An objection to Calvinism remains unanswered
I am not and never have been of the Calvinist persuasion. But since my understanding of the view is limited and the pool of wise and respected Calvinists impressive, persuasion is not and has never been out of the question. I’m open to the possibility that the doctrine of election as Calvinism teaches is accurate.
So when presented with a short paper addressing common objections to Calvinism from one of today’s leading proponents of it, I read it carefully and as objectively as I could. But I was surprised by how unpersuasive it is.
Tim Keller, as many will recognize, is the well-known and well-respected pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City as well as a best-selling author. As every Calvinist must do, Keller acknowledges the number one objection to their interpretation of election is that God is unjust if he sovereignly chooses which individuals will be saved and leaves those who are not chosen to suffer eternal damnation though they had no chance to believe.
What about free will?
Mr. Keller expresses the objection this way: “If you believe in election, doesn’t that leave you with the problem of why God doesn’t choose to save everyone?” Keller responds that this is a problem for every Christian because God doesn’t save everyone even though he wants all to be saved. He then acknowledges the common appeal to free will as that which constrains God from saving everyone because he will not violate it. And he responds, “But why is freedom of choice sacrosanct? I try to honor my child’s freedom of will, but not if I see he is about to be killed by it! Why can’t God “insult” our freedom of will for a moment and save us for eternity?” But I don’t believe the analogy to protecting our children works here. As parents we can keep guns out of our young children’s hands or deny them harmful substances, but our temporary overriding of their free will does not involve the necessary and undesirable existential consequences of God overriding our free will to choose or reject him.
It seems to me that God saving even those who deny or reject him would mean either, 1) sharing heaven with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and other evil, murderous tyrants and terrorists, which seems completely unjust and incoherent in light of what heaven is promised to be like, or 2) “insulting” our freedom of will not just for a moment but eternally and completely so that we are all God’s pre-programmed pets, fit for heaven only by his predetermination and power, and no more able to genuinely love him than if we were soulless robots.
Because God knows, do we even have free will?
Tim Keller’s second answer to the objection appears to make the mistake of correlating foreknowledge with determinism. He says that, suppose election were not true and all have “an equal ability to accept or reject Christ.” Then because God knew before the foundation of the world who would and wouldn’t accept him that he would be “de facto electing some and passing over others.” But this seems to presume that because God foreknows something he therefore is decreeing that it must happen, which just doesn’t follow.
But the objection itself really is more critical than how Keller puts it. The problem on Calvinism is not so much “why God doesn’t choose to save everyone.” It’s that he decrees some will have absolutely no chance of being saved and be damned eternally, though it was impossible for them to respond to him in faith. It’s that his universal calls to believe and be saved are essentially disingenuous…a sham…an offer of hope not to be taken seriously. How can such obvious injustice and deceit be the work of a perfectly holy, righteous, and loving God?
Can God contradict his own nature?
Keller concludes, as many Calvinists do, with a plea to our ignorance in light of God’s greatness. “When we finally see the whole plan and answer,” he says, “we will not be able to find fault with it.” But though I can say a hearty Amen to the unsearchable ways of an infinitely great and wise God, I cannot reconcile a perfectly just God who acts unjustly. That is a self-evident contradiction that no light nor sight can resolve.
So I remain open to persuasion to Calvinism, but I have yet to hear or read a persuasive defense. Next time I’ll give what I believe is the better interpretation of the doctrine of election.
Caroline, always an interesting topic. Both Arminians and Calvinists can point to Scripture verses and passages to justify their viewpoint. We are told faith is a gift and it is the Lord who draws us and opens our eyes to the Gospel but there also verses that would indicate we are free to accept and reject the Lord’s calling. Speaking from my own experience, I can remember knowing that I needed to trust in Christ, but I put it off for maybe a year or 18 months because I didn’t want to be one of those ridiculed “born-agains.”
Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom. William Lane Craig and others have a different but scriptural understanding of election. I hope you’ll check back next week for that. 🙂
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Looking forward to it!
