We want so much for things to be fair. Good behavior should be rewarded with pleasure and bad behavior should be rewarded with pain. It is pleasing to think that eventually all of our patience and sustained righteousness will be rewarded. But what if bad behavior didn’t lead to endless pain and torment? It would almost take away the pleasure of our own reward. To me an apt comparison is working really hard to get a nice car, or something really slick. It takes a long time to save up to get it. Then I get the new car and I am really happy with it. But I found out that some slacker was able to get the same thing for half the price. I would get sick to my stomach. My car is still just as good but knowing someone else didn’t have to sacrifice as much for it ruins the reward for me.
There is a parable with a very similar story. The master of the house hires laborers in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius for the day. He also went out the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour. Finally he hired laborers in the eleventh hour. When the day was done he paid them all the same. “But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more… Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?” (Matthew 20:1-16)
What an aggravating story! I would be really ticked off if this had happened to me. The guys who came in the eleventh hour had just been sitting around all day and got the same benefits. This is a really challenging parable. It is supposed to be. If it doesn’t challenge your sensibilities then read it again.
How can God be so gracious? It is irritating. Jonah felt this way. He went to the people of Ninevah and told them that if they didn’t repent then God would destroy them. And then something remarkable happened—they repented, so God spared them. But Jonah was furious (Jonah 3-4). In Mormonism it’s even worse, because people can repent even after death and be redeemed (Doctrine and Covenants 76:74). What kind of injustice is this? So all of these people who have done horrible things can be redeemed? Salvation can really be a very upsetting idea, not because I can be saved but because other people can be saved who I don’t want to be.
My point here is to illustrate the expansiveness of the Atonement. The love of God is greater than we understand, not because we are not capable of understanding, but because we are unwilling to understand it. This really requires a transformation of character and an extinction of pride. It is in our nature to not like certain people. And if the people we don’t like get rewarded, then Heaven is not the place for us. How could we stand it?
The truth is that God accepts everyone who accepts him. The only people who are not saved are those who refuse to be. “They are their own judges, whether to do good or do evil” (Alma 41:7). And God doesn’t refuse anyone, even the people we think he will refuse. Sometimes we think we know exactly who is going to be saved and who will not be. That is such a truncated understanding of the Atonement. “And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 27:33). He even remembers the heathens. So even the robbers, and drug dealers, and prostitutes are invited to come to God? What an outrageous idea. This is so much bigger and encompassing than we can imagine.
A final story. This may be one of the most important stories in scripture. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been found in adultery. They asked him what he thought should be done to her. “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger as if he didn’t hear them. They continued pressuring him and he said “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Then he continued to write on the ground. This is the first lesson: none of us are called upon to condemn anyone. We have no right to do so. It is not for us to say who is going to Hell and who deserves punishment. After Jesus said this, they all understood that they could not condemn her and left them both alone.
Jesus then said to her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:1-11).
This is the second lesson. It’s a lesson for us as sinners, the accused. We are all in this situation at some point. Think of what this would be like. At one moment you are at the point of execution. And not just any execution, but an excruciating execution by stoning. Imagine what that would be like. It would be slow and the only thing around you in every direction would be disdain and hate. Then, suddenly everyone is gone and you realize that it is not the end. The only one left before you is God, the ultimate authority and judge, the only one whose judgment really matters. What will God say? Will he spare you and be merciful? Then he says. “Where are all those who accused you and hated you? Have they all gone away? Does no man condemn thee? Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."