16 March 2006

The Demands of Justice

Several scriptures point to a relationship between mercy and justice. When explaining this relationship, we nearly always invoke the power of the atonement. 2 Nephi 9:26 is perhaps the most quoted verse on this subject: “For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice….” In my experience, this verse is used as a clear, concise explanation of how the atonement “works.” But upon reflection, I find this to be far from resolved. Consider some lingering questions:

1. How does the atonement satisfy justice?
2. What satisfaction does the atonement afford to justice?
3. Does satisfying justice mean that people won't benefit from suffering for their mistakes?
4. What are the demands of justice? Punishment, or something else/more?
5. Why are mercy and justice at odds?
6. Does the atonement satisfy the demands of mercy?
7. Does mercy also have demands?
8. What is the shape of the mercy:atonement:justice relationship?

    • a triangle: all at odds with each other
    • a tug-o-war: mercy and atonement teamed up against justice
    • a line: atonement as the middle man
    • a balance: the atonement as the fulcrum

Perhaps most dissatisfying to me is the frequent use of a certain analogy. It goes like this:

Suppose you had committed a crime and were going to be sent to jail, but then someone volunteered to go in your place. That is like the atonement: Christ took our punishment upon himself so we don’t have to suffer, if we choose.

I dislike this analogy because it makes no sense: if someone volunteered to go to jail in my stead, the judge would laugh at them and send me anyway. And just imagine if this were allowed—we’d have innocents in jail and criminals running free!

Furthermore, this analogy paints mercy as “the good guy” and justice as something bad, to be overcome. With that in mind, we read Alma’s question, “What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice?” (Alma 42:25). And we know the answer is “Nay,” but in our hearts we add, “but I wish it could!”

It is not within my ability—in respect to time or talent—to answer all of the questions above, but I would like to end by partially addressing #8. I believe it may be more accurate to view mercy and justice as two tools of the atonement: as though mercy is the left hand and justice is the right. As King Benjamin prays, “That ye may have everlasting salvation…through the wisdom, and power, and justice, and mercy of…God” (Mosiah 5:15). Many more scriptures also show justice and mercy working to bring about salvation. In particular, Alma concludes his sermon to Corianton by saying, “Let the justice of God; and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart” (Alma 42:30).

In conclusion, the other questions I asked are important to me. I do not think I can answer them without first understanding the nature of justice and mercy. So in this meager beginning, I believe that justice is to be sought and not feared, served and not robbed, praised and not condemned.