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Editor's Note: I like Mormon Interpreter. I have confidence in Dan Peterson who is the current Chairman of the Board and President. He has assembled a large group of associates who like him are both deeply faithful and scholarly. Here is an excerpt from a recent article that I thought particularly interesting. I apologize for the length, but I think it worth reading.

Excerpt from Restoration: A Theological Poem in the Book of Mormon

Val Larsen, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 239-256  (www.mormoninterpreter.org) Editor's Note:

Abstract: The distinctive Mormon conception of God makes possible a logically coherent reconciliation of the facially incompatible laws of justice and mercy. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma clearly explains how these two great laws may be reconciled through the atonement and repentance that the atonement makes possible. Alma artfully illustrates the relationship between justice and mercy in a carefully crafted theological poem.

An important distinctive feature of Mormon theology is its conception of God as a being who is finite and subject to natural law.1 Among other things, this distinctive understanding makes it possible to give a logically coherent account of what justice and mercy are and of how these facially incompatible laws can be reconciled. It provides a framework for fully understanding why both grace and works are necessary for salvation. Though it is sometimes suggested that this finite conception of God was not part of early Mormonism,2 it was actually present from the beginning of the Restoration as an important element in the teachings of Alma in the Book of Mormon.

Understanding as he did that God was subject to natural law, Alma also deeply understood the nature of justice and mercy and beautifully illustrated their relationship in an artful theological poem. Justice and mercy are reconciled, he taught, when human agents choose to respond to the atonement by repenting of their sins and becoming perfect in Christ. These agents then justly receive the natural consequences of their state of being — exaltation. While other Mormon scripture provides supplementary information that clarifies aspects of the relationship between God and man and justice and mercy, these key concepts in Mormon theology are nowhere more thoughtfully and artfully discussed than in the writings of Alma.

Justice as Natural Law

Almafs thoughts on these topics are expressed in a theologically profound message to his wayward son Corianton. The meaning of justice, in particular, is more thoroughly discussed by Alma than by any other ancient prophet. Almost one-fourth of all occurrences of the word justice in the standard works appear in Almafs relatively brief message to his son.3 In this teaching, Alma responds to Coriantonfs belief gthat it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of miseryh (Alma 42:1). Alma helps Corianton understand that the punishment of sins is inevitable. It is required by justice, the most fundamental, inescapable law of the universe.

To illustrate the importance of justice, Alma emphasizes that it is prior to and more basic even than the existence of God. Three times Alma mentions that if God were to abrogate justice, he would cease to be God (Alma 42:13, 22, 25), a statement that has profound theological implications. The most important implication is that justice is a kind of natural law (cf. Alma 42:12, 13) and that God is God because he is in full harmony with that natural law. He has no discretion in the application of justice.4 The universe is not his ex nihilo creation and creature that he can change at will. His power flows from his complete acceptance of and harmony with antecedent reality, not from ontological priority to all other existing things. Thus, God does not have the ability to save his children by violating justice. Nor does he have the desire to do so. Though he weeps when we willfully sin (Moses 7:28-40), he honors both our agency and justice by letting us experience the consequences of our actions.

So what, exactly, is justice? The short answer is that it is causation. Reality is substantially defined by a set of inescapable causal relationships. Causes have inevitable effects. Acts have inevitable consequences. Alma repeatedly emphasizes this point. Justice dictates that our actions determine our destiny: gevil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish — good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous;  just for that which is just; merciful for that which is mercifulh (Alma 41:13). We cannot blame God if bad consequences are visited upon us. What we get is what we have chosen to receive by acting as we do. The only way we can have different consequences is to act differently.

In addition to being unable to change the network of causes and effects that we call justice, God is unable to change the intelligence or choosing essence of each human being. Like justice, intelligence is uncreated: gintelligence c was not created or made, neither indeed can beh (D&C 93:29). This locus of choice at the heart of each of us is coeternal with God. He can expand the scope of our choices and our capacity to choose by clothing our intelligence in a spiritual and then a physical body. But he has neither the desire nor the ability to dictate what we choose. Our innate, uncreated, eternal intelligence is the wellspring of all our choices. We thus play an important role as co-creators of the world in which we and others live. The natural consequence of righteous choices is an expansion of the range of options open to us and others; the natural consequence of wickedness is a contraction of the set of choices available to us and others around us.

