Sponsored by BYU Studies—Tad Callister is former General Sunday School president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and author of several books, including The Infinite Atonement and A Case for the Book of Mormon.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am now retired. I practiced law for 34 years and then rendered some full-time service in the Church as a mission president, in the Seventies quorum, and then the General Sunday School presidency.
I love to play racquetball. I play three times a week and am looking forward to entering into the Senior Olympics coming up in October.
I have a magnificent wife. We just had our 50th wedding anniversary. We have six kids and 29 grandchildren. Our first is just headed for a mission to Houston South, Vietnamese-speaking. We have some down at BYU-Provo and one at BYU-Idaho. We like to do a lot of things with our family, our children and grandchildren.
You have written other books, including the widely-read The Infinite Atonement. Would you share something you have learned about the atonement of Jesus Christ since the book was published?
I think it’s a doctrine that has a never-ending depth to it. One of the truths I learned about the atonement of the Savior was its relationship to the Plan of Salvation and the Doctrine of Christ. By that, I mean, sometimes people say, “What is the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
The answers could be, “It’s the plan of salvation,” or “the Atonement of the Savior,” or “the Doctrine of Christ.” I think I have come to realize how those three interrelate to each other.
For example, the plan of salvation is the explanation of how we return to our Father in Heaven and become like Him so that we might have a fullness of joy. The author of that plan is our Heavenly Father. This plan might be compared to a map. It shows us how to get there—how to return to God’s presence.
But the Atonement of Jesus Christ is the vehicle that can get us there. It’s the Savior’s sacrifice that makes it possible to be resurrected, to return to God, and to become more like Him.
And of course, the contributor of that is the Savior.
And that interrelates to the Doctrine of Christ, which is the doctrine that we must have faith, repent, be baptized, received the Holy Ghost, feast upon the words of Christ, and endure to the end.
And the contributor for that is us.
We’re like the driver of the vehicle. As we do those things, we’re able to utilize the Savior’s Atonement so we can fulfill the plan of salvation—which is to return to God and become like Him.
So one thing I’ve learned is the interrelationship rather than the separateness of those three doctrinal principles in the Church.
What are your personal scripture study habits?
I like to begin in the morning reading the scriptures—usually sequentially. Then, I like to usually do some writing about a gospel topic because that forces me to crystallize and articulate my thoughts, and thereby gain a better understanding of the doctrine that I am studying.
I find it is usually best to do it in the morning. For me, it’s like that story of two men who have a contest cutting down trees with axes. The one axeman just kept hacking away at the trees, while the other one would go away every hour or so and do something behind a shed.
At the end of the day, the fellow that never stopped was surprised the other one had cut down more trees and asked, “What were you doing behind the shed that enabled you to cut down more trees than me?”
He said, “Well, I was sharpening my axe.”
For me, studying in the morning is like spiritually sharpening the axe. It helps me use the rest of the day more wisely.
So I would say that reading the scriptures, pondering them, and then writing about them has been the method that has been most helpful for me—for any subject, including the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Also, when I find some thought or idea, to be able to share it with my wife or someone else and have a conversation about it while it’s fresh on my mind, is also a helpful way to get good insights.
Have you ever struggled with an apparent conflict between your faith and reason? If so, how did you approach and resolve the concern?
I’ve had questions I couldn’t answer that caused me to want to do more searching. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a crisis of faith. I’ve always had a testimony of the Book of Mormon. I’ve always had a testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith and the current prophets.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had questions. I have lots of questions.
For every 100 questions I have, maybe for 70 I get answers, for 20 I find partial insights, and the balance I don’t have answers for.
But I expect that. I expect that a mortal, who must have faith, is going to have some questions that he can’t answer. But when I weigh them in the balance, both intellectually and spiritually, I’ve always had this firm conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ is as true as true can be.
I don’t think people should feel bad because they have questions. I just think they need not to give up on prayer and study and rendering service and attending church. If they are consistent in doing that, I have found the needed answers or confirmation or peace eventually comes.
For me that greatest evidence of the Church is the fruits of the gospel—the way it affects our lives, and the happiness we have, and the meaning and purpose to life it gives.
I think there are so many evidences of the truths and fruits of this Church that to discount them because you have a few questions you can’t answer, would be foolish.
What is the genesis for A Case for the Book of Mormon.
My new book, A Case for the Book of Mormon, was stimulated for several reasons. First, I love the Book of Mormon and feel like it’s perhaps the most powerful tangible witness we have of the Church.
Second, I knew there were a number of contentions by critics about the Book of Mormon, and it raised some questions in my mind that I wanted to further research. I had done a lot of research before, but decided to go into depth in my research, which I did for the last two years, and felt that the members of the Church deserved a fair response to the critics’ arguments. I felt there were many good answers to share. Many answers were already out there, but I felt it would be helpful if they could be consolidated in one place—including many positive evidences the critics did not refer to because it diminished their case.
I felt like we didn’t have to be on the defense all the time. We could also be on the offense. If someone’s a true, honest critic, they should not only have the privilege to ask questions but should be responsible for answering some of our questions—including some that are very difficult for them to respond to.
