Does 1 John 2:13 teach that we pre-existed in heaven before birth?

by Luke Wayne

Mormonism teaches that all of us existed in heaven in spirit bodies before we began our lives here on earth. To argue for this, they will most often turn to places like Job or Ecclesiastes. On occasion, however, they fall back on more, shall we say, creative arguments. Among them is 1 John 2:13, which says:

"I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father."

At first glance, the biblical Christian may struggle to even grasp how this passage is in any way related to the idea of a heavenly pre-existence, but the argument basically goes like this: John says that he is writing to little children because they have known the Father. We know that these are literal little children because there is a reverse chronological progression in the verse (fathers, then young men, then little children). Thus, John is claiming that young infants have known the Father. But they are so young, when could they have known the Father? The Mormon concludes that they must have known Him in the pre-existence. Thus, they say, this proves that we were all with God in heaven before our birth. Such an argument clearly seems persuasive to someone who already assumes the pre-existence to be true, but it is actually quite flawed.

The Biblical Response

On the face of it, the argument doesn't follow, even if we just read the verse alone without any reference to the surrounding verses or the rest of the letter. If these children are old enough to receive and understand John's instructions by listening to the public reading of his letter, we are not talking about infants. There is nothing in this passage, no matter how literally we take it, that would preclude it being written to children who were old enough to know their sin and believe the gospel; children who have known the Father in this life through Jesus Christ. There is simply no need to postulate a heavenly pre-existence simply on account that these "little children" have known the Father. So the argument, even on its face, is quite weak. But with just a little context, the Mormon argument breaks down entirely.

Let's read the verse again, but add in just the one verse before it for context. We then read:

"I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake. I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father," (1 John 2:12-13).

We now see that the supposed reverse chronological progression doesn't exist. John begins the section by saying, "I write to you, little children..." After the references to fathers and young men, he writes this same thing again, "I write to you, little children." Thus, the insistence on a strictly literal reading of these titles is not at all demanded by the structure. Verse twelve also tells us that the "little children" are those whose sins are forgiven. Mormon theology teaches that truly young children need no forgiveness. They are not held accountable for sins. Thus, even the Mormon must conclude that these "little children" are believers who are old enough to be judged for their sins and have understood that, sought, and received forgiveness. These are not infants that knew God in the pre-existence. They are forgiven sinners who have known Him in Jesus Christ!

This all becomes clearer when we zoom out just a little further and look at the whole chapter. The first verse of the chapter reads:

"My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous," (1 John 2:1).

The "little children" here are actually everyone to whom John is writing. John affectionately calls the believers he is admonishing his "little children." Again, their sin guilt, forgiveness, and relationship to the Father through Jesus Christ is plainly stated. Also note that, after addressing them as "little children," he also reassures them "if any man sin..." Those he is calling "little children" include men, not just little boys.

This pattern continues throughout the chapter:

"Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time," (1 John 2:18).

"And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming," (1 John 2:28).

And it is not limited to this one chapter, either. We see it throughout the letter:

"Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous," (1 John 3:7).

"My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth," (1 John 3:18).

"Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world," (1 John 4:4).

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen," (1 John 5:21).

And if even that were not enough, we see this elsewhere in his writings:

"Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you," (John 13:33)

"Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No," (John 21:5).

"I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth," (3 John 1:4).

Throughout John's writing, without exception, "little children" is a term of endearment from a beloved teacher to his students or disciples. It is not about literal, physical age.

But How Have they Known the Father?

There is much that could be said from throughout John's writings about what it means to know the Father and how this comes about in Jesus Christ, but the simplest way to see what John means by that phrase in this passage is to look at what he has already said in the same letter:

"That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ," (1 John 1:3).

This is what John has in mind. Fellowship with the Father through Jesus Christ that results in fellowship with one another. Throughout the book, John frequently speaks of how we "know Him." In the next to last verse, he closes:

"And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life," (1 John 5:20).

Thus, when John speaks of knowing the Father, he is not talking about some previous discourse with God in some mythical pre-existence. Rather, he is speaking of the fellowship with God that we can come into through Jesus Christ the Son. That is, indeed, the whole point. By nature, we have not known God. We are strangers and enemies to God. We come to know Him only through faith in Jesus Christ. Making any of these passages about pre-mortal life or some plan of progression and self-exaltation misses the entire point.