“The place of martyrdom”

There’s a rather intriguing piece of wordplay in Alma 14. After being arrested by the authorities in Ammonihah, Alma and Amulek are taken to somewhere the text calls “the place of martyrdom” to witness the burning both of the scriptures but especially the wives and children of those who had believed their words, an understandably horrific scene. Where the wordplay comes in is that the word martyr is derived from the Greek word μάρτυρ (martur), meaning witness. Its later meaning of dying for the faith derived from the fact that many of those who bore witness to the faith in the early Christian period paid the price with their own life:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

(Revelation 6:9-10; the Greek word translated as testimony in verse 9 is μαρτυριαν – that is in transliterated form: marturian)

Which leads us on to Alma and Amulek:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9–11, my emphasis)

Alma and Amulek are lead to this “place of martyrdom” precisely so they can “witness” those being burned by fire. As if to emphasise that this choice of word is not a coincidence, we then have Amulek lamenting that they must “witness” this atrocity, and Alma assuring him that the  blood of those so murdered will “witness” against their murderers when God judges them at the last day (that it is also said to cry also appears to echo Revelation 6:9-10 quoted above).

The immediate and then persistent use of the leitwort “witness” argues against this being a mere accidental choice of words: it is indeed a place of martyrdom, in the original greek sense, for Alma and Amulek both witness the price their converts are paying for their witness, and the crime committed at that place will be a witness against those who persecuted them.

How this piece of wordplay ends up here, of course, is another question. Critics are likely just to ascribe it to Joseph Smith, but I’m confident that he both lacked the knowledge and the sheer time for this sort of thing (in the same way that its taken me far longer to write a chapter examining Jacob 5’s use of the Bible than it took to dictate the entirety of the Book of Mormon). Furthermore, were any human author of the time responsible for this sort of cleverness (and many other such examples), you’d think they’d point it out. They didn’t and haven’t: in fact I can’t find any record of anyone else spotting this.

On the other hand, this wordplay rests on the history of the word μάρτυρ in Greek and its subsequent course in European languages including English. So what precisely is going on here? On one hand, I have been inclined at various points on the basis of this and a few other details to indulge in wild speculations on Greek influence in the book of Alma. But that’s necessarily extremely speculative, and in any case the description here (including whatever meant “place of martyrdom” on the plates) was written by Mormon, hundreds of years later. It should also not be forgotten that the Book of Mormon is doubly inspired (i.e both in composition and in translation), and in the Book of Mormon’s case that inspiration can and does extend to quoting people hundreds of years in the future (see 1 Nephi 10:7-8).

For a more emotive take on this passage, and an understanding as to why Amulek in particular was so pained, it might also be worth considering that there is every possibility that his own wife and children (Alma 10:11) are amongst the martyrs.

2 Nephi 30

And now behold, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you; for I, Nephi, would not suffer that ye should suppose that ye are more righteous than the Gentiles shall be. For behold, except ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall all likewise perish; and because of the words which have been spoken ye need not suppose that the Gentiles are utterly destroyed.

For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel.

(2 Nephi 30:1-2)

I’ve mentioned before that a key theme of the Book of Mormon – including 2 Nephi 25-30 – is the restoration of Israel and conversely judgment upon the Gentiles who have oppressed them. Yet these verses help correct any misapprehension we may have of that: Israel will be restored, collectively. On an individual scale, however, it is personal repentance and faith that make the difference. We will not be saved based on who our ancestors were, nor on what our nationality is, nor on nominal membership of the Church; we cannot be complacent and think everything is okay because we belong to the “right” group. We are all going to be held accountable, for God is just. Likewise He mercifully extends his salvation to all, on the same conditions.

1 Nephi 22

For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous.

Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire.

Behold, my brethren, I say unto you, that these things must shortly come; yea, even blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke must come; and it must needs be upon the face of this earth; and it cometh unto men according to the flesh if it so be that they will harden their hearts against the Holy One of Israel.

For behold, the righteous shall not perish; for the time surely must come that all they who fight against Zion shall be cut off.

