Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

"And Their Numbers Were Few"

"And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few...." - 1 Nephi 14:12

Here's a common question that LDS members have probably heard and have probably asked for themselves: if the Church is true, why are our numbers so few? How can the vehicle that is meant to bless the world be such a tiny, inconspicuous speck? And for those of you born into the Church, here's a corollary: What are the odds that out of all the religions on earth, I was actually born into the "true church" when it has far less than 1% of the earth's population? If God intends to bless the whole world through the Church, the stats are not especially overwhelming. Not quite 15 million people in a world of 7 billion: we need to reach 70 million members just to get up to 1%.

These are fair questions. If you're a member of the Church, you are among a very tiny fraction of the earth's inhabitants. What are the chances of that, if you think about it? Well, if you're a member of the Church, the odds are actually 100%. Something highly improbable has happened: you're a member, congratulations! But some people do the math and conclude that given how small our membership is, it is hopelessly improbably that this is the Church that God has created in the last days. And so they walk away from the pearl of great price before them and the precious opportunity they had to live and share the Gospel, just adding to the numbers problem with the subtraction of their faith.

The improbabilities really start to multiply when you look at the big picture of human life on planet earth. This planet, so perfect for our needs, is wildly improbable. But it's the universe itself that stirs me with improbable wonder. It is so improbable that the fundamental forces of nature could be so fine tuned as to allow a universe to exist that isn't all black holes or scattered dust, in which stars can exist with orbiting planets, where the wonders of the water molecule and the carbon atom can even be found. Even if we take the existence of an Omniscient God for granted, I am honestly astounded and delighted, of course, that a solution was even possible, that within the parameters governing space and matter, a combination could be found that would allow all this, the glories of the cosmos and of life on planet earth, to even be creatable. It is so improbable! Yet here we are, in this spectacular mortal journey, able to choose and think and love, and able to be tempted to disregard it all and walk away from the even greater wonders prepared for us in the future.

The numbers problem gets worse when you think about the scope of history. Why are we so lucky to have been born after Christ came, and to have heard about Him and hear His message? Christianity, by the way, is a minority religion, if numbers worry you, and was especially so when Christ began His ministry. A whole planet of people, yet in only one microscopic spot of real estate in Palestine was He sent to bring His message--as far as we know from the New Testament. We get significant added hope from the Book of Mormon, where we learn that Christ also ministered to other parts of the world, including another tiny peace of real estate in the New World, and where we learn that God has spoken to other parts of scattered Israel whose records we do not yet have. However, even multiplying these brief moments of divine contact with humanity several fold still leaves billions who lived and died without ever hearing of Jesus Christ and the beauty of His Gospel. What of them? And why among the vast concourses of humanity are we few so lucky?

But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, small as it is, also has the best solution (IMHO) to this conundrum: a loving God and a majestic Messiah who will ensure that each soul, whenever and wherever born, will have a fair chance to hear and possibly accept the blessings of the Gospel thanks to the ministry to those who have died (see, for example, my LDSFAQ page on Baptism for the Dead). Fairness to all. The ability to hear and accept the Gospel and even receive the blessings of baptism (eventually) and all other blessings of the Gospel. Amazing. Wonderful. For now, our numbers are small, but there are many in our midst who will hear and accept the message. Sooner is better, though, so don't clam up and don't give up in sharing our message. It will bless the world and will much more fully fill the world, though the real numbers will come much later.

Improbable? Certainly. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in spite of the odds, is true. He is the Improbable Messiah, with 100% certainty.

19 comments:

Manda said...

Thanks for the post; you made me think, and I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

This looks like a job for the Rev. Bayes. (Please don't take these calculations too seriously. I clearly have too much time on my hands.)

The probability that if I'd be born into the LDS church that the church is true {P(T/B)} equals the probability that if the LDS church is true that I'd be born into it {P(B/T)} times the probability that the LDS church is true {P(T)} divided by the probability that I'd be born into the LDS church {P(B)}. Number of estimated world sects is 3200, so from an outsider's POV, P(T) is 1/3200 (assuming that one of them must be true, which is questionable). P(B) is about 14000000/7023000000. The value of P(B/T) is anyone's guess, but it has to be less than or equal to one. So P(T/B) is less than or equal to 0.15. Hmm. So there is a chance.

