Mercy, Justice, and the Atonement in the Book of Mormon: Modern or Ancient Concepts?

Many critics have charged that the theology in the Book of Mormon sounds too modern to have been found in an ancient Semitic text. For some, the profound discussions on the Atonement of Christ and its role in satisfying the demands of justice to enable the law of mercy sounds too current, too advanced, or too sophisticated to have come from ancient minds, centuries before modern theological advances. Is this evidence of plagiarism? of derivation from nineteenth century sources? Or is it evidence of modern arrogance and our failure to appreciate the ability of ancient minds to grapple with complex and profound issues? Or is it evidence of modern ignorance, failing to recognize what has long been present in ancient records. On this page, I share my perspectives as a fan of the Book of Mormon, turning to a variety of ancient and modern texts to deal with the charges that I feel have been carelessly raised against the Book of Mormon.

Index to Questions Answered on this Page:

Additional Resources

Does the tension between justice and mercy in the Book of Mormon come from modern theology?To the index at the top

One of the most profound features of the Book of Mormon is its clear and powerful discourse on the Atonement of Christ, clearly teaching of its necessity and its eternal, infinite nature as part of God's divine plan to allow the principle of mercy to shield sinners from the demands of justice, another divine principle. The tension between these opposing divine principles is resolved by the sacrifice of a sinless, eternal Being, who took upon Him all the pains and punishment of mankind, making intercession for us all to free us from our sins if we will accept the covenant He offers.

In recent years several writers have argued that the Book of Mormon discussion of mercy and justice derives from modern theological developments many centuries after Biblical times. For background, it is helpful to review the different theories of the Atonement (e.g., the satisfaction theory, the randsom theory, etc.) that have been proposed and some of the voices advocating these theories. Useful resources on this topic include Robert D. Culver, Th.D, "The Doctrine of Atonement Before Anselm," paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society's National Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, November 19, 2003 and Wikipedia's "Atonement in Christianity."

The balance between justice and mercy, so beautifully described in the Book of Mormon, is said by some to have first been discussed by St. Anselm in the eleventh century A.D. as part of his development of the satisfaction theory. Anselm is said to have introduced specific concepts that have been plagiarized in the Book of Mormon. I am sure that the critics don't think that Joseph Smith was a student of Anselm, but think that the influence of Anselm's writings entered the Book of Mormon through sermons and books available to Joseph from people such as Jonathan Edwards, Sr., a prominent minister in the eighteenth century. Since mercy, justice, and atonement were topics of discussion in the modern era, Book of Mormon some critics believe that these topics were introduced by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon to address debates of his day. Some critics point to short phrases like "the justice of God" that are used in both the Book of Mormon and some modern sermons, and conclude that plagiarism has occurred.

There are problems with these arguments. First, the critics fail to recognize that theological topics discussed in the modern era have often been the subject of inquiry in previous centuries as well. North American and European theologians were not the first to wonder and write about "the justice of God," or God's divine plan that offers mercy instead of justice, or the vast, eternal nature of the Atonement. If one only reads modern writings, it is easy to see numerous parallels between the Book of Mormon and modern texts, while missing even stronger parallels to very ancient texts--including the Bible itself. (But below, we shall also explore writings from the earliest Christians and the Dead Sea Scrolls as further evidence that ideas attributed to modern writers really were part of the ancient world.) Second, the critics assume that the presence of parallels equates to derivation or plagiarism, overlooking how frequently unrelated discussions can address similar themes and use similar language. Stray parallels like two texts both writing of "the justice of God" means nothing--what other words would one use to refer to His justice? Numerous short parallels can occur by chance. In fact, I have demonstrated more convincing parallels--chance parallels--between two obviously unrelated texts, the 1830 Book of Mormon and Walt Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass, than any critic has claimed to find between the Book of Mormon and any other modern source that Joseph Smith allegedly plagiarized (Ethan Smith, James Adair, Shakespeare, George Washington, Jonathan Edwards, etc., etc.). My arguments are presented as a tongue-in-cheek anti-Mormon work on my page, "Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass?" Unless someone can provide stronger parallels and a greater critical mass than what has occurred by chance between these two unrelated texts, how can we take the claim of plagiarism seriously?

I can understand why some would assume that the discussion of mercy in the Book of Mormon must be derived from modern sources. Many people today have assumed that basic elements of the Gospel of Christ such as forgiveness, mercy, Atonement, baptism, resurrection of the dead, and gifts of the Spirit were unknown on the earth before the coming of Christ. Thus, when they read passages in the Book of Mormon that speak of such Christian concepts before the time of Christ, they find it implausible. Most modern Christians have been taught that the Gospel was not present on earth until Christ brought it. But this assumption is wrong. In Galatians 3:8, Paul wrote that Abraham had the Gospel:

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.

Further, in Hebrews 4:2, Paul indicates that it was preached to the ancient House of Israel, but without success:

For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.

A variety of early Church fathers also wrote that the ancients had the Gospel long before the coming of Christ. Ignatius, in his "Letter to the Magnesians" (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989, p. 94), wrote of the "godly prophets" who "lived in accordance with Christ Jesus . . . being inspired by his grace in order that those who are disobedient might be convinced that there is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence, who in every respect pleased him who sent him" (8:2, ibid., p. 95). In the following paragraph, he states that "even the prophets, who were his disciples in the Spirit, were expecting [Jesus Christ] as their teacher" (9:2, ibid., p. 95). Interestingly, Ignatius states that these prophets were resurrected by Christ: "Because of this he for whom they rightly waited raised them from the dead when he came" (ibid.). Prophets knowing of Christ and "being inspired by his grace" is inherent to the Book of Mormon, and consistent with the understanding of Ignatius, but certainly inconsistent with many Book of Mormon critics--who surely would reject Ignatius as a non-Christian cultist for his very LDS-like and non-Trinitarian beliefs on the nature of God and Christ.

Eusebius also spoke of Christianity as "the first and most ancient of all religions, and the one discovered by those divinely favored men in the age of Abraham" (Ecclesiastical History 1:4:10, in NPNF Series 2, 1:87-88, as cited in Barry R. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999, p. 188). (Get Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity at

Had modern Christians better appreciated such statements, they might have been less shocked when the Dead Sea Scrolls emerged, showing that numerous Christian concepts were had among ancient Jews. Baptism for forgiveness of sins, mercy, forgiveness, and numerous other concepts were believed and practices among the Jewish community at Qumran. The documents describing these practices have shaken many old assumptions about Christianity, but are not surprising to those who know the Book of Mormon. "Echoes of New Testament thought and phraseology are clear in the Scrolls; especially those having apocalyptic associations," says non-LDS scholar Bleddyn J. Roberts in an early assessment of their content ("The Jerusalem Scrolls," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 62 (1950): 241, as cited by Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon: New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study, p. 76), an assessment which has only been strengthened by further decades of study. The presence of New Testament themes in pre-Christian-era texts has been one of the "blunders" of Joseph Smith that has been most loudly mocked by critics, but we now know that these themes are more ancient than previously assumed. Later in this document, we will examine some additional contributions that the Dead Sea Scrolls offer to our understanding of mercy and forgiveness in the pre-Christian era. But first, let us explore the allegation that Anselm or Edwards were influences on the Book of Mormon.

Anselm and Edwards as the Source of Book of Mormon Theology? To the index at the top

A number of people now point to Anselm of Canterbury and the more recent Jonathan Edwards as alleged sources for key theological concepts in the Book of Mormon. For example, here is e-mail I received from one critic of the Book of Mormon:

I tried to indicate . . . in my comments on Alma 42 that Tom's [Tom Donofrio's] "tiny parallels" [Jeff Lindsay's term] really are impressive when one understands the development of Christianity. Like [Jonathan] Edwards, Alma recasts Paul's argument about the law and grace into a discussion of the quite different terms of justice and mercy. Both Edwards and Alma are talking about attributes of God, rather than about Mosaic law. And why do Edwards and Alma do this? It all goes back to St. Anselm in 1109, who formulated the satisfaction theory of atonement, which reconciles the conflict in God's nature between justice (which requires full retribution for sin) and mercy (which acquits the sinner) by requiring the sacrifice of an infinite being whose suffering satisfies the demands of justice and provides a source of infinite merit to satisfy mercy. Thus we find Alma saying, "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. (I.e., justice is a necessary attribute of God.) ... 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." In other words, justice and mercy are necessary but opposed attributes of God, which can be reconciled or satisfied only by a divine atonement. So you see, "tiny parallels" can point to hugely significant connections.

The trouble with this is that these "hugely significant connections" did not begin with St. Anselm or any other modern source. The concept of God atoning for man in order to meet the demands of justice and enable mercy to claim the souls of man, as part of a divine plan, are ancient concepts. In fact, as we'll see below, the teachings of Anselm and Edwards are at odds with the theology of the Book of Mormon.

Anselm may have been the first to discuss the relationship between mercy and justice in what some might call the post-Apostasy era--the era after roughly the fourth or fifth century when the Church of Jesus Christ had lost most traces of revelation in the Church and had become dominated by human philosophy and political influences. Part of the theology that modern mainstream Christianity has inherited has been affected by that process, resulting in the corruption of sacred ordinances such as baptism by immersion of those who believe in Christ, the introduction of a paid ministry, lost knowledge about the nature of God (replaced with concepts from Greek philosophy in the official doctrine of the Trinity), and so forth. One can see how much has changed by reading the earliest Christian writings. In addition to the New Testament, we have a tremendous resource in a collection of the earliest post-New Testament Christian writings by men called "the Apostolic Fathers," who are said to have had some degree of contact with the apostles before they died, or to have been instructed in the early apostolic traditions. A printed collection of their writings is The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989). Reading their writings is often very much like listening to a modern LDS General Conference sermon from a living apostle. Numerous LDS doctrines that our critics attack are found in these writings, suggestive that there truly has been an apostasy and a Restoration.

