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Monday, August 18, 2008

Justice, mercy, forgiveness, the atonement, and Alma 42

I'm going to start by first quoting some verses from Alma 42

15 And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.

24 For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.

In Alma 42, as well as in other scripture and literature, justice is personified, meaning it is given attributes or characteristics of a human. For example in verse 24, "justice exerciseth all HIS demands". In verse 15, "the demands of justice". While this makes for interesting writing, I don't think it helps in understanding the concept. Justice is not a person, justice can't demand anything. People demand justice. So in the context of Alma 42, WHO is demanding justice?

Another question is that of the relationship between justice and forgiveness. If God forgives us, then why does he still demand justice (payment of the debt = atonement). If someone owes me money, but I forgive the debt, I can't expect payment. Forgiving the debt means that the payment doesn't need to be paid anymore. This has been discussed a bit here.

As I've discussed this with several different people, I've run across several different theories about God, justice and forgiveness. I'm going to try to summarize them here.

Theory 1 God freely forgives. It is not God that demands justice (payment) but an outside "organization" (council of gods, society of gods, etc.). This may be viewed much like our earthly system of law and society. Perhaps you steal my wallet. When the police finally catch up with you, they find that you have spent all my money, as well as used my credit card. If I demanded justice, you would need to pay me back, but let's say that I forgive you and don't require that the debt be paid. That's not the end of it. There is an outside organization (police, courts, society) that may require a punishment anyway, perhaps paying a fine or jail time. In this theory Christ’s atonement would be paying the debt to the "organization"

Theory 2 God freely forgives. It is not God that demand justice but the people who are wronged and don't forgive. For example, you punch me in the nose. You have obviously offended (sinned against) me because you punched me in the nose, but you have also offended (sinned against) God because he asked you not to punch people in the nose. With this theory, God forgives you for sinning against him and does not require any payment. I now have the choice to forgive or demand justice. If I forgive you then it is over. No justice or payment is required. I don't get to hit you back, the debt is forgiven. Because all is forgiven, there is not a debt to be paid and Christ’s atonement is not involved in this situation. If I don't forgive you and demand justice, then a payment is required. This is where the atonement comes in. In this theory Christ’s atonement would be paying the debt to all those who don't forgive, but demand justice.

Theory 3 God freely forgives. At this point justice is no longer demanded. But although God forgives the debt, it is still there, unpaid. He just isn't demanding payment. It would be analogous to the following situation. You rack up a huge debt on your credit card. Then the credit card company says, hey, you know what, don't worry about paying it. They aren't going to wipe the debt away, it will still show up on credit reports and things like that. You just don't every have to pay it. In this theory Christ's atonement pays the debt to God so you can have a clean "record"

Theory 4 God doesn't forgive. It is he that demands justice. Christ pays the debt and then it is Christ that has the right to demand justice. Christ freely forgives, meaning he forgives and doesn't require that the debt still be paid. In this theory Christ’s atonement would be paying the debt to God.

Theory 5 God doesn't forgive the debt, but forgives the debtor. This is kind of like a status thing. Justice is demanded. God doesn't forgive the debt, meaning it still needs to be paid, but when he forgives the debtor, the debtor is brought back up to the same relationship status they were in prior to incurring the debt. In this theory Christ’s atonement would be paying the debt to God.

Each of them seem to have their own problems. What do you think? What do you see as problems with each theory? What is good about them? Do you have any modifications or other theories that will help explain justice, forgiveness, and the atonement?

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