3 Nephi 26:4-5
4 And even unto the great and last day, when all people, and all kindreds, and all nations and tongues shall stand before God, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—
5 If they be good, to the resurrection of everlasting life; and if they be evil, to the resurrection of damnation; being on a parallel, the one on the one hand and the other on the other hand, according to the mercy, and the justice, and the holiness which is in Christ, who was before the world began.
Philosophers often argue about the origin of good and evil. My view about that may be a bit simplistic, but I think it works. It is based on my understanding of these verses.
29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light (D&C 93:29-31).
The point is this: agency is an integral part of what we are, “otherwise there is no existence.”
To understand the origins of good and evil we have to take our minds back to our own origins, and seek to understand our progression through linear time from intelligences, to spirit children of our Heavenly Father, to time on this earth, to the post-earth-life spirit world, to our resurrection, to our final judgement, then to become the celestial persons we all hope to become.
In each moment of our lives, we are perpetually confronted with the most primal and important decision of our existence. That decision is the answer to the great question: “What is in my best interest?”
I believe that throughout our premortal world, way back to when we were intelligences at the very beginning of our cognizance, that same great question had to be asked and answered, just as frequently as it is now.
I believe that neither good nor evil were ever imposed upon us, but both are the consequence of our own sense of Self — how we define our Self in terms of our most fundamental needs; and how we define other people’s relationship to that Self as we seek to satisfy those needs. The needs I am talking about are not the basic physical needs we have in this world, but rather the more fundamental needs that persist throughout our existence. They are all about our sense of Self, our relationships with other people and with our God.
In our defining those relationships, there have always been two basic options, but they are spread along a very long continuum. At one end is pure good, at the other pure evil, with many gradations of good and evil in between.
In the beginnings of our beginning there were the Savior and the Noble and Great Ones whose consistent response to that great question was that it was in their best interest to bless others, and to accept blessings from them, that all might be glorified. That kind of self gratification is love, and was the beginning and is the continuation of good.
On the other extreme was Satan and his minions who believed that it was in their best interest to use and control others to satisfy their own selfish desires. That kind of self gratification was the beginning and is the continuation of evil.
On a continuum between those two extremes were, and still are, the great masses of individuals. Most people make some decisions based on one kind of values, and other decisions based on the other kind of values. We see it in this world where most people vacillate between good and evil. But even here there are some people who adhere much more closely to good, while others seek to achieve self glory through evil means.
Each time we ask and answer that great question we also pronounce a judgement upon ourselves. That judgment evokes a blessing or a punishment. I am convinced God does not now, has never, and never will punish any of his children. Alma explained the process to his son:
22 But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflictet h the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
23 But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice.
24 For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.
25 What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.
26 And thus God bringeth about his great and eternal purposes, which were prepared from the foundation of the world. And thus cometh about the salvation and the redemption of men, and also their destruction and misery (Alma 42:22-26).
Because we move through linear time from intelligences to the final judgment, we are bound by that time to living only in the moment. Each moment is unique. We cannot hurry into a future event, nor can we go back to revisit a past occurrence. We can remember and sometimes seek to replicate a past experiences that brought us pleasure, but each repetition is a new and separate event. For example if you eat a new kind of candy bar and really like it. You can never eat it again. You can get a similar bar and enjoy that one as much as the first, but the first will forever be a past pleasure. It can be remembered, and sometimes replicated, but not re-visited and re-experienced.
That is equally true of things we regret. We can never not-have-done them, but we can refuse to replicate them again. That refusal is repentance. The Savior’s Atonement cannot remove the event from our past, but he can remove its hurt and even its memory from our present. We can be washed clean from our sins so the sins will leave no stain upon our souls.
The Savior’s mercy accomplishes that cleansing. Through his Atonement he absorbs the full consequence of our sin and lets us feel only a taste of the hurt. That taste is sufficient to cause us to understand its pain and seek to not experience its likeness again. Therefore, we seek to not replicate the sin. Fortunately, sometimes we can vicariously experience a bit of the consequences of a sin by watching other people. Then we can altogether avoid doing the sin ourselves.
Or, if we opt to not repent, mercy still withholds the full power of justice. If we choose to do so, we can use that taste to titillate our Self and to seek to duplicate the thrill or sense of power we had when we did the sin. In either case, the decision to repent or not is entirely our own. The Savior’s mercy only guarantees that the option is ours.
Thus, because of mercy, we move through linear time, learn through experience, choose what we wish to replicate and keep as part of our being, or what we wish to discard so that it is no longer a part of our Self.
The plan of salvation guaranteed that as we move through linear time — from intelligences, spirit persons, earth life, spirit world, resurrection, and the final judgment — we will be confronted with enough challenges to enable us to make enough choices so that we can perfectly define the attitudes and actions that gives us happiness. Therefore, when we stand before the Savior on judgement day we will have become precisely who and what we have chosen to become.
