When it comes to describing the process by which prophets receive visions and experience encounters with Celestial visitors, Paul said it best:
“whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth”.
As the second installment of this series on properly judging revelation I will make the boldest assertion of this series: I believe that the vast majority of revelations we read about in scripture were not physical in an earthly sense. While I am certain that they were very real and concrete in one sense, I strongly suspect that if we had video recordings of these visitations and visions all we would see is a prophet alone.
In the body
The notable exception to this is the visitations of the resurrected Christ. Those were very physical in an earthly sense and the scriptures go to great lengths to make this fact clear. Christ ate their food with them and they handled and felt the marks on his resurrected body. The record leaves no room for question in those cases.
Out of the body
But what about all the other heavenly visitations and visions? With some there is no question that the vision the prophet received and recorded was what Jeffrey Giliam nervously described as “in their head”. Of course that phrase usually means false of fabricated and the visions in scripture were neither of those. They seem to be given as a sort of waking dream with the recipient perhaps being transported out of his or her body to another place or sphere in order to communicate with the Celestial beings. Here are some examples of that type of vision:
“The Vision” – also known as Section76
12 By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God-
19 And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.
The vision of Christ and reception of keys from Elijah and others in section 110
1 THE veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened
The vision in section 137
1 THE heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell
The vision by Joseph F. Smith in section 138
11 As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great
29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
Stephen’s vision of the Father and Son in Acts 7
56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
Paul’s vision of the third heaven in 2 Cor 12
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
There may be others but this shows that it is at least common for Celestial visions and visitations to be seen using “eyes of understanding” (as opposed to physical, mortal eyes) and for the recipient to suspect that he left his body for the vision.
Another likely “eyes of understanding” candidate
Moroni’s visits in 1823:
The popular picture in lesson manuals shows Joseph in his bed being awoken by Moroni. The problem with this picture is that it shows Joseph alone in his own room. This is, of course, laughable. Some or all of the family was surely in the room with him. Therefore it is no stretch to assume that the visits Joseph received from Moroni were through the same medium the later visits he received from Christ himself – through the eyes of his understanding being opened. If it was all physical then we have to explain why none of the other family members sleeping in the room woke up when the Celestial floodlight came on and a man they did not know spoke in full voice throughout most of that night. Further, when he had the same visitation the next day he says it was after he passed out climbing the fence. Sure, one could argue that God made them stay asleep, but it is unconvincing to me. God obviously is very fond of the “eyes of understanding” method so why should we assume he used another method in that case? What advantage would there have been if his normal method did the job?
I see no evidence why the First Vision would not fall into this category as well. In fact, the record indicates it is quite likely. Joseph says:
When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.
Perhaps the best cases for physical visits would be the notion that physical hands needed to be laid on the heads of Joseph and Oliver in order for them to receive the priesthood. This is decent evidence, but not necessarily convincing evidence to me. The History of the Church does say “It was the 15th day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger and baptized”. (HC 1:41) That seems fairly conclusive on the surface. The only caveat is that based on section 110 it appears that hands on physical mortal heads are not required to pass on keys and authority after all. Joseph makes it clear there that he had keys bestowed upon him in that section, which also requires the laying on of hands, yet Joseph also makes it clear that his visions in 110 were through the eyes of his understanding being opened. Perhaps in this other sphere/plane that they ended up in during the revelations the messengers lay hands on their heads. If we consider the revelation that Nephi had it seems entirely possible. What would prevent God from getting the job done as they were “out of the body” during the visitation?
I’m not saying this is how it happened, I just wonder if we have compelling reasons to not consider that option. (Maybe physical messengers were needed in only a few special instances or something?) I guess I question why physical hands are required to bestow one set of priesthood keys and not required to bestow others.
The physicality challenge
I know this assertion probably contradicts the assumptions most Mormons have held. If you think this theory of mine is wrong feel free to show me the error of my ways. Perhaps you feel (along with Jeffrey Giliam) that real revelation requires the use of physical, mortal eyeballs and mortal ears, etc. If I am missing relevant scriptures that support that theory please show me.
I am currently doubtful that anyone will have much luck with this challenge, though. (For one thing it would prove that God is prejudiced against the physically handicapped – the blind and deaf). In addition, I can’t see why mortal eyes would be useful to see and talk with beings that are “above the brightness of the Sun” to begin with. But I’m wrong often so if this is one of those cases please help me out.
If I am right it goes a long way to hamstring the complaints many have been making that the church today is nigh unto apostasy because we aren’t seeing angels with our own mortal eyes these days, etc.
I posit that heavenly angels were never historically seen with physical mortal eyes and that the problem we face is that we are looking in the wrong places for angels and visitations.