Jacob, the brother of Nephi taught his people, "And it shall come to pass that when all men shall have passed from this first death unto life, insomuch as they have become immortal, they must appear before the judgment-seat of the Holy One of Israel; and then cometh the judgment, and then must they be judged according to the holy judgment of God" (2 Nephi 9:15).
The central message of Christianity is that all men will someday be judged for the things they have done in this life. That is why it is important for us to believe on Christ because it is only through His atoning death on the cross that we can have our sins erased and therefore be judged worthy of living with God forever. On the other hand, those who refuse to accept Christ's sacrifice in our behalf will be judged unworthy of living in His presence and will have to spend eternity separated from Him.
As Christians we also believe that God is extremely just and fair in all He does and that He is a kind, loving, and merciful Being. Therefore, we believe that when God judges each of us on the last day, His judgment will not only be totally just and completely fair but that His decision will be tempered with loving mercy.
According to what most Christians believe that judgment will result in one of two options. Those who accept Christ will go to heaven because they have been made clean by the shedding of His blood while those who do not accept Christ will remain in their sins and will be cast down to hell, which the scriptures describe "as a lake of fire and brimstone whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end" (2 Nephi 9:16).
However, for many people the idea of someone burning in a lake of fire for all eternity simply because they didn't or couldn't accept a belief in Jesus Christ doesn't seem very kind, loving, or merciful. Furthermore, it seems to many that it is quite unfair and unjust of God to condemn someone to this endless torture if they have never even had the opportunity to hear about Christ, while others were given repeated chances to accept His message of salvation after having it preached to them numerous times.
But God's judgment involves more than just accepting or rejecting Christ. Jesus taught that "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19). It is from the desires of our hearts that each of us give into the temptation to sin, but, even so, not everyone is a murderer or a thief. Therefore, it is obvious that some people are more prone to act on the unrighteous desires of their heart than others.
The apostle Paul taught that those who are "filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them" (Romans 1:29-32).
According to Paul, those who commit any of these acts of wickedness "are worthy of death," which many Christians interpret as meaning they will be cast down to hell. But what will happen to those who don't believe in Christ yet who are not murderers, backbiters, and haters of God, and who do not engage in fornication nor are inventors of evil things?
Throughout the history of the world we have seen men who were truly evil and who have committed horrific crimes on a grand scale. Such people include men like Herod the Great, Caligula, Nero, Attila the Hun, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, just to mention a few notable ones. On the other hand, there are many people who do not believe in Christ but who nonetheless strive to live a godly life as they understand it. This would include those who are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others who belong to non-Christian religions. Yet, according to what many Christians believe, all those who are not saved into the kingdom of heaven will suffer the same eternal torture in hell forever and ever.
This raises two disturbing questions. The first is: How is it fair and just to punish everyone the same no matter how small or great their offense? We would think it highly unfair if someone who stole a few items of food because they were hungry was given the same sentence as someone who had committed multiple, brutal murders. We condemn those repressive governments who imprison people for merely speaking out in opposition and sentence such people to hard manual labor under intolerable conditions for decades.
In 1864 a number of countries signed a humanitarian code of conduct that governed the way prisoners of war were to be treated. This document, known as the Geneva Convention, outlaws the use of torture and yet many Christians believe that God will subject each person who refuses to believe in Christ to a torturous life that far surpasses anything man could possibly inflict on someone while at the same time saying that God is not only fair and just but is a loving, kind, and merciful Being.
The second disturbing question is: Why must this torture go on forever? Even in repressive governments, eventually they release their political prisoners. In a just society, only those who have committed heinous crimes are given a life sentence with no possibility of parole, and then they are not subjected to appalling torture. All others criminals are at least given the possibility of being set free from their prison sentence, including some murderers. Even death itself is a release from our justice system. And yet, Christians teach that those who have been sentenced to hell will never have even the remotest hope of ever being freed from this divine prison where unspeakable suffering will be eternally inflict upon them.