Before turning to earlier Christian and Jewish sources, let's consider what Anselm actually taught. While Anselm does discuss justice and mercy, and writes about infinite punishment and atonement, the thrust of his arguments actually contradict the Book of Mormon. To Anselm, it is God's justice that forces mercy to be considered. This is quite unlike the opposing concepts of mercy and justice that are both inherent attributes of God.

The work that is said to be related to the Book of Mormon is Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) which is available in English online at The article St. Anselm from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers the following discussion of Anselm's writings:

Another apparent contradiction is between God's mercy and his justice. If God is just, he will surely punish the wicked as they deserve. But because he is merciful, he spares the wicked. Anselm tries to resolve this apparent contradiction by appeal to God's goodness. It is better, he says, for God "to be good both to the good and to the wicked than to be good only to the good, and it is better to be good to the wicked both in punishing and in sparing them than to be good only in punishing them" (P 9). So God's supreme goodness requires that he be both just and merciful. But Anselm is not content to resolve the apparent tension between justice and mercy by appealing to some other attribute, goodness, that entails both justice and mercy; he goes on to argue that justice itself requires mercy. Justice to sinners obviously requires that God punish them; but God's justice to himself requires that he exercise his supreme goodness in sparing the wicked. "Thus," Anselm says to God, "in saving us whom you might justly destroy . . . you are just, not because you give us our due, but because you do what is fitting for you who are supremely good" (P 10). In spite of these arguments, Anselm acknowledges that there is a residue of mystery here:
Thus your mercy is born of your justice, since it is just for you to be so good that you are good even in sparing the wicked. And perhaps this is why the one who is supremely just can will good things for the wicked. But even if one can somehow grasp why you can will to save the wicked, certainly no reasoning can comprehend why, from those who are alike in wickedness, you save some rather than others through your supreme goodness and condemn some rather than others through your supreme justice. (P 11)
In other words, the philosopher can trace the conceptual relations among goodness, justice, and mercy, and show that God not only can but must have all three; but no human reasoning can hope to show why God displays his justice and mercy in precisely the ways in which he does.

Further information on the theology of Anselm is available at

In addition to the doctrine of mercy fueled and driven by justice--not a separate divine law in tension with justice--Anselm also discusses the infinite nature of Christ's Atonement in terms that do not resonate with the Book of Mormon. For Anselm, any human sin is so monstrous and offensive to an infinite, perfect Being, that infinite punishment is demanded. But this infinite punishment is not paid by infinite suffering on the part of the Redeemer, but by the fact that any suffering on God's part is inherently infinite. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of Anselm:

How his death outweighs the number and greatness of our sins.

Boso. Now I ask you to tell me how his death can outweigh the number and magnitude of our sins, when the least sin we can think of you have shown to be so monstrous that, were there an infinite number of worlds as full of created existence as this, they could not stand, but would fall back into nothing, sooner than one look should be made contrary to the just will of God.

Anselm. Were that man here before you, and you knew who he was, and it were told you that, if you did not kill him, the whole universe, except God, would perish, would you do it to preserve the rest of creation?

Boso. No! not even were an infinite number of worlds displayed before me.

Anselm. But suppose you were told: "If you do not kill him, all the sins of the world will be heaped upon you."

Boso. I should answer, that I would far rather bear all other sins, not only those of this world, past and future, but also all others that can be conceived of, than this alone. And I think I ought to say this, not only with regard to killing him, but even as to the slightest injury which could be inflicted on him.

Anselm. You judge correctly; but tell me why it is that your heart recoils from one injury inflicted upon him as more heinous than all other sins that can be thought of, inasmuch as all sins whatsoever are committed against him?

Boso. A sin committed upon his person exceeds beyond comparison all the sins which can be thought of, that do not affect his person.

Anselm. What say you to this, that one often suffers freely certain evils in his person, in order not to suffer greater ones in his property?

Boso. God has no need of such patience, for all things lie in subjection to his power, as you answered a certain question of mine above.

Anselm. You say well; and hence we see that no enormity or multitude of sins, apart from the Divine person, can for a moment be compared with a bodily injury inflicted upon that man.

Boso. This is most plain. . . .

Anselm. And do you not think that so great a good [referring to the life of Christ] in itself so lovely, can avail to pay what is due for the sins of the whole world?

Boso. Yes! it has even infinite value.

Anselm. Do you see, then, how this life conquers all sins, if it be given for them?

Boso. Plainly.

Anselm. If, then, to lay down life is the same as to suffer death, as the gift of his life surpasses all the sins of men, so will also the suffering of death.

For Anselm, the life of Christ has infinite value (yes, of course), and therefore, any injury done to Him, especially death, infinitely exceeds the magnitude of all human sin, though any human sin is infinitely offensive to an infinite God. Since His life was so infinitely precious, His death was infinitely valuable, and could pay for all infinite sin. Anselm certainly recognizes that Christ suffered in many ways during his life and his death, but it was the fact that his life was infinitely valuable and precious that made his suffering infinitely significant.

This is not really what the Book of Mormon teaches. It does speak of an infinite Atonement, but this is not achieved by mere death, but there is a vast price to paid in terms of real suffering. There is not merely some degree of suffering and death by an infinite Being, but a Being who actually suffers the pains of every creature, fully paying the price of our sins. While the infinite nature of the Atonement in Alma 34 may be synonymous with its eternal nature, referring to the fact that it was paid by an infinite, eternal Being, the Book of Mormon plainly teaches that the price to be paid was more than any man could suffer, a vast price to be paid to meet the demands of justice for all humanity, and that it required the sacrifice of an eternal, infinite Being to make eternal life available to man.

The concept of an infinite atonement is introduced in 2 Nephi 9:6-7:

6 For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord.
7 Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement--save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.

As I understand this passage, the transformation of mortal, fallen man to immortal beings could not be done by a finite, mortal being, but required atonement by an infinite (eternal) Being, making it an infinite atonement. The concept is further discussed in Alma 34:8-15, where again we see little trace of Anselm's ideas here:

8 And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.
9 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.
10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
11 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.
12 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.
13 Therefore, it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, and then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle, and none shall have passed away.
14 And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
16 And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.

Verses 11 and 12 explain that simply taking the life of another mortal person is not enough to pay for murder, but requires the life of the murdered. Therefore, the only way that another person's suffering can be sufficient to pay for the sins of others is for an infinite sacrifice to be made. This may refer to the need for the sacrifice to be of an infinite Being, or may refer to the vastness of the price that must be paid.

While the death of an infinite Being can be described as an infinite sacrifice, the Book of Mormon teaches that more than death is at stake, and that Christ suffered pains belonging to each creature that ever lived, making the price He paid incomprehensibly vast. Returning to 2 Nephi 9, the chapter that introduced the concept of infinite atonement, we read:

21 And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.

The pains that He suffered for each creature apparently began somehow in the Garden of Gethsemene, where as he prayed before being taken an crucified, the weight of human sin began to come upon Him, causing Him to tremble, wishing to not partake of the bitter cup, but He endured, even as under that pain great drops of blood came out from every pore--a sign of incomprehensibly severe suffering. This was prophesied in Mosiah 3:7:

And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

Compare with the fulfillment in Luke 22, on the last night of Christ's life:

41 And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed,
42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

His suffering was more than a man could bear - the weight of such pain would cause death in a mortal man, but the Son of God was able to endure and take all of it on, enduring also through the added agony of the cross.

Now I do not know how the Atonement occurred, or how the divine accounting took place, but the analysis presented in Alma 34 and 2 Nephi 9 on the infinite Atonement is only superficially linked to Anselm. Anselm focussed on the demands of justice, teaching that any sin was infinite, but infinite human sin was more than balanced by any suffering from Christ. But is the fact that different authors speak of the Atonement as infinite somehow surprising? Should true scriptures should speak of the Atonement as finite? Was Christ a finite Being? Were His sufferings minor? Was the scope of what He accomplished in the Atonement narrow and temporary, or vast and eternal? If eternal is synonymous with infinite, as it may be, is there any reason to wonder where someone would get the idea of an infinite sacrifice? Isn't any scripturally sound doctrine of the Atonement going to be a doctrine about an infinite Atonement? Anselm's understanding and approach was much different that the Book of Mormon's. Is there any reason to believe Anselm was an influence on the Book of Mormon text?

It was not novel for Anselm to speak of the Atonement as being infinite. Its eternal or infinite scope is taught in the scriptures. For example, Colossians 1 indicates that it affected "all things," whether in heaven or earth:

18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
19 For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;
20 And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.
21 And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled
22 In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:

Hebrews 9 and 10 speak of the atonement's eternal impact, a final sacrifice that can redeem us forever. His great sacrifice provides "eternal redemption" for us (Heb. 9:12), for he bore the sins of many (Heb. 9:29) and "by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). The blood of animals, though offered for centuries, was of no value in removing the sins of man (Heb. 10:1-4), but was a symbol of Christ (Heb. 10:1). Surely this ultimate sacrifice was an eternal/infinite sacrifice.

There is nothing novel to Anselm's recognition of an apparent contradiction between justice and mercy. As we will see below, that tension is inherently present in the descriptions of God's attributes: in justice and judgment, God punishes those who sin; yet forgiveness and mercy is offered to sinners through His covenant, enabled through the blood of Christ. This grand concept was symbolized for centuries with animal sacrifices, and since the great and last sacrifice of Christ, continues to symbolized through communion ("the sacrament" in LDS terminology) representing his sacrificed blood and sacrificed but resurrected flesh. Accordingly, Christ said, "For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:28) and "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:54). Note that the "new testament" Christ speaks of is a new covenant, the covenant through which mercy is offered to us if we will accept and follow Christ. Paul said that the members of the church of God were "purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28) and "justified by his blood" (Romans 5:9).

