by quickly pointing out the evidence for the existence of God (much of which is supported by science) and the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. She was vaguely familiar with the latter. I noted, then, that “some flavor of Christianity” must be true. So, if she decided to leave the Mormon Church, she should not become an atheist. She should affirm “some flavor of Christianity.”
She agreed. I went on to ask her how she would logically reconcile her “LGBTQ activism” with her belief in “some flavor of Christianity.” She responded:
“Let’s start with the premise that all humans are intrinsically valuable.” I replied:
“No! Let’s not merely assume such a thing. Although I agree that all humans do possess intrinsic worth, let’s first discuss what logically grounds the fact that all humans possess objective and “unalienable rights” (affirmed by the Declaration of Independence) and exactly why every human is intrinsically valuable.”
She looked stunned. She was speechless. She did not seem to know how to respond. I then offered the following:
“If God created humanity on purpose and for a specific purpose, then there would be objective facts about humanity irrespective of the subjective opinions from humanity.”
She agreed. I continued:
“Thus, if God created humanity on purpose and for the specific purpose to always love all people, then it would be objectively wrong — missing the mark of the objective purpose of human existence — to act in a manner that is unloving to a fellow human.”
Again, she agreed. But she countered: “But how would we know?” I replied:
“God would have to provide some sort of revelation! Guess what — you and I both agree that He did provide this revelation through Jesus Christ! Jesus summed up the entire law into two simple and easy to remember commands: 1- Love God first! 2- Everybody love everybody (from your neighbors to your enemies)!”
She immediately shouted “YES!” and pointed to the crowd as they were chanting: “LOVE IS LOVE… LOVE IS LOVE… LOVE IS LOVE!” I replied:
“Actually, love is not love! The Greeks had seven different words for love because love does not always mean a romantic or sexual kind of love. After all, Ted Bundy LOVED kidnapping, raping, and murdering young women. I LOVE pizza, my neighbor, my enemies, my dog, my son, my sister, my parents, and my wife — but I have a much different kind of love for my wife!”
I explained that humans are commanded to love all people, but only to have sex with one person from the opposite biological gender.
I went on to say that I loved every single person in the LGBTQ rally and I desire the ultimate best for them. In fact, I said if anyone wanted to cause harm to any of them, that they would have to go through me! I explained that the biblical view — that evangelical Christians and Mormons both affirm — is that Jesus explained how marriage ought to look according to the objective purpose and design plan of the same Creator who grants intrinsic value along with objective and unalienable rights to all humans. According to Jesus’ own words in Mark 10:6-8, Jesus sums up God’s purpose, intent, and design plan for human marriage: ONE man, with ONE woman, becoming ONE flesh, for ONE lifetime.
I explained that if this was the objective purpose of human sexual relationships, then the protestors were “missing the mark” in an objective sense. I told her that when I “miss the mark” I appreciate it when people correct me. In fact, I consider it a loving gesture when others point out how I am missing the mark so that I can make corrections to my life.
She agreed that it is loving when people help others to “hit the mark” instead of miss it. I said that this is exactly what Christians are trying to communicate. She exclaimed that for the first time she understood why Mormons and Evangelicals both oppose the LGBTQ agenda, but that this was also based in love! We both agreed that these kinds of rational conversations were much better than yelling through megaphones.
My attention was turned back to the young man wearing the controversial shirt. He turned out to be a cosmology student! You can imagine where that conversation went. Glenn and I invited him to join us for a late lunch at the Hawaiian food joint in the cafeteria. We had a fantastic conversation ranging from cosmology, apologetics, theology, and politics. Needless to say, we became good friends. I look forward to more conversations with him in the future.
On our walk back to the van, Glenn told me that when I was having my conversations, he was having an amazing discussion of his own.
Glenn said that he conversed for nearly an hour with a young man who was having some struggles with his faith within the LDS church. He told Glenn that the primary issue that was bothering him was the nearly unbearable burden of good works. He told Glenn that he was a fan of CS Lewis and was drawn to Lewis’ take on Grace and works. Glenn asked him to elaborate and said that the young man proceeded to explain the gospel in a clear, concise way that left both of them deeply affected. They both promised to continue the conversation in the future.