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“It seems to me that God saving even those who deny or reject him would mean either, 1) sharing heaven with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and other evil, murderous tyrants and terrorists, which seems completely unjust and incoherent in light of what heaven is promised to be like, or 2) “insulting” our freedom of will not just for a moment but eternally and completely so that we are all God’s pre-programmed pets, fit for heaven only by his predetermination and power, and no more able to genuinely love him than if we were soulless robots.”
Yes, Yes! Exactly right. Keller and others try to soft pedal their determinism in such a way that it doesn’t seem to make God so bad, or they just add a lot of smoke and mirrors and mystery to what is really a very simple concept. The difference between God foreknowing sin and God decreeing every sin of man is a huge one, and it makes God, in my opinion, into someone who looks nothing like Christ.
Thanks for your comment. I agree and it is encouraging to get an affirmation.
Disagreements over this should not divide us, but neither should they be ignored. The character of God is at stake.
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“But since my understanding of the view is limited”
The first thing that a person needs to do to know which is more biblical is to stop reading other peoples opinion on the matter and read the Holy Scriptures alone with cross-references to the same topic in the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit, to know what God said. Christians MUST first rely on God who alone gives understanding on any given passage. I used to use commentaries but after I matured In the faith, I have found myself hardly going to commentaries at all. I ask the Lord to open my understanding and use guidelines that I have set up for myself to help me not deviate from sound doctrine.
May the Lord Jesus Christ bless you.
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I don’t think free will is a good answer, because the Bible never speaks about it. Nowhere–and I mean NOwhere–in Scripture does God promise to never invade on our choice. Nor will we find those common mantras like “Jesus is a gentleman, He won’t force you to love Him” or whatever. So answering “God wants to honor our free will” is not an option. And I believe you are right in showing the folly of Keller’s example of children. But it is because he reached outside of the Bible for help that his argument fell apart. Of COURSE an illustration about free will does not work, because it is unbiblical.
The real answer for why God does not choose everyone rests in God. We must look at what God values and what God desires. You see, it is true that the Bible says God wants all to be saved (1 Timothy 2), but that is not the only thing God desires; nor is it what God desires most. You see, the good of mankind, even our salvation, is not the highest end of God. Rather, God’s chief end in creating the world, and in all things He ordains, is His own glory. So why does God choose for some to go to heaven and some to go to hell (or the weaker Calvinism–“why does He pass over the rest?”)? Because God is glorified by those in hell. This is exactly the answer Paul gives in Romans 9:22-24 “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.” So in some way beyond our understanding, God is more glorified in a universe where some go to hell than in one where everyone gets saved.
But even more important is that God does not have to answer this objection! Just because some people cannot understand why God does something does not mean it is not true that He does it. Or better, just because some people are unwilling to accept God’s rationale explained in His word, does not make it true. So again, back in Romans 9 we see God’s response to those who object to the clear teaching of Calvinism, “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” So basically, if the Bible says God chooses people, then that settles it; God does not need us to be His lawyers and make Him sound palatable to the doubting ear.
P.S. If you want a better article than Keller’s on the issue, I think John Piper’s “Are Their Two Wills in God” is far more helpful and is loaded with Scriptural examples of God ordaining things that He otherwise forbids (see Revelation 17:17 for example!) and addresses your exact question of God desiring everyone to be saved but then not predestining everyone. You can read that here: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god
Also, my blog https://inthelasthour.com contains many similar thoughts. I won’t link to them so you don’t think I’m spamming, but the titles to search for are:
Sovereignty in Layers: A Diagram Illustrating the Three Wills of God
6 Reasons Christians Should Stop Saying, “God Won’t Force You to Love Him”
Foreknowledge and Sovereignty: How God Foresees His Own Providence
Are the Non-Elect Predestined for Hell: A Defense of Equal Ultimacy
Did the Fall Ruin God’s Plan: Sin, Suffering, and the Sovereignty of God
The Golden Chain of Salvation: The Meaning of Romans 8:30.
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