If they ever think about it, Mormons typically would not approve of Return of the Jedi. It’s not the Ewoks, nor really Princess Leia’s skimpy slave-outfit, nor even the fact that compared with Empire, it’s rubbish. It’s the fact that Anakin “Darth Vader” Skywalker — destroyer of worlds, murderer of younglings — gets such an easy ride into Jedi heaven. I mean there he is all evil and wicked when suddenly, and only because he pities his own son, he decides to do one good thing in his life and kill his tormentor. Big deal. But this is evidently enough both to earn the love of his son — whose hand he once cut off and whose mother he left for dead — and end up as a shimmering, happy, celestial ghost with his old pals, Yoda and Obi Wan.
Clearly, Lil’ Ani did not read The Miracle of Forgiveness. We can be redeemed, yes, but it’s a long, hard road. Such is the Mormon attitude to repentance I am most familiar with: laying claim to the atonement is tricky business and does not lend itself to Vader-style easy mercies.
Not for the first time in Mormon theology, this is an idea that seems at odds with the Book of Mormon. The problem lies, perhaps, in the twinning of God’s forgiveness and the “fruits” (in Mormon-speak) of our own repentance. Take Alma the younger, naughty boy turned good. Consider what he tells to his own son (Alma 36):
I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell…And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
From this passage it appears that Alma’s intense guilt-fueled torment lasted three days, but as soon he cried to Jesus he felt forgiven. In other words, his “repentance” was pretty instantaneous once his faith was sufficient. This was not a “godly sorrow” that lasted weeks and months; he had not confessed his sins to his bishop; he had not earned his repentance by magnifying his callings; he had not endured to the end. Instead, one (sincere, earnest) prayer was all it took and abracadabra!, Saul becomes Paul.
I think this is consistent with the idea of God’s mercy. I believe that God is quick to forgive; indeed, any belief to the contrary seems to make God into exactly what we are encouraged not to be. Forgiveness, then, is never earned, and does not need to be beaten out of us with a spiritual rod.
Forgiveness for Alma did not come after he had reformed his life, it came before. His reformation — his repentance — came as a natural product of God’s mercy towards him. Born again through his faith in Jesus, Alma’s good deeds were the product of a soul that had been saved.
Sounds evangelical, but what can you do? It’s right there in our book.