Stephen E. Robinson has previously dealt with the alleged relationship between Anselm and the Book of Mormon in his essay, "The Expanded Book of Mormon?" in Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Second Nephi: The Doctrinal Structure (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), with the relevant section on pages 409-412. An excerpt follows:

Lastly, proponents of the expansion theory have claimed that the Book of Mormon is also dependent upon the satisfaction theory of atonement expounded by Anselm of Canterbury in his treatise Cur Deus Homo written in 1098 AD. . . . But here again, the concept of satisfaction predates Anselm, being found in early Christianity and in pre-Christian Judaism, though Anselm may have been the first Christian writer since the Apostasy to discuss the Atonement in terms of divine justice and mercy. . . . In this case, the parallels are not really as striking as they at first seem. For example, in Anselm, satisfaction means more than paying the debt and satisfying the demands of justice. Anselm holds, as the Book of Mormon does not, that the satisfaction must be greater than the act of disobedience (Cur Deus Homo 1:21-24; . . .). Since sin is an affront to God, satisfaction must be made not only for the sin, but for the affront to the dignity of God as well. It is this recompense beyond the "cost" of the sin itself, which satisfies the affronted dignity of God, that man is unable to pay (Cur Deus Homo 1:22-23). For Anselm, the sin, though finite, affronts an infinite God who is therefore entitled to an infinite satisfaction for the sake of his ruffled infinite dignity. This idea is based on feudal concepts of justice in which an injured nobleman was entitled to recompense for his actual damages plus satisfaction for his offended dignity as well. It is actually the keystone of Anselm's theory of satisfaction, and it is not found in the Book of Mormon. Second, since God is an infinite being, according to Anselm's theory, an affront to him is an infinite affront, and can be satisfied only by an infinite atonement. But this is not at all what the Book of Mormon means by the phrase "an infinite atonement." Jacob teaches that the Atonement must be infinite to overcome death, that is to communicate immortality (infinity) to those it claims (2 Nephi 9:7-12). Amulek adds that the Atonement must also be infinite - that is divine rather than human (Alma 34:10) - so that the sacrifice can supercede the Law of Moses, which will not allow one mortal to be sacrificed in place of another (vv. 11-13). Neither Jacob nor Amulek alludes to making infinite satisfaction for an offended infinite majesty.

Third, the parallel involving the competing demands of justice and mercy is particularly deceptive, for while the words are the same, the substance of the arguments is exactly opposed. In the Book of Mormon the competing demands of justice and mercy are resolved, according to Amulek, when mercy "over-powereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. And thus mercy can satisfy justice and encircles them in the arms of safety . . ." (Alma 34:15-16). Later Alma says that Christ atones "to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice . . ." (Alma 42:15). In the Book of Mormon justice is appeased by mercy so that mercy (the Atonement) may claim its own.

However, in Cur Deus Homo Anselm dismisses mercy as a form of injustice (1:12, 24-25). He then defines atonement strictly in terms of iustitia dei, the justice of God. Anselm's theory does not deal with the idea of opposing principles. The mercy of God simply is not allowed to operate, and it is not mentioned again until the end of the treatise where it is noticed as a happy by-product of the divine justice (2:20). But there is never for Anselm a law of mercy which operates on its own or which can make claims of its own in opposition or in contrast to the law of justice.

After reading Anselm, I honestly cannot believe that the Book of Mormon is closely related to his theology.

Jonathan Edwards and the Book of Mormon

Let's now turn to the other alleged source for Book of Mormon teachings on mercy, justice, and the Atonement, Jonathan Edwards, Sr. (1703-1758). While he was an influential minister before the time of Joseph Smith, also spoke of justice, mercy, and an infinite price to be paid, his writings seem even more remote from the teachings in the Book of Mormon. Like Anselm, Edwards gave great emphasis to the justice of God, but spoke of a God dominated with anger. Dueling attributes of mercy and justice requiring an Atonement to be fully reconciled is not found in any of his sermons that I've seen (please correct me if I'm wrong). In fact, in the writings of Edwards, it's hard to find evidence of a compassionate, loving Messiah of the Book of Mormon who voluntarily suffered to pay the price of our sins. Consider Edwards' words in the sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which some critics point to as a source for Book of Mormon theology:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

That is miles away from the Book of Mormon.

Elsewhere in this sermon of Edwards, the word "infinite" is used:

They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.

Like Anselm, Edwards teaches that it is sin that deserves infinite punishment. Edwards emphasizes this theme in his sermon, "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners," which resonates with the words of Anselm:

But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.

So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.

So how do the teachings of Edwards (or Anselm) compare with the actual teachings of the Book of Mormon? Let's examine the Book of Mormon in more detail.

Justice and Mercy in the Book of Mormon To the index at the top

Those familiar with the Book of Mormon teachings on mercy and justice will have a difficult time believing that Joseph Smith borrowed from Anselm's doctrine of mysterious mercy driven by God's focus on being just to Himself, or that the infinite Atonement in the Book of Mormon is derived from Edwards' preaching about an infinitely angry God. The Book of Mormon provides a much more logical resolution of the conflict of justice and mercy. Mercy and justice aren't just eternal laws, but, as the Bible teaches, they are also attributes of God, according to 2 Nephi 9: 17,19, which praises "the justice of our God" and "the mercy of our God." These attributes can co-exist because of the intercession of Christ. Alma 34 was already cited above, showing that Christ had to pay an infinite price to fully satisfy the demands of the law of justice in order for a third-party sacrifice to be sufficient. This process allows the penitent to have the demands of justice met for them, allowing mercy to shield them. Christ, who suffered personally for us, has the "bowels of mercy" because He has personally taken our pain upon Him. The satisfaction of the contradiction between justice and mercy is further clarified in Alma 42:13-15:

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.
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.
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.

Mercy in this passage is enabled by "appeasing the demands of justice." A related concept is "answering the ends of the law." From 2 Nephi 2:

5 And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.
6 Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
7 Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
8 Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
9 Wherefore, he is the firstfruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved.

"Satisfying the demands of justice" is a related concept. Abinadi, after reciting Isaiah 53, explains the mercy of the Messiah who stands between justice and the recipients of mercy as the great Intercessor. In Mosiah 15:6-9, Abinadi says:

6 And after all this, after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
7 Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.
8 And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men -
9 Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.

Jacob explains the vast scope of the Atonement and the suffering of Christ in 2 Nephi 9, where we read that the pains of every human being were put upon Christ:

21 And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam. . . .

25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.

The Book of Mormon also repeatedly teaches that the Law of Moses and animal sacrifices in particular were a symbol of the great Atonement of Christ (e.g., Alma 34:13-16).

Are these concepts innovations from a modern era, lifted perhaps from the sermons of Edwards or other ministers in the days of Joseph Smith? Or do mercy, justice, and Atonement in the Book of Mormon correspond more closely with ancient concepts? Let's briefly review what the Bible and other ancient sources offer on these topics.

Justice and Mercy in the Bible To the index at the top

Far from being rooted in medieval theology or the sermons of the Great Awakening, the Book of Mormon doctrines on mercy and justice are firmly rooted in ancient, revealed concepts from the Hebrew prophets and the earliest Christians. The concepts of intercession, of a compassionate God voluntarily bearing the sins of man to heal us from our sins, enabling mercy by satisfying the demands of justice, much more aligned with the Isaiah 53 (previously cited) than to Anselm.

Recall that Isaiah 53 speaks of One who "hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (v. 4). We read that "he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (v. 5). As the Book of Mormon teaches, verse 6 says "the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." The guilt and pain of every living creature was placed on the Messiah, whose infinite Atonement pays the price of our sins and heals us, for the Lord made "his soul an offering for sin" (v. 10). Further, "by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities" (v. 11). He took our sins upon him and died for us to make intercession: "he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (v. 12). This intercession apparently refers to Christ standing between justice and God, taking the demands of justice upon Himself in order that sinners might be justified. Isaiah 53 beautifully expresses several key Book of Mormon teachings and is quoted in full (with proper attribution!) by Abinadi in Mosiah 14. The doctrines of mercy, justice, and atonement to pay for iniquity are not new but ancient concepts.

While the notion of intercession and atonement made to liberate us from our sins is powerfully expressed in Isaiah 53, many other Old Testament passages bear witness to the mercy and forgiveness that God offers to free us from the demands of justice. Again, the entire Law of Moses points to these issues. The use of the scapegoat, the emphasis on atonement via blood sacrifices, the roll of the pure, unblemished Passover lamb and the deliverance of Israel, all were meant to teach of the coming great and last sacrifice of Christ. For example, see Lev. 19:11: "for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul"; also see Zech. 9:11: "by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit." All of Israel looked to the annual Day of Atonement: "For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD" (Lev. 16:30). The sacrifice of an animal without blemish as a vicarious offering for sin was a core concept in the Law of Moses, a shadow of the future Atonement of Jesus Christ.

The Messiah as the Intercessor who would die for others is also hinted at in the prophecy of Daniel 9:

24 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself. . . .

This is an intriguing reference to the Messiah dying not for himself, but presumably for others, and possibly as part of the process to make "reconciliation for iniquity."

As a further example, contrast Anselm and Edwards to the teachings in Ezekiel 18, where God explicitly states that he has no pleasure in having the wicked be punished:

20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.
21 But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
22 All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.
23 Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

God's loving mercy makes Him desire that sinner should repent and live; He has no pleasure in seeing the wicked suffer. But suffer they will because of the demands of justice: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." But God invites the wicked to repent and live. This passage, like numerous passages in the Bible, affirms the LDS doctrine that man has sufficient free agency to choose life or death, and that God does not force salvation or damnation upon us, but it is our choice to accept Him or reject Him. While many Christian churches in the modern era teach that man has no real agency and that God does all the work of electing who will be saved or damned, our just but merciful God, as revealed in the Book of Mormon and the Bible, "will have [wants] all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Further, 2 Peter 3:9 teaches that God wants none to perish but wants men to repent (see also Acts 17:30 and 2 Cor. 7:10). And Christ taught that "it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish" (Matt. 18:14). Likewise, 2 Nephi 26:33 (like many other Book of Mormon passages) explains that salvation is offered to all (but we choose whether to accept it or not - see 2 Nephi 2).

