So why am I writing about this? Despite not believing LDS theology anymore, I still get these itches to deconstruct my past fundamentalist worldview. Writing it out is good therapy. It's like having been raised in a religion that believes that Star Trek is real, truly believing it was real for a few decades and then suddenly realizing that it isn't. (Sorry if that sounds insulting. I can't think of a less-insulting way to describe how it feels to me.) Sometimes I just get an overwhelming desire to write out why two-dimensional space battles with sounds and lasers that travel like slow projectiles make no sense or that "plasma conduit" is an overused meaningless thought-terminating cliché. Probably nobody cares what I think about this and they probably shouldn't. But it feels good to write about all this stuff and try to unpack it anyway. It was such a big part of my life for so long and I did firmly believed it until I was 32 years old. Plus, these writings sometimes lead to interesting conversations with friends when I share my thoughts. I hope I don't offend anyone with anything I write and I'd love to discuss this stuff with anyone who can discuss ideas without taking criticism of ideas personally.
To get started, what is the *Justice* vs *Mercy* dichotomy in LDS theology? Where does it come from? Why did I put asterisks around these words? Well, *Justice* vs *Mercy* is all a part of the justification for atonement theology. It holds that *Justice* (a cosmic law of sorts) requires that any sin (even the smallest) incurs an infinite debt that the perpetrator cannot possibly pay and will be punished for permanently. The only possible way to pay the debt is to have a sinless person be an infinite sacrifice. This satisfies the infinite debt and the person who sinned then is required to do some things by Jesus (the infinite sacrifice) to take advantage of their debt being paid off. I put asterisks around the theological concepts to separate them from their regular dictionary definitions, which I will also use and hopefully it won't be too confusing because they will look different.
I probably need to stop at this point and point out some background information. The *Justice* vs *Mercy* dichotomy is a concept that won't be totally unfamiliar to some flavors of Christianity but in LDS theology they are really fleshed out in the Book of Mormon in Alma Chapter 42. Reading that is a good refresher of the LDS stance. Also, non-LDS readers should probably know that LDS theology states that God and Jesus are separate beings. LDS people believe in a non-Trinitarian godhead, so when I talk about God and Jesus as if they are entirely separate, that is because that is how I was raised and that is the theology I am discussing today.
So as a summary, LDS theology posits that even the smallest of sins forces the sinner to incur an infinite debt with God. Jesus then steps in and pays that debt to God and then renegotiates the terms of the debt with the sinner in a more merciful way. *Justice* is satisfied because the infinite payment gets made.
The problem I see is that this is a "turtles all the way down" argument. It doesn't actually explain anything. It just pushes the problem down lower in the foundation where it isn't as visible. Why does the tiniest of sins force us to incur an infinite debt with God (which seems unjust)? Not answered. If Jesus can forgive the debt after paying it, why can't God just forgive the debt in the first place? Not answered. Why is God bound by a seemingly unjust law of *Justice* that doesn't allow him to forgive debts that are owed to him? Not answered. We are left with more quenstions than when we started.
Now just because we don't understand how the *Justice* vs *Mercy* dichotomy works, doesn't mean it isn't true. It could very well be, but it seems very strange that a perfect, just, and loving God would expect us to believe something that we can't possibly understand. An "Alpha God" might do that, but not a loving God.
The thing is, justice and mercy are not laws of physics but guiding moral principles. As such they must have moral utility in order to make any moral sense.
*Justice* that condemns everyone with an infinite punishment for the smallest (and finite) infractions doesn't seem just (fair, deserved). An atonement shouldn't be necessary to make justice just and fair. It should be baked in there to start with. Again, where does *Justice* come from? How and why does it bind God? No answers.
Additionally, the concept and very existence of *Justice* seems to impair self-improvement since it can easily lead to shame, hopelessness, and perfectionism especially with certain personality types (e.g. people who suffer from scrupulosity) since it states that even the smallest infractions makes one fundamentally unacceptable to God. It also leads people to lose track of the relative importance of large moral principles like kindness and leads to Pharisaical moral codes. See this talk from ElderBednar, where he gives an example of a man who broke up with a young woman because she didn't take out a second pair of earrings when she was told to, and then to my puzzlement he states that it isn't about earrings. Apparently it is about a person's willingness to make minutiae important. I also once read a Facebook post of the BYUI president chastising people for wearing pants that show ankle on campus. But really, why not? If all unatoned infractions lead to infinite punishment, there is really not much basis to say that one sin is much worse than another. This is actually the rationale in the American justice system for not giving the death penalty admittedly very heinous crimes like rape. You don't want a rapist to conclude that there is no down side to murdering their victims after perpetrating rape (as much as we would like as harsh a punishment as possible for rapists). Increasing seriousness of crime deserves increasing seriousness of punishment. At least, that should be the goal if the punishments are to deter further crimes.