1 Nephi 22:16-19

I sometimes joke that one of the biggest things I’ve learned from my thesis is that one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon is “judgment is coming”. Except it’s not a joke, not really: judgment is coming. God will hold us all accountable, and for our civilisation – unless it repents – that accountability is coming quicker than people think.

However – as I mentioned with 1 Nephi 1 – God’s acts of judgment in the Book of Mormon are often deliverance for others. Much of 1 Nephi 22, and many other parts of the Book of Mormon, are about how the Lord will remember his covenant with scattered Israel. Here it is made clear that the Lord will protect and deliver the righteous: that protection, however, will come in the form of divine judgment upon the wicked. Mercy and justice, judgment and deliverance are mirror images of each other, two sides of the same coin of divine providence.

Hell!

There’s a quite misguided article on hell by some member at the Huffington Post (thanks to Dan Peterson’s blog for the link), in which she basically claims we don’t believe hell exists (“The short answer to this is simple: No”). She admits that while Mormons “casually” refer to hell, and even concedes that the Book of Mormon “mentions” it. However, she claims that really it’s used either in a metaphorical sense, refers to “spirit prison” (which she claims “is also not a place that God has created for sinners” but “is a place where those who die in ignorance of Christ go”), or lastly “outer darkness” as a destination for the devil and his angels and unspecified “sons of perdition”. “God does not punish us” claims the author.

There’s bits of truth here mixed with folk doctrine and some real misconceptions, but these are widespread misconceptions. I remember as a missionary teaching around one family’s home, where my companion at the time (a good man and teacher – I enjoyed serving with him) made the claim that we did not believe in hell. After the discussion when we were alone again I brought it up. “Er… we do believe in hell. In fact we believe in lots more hell than most people. We just don’t think most people are going to be there permanently”. More recently I’ve had the opportunity to notice that despite it being more than a decade since I got home from my mission, the same phrases keep getting repeated (such as “spirit prison isn’t a place of punishment, it’s simply a place of learning), even though they cannot be found in either the scriptures or things like Preach My Gospel (which basically paraphrases Alma 40 on the issue). On a side issue, finding out how such notions get transmitted nearly word for word despite zero official support would be an interesting topic in itself.

However, it is on hell itself that I address myself. The following points seem to be misunderstood, and yet easily established from scripture:

 

A) God does punish sinners

Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding here. The author of the linked article bluntly claims the opposite, but this is (as also noted by one commentator on Daniel Peterson’s blog, who quotes some of the same passages) quite unscriptural. Take the following scriptures:

And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—

2 Nephi 2:10

Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.

Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?

Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.

Alma 42:16-18

For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—

Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.

Endless punishment is God’s punishment.

Doctrine and Covenants 19:10-12

And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay down the haughtiness of the terrible

2 Nephi 23:11//Isaiah 13:11

At present this punishment is largely deferred (thankfully!) as we are experiencing a probationary state to give us time to repent (Alma 12:24). But God most certainly will punish wickedness; in fact to do otherwise is to be merciless to the victims of sin.

 

B) Hell Exists, and God has prepared it for those who do not repent

Hell is not just “mentioned” in the Book of Mormon: the word is used 59 times, more than in the Old Testament and New Testament combined (31 and 23 times respectively). Both the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scripture speak of it being prepared by God for the wicked:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

2 Nephi 28:23

And, behold, there is a place prepared for them from the beginning, which place is hell.

D&C 29:38

Wherefore, they have foresworn themselves, and, by their oaths, they have brought upon themselves death; and a hell I have prepared for them, if they repent not;

Moses 6:29

(1 Nephi 15:35 speaks of the devil being the “preparator” of hell, but Royal Skousen argues – quite convincingly in my opinion, in the light of passages such as Moses 6:29 and D&C 29:38 – that this is a scribal error and “proprietor” is intended).

 

C) Hell does sometimes have a broader meaning

“Hell” is sometimes used in other senses. Thus we find it used as a label for the forces of the opposition (as in D&C 6:34 or 88:113), or some other despairing situation (as by Jonah in Jonah 2:2). Jacob uses the term hell to mean “the death of the spirit” (2 Nephi 9:10). One particular notable use is by Alma when teaching the people of Ammonihah:

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.