In the KJV Old Testament, it is true that the words "mercy" and "justice" occur in the same verse only once, as some critics point out in trying to suggest that the treatment of justice and mercy in the Book of Mormon reflects modern theological concepts. The single occurrence is in Psalm 89:14:

Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.

Some critics correctly point out that this lone occurrence does not point to an awareness of the conflict between justice and mercy and the need for an Atonement to reconcile the two. But such arguments overlook the many Biblical passages where themes of justice and mercy are clearly contrasted, and overlook other key passages such as Isaiah 53 or the entire symbolism of the Law of Moses that point to a personal sacrifice by our Savior to pay for our sins. Themes of justice and mercy abound in the Bible, but not always using those words, and not always grouped into a single verse that can be found with a quick computer search.

Sometimes justice is referred to in terms of judgment or punishment for sins, and sometimes other terms are used to describe God's mercy, but the Bible certainly that God possesses attributes of both mercy and justice. In fact, justice and mercy are often contrasted in a way that is harmonious with the Book of Mormon, showing that justice and mercy are attributes of a compassionate but just God, and that mercy is offered via to those who will follow Him and obey Him. In fact, the Bible teaches that this mercy is made available under the terms of a covenant relationship with God - a primary Book of Mormon theme that has been neglected in modern mainstream Christianity but restored via Joseph Smith. For example, look at Psalm 103:17-18:

17 But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;
18 To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.

Consider also Deuteronomy 7:9-12:

9 Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;
10 And repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, he will repay him to his face.
11 Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which I command thee this day, to do them.
12 Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers:

Repaying the wicked is an expression of justice, while God extends mercy via covenants to those who obey Him. Another example is found in 1 Chronicles 16: 33-35, where God is the judge who is also the merciful God of our salvation:

33 Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the LORD, because he cometh to judge the earth.
34 O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.
35 And say ye, Save us, O God of our salvation, and gather us together, and deliver us from the heathen, that we may give thanks to thy holy name, and glory in thy praise.

Nehemiah spoke of the "LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments" (Neh. 1:5). Mercy, in a covenant context, is available for those that keep God's commandments. This concept is hardly unique to the Book of Mormon.

In Isaiah 16:5, a prophecy, apparently about the Messiah, speaks of Him judging and having mercy:

And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness.

Isaiah 30:18 speaks of God's judgment and mercy:

And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him.

God's tender mercy and forgiveness of sins extended through God's covenant with man is emphasized in Psalm 25, where God is also described as upright:

6 Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.
7 Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness' sake, O LORD.
8 Good and upright is the LORD: therefore will he teach sinners in the way.
9 The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.
11 For thy name's sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great.

Psalm 36 praises God for His mercy and judgments:

5 Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.
6 Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O LORD, thou preservest man and beast. 7 How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.

Psalm 37 also describes God's justice and mercy:

26 He is ever merciful, and lendeth; and his seed is blessed.
27 Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell for evermore.
28 For the LORD loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever.
30 The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment.
31 The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.
32 The wicked watcheth the righteous, and seeketh to slay him.
33 The LORD will not leave him in his hand, nor condemn him when he is judged.
34 Wait on the LORD, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land: when the wicked are cut off, thou shalt see it.

Psalm 103 also speaks of the tender mercy of God, who redeems (buys back) the souls of men, yet also executes judgment. This vast mercy of the Lord is toward them who (v. 18) keep His covenant:

2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
3 Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;
4 Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies;
5 Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.
6 The LORD executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel.
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
9 He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.
14 For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
17 But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;
18 To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.

Psalm 119 also:

75 I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.
76 Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word unto thy servant.
77 Let thy tender mercies come unto me, that I may live: for thy law is my delight.

Zechariah 7:9 has a related concept:

Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother:

The concept of a suffering, atoning Messiah is NOT foreign to ancient Jewish thought, as some have claimed today. For further evidence, see the article, "The Suffering Messiah in Jewish Sacred Script According to the Scriptures and Sages of Israel by Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen at (2001).

Naturally, the New Testament says much on the topics of justice and mercy, recognizing that the prophecies in Isaiah 53 and elsewhere had been fulfilled in Christ. While the exact words "justice" and "mercy" do not occur in a single verse, they are linked together in other ways. For example, students of the Bible will recall that James, who is famous (or infamous) for his LDS-like admonitions on the importance of faith AND works, also stated that "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).

This and some other discussions of "judgment" refer to the role of justice -- the price that must be paid for sin. But thanks to the intercession of the Messiah for man, mercy can triumph over judgment (over justice), as the Book of Mormon teaches and as James taught. That simple but powerful concept may have become muddled during the era of Apostasy; it certainly was muddled in the writings of Anselm and in Edwards' ominous sermons about hell and an angry God anxious to torture us forever. The restoration of revealed truths about God's wonderful mercy through the Book of Mormon is hardly evidence of Joseph plagiarizing from modern sources, but is, if anything, subtle evidence that divine, anciently revealed truths were restored through the translation of an authentic, ancient, divine text that testifies of Christ and His loving, compassionate Father. As the Book of Mormon teaches, they are anxious to save us from our sins, if only we will accept the saving covenant of mercy they offer us, mercy that was made possible by the willingness of Christ to suffer and pay an infinite price for all mankind.

Paul also teaches of the balance between justice and mercy, though often using the word "grace" instead of mercy and "judgment" instead of justice. One exemplary discussion of justice and mercy is found in Romans 5, where Paul gives a rather wordy discussion on the topic (but wordy passages are a hallmark of authentic Semitic writings, and so, like wordy passages in the Book of Mormon, should not trouble us). While judgment looms over us, the sacrifice of Christ makes grace possible, allowing us to be reconciled with God, for we can be justified through his blood (see verses 8-11, 15-19). Paul's teachings are consistent with the Book of Mormon statement that the demands of justice are paid by Christ.

Paul's powerful discussion of the Atonement in Hebrews 9 and 10 merits close study. The discussion is framed in terms of God's covenant/testament with man, mediated by the blood of Christ, a sacrifice that has an eternal (and thus infinite) impact on God's creations. He begins speaking of the first covenant - the Law of Moses - in which the priest made blood sacrifices for the sins of the people (Heb. 9:1-7), a symbol of Christ.

12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.
In his sacrifice, he did truly "bear the sins of many" (Heb. 9:28). The vast and eternal impact of the Atonement is further taught in Hebrews 10:

10 By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:
12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 offers further insight into the balance between justice and mercy mediated by Christ. I quote here from the Douay-Rheims Bible (a sixteenth-century English translation of the Catholic Bible), where "justice of God" is used in this case instead of the KJV "righteousness of God" (the concepts and much of the language, though, are essentially the same as the KJV):

17 If then any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away, behold all things are made new.
18 But all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Christ; and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.
19 For God indeed was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing to them their sins; and he hath placed in us the word of reconciliation.
20 For Christ therefore we are ambassadors, God as it were exhorting by us. For Christ, we beseech you, be reconciled to God.
21 Him, who knew no sin, he hath made sin for us, that we might be made the justice of God in him.

Paul teaches that Christ took our sin and our punishment. The justice of God or the righteousness of God was achieved for us in Christ. Thus, in Romans 10: 3,4, Paul also states (quoting the Douay-Rheims Bible again):

3 For they, not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own, have not submitted themselves to the justice of God.
4 For the end of the law is Christ, unto justice to every one that believeth.

The KJV uses "righteousness" here instead of justice, stating that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness." This accords with the Book of Mormon teaches about Christ answering "the ends of the law" (2 Nephi 2:7) to bring about mercy for those who will follow Him.

In Hebrews, Paul speaks of the mercy that is made possible by the sufferings of a loving God who took on mortality in part (born of a mortal woman, but inheriting immortal attributes as well from His Father). In Hebrews 2, Christ's decent to mortality to suffer and die for our sake points to a God intimately concerned for His children, a God whose Son, Christ, sought to bring us to His glory and make us true brothers unto Him through the deliverance of His Atonement. This is consistent with the Book of Mormon and LDS theology, but has a different flavor than the angry, entirely remote God of Jonathan Edwards. From Hebrews 2:

9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
10 For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
11 For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren,
12 Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.
13 And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me.
14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
16 For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.
17 Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.
The Book of Mormon theme of love being the motivation behind the Atonement is found throughout the Bible (but scarcely present in Edwards' sermons). One example is from Revelation 1:5,6, which also teaches the LDS doctrine that Christ's Atonement allows us to become priests and kings unto God:

5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

The ancient understanding of the Atonement among the writers of the Bible is found to be much more consistent with the Book of Mormon than anything from Anselm or Edwards. They surely were not the sources of Book of Mormon theology, in spite of Anselm's use of a superficially related vocabulary (infinite, mercy, and justice of God) that can be explained as obvious terminology for describing what is already known in the Bible.

Insights from the Dead Sea Scrolls To the index at the top

s The Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran offer the oldest available extensive manuscripts of the Old Testament, though they are still centuries removed from the original texts. While the Dead Sea Scrolls are largely consistent with the Masoretic text that was used in the translation of many modern Bibles, there are still numerous differences that can give insight into what might have been in the original Hebrew scriptures. A valuable resource for studying the Old Testament from the Dead Sea Scrolls is The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, translated and with commentary by Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999). Numerous Old Testament passages are provided from the Dead Sea Scrolls and compared to the Masoretic text or Septuagint. A particularly interesting passage is a "lost" psalm that was included on the Dead Sea Scrolls with the other Psalms that we have in the modern Bible. This psalm, the "Plea for Deliverance," emphasizes the mercy of God in forgiving sins, and describes mercy in terms of God sheltering His people. It is found on page 568 of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible:

Plea for Deliverance

1 For a maggot cannot praise you, nor a worm recount your mercy. 2 But the living can praise you, all those who stumble can praise you, 3 when you reveal your mercy to them, and when you teach them your justice. 4 For in your hand is the soul of every living being; the breath of all flesh you have given. 5 Deal with us, 0 LORD, according to your goodness, according to your great compassions, and according to your many righteous acts. 6 The LORD has heard the voice of those who love his name and has not deprived them of his mercy. 7 Blessed be the LORD, who performs righteous deeds, crowning his pious ones with mercy and compassions.