If God's ways and thoughts are so much higher and superior to that of man (Isaiah 55:9) then we should expect Him to behave in ways that are much more fair, just, kind and merciful than anything man is capable of doing. And yet, from what traditional Christianity teaches, it would seem that sinful man is much more fair, just and merciful to his fellow being that God intends to be.
However, there is still yet another factor that needs to be considered when judging a person's life. There are those who have been born, raised, and died in a society where they not only have never had the opportunity to hear about Christ but were taught from birth to live wickedly. As we have already seen, Paul wrote that those who commit fornication are not worthy of inheriting the kingdom of God yet in some countries sexual promiscuity and pre-martial sex is a common way of life where it is openly promoted and encouraged. Is it fair of God to condemn people to hell because they committed fornication when they had been taught all their life that there was nothing wrong with such behavior?
In the Middle East many Palestinians have been taught from the time they were born to hate Jews. From the time they could understand the spoken word they've been told that Jews are pigs, that God despises them and that He is pleased when they are killed. As such, parents teach, train, and encourage their children to kill Jews. Among many Palestinian people those suicide bombers who blow themselves up for the purpose of killing Jews are honored and revered as heroes. They are told that if they die in this manner their salvation in heaven is assured, no matter what other crimes against God they may have committed.
In ancient times, tribal warfare was a normal way of life. To them, the killing of other tribal members was not a crime but a matter of survival. The code of conduct back then was to kill your enemy before they had the chance to kill you. As repugnant as all this hatred and killing may seem to us, how can a God of fairness and mercy condemn someone for this behavior when they knew no other way of life and such conduct was instilled in them by the teachings of their parents and their society?
Yet, the scriptures are clear. Only those who accept Jesus and live according to His commandments will inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God and that someday, on the last day, each of us will be judged and rewarded for the things we've done in this life. If God is indeed a Being of fairness and mercy as well as one of justice, how will He judge these different situations?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that all men will have the same opportunity to hear about and accept the true gospel of Jesus Christ, whether while living here on earth or after death. In this way all men can be judged by the same standard rather than one person being given an advantage that someone else has been denied. That is not only just but it is eminently fair.
But that answer only addresses one situation. What about those who were raised to behave wickedly?
King Benjamin taught that the Lamanites would not accept the gospel of Jesus Christ even when it was taught to them "because of the traditions of their fathers" (Mosiah 1:5). Laman and Lemuel had such a hatred towards their brother Nephi that they taught their children to hate the children of Nephi and this hatred was passed on through tradition from one Lamanite generation to another. And it was because of this tradition, taught to them by their parents and grandparents, that many of the Lamanites refused to accept the gospel of Christ when it was presented to them. How can a fair God hold these people to the same standard of judgment as those Nephites who were born and raised to believe in Christ?
The prophet Alma explained: "For there are many promises which are extended to the Lamanites; for it is because of the traditions of their fathers that caused them to remain in their state of ignorance; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them and prolong their existence in the land" (Alma 9"16).
At the time Alma wrote these words, many of the Lamanites remained in a state of ignorance about God, not because of any desire on their part but "because of the traditions of their fathers." Yet, Alma taught that the Lord would take this fact into consideration and show them mercy. Thus we see that God is indeed fair as well as merciful.
But that then raises the question of exactly how will God judge them? Justice demands that to inherit the kingdom of God a person must accept Christ as their Savior and live according to His commandments. To allow someone into heaven who has not met this standard is not fair to those who have. Yet if people are not able to live up to this standard through no fault of their own then it isn't fair or just to condemn them to hell either. Then what kind of judgment would be both fair and just?
Jacob explained, "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. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of justice upon all those who have not the law given to them. But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!" (2 Nephi 9:25-27).
There are several things we learn from this scripture. The first is that people will be condemned only for what they know. To illustrate this principle, suppose two people come across someone who had been seriously injured in a car accident. If the first person upon the scene was a carpenter, he might try to help the injured person as best he could but no one would fault him for not giving proper medical care because he had not been trained to do so. In fact, he might even be afraid to render medical aid for fear of doing something wrong. However, if the second person on the scene was a doctor, he would be expected to do all he could to help the injured person. If he didn't do anything for fear of being sued for malpractice, he would be faulted for his inaction. Thus, one person would not be criticized for their lack of action while another person would be punished for doing nothing. What makes the difference between these two judgments is the difference in their level of knowledge.
