I firmly believe that Alma 42 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Book of Mormon. There has been a lot of philosophical speculation, in the more academic circles of the Church, about God and his divine status based on this chapter. I have long been of the conclusion – and indeed when it comes to Alma 42 believe I can show – that many of the assumptions and conclusions in these speculations are mistaken, and lead to serious errors. I’ve written about this before, and upon reading the chapter today felt that going over this area again would be worthwhile. As such, I’ve taken the liberty to use and revise my earlier remarks in an attempt at maximum clarity.
I frequently run across the claim, often given by members of the Church themselves, that LDS doctrine teaches that God is limited, that He is bound by moral or physical laws to which he is subject and which have power over him. These ideas have a long pedigree, but continue to pop up.
I have never been happy with these ideas. I dislike the implication that places something else (such as impersonal moral and physical laws) as the ultimate arbiter of the universe, which implies we are worshipping the wrong being. I dislike the formulations that result, such as the idea of God as the “ultimate scientist” who has simply discovered more laws, and that in consequence there is no such thing as a truly supernatural miracle. I find such notions contrary to the very emphasis the Book of Mormon places upon the power of God and the reality of miracles. It seems to me to be very bizarre that on one hand we have the Book of Mormon insisting upon God’s power and capacity for miraculous intervention, and that Christ himself at one of the fulcrums of the Restoration puts the issue as being one where people “hav[e] a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and yet Mormon philosophical discourse is filled with discussions of God’s supposed limitations (in some cases limitations greater than would be applied to, say, the crew of the Starship Enterprise). I can’t help but feel that if Latter-day Scripture (and General Conference et al) is pointing one way and “Mormon philosophy” is pointing another, there’s something severely wrong with the latter.
I discuss briefly some of the issues when it comes to “physical” laws here. Contrary to popular speculations about God’s relationship to physical laws, Section 88 flatly declares that God is the source of such laws, and his power is the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). This alone points to a very different picture than that depicted by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate basis of reality, and a very different metaphysics than the Western model which sees the universe chugging along independently according to natural laws. However, some of these issues appear to come down to more than simply importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. I think there’s several reasons for this (for instance, I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), but one particular reason for the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” appears to be the reading of Alma 42.
Much speculation has been based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“. This speculation has suggested that God can, in essence, lose His divine status. Since it is repeated three times in reference to the notion of “justice” being “destroyed”, some have argued that this entails a law of justice supreme above God Himself which if not obeyed may in a sense “demote” God. Most arguing this appear to have suggested that justice is a “natural” law, akin to gravity, and seemingly self-regulating (ignoring what Section 88:42-43 describes as the ultimate source of gravity). Cleon Skousen, however, takes a different tack, asserting that God’s power is dependent upon the obedience of matter and of ‘intelligences’ within it which, however, will cease to obey should He prove unjust, depriving Him of power.
I believe, as I plan to show, that these ideas serious misunderstand Alma’s statements in Alma 42, that they are logically inconsistent, and carry implications that are at odds with what we know of God, his works, and his character. Above all else, however, I think they lack a full understanding of what makes God God.
In understanding any passage, particularly one like Alma 42 in which weighty doctrinal matters are being discussed, it is valuable to understand what the original question being addressed is to understand the aim of the passage.
Alma 42 is no different. Alma 42 is the final part of Alma’s counsel to his son Corianton, who has gone astray somewhat, and needed correction and has some concerns. And in the very first verse of this chapter we learn of the concern that Alma plans to address:
And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.
Corianton’s concern is about “the justice of God“, specifically in relation to the punishment of the sinner. That this question is a key point throughout this discussion becomes apparent when we consider Alma’s concluding words in verse 30:
O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.
Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“, to not excuse his sins “by denying the justice of God“, and to “let the justice of God“, alongside God’s mercy and long-suffering, affect him in such a way as to produce humility (and repentance).
The principal aim of this chapter, therefore, is not to explain the atonement, nor supposed limitations upon God’s power. Rather it is a defence of the justice of God. Other topics – such as the atonement – are used here to explain and defend God’s justice, not the other way around.
