To what end was the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith? What exactly did he restore? The answers vary wildly. Some claim he restored authority: that heavenly beings were sent to him to pass to him authority that could then be passed to others. Yet the Book of Mormon warns against this idea:
And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men; (2 Nephi 28:5).
Others claim that through Joseph Smith God restored a set of instructions capable of bringing a man into the presence of God (the so-called fullness of the gospel). In order for this claim to be true, Joseph must have both lived in an environment devoid of the experiences with heaven documented as co-occurring with true religion in the scriptures and delivered an increment over existing teachings that resulted in the renewal of these experiences. History shows that both occurred. However, some accepting this point take it further than substantiated by history. While Joseph was the instrument for delivering effectual teachings, such as the Book of Mormon, there were notable portions of his teachings that, rather than lead followers to experiences with heaven, had negative results. His focus on priesthood authority, for example, seems to be the genesis of the incorrect develop of and obsession with claims to authority by his LDS successors who, despite claims to possessing Joseph’s authority, failed to reproduce any of his fruits. A true messenger must always seek to become redundant. Joseph at best vacillated between this concept and emphasizing what he saw as an inalienable right to be the sole source of knowledge from heaven among his followers.
The claim that Joseph restored a set of instructions capable of bringing a man into the presence of God is not inseparably connected to the idea that Joseph’s contributions were uniquely capable of doing so. In other words, one can agree that Joseph’s contributions were effectual without concluding that all men must accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of God in order to gain access to heaven.
It is ridiculous to think that the salvation of billions of people would be subject to the communications limitations of an obscure backwoods church. Although the LDS church is hardly obscure or backwoods today, and although their financial resources are more than adequate to preach the gospel to the whole world, the degree of obvious corruption to the original message makes the likelihood of connection to heaven through its message essentially zero. Imagine a typical scenario: an individual who has accumulated a lifetime of examples of false religion is accosted with a canned invitation by a 19-year-old boy who hasn’t even read the Bible. Suppose he listens, which is unlikely. He has to sit through a few hours of this boy telling him that God calls prophets today, and that there are modern prophets, only they don’t prophesy. Suppose he buys this, which is unlikely. Now he has to accept a set of arbitrary dietary rules borne of the prohibition movement as important enough to God that it will bar someone from baptism. In the unlikely event that he believes this, he will begin a full-time job worth of church busy work. In the unlikely event that he actually has time to read the scriptures, his interpretation of them will be controlled by the modern, false narrative he is constantly subjected to from church. In the unlikely event he decides to investigate what Joseph Smith actually taught, he will be confronted with many examples of institutional lies and will most likely conclude that God does not exist. If he makes it through all of that, he will still need to have the discernment to filter out the doctored history from the real history, and at that point might actually be able to discover and live the set of instructions provided by Joseph to bring a man into the presence of God.
On the other hand, if we are to take God at his word, God speaks to men everywhere. What would happen if someone chose not to accept one of the gospel authors as a true prophet? Nothing.
God programs redundancy into this world. He speaks to men, everywhere, and reveals all the same things he revealed to Joseph. The chief contribution of Joseph Smith was supposed authority. It wasn’t even his teachings, which have been largely corroded by manipulation and neglect. His principle contribution was to demonstrate that God can and does speak to men, and that men can indeed enter the presence of God.
If the restoration really happened, we ought to find other examples of similar theophanies followed by a flood of new revelation from heaven. We ought to see parallels between the things Joseph taught and the things these others teach, even if they have never heard of Joseph Smith. In Joseph’s day, this would have been impossible due to geographic limitations of information transfer. In the internet age, we have the opportunity to test the hypothesis.
It turns out that these people do in fact exist. Do you think that Joseph is the only one who has taught that heaven is a physical place in the universe? That there are many degrees of glory, that man is his own judge, and will inherit the highest degree of glory he can stand? That God dwells in everlasting burnings? That man can indeed come to the same level of glory as God? That the beasts in the book of Revelation are real creatures that lived on some other planet? No, he isn’t.
It turns out that God has blessed others with sufficient revelation to crack through the false traditions of Christendom that keep men from establishing an informational connection to God; from being taken up to the heavens.
I thank God for Joseph Smith because of the impact his experiences have had on my life in helping me connect to God. I also thank God that Joseph Smith was not as crucial as most Mormons believe—because if he was, there would be virtually no hope for the inhabitants of this world. Joseph Smith was not the true vine. Jesus Christ is the true vine. Anyone can connect to God—whether or not they have been exposed to Joseph Smith and whether or not they accept him as a prophet. Many of his teachings were wonderful extensions of the light and truth available on the earth at the time. However, any of us can learn any of them for ourselves if we repent, live the gospel, and are brought into the heavens ourselves. And if we don’t, than what good are his teachings, anyway?