Today’s lesson, entitled The Great Plan of Happiness, comes from three chapters in Alma, chapters 40 through 42. Even though there are only 72 verses, and we’re certainly not going to talk about all of them, these chapters are packed to the gills with goodness. In them we will learn some profound and important doctrines give us a greater understanding of life after death, our future resurrection, and the mercy that is available to us through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, an event that would occur about 104 years into the future.
In fact, chapter 42 is one of the most profound and important chapters in the Book of Mormon about the Atonement of Christ. Don’t speed-read through that one.
Last week we learned a little about one of Alma’s missionary sons, Corianton, and some of the problems that he was facing, and heard some of his father’s counsel on how to get back on track. The three chapters from today’s reading finish that counsel.
You see, Alma thought that the problem Corianton was having was due to Corianton’s misunderstanding of some basic fundamental truths. In fact, there are four of them. Here they are:
1. From 39:16 — Why is it important to be preach the Gospel before Christ actually comes to earth?
2. From 40:1 — How can dead people be resurrected?
3. From 41:1 — What does it mean when we say things will be restored in the resurrection?
4. From 42:1 — Why would a loving God allow a sinner to suffer eternally?
These are some good questions that a missionary should know the answers to. Of course, in those days, even Alma didn’t have all the answers to these questions. Alma says he prayed diligently for answers but only received bits and pieces. Today, because we have been privileged to have the fullness of the gospel restored to us, we can fill in some of the gaps that even the prophet Alma wasn’t privy to—or at least wasn’t permitted to write about.
Knowledge vs. Faith
But even for us, these things aren’t fully understood. There are still some mysteries that are retained by God. For instance, how can scattered bits of dust be instantaneously reassembled to form hearts and brains and bones and skin and then be elevated to an incorruptible and non-decaying state? And then, how does our spirit enter into that body and become permanently bonded to it? How is the ordinance of resurrection performed? What are the words that are used? Well, we just don’t know. And probably we won’t know for years until we receive that ordinance after the Second Coming of Christ.
And we should be okay with that—after all, this is a religion that is designed to help us build faith and faithfulness. It is not designed to answer all of our questions up front—although those answers are promised if we remain faithful. There is a time and season for everything. For instance, only after we die will we learn about the other priesthood ordinances that occur on the other side of the veil; according to Brigham Young and Spencer Kimball, there are many of them. So we just don’t need to always have answers.
For example, after Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, look what happened to them! Ironically, they were immediately kicked out of the one place where they walked and talked with the creator of the heavens and the earth—they could have asked him anything. But after partaking of that fruit they were forced to leave the Garden of Eden and experienced spiritual death—separation from God. They spent the rest of their extremely extended lives learning how to live by faith. The learned that they gained knowledge only after they exercised faith. And it took them centuries to learn the things they needed to learn.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil is a symbol of the things of that are valued in a telestial sphere—the sphere where Satan currently reigns with blood and horror. In a telestial world knowledge and science and technology and things that you can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and feel seem to be far more important than faith and religion. In fact, science is the religion of our telestial world. But we were not created to remain mere telestial beings! We are supposed to rise above that!
Adam and Eve learned that faith always trumps knowledge. Search the scriptures and you’ll find that to be true. But when you combine the two together—now you have something that is more than the sum of its parts.
In my opinion we should constantly be supplementing our faith with knowledge—just make sure you place more energy on acquiring faith than acquiring knowledge.
And that’s coming from a guy who loves to learn. For example, I’ve spent scores of hours preparing for this lesson—reading dozens of papers and dozens of chapters from dozens of books. Honestly, I do it because it gives me an excuse to study. Given a chance, I’d be a perpetual life-long student—forever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth.
But early in my life, in fact after reading and praying about the Book of Mormon as a 10-year-old, I received my first witness of this great book and learned this lesson—knowledge won’t save me, but faith sure can.
In the back of the August Ensign there’s a little excerpt written by one of our former apostles, Matthew Cowley. Some of you who are older may recognize this man who was blessed with extraordinary faith. Here’s what he said at a BYU devotional shortly before he died in 1953:
I was called to a home in a little village in New Zealand one day. There the Relief Society sisters were preparing the body of one of our Saints. They had placed his body in front of the big house, as they call it, the house where the people come to wail and weep and mourn over the dead, when in rushed the dead man’s brother. He said, “Administer to him.”