Throughout this whole odyssey the powers of justice have been kept in abeyance. We have tasted its jurisdiction, but its full consequences have been absorbed by the Savior’s mercy. If we lived in a world where justice had its full sway, the consequences of our sins would have long since destroyed us, or the consequences of our righteousness would have bribed us to avoid sin. In either case we would have lost our agency and our Self would have become a Nothing. But because of the Savior’s Atonement the full powers of justice are held at bay until the resurrection when we are judged by our works and receive a body that is perfectly compatible with the person we have caused our Self to be.
This introduces us to the critical question: By what works will we be judged? The answer is: those actions and attitudes by which we answered the great question, which is largely about our perceptions of our Self in relationship to the value of other people. The quality of our spirit will determine the quality of our resurrected body. The Lord explained that very simply:
28 They who are [now – present tense] of a celestial spirit shall [future] receive the same body which was [past tense from the future, so back to the present] a natural body; even ye shall receive [future] your bodies, and your glory shall be [future] that glory by which your bodies are [present] quickened.
29 Ye who are [now – in the present] quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then [future] receive of the same, even a fulness (D&C 88:28-29).
To define “celestial spirit” we may go to the Doctrine and Covenants and elsewhere, where the high point to which we reach is to live the Law of Consecration, which means blessing the lives of others by our kindness and “good works.”
However, in the Book of Mormon the high point to which we reach is to be a person of charity. Charity and the Law of Consecration are two sides of the same coin. Living the Law of Consecration is what we do when charity is what we are.
Whether we have or have not charity defines the quality of our spirits and will ultimately define the quality of our resurrected body. Therefore, at the judgement that precedes our resurrection we are, as the Savior said, judged by our works. Mormon further explains:
47 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
48 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen (Moroni 7:47-48).
The time of our resurrection will not be the first time we are judged by our works, neither will it be our last. After the resurrection we will stand before the Savior, clothed in our resurrected bodies, to be judged according to our works. Mormon explains that sequence very succinctly when he writes:
6 And he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead, whereby man must be raised to stand before his judgment-seat (Mormon 7:5-7).
Mormon also explained it with more detail:
13 And because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; yea, this is wherein all men are redeemed, because the death of Christ bringeth to pass the resurrection, which bringeth to pass a redemption from an endless sleep, from which sleep all men shall be awakened by the power of God when the trump shall sound; and they shall come forth, both small and great, and all shall stand before his bar, being redeemed and loosed from this eternal band of death, which death is a temporal death.
14 And then cometh the judgment of the Holy One upon them; and then cometh the time that he that is filthy shall be filthy still; and he that is righteous shall be righteous still; he that is happy shall be happy still; and he that is unhappy shall be unhappy still (Mormon 9:13-14).
In Alma’s conversation quoted above, he taught that same principle to his son, and shows us the relationship between mercy, justice, resurrection, and the final judgment:
23 But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works, according to the law and justice (Alma 42:22-26).
The Savior’s mercy gives us the option of defining our Self and guarantees that each of us would receive a resurrected body compatible with that Self.
Now we have a different question: If we have already been judged by our works to receive a resurrected body, by what works are we judged after the resurrection at the final judgment? The scriptures answer that question as well.
In that final judgment when we stand before the Savior, he will judge us by our “works.” But since we were judged by our works before, this judgement is either a kind of redundancy or else the word “works” refers to something different. The latter is true, and we can the new referent by reading Alma in the Book of Mormon and James in the New Testament.
In a review of the Nephite temple rites, Alma says we are taught by our faith (pistis = covenants), repentance, and “holy works” (Alma 12:28-34). In that context I understand “holy works” to refer to the covenants we make and to the ordinances that validate them.
James teaches us the same concept in his famous statement that “faith without works is dead. The Greek word translated “faith” is pistis.
Pistis was a legal commercial term that might better be translated as “covenant” or “contract.” Contracts require a validation, usually a signature, to make them legal. Covenants in the ancient temples required ordinances as that validation. The ordinances must be performed with exactness and with proper authority just as a signature on a contract must represent someone who has the right to make the contract binding. What James wrote was that without the binding ordinances the ancient priesthood and temple covenants had no value.
The Prophet Joseph wrote the same thing, but he explained the gravity of the concept more fully.
7 And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead (D&C 132:7).
Ordinances are the works without which the covenants have no validity. God’s house is a house of order and there can be nothing capricious about his administration of the final judgment. We will stand before the Savior in the resurrected body that already defines the quality of our spirit. There, we will receive a final judgment based on our “holy works.” That judgment must be established by hard, unchallengeable fact. The final judgment will rest upon whether we have accepted and kept our eternal covenants, and whether those covenants have been validated by the appropriate ordinances. Since that question must be answered by fact and rather than by a subjective decision, that final judgment will be absolutely just and true.
So, as Alma taught, through the power of the Savior’s Atonement mercy enables us to become what we choose to become, but it is justice that dictates our final destiny. Thus God is perfectly merciful and perfectly just.