The Cruelty of Calvinism – or – If We Go Around Acting Like We’ve Got Free Will All the Time, What’s the Point of Believing in Predestination?

I remember being 13 or 14 and sitting on one of the curbs at the edge of the parking lot of our church and having a heated discussion with my Sunday School teacher about the doctrine of ‘predestination’ which he had elaborated upon as part of a series on the five points of Calvinism, which my church wholeheartedly believed in.

I think I had the same reaction to it as most kids do when they are first confronted with this doctrine: That’s not fair.  If God gives everyone the choice to follow him or to reject him, that’s fair.  But if God has already picked the people who will at some point make the artificial ‘choice’ to believe in Jesus, then leaves the others to burn in hell, that’s not fair.

My Sunday School teacher explained that it was fair because we all deserve to burn in hell.  So God picking some of us in his mercy to save was actually unfair to him, not us – it was a demonstration of what a loving God he really was.

But if he was such a ‘loving God,’ how could he leave anyone to burn in hell eternally?  I understood that he was God and he wasn’t obligated to save anyone.  But if he had the power to save anyone and everyone, why wouldn’t he do so?

This question provoked the most disturbing answer: “For his glory.”  Those three words stick in my mind to this day.  The idea is that without condemning the majority of people to hell, us lucky ones couldn’t fully understand the mercy he had bestowed upon us and hence, would not give God the respect and glory he deserved.

But why do we all deserve to go to hell?  Well, that was the first point of Calvinism (in case I’d forgotten): Total Depravity.  Basically, this means that because Adam and Eve ate that apple, we are all born into sin and thus, deserve to burn in hell for all eternity.

But wait.  If God predestines all things, didn’t he predestine Adam and Eve to eat the apple?  Right.

So what I’m getting from this conversation is that God decided to make some creatures to impress with the fact that he is God (besides angels, which he already had, and whose express purpose was to worship and glorify him).   Then he decided that the best way to make these creatures glorify him was to create an artificial test that they were bound to fail, but that would give him the excuse to roast them in fire for all eternity.  Then he would save a select group of these people who, when they saw what happened to their peers, would bow down and thank God eternally for not roasting them.


This was not the way to look at Calvinism at all, I was told.  My pastor once used the analogy of a child who had been kidnapped and a father coming to rescue him.  “Would the father say, ‘Son, I’m here to rescue you, but you have to do something first!’.  Of course not.  The father would come swooping in, scoop the child up in his arms, and bring him safely home.”  This analogy made sense at first but the more accurate (and appalling) analogy , I contended, would be a father who had two sons kidnapped.  He comes to the rescue, scooping one child up in his arms, but leaving the other behind because he wants the one he rescued to fully understand how important the rescue was and how awesome the father was for rescuing him.

My Sunday School teacher left the church shortly after our conversation in the parking lot that day.  I wasn’t told why, but I’ve always thought it was a direct result of the theological impasse we had come to while sitting there, tossing pebbles at trees on the edge of the property.

That’s almost certainly not the case, but the point remains that the theology of my church never sat well with me and now, 15 years later, I’m finally calling it out in a (semi)public way.  Predestination makes no sense.  It’s a logical deduction theologians have made based on the assumption that God is all-powerful.  However, all evidence that I can find points to a literal ‘battle’ between good and evil – not some artificial narrative God made up to pointlessly point out the fact that he is God to his own creation.

Starting with Genesis 1, Adam and Eve are given the ‘choice’ to eat the fruit of the ‘knowledge of good and evil’.  They become ‘like God’ knowing the horrifying difference between the two – something God has known about for a long time already.

Then we have Israelites who are called over and over again to repentance.  They are punished and rewarded for the ‘choices’ they make.  All of the prophets’ pleading and begging and threatening is pretty pointless if God is just gonna smite whoever anyway.

Then we have Jesus who came into the world so that “WHOEVER believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”  This passage gives the impression that Jesus died for everyone, and that everyone has the freedom to choose to accept his sacrifice.

Then we’re called on to go around and let everyone know about this and offer them the choice to accept God’s forgiveness.  My pastor used to decry the “hyper-Calvinism” of certