Personally, I don’t think so. I came to this conclusion after examining the life of the Apostle Paul and his beautiful theology. It is remarkable that so many stunning theological innovations came from the heart of a former murderer, a blindly fundamentalist Pharisee, who thought he was doing God’s work by murdering and imprisoning Christians. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was unique: a blinding light, a voice from heaven, specific instructions to go to the next town. This is not a typical conversion story. It is doubtful someone like Paul would have been converted by missionaries knocking on the door, or a friend’s invitation to come to church. But Paul responded very positively to dramatic physical manifestations of God’s power. The first thing out of His mouth was, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Not everyone responds as well to these kinds of manifestations, as the example of Laman and Lemuel suggests, who after seeing an angel say, “but how can we go against Laban, he has power over thousands” or Zacharias, who says, “but I am an old man and my wife well stricken in years.” But Paul took no time in completely changing his worldview in response to the vision.
Saul is No Different than Paul
This makes me wonder exactly what kind of change occurred in Paul’s heart, and how did it happen so quickly? I often hear people say that a change of heart is something that sometimes takes a lifetime, abandoning our pride, forgiving those who have wronged us, coming to terms with lies we have been telling ourselves. These changes take years. Even for Alma the Elder, it took several days of purging in the fires of hell during his fainting spell. Yet Paul seemed ready to change immediately. This leads me to speculate that Saul the murderer was perhaps no different from Paul the apostle. Paul’s intentions did not change before and after the vision. His intentions were always good: to love and serve God. The only thing that changed was the path he felt he had been called to.
Jesus told his disciples, “the time shall come when those who kill you will believe they do God a service.” Jesus is suggesting that these murderers have good intentions. Paul strongly believed he was doing the work of God by killing Christians, and he did it as passionately as he preached the gospel afterwards. You’ve heard the phrase, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But is this true? Would Paul have gone to hell if he had never had the vision, and had died a murderer? Yes, if we are judged by our works. But no, if we are judged by our intentions.
Are we Judged by our Works, or by our Heart?
This story makes me wonder how much we can really judge people by their works. If we cannot judge Saul for his murders, because his intentions were good, how can we judge others for their murders, because their intentions might also have been good? For example, the murders of Nazism and Communism were often done in pursuit of what some people honestly believed was a higher and more noble philosophy, same as the murders committed by the children of Israel in the Old Testament were done in pursuit of what they believed were the commandments of God. Which Nazi murderers would have turned directly into saints if they too experienced something on the road to Damascus? And if this applies to murderers, should we not ask ourselves, which sinners or apostates among us would turn immediately into saints with such an experience?
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Do we really take this Jesus’ request at face value? Joseph Smith changed this meaning in the JST to refer only to the Romans, not the Jews. Was Joseph Smith right to change this meaning? Did the Pharisees truly “know” what they were doing? Or did the think “they were doing God a service.” I noticed that Stephen’s final words were also “lay not this sin to their charge.” It’s also interesting that Peter in Acts preaches to the Pharisees, saying “Christ whom you crucified is risen…repent and be baptized that your sins may be blotted out when the days of refreshing shall come.” It seems clear that Peter views the murderous Pharisees as candidates for salvation, if he is asking them to be baptized, in spite of what Joseph Smith might have believed about Jesus not forgiving them.
What think ye?
When Jesus said “Father, forgive them” was He referring only to the Roman soldiers and not the Jews?
How responsible is one for sins committed with good intentions?
Is the road to Hell really paved with good intentions?