8 My soul cries out to praise your name, to give thanks with shouts for your merciful deeds, 9 to proclaim your faithfulness - of praise of you there is no end! 10 I was near death for my sins, and my iniquities had sold me to Sheol; 11 but you saved me, 0 LORD, according to your great compassion, and according to your many righteous acts. 12 Indeed I have loved your name, and in your shelter I have found refuge. 13 When I remember your power my heart is brave, and I lean upon your mercies.

14 Forgive my sin, 0 LORD, and cleanse me from my iniquity. 15 Bestow on me a spirit of faith and knowledge, and let me not be dishonored in ruin. 16 Let not Satan rule over me, nor an unclean spirit; 17 neither let pain nor the evil inclination take possession of my bones. 18 For you, 0 LORD, are my praise, and in you I hope all the day long. 19 Let my brothers rejoice with me and my father's house, who are puzzled by your graciousness. [. . . Fore]ver I shall rejoice in you.

Interestingly, this provides another example of "justice" and "mercy" in the same verse, with strong contrasting between the judgment that man merits for sin and the forgiveness that God offers to those who follow Him. The shelter of mercy that God offers to protect us from the death that our sins demand fits nicely with Book of Mormon theology.

Another Dead Sea Scroll resource offering insights into the mercy of God is the book of Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992), which provides the Hebrew test, English translation, and commentary for a variety of excerpts from the scrolls. The scroll 4Q521, a pre-Christian Jewish text given the title "The Messiah of Heaven and Earth," resonates with passages in the Book of Mormon that are said to be anachronistic for a pre-Christian document. According to Eisenman and Wise (p. 20; cf. p. 23):

By far the most important lines in Fragment 1 Column 1 are Lines 6-8 and 11-13, referring to 'releasing the captives', 'making the blind see', 'raising up the downtrodden', and 'resurrecting the dead'. This last allusion is not to be doubted. The only question will be, who is doing this raising, etc. - God or 'His Messiah'?

A related scroll, 4Q285, speaks of a Messianic leader who "could be the one "put to death'" (p. 24).

Messianic themes in the Dead Sea Scrolls led one non-LDS scholar to state, regarding previously known early Jewish texts with Christian themes:

. . . hitherto perplexed exegetes faced with such texts have usually found in them the interpolations of Christian copyists. But now, . . . thanks to the Habakkuk Commentary (one of the Scrolls), such excisions which could formerly be understood are now no longer to be tolerated; these 'Christological' passages, taken as a whole, henceforth seem to be of the greatest worth, and to continue to reject them a priori as being of Christian origin would appear to be contrary to all sound method. . . .

It is now certain -- and this is one of the most important revelations of the Dead Sea discoveries -- that Judaism in the first century B.C. saw a whole theology of the suffering Messiah, of a Messiah who should be the redeemer of the world.

(André Dupont-Sommer, The Dead Sea Scrolls, tr. E. Margaret Rowley (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 95, as cited by Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon: New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study, p.76)

Further insight comes from John J. Collins in "The Suffering Servant at Qumran?" (Bible Review, Vol. 9, No. 6 (December, 1993), p. 26). According to Kerry Shirts' "Sunday School Supplement #1" (2003):

Amazingly, the "Suffering Servant" idea in the scrolls is brought out in another fragment (4Q451) which says "His word is like a word of heaven, and his teaching is in accordance with the will of God . . . he will atone for all the children of his generation. . . ." This, according to Collins, shows he is a priest.

Thus the themes of Isaiah 53 and other passages of Isaiah may have been understood by at least some early Jews to refer to a priestly figure who would teach God's word and atone for others.

In another example, baptism and atonement are brought together in a baptismal hymn from scroll 4Q414. This text, probably from the first century A.D., reflects more ancient traditions and shows that the concept of baptism was well established and part of long-standing Jewish tradition. Regarding the text on the fragments of the scroll, Eisenman and Wise state (pp. 230-231):

By baptism, of course, the reader should realize that the proponents of this literature did not necessarily mean anything different from traditional Jewish ritual immersion. The terminologies are synonymous, though the emphasis on baptismal procedures at Qumran is extraordinary. This can be seen not only in texts such as the one represented by these fragments and the well-known Community Rule, iii, 1-4, which in describing baptism makes reference to 'the Holy Spirit', but also the sheer number of ritual immersion facilities at the actual ruins of Qumran - if these can be safely associated with the movement responsible for this literature.

Once again, one is confronted with the vocabulary of 'Glory', this time in terms of 'a law of Glory' (4.3), as well as, if our reconstruction is correct, 'the purity of Righteousness' or 'Justification' (4.4). There is reference to 'making atonement for us', being 'cleansed from pollution' as one 'enters the water', and the usual 'Laws of your Holiness' and 'Truth of Your Covenant'. "

The concepts of cleansing from sins, atonement, baptism, and covenants are expressed in a Jewish document, consistent with doctrines once said to be utterly out of place among the descendents of Hebrews in the Book of Mormon. The authors elsewhere discuss scroll 4Q298 (p. 163), indicates that a leader was to instruct others in "baptismal procedures, which included being 'purified by the Holy Spirit' . . . ."

Scrolls 4Q434 and 4Q436 speak of God's deliverance of the poor. The translated text states (p. 240):

In His abundant Mercy He comforted the Meek, and opened their eyes to behold His ways. . . . And He . . . saved them because of his Grace, . . . He did not . . . judge them with the Wicked, nor kindle his wrath against them, nor destroy them in his anger, though the wrath of His hot anger did not abate at all. But He did not judge them in fiery zeal; (rather) He judged them in the abundance of His Mercy.

Here mercy is shielding God's people from judgment and wrath.

While I am not aware of Dead Sea Scroll passages giving the identical teachings on the tension between justice and mercy as found in the Book of Mormon, related concepts involving justice, mercy, forgiveness of sins, and atonement were had in that ancient Jewish community, showing that the these concepts in the Book of Mormon are not necessarily out of place. The Dead Sea Scrolls also gives credibility to Paul's statements about the Gospel being known (at least in part) before the time of Christ.

The Teachings of the Apostolic Fathers and Other Early Christians To the index at the top

Many writings of early Christians are available on the Early Church Fathers Site at Wheaton College. One can view individual books there or download files with extensive portions of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF), edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson in a 10-volume set (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885-1896). I especially recommend downloading Volumes 1 and 2, where one can read many of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament.

So what do the Apostolic Fathers have to say about mercy and justice? Quite unlike the angry God of Jonathan Edwards, to Whom mankind is like a loathsome spider deserving infinite pain for our repulsive nature, the God of the Apostolic Fathers and the Book of Mormon is certainly just, but tremendously kind, loving, patient, and gentle. While Anselm sees God's mercy as something God does for His own benefit, not ours, the Apostolic Fathers see God as a concerned and loving parent trying to rescue us.

For example, consider the following excerpt from Sections 8 and 9 of the Letter to Diognetus of uncertain authorship, probably dating to 150 to 225 A.D., from pages 301-302 of The Apostolic Fathers. It speaks of God in his kindness and tender love for us helping us to "share in his benefits" (on page 303, he also states that Christians can be "imitators of God") through His "great and marvelous plan" (the "plan of salvation" in the Book of Mormon) conceived from the beginning and shared with His Child (the pre-existent Christ). This plan is said to allow us to escape the wages for our sins that we so clearly deserve by having God "in his mercy" suffer for our sins, allowing us to be justified by this "sweet exchange" in which God offered up the just for the unjust. Here is the passage:

8. (7). . . For God, the Master and Creator of the universe, who made all things and arranged them in order, was not only tender-hearted but also very patient. (8) Indeed, so he always was and is and will be, kind, good, without anger, and true, and he alone is good. (9) And after conceiving a great and marvelous plan, he communicated it to his Child alone. (10) Now as long as he kept it a secret and guarded his wise design, he seemed to neglect and be unconcerned about us, (11) but when he revealed it through his beloved Child and made known the things prepared from the beginning, he gave us everything at once, both to share in his benefits and to see and understand things which none of us ever would have expected.

9. (1) So then, having already planned everything in his mind together with his Child, he permitted us during the former time to be carried away by undisciplined impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy of life might now by the goodness of God be made worthy, and, having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God's power. (2) But when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages - punishment and death - were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, "the just for the unjust," the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. (3) For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? (4) In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? (5) 0 the sweet exchange, 0 the incomprehensible work of God, 0 the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners! (6) Having demonstrated, therefore, in the former time the powerlessness of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed the Savior's power to save even the powerless, he willed that for both these reasons we should believe in his goodness and regard him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, . . .

This ancient version of the "satisfaction theory" of the law of justice is much more consistent with the Book of Mormon than Anselm. God is inherently loving and merciful. He had a plan from the beginning to save us from the demands of justice by offering up His perfect son in exchange. (A difference with LDS theology, though, is that we believe God did reveal this plan to certain prophets before Christ came, so that it was not actually as "secret" as the writer suggests.) Some critics say that the "plan of salvation" in the Book of Mormon is derived from modern sermons, but it is an obvious way to describe God's "plan" for man. The author above spoke of God's plan. Another Apostolic Father, Ignatius, also spoke of the "the divine plan with respect to the new man Jesus Christ, involving faith in him and love for him, his suffering and resurrection, . . ." (Letter to the Ephesians, ibid., p. 92).

