Can Mercy Rob Justice?

We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.

Rereading Alma 42 in this way the conflict is between objective fairness & equality against family relationship duties that sidestep justice. Thus the Atonement is attempting to reconcile these two drives. What’s interesting is that the motivations in question aren’t those of the individual but of God. That is the question is what God should do.

The chapter really doesn’t explain how the Atonement does this. The key part of the argument is verse 15 which defines the Atonement by what it accomplishes – satisfying justice so that God can be merciful. Unlike many accounts, the emphasis appears to be on the resurrection as Atonement that brings people back to God to be judged. While not completely explicit, the idea appears to be the common restoration theme we read about in Alma. What is restored though is the completion of the person’s goals.

If you remember back a few months I talked about how truth functions in Alma 32. Truth is a property of things themselves rather than language about things. A thing is true if it reveals itself to be the thing it portrays itself as. That is if a thing is reliable as the thing it is. The restoration and resurrection functions in Alma as a way of completing the revelation of what a thing is. Thus God can be just because he is judging things in their completion. Penitence thus is how we manifest the type of thing we are so that God can be just in his judgement in terms of the totality of what we are.

12 comments for “Can Mercy Rob Justice?

  1. Alma 42:15 states that mercy cannot rob justice, not even one whit. Alma 34:25 states that the bowels of mercy overpower justice, making repentance possible. So how can mercy overpower justice without robbing it? Mercy must somehow compensate justice, which seems compatible with how Mormons teach atonement.

  2. My approach to justice is that X is evil iff:

    1) The moral community condemns/punishes X.
    2) The moral community condemns/punishes the failure to condemn/punish X.

    Thus, “the demands of justice” refer to the second condition and its relation to the first. The moral community could refer to any number of communities suggested within Mormon theology (the council of gods, coeternal intelligences, our Father’s Father, etc.)

    Clark takes it from there and does a great job…. even if I’m not totally comfortable importing Greek philosophy into the scriptures.

  3. I like this very much: “Penitence thus is how we manifest the type of thing we are so that God can be just in his judgement in terms of the totality of what we are.”

  4. Richard (2) I think this gets at the heart of Atonement theology – in a certain way none of them fully make sense. At best we get metaphors that don’t really clarify things too much. So I’m not surprised that in a certain sense Alma feels this too. There are some similarities of Alma 42 to Paul in Romans although ultimately it’s a very different argument. My sense is that this may thus reflect a long standing issue in Jewish thought. Perhaps there’s even something on the brass plates that gets at this tension.

    Regarding how to resolve 42 & 34 there’s a few ways to think of it. The first is that 34 is Amulek preaching and we just may have a difference of perspective. Honestly while there’s a certain logic to Alma’s preaching to his sons, this earlier record of Alma and Amulek teaching the Zoramites has a bit less developed theology. Amulek’s answer in 34:12-13 is that an infinite atonement solves all this. By infinite I assume he means unlimited and not how we tend to use infinite today (which is culturally biased by the mathematical development of infinite set theories starting in the late 19th century)

    But particularly what he means in 15 by overpower is I think that the sacrifice is so great that it’s more than justice could ever require. He doesn’t really explain how this infinite sacrifice does this IMO but I think he’s looking at it from the perspective of the law of Moses where part of repentance was sin offerings of various animals. (Who knows what the Nephites were using for these since they didn’t have the same fauna as in Palestine) To cover the worst sin, the law didn’t allow this vicarious sacrifice but the life of the sinner. Yet, he argues, Christ’s life is so great (presumably better than animals although he doesn’t make that Mosaic connection explicit), that it is sufficient to be a sin offering. In other words he’s presupposing the Mosaic law as law. Thus what justice can’t rob is this set of laws. (This is where it’s unlike Paul in Romans in some ways) So Christ’s sacrifice is a blood sacrifice ala the law of Moses and because it’s infinite it does the job of all blood sacrifices and that’s why sin sacrifices aren’t necessary anymore. So ‘overpower’ just means ‘more than enough’ not that it robs justice.

    Alma 42 on the other hand Alma sees this not in terms of the law of Moses and blood sacrifice but in terms of the completion of the person. Thus the huge importance of the resurrection for him. To him what fulfills justice is thus not Christ’s sacrifice but Christ’s resurrection which makes us the kind of thing we are. So to Alma the key is that the “desires of their hearts” (41:3) are restored in a complete and actual resurrection. It’s how works and desires are reconciled. That said Almulek’s earlier view in terms of the law of Moses is in Alma’s take as well. “But there is a law given, and a apunishment affixed, and a brepentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth.” (42:22) So this notion of repentance isn’t quite how we think of repentance but is a view in which repentance is actually part of the law of Moses, as understood by 1st century BC Nephites. (Again I’d assume evolution from how it was seen at the time of Josiah – clearly there was some among the Palestinian Jews returning for exile too)

    I think the reason for the different emphasis from Amulek is primarily that Corianton had the view of a kind of extreme universalism (which seemed a constant problem for the Nephites). That is since Christ has this sacrifice, we can sin and then repent and everything’s fine. It’s even possible Corianton got this idea from Amulek’s sermon — who knows. So Alma’s emphasizing the notion of restoration to show why this isn’t the case.

