God’s Justice and God’s Mercy: A Matter of Spiritual Physics

[Alternate titles: Theological Complements, Not Opposites; Not James, Severus, and Jacob’s Allegory of the Olive Tree]

An Olive Tree in Gethsemane

The following is an excerpt I had to mostly cut out of The Hero Doctrine for length reasons. It is taken from the chapter, “A Mirror of God.”

This will lead directly into my next post on Thursday, about James and Severus and the allegory of the olive tree (though that one is not part of the book).

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God abides by perfect justice. He both sets forth laws and is Himself governed by them. It is a theological misconception that certain behaviors and actions in this world are moral because God says they are, or rather, that God’s ways are moral because they are God’s. This is absolutely false. In the words of Alma, “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13). He acts within the boundaries of higher law, and gives His children lower laws by which they can eventually ascend to His level.

God’s law stretches beyond moral boundaries to the physical laws that define and give shape to this mortal world. Without allowances, without mercy and miracles, nature is an extreme capitalistic world—making its inhabitants both free to rise and free to fall—and is built on physical, temporal cause and effect, choice and accountability, and cold hard justice—laws without empathy. The strongest survive, the fittest continue on. Those are the hard truths of the natural world, where mercy does not exist, only justice.

Now, because God is also a God of miracles, He is also a God of mercy. Miracles are exceptions to physical law, moments when higher law set forth by God overrides the lower law He has previously given to govern nature. His mercy is expressed similarly, in providing exceptions to spiritual law through the system of repentance and forgiveness (Mormon 9:21).

So how can He be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful? Those two seem to be opposites, but indeed they are actually complements. For mercy to have meaning, justice must be first established. In God’s kingdom, justice is the law, and mercy is the exception to the law. Mercy cannot, by definition, be institutionalized as law because the very function of mercy is that it actually breaks the law, and so relies upon a system of justice already in place. A world based entirely on mercy would have no law whatsoever, including physical, chemical, or biological law, and existence would be impossible. It can be seen, then, that God’s dual natures of justice and mercy are ingrained in the very fabric of our reality, in the foundation of life as we know it.

But mercy can be granted on a case-by-case basis; Christ is willing to grant His mercy to all those who willingly come unto Him. Mercy can, therefore, be applied to all, but only individually, not as a blanket universal application. That mercy depends on the individual’s relationship with Christ. This is the importance and necessity of developing such a relationship, of knowing God and Jesus Christ.

Mercy as universal law would be, in truth, at the heart of Satan’s plan. Negating consequences of actions and offering eternal life to everyone regardless of their sinful state nullifies agency, for without consequences, choices would have no meaning, and we would have no cause to grow or change. We believe, on more than one level, the law of the harvest, found many places in scripture: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). According to that law, the law of justice, outcomes cannot be artificially equalized in God’s kingdom, except by the miracle of the Atonement, the ultimate tender mercy. Only through Christ’s sacrifice can the law of justice be sated and the effect of our wrong choices be wiped away. Thus it is only after law (and hence justice) is implemented that God provides ways around it.

Furthermore, God expects us to work within spiritual law if we desire to join Him in the next life. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Christ explains, “Except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory”—meaning celestial glory— “Receive ye, therefore, my law” (D&C 132:21, 24). It is simply a matter of what we might call spiritual physics—imperfection cannot coexist with perfection. This isn’t a choice on Heavenly Father’s part, but a framing feature of the universe. It is the reason Christ needed to perform the Atonement in the first place, the act which satisfied justice while mercifully allowing imperfect beings access to the highest glory. A being willfully untouched by the Atonement cannot reside with God in “everlasting burnings”  without being spiritually consumed. Again, that is not the result of God’s punishment, but that of the individual’s choices. The Atonement reaches out heaven’s hand to earth to lift us up, as Christ descended and was lifted up, and it is up to us to grab hold or turn away. Too many, because of ignorance, choose the latter.

Elder Quentin L. Cook writes, “One of the great distortions of the Apostasy was that it cast God the Father’s plan of salvation as overwhelmingly harsh. Frederic Farrar, the Anglican church leader, classical scholar, believer, and highly regarded author of Life of Christ, lamented that most Christian churches view hell and damnation incorrectly as a result of translation errors from Hebrew and Greek to English in the King James Version of the Bible.”

Our view of Heavenly Father and His glorious Plan is, of course, entirely different. We understand that God’s love and mercy have given us everything we have, and may give us everything Heavenly Father has too, should we successfully keep His commandments and endure to the end.

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