In this light, it is worth considering what the speculations discussed above do to any attempted defence of God’s justice. If those readings are correct, than God is just either because he is kept in line by some impersonal force superior to himself, or his power is subject to a veto by every single little element in the universe. I submit that this are terrible defences: they argue that God is just because he is forced to be so. This is a poor service to God’s character, and seems to deny God of the very agency which He gave to man (Moses 4:3). Moreover, they seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the concept of justice itself.
Justice has – without any prior intention – become somewhat of a recurring theme on this blog. That’s in part because it’s a principle that doesn’t always seem to be appreciated, particularly as an attribute of God, and also because it often seems misunderstood. The former might play a part as to why some are content to think God is forced to be just, as if it were some otherwise undesirable quality it’d be better to be without. The second may explain some of the logical inconsistencies in what is proposed.
Firstly, justice is not a law, nor a force, in and of itself. It is first and foremost a moral ideal . Indeed, the phrase “law of justice” is not to be found in the scriptures (Alma 34:16 comes closest, but the “whole law of the demands of justice” is not the same thing). Justice is ensuring that the wicked are punished in proportion to their crimes, and that the righteous are blessed for their obedience, and that those who suffer receive a fair recompense. It is true that as an ideal, justice can only be maintained when law has been given, as Alma points out: “And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?” (Alma 42:21). It is also true that there is a distinction between justice as an ideal, and the enforcement of justice. Thus there can be just laws and unjust laws. In the case of an unjust law, recognising it requires us to be aware of the concept of justice, but the existence and enforcement of an unjust law would mean that justice isn’t being done. Thus fulfilling the ideal of justice requires the issuing of just laws, and for them to be justly administered.
Who is it that does these things? The arguments of those who postulate justice as being an eternal, self-regulating, natural law – an impersonal and independent “law of the justice” that has the power to demote God himself if he fails to measure up – would ultimately place that force as the one that is the ultimate source of such laws, and the ultimate enforcer. After all, if justice has the power to “demote” God, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful than God. God would be ultimately subject to that force, and would seemingly have no power to make or change laws. Moreover we would seemingly be in no need of a God – why would God need to give or enforce law if there were a natural, self-regulating one? In fact one could even argue we were worshipping the wrong entity.
And yet, as previously stated, scripture affirms that it is God who gives law to all things (D&C 88:42). There are no “natural laws” independent of God: they were given in the first place and are continually sustained by the power of God (D&C 88:13). If God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it? Moreover, there is no sign of any independent, self-regulating, force enforcing justice. Alma 42 itself points out that “there is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (v.22). But those laws and that punishment are given and enforced by God. It is God who shall judge us at the last day, who shall bless the righteous, and – the very concern of this chapter – shall punish the sinners. It is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14).
This is a vitally important point, for it is in the hope of God’s justice that we put our trust, because from the perspective of this life only, the wicked and tyrannical often escape the penalty of their crimes while the innocent suffer. But our trust in the eternal operation of justice is based on God’s interventions and actions. Were God not to judge us, there is no impersonal force that would take over the task of eternal judgment for us, or for Hitler, or Stalin, or for anyone else. What independent force is it, if the only being it will act against is God and appears to have no effect on the rest of the universe? Thus Alma teaches that unless God enforced his laws that “the works of justice would be destroyed” (Alma 42:22). This would be an impossibility if justice were a law that was supreme even over God himself. But it speaks to the truth: if God will not ultimately enforce justice, there is no one else who can and will do it; the ideal of justice might exist, but justice as an enforced reality would not.
Skousen, of course, does not postulate a impersonal force, so his interpretation is a little different, but it has similar problems. His idea places final moral judgment – judgment over God and whether His acts are “just” or not – not in the hands of a perfectly good and omniscient being but in the hands of “intelligences” even more limited than mortal men. Can the full justice of an act ever be measured without both impeccable character and full knowledge of the consequences of the act? God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, yet Skousen would place supreme moral authority over the universe into the hands of the largest and logically most ignorant committee ever conceived. Universal mob rule has never been so literal.
A key problem with these speculations is how they view deity. One misunderstanding is rooted in the very reading of this chapter. Who, it should be asked, is this chapter meaning when it speaks of God? Many advocating these speculations seem to suppose that it refers to God the Father. Yet this cannot be entirely the case, for the chapter itself states “God himself atoneth for the sins of the world” (Alma 42:15). This then speaks of God the Son, or at least the entirety of the Godhead.