So the book was designed to build the faith of members of the Church in the Book of Mormon, immunize people against some of the critics’ arguments that might confront some unsuspecting member, and eventually encourage people to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it to get the most certain witness of all, which is the Holy Ghost.
A Case for the Book of Mormon is roughly divided into two halves. Could you walk readers through the general approach you take?
The first half of the book is designed mainly to respond to the arguments of the critics of the Book of Mormon. In essence, to play defense.
The second half is to say, “Okay, we’ve responded to your questions; we’ve been on defense, so to speak. Now we are going to take the offense, and if you are truly a credible critic you need to respond to our questions and not just ask them.”
And some of our very, very difficult questions for the critics to respond to are: “Where does Joseph Smith come up with all this doctrine? How does this 23-year-old have such divine eloquence in these profound, thoughtful messages that you reflect on and that give you comfort and insights, that you put on your refrigerator door and memorize? Why is the Book of Mormon in fulfillment of Bible prophecy? How does the book give us such insights into the Savior, time and time again, and why does it inspire us to be better people? And what about the eleven witnesses and their incredible, enduring testimonies?”
It is my experience that the critics have a very difficult time adequately responding to these types of questions.
Would you address one or two of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon from your book that you have seen friends, family, or missionaries deal with?
I can—and I put one in the book. I have a friend in Canada who joined the Church. I was one of the ones who taught him. He was an extremely bright young man. He then got caught up in the criticisms on the internet. I remember him bringing me a pile of papers maybe a foot high he had printed off the internet. He decided he couldn’t intellectually accept the Book of Mormon.
I remember talking to him and saying, “If you leave this Church it will ruin you for any other church because you know too much. What other church is going to teach you about the premortal existence? What other church is going to teach you about the spirit world, or baptism for the dead, or the three degrees of glory, or exaltation, or eternal marriage, or apostles being necessary today? It will totally ruin you for any other church. You’ll either be a church on your own or go down the road of atheism.”
Well, he looked for another church. He searched and searched and searched, and could not find one. He knew too much. So he finally decided he would re-investigate the Church.
He told me, “I was kneeling in prayer one day asking if the Book of Mormon were true, and a spiritual witness came to me that it was. And I realized that all the time I was looking for archaeological or linguistic or geographic evidence of the Book of Mormon. But all the time I should have been looking for Jesus Christ and His teachings, and how it affects me.”
He rejoined the Church and is now serving as the Elder’s Quorum president in his ward.
But his lesson—of what he went through, what he was looking for and what he later realized he should be looking for—hopefully can be a great lesson for others who might be struggling.
Is the Book of Mormon a record of people who actually lived or is it inspired fiction? Is there any middle ground?
People raise this all the time. I don’t see how you have any middle ground.
For example, was the angel Moroni a real angel who came to Joseph Smith—or is it fiction? It’s either true or false.
Did the gold plates really contain the record of the Nephites and Lamanites—or is that a falsehood?
Was Nephi a real prophet who lived in the Americas—or not?
Joseph Smith and the Church claim that all those things were real. Either they are real or they’re a fraud. They’re not inspired fiction. They’re not claimed to be inspired fiction. They’re claimed to be as real as real can be.
Therefore, it’s either a falsehood—a fraud— or it’s absolutely true. I see absolutely no room for middle ground on that issue.
How important is the Book of Mormon to the mission and theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
It’s critical. It’s foundational.
There are a lot of wonderful insights on the Atonement of Jesus Christ in the Bible—and I love the Bible. But they are usually just a few verses here and there. In the Book of Mormon, however, there are entire sermons on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Nowhere do we get a better explanation of His Atonement—its infinite depth and infinite nature—than in the Book of Mormon itself.
Like the Book of Mormon states, there were many plain and precious truths that were lost in the Bible. I have a whole chapter in my book on this. The Book of Mormon again, and again, and again, either clarifies those truths or restores those truths that were lost. It helps us understand the divinity of Jesus Christ and His teachings more than any other book.
So how critical is it? It is essential to the doctrine and spirit of our church.
What is the “ultimate evidence” that the Book of Mormon is the word of God?
The ultimate evidence is clearly the Spirit. The Book of Mormon gives that test itself: If you pray with a sincere heart and real intent, having faith in Christ, God will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost.
I think it’s difficult for people to know what that means. Sometimes, it’s so subtle that people don’t recognize it.
The Holy Ghost can confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon in different ways to different people. Sometimes the Holy Ghost works through giving you peace. Sometimes, He works through enlightening our minds, giving new insights. Sometimes, He works through giving us an intent to do good. Sometimes, He gives us this feeling that’s just undeniable—a burning or chills that we might know that what we’ve heard is right and true. Or sometimes, it might be all or some of those ways.
As somebody strives to honestly know the intent of that book and pray about it, one or more of those witnesses will come to them that they will be able to recognize for themselves as the influence of God in their lives.
How would your life be different without the Book of Mormon?
I don’t know for sure because I’ve always had it. It would be kind of like imagining what life would be like without my wife.
My life would have much less meaning, much less purpose, much less spiritual guidance and direction, much less satisfaction and joy. All of those things that are positive in life would either be diminished or lost in some way if I didn’t have the Book of Mormon and the Church.
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.