Kevin D. Whitehead, “God’s Judgment in the Book of Mormon,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 51–61.
God’s Judgment in the Book of Mormon
Kevin D. Whitehead
Among the motivating doctrines of the gospel is the fact that mankind will stand before the judgment bar of God to be judged “according to their works whether they be good or whether they be evil.” In the Book of Mormon, the doctrine of a final and universal judgment is taught frequently and repeatedly. The Lord has not left us without knowledge concerning the way He will administer judgment. This paper will consider several aspects of the way God does and will judge us as taught in the Book of Mormon. Specifically, this paper will consider some of the judgments that precede final judgment, the facets of the final judgment, and the two major criteria upon which we will be judged—namely, our works and our desires.
Judgment in the Premortal Realm
During our life before mortality, we were given opportunities for growth and progression. God’s first judgment impacted our opportunities and blessings in mortality. The judgment was based on the foreknowledge of God and encompassed the issues of agency, faith, and faithfulness. Alma informs us that in the premortal realm we were “left to choose good or evil,” indicating that there was some form of knowledge, opposition, and opportunity in that sphere which was vital for growth and progression. Some chose to harden their hearts and had their minds blinded, while others exercised great faith, developed godly attributes, fostered spiritual gifts, and received greater truth and light. God judged our faithfulness in that premortal realm and, according to His wisdom and our needs for further progress, determined such things as when we would come to earth, the “bounds of our habitation,” the length of our probationary state, and the “portion of His word” we would receive while on earth. Those who chose good and exercised surpassing faith were deemed, through this first judgment, worthy to receive the priesthood and bring the blessings of redemption and eternal life to others in mortality. All who are born to this earth were judged to be worthy to inherit their second estate.
Judgment at the Second Coming
In addition to this preliminary judgment in the premortal realm, the Lord will judge all living at His Second Coming. Just as the Lord passed judgment on the earth by water, He will pass judgment on the world by fire. At the time of Christ’s Second Coming, there will be a significant judgment. As part of His coming, the righteous dead will be raised up in resurrected immortality. By virtue of their glorified, resurrected bodies, the righteous will have received a divine and everlasting decree from their Maker and Judge. They are “raised to dwell with God who has redeemed them; thus they have eternal life through Christ.” Therefore, a person’s resurrected body is an inherent indicator of the kingdom which that individual will enjoy in the eternities. The final judgment is a formal declaration of destiny beyond what is already manifest in the resurrected body.
In contrast, the destruction of the wicked is also a manifestation of the Lord’s judgment; which consigns them to outer darkness in the spirit world.  They will at some later time be raised to the resurrection of damnation, which suggests that their progress and increase will be limited in the world to come.
At the resurrection of the righteous, the Lord of Hosts will descend with a glorious army to pass judgment on the ungodly. This army will assist the Lord in at least three senses: (1) After being caught up to meet Christ in the clouds, the Saints will descend in glory with the hosts of heaven to “tread down the wicked.” (2) They will live and reign with Christ in administration and judgment a thousand years during the millennial era. (3) The example of their lives and that which they taught while on the errand of the Lord “shall stand as a bright testimony against [those they warned] at the judgment day.” In light of these facts, the Saints will be both instrumental and integral in assisting the Lord in His judgment of the world.
Judgment at the Time of Death
In addition to the judgment at Christ’s Second Coming, a partial judgment occurs in the spirit world at death. Alma explained that “the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.” The phrase “taken home to that God who gave them life” does not mean we will be ushered into the immediate presence of God. Rather, the context of the phrase suggests that God, in His omnipresence, will issue a partial judgment. Men will be delivered to either a “state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow,” or a “state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them.”
Accordingly, the Prophet Joseph Smith would later add, “The great misery of departed spirits . . . is to know that they come short of the glory that others enjoy and that they might have enjoyed themselves, and they are their own accusers.” Thus, judgment in the hereafter is personal in nature insofar as men are “their own judges” not only of whether to choose good or evil but that in mortality they did choose good or evil.
A Glorious Judgment Day
Despite our mortal decisions, Judgment Day will be a glorious occasion for the redeemed. Before the great books of judgment are opened, Christ, who holds the keys of redemption, will deliver us from death and hell. As Jacob renders it, “Hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel.” Through Christ’s Resurrection, all men will conquer death. Through Christ’s Atonement, men will be freed from hell or the death of the spirit, before that day “when all men shall stand to be judged of him.”
All those who inherit salvation in a kingdom of glory will have been redeemed through the Atonement of Christ. Men will not be resurrected in sin and yet inherit a kingdom of glory, nor is there repentance in the Resurrection. Those who lived to the age of accountability will—either during their mortal life or in spirit prison—be cleansed of sin through repentance or suffering and acknowledge Christ as their Redeemer. Little children who die before the age of accountability “are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world,” and will inherit eternal life. In this sense, the majority of mankind will eventually receive the Lord as their Savior and inherit salvation in a kingdom of glory based on their desires and willing obedience.