Glenn and I both realized the importance of sharing apologetics for “Mere Christianity” with Mormons who are about to lose their faith (and there are many who are currently “on the ropes”). Most who reject Mormonism eventually throw the baby out with the bath water and become full-fledged atheists. Why get them to believe one lie for another?
Sharing evidence for God and the resurrection provides a “backstop” for the Mormon who is finding many reasons to reject Joseph Smith, but then falls into the TRUTH of Jesus Christ.
Later that evening I had the chance to meet with my former Pastor and great friend, Kevin Lund along with his wife, Mary. Kevin was one of the biggest influences for Christ in my life during my teens and twenties. He even officiated my wedding! Now he pastors a fantastic church in the Salt Lake area called “Risen Life.” It was good to catch up with dear friends.
The next morning Doris Hanson, of Shield and Refuge Ministry, talked to our team about the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. She knew it all too well — from experience! She told her story about how she escaped polygamy. When she ran away from her “family” she said she also ran away from any and all religion. Years later, she finally heard a clear explanation of the gospel and realized that she was lied to about God.
Now she has a loving relationship with the Creator of the Universe through Jesus Christ! She has devoted her life to helping others escape the atrocities of the polygamous sects common to Utah. To find out more about Doris Hanson and her ministry, click here.
After that we hit the road to Ephraim, Utah to meet with Chip Thompson. Chip is one of the most interesting and unique guys I have ever met. Not only is he somewhat of an archeologist in Israel, he has also devoted his life to ministry with Mormons on the fringe.
When he and his wife first moved to Ephraim, Utah several years ago they were basically the only Evangelical Christians. Most of the community was Mormon and the rest were atheists. They have somewhat of a miraculous story with God answering some “ridiculous” prayers that allowed them to open a coffee shop that is friendly to the gospel.
Now, this might seem odd because Mormon doctrine does not allow their members to drink coffee. Of course, they offer lots of good treats and drinks in addition to coffee, so those following the “Word of Wisdom” can do so in a welcoming environment and perhaps someone questioning the truth of LDS doctrine would be willing to hear a better alternative. This provides an open door for deeper conversation over coffee.
Today, there are over 200 evangelical Christians in this small community!
After indulging in a couple cups of afternoon iced caffeinated beverages, our team hit the campus of Snow College right across the street from the coffee shop. Glenn and I ran into a young lady who was about to depart on her Mormon mission. She was excited to tell people about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints! Needless to say, she was excited to talk to us.
As our long conversation came to a close I challenged her with a thought experiment:
Suppose I died today and opened my eyes on the other side of death being face to face with Jesus. If Jesus said, “Tim, you were wrong about the whole ‘Trinity thing’ and the Mormon church had it right. Will you take me as I am, love me in return, and follow me into the infinite future?
I answered my own question with a resounding “YES!” I then challenged her with the same question:
Suppose you died today and opened your eyes on the other side of death finding yourself face to face with Jesus. If Jesus said, “Dear child, you were wrong about the whole Joseph Smith being a prophet and the Mormon church has it wrong. I am the Second Person of the Trinity! Will you take me as I am, love me in return, and follow me into the infinite future?
The young woman exclaimed: “Of course, I just love Jesus!”
This was encouraging. I said, “I’ll tell ya what: you keep praying and asking Jesus to show you truth, and I’ll do the same.” We parted ways with a handshake.
During this time, Bobby and James, two guys from our team, helped a Mormon student on the campus grasp the truth about the gospel. This young man gave his life to Christ.
We then loaded our three vans and hit the road. It was full of deep philosophical conversations with an eventual stop to my favorite burger joint: In-N-Out Burger!
Our last full day began at the “Gospel Grace Church” in the SLC area pastored by a fellow Biola grad, Will Galkin. What really hit me is that he was pleading for knowledgeable evangelical Christians to move to Utah to start churches and other evangelical ministries.