In First Clement, we read of the importance of obedience "in order that we may be shielded by his mercy from the coming judgments" (ibid., p. 44). Here mercy is not a direct result of God's justice, but mercy opposes justice and can shield us from the demands of justice, if we will let God's mercy operate by following Him. The writer calls for us to "approach him in holiness of soul, lifting up to him pure and undefiled hands, loving our gentle and compassionate Father who made us his chosen portion. . . . 'For God,' he says, 'resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble' [Prov. 3:34, James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5]. Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self-controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words" (ibid., pp. 92-93). While the author later reminds us that we are actually not justified by our works but through faith in God, he emphasizes that it "is necessary that we should be zealous to do good" (pp. 45-46), that we will be rewarded according to our works (p. 46), and that "if we continue to keep God's commandments in the harmony of love, that our sins may be forgiven us through love" (p. 56).

Repeatedly, the point is made that God is loving and offers mercy to us, if we will follow Him. But otherwise, there is judgment for sin. Justice and mercy are balanced.

In the early Clementine Recognitions, written no later than the fourth century A.D., we find a discussion somewhat related to Anselm's inquiry. Simon Magus poses the question, "How can one and the same being be both good and righteous?" (Book 3, Chapters 38-41), asking how God can be kind to sinners and the righteous in this life, and yet be just. Peter responds that the answer is predicated upon the immortality of the soul, and the fact that there is a final judgment in which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished. This judgment is fair, for, as the Book of Mormon teaches, men have free will to choose or reject God. In Book 4, Chapter 6, the author writes:

Whether any one, truly hearing the word of the true Prophet; is willing or unwilling to receive it, and to embrace His burden, that is, the precepts of life, he has either in his power, for we are free in will. . . . But now, since it is free for the mind to turn its judgment to which side it pleases, and to choose the way which it approves, it is clearly manifest that there is in men a liberty of choice.

The author goes on in Book 6, Chapter 9 to explain the necessity of baptism in order to receive eternal life, stating that the waters of baptism have "a certain power of mercy . . . and rescues them from future punishments, presenting as a gift to God the souls that are consecrated by baptism." The author later (Book 10, Chapter 49) explains that God is just, but delays punishment in this life, being more concerned with bringing souls to repentance and salvation through baptism than with punishing the wicked.

Anselm was hardly the first to appreciate the tension between justice and mercy. But Christians closer to the original Gospel of Jesus Christ understood it in much plainer terms, knowing that God loves His children and does all He can, while respecting our free agency, to help us repent and thus avoid the demands of justice. One prominent early Christian was Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 - ca. 215 A.D.), a Greek theologian and early Father of the Church. Though Greek philosophy was rapidly entering the Church in his day (and under his influence), his writings still give insight into some of the beliefs of early Christians. One of his works is The Instructor (in Greek, Paedagogus). The text is available at, where Book 1, Chapter 8 is of particular interest. Here Clement of Alexandria discusses the mercy and justice of God in terms much more similar to the Book of Mormon than the words of Jonathan Edwards or Anselm. He teaches that God seeks salvation of our souls, driven primarily by compassion, not justice. The excerpts below come from the downloaded text file for Volume 2 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, pages 226-230:

Thus also He who is our great General, the Word, the Commander-in-chief of the universe by admonishing those who throw off the restraints of His law, that He may effect their release from the slavery, error, and captivity of the adversary, brings them peacefully to the sacred concord of citizenship. . .

Now censure is a mark of good-will, not of ill-will. For both he who is a friend and he who is not, reproach; but the enemy does so in scorn, the friend in kindness. It is not, then, from hatred that the Lord chides men; for He Himself suffered for us, whom He might have destroyed for our faults. . . .For those who are not induced by praise are spurred on by censure; and those whom censure calls not forth to salvation being as dead, are by denunciation roused to the truth. "For the stripes and correction of wisdom are in all time." . . . Now, reproof addressed to sinners has their salvation for its aim, the word being harmoniously adjusted to each one's conduct; now with tightened, now. with relaxed cords. . . . And if those who are corrected receive good at the hands of justice, and, according to Plato, what is just is acknowledged to be good, fear itself does good, and has been found to be for men's good. "For the soul that feareth the Lord shall live, for their hope is in Him who saveth them." And this same Word who inflicts punishment is judge; regarding whom Esaias also says, "The Lord has assigned Him to our sins," plainly as a corrector and reformer of sins. Wherefore He alone is able to forgive our iniquities, who has been appointed by the Father, Instructor of us all; He alone it is who is able to distinguish between disobedience and obedience. And while He threatens, He manifestly is unwilling to inflict evil to execute His threatenings; but by inspiring men with fear, He cuts off the approach to sin, and shows His love to man, still delaying, and declaring what they shall suffer if they continue sinners, and is not as a serpent, which the moment it fastens on its prey devours it.

God, then, is good. . . . For the Divine Being is not angry in the way that some think; but often restrains, and always exhorts humanity, and shows what ought to be done. And this is a good device, to terrify lest we sin. "For the fear of the Lord drives away sins, and he that is without fear cannot be justified," says the Scripture. And God does not inflict punishment from wrath, but for the ends of justice; since it is not expedient that justice should be neglected on our account. Each one of us, who sins, with his own free-will chooses punishment, and the blame lies with him who chooses. God is without blame. "But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous, who taketh vengeance? God forbid." (p. 227) It is clear, then, that those who are not at enmity with the truth, and do not hate the Word, will not hate their own salvation, but will escape the punishment of enmity. See how God, through His love of goodness, seeks repentance; and by means of the plan He pursues of threatening silently, shows His own love for man. . . . He is called righteous. "He will judge," He says, "a man according to his works," --a good balance, even God having made known to us the face of righteousness in the person of Jesus, by whom also, as by even scales, we know God. Of this also the book of Wisdom plainly says, "For mercy and wrath are with Him, for He alone is Lord of both," Lord of propitiations, and pouring forth wrath according to the abundance of His mercy. "So also is His reproof." For the aim of mercy and of reproof is the salvation of those who are reproved. . . .

(p. 228) Great is the wisdom displayed in His instruction, and manifold the modes of His dealing in order to salvation. . . . Besides, the feeling of anger (if it is proper to call His admonition anger) is full of love to man, God condescending to emotion on man's account; for whose sake also the Word of God became man.


With all His power, therefore, the Instructor of humanity, the Divine Word, using all the resources of wisdom, devotes Himself to the saving of the children, admonishing, upbraiding, blaming, chiding, reproving, threatening, healing, promising, favouring; and as it were, by many reins, curbing the irrational impulses of humanity. To speak briefly, therefore, the Lord acts towards us as we do towards our children. . . . It is not immediate pleasure, but future enjoyment, that the Lord has in view. . . .

For He shows both things: both His divinity in His foreknowledge of what would take place, and His love in affording an opportunity for repentance to the self-determination of the soul. . . .

Self-determination or free agency of the soul enabled by Christ, the balance between justice and mercy achieved through the offering of Christ, God's focus on the saving of His children in mercy through His divine plan - all of these are classic Book of Mormon themes, though it is unlikely that Joseph knew anything substantial of such early Christian writings as a young man dictating the Book of Mormon prior to 1830. The parallels between ancient Christian writings and the Book of Mormon are, in my opinion, due to common inspiration and knowledge among ancient writers close to the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, not due to brilliant plagiarism that creates the appearance of restored anciently revealed knowledge.

Irenaeus, the Apostolic Father who lived from about 140 A.D. to 202 A.D., fought against religious heresy and apostasy. In Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 25, Irenaeus writes of God's justice and goodness, speaking of goodness in the sense of mercy. He refutes heretical views that there are two opposing gods, one that is just and one that is good (merciful), arguing that these attributes are both part of God's divine nature. Again, this issue was a topic of debate many centuries before Joseph Smith's day. It is not a modern development. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 25 (pp. 459-460 of ANF):


1. God does, however, exercise a providence over all things, and therefore He also gives counsel; and when giving counsel, He is present with those who attend to moral discipline.(2) It follows then of course, that the things which are watched over and governed should be acquainted with their ruler; which things are not irrational or vain, but they have understanding derived from the providence of God. And, for this reason certain of the Gentiles, who were less addicted to [sensual] allurements and voluptuousness, and were not led away to such a degree of superstition with regard to idols, being moved, though but slightly, by His providence, were nevertheless convinced that they should call the Maker of this universe the Father, who exercises a providence over all things, and arranges the affairs of our world.

2. Again, that they might remove the rebuking and judicial power from the Father, reckoning that as unworthy of God, and thinking that they had found out a God both without anger and [merely] good, they have alleged that one [God] judges, but that another saves, unconsciously taking away the intelligence and justice of both deities. For if the judicial one is not also good, to bestow favours upon the deserving, and to direct reproofs against those requiring them, he will appear neither a just nor a wise judge. On the other hand, the good God, if he is merely good, and not one who tests those upon whom he shall send his goodness, will be out of the range of justice and goodness; and his goodness will seem imperfect, as not saving all; [for it should do so,] if it be not accompanied with judgment.

3. Marcion, therefore, himself, by dividing God into two, maintaining one to be good and the other judicial, does in fact, on both sides, put an end to deity. For he that is the judicial one, if he be not good, is not God, because he from whom goodness is absent is no God at all; and again, he who is good, if he has no judicial power, suffers the same [loss] as the former, by being deprived of his character of deity. And how can they call the Father of all wise, if they do not assign to Him a judicial faculty? For if He is wise, He is also one who tests [others]; but the judicial power belongs to him who tests, and justice follows the judicial faculty, that it may reach a just conclusion; justice calls forth judgment, and judgment, when it is executed with justice, will pass on to wisdom. Therefore the Father will excel in wisdom all human and angelic wisdom, because He is Lord, and Judge, and the Just One, and Ruler over all. For He is good, and merciful, and patient, and saves whom He ought: nor does goodness desert Him in the exercise of justice,(3) nor is His wisdom lessened; for He saves those whom He should save, and judges those worthy of judgment. Neither does He show Himself unmercifully just; for His goodness, no doubt, goes on before, and takes precedency.

The Book of Mormon says that if God lacked justice or mercy, He would cease to be God. Irenaeus makes much the same argument here. The point is that early Christians understood that justice and mercy were both divine attributes. Note also that in the title of the chapter, the divine attributes of justice and goodness are both described with the word "infinite," which was commonly used to describe God or Christ.

Another early inquiry related to Anselm's is found in the writings of Lactantius, whose "A Treatise on the Anger of God" addresses the apparent conflict between God's kindness and anger (an expression of justice). In Chapter 17, "Of God, His Care and Anger," Lactantius explains that while God loves man, there must be punishment for those who transgress divine law, otherwise God would be imperfect:

But in what can the action of God consist, but in the administration of the world? But if God carries on the care of the world, it follows that He cares for the life of men, and takes notice of the acts of individuals, and He earnestly desires that they should be wise and good. This is the will of God, this the divine law; and he who follows and observes this is beloved by God. It is necessary that He should be moved with anger against the man who has broken or despised this eternal and divine law. If, he says, God does harm to any one, therefore He is not good. They are deceived by no slight error who defame all censure, whether human or divine, with the name of bitterness and malice, thinking that He ought to be called injurious who visits the injurious with punishment. But if this is so, it follows that we have injurious laws, which enact punishment for offenders, and injurious judges who inflict capital punishments on those convicted of crime. But if the law is just which awards to the transgressor his due, and if the judge is called upright and good when he punishes crimes, - for he guards the safety of good men who punishes the evil, - it follows that God, when He opposes the evil, is not injurious; but he himself is injurious who either injures an innocent man, or spares an injurious person that he may injure many. . . .

Therefore He loves the just, and hates the wicked. There is no need (one says) of hatred; for He once for all has fixed a reward for the good, and punishment for the wicked. But if any one lives justly and innocently, and at the same time neither worships God nor has any regard for Him, as Aristides, and Timon, and others of the philosophers, will he escape with impunity, because, though he has obeyed the law of God, he has nevertheless despised God Himself? There is therefore something on account of which God may be angry with one rebelling against Him, as it were, in reliance upon His integrity. If He can be angry with this man on account of his pride, why not more so with the sinner, who has despised the law together with the Lawgiver? The judge cannot pardon offences, because he is subject to the will of another. But God can pardon, because He is Himself the arbitrator and judge of His own law; and when He laid down this, He did not surely deprive Himself of all power, but He has the liberty of bestowing pardon.

Others who discussed theories of the Atonement in various ways prior to Anselm are discusssed by Robert D. Culver, Th.D. in "The Doctrine of Atonement Before Anselm," a paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society's National Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, November 19, 2003. Here are a few excerpts:

Tertullian (160-230) seems to have introduced the important word "satisfaction" to Christian theological language in a treatise on repentance. He did not, however, use the word in connection with the Calvary work of Christ. He probably derived the term and the idea it represented from Roman law (Tertullian had been a lawyer) "where it referred to the amends one made to another for failing to discharge an obligation." In one of Tertullian's treatises he spoke of God as one to whom in repentance "you may make satisfaction" (On Penitance 7.14) and desire to make satisfaction is a reason for confession (On Penitance 8.9). Though Tertullian did not use "satisfaction" in explaining the Godward meaning of Christ's sacrifice on the cross he apparently introduced this heavily freighted word into the vocabulary of Christian theology. Furthermore, Tertullian understood what later was implied in "satisfaction" saying in his treatise On Modesty (22.4), "Who has ever redeemed the death of another by his own, except the Son of God alone? . . . Indeed, it was for this purpose that he came--to die for sinners." Only a little later than Tertullian, Hilary of Poitiers (300?-367) a most competent and articulate theologian, became the first known to equate "satisfaction" with "sacrifice" of Christ and to interpret the death of Christ as the "act of reparation to God on behalf of sinners" (Exposition of the Psalms, on 53:12-13). Here in the translation of H. F. Stewart are the significant statements of one of the greatest of the early Christian theologians. Hilary said Jesus' suffering on the cross "was intended to fulfill a penal function" and he received "penalty." He relates the penalty to "the sacrifices of the Law and then, interprets the work of Christ in these words,

It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when as the Apostle says: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree [Gal 3:13 ]." Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father . . . offering to God the Father." [NPNF, IX pp. 246, 247]

This is the doctrine of satisfaction by substitionary sacrifice many centuries before Anselm, Thomas and Calvin. [See page xcv (95) of Introduction, "The Theology of St. Hilary of Poitiers " NPNF for competent evaluation of Hilary's insight.]

Later Culver turns to Pope Gregory the Great, whom he credits for preserving an earlier understanding of the Atonement in his writings:

Gregory the Great (540-604), bishop of Rome and recognized as pope (590-604), is said to be like the doubleheaded Janus of Rome--looking back upon the patristic age and bringing it to an end while also in the midst of the collapsed civilization of antiquity, stepping out in the dark age that lasted until the beginnings of the revival of learning in the eleventh century. . . .

It is a providence of God that Gregory carried into the medieval epoch a sound conception of the atonement so far as it had been stated up to his time. Gregory is the first outstanding representative of "the hierarchical spirit which was now to mould and corrupt Christianity for a thousand years, we are naturally surprised to find in the writings of one whom some regard as the first pope, representations of the atoning work of Christ so much in accordance with the Pauline conception of it."[24]

Gregory, though he aided and abetted the errors and abuses that much later brought on the 16th century Reformation, was also a cogent advocate of the central doctrine of scripture we describe as atonement by vicarious satisfaction. Among his voluminous writings is his Moral Discourses of Job, wherein he stresses that "guilt can be extinguished only by a penal offering to justice. But it would contradict the idea of justice, if for the sin of a rational being like a man, the death of an irrational animal should be accepted as a sufficient atonement." He follows, saying the sacrifice must be a man, a man unstained by sin. "Hence the Son of God . . . assumed our nature without corruption . . .made himself a sacrifice for us . . . a victim without sin, and able both to die by virtue of its humanity and to cleanse the guilty, upon the grounds of justice" (Book XVII, 46 as cited by Shedd, Op. Cit., pp. 263, 264). Gregory in thinking of "justice" in the sense implied in vicarious satisfaction--i.e. divine justice.

So the tension between justice and mercy and the need for the Son of God to offer a sinless sacrifice is not necessarily a modern concept that Joseph borrowed or plagiarized from fellow Christian writers, but may have been considered by much more ancient thinkers. If Lehi's descendants had detailed prophecies about the Messiah and His sacrifice for our sins, then they, too, could have been able to ponder the Atonement and discuss its meaning and workings, especially guided by revelation, as we find in the Book of Mormon.

The Term "Justice of God" To the index at the top

Some critics suggest that Joseph Smith plagiarized the term "justice of God" from the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, Jr. First, there is no evidence that Joseph was familiar with these sermons - they appeared in print in 1829, and the Book of Mormon was copyrighted in the spring of 1829, though Edwards had been influential in the United States, so there was a chance for indirect exposure through other ministers. But it's utterly silly to argue that a basic Biblical concept like the "justice of God" requires plagiarism to be mentioned in the Book of Mormon. One critic correctly points out that these exact words do not appear in the King James Version, but the word "justice" occurs many times in the Old Testament, referring to an attribute of God. So what else do we call it but "the justice of God"?

Critics also need to recognize that other Bible translators have found the exact phrase "justice of God" to be suitable for terms in the Bible. The Douay-Rheims Bible, for example, an English version of the Catholic Bible translated and published in the sixteenth century, has 8 occurrences of the phrase "justice of God" in the New Testament: Romans 1:17, 1:32; 3:5, 3:21, 22; 10:3; James 1:20; and 2 Corinthians 5:21. The latter reference was discussed above as an excellent example of Biblical teachings on the balance between justice and mercy mediated by the sacrifice of Christ.

Obviously, such a basic concept as the justice of God will be found in many theological writings, even if that exact phrase does not occur in the KJV Bible. For example, in the English translation of the Clementine Recognitions, an early Christian doctrine of unknown authorship, first mentioned in the fourth century A.D. by Eusebius, we find the term "justice of God" several times (e.g., Book 3, chapters 38 and 39).

The occurrence of a few common phrases between various sources can be accounted by noting that they are a natural part of religious vocabulary, including the vocabulary of the Bible. The critics would have us think that Joseph's use of words like "justice of God" points to derivation from modern sources, when that concept is inherent in the Bible, occurs frequently in some translations of the Bible, and has been part of religious discussion in Jewish and Christian sources since ancient times.

The Term "Plan of Salvation" To the index at the top

Several critics suggest that modern ministers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries introduced the Book of Mormon term, "plan of salvation." This phrase is not found in the Bible, but is found in some passages from Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (the son of the Jonathan Edwards previously discussed), and therefore must be plagiarized (never mind that the works of the junior Edwards apparently did not appear in print until 1829, and the translation of the Book of Mormon was largely completed by roughly June of 1829, and that Joseph was far away from a library while doing the bulk of the translation in Harmony, Pennsylvania). Again, the critics fail to recognize that this is a simple and logical term that one need not plagiarize to describe what obviously is a plan of God to bring man salvation. This simple phrase is hardly evidence of plagiarism.

Ancient writers also recognized that God's dealings with man were not random, but part of a plan, and even employed terms that translate as "plan of salvation." Irenaeus in his famous early text, Against Heresies writes in Book 3, 1:1 (I believe this is p. 414 of ANF, Vol. 1, if I properly interpret the text file downloaded from

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, . . .

In Chapter 18 (ibid., p. 446), he uses the same phrase in a context typical of the Book of Mormon:

For as it was not possible that the man who had once for all been conquered, and who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself, and obtain the prize of victory; and as it was also impossible that he could attain to salvation who had fallen under the power of sin,--the Son effected both these things, being the Word of God, descending from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation, . . .

Irenaeus also uses the phrase "plan of salvation" Chapter 18 (ibid., pp. 449-450):

. . . so also, from the beginning, did God permit man to be swallowed up by the great whale, who was the author of transgression, not that he should perish altogether when so engulphed; but, arranging and preparing the plan of salvation, which was accomplished by the Word, through the sign of Jonah, . . .

"The plan of salvation" occurs again on page p. 479. It's not that Joseph Smith was a student of the earliest Christians and plagiarized from them, but that those who knew the Gospel can logically use such words to describe what obviously is a plan of salvation, or plan of redemption, or great and marvelous plan, or any of the related terms used in the Book of Mormon and other ancient sources.

We have previously noted that Sections 8 and 9 of the very early Christian document, Letter to Diognetus, probably dating to 150 to 225 A.D. (The Apostolic Fathers, pp. 301-302) speaks of God's "great and marvelous plan" conceived from the beginning and shared with the pre-existent Christ. And Ignatius, an Apostolic Father, spoke of the "the divine plan with respect to the new man Jesus Christ, involving faith in him and love for him, his suffering and resurrection, . . ." (Letter to the Ephesians in The Apostolic Fathers, op. cit., p. 92). There are undoubtedly many other examples of the term "plan" being used in a Book of Mormon sense from ancients who understand God's dealing with man. To claim that Joseph Smith could not speak of God's plan in such terms without plagiarism is to grasp a straws.

The Dead Sea Scrolls also contain references to the "plans" of God, which are said to "succeed" or, later, to "endure forever" in Scroll 4Q536 (Eisenman and Wise, p. 37). Use of words translatable as "plan" to refer to God's dealings is hardly limited to the modern era.

The Term "the Lamb of God" To the index at the top

In the Bible, the term "lamb of God" is found only in John 1 (verses 1 and 36), where it refers to Christ and His sacrificial role, foreshadowed by the annual sacrifice of the paschal lamb under the Law of Moses. Though Isaiah 53:7 also invokes the image of a lamb being sacrificed ("he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter"), the phrase "lamb of God" does not occur in the Old Testament. It is commonly used in the Book of Mormon before the advent of Christ. I count 27 occurrences of the phrase in 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi, with even more references to the Messiah as simply "the Lamb." This was obviously one of Nephi's favorite titles for the Messiah. "The Lamb of God" is found again in the Book of Mormon only in Alma 7:14 and Mormon 9:2,3, showing an example of the many differences in style and vocabulary of the multiple authors of the Book of Mormon. It also occurs in the pre-Christian text of Moses 7:47 in the Pearl of Great Price. Is this phrase is evidence of clumsy plagiarism from the Gospel of John - or did early Jews also have this Messianic phrase in their religious vocabulary? In the world of 1830, ascribing such terminology to Jews before the time of Christ would have been a blunder for Joseph Smith if he were fabricating the Book of Mormon. The Tanners and other anti-Mormon have frequently pointed to this phrase as an obvious example of plagiarism from the Gospel of John (e.g., see Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book if Mormon by the Tanners). But rather than plagiarism, this little "blunder" now has support from the work of non-LDS scholars and adds to, rather than detracts from, the plausibility of the Book of Mormon. John Welch explains in "The Lamb of God in Pre-Christian Texts," Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999, pp. 40-42):

In a 1979 article, recently selected as one of the most illuminating studies on the background of the New Testament, J. C. O'Neill contends that the phrase Lamb of God was not a Christian invention, as some scholars have supposed, but was rooted in earlier Jewish language and imagery. [1] His main evidence comes from the Testament of Joseph, a Jewish text probably from the second century B.C. O'Neill reasons, for example, that no Christian editor would have added the references to the Lamb of God to the Jewish Testament of Joseph 19, because doing so would pre-suppose two Messiahs (the lion and the lamb figures), a non-Christian tradition that would detract from Christ's preeminence in the work of salvation.

The ancient roots of Testament of Joseph 19 are further evident when that text is compared with the visions in 1 Nephi and related passages in the Book of Mormon:

1. The author of Testament of Joseph 19 learned of the coming Lamb in a dream. Lehi saw in a dream the same vision that Nephi saw a vision featuring the Lamb of God (see 1 Nephi 11:1, 20-21, 24, 27-36).

2. Testament of Joseph 19 describes the scattering of the twelve tribes (compare 1 Nephi 10:12-13; 11:35-12:1).

3. Nephi and the author of Testament of Joseph 19 behold a virgin, mother of the Lamb (see 1 Nephi 11:13-21).

4. The "robe of fine linen" in Testament of Joseph 19 recalls the virgin's description in 1 Nephi 11:15 as "beautiful and fair" and the white robe in 1 Nephi 8:5 and 14:19.

5. The beautiful mother gives birth to a "spotless lamb" in Testament of Joseph 19 and to "the Son of God" in 1 Nephi 11:18.

6. In Testament of Joseph 19 the Lion (Judah?) was found on the Lamb's left hand and proved ineffective, leaving the Lamb to destroy the beast alone (compare 1 Nephi 11:31, 33; 14:13,15).

7. Both texts prophesy that evil will be destroyed in the last days (see 1 Nephi 11:36; 13:37; 14:14-17).

8. In Testament of Joseph 19 the faithful rejoice and are exhorted by their father to keep the commandments of God, common themes in the Book of Mormon (see 1 Nephi 8:38; 2 Nephi 1:16; 2:30).

9. In Testament of Joseph 19 Joseph's posterity is to honor Judah and Levi, the Jews in Jerusalem (compare 1 Nephi 14:8; 2 Nephi 3:12; 29:4-6).

10. Both texts recognize that salvation through the Lamb will come "by grace" (2 Nephi 25:23), saving Gentiles and Israelites (see 1 Nephi 13:42-14:2) by taking away the "sin of the world" (Testament of Joseph 19; compare 1 Nephi 11:33).

When John the Baptist announced Christ's approach with the words "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), he was no doubt using a distinctive messianic title already familiar to the Jews of his day. Although modern Christian readers may consider Nephi's use of the phrase Lamb of God centuries before the Christian era to be anachronistic, the parallels between the Book of Mormon and Testament of Joseph 19 confirm O'Neill's position on the pre-Christian antiquity of the phrase. Thus John was not the first to use it in reference to Christ; and John and Nephi, as well as Isaiah, may have been drawing on earlier common sources.

Research by John W. Welch, originally published as a FARMS Update in Insights (August 1998): 2.


1. See J. C. O'Neill, "The Lamb of God in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 2 (1979): 2-30. Reprinted in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds. New Testament Backgrounds (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), part of a series that collects the best articles from the first fifty issues (1978-93) of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

With the many parallels between the vocabulary and specific subject matter of Nephi and the Testament of Joseph 19, critics of the Book of Mormon would have some of their best evidence for "plagiarism" - if only the Testament of Joseph had been available to Joseph Smith. But to the chagrin of the critics, what the parallels suggest is not plagiarism, but common roots, or a common divine Source. The revealed Messianic traditions of the early Jews apparently included knowledge of a sinless Messianic "Lamb of God" born to a virgin mother who would conquer evil and bring grace and salvation. John the Baptist was not invoking strange new imagery when he told others to "behold the Lamb of God" - he was using imagery that at least some ancient Jews knew and understood, including Nephi. Rather than a clumsy blunder, the pre-Christian term "Lamb of God" is an authentic touch in the divine record of the Book of Mormon, which is another testament of the Lamb.

Summary To the index at the top

Mercy and justice are ancient concepts, as is the concept of atonement to meet the demands of justice in order for man to be forgiven of sin. It's at the core of God's ancient message to His prophets. While justice and mercy were topics of discourse in the nineteenth century, they, like other allegedly modern topics in the Book of Mormon, have been important topics since ancient times. Those who point to numerous parallels between the Book of Mormon and nineteenth century North American writings would do well to read more widely and understand that our "modern" North American thoughts aren't nearly as novel as they have assumed. The discourse in the Book of Mormon restores ancient truths that were lost or muddled during the Apostasy. While these restored truths have been portrayed as modern by some, examination of ancient writings provides evidence that the Book of Mormon truly is an ancient document and a precious part of what God has restored in the latter days.

In fact, the power and clarity of the discourse on mercy and justice in the Book of Mormon makes it a beautiful witness of Christ that greatly clarifies His divinity, His love, and the majestic scope of His Atonement. The depth of those passages surely exceeds what the most learned theologians of Joseph Smith's day could have fabricated, and is stunningly beyond that Joseph Smith could have written, even with the help of many friends. To read those passages with an open mind and heart is to encounter an inspired and divine text that can transform one's life and bring a man much closer to God.

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About this Page

This page deals with apparent problems with the Book of Mormon, offering refutations and explanations from the perspective of Jeff Lindsay, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is one of several pages in a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely my responsibility.

Other Pages of Interest

LDSFAQBack to the LDS FAQ Index

Book of Mormon Evidences

Introduction to the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon and the Fullness of the Gospel - An excellent essay by Michael B. Parker answering the common anti-LDS allegation that the Book of Mormon cannot have the "fullness of the Gospel" as the Lord told Joseph Smith (they claim that the book would have to contain all LDS doctrines, but that is hardly what the Lord meant).

Introduction to the LDS Church

LDS Perspectives on the Dead Sea Scrolls an online book, edited by Donald Parry and Dana Pike. You can also watch the KBYU TV broadcast, "LDS Perspectives on the Dead Sea Scrolls."

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