Alma 12:10-11

Here Alma is using the “chains of hell” to describe not a place, but a condition, where someone has rejected the word, lost what they already have and is held captive by the devil’s will. However, I’m not sure Alma would quite agree that what he is describing is “metaphorical”. I suspect he would describe it as a very real spiritual phenomena (and one we can see elsewhere in the Book of Mormon).

 

D) Hell also refers to the destination of the spirits of the wicked go after death

Alma describes:

And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.

And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.

Alma 40:12-13

We seem to shy away from such descriptions, but Alma does not: indeed he describes the destination of the wicked as “outer darkness” (a term we moderns seem to have solely associated with the sons of perdition, although of the six times the term is used in scripture – Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30, Alma 40:13, D&C 101:91, D&C 133:73 – not once is it so associated; in fact all the uses in latter-day scripture clearly have reference to broader groups). This is “spirit prison”. This is hell.

However, there seem to be a misunderstanding that may explain why people try to soften this. As in the linked article, there seems to be this belief that all who are not members of the Church, including those who were simply ignorant, are going to spirit prison. But Alma simply divides between the “righteous” and the “wicked” (indeed “evil”!). He nowhere states that this includes righteous non-members, particular those who simply lack knowledge of Christ. Likewise Joseph F. Smith, in his vision, speaks of Spirit Paradise as the home of “the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh” and “the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets”.

We furthermore have an actual example, in the thief on the cross:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?

And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Luke 23:39-43

It is highly unlikely that the thief on the cross had been baptised or received other essential ordinances, nor presumably had his life been an unspotted one. But Christ tells him: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”. Doubtless the thief had a lot more learning to do and things to do to be ready for heaven itself, but it seems his heart was right enough that he could escape hell. There are things to be learned and ordinances to be received, but the righteous dead need not wait for those in hell.

And really, if members think their ancestors are waiting in hell for them to get their baptisms by proxy sorted out, even delaying Temple attendance by 24 hours seems an outrageous sin (and quite unjust)!

 

E) All are ultimately saved from hell, save the “sons of perdition” and the devil and his angels.

One measure of quite how many people are going to pass through hell is that this is listed as a defining characteristic of those who receive a telestial glory. I’m not exaggerating:

And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament.

These are they who are thrust down to hell.

D&C 78:81, 84

However – since again there seems to be some confusion on the matter – this is not a reference to the telestial kingdom itself, the glory of which “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89 – despite hypothetical spiders?). Rather we learn of these people:

These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work;

D&C 76:106 (my emphasis)

The telestial kingdom is what comes after hell, and the future inhabitants of the telestial kingdom must spend some time in hell – in spirit prison, awaiting their resurrection – for their sins “until” Christ has perfected his work. But their time in hell will come to an end, because of the efficacy of Christ’s atonement. For:

That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;

Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.

Wherefore, he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment—

And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows;

D&C 76:42-45

With the exception of the “sons of perdition”, the devil, and his angels, all mankind will be ultimately saved from hell. This is not because of the article’s mistaken claim that “God does not punish us”, for God is just, and will punish unrepentant sin. There is no cause for complacency, or believing that we can sin “and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 28:8). God is a holy and a just God, who “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). He will require a reckoning from us and we are accountable to him, as much as we will want the same of those who’ve sinned against us. But he couples those traits and holds them in perfection alongside his equally perfect love and mercy: seeking to save, but not permissive and an enabler of evil.

 

But God ceaseth not to be God

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: For some recent examples, consider the references to “ultimate reality” being “constituted by moral natural laws as well as physical natural laws” that are “prior to Divine Will” in this interview by Ralph Hancock of Terryl Givens, or in a very recent example, the comment following this article on having confidence in the prophets attempts to disagree with the article by suggesting that there are “celestial limitations” such as “there are physical and moral laws that he cannot break (or he would cease to be God)”.

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. 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. In short, Section 88 is very explicit about God being the source of law for all things, and God’s power being the power by which all things are governed (D&C 88:12-13,41-43). In fact Section 88 appears to be pointing at a very different set of metaphysics than by those who presume unchanging physical and moral laws form the ultimate reality. The latter appears to be a simple extension of very common Western metaphysics (as witnessed by those – such as Stephen Hawking – who assert such such laws can entirely explain the existence of the universe, when those very laws postulate initial conditions under which physical laws break down). Section 88 seems to have more in common with Islamic metaphysics than Western metaphysics. We should certainly not assume our culture has gotten such questions right, and we should be very careful about imposing our cultural expectations upon what scripture actually says.