    Jeff (4) I just mentioned the Greeks to note how this problem of familial duty versus more widespread dispassionate rules for the polity was common. It’s definitely not just a Greek notion but appears to be a major evolution of civilizations across the near east in this rough time period. (From the rise of Assyria up through the Roman empire) It’s a constant theme everywhere. It’s just that unsurprisingly the Greeks thought through it pretty carefully. I’m not saying I like say the solution Socrates gives in The Republic though. And, as I said, it appears in lots of Greek plays like Antigone (which was performed on Partially Examined Life) deal with the same question.

  5. When I saw this post, I said, “Clark, cut it out, I was going to write on that!” Thanks for reading my mind. I think we’re thinking along the same tracks, but that the resolution Alma proposes to the conflict is less about our actions — which only seem to condemn us in Alma’s teaching — and more to do with accepting the atonement. For example, Alma started feeling joy as exquisite as his pain as soon as he called upon Jesus. He still did good thereafter, but he was saved by changing his desires.

    So how is mercy not robbing justice? Richard_K seems to point to some of the ways in which Alma hasn’t fully worked this out (although Alma 34 is actually Amulek, right?), but I think the solution actually lies in Alma’s feeling that God’s laws are natural laws, and that our guilt is what’s at issue less than settling the accounts of our acts.

    As usual, you’re pulling great threads. Thanks.

  6. I don’t think it’s any less about actions, but it’s about fulfilled nature thereby determine what actions we do. As I said it’s caught up in that sense of ne’eman or truth as faithfulness or reliability. So the resurrection makes us reliably the type of being we are. Therefore when God judges us for our works it’s in this completed sense. The idea is ultimately that God’s judgments would always be just, but the resurrection is what allows them to be just in this more complete form that’s impossible were we merely to be judged by our manifest actions at a given point.

    One can still criticize Alma for “what about past sins.” As I mentioned in my previous comment I think Alma’s remarks are more to be a corrective to Amulek’s.

  7. Well I think you just missed the point of Alma 42. God is merciful because he could exact justice right now by sending the angel to hunt down Adam and Eve and execute his word that they would die. But instead he places them on probation to give them a chance to make another choice than the one they made — to leave God’s presence. Justice is satisfied because God will eventually judge all according to their free actions. However, he is also merciful because rather than exact justice immediately he has allowed a time to repent, a time of mortal probation in which to turn around and walk back into God’s open arms extended to receive all that freely choose to turn around and walk back into his presence (I believe that the Hebrew concept of “shuv” which is translated repentance but must means to turn around and go the opposite way underlies what it going on here — but that is not essential to my interpretation of Alma 42). The atonement is accomplished because we are made free to choose and thus can be held accountable for our actions. Thus God is both just and merciful because he places us on probation rather than exacting punishment immediately.

  8. Blake, that’s part of it for sure. The idea that God gives us a time to choose what we want to be. I didn’t address the probationary period theology but I certainly don’t dismiss it. I’ve written about the importance both theologically and as a general type of a space or clearing where freedom is possible. Here I’m presupposing that freedom is already possible so that a just judgment could be made.

    To your point though this is still part and parcel of the Hebrew notion of truth and reliability. The very notion of truth for things entails that a reliable judgment can’t be made from a single moment. So the probationary state is necessary so the thing can show itself to be the thing it is. This ends up being an important point in Hazony’s argument. To quote from his book

    In the same way, we know the seed is true only after it has grown into the vine we had hoped it would become; that a man is true only after he has withstood the temptation to corrupt judgment; and so forth. In every case, we find that the truth or falsity of the object is something that cannot be determined when first one comes across it, but only once it has “stood the test of time.” To say of an object that it is reliable, or that it is true, then, is to say that the object in question has done what we had hoped it would do despite the hardships thrown up by changing circumstance.

    Relative to the probationary state the main emphasis in the Book of Mormon going back at least to Lehi is the idea of a balance of temptations. That is we are enticed by the good and by the evil so we can choose to be what we want to be. The reason the probationary state is functionally possible is precisely because of the element I brought up where the atonement makes it so we aren’t judged by a single act. That in turn depends upon a combination of atonement as sin offering and atonement as completion.

    I’ll try and do an other post later this week on the space for freedom issue. I’ve had a paper on that half-finsihed for SMPT for more than a decade. I’ve just never quite managed to put it into a form that would work for people not as well versed in some technical areas such as the clearing in Heidegger’s phenomenology or similar notions in neoplatonism of kabbalism.

    Edit: I should mention I did a post on Hazony on Jeremiah’s epistemology as well at my blog. While I think Hazony is less convincing on these more general epistemological arguments (and he definitely pushes it too broadly in terms of reading from Jeremiah to the OT in general) I think it’s interesting to consider how that might have reflected Lehi’s own views. Indeed I think it makes for an interesting context to 2 Ne 2 which in turn has an influence on Alma 42. (I also suspect that the brass plates had a somewhat different second creation story than we have in Gen 2-3 which then manifests in those areas as well as a few others)

  9. Thanks, Clark for starting this fascinating conversation. Its bringing the deep thinkers out for sure. I’m just dipping my toes in these deep waters.

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