In the same way, God cannot punish someone for violating His laws if they had no knowledge of them. That wouldn't be just. Therefore the only fair thing to do is to judge people according to what they know.
The second thing we learn from Alma's statement is that Christ's atonement has satisfied the demands of justice upon all those who have sinned in ignorance. Since each of us has sinned, justice demands that we be punished for our sins. That is only fair. But justice knows no mercy. It is cold and unyielding in its demands. It doesn't take into account extenuating circumstances such as ignorance of the law. However, Christ's atonement has delivered us from the awful, unmerciful and unrelenting power of justice because His death has paid the penalty for the sins of all men, even those who don't believe in Him. Thus, the demands of justice have been met and is satisfied. And because of that the mercy of God can be extended to everyone, both saint and sinner alike.
But how does the atonement of Christ do this?
No matter how wicked or how righteous, each society has its own set of laws that its citizens are expected to follow. For them, those laws become the standard of correct behavior. If it is from our heart that wicked desires come then it is just as true that it is from our heart that righteous desires come as well. Those whose desire to keep the law, as they know it, possess a righteous heart.
The prophet Alma taught his son, Corianton, "And it is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good" (Alma 41:3). And in our day the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, 'For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts. (D&C 137:9).
The circumstances we find ourselves in are not so important to the Lord as are the desires of our heart. In the days of Moses God wrote His divine law in stone but that didn't keep the Israelites from violating it. And the reason why is because their hearts were set on being like those around them rather than on being a holy and peculiar people unto the Lord. On the other hand, Ruth was a Moabite yet she found favor in the sight of God because her heart desired to do that which was good. During the holocaust, many Jews suffered terrible persecution yet some became bitter and turned their back on God while others became humble and had their faith strengthened. That is why Alma said that God will judge us "according to the desires of [our] hearts."
But that doesn't mean God holds us guiltless no matter what we do nor can we excuse all of our actions on our upbringing. At the time of our birth each person has been born with an innate sense of right and wrong. Some call this our conscious while others call it the Light of Christ. But whatever we call it, each of us have an inbred sense of fairness and justice that prompts us to do what is right regardless of the laws we live under.
In every society there will be those who desire to do good and there will also be those who look for opportunities to do wrong. In the old Soviet Union people were encouraged to spy on their neighbors and report any and all suspicious behavior to the Secret Police. Some people did this with glee, often times for their own selfish reasons, while others had compassion on their neighbors and choose to remain silent about anything they might inadvertently witness. Therefore, the Lord can rightly judge each of us on how well we lived up to that light.
Even so, justice demands that whatever we do, whether good or bad, be rewarded or punished. That is what Alma meant when he taught that "if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good."
Yet, on the other hand, it wouldn't be fair for someone to receive the same reward as someone else who did keep God's commandments. Therefore, it is obvious that there must be more than one kind of reward and punishment because that's the only way to be fair and just.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that on the last day after each person has been judged by God on how they lived their life, they will receive as their reward or punishment (depending on how we choose to look at it) one of three major kingdoms of heaven known as the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial. Those who are judged worthy to live in the celestial kingdom where Christ and God dwell are those who have chosen to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ and have lived according to its standard.
As stated earlier, by then each person will have had sufficient opportunity to have heard the gospel message, either on earth or while in the realm of departed spirits. Those who have chosen not to accept it or who have chosen not to live according to its standard will be judged worthy to inherit a lower kingdom of heaven.
The Lord has revealed that those who inherit the terrestrial kingdom "are they who died without [the] law (D&C 7672) and that "they that knew no law shall have part in the first resurrection." (D&C 45:54). However "the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation 20:5) and will inherit the telestial kingdom. "These are they who are thrust down to hell. These are they who shall not be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection, until the Lord, even Christ the Lamb, shall have finished his work" (D&C76:84,85).
But, that then raises another question. If every one will eventually inherit some degree of heaven then what about hell and the everlasting lake of fire?