And the young natives said, “Why, you shouldn’t do that. He’s dead.”
“You do it!”
I had [a faithful old Maori] with me. … The younger native got down on his knees and he anointed this man. Then this great old sage got down and blessed him and commanded him to rise.
You should have seen the Relief Society sisters scatter. He sat up and said, “Send for the elders; I don’t feel very well.” … We told him he had just been administered to, and he said, “Oh, that was it.” He said, “I was dead. I could feel life coming back into me just like a blanket unrolling.” He outlived the brother that came in and told us to administer to him. …
From “Miracles,” Ensign, August 2016. Adapted from an article adapted from a talk given at a Brigham Young University devotional on February 18, 1953. Punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing standardized.
I’m not sure why I went off on that tangent about knowledge and faith—but it felt good, didn’t it? Now let’s jump back into the lesson and see what Alma has to offer us. He’s going to tell us exactly who we need to have faith in.
Chapter 40 starts off by answering some basic questions about the resurrection.
Verse 2 says there is no resurrection until after the coming of Christ.
Verse 3 says that Christ brings to pass the resurrection.
Verse 4 says that there is a time appointed that all shall come forth from the dead but that only God knows that timeframe.
And verse 6 says this:
6 Now there must needs be a space betwixt the time of death and the time of the resurrection.
I like the word choice here. Alma talks about space between two different times. As I pondered over that phrase I remembered something from my old high school physics class. There we learned that space and time are, in a way, the same thing. The more space that is between two objects, the more time you spend moving between those objects. They measure the same phenomenon—one in distance and one in time that it takes to cover that distance. That’s why we say that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, and that 5.88 trillion miles is one light year—the amount of time it takes light to travel that distance in a vacuum.
When I was in high school I learned that nothing could travel faster than that cosmic speed limit. But 17 years later, several independent scientists found that under special circumstances, they made a pulse of light travel 300 times faster than the speed of light[i]. In essence, the light particle exited the chamber even before it was seen entering it. It was like seeing into the future. Now there are some interesting implications in there and might help explain why God is omniscient, but we simply don’t have time to discuss that now.
Now let’s talk a little more about what happens in that space of time between death and the resurrection. Verses 11-14 sheds some light on this topic.
11 Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
Apostles George Q. Cannon and Bruce R. McConkie clarified this by saying that Alma was not intending to covey the idea that when we die we are immediately ushered into the personal presence of God but that we return to live in a spiritual existence, like the one we experienced before we were born. (Gospel Truth, p.58; Mormon Doctrine, 402)
Next, Alma explains that as soon as we die, our spirit experiences a partial judgement.
12 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.
About this state of rest, it doesn’t really mean rest as in we’re sitting around on puffy clouds playing harps and eating spiritual bonbons. It means we rest from the worldly cares and struggles that were associated with our physical bodies. We are at rest because our spirits will be free to think and act with a renewed capacity and enthusiasm like we experienced when we were younger—for some of us, much younger.
But even though it is a state of happiness, we will not be able to receive a fullness of joy. According to D&C 93, 33-34, we really need resurrected body to receive a fullness of joy. So we are, in a way, limited.
Now what happens if you end up not being one of the righteous ones? Well, let’s find out.
13 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.
Joseph Smith taught us that the wicked are their own tormenters. He said they are miserable because they “know that they come short of the glory that others enjoy and that they might have enjoyed themselves, and they are their own accusers.” (TPJS, p310) He also said, “The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as the lake burning with fire and brimstone. (TPJS, p357)
14 Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.
But don’t forget that this description was provided before Christ was resurrected and opened the borders between these two states. Things are always fairly bleak before the missionaries arrive.
Building on what Alma has taught us about the Spirit World, here is what the apostle Parley P. Pratt said:
The Spirit World is not the heaven where Jesus Christ, His Father, and other beings dwell, who have, by resurrection or tradition, ascended to eternal mansions and been crowned and seated on thrones of power; but it is an intermediate state, a probation, a place of preparation, improvement, instruction, or education, where spirits are chastened or improved, and where, if found worthy, they may be taught a knowledge of the Gospel.