All Will See the Face of God
In the final judgment, mankind “shall return to God,” says Jacob, “and behold his face.” Our memory of past experience will be restored to perfection in the Resurrection. Perfection implies a completeness and wholeness that would encompass the memory not only of our mortal life but also of our premortal existence. The restoration of mind and memory will prompt within the redeemed utter gratitude for being saved by the grace of God notwithstanding all we have done. In contrast, returning to the presence of God will engulf those sons of perdition that deny the Holy Ghost in indescribable anguish.
Those who stand before the Lord in judgment will, with resurrected capacity, comprehend the scope and the majesty of the plan of salvation. Gone will be the veil that obscured the view of the ages and possibly eons that made up premortal life. Gone will be the divine amnesia concerning the multitude of tender associations we had with heavenly parents. We will remember how we were nurtured, taught, and guided in that first estate. We will be able to see all that the Father and the Son strived to do for us both in the premortal state and while here on earth. We will comprehend at that moment not only that has Christ redeemed us from death and hell but also that He bore us and carried us every day of our struggle through mortality.
At final judgment, we will see in the face and the eyes of our Redeemer something of His great atoning love. In resurrected perfection, we will have a perfect memory of all our sin and will be conscious of the debt we incurred to justice to “the uttermost senine.” Yet, because of divine forgiveness, we will not be harrowed up by the realization of that debt. Rather, to our everlasting gratitude—standing before Christ, delivered from our sins and transgressions—we will comprehend at least something, if not everything, of the cost of our personal redemption. Consequently, we will also comprehend and feel by the perfect Light of Christ the infinite expanse of love of Him who redeemed us. This infusion will cause “every knee [to] bow, and every tongue [to] confess before Him . . . that he is God.” Even those who were at one time past feeling will, in humble and poignant awe, fall down and acknowledge Christ as the Lord of the whole earth.
The Book of Life
As part of final judgment, God will consult both written and living records. In a vision of the judgment, John the Revelator “saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” There are at least two senses in which the Book of Mormon portrays the book of life as playing a role in our judgment.
First, our body—our countenance—is the record from which we will be judged. The book John refers to is the same record that Alma mentions in his question, “Can ye look up to God at that day, . . . having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?” Further, in light of Alma’s declaration that our thoughts will be brought into judgment, the following quotation adds understanding. President John Taylor stated, “That record that is written by the man himself in the tablets of his own mind—that record that cannot lie—will in that day be unfolded before God and angels, and those who shall sit as judges.” The record of our thoughts and intents and the extent to which we were willing to conform to the gospel law will be written on our countenances and our bodies.
The imprint of God upon our souls is nothing less than the degree to which we have allowed the Holy Ghost to change and sanctify us. It has much to do with the amount of the Light of Christ or Spirit of God that is quickening us. In our resurrected state, we will be raised to a summation of all our desires and works. However, our nature, disposition, character, and attributes can be sanctified and even supplanted through the miracle of the Atonement and influence of the Holy Spirit. Although our bodies contain a perfect record of our thoughts, words, actions, and desires, all those things that would condemn us can be blotted out by the atoning blood of Christ. If we have been cleansed by the Atonement and sanctified by the Spirit, we have literally become new creatures and will stand as a bright record of Christ’s righteousness; that is, His thoughts, His words, His actions, and His desires worked in and through us. Notably, this sanctification can only come to those who yield their hearts to Him.
Second, according to Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “in a literal sense, the book of life, or Lamb’s book of Life, is the record kept in heaven which contains the names of the faithful and an account of their righteous covenants and deeds.” Alma declared this truth in his significant sermon to the Church in Zarahemla, “For the names of the righteous shall be written in the book of life, and unto them will I grant an inheritance at my right hand.” All things are “written by the Father” and made known to the Son; “therefore out of the books which shall be written”—and this includes both heavenly and earthly records—”shall the world be judged.”
Judged by Our Works
God judges us, in part, by our works. Nephi wisely warned, “Therefore remember, O man, for all thy doings thou shalt be brought into judgment.” God’s judgment of works is impacted by several things, including the knowledge and opportunities afforded us, our capacity to understand the law, the way we judge others, and our discernment between the things of God and the things of the evil one. King Benjamin taught his people that they would be judged on their thoughts, words, deeds, obedience, and endurance. Nephi declared that salvation came by grace, but that grace unto salvation was contingent on our willing and whole-souled effort to repent and to obey the gospel.
Along with the emphatic message in the Book of Mormon that they “that believe in [Christ] shall be saved” is the insistent doctrine that belief includes bringing forth “works of righteousness.” For example, Samuel the Lamanite made it clear that if you “believe on [Christ’s] name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through His merits.” Likewise, Nephi preceded Samuel in teaching that “the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel.” Thus, those who fully follow and rely on Christ will gain salvation, whereas “he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh” and salvation through works alone will be damned.
Judged on the Desires of Our Hearts
In God’s great plan of happiness, ultimately, we get what we want. Alma taught that the Lord “granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.” In another setting, Alma explained to his wayward son Corianton that what one desired throughout life is what would be restored in the Resurrection. Thankfully, our eternal reward is not based on one solitary decision but is a natural consequence of what we have become based on hosts of decisions which encompass both the first and second estate and which, in large part are the manifestation of our deepest desires.