This doctrine also has great theological importance. It provides the only fully satisfactory explanation for the problem of evil.5 And it further defines the ontological context, the set of constraints, within which God must work as he labors to save his spirit children. He cannot directly affect our nature. The only option open to him is to somehow change our nurture. And a change is desperately needed. In combination, justice and uncreated human nature put all of us, through an inexorable chain of cause and effect, on a course that leads to our inevitable damnation. Defects in our character ensure that we will sin, and our love for and fear of God ensures that we cannot bear to be in his presence as sinners and must, therefore, be separated from him forever to minimize our pain (Alma 12:13-15).

The Original Lie

Ironically, Corianton, like many others, seems to have been influenced by his fatherfs most important theological opponent, Nehor, who taught gthat all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal lifeh (Alma 1:4). This claim that all will be saved is not new. It is the original plan of Satan that we rejected in the preexistence. There Satan promised, gI will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be losth (Moses 4:1). Nehor and Corianton are belatedly embracing what they did not accept in their first estate — Satanfs plan for the salvation of humanity.

This plan shows up repeatedly in the Book of Mormon. It is the geat, drink, and be merryh doctrine mentioned earlier by Nephi: gGod will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of Godh (2 Nephi 28:8). It is the view of Lamoni and his people, who gbelieved in a Great Spirit [but] supposed that whatsoever they did was righth (Alma 18:5). It is the false gospel the masses embrace in the time of Samuel the Lamanite: gBut behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth, c ye will receive him, and say that he is a propheth (Helaman 13:27).

Unsurprisingly, this idea has many seductive modern variants as well that Mormon may have foreseen and sought to address through Almafs message to Corianton, e.g., the doctrine Dietrick Bonhoeffer has called gcheap graceh — the popular Christian belief that a single act of confessing Christ saves one regardless of what one subsequently chooses to do.6 Or the teachings of sophisticated pastors (e.g., Richard John Neuhaus), popular pastors (e.g., Rob Bell), and Christian philosophers (e.g., John Hick), who suggest that Godfs infinite love ultimately guarantees all will be saved.7 There is an atheist variant of the idea: no matter what people choose to do in this life, all end up exactly the same — dead; so do as you please (Alma 30:18). There is even a Mormon variant: progression from the telestial to the celestial kingdom is possible, and all Godfs children will ultimately be saved in the celestial kingdom regardless of what choices they have made during probation in their gsecond estate,h the period that extends from birth to final judgment, resurrection, and assignment to a kingdom of glory.8

The perverse consequences of these ideas are apparent if we follow the logic of the Mormon variant. If murderers and adulterers and all who engage in the most vile of sins are guaranteed salvation, these sinners might seem to be the most wise of human beings, for it is they who have chosen to have the full spectrum of possible human experiences. They will plumb the deepest depths of hell, suffering even as the Savior did both body and spirit (D&C 19: 16-18) and yet, nevertheless, ultimately taste the exquisite joy of the celestial kingdom. The sweetness of heaven will be for them all the more sweet for having also, like Christ, fully experienced eternal damnation (2 Nephi 2:11; Alma 36:21). By contrast, the experience of the righteous who quickly and fully repented of their sins on earth will be stunted and incomplete, their joy less exquisite for being less starkly framed by the misery of eternal damnation. Of course, it is hard to imagine that any doctrine could be more damnable than this, more out of harmony with the spirit and letter of all scripture or more akin to the plan of Satan in the preexistence.

God rejects all the variants of this Satanic plan because they would gdestroy the agency of manh (Moses 4:3). The way in which these plans would destroy human agency is often misunderstood. It is sometimes suggested that Satan would have deprived humanity of agency by depriving them of choice. He would have compelled every action and assured that it was good, thus guaranteeing the return of all humanity to heaven. Much more seductive and clearly popular is the false doctrine Nephi and Samuel mention and that Nehor peddles — that one can do as one pleases and still be guaranteed salvation in the kingdom of God.

Greg Wright and Terryl Givens9 demonstrate that this doctrine which flatters and indulges also destroys agency, because all actions ultimately produce the same consequences. If all of our choices lead to the same end, we no longer determine our own destiny. We have agency, power to choose meaningfully for ourselves, only if our actions have important consequences. Alma profoundly understood this principle and clearly taught it to Corianton. The eternal reward we ultimately get, he insisted, will be determined by our own desires and actions (Alma 41:3-5).