The LDS Church teaches that there is a place of suffering where those who have done wickedly must pay the penalty for their misdeeds. After all, that is what justice requires. If that did not happen then there would be no justice to life. And, if it wasn't for the atonement of Christ, that would be the fate of each one of us. However, when we accept Christ's sacrifice, repent of our sins, and strive to live according to His commandments then His suffering on the cross is counted as having paid the penalty for our individual sins.
That is what the grace of God is all about. It is through God's love, kindness, and mercy for us that He sent His only begotten Son into the world so that whosoever should believe on His name should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). In other words, as an act of mercy, God made it possible for us to escape the punishment we deserve for the sins we commit. But those who chose not to accept that offer of mercy must then suffer the penalty for their own sins. That is only fair.
But that suffering will not last forever. If it did, that would make the penalty unjust. If someone steals ten dollars it would be unjust to make the thief pay the victim back one thousand dollars. To punish someone for all eternity for something they did in one moment of time is just as unfair. But, to make a person's punishment fit their crime is exactly what justice requires.
Furthermore, all righteous punishment is given for the purpose of correcting bad behavior. Parents discipline their children, not out of vindictiveness, but to help them learn how to properly behave. Most prison systems seek to rehabilitate criminals with the hope that they can go back into society as a law-abiding citizen. Even in repressive governments, people are allowed out of political prisons when it is thought they will no longer be a threat to their country's leadership.
But the concept of hell as taught by traditional Christianity is not a place of rehabilitation. Rather than having any redeeming quality about it, the only reason for the existence of hell, as understood by most Christias, is to administer harsh, cruel, unrelenting punishment. That is not only unfair and unjust it is heartless and merciless.
By way of contrast, the LDS Church teaches there will come a time when both death and hell will be done away with. At that time all men will stand before the bar of Christ and be judged for their deeds. Those who have accepted Christ's gift of salvation and have lived according to His commandments will inherit the celestial kingdom as their just reward. Those who were honorable people, who sought to do what was right with the knowledge they had but who refused to accept Christ will receive a lower reward of glory known as the terrestrial kingdom while those who desired to do evil will receive a significantly lower reward of glory known as the telesital kingdom. Thus, each person will receive the kind of reward they justly deserve.
But there is another aspect of justice that must be taken into account. Alma taught, "Wo unto him that has the law givenů and that transgresseth them." Jesus elaborated on this by way of a parable when He explained "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:47,48).
The prophet, Helaman the younger, taught his people this same principle. Speaking about the Lamanites he said, "For behold, they are more righteous than you, for they have not sinned against that great knowledge which ye have received; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them; yea, he will lengthen out their days and increase their seed, even when thou shalt be utterly destroyed except thou shalt repent" (Helaman 7:24).
Those who have a greater understanding of what is expected of them are under greater condemnation if they don't live up to it than those who never had that knowledge to begin with. And the converse is just as true. Those who live according to a greater knowledge will receive a greater reward than someone who has never had that knowledge.
We see this same situation all around us in life. A person with only a high school education is not expected to perform open-heart surgery. As such, he is under no condemnation for his lack of skill. But, at the same time, that doctor who is able to successfully save the life of their patients will make significantly more money than will the high school graduate. As parents, we don't hold our six-year old child to the same standard of behavior as we do our sixteen-year old. But, it is precisely because of that lower standard that we don't give the car keys to our six-year old but are willing to let our sixteen-year old have them, providing they have lived up to the standards we expect of them.
We recognize this sort of reward and punishment as being both fair and just. If God is wiser than any human or group of humans, then it follows that God's judgments must be infinitely more fair than ours. While we may not understand how God will judge each and every situation, on that last day when we stand before Him we will discover that His judgments will be fairer than we can possibly imagine. In that day, those who receive a reward far less than what they had expected will not be able to complain that it isn't fair. Instead, they will see that it is much fairer than anything they could have ever hoped for. Those who receive a reward greater than what they had imagined will not only understand the fairness of God but will come to know of His infinite mercy as well.
All of this is contained in the justice of God.