Joseph had a "revelation of Jesus Christ" in Section 84 of Doctrine and Covenants where Jesus said in verses 21 and 22 that no man can see the face of the Father and live unless he has the Priesthood. Joseph didn't receive the Priesthood until 1829, yet he said that he saw both the Father and the Son in 1820. Where is the error--in Section 84 or in Joseph's story of the Vision? (Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism, Rev. & Enlarged Ed., [Regal Books, Ventura, CA:1978], P. 316.)
Response: by Stanley D. Barker
Can a Man See the Face of God and Live?
This question appears to present a straight forward contradiction. However, when examined closely, the difficulty disappears.
George Reynolds, in discussing this issue in 1902, stated:
And again, in September, 1832, speaking regarding the Priesthood, the Lord says:
And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. 'Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. 'And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live. Doc. And Cov. 84:19-22.'
Thus we find that it is not true that no man has at any time seen God, but many who truly believed, many who had the light and the hope of immortality dwelling in them, who did not give way to sin, had the privilege of seeing God, of talking with Him face to face, or hearing His voice, and in other ways were blessed with His presence, exactly as the Scriptures record, historically confirming the promise of Jesus, 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God."1
Of course this question did not originate with Bob Witte. In the October 1880 General Conference of the church, Orson Pratt said:
"No man without the Priesthood, can behold the face of the Father and live."
Now, this has troubled the minds of some of the Latter-day Saints. "How is it, (say they) that Joseph lived, after having seen the face of the Father, after having heard the words of His mouth, after the Father had said unto him, 'He is my beloved Son, hear ye him'."2
It appears this question had been asked as early as 1880 and had caused enough concern to warrant an explanation during a General Conference of the Church.
The Lord made it a requirement, at the time he gave this revelation, that a man must hold the priesthood and have received its ordinances in order to see God. The Lord said: "this revelation...is in force from this very hour upon all the world..."3 This would mean that prior to this revelation, neither the priesthood nor its ordinances were necessary for a man to see the face of God and live. When Joseph Smith went into the grove to pray, he had not been ordained to the priesthood by someone on the earth, neither had he received any of the ordinances. When the two personages appeared they forgave him of his sins, making it possible for Joseph to see the face of God and live.4
In 1966 Joseph Fielding Smith had this to say:
If you will look at the date of this revelation, you will discover that it was given in September 1832, which was two years after the organization of the Church and several years after the appearance of the Father and the Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Therefore, permit me to emphasize this fact: There is no law or commandment which declares that the Father could not appear to a man in person when the Holy Priesthood was not among men on the earth. In this day when the divine authority is here and men are appointed to officiate in its ordinances, there is no occasion for the Father to come to any man who has no divine authority. At a time when the priesthood is conferred, and there are authorized servants who bear divine authority, there could hardly arise a time when the Father and the Son should have occasion to appear to any man who was without that authority.5
There are also other scriptural passages which indicate a person must have qualities other than the priesthood to see God. The Doctrine & Covenants states: "No man hath seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God" (as quoted by George Reynolds above).6 Whether a man holds the priesthood or not, if he, or a woman, desired to see God, they would have to be quickened by the spirit of God before they could have that privilege.
Alma gave counsel concerning the need for humility in the following words:
Another aspect of seeing God is that a person must be pure and innocent. Joseph Smith taught that pure and innocent women who do not hold the Priesthood "...can come in[to] the presence of God; for what is more pleasing to God than innocence; you must be innocent, or you cannot come up before God; if we would come before God, we must keep ourselves pure, as He is pure"8
Jealousy, fear and pride also keep a person from seeing God. In November 1831, the Lord said to the elders:
...inasmuch as you strip yourselves from jealousies and fears, and humble yourselves before me, for ye are not sufficiently humble, the veil shall be rent and you shall see me and know that I am...9
In the Old Testament, Jehovah spoke to Moses and said: "Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live (Exodus 33:20). Prior to this statement in Exodus 24, we find: "Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God of Israel...and upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink." Moses also recorded that the Lord actually spoke unto him "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend" (Exodus 33:11).10
After all is said and done, we find several aspects to the subject of seeing God. No doubt today men must hold the priesthood to see God, but prior to the restoration of the Priesthood, this was not necessarily so. At the time of the First Vision, what was required to see God was humility, faith, and the spirit of God.11
Earliest known discussion:
2. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Salt Lake City, facsimile edition, 1966), 22:29. This discourse was delivered at General Conference, Sunday morning, October 10, 1880 in Salt Lake City, Utah, by Elder Orson Pratt at the request of President John Taylor.
3. Doctrine & Covenants 84:75. Joseph Smith, The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981). Hereafter cited as D&C.
4. Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1971) pp. 172, 159. There are also other accounts of the Lord forgiving the sins of individuals. (See D&C 29:3; 64:3; 110:5).
10. Peter S. Ruckman explains this anomaly in Peter S. Ruckman, Problem Texts, Pensacola Bible Institute Press, Pensacola, Florida, 1980 edition, pp. 81-83. In doing so he ignores Exodus 33:11 which is very clear in the KJV and NIV versions of the Bible that Moses spoke with the Lord "face to face." Mr. Ruckman argues that the person that Moses spoke to "face to face" was Jehovah (82-83) (emphasis mine). He explains this possibility by using modalism/sabellianism as his crutch (83).
11. There are many other sources in latter-day scripture which discuss the topic that man can see God, and there are several examples of individuals in our century who have seen him---Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lorenzo Snow, George Q. Cannon and others. An additional source of information on this subject may be found in Rodger S. Gunn, MORMONISM: Challenge and Defense, (Salt Lake City:Hawkes Publishing, Inc., 1973). See the subject "See God, Men," in the index, p. 532.