So agency and justice are linked. We cannot choose for ourselves unless our actions have important and differentiated consequences. Satan, who is the father of all the false gospels mentioned above, would abrogate the justice that delivers these consequences. He is a romantic who lives in a fantasy world10 in which his personal will is sovereign, in which actions can be severed from consequences if he wills it so.11 His impossible plan was rejected by God, who is, by contrast, the ultimate realist. It was also rejected by the two-thirds of Godfs spirit children who understood that they could never comfortably return to their Fatherfs presence as a sinner (Alma 12:14-15). These God-fearing spirits accepted the alternative plan, which fully acknowledged the claims of justice and the inherent weaknesses of the two-thirds — weaknesses that would justly condemn them — but provided a merciful way for them to repent, keep commandments that prescribe Godfs manner of living, and thus justly deserve to live like God in the beloved presence of God (Abraham 3:23-28). But Satan has not given up and continues to persuade many people, including Corianton for a time, to believe on earth the doctrine that they rejected in heaven.

Mercy Catalyzes New Choices and Consequences

While the defining characteristic of the universe is causal justice, Godfs defining characteristic is infinite love and the mercy that is its fruit. Love we may instinctively understand, but what is mercy? Mercy exists when one person provides for another to receive an outcome that is better than the just result the person him or herself deserves. Thus mercy seems to be logically incompatible with justice.

Fortunately, justice and mercy can be reconciled by atonement and repentance, which are, in turn, facilitated by a certain temporal slippage that separates act and consequence in the natural execution of justice. While the justice that constitutes natural law ensures that in the long run gwickedness never was happinessh (Alma 41:10) and righteousness is never misery, it is a matter of commonplace observation that in the short run the wicked are sometimes happy and the righteous sometimes miserable.12 Consequence doesnft always immediately follow act.

This temporal lag between act and consequence is critically important for the full flowering of agency. Without it, we would be like rats in a maze which are controlled by operant conditioning, with instant punishment for bad and instant rewards for good behavior. This lag is also critically important for the possibility of atonement and repentance, for it creates what Alma calls in his teaching of Corianton ga probationary time, a time to repent and serve Godh (Alma 42:4). The catalyst for that repentance is the event we call the atonement.

As Adam S. Miller notes in an implicit discussion of justice and mercy, we are all embedded in a temporal configuration in which there is gan inexorable movement from cause to effect to effect. Time appears flat, two-dimensional, and determined.c Both the present and the future groan under the fully decisive weight of the past.h But God mercifully intervenes to disrupt this homogeneous flow of cause and effect with an event, the atonement, which reconfigures history to include gnot only those actualized possibilities c but the unrepresented wealth of possibilities that have failed to be actualized in the past and that appear to be unactualizable in the present or future. An event marks the moment in which these present but unrepresented possibilities break up a situationfs apparently smooth chain of cause and effect, and reveal the possibility of the previously impossible.c As a result of this recovery, an event can momentarily shock time and arrest the chain of causality, making room for something new.h13

Our choices and the causal process called justice lead inexorably to damnation. While temporal lag has delayed that consequence, our final destination has been determined and is sure. But God mercifully intervenes and shocks time. He interrupts the inexorable causal sequence by interposing an uncaused event. Using the temporal lag between act and consequence, he redirects the suffering that will be caused by our sins from us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who voluntarily receives it. Christfs suffering has no just cause. It is motivated by love. It is commensurate with our sins but is not their just consequence, because Christ himself is sinless. The existence of this event makes the universe a different place and, as Miller suggests, opens up new pathways and destinies for any who are affected by it. Thus, with the nurture of the atonement, some who by nature would have been lost may be mercifully saved.

To be saved, one must respond to this new fact which God and Christ have created. The hardhearted do not respond.14 When they hear about or contemplate the suffering of Christ on their behalf, they are unmoved and are thus unsaved by Christfs act of love. For them, the causal chain is undisrupted, so they must suffer for their own sins. But some are deeply touched. As they contemplate what their Savior was willing to do for them, their heart is broken and their spirit is contrite (2 Nephi 2:7). The enabling power of the atonement that is rooted in their deep spiritual and emotional response to Christfs generous act enlarges their capacity to keep Godfs commandments.15 They are born again as a child of Christ who has gno more disposition to do evil, but to do good continuallyh (Mosiah 5:2). They repent of past behavior. They give up their sins and, as they remain engaged with Christ, shine gmore and more unto the perfect dayh (Proverbs 4:18). Repentance, Alma stresses in his teaching of Corianton, reconciles justice and mercy (Alma 42:13). Made perfect by their response to the atonement — this merciful new fact created by the love of God and Christ — they escape the just consequences they, of themselves, would have received and receive the just reward of the perfect person they have now become through grace-enabled repentance — exaltation in the kingdom of God. Through mercy, they become a mirror image of God and Christ.