He said we should feel convicted every time we drive by an evangelical church on the way to our home church. In Utah, this does not typically happen because there are so few evangelical churches.
I thought about all the great churches in Kearney, Nebraska (my home town). We jokingly refer to 39th Ave as the “Highway to Heaven” because there are so many thriving evangelical churches on that street. The Salt Lake City area, in contrast, is desperate for evangelical churches.
After Galkin’s talk we departed for Utah University. To my surprise, I met ZERO Mormons on this campus. Everyone I had conversations were atheists — and a former Mormons.
The cool thing about Utah is that it is an “apologist’s paradise!” Virtually everyone is either a Mormon or an atheist who used to be a part of the LDS church. Because of this, virtually everyone is both willing and excited to have theological conversations. Even the atheists were raised that way!
Although most are not used to having conversations with evangelical Christians equipped with philosophy, apologetics, and systematic theology, they are always willing to engage.
Our team set up a “Change My Mind” table and the topic was the reliability of the Bible. One young atheist came by to check us out and I shared the Kalam with him. Just as the cosmologists did earlier, he also affirmed that science did seem to point to an ultimate supernatural, immaterial, space-less, timeless, beginning-less, uncaused, powerful, volitional mind who was the “First Mover” who caused and created the universe from nothing, but exclaimed: “We cannot jump to the conclusion that this is God!”
I asked him: “What do you think we should call this ultimate supernatural, immaterial, space-less, timeless, beginning-less, uncaused, powerful, volitional mind who was the “First Mover” who caused and created the universe from nothing?”
He was silent.
I could not take the long and uncomfortable silence so I broke the silence and said: “Feel free to call this cause of the universe whatever you’d like, but a rose by any other name smells just as sweet.” I then pointed out that by leaving Mormonism for atheism, he left one form of materialism for another. I told him to give mono-theism a try!
Aaron Marshall runs a Ratio Christi group on the UU campus. We invited atheists to join us and I gave a presentation on the FreeThinking Argument Against Naturalism and connected it to the Kalam (See The Image of God). My former Biola roommate, now Dr. Ross Hickling of ShieldYourFaith.org, gave a lecture based upon his doctoral dissertation refuting the atheist Richard Carrier.
I thought our areas of specialty provided a powerful 1-2 punch for Christianity. It led to a fantastic Q&A.
Now it was time to depart to another college campus — Utah Valley University — for a DEBATE between Aaron Shofovaloff (an evangelical Christian) and Kwaku El (a Mormon). The topic: “Is Jesus Enough?”
The place was packed with every seat full and people standing against the walls. Although this was supposed to be a debate between Mormon doctrine and Evangelical Christian theology, the debate quickly — and surprisingly — turned into Mormonism vs Calvinism!
In an interesting turn of events, I found myself oddly “cheering” for the Mormon because he was making some really good points against Calvinism! Be that as it may, this was a red herring and not the topic of the debate. With that said, however, my friend Aaron (who happens to be a Calvinist), took the bait and went on to defend Calvinism instead of Christianity. This was a mistake that, in my opinion, cost Aaron the first round (“Ya done messed up A A Ron!”). With that said, Aaron had a very strong finish. Here’s how I scored this close debate:
Round 1: Kwaku
Round 2: Kwaku
Round 3: Aaron
I made sure to be the first in line at the mic during the Q&A to point out the philosophical difference between “predestination” and “causal determinism.”
I had a great conversation with Kwaku and his friends after the debate. I believe it is fair to say that we became friends. At the least, we are now Facebook friends!
The next morning we did one more devotional as a team, packed up, and got some lunch together as we parted ways. We all fell in love with Utah and the people who live there on this trip. I cannot wait to go back this fall.
If you would like to get training to have these conversations with Mormons and atheists make sure to contact Brett Kunkle’s MAVEN Immersive Experience. Click here to book a trip!
Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),