Likewise, both the impersonal force and Skousen’s approach share a similar logical inconsistency when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above argue strongly that God’s power is limited; that there is something or someone that can deprive Him of it. Yet they also define God “ceasing” to be God as meaning God losing His power, thus they define God in terms of power. They are therefore in the position of arguing simultaneously that power is the defining characteristic of God (since to lose it is to cease to be God) and yet to argue that He isn’t defined by power, since His power is dependent on and subservient to the approval of something or someone. This is contradictory.
To understand what Alma is getting at in Alma 42, and to resolve the conundrum these ideas leave unanswered, we must ask ourselves the question what makes God, God?
The Apostle John states amongst other things that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). God is also described in other places in terms of his knowledge of all things (2 Nephi 9:20), his wisdom (Mosiah 4:9), his goodness (Mosiah 5:3), his eternal nature (Mormon 9:9), his truthfulness (Deuteronomy 32:4), and indeed his mercy (Alma 26:35) and his justice (2 Nephi 9:17). God is described in more terms than that of just power including that of his character, and justice and mercy are included amongst those attributes. I suggest then we should view God in terms other (or rather, in addition) to that of raw power. We might then ask ourselves the question: would God still be God if he lacked any one of these attributes?
It is this that seems key to the whole matter. Elsewhere, in Alma chapter 12, Alma teaches that the “works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God” (Alma 12:32). God, it appears, cannot destroy the works of justice not because he lacks the power, but because it would be contrary to his “goodness”, his character. Abinadi speaks in a similar fashion when he states that God does not redeem the unrepentant “…for he cannot deny himself; for he cannot deny justice when it has its claim” (Mosiah 15:27). Here to deny justice is not equated with disobedience of some external law but rather a denial of himself: again a denial of his character. Justice then is not some supreme all-powerful law of nature, but an attribute which in mankind is an unrealised ideal but in deity a fully realised attribute, as also is his goodness and mercy (it is strange that those advocating a natural law of justice appear not to conceive of a natural law of mercy capable of similar demotions). So I suggest that God would cease to be God if he were not just because justice is an essential part of His divine character, even if he were still omnipotent. God is God not just because of his omnipotence and omniscience (though he is those, and they are essential) but also because of his goodness, love, mercy and justice. Or as William Miller puts it in A Canticle for Leibowitz:
But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.
We believe in God as God because he is good. Were he to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. Were God unjust, he would not be God, not because something would step in and strip him of power, but because being just is part of the definition of God. And that’s a good thing: An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.
This, I believe and think, is a more accurate understanding of what Alma was saying in Alma 42, and such an understanding carries important consequences. Firstly, with all the emphasis that ancient and modern scripture put upon the power and capacity of God, I feel it is spiritually unhealthy and perilous to our faith to have some sort of understanding that (aside from its other issues) convinces us to think of God in terms of supposed limitations, limitations that scripturally do not exist, and for us to do this in an age where Christ himself asks whether faith shall be found on the earth (Luke 18:8).
Secondly, I believe this helps us better understand the Atonement. The Atonement is not some method of cheating justice, some scheme to get past a natural law. Rather the Atonement establishes both justice and mercy. Jacob teaches earlier in the Book of Mormon that without the Atonement all mankind would be subject to a total and universal damnation (2 Nephi 9:7-9), which would hardly be just to such as infants. Jacob also reveals that the Atonement “satisfieth the demands of justice” (2 Nephi 9:26) by rescuing those without law from an undeserved fate. The Atonement does not cheat justice, rather it provides means “that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).
Thirdly, and growing from the other two points, this understanding shows better, in my view, Alma’s point: that God is so impeccable in His character, so just and yet so merciful, that He has gone to enormous lengths to reconcile those divine attributes. God is just, and merciful, and perfect, and Alma teaches his son to no more “deny the justice of God” but rather “let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30). This is a God whom we need not doubt and think of as limited; rather, knowing the full perfection of His character and his power, we can have even greater faith in Him. We worship God, we have faith in God – indeed we can only accept God as God – as we come to know not only of His power and knowledge but also of His perfect, unwavering character. And it is as we come fully to realise the perfection of His character that we will increase in our faith and trust in Him and better realise the object of our goal: not the mere obedience to natural laws, but the perfection, through Christ, of our characters and very beings.