Alma 42 and Jonathan Edwards Jr.

Looking to Writings of Jonathan Edwards Jr. To Explore The Use of Popular 19th Century Ideas and Theological Framings In Alma 42

Let me be clear from the start that I’m not suggesting that Joseph must have directly plagiarized Jonathan Edwards, Jr (although I think it is possible that his work was a direct inspiration behind Alma 42).  Rather, my intention is simply to demonstrate that these theological framings regarding the necessity of the atonement (which I once felt were incredibly unique and powerful, and once attributed to an ancient American prophet) are actually surprisingly reminiscent of the ideas and voicings that happen to have been making the rounds in Joseph’s day. I think it is very challenging to hold the position that an ancient American prophet happened to have been expressing the same concepts that just happen to have been uniquely framed in such similar ways by theologians in Joseph’s time period. Consider the following examples from “The Works of Jonathan Edwards Jr.” All but three of these quotes are found between pages 131-142.


Alma 42: 4, 13: 

Verse 10:  And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.

Verse 13: …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.

Edwards Jr, pg 131: 

…it is doubtless a wise constitution that this life is the only state of probation. Therefore it is not within the reach of infinite wisdom, to use any further means after this life for the recovery of those who are incorrigible here. So that this entire paragraph is begging the question; it takes for granted, that this life is not the only state of probation, or that the endless punishment of all who die impenitent is not a doctrine of divine revelation.  


Alma 42: 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. 

Edwards Jr, pg 135-136: 

If divine goodness without respect to the atonement of Christ, which is foreign from the subject of this chapter, require the salvation of all men; it either requires that they be saved, whether they repent or not, or it requires that they be saved on the condition of their repentance only. (135-136)

divine goodness requires the salvation of all men, on the condition of their repentance only… Repentance then repairs the damage done to the universe by sin, and so makes satisfaction or atonement for sin. The very essence of atonement is something done to repair the damage done by sin to the universe, so that the sinner can be exempted from punishment, without any disadvantage to the universe. (136)


Alma 42:16:

Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.

Edwards Jr: 

pg 134: And if the proof in Chap VI, that endless punishment is just, be valid, then justice is not satisfied by any punishment short of endless…

pg 141: Hatred of sin is as essential to the Deity as love of holiness … The salvation of the sinner consists in deliverance from the curse of the law; the curse of the law is endless punishment;

pg 142: the public good requires his endless punishment


Alma 42: 13, 15, 24, 25:

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. 

…to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also. 

For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands

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. 

Edwards Jr: 

pg 137: Any further punishment than this is unjust, and any punishment short of this, falls short of the demand of justice. At the same time that this is demanded by justice, it is demanded by the general good too…So that a just punishment of any crime is not only consistent with the general good, but is absolutely required by it… And if the endless punishment of sin be just; it is of course, on the proviso just made, perfectly consistent with the general good of the universe, and absolutely required by it, and equally required by the goodness of God. And to say that though it be just, it is not reconcilable with the divine goodness, is the same as to say, that though it be just, it is not reconcilable with justice.

pg 140: The voice of reason is, that divine goodness, or a regard to the general good requires, that sin be punished according to its demerit, in some instances at least; otherwise God would not appear to be what he really is, an enemy to sin… if God were never to punish it, it would seem, that he his no enemy to it….

pg 134: …this end of future punishment is not the personal good of the patients, but to satisfy justice, and support the authority and dignity of the divine law and government… Now if the end of future punishment, whether temporary or endless, be to satisfy justice, and to support government, then the general good is promoted by the satisfaction of justice…


Alma 42:15:

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. 

Edwards Jr: 

264: “God must be just as well as merciful. He can never exercise one of his attributes so as to clash or interfere with another.”

pg 134: But the divine law may, in some instances, be executed consistently with divine goodness…. And who will dare to say that God has made a law, which he cannot in any one instance execute consistently with his own perfections; and that if he should execute it in any instance, his goodness and mercy must be inevitably given up? Nay, he delights in cruelty?

137-138: I beg leave to ask… whether if Christ has not made atonement, it would have been consistent with the general good of the universe, that sinners be punished without end. If they answer in the affirmative, then endless punishment is in itself reconcilable not with justice only, but with goodness too, as goodness always acquiesces in that which is consistent with the general good. For if only in consequence of the atonement, endless punishment be inconsistent with divine goodness, it becomes inconsistent with it, not on account of anything in the endless punishment of sin or in the divine goodness simply; but wholly on account of something external to them both; and therefore that external something being left out of the account, there is no inconsistency between the endless punishment of sin and the divine goodness in themselves considered. 

141: But whatever punishment is just with respect to any man, provided no atonement be made by a substitute, is necessary to the public good…and if the public good require it, the divine goodness requires it.

142: If the endless punishment of the sinner be just, and no atonement be made by a substitute, the public good requires his endless punishment, and the divine goodness of course requires it. So that if the sinner can be saved by free grace only, and no atonement be made by a substitute, the endless punishment of the sinner is not at all inconsistent with divine goodness; and to say that it is inconsistent with the divine goodness, and yet to say that all men are saved by free grace, and can be saved no other way, implies, as I said, a direct contradiction….