In short, it is a place where the Gospel is preached, and where faith, repentance, hope and charity may be exercised, a place of waiting for the resurrection or redemption of the body; while, to those who deserve it, it is a place of punishment, or purgatory or hell, where spirits are buffeted till the day of redemption. As to its location, it is here on the very planet where we were born. (Key to Theology, Chapter 14)
Next, Alma goes into more detail about one of the fundamental principles of the Christian religion—the doctrine of the Resurrection. Let’s jump down to verse 23 to first define the term.
23 The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.
Here’s what our modern prophets have added. Let’s first start with Joseph Smith:
As concerning the resurrection, I will merely say that all men will come from the grave as they lie down, whether old or young; there will not be ‘added unto their stature one cubit,’ neither taken from it; all will be raised by the power of God, having spirit in their bodies, and not blood.” (TPJS, pp199-200)
And here’s what Joseph Smith’s nephew, President Joseph F. Smith said:
The body will come forth as it is laid to rest, for there is no growth or development in the grave. As it is laid down, so will it arise, and changes to perfection will come by the law of restitution. But the spirit will continue to expand and develop, and the body, after the resurrection will develop to the full stature of man. (Gospel Doctrine, p449)
Now as you read this chapter, you’ll see that Alma was a little unsure about the order of the Resurrection, but in verse 20 he gave it as his opinion that “the souls and the bodies are reunited, of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven”.
Through hindsight and additional modern revelation, we now know that there was indeed a general resurrection at the time of the resurrection of Christ. Some of the righteous were resurrected at that time, perhaps because they needed bodies to help move the work forward in future dispensations. But we do not know if others have been resurrected since then. We think not, but we don’t know for sure.
We do know, that this resurrection, still called the “first resurrection” will occur at the Second Coming of Christ and continue through the Millennium for those who have lived Celestial and Terrestrial laws. But those people who have lived Telestial laws, according to Joseph Fielding Smith, who are the liars, sorcerers, and adulterers, and all who love and make a lie—these people will not be raised until the end of the Millennium.
In verse 26 we read about one other group who will be resurrected, but not with bodies that are telestial, terrestrial, or celestial, but with some sort of body nonetheless. These are they who willing and knowingly choose to separate themselves from God—these are they who will die the second spiritual death.
26 But behold, an awful death cometh upon the wicked; for they die as to things pertaining to things of righteousness; for they are unclean, and no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God; but they are cast out, and consigned to partake of the fruits of their labors or their works, which have been evil; and they drink the dregs of a bitter cup.
According to Bruce R. McConkie:
Eventually, all are redeemed from spiritual death except those who have “sinned unto death”, that is, those who are destined to be sons of perdition. John teaches this by saying that after death and hell have delivered up the dead which are in them, then death and hell shall be “cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” And thus the Lord said in our day that the sons of perdition are “the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power” meaning any power after the resurrection. (Mormon Doctrine, p758)
After providing this explanation, it seems Corianton still had concerns, so Alma continues in Chapter 41. After talking for a but about how you reap in the afterlife what you have sowed in this life, Corianton’s big question was why can’t wickedness bring happiness. After all, there’s an awful lot of wicked people out there who seem to be happy.
10 Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.
11 And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.
So why can’t wickedness bring happiness? Because it is contrary to our divine nature—the nature we inherited from our Heavenly Father. We are celestial beings temporarily clothed with telestial bodies.
Abraham Lincoln once said:
When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion. (Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, volume III, chapter XIV, William H. Herndon and Jesse William Weik)
Well, that’s not a bad religion. If we all did that, we’d all be great Terrestrial citizens. But that assumes that we haven’t decided to put a bushel over the Light of Christ—the conscience we all received as we entered this world. And it also assumes that our definition of right and wrong still aligns with the definition provided by God.
Elder Marion D. Hanks said:
We live in a universe of moral law. We can choose evil and get what we want right now and then pay for it afterward. Or we can choose good and pay for it first, before we get it. So it is with a life of honesty and responsibility, of sexual purity, of integrity, of selfless service. The blessing is substantial and sweet and satisfying — worth everything, worth working and waiting for. (CR, Oct 1967)
Why do you think that some people who live a life of sin seem to be as happy as people who strive to obey the commandments? It is a fair question. Jesus himself gave the answer to the Nephites 106 years later. Here’s what he said in 3 Nephi 27:11-12:
But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return.
