Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Alma 34: The Celestial Justice System

Now that Alma has preached himself hoarse, his loyal sidekick Amulek gets up to throw his two cents in.

Not to Keep Harping on How Dumb God is, But...
In verse 9, Amulek lays out the Plan of Salvation with stark simplicity:
For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
Let's apply this logic to a more familiar setting.  I'm going to start a business.  Unfortunately, my employees will not be perfect.  Rather than do something reasonable like give crappy raises to the people who screw up the most, I'm just going to send one of my VPs to a company meeting and have him tell my employees this:
You guys all suck.  But it's okay, because one day, we're going to hire some new guy who's actually good at this job, and instead of spreading the punishment out across each of you according to how much you suck individually, we're just going to fire that dude so that we don't have to fire any of you.
Yeah, it's not one hundred percent analogous, but I think it's close enough to make a fair point.  And I know the usual response in Mormonism is that God is limited by universal qualities of right and wrong, and that if he acted outside of those boundaries he wouldn't be God and what he's really doing is working within the rules as much as possible to do us a huge favor, but come on.  If he were really doing us such a favor he wouldn't have put us into this defeatist system in the first place.  He would have found some other way to accomplish whatever he's trying to do.

What Brilliant Reasoning
To further explain the need for an infinite atonement, Amulek references secular law:
Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.  Now if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother?  I say unto you, Nay.
But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world. 
So what Amulek is saying here is that the atonement is necessary for inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but if I cross the border into New York, where they don't have the death penalty, I don't need someone to atone for my sins.

Just kidding.  What he's really saying is that since nobody (except apparently Jesus) can atone for anyone's sins other than his own, what we need is one guy (apparently Jesus) to submit to some mindbogglingly infinite sacrifice so that everybody's sins are covered.

What this doesn't address, though, is why we can't all be punished for our own crap.  Isn't that actually the purer form of justice?  I screwed up, I do my time, I'm out in ten years, everybody wins.  Or maybe we're all just that horribly evil that there's no way we could ever serve our own sentences.  Which leads me to question why God would design us to be that weak and that corruptible, especially considering we were made in his image.

The Old Justice-and-Mercy Ploy
Amulek then goes into lengthy ruminations on the interplay between justice and mercy.  Justice requires that we're punished for our sins, but God is merciful and that's why he's providing an atonement.  My problem is that I'm still not seeing why the mercy is really necessary.  What makes our crimes so horrible that we'd have to suffer eternally for them?  I'm fine with paying the price for the wrongs I've committed, especially since I know that nothing I've ever done merits an infinite sentence in the fiery joint.

And, let's be honest, we learn better when we see negative consequences for our mistakes.  If God sent a savior to allow us to escape the worst of the consequences, won't we just be spiritual adolescents for the rest of forever, constantly expecting God to send a savior to bail us out whenever we paint ourselves into a corner?  Pure justice sounds like it's better for everyone.  The mercy is only needed when the punishment is eternal, and I've yet to see an explanation for why anything like an eternal punishment would ever be on the table.

Amulek says we'll perish without the atonement.  But why?  Sure, we could suffer without the atonement, but why "perish?"  He's trying to make it sound like God is bending over backwards for us, but he doesn't explain the premise of his argument.

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Church-Who-Condemns-Hypocrisy
Alma's wingman makes a very valid point in verse 28:
And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance if ye have, to those who stand in needI say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is in vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who deny the faith.
This is an important thing to say.  If you profess belief and pray to God and then act like a selfish jerk all the time, you shouldn't count as a follower of Christ.  But the problem is that the largest religious organization endorsing the book from which these words are taken doesn't exactly measure up.

By its own claim, the LDS church has "rendered" 1.3 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance between 1985 and 2010.  By Reuters' best guess, the same organization receives about 7 billion dollars in annual revenue.  If we break the humanitarian assistance down into a yearly average, it comes out to roughly 50 million dollars a year, which is less than one percent of the tithes and offerings it receives.  While this is hardly an exact scientific assessment, it's still not even close to what you'd expect a church so proud of its volunteerism and generosity to offer.  If the church expects its members to donate ten percent of their money to tithing, shouldn't its organization at least be willing to spare ten percent of its billions to charities?

Perhaps the Church Office Building is a collective hypocrite that has denied the faith.

Scare 'Em Into Submission
Let it never be said (except that I probably already have) that Joseph Smith didn't have a way with words.  I mean, lots of this book is utter drivel, but when he's on, he's on and he can really turn a phrase.  The following few verses (a scripture mastery, I believe, for you ex-seminary students) showcase some of my favorite prose in the Book of Mormon as Amulek tries to use fear to get his audience to commit right away:
For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.
And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God.  Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
The unspoken follow-up here is, "And death can happen at any time, without warning, so you better act fast!"  We're all mortal, and that kind of thing is always in the backs of our minds.  While I agree with the sentiment that we shouldn't put important things off because we can never be sure how much time we'll have, this is a pretty clear case of fear-mongering from where I'm sitting.  Not only does Amulek urge the Zoramites to repent before they die, but he also goes so far as to tell them that they won't be able to after they die.  Apparently when God blows the whistle it's "time's up and pencils down."  So if you don't repent now, you're running a pretty huge risk of being eternally screwed.

That doesn't seem like an extremely healthy thing to preach.

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