But I believe many of these issues are not just down to importing Western metaphysics, particularly when we start talking about “moral laws”. While there may be other issues (I think people underestimate precisely how conditional human agency is as described in 2 Nephi 2), I think that when it comes to the assertion that there are overriding “moral laws” that this is due to the misreading of one chapter in particular: Alma 42.

 

Alma 42

The influence of this chapter can even be seen in the comment cited above, which paraphrased Alma 42:13 (and 22 and 25) with its talk of God ceasing to be God. There has been much speculation, based on this chapter and particularly the refrain that “if so, God would cease to be God“, 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.

Yet these ideas are wrong. They are, as I plan to show, logically inconsistent, carry implications at odds with what we know of God, His works and His character, and I believe seriously misunderstand Alma’s statements. Above all else, however, they seem to lack a full understanding of what makes God God.

 

Justice is not a law

Firstly there seems to be a profound misunderstanding in the sense of justice as this eternal, self-regulating, natural law. As previously stated, scripture affirms that 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 sustained by the power of God. If justice, however, has the power to “demote” God, or if God’s power is somehow dependent upon justice, then that justice and the laws it enforces are more powerful that God. God 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?

Yet there is no sign of such a natural, 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 by God. It is God who shall judges us at the last day, it is “the justice of God” which consigns unrepentant sinners “to be cut off from his presence” (Alma 42:14). 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 judgement for us, or for Hitler, or for anyone else.

Moreover justice is not a law, in and of itself, but is a moral ideal (though oft-misunderstood). 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). But there can be just laws and unjust laws. Law can be administered justly or unjustly. God, however, gives both just laws and administers them justly. Yet there would be no need for Him to do so were there some impersonal “law of justice”. And if God gives and sustains law by His power, how can He be dependent on or subservient to it?

Skousen’s interpretation is a little different, but has its own problems. His idea places final moral judgement – judgement 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? Yet while God’s capacity for knowing what is just is surely rooted in both His goodness and in His omniscience, Skousen places 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.

 

Misreading the chapter

Another problem with these interpretations is the way they misread the chapter as a whole. Two points here are worth pointing out. Firstly is the question of who the chapter means when it speaks of God. Many espousing the the ideas I’m discussing 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.

More importantly, however, is the question that motivates the existence of the entire chapter. 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 that Corianton doubts “concerning the justice of God” (Alma 42:1), specifically in reference to the punishment of the sinner. This chapter is therefore not attempting to explain (as some have supposed) the atonement of Christ. Rather the question being addressed is whether God is just. The Atonement is used here to explain the justice of God, not the other way around. And this remains the key point throughout the chapter, for in verse 30 Corianton is enjoined to “deny the justice of God no more“. Yet the interpretations offered above would have Alma’s defence of the “justice of God” be the assertion that God is just because He is kept in line by some law superior to Himself. Yet the claims that God is just only because he is forced to be by an impersonal law or that his power is subject to the veto of the rest of the universe are terrible defences. The claim that God is just because He is forced to be 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).

 

Logical Inconsistencies

These approaches are also logically inconsistent. To take a key example, it is worthwhile noting the “if” in all three statements – if the works of justice are destroyed, God would cease to be God. It appears then that the works of justice can be destroyed – such is the precondition. But if justice was a natural law, supreme above even God – indeed if He were dependent upon it – this would be impossible. How can God destroy the works of justice, if he can be overridden and demoted by it?

A similar logical inconsistency lies when we try to probe the meaning of the statement that “God would cease to be God“. Both the concepts described above are logically inconsistent on this very point. They 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.

 

What makes God God?

To understand what Alma was 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. We believe in God as God because He is good. Were He to lack those attributes, we could not have faith in Him. An unjust God, as I have said before, would be a terrible thing.

I believe this 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 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.