For their works do follow them, for it is because of their works that they are hewn down; therefore remember the things that I have told you.
President Ezra Taft Benson said:
While [people] may take some temporary pleasure in sin, the end result is unhappiness…. Sin creates disharmony with God and is depressing to the spirit. (CR, Oct 1974)
Before we leave this chapter, let me just point out a simple bit of chiasmus that jumped out at me. Look down at the middle of verse 13, immediately after the em dash, through the first two phrases of verse 14.
13 O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil 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 merciful.
14 Therefore, my son, see that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again.
Let me diagram this for you.
—Good for that which is good
——Righteous for that which is righteous
———Just for that which is just
————Merciful for that which is merciful
—————Therefore, my son
————See that you are merciful
—And do good continually.
Remember, chiastic phrases are not just poetic, but are a stamp of authenticity that the inspired author is merely repeating what he has been taught by the voice of God or his ministering angels.
What this verse is saying is that we need to do good if we have to have good things restored to us. You have to sow if you want to reap. Just be careful what you sow.
Now let’s jump into what I described earlier as the best chapter in the entire Book of Mormon. There are actually a number of best chapters in my estimation—but this one, chapter 42, is definitely the best as it pertains to the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
The scriptures say (or strongly suggest) that we are imperfect, lost, fallen, corrupted, unclean, unworthy, impure, unholy, sinful, carnal, sensual, and devilish. That being the case, what do we deserve as a final reward for our mortal experiences? To put it plainly, we deserve to go to hell. Since “no unclean thing can dwell with God . . .” (1 Nephi 10:21), and since “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” honestly, we have no legitimate claim on heaven. But Heavenly Father still loves us anyway. In fact, verse one says that God does not hate us when we sin. He desperately wants us to return to him—but in his way, through sincere repentance and taking advantage of the Atonement of Christ.
2 Now behold, my son, I will explain this thing unto thee. For behold, after the Lord God sent our first parents forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground, from whence they were taken—yea, he drew out the man, and he placed at the east end of the garden of Eden, cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life—
3 Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit [and live forever in his sins]—
This account is speaking figuratively. The partaking of the fruit of the etz ha-da’at tov va-ra (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) simply means that they chose to become mortals and experience not just the good, but things that are not good.
You see, only in a Telestial world, where you have been cut off from the presence of God, will you be able to encounter things that are not so good. In fact, you will encounter Satan and his miserable masses of minions who are hell-bent on persuading mortals to become as miserable as they are. And if you choose not to give in to temptation, and really want to experience things that are truly good, then you have to make the conscious choice to forego the knowledge that comes from your bodily senses and allow your spirit to be free to exercise faith to follow an unseen God. According to Elder McConkie:
In partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our first parents complied with whatever laws were involved so that their bodies would change from their state of paradisiacal immortality to a state of natural mortality. (Bruce R. McConkie, Christ and the Creation, Ensign, June 1982, p. 15.)
Now let us continue in verse 4.
4 And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.
Notice that we have this time on earth given to us for two reasons. The first is to repent. But the second is to learn how to serve God. You see every minute of every day we need to decide to do one of two things: either go the right way or go the wrong way. We also believe it is never too late to repent and choose the right because it certainly matters which way we are facing on the path to the tree of life. But the amount of time we spend on the journey is also vitally important.
You see, the journey gives us time to practice serving God. And he said the best way to do that is to always remember him and keep his commandments, which basically boils down to loving everyone as he loves them. And I don’t know about you, but I need lots and lots of practice time to develop the character and the virtues and the reflexes and the habits that indicate that I am someone who can be trusted to regularly choose the right.
5 For behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever (in his sins), according to the word of God, having no space (time) for repentance; yea, and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated.
6 But behold, it was appointed unto man to die—therefore, as they were cut off from the tree of life they should be cut off from the face of the earth—and man became lost forever, yea, they became fallen man.
So Adam and Eve brought about their fallen condition, mortality, by partaking of the forbidden fruit. As a result, all of their descendants have been and will be conceived into a world of sin—a world where we separate ourselves from the presence of God because of our individual and collective wickedness.
In a way, sin is implanted into our nature at conception, just as death is implanted into us. Both of these—sin and death—are present only in seed form at conception, and therefore a child is neither dead nor sinful when born. But sin and death do emerge as a result of human nature as we grow up. Sin comes naturally, just as does death.