Life’s most pivotal decisions cannot be fully separated from a great many seemingly small yet significant choices. It is the cumulative effect of these choices that shape who we are and what we are capable of enjoying in eternity. In the final judgment, the Lord will make unalterable decrees based on our desires and choices which have long exhibited what we truly want and which will, in the end, produce what we have become.
Although in eternity we receive what we are willing to enjoy, God cannot deny His character in granting our desire contrary to eternal verities. For example, some might crave the comfort and pleasure of sin now but at the same time say within their hearts that they also want God’s goodness and salvation later. This notion is contrary to the plan of redemption, which saves us from our sins, not in them. In addition, there are those who wish to be absolved from mortal pain, difficulty, and disappointment but at the same time desire what those very experiences produce, namely the character and capacity necessary to enjoy eternal life. In short, as Joseph Smith taught, “If you wish to go where God is, you must be like God, or possess the principles which God possesses,” and, ultimately, enjoy the same desires He enjoys. However, in this matter mankind will forever fall utterly short without the help of God. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can be cleansed of our sins, receive the Holy Ghost, and obtain the mighty change of heart necessary to bring our desires into harmony with God’s.
While our choices in this life reflect our desires, they are not always in harmony with what we really want. For instance, although we may have the desire to be obedient to God, our choices may reveal a tendency toward sin. The desires produced by our fallen nature will always be in conflict with our righteous desires and with God’s will for us. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the solution. As we turn to God through repentance, commit to a new way of life through covenants and ordinances, and obtain a change of heart by receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, our natural fallen desires begin to be transformed. Through continued endurance in this pattern, the desire to do evil is diminished. We begin to develop a disposition “to do good continually.” Therefore, learning to put off what the natural man wants now for what our soul wants most in eternity is essential to gaining eternal life.
Despite the temporary delay of certain eternal outcomes in mortality, God does grant unto “men according to their desire” whether to eternal exaltation or something less. George MacDonald beautifully summed up the subject when he stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ . . . No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” If a people are prepared only to live according to their own carnal wills, in the end they will get exactly what they wanted. On the other hand, if people willingly submit to everything the Lord wants for them, in eternity they will receive it—all of it.
Because of the “merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah,” all flesh except the sons of perdition will be able to dwell in presence of at least one member of the Godhead in a kingdom of glory forever. Judgment, therefore, will be not only one of the greatest manifestations of justice but will also be to the everlasting praise and glory of the Father and the Son. It will be a day of love, mercy, and grace beyond our ability to fathom. It will be just as the Book of Mormon states, either a “glorious day when justice shall be administered unto” those who have obtained a degree of righteousness and salvation through the Christ, or a day when the sons of perdition acknowledge the just fruits of their rebellion and welter in the misery of their own making. The righteous will receive justice vicariously through the Great Judge of all the earth, for He took the just reward of all their fallen desires and works upon Himself and, because of their belief in Him, mercifully changed them and enabled them to become “like him, . . . purified even as he is pure.
 Mosiah 16:10.
 Alma 13:3.
 Acts 17:26.
 See Alma 12:24.
 Alma 12:9.
 Alma 13:3–6.
 Jacob 6:3.
 Mosiah 15:23.
 Alma 40:13.
 See 2 Nephi 23:4–5.
 3 Nephi 25:2–3.
 Revelation 20:4.
 Mosiah 3:24.
 Alma 40:11.
 Alma 40:14.
 Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:425.
 Alma 41:7.
 2 Nephi 9:12.
 Mosiah 27:31.
 See D&C 88:22–24.
 See Alma 11:45.
 See Mosiah 27:31.
 Moroni 8:12.
 Alma 41:6.
 2 Nephi 9:38.
 See 2 Nephi 9:13–14.
 See 2 Nephi 25:23.
 See Mosiah 2:36–38.
 See 2 Nephi 9:13.
 See D&C 138:56.
 See D&C 133:53.
 3 Nephi 12:26.
 Mosiah 27:31.
 Revelation 20:12.
 Alma 5:19.
 Alma 12:14.
John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 11:79.
 See Alma 5:14.
 See Mosiah 3:19.
 Alma 7:13.
 See Helaman 3:35.
 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 97.
 Alma 5:58.
 3 Nephi 27:26.
 1 Nephi 10:20.
 See 2 Nephi 9:25; Alma 41:14.
 Mosiah 4:30.
 See 2 Nephi 25:29.
 2 Nephi 2:9.
 Alma 5:35.
 Helaman 14:13.
 2 Nephi 30:2.
 2 Nephi 4:34.
 Alma 29:4.
 See Alma 41:6.
 See Neal A. Maxwell, in Conference Report, October 1996, 26.
 See Alma 42:13.
 See 2 Nephi 28:8.
 See Helaman 5:10.
 See Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954), 228.
 Smith, History of the Church, 4:588.
 Mosiah 5:2.
 Mosiah 3:19.
 Quoted in C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 75.
 2 Nephi 2:8.
 2 Nephi 9:46.
 Moroni 7:48.