by Luke Wayne
Mormonism teaches that every one of us existed as spirit bodies in heaven before we were born here on earth. One common verse to which they often appeal is John 9:2. In this passage, Jesus and His disciples pass by a man who is blind from birth, and we read:
"And His disciples asked Him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?'” (John 9:2).
Mormons point out that, for the disciples' question to even make sense, it must have been at least possible for the man to have sinned before his earthly birth. After all, how else could his being born blind be the result of his own sin? While Jesus denies in the next verse that this particular man was blind as the result of any pre-mortal sin, He does not deny the underlying assumption behind the disciples' question (or so the Mormon claims). This, they say, supports the idea of the Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence. For numerous reasons, this is simply not the case.
Does this really matter?
It is important to note upfront that, even if the disciples' question did indicate that they and other first-century Jews had a belief in some kind of pre-existence, this would not make them correct. The disciples and their fellow Jews had a lot of assumptions about the nature of the Messiah or the kingdom of God that turned out to be false assumptions, and Jesus didn't always jump in and thoroughly refute them the moment they came up. Since the New Testament plainly refutes the idea of a pre-existence elsewhere, some hidden early assumption on the part of the disciples would just be another example of their initial wrong thinking about things before Jesus' death and resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
But Does the Disciples' Question Assume a Pre-Existence?
Having said this, there is nothing in the disciples' question that indicates the idea of a heavenly pre-existence. There are any number of ways in which a man's own sin could theoretically result in his being born blind. Knowing that God transcends time and knows the future, the disciples might have thought that God preemptively blinded the man because of how sinful God foreknew the man was going to be. The disciples may also have assumed that sin was possible in the womb. This might seem strange to us, but it actually has some precedent in ancient Jewish thinking! There is, for example, a Jewish Midrash that mentions a woman bringing a complaint before a judge against her child because he "kicked her unreasonably in the womb."1 Other early commentators said that God chose Jacob over Esau because Esau quarreled with his brother in the womb, (Genesis 25:22). The New Testament rejects these speculations (as noted in Romans 9:11-12, for example). Still, their existence demonstrates both that these questions were discussed in the day, and also that one did not need to assume a pre-existence in heaven to discuss such matters.
Of course, it is also possible that the disciples had no particular theory of these things in mind at all, and that they were simply perplexed about why people were born with disabilities. If Jesus had answered, "He was born blind because of His own sin," they may have followed it up with more questions: "But how can that be? How can a man be punished for sin before he is even born?" As it stands, they never had to question it any further because Jesus shut the whole thing down by saying that they were starting with a false premise, i.e., that the man's blindness must be a punishment for someone's specific sins. This was, in fact, the real underlying assumption behind the disciples' question, and Jesus does correct it.
John's Denial of Our Pre-Existence
Perhaps the best way, however, to see clearly that John 9:2 does not imply that we pre-existed as spirits in heaven is to simply read the eight chapters that lead up to this passage. When we do so, we find that John repeatedly and emphatically makes it clear that Jesus alone pre-existed and came down from heaven. This emphasis begins right at the outset. The very opening words of the gospel testify to "the Word" as being with God (and, indeed, being God) in the beginning. We are then told of this Word:
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth," (John 1:14).
The Word came down from heaven and took on flesh, dwelling among us. This would hardly be worth saying if every human on earth came down from heaven and took on flesh. This is something distinctive about the Word (who, in context, is plainly Jesus). In the very next verse, John the Baptist re-emphasizes the importance of this:
"John testified about Him and cried out, saying, 'This was He of whom I said, "He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me,"'" (John 1:15).
The words of John are repeated again in John 1:30:
"This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me,’" (John 1:30).
Thus, we are clearly supposed to give this our attention. Jesus' human life did not begin before John the Baptist. Jesus was younger than John. Yet, the vital truth, the reason Jesus ranks higher than John and should be honored and believed, is that he actually came before John. Jesus existed before His human birth, and this makes Him uniquely worthy of honor over and above even a prophet like John the Baptist! In this same chapter, we also read:
"No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him," (John 1:18).
If, as Mormons teach, we were all spirits in heaven with God before this life, then we have all seen the Father. Yet, the gospel is clear that we have not. No one has ever seen God the Father. We need a heavenly witness to make the Father known to us precisely because we ourselves have never been there. Jesus was that heavenly witness. Jesus expounds on this himself in John 3, during his conversation with Nicodemus:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man," (John 3:11-13).
Jesus makes it clear that a person can only testify to what they have seen, and no one on earth has seen heaven save the Son of Man who came down from heaven. He is the one who can tell us heavenly things. The rest of us have never been there. Later in the chapter, John the Baptist drives this same point home further, saying:
"He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony," (John 3:30-32).
Again, we are from the earth. Jesus alone is from heaven. Only He can testify to heavenly things. Even a prophet like John is still a man from the earth. Jesus uniquely came down from heaven. This is why we ought to trust Him! Jesus goes on to expound on His heavenly origins again in chapter 6, saying things like:
"Jesus then said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world,'" (John 6:32-33).
"Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst," (John 6:35).
"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh," (John 6:51).
Interestingly, the biggest issue the crowd had with this claim was not that He could give life, but that He had come down from heaven! We read:
"Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, 'I am the bread that came down out of heaven.' They were saying, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, "I have come down out of heaven"?'"(John 6:41-42).
Even some of Jesus' own disciples could not accept the idea that Jesus came from heaven. We read again:
"But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, 'Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?'" (John 6:61-62).
Two things are clear from this. First, there was definitely not an assumption that people pre-existed in heaven. The crowd didn't think so. The disciples didn't think so. Everyone had trouble with Jesus' claim here. Further, the claim here is not that everyone came down from heaven. It is clear that Jesus uniquely came down from heaven. Nothing in this passage makes any sense if we all came down from heaven. According to the gospel of John, according to even the words of Jesus Himself, the Son of Man is the only one who descended from heaven. That is the whole point! Jesus repeats this fact plainly in chapter 8:
"And He was saying to them, 'You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world," (John 8:23).
He drives home the significance even more later on in the chapter, stating:
"'Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.' So the Jews said to Him, 'You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?' Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM,” (John 8:56-58).
Note, again, that the crowd is stunned by Jesus' claim that He existed in the time of Abraham. There is definitely no assumption of a general pre-existence here. But Jesus' bold claim is not that everyone existed when Abraham was alive. It is only that Jesus Himself did (indeed, Jesus is claiming to be the great I AM, the God of Abraham!). The very next story after this is John 9 and the man born blind. Thus, it is quite clear that John 9 does not imply any assumption of a pre-existence and certainly does not intend for us to think that such an assumption would be true! John's entire gospel is built on the claim that Jesus (and Jesus alone) pre-existed, came down from heaven, and took on flesh. The gospel of John is antithetical to the Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence.
- 1. Vajicra Rabba, as cited in John Lightfoot’s Commentary on the Gospels: John 9:2