Gerald N. Lund has written:
If we know good from evil and then sin (which, according to Paul, all men do), then we must talk about a second fall. This is not the fall of Adam. This is one’s own personal fall. This fall, which our own, not Adam’s transgression brings about, requires redemption as surely as mankind needed redemption from the consequences of Adam’s fall. We’ll term this the “fall of me.”
Now, since we have no one to blame for this except ourselves, our redemption becomes conditional upon our actions. This is what Lehi meant [2 Nephi 2:7] when he said that the sacrifice that the Messiah offered to satisfy the ends of the law is viable only for those with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. (Jesus Christ, Key to the Plan of Salvation, p. 95.)
Now let’s continue with verse 7.
7 And now, ye see by this that our first parents were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own will.
8 Now behold, it was not expedient that man should be reclaimed from this temporal death, for that would destroy the great plan of happiness.
9 Therefore, as the soul could never die, and the fall had brought upon all mankind a spiritual death as well as a temporal, that is, they were cut off from the presence of the Lord, it was expedient that mankind should be reclaimed from this spiritual death.
10 Therefore, as they had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature, this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state.
11 And now remember, my son, if it were not for the plan of redemption, (laying it aside) as soon as they were dead their souls were miserable, being cut off from the presence of the Lord.
Nephi also taught that without the atonement we would have been angels to the devil, and that doesn’t sound very good at all (2 Nephi 9:9).
12 And now, there was no means to reclaim men from this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience;
13 Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.
For the record, God cannot cease to be God. Alma is using this phrase as a teaching method. This is an argument to the impossible. God will never do anything that would cause himself to cease to be God.
14 And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.
Having placed the plan of justice in effect, and having made man accountable, the Lord could now introduce another plan to make it possible to overcome spiritual death, a plan that would enable God to be both just and merciful.
In his book, Christ and the New Covenant, Jeffrey R. Holland wrote:
This loving, charitable, and merciful generosity of the Savior raises the inevitable question of the place of justice in his working out of the Atonement. Obviously the demands of justice require that penalties must be paid for violation of the law. Adam transgressed and so have all of us; thus the judgment of death (physically) and the consequences of hell (spiritually) is pronounced as a just reward.
Furthermore, once guilty, none of us could personally do anything to overcome that fate. We do not have in us the seeds of immortality allowing us to conquer death physically, and we have not been perfect in our behavior, thus forfeiting the purity that would let us return to the presence of God spiritually.
Furthermore, God cannot simply turn a blind eye to the breaking of divine law, because in so doing he would dishonor justice and would ‘cease to be God,’ which thing he would never do.
The sorry truth for mortal men and women was, then, that ‘there was no means to reclaim [them] from this fallen state which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience.’ (Alma 42:12) “‘Thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.’ (Alma 42:14)” (Christ And The New Covenant, p. 226)
Let’s resume with verse 15.
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.
So mercy is only available for those who do what Jesus asked us to do, which is to sincerely repent when we do wrong, strive to be consistently faithful and obedient, and love and serve God and our fellow man with all of our might forever more. But if we don’t do those things, then the atonement does not cover us, and we will not escape the clutches of justice, and we will need lots of time and space to pay the penalty of our disobedience. Hence, the need for a post-mortal spirit world and the need for a 1000-year millennial resting period before the final wrap up scene of the post-millennial war and destruction of the wicked, followed by the ultimate celestialization of our long-suffering earth.
Elder McConkie wrote:
So infinite in scope is the plan of mercy that it applies to the living and the dead. Those who did not have the opportunity to subject themselves by repentance to the plan of mercy while in this life, but who would have done so had the opportunity been afforded them, will have their chance in the spirit world; they shall then be saved from the grasp of justice and, reaping the full blessings of mercy, shall go on to celestial reward.
‘There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God,’ the Prophet said. ‘All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin, which hath no forgiveness, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. There is a way to release the spirits of the dead; that is by the power and authority of the priesthood — by binding and loosing on earth. This doctrine appears glorious, inasmuch as it exhibits the greatness of divine compassion and benevolence in the extent of the plan of human salvation.’ (Teachings, pp. 191-192.)” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 486))
And now, let continue with Alma’s teaching to Corianton and us, with verse 16:
16 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.
