I stepped out of the bright sunshine into the cool interior of the visitors’ center at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, curious what I would find. I had the impression that the beliefs of Mormons differed in significant ways from the beliefs of Christians and was on the lookout for what these differences were. My eyes were immediately drawn to the huge photographs mounted on the walls of the visitors’ center. In vivid color, these beautiful pictures depicted scenes from the life of Christ. A pedestal in front of each huge scene captioned the picture with a Scripture verse from the Bible: the birth of Christ, His childhood, His discussion with the Jewish leaders in the temple, His miracles, His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, His crucifixion, His resurrection. Only the last pedestal contained something unfamiliar to me: a verse with a reference I didn’t recognize. The verse said nothing contrary to the timbre of the Christian Scriptures. I strolled around enjoying the beauty and truth. I had not anticipated this emphasis on the Bible and on Jesus in the Mormon mecca.

The familiar Biblical themes continued in the lower level of the visitors’ center. A timeline illustrated by wax figures and other visuals traced God’s revelations to people throughout Old Testament times. All of it was familiar, Biblical, true.

But then the timeline jumped forward to the nineteenth century, and everything turned weird. A man named Joseph Smith was receiving golden tablets from the angel Maroni. These tablets were revelations from God and set up the only “true church,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This church had left the earth in apostolic times and had only been reinstituted in the mid 1800s. Murals depicted Jesus’ appearing to Native Americans in a unique history revealed to Joseph Smith.

Outside again in the warm desert sunshine, the strange blend of the Biblical and the distorted continued. In a courtyard containing flowerbeds awash with color stood a couple strange statues: Joseph Smith receiving the Holy Ghost through an anointing by Peter, James and John (who appeared to him in bodily form) and Joseph Smith receiving the Aaronic priesthood!

As we strolled the courtyards surrounding the huge white temple, its spires gleaming white against the clear blue sky, we saw many pairs of Mormon lady missionaries mingling among the tourists. They were marked by their nametags, but their modest apparel and smiling faces also set them apart. They were eager to share their faith with anyone who would listen.

As we chatted with one of these missionaries, my smile could not match hers. She explained that only really dedicated Mormons could ever enter the temple. (She was one of these Mormons.) In a second visitors’ center, I looked at the scale model of the interior of the temple, provided for the perusal of those of us not worthy to enter. A huge baptismal font was held on the rump of giant oxen. Here good Mormons could be baptized in proxy for the dead. Other rooms contained elaborate furnishings and were the site of ceremonies which sealed couples and even families eternally.

How could something seem so almost right and yet so profoundly wrong?

Back in the car, I googled some information from James Walker, a fourth generation Mormon who left the religion to become a Christian. The question burning in me was whether the Mormons had retained enough of the true Gospel to be saved. Jesus says He is the only way to the Father. 1 John 4:15 says, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” Clearly the Mormons were honoring Jesus. So were they saved?

James Walker articulated some of the ways the Mormons have changed the Bible. The crux of the change is in the definition of God. The Mormons believe God used to be a man. After He became God, He and His wife (our Heavenly Mother), conceived billions of spiritual children. These children now populate this earth. In other words, we are these “children of God.” Satan is also one of God’s children, as is Jesus. So while they say that Jesus is the Son of God, they are not talking about the God of the Bible.

Furthermore, the Mormons teach that if one lives as a good Mormon (no drinking coffee or tea, always tithing, etc.), marries a good Mormon, and goes through certain temple ceremonies, he will become god of his own planet when he dies. In other words, we have the capability to be like God in every way. We can be God.

Does that sound familiar? Before his fall, Satan said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Is. 14:14). Later, he told Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it will make her “like God” (Gen. 3:5). Six thousand years of anguish have followed these quests to be like God.

In Isaiah 45:5, God states, “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.”

A Mormon will say that Jesus is God’s Son. A Mormon will even say that Jesus is God. But when he says the word God, he does not mean the God of the Bible. His terminology is a thin veneer of truth covering a Satanic lie.

I left Utah with an aching heart. I also left convicted. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the dedication of this group following only law surpassed the zeal of those of us claiming to be empowered by grace. The value the Mormons placed on building and maintaining a temple surpassed the value we Christians place on being God’s temple. The evangelistic fervor they displayed was much greater than my own. And their disciplined life style made the American church at large look pretty pitiful in comparison.

Perhaps this is why the deception is so beguiling: because the counterfeit appears more real than the genuine. My visit to Salt Lake City stirred my passion to be a part of a church that provides living definitions for the Bible’s terms, realities that render false definitions empty and lifeless in comparison.