Edit:

There was some disagreement with this blogpost on facebook, arguing that this was mainly an issue of semantics, appealing to the idea of eternal regress of divinity (i.e the idea loosely based on the King Follett discourse that God was made a God by another God, and so on forever), and suggesting that God may embody justice through his choices though it be an independent law. My reply is effectively as follows:

1) Obviously I disagree that this is a mere issue of semantics – ideas have consequences, and semantics don’t usually require counterarguments.

2) On supposed LDS beliefs in eternal regress, I asked for chapter on verse on this. Because the King Follett discouse a) isn’t canonical scripture and b) does not go that far. The KFD cites John 5:19 as its prooftext, which would make the Father’s incarnation similar to that of the Son’s. The Son, of course, being divine prior to his mortal birth. But that whole topic (i.e on a mortal incarnation of the Father) is one on which very little has been revealed, which is precisely why President Hinckley said we didn’t really know very much about it. But even if one grants an eternal regress scenario, it is still divinity that is the eternal constant and any eternal laws are those given by divinity – they are not independent (there’s also the issue that this thinks of eternity as simply time going forever, but that’s an issue for another day).

3) This still leaves what Section 88 says about God being the provider of Law to all things, which is a canonical revelation. Now I’d certainly describe God as embodying justice and mercy et al – in an earlier version of this article I used that very term. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are ideals, and not actual objects, nor make justice a law, nor make it a force *independent* and *superior* to God.

4) Finally there was the suggestion that this doesn’t make any difference. Yet I’ve seen plenty of examples, where people were talking of God being limited, or that there’s no such thing as actual miracles (especially when the BoM spends so much time warning against such ideas) to see that if taken to their conclusions certain ideas can be damaging to faith. Yes, what we need to most understand is that God’s promises are sure. But to know that requires us to know He has both the desire and the capacity to fulfill them.

Wolves and Sheep

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
(Matthew 7:15)

But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
(John 10:12)

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.
(Alma 5:59)

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.
(Alma 5:60)

Pastoral images are used frequently in the Bible, often to describe the relationship between us and Christ, and particularly between Christ and his Church. John 10 and Alma 5 develop this image most fully, to slightly different ends: the principal point of John 10 hinges around the identity of the good shepherd; Alma 5 as to whether we are included with his sheep.

But there is another aspect to these images, as the quotes above illuminate: the existence of wolves.

Wolves are very real.

People can do a lot of damage. And others can be very vulnerable.

Wolves are also a very pertinent topic. I’ve seen in a number of places opposition to the idea that anyone has to deal with them, that some people are wolves at all, or that actions to exclude them – such as excommunication – are at all necessary. This opposition appears to me to be founded on several misconceptions:

The first is the idea that Christ himself would never exclude or judge. This itself is a myth, when it is Christ himself who will be our ultimate judge. I’ve written about this before.

The second is that in the Church the spreading of ideas should carry no consequence.  It is certainly the case that Wolves, human predators, can take a variety of forms. Physical, emotional, sexual or financial predators are all threats, and certainly many of the scriptural warnings above and the injunctions about protecting the flock (whatever flock that is) from wolves apply. Much of what I will say here would also apply. We should always aim to protect the innocent. But the first scripture quoted above has Christ warning particularly against “false prophets”, not these other categories of predators. We are warned in the latter days against “false teachers” and “false doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:12), and need to be vigilant in an age when men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:50, 2 Nephi 15:20).

Ideas have consequences. They affect what we feel and what we do, and we will be held accountable for them. As the episcopal spirit is asked in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?” Alma likewise teaches that in addition to our words and works “our thoughts will also condemn us” (Alma 12:14). And there is a world of difference between someone who is personally wondering and questioning over what is true (something I am sure most must face at some stage) and someone campaigning to replace the teachings of the Church with their own ideas. That’s not questioning: they’ve already settled their own mind. Indeed they’re trying to remake Church doctrine in the image of their own mind. Nor, for that matter, are they making a great stand for openness and free thought when they demand their own precepts should enjoy immunity from criticism, but that they should be free as members of Christ’s church to denigrate its teachings.