The interesting thing here is that as P(B) increases, P(T/B) goes down. So P(T/B) is higher if the church is smaller.

Anonymous said...

You're wasting your time, Anonymous. The probability that the Church is true is exactly 100%, because I have a testimony. The rest is irrelevant.

Zerabp said...

Very inspirational post thank you as usual Jeff.

Openminded said...

Universalism is a lot more fair than pretending people all have a fair shot at learning Mormonism and finding it reasonable in their life time.

People grow up with different values and religions and political landscapes, the odds are unfairly stacked against the much-less fortunate. Or is Mormonism going to be the only belief system allowed during the Mormon's version of the Restoration?

Because if not, then you'll be up against other religions who think praying for answers and feeling the spirit justifies their own version of what's on the other side

Alexander said...

@ Openminded:

Who says EVERYONE has to find Mormonism reasonable DURING their lifetime?

Mormons don't say that. Read up on LDS doctrines concerning the Spirit World.

Anonymous said...

You want improbable? How about Joseph Smith being able to convince multiple witnesses to testify that they had seen an angel and/or seen and touched the gold plates, and stay true to that testimony to death even when it would have been to their advantage to recant. Highly improbable if it were all a fraud.

weston krogstadt said...

I think similar thoughts when I read that scripture. Thanks for posting

Paul said...

@Alexander

Baptism for the dead cannot possibly be performed for all the people who've ever lived (currently estimated at around 100 billion) by the very few members of the Church, even if there were good quality records for all of them, which there certainly aren't.

What will happen to them then?

Paul said...

Anonymous said:
You want improbable? How about Joseph Smith being able to convince multiple witnesses to testify that they had seen an angel and/or seen and touched the gold plates, and stay true to that testimony to death even when it would have been to their advantage to recant. Highly improbable if it were all a fraud.

Here's improbable:

- That, membership-wise, the One True Church has so few members. You'd think that the Lord's church would be more successful, since the Lord doesn't fail.
- God the Father and the Son appearing in body to JS.
- Golden plates (coincidentally) buried in the hill close to his house.
- An angel bodily appearing to JS multiple times.
- Lamanites descending from Israelites given DNA evidence.
- All the improbabilities in the Book of Mormon, vast battles without a trace, no steel weapons found, etc., etc.
- JS *happens* upon a papyrus written by the hand of Abraham, and is able to translate it, providing key, unique doctrines to the church
- The Book of Mormon translation comes with large portions quoted nearly verbatim from the KJV bible.
- The inspired temple ceremonies coincidentally similar to the Scottish Rite Masonic rituals.
- That three Nephites still roam the earth..

So many others..

Openminded said...

Alexander,
I mistook the Restoration for the Spirit World. Not sure how I missed that part. Before I repeat my argument with the correction, I'll have you know it still stands even without the spirit world. Your church doesn't baptize the Jewish holocaust victims. anyways:

...Or is Mormonism going to be the only belief system allowed during the Mormon's version of the [Spirit World]?

Because if not, then you'll be up against other religions who think praying for answers and feeling the spirit justifies their own version of what's on the other side

Openminded said...

Anon,
Be careful there. Your standards would put Islam on the same level of Mormonism, with all that the founder convinced his people of.

And that of many of the religions that sprung up during the 2nd Great Awakening.

Do you really think Mormonism is unique for being improbable? Or even true because of it? You're touching something you have no idea about, here

Anonymous said...

I trust everyone here has heard of the fallacy known as argumentum ad populum. The number of people who drink any given flavor of Kool-Aid has nothing to do with the truth of that Kool-Aid, whether it's Islam, Mormonism, or supply-side economics. Whether wielded by pro-Mormons or anti-Mormons, such arguments are just silly.

In response to some of the comments above about the Church's ultimate hegemony: Christianity generally and LDS doctrine in particular have long struck me as essentially anti-democratic. By this I mean specifically that they see liberal democracy not as a good in itself, but as a mere stepping-stone enabling the eventual supremacy of their own worldview, and the eventual instantiation of that worldview in a theocratic government.