17 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?
Because Heavenly Father is a God of order, everything he does must be just and impartial. So there has been a law of justice established that says that if you break the law you pay the agreed-upon penalty. But there has also been a law of mercy established, which basically allows for someone else who is willing and able to step up and assume the penalty for another’s misdeeds. In the end, both the laws of mercy and justice are completely satisfied. And this is exactly what the Savior did for us. He then set extremely generous repayment terms—terms which are not too hard to bear and are designed to bless our lives forever.
18 Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
According to President Harold B. Lee, “remorse or burning of conscience “is the greatest hell one can suffer.” It is our thoughts that will condemn us, and when coupled with the earthly and heavenly records that have been kept of us, we will have a bright recollection of our lives. If we fail to reach the highest degree of glory, and realize what we have lost, we will be quite miserable for ever. You thought it was tough hearing your spouse play the “if only” game—if only we did this or did that things would be different. Can you imagine playing that game for all eternity? Of course, if you don’t make the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, we won’t have our spouses with us—so that’s a plus. 🙂
19 Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?
20 And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.
21 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?
In his book, With Full Purpose of Heart, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, explained Alma’s teachings in these words:
Unlike the changeable laws of man, the laws of God are fixed and permanent, “irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world” (D&C 130:20). These laws of God are likewise concerned with justice. The idea of justice as what one deserves is the fundamental premise of all scriptures that speak of men’s being judged according to their works….
According to eternal law, the consequences that follow from the justice of God are severe and permanent. When a commandment is broken, a commensurate penalty is imposed. This happens automatically. Punishments prescribed by the laws of man only follow the judge’s action, but under the laws of God the consequences and penalties of sin are inherent in the act. (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, With Full Purpose of Heart, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002, pp. 114-116.)
Alma teaches this very doctrine in the next verse, verse 22:
22 But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
President J. Reuben Clark, a member of the First Presidentcy for over 28 years, once said:
I believe that our Heavenly Father wants to save every one of his children. I do not think he intends to shut any of us off because of some slight transgression, some slight failure to observe some rule or regulation… I believe that in his justice and mercy, he will give us the maximum reward for our acts, give us all that he can give, and in the reverse, I believe that he will impose upon us the minimum penalty which it is possible for him to impose. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., CR 30 Sep 1955, 24)
Isn’t that wonderful. I believe this to be true too. In my own life, my loving parents always gave me maximum rewards for good behavior and minimum penalties for bad behavior. I can’t imagine Heavenly Father doing anything differently.
23 But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.
I really like what Bruce C. Hafen wrote in one of his great entries in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. He said:
Mercy is thus rehabilitative, not retributive or arbitrary. The Lord asks repentance from a transgressor, not to compensate the Savior for paying the debt of justice, but to induce the transgressor to undertake a meaningful process of personal development toward a Christlike nature.
At the same time, mercy depends ultimately on the Lord’s extension of unmerited grace. Even though conditioned on repentance for personal sins, mercy is never fully ‘earned’ by its recipients. Repentance is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of salvation and exaltation. (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 776)
Even as we repent, we can never fully pay for our sins. Our ability to make full restitution is almost always impossible. Only a divine being—the Son of God—so incredibly beloved by all the intelligences of the universe, could pay our debt to justice.
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.
Our future resurrection will be an act of mercy that the Savior free gave to all us. It is an unconditional gift. But we are redeemed from the effects of our personal sins only on condition of our obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.
25 What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.
26 And thus God bringeth about his great and eternal purposes, which were prepared from the foundation of the world. And thus cometh about the salvation and the redemption of men, and also their destruction and misery.
27 Therefore, O my son, whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds.
28 If he has desired to do evil, and has not repented in his days, behold, evil shall be done unto him, according to the restoration of God.
29 And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.
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.
31 And now, O my son, ye are called of God to preach the word unto this people. And now, my son, go thy way, declare the word with truth and soberness, that thou mayest bring souls unto repentance, that the great plan of mercy may have claim upon them. And may God grant unto you even according to my words. Amen.
[i] Glanz, James. “Faster Than Light, Maybe, But Not Back to the Future” , May 30, 2000, New York Times , http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/30/science/faster-than-light-maybe-but-not-back-to-the-future.html?pagewanted=all)