Alma 42: 17,19,20:

How could he sin if there was no law? … Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should diewould he be afraid he would die if he should murder? And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin. 

Edwards Jr:

pg 142: “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (For until the law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

pg 247: It will not be denied that if there were no punishment threatened to the wicked, it would naturally and directly encourage them to persist in vice. 

pg 248: It is generally agreed that murder deserves death. But suppose a law should be made, by which no murderer should be punished with death, or with any other punishment to be continued longer, than tie he should repent. Would not such a law as this, compared with the law as it now stands, naturally and directly tend to encourage murder? 



2 thoughts on “Alma 42 and Jonathan Edwards Jr.

  1. Geoff Fowler July 29, 2020 / 2:54 pm

    Have you read by chance?

    “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”

    So, actually, the Book of Mormon as translated by Joseph Smith DOES provide an “incredibly unique and powerful” perspective of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and of the justice and mercy of God — a perspective that is markedly different from Edwards and Anselm.


    • Russell Ash July 30, 2020 / 12:35 am

      Hi Geoff. I’ve read it now. My first thought for you is that Jeff Lindsay’s own writeup tells us quite clearly that he’s not familiar with Edward’s writings on this matter. We know this because of the following statement that he makes:

      “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).”

      As is very clear in my writeup above, he is very clearly in need of correction. I did just send him a link to this post and suggested that a correction is needed. I’ve seen him make corrections before, so perhaps he will do so.

      Lindsay also drastically understates the similarities between Edwards writings and the BoM (probably because, as we’ve already seen, he hasn’t even read these writings). Readers of his post are given the impression that the parallels are very vague and non-specific. The only example he gives is the phrase “the justice of God.” But as my post demonstrates, the parallels are far more specific and more numerous than that.

      Lindsay also greatly exaggerates the presence of these themes prior to Anshelm in the 11th century. Yes, of course, almost any civilization and any ancient religion is going to have themes of justice, mercy, and forgiveness. But they were not present in the more specific way that Anshelm develops them. I’m sure you wont want to take my word for it, but perhaps you’d give consideration to believer and avid BoM defender Blake Ostler. In his paper about the expansion theory of BoM translation, on page 82, he states the following:

      “The satisfaction theory of atonement elucidated in Alma 34:9-17 and 42:9-17 is a medieval theological development. The idea of atonement as necessary to satisfy two opposed but ontologically necessary attributes of God — his mercy and his justice — was first suggested by Anselm of Canterbury in his A.D. 1109 treatise, Cur Deus Homo? The satisfaction theory was premised on medieval concepts of law and justice and assumed that justice required full retribution for sin while mercy acquitted the sinner and did not require such penalties. The conflict in God’s nature could be resolved only by a sinless individual upon whom justice had no claim but who would allow justice to be done vicariously through his suffering. The suffering would have to come from one having both human and divine natures, however, because an infinite being had been offended by human sin, and only an “infinite atonement” could satisfy the demands of justice. Thus, Christ’s undeserved suffering provides infinite merit which can be dispensed vicariously to depraved creatures who stand in need of Christ’s grace. It is possible to detect influences of this theory in Alma’s presentation of God’s plan, which also shows Arminian influences in its description of vicarious sacrifice: (he then quotes Alma 42:13-15)”

      Lindsay highlights differences (or in my opinion, really just further clarifications or additions) between the BoM and Anshelm as if that is significant. But nobody is saying Joseph copied Anshelm at all, and certainly not that he has to have followed him precisely (why wouldn’t we expect Joseph to have his own spin on the issues even if using the same beginning framework?). Just that these concepts don’t appear with this specific framing until Anshelm. In any case, as seen in my post, Alma 42 follows this modern framing of the atonement presented by Jonathan Edwards (and thus many others) extremely well.

      Lindsay tries to suggest that this same “gospel” was taught among pre-Christians, and even to Abraham. This is of course extremely problematic. Of course, he can’t give any pre-Christian sources for this claim, because they don’t exist (yes, he gives the Dead Sea Scrolls quotes, but these only contain more vague references to mercy and justice and forgiveness that can be found in most any ancient culture, and not anything that contains this more specific theological framing that came only later in medieval times. To further drive this point home, I would ask you this. Can you find me a single example in any pre-Christian work that suggests that the messiah would die? You wont find it, because the concept of a messiah who would die was not only absent, but ran completely contradictory to what the messiah was supposed to do. The last thing a messiah was every supposed to do was die. It was not until after Jesus’ very unexpected death (post-hoc) that people began connecting his death with the ancient concept of sacrificial atonement as an explanation for what had happened.

      Anyway, you quoted Lindsay as saying “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”

      As I’ve shown, Lindsay clearly is not even familiar with these writings from Jonathan Edwards, and is thus not in a position to comment on it. I think the parallels I’ve identified above speak for themselves. The core concepts in Alma 42 are present in these modern (and very popular) writings of Jonathan Edwards, Jr.

      Thank you for reading.


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