The end result is a world of believers, for believers. Sometimes this vision is expressed in ways that are horrific (read, for example, Glorious Appearing, the last of the Left Behind series, in which a returning Jesus, with a dispatch that would make Hitler jealous, kills off all the Jews who have not converted to Christianity).

Fortunately, Mormon theology is much gentler. The LDS vision still seems to see unity of religious belief as an ultimate good, but rather than achieving that unity by forcefully segregating believers into Heaven and nonbelievers into Hell in one violent, irrevocable stroke, we see instead a long-running effort at peaceable persuasion that (thanks to vicarious baptism) continues after death and into eternity.

It's a much nicer way to get to the same endpoint: a theocratic world in which everyone believes in the same religion. It's a nonviolent vision that values persuasion over force, but it is nonetheless illiberal in that it sees the ultimate good in unity rather than diversity of belief.

It's a little weird, really. LDS theology sees things like marriage and family continuing into eternity, and it sees that continuation as a selling point, because it sees marriage and family as such good things in themselves.

But it doesn't seem to envision an eternity of theological debate over the Big Questions, for the simple reason that it doesn't see such debate as a good thing in itself. It sees such debate as instrumental, as a good thing only insofar as it leads eventually to Ultimate Truth, which of course it claims to already know. (Of course the LDS Church is hardly alone in this.)

-- Eveningsun

Paul said...

Eveningsun,

Of course you're right about argumentum ad populum, the appeal to popularity, being a rhetorical fallacy, that the popularity of a belief has nothing to do with its truth.

However, it's not silly to refer to it in this case and here's why. Popularity must correlate to some degree with truth in the case of 'One True' faiths believing in a benevolent, omnipotent and intervening God working for salvation of all humankind.

By 'One True' faiths, I mean faiths claiming the sole means to salvation.

At the very least, such a God should ensure that all people were sufficiently informed about a faith to accept or reject it. There must be at least a minimum number of adherents in the world to even make this possible.

This, of course, is related to the more general Problem of Evil and more specifically to the Fate of the Unlearned.

Specifically, there is a missing piece here connecting LDS Truth and how many people believe it:

D&C 65:2: The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.

That is, if the LDS gospel does not fill the earth, this prophecy is not fulfilled, therefore casting doubt on its Truth.

The LDS have always seen the Gospel on an epic scale, marching across the west, spreading the faith to the world, filling it up, baptizing all the dead, preparing it until the time Christ returns to rule an LDS theocracy for a thousand years.

If this vision fails to materialize due to a low number of adherents, it does say something about the truth of LDS prophecies.

Anonymous said...

If Barbra Walters is getting into heaven, according to our own general authority, then we're clearly saying Mormons aren't the only ones there in the spirit world.

Mark Steele

Mike Osborne said...

From an earthly perspective our numbers are few, but with an expanded perspective that is not the case. In 2011, 32 million Temple endowments were performed. Based on the number of operating Temples during this dispensation, over 800 million of our kindred dead have had the opportunity to become members. Assuming 50% males, that means that potentially there are 400 million priesthood holders, plus those that have passed on in this dispensation, inhabitants of the city of Enoch, and so on. Where once satanic spirits could roam the earth freely, they now have to deal with numerous blocking Melchizedek holding spirits. I view it as a push pull interaction. For decades, we had to push both membership and Temple expansion, but we are now entering a period of being pulled along....

Anonymous said...

Their numbers are few for many reasons. But mostly because it isn't a true church. Perform all the mental gymnastics you like. In the end, it isn't true and someday you'll see. You should be furious your leaders are carrying on with this scam.

weston krogstadt said...

You know what, I am FURIOUS my leaders are carrying on with this SCAM! In reality, I love the restored gospel, I love it with ALL my heart. It is Oh so true.

Ormsby Family said...

Let's see... "Fill the whole earth." Now what might that mean? Not necessarily that every person joins the LDS Church, since we know that in the Millennium not everyone will be members. I believe it means that the presence of the church will be felt everywhere. In what respect, however, I do not know.

And in answer to "Anonymous", with all due respect, your assertions are as ambiguous as your nom de plume. Perform all the mental gymnastics you like. In the end,truth will prevail and we will be happy to teach you what you will need to know.