They are, as individuals, free to campaign for whatever they wish. But the Church is under no obligation to act as a neutral witness, or act as a host for those who oppose its teachings. And when people teach others that certain sins are not sins, for example, or teach a denial of the resurrection, or teach disbelief in experiences (such as revelations and spiritual gifts) that are necessary for salvation, their teachings can lead others down to hell. Is there to be no accountability for this? Is the Church of God supposed to stand idly by and just watch the deception of the flock? Certain false teachings can lead to eternal damage, and the Church is under no obligation to permit people to use the cloak of Church membership to lead its members astray.

The third misconception is the idea that Christ taught us that we must never judge. It is certainly true that there are certain judgments we must leave to God, and eternal judgments are his prerogative. We are meant to focus upon our own sins, and in my experience we usually have enough to keep us busy. But Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) is sorely misunderstood if we believe that means we must never judge (and we are in serious danger if we believe that frees us personally from any accountability). As the next verse shows, the point of the passage is that we will be judged by same standard we extend: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christ also teaches us to “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), as does the JST of Matthew 7:1-2. Alma likewise teaches that we should “judge righteously” and then “ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again” (Alma 41:14).

This is because some judgment is inevitable in this life. Yes, we must be careful and cautious (for, as I heard a wise Elders Quorum President teach once, we often have the tendency to judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions). We must “judge righteously”. But even as individuals it is often necessary for us to judge who we associate with, who we marry and who we trust. We have to judge who we listen to, who we take counsel from, and who we ultimately follow. And many people have responsibilities that go beyond the individual that demand they judge. Parents need to judge in order to look after and protect their children. And Church leaders have a responsibility to judge to protect the flock; indeed Christ teaches above that if one does not, such a shepherd is a mere hireling.

Now there is obviously a need for discernment, wisdom and divine aid in this judgment. Overzealousness can be damaging. It is a terrible mistake if some wandering sheep, or a prodigal son, or even just some poor sheep that’s with the ninety and nine but is confused about a few things is treated as a wolf. It’s also wrong if we as individuals infringe upon the duties and responsibilities of those who have this task. But those in a position of a responsibility have the duty to judge: to both judge who needs especially help (indeed it’s a tragedy if a wandering sheep is judged not to need any help) and to protect the other members of the flock from those who’d prey upon them (in whatever way that might be). This is especially true for those whose calling specifically labels them as a “judge” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:17-18, 64:40, 107:72-74).

The fourth misconception is that such judgments are inherently unloving, and fail to display Christlike love. It is important for us to remember that every human being born on this earth is a child of our Father in Heaven, and he loves them. We are likewise commanded to love all his children (2 Nephi 31:20). Wolves are not born wolves, and it is possible for former wolves to become part of the flock, like Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah. Furthermore Christ commands us to love even our “enemies”, and pray for those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:44). If someone is acting the part of a wolf – in any of the variety of ways I mention above – that is something to be mourned.

But I believe there is often here a significant misunderstanding of justice and mercy (something I hope to return to in the future) and the role of divine love in each. We sometimes seem to treat justice as something bad and mercy as something good, but this is not the case. Both are divine attributes (Alma 42:15). An unjust God would be a more terrible thing than it seems many can even imagine, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. Justice isn’t just about punishing the transgressor, it is also about protecting those transgressed against, and restoring their hurts. Mercy extended to predators without condition is showing merciless cruelty to their prey.

If those who have a duty to care for a flock (a family, a congregation, or whatever), out of a misguided sense of love and compassion, give a wolf the opportunity and license to savage the flock, they are being unloving to the sheep. It’s not even good for the wolf eternally: to take the example of Church discipline, that can prompt repentance and a goal is to save the soul of the transgressor as well as protect the innocent. But it is especially uncharitable to any sheep who have been sacrificed to the idea that mercy can rob justice. If charity and compassion cause the sheep to be left to the mercy of the wolves, then the shepherds have blood on their hands.

That is not the example of the good shepherd. The good shepherd drives out the wolves, and even if necessary destroys them (Alma 5:59) not because he hates wolves, but because he loves his sheep. He “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd cares for and is vigilant in protecting his sheep, and those who have some responsibility for his flock likewise have the responsibility to feed, care, heal and protect his sheep.