Unfortunately, the skewing of moral priorities has happened in the LDS temple recommend interview over time. There is absolutely no question asking if the person is kind to others (the second most important moral principle, according to Jesus) but questions about things like coffee and tea consumption are viewed as extremely morally important. Let me say that again because it still mystifies me; temple worthiness interviewers don't ask about kindness! This seems at odds with the overarching messages in the New Testament like those of Jesus telling people to question the religious dogma of the time and focus on kindness to people over minutiae. Do the Pharisees reign again? I think that case can be made.
Now one thing that seems interesting to me is that LDS theology seems to be mixing pecuniary(money)/civil justice and criminal/moral justice as if they were the same thing. They are not. Let's clarify things.
If I sign a contract with someone and I decide to release the other party from their obligations in the contract, there is no miscarriage of justice. I am free to do that (and so is God). Also, a scenario where someone steps in and pays a debt for someone else is perfectly just, and the person who pays the debt could do that as part of a new contract. Nothing unjust there.
However, if someone commits a moral crime against me (and it seems to make more sense to classify sins as moral crimes, not breaches of contract), we can't substitute the punishment on someone else. For example, let's say that I am out for a walk one day and a guy named Doug jumps out of a bush and gives me a savage beating and then runs off. Someone films it and Doug is convicted in court. At the sentencing, a guy named Sam who has never broken the law jumps up in court and volunteers to go to jail for Doug. If the judge were to accept that, would moral justice be satisfied with that solution?
Thomas Paine says it better than I ever could in The Age of Reason:
"If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge."
The LDS church taught me when I was young that the Holy Ghost would confirm truths to me, probably through my feelings. The Holy Ghost has utterly failed to confirm the truth of *Justice* vs *Mercy* to me after decades of opportunity but this does not mean that I haven't felt confirmatory feelings of peace with respect to justice and mercy.
When reading Les Miserables, I felt deep in my soul that many times justice and mercy are one and the same; that they are not non-overlapping circles on a Venn diagram.
Recently I read A Monster Calls, a book about a young boy named Connor dealing with the fear of his mother's impending death. Under these difficult circumstances, he acts out by beating up a schoolyard bully and by breaking some of his grandmother's possessions. In each instance he is surprised that no one wants to punish him. In each case, when he asks them why they aren't going to punish him, the person in authority asks him, "What could possibly be the point?" I felt the truth of that deep in my bones.
And that is my main sticking point with respect to *Justice* in LDS theology. What could possibly be the point of small finite infractions incurring an infinite debt with God? *Justice* creates the (unjust) problem, requiring a theological Rube Goldberg machine to fix it. Without *Justice*, there is no problem. God is painted as the ultimate bureaucrat or a slave to some ultimate bureaucracy. *Justice* makes no sense and explains nothing.
It would make much more sense for a loving God to simply forgive what warrants forgiving and mete out punishments that are proportional to the crime with the purpose of teaching. After all, a Father/Mother's love for a child is the only metaphor I can use to understand a deity's love for mankind, and that is how I would treat my children. Am I better than God?
Post Script: A Trinitarian view of God actually makes this problem seem much smaller than the non-Trinitarian view of God in LDS theology. In the Trinitarian view, God and Jesus are somewhat the same entity so you have God sacrificing himself to make things right. Some (but not all) of the problems disappear.
Interestingly, if you look at the historical record in the early LDS church the theology seems to have started out as Trinitarian and then morphed into the theology of "three separate beings." For more information, see the Lectures on Faith, the original Book of Mormon text that refers to Mary as "The Mother of God" (later edited to say "The Mother of the Son of God") and the lack of any written references to "three separate beings" theology in any sources in the first few years of the LDS church. I think that is the background that makes the multiple versions of the first vision disturbing to the faith of some people. However, I think that Alma 42 was written with a Trinitarian view of the Godhead in mind, so it probably didn't originally have as much baggage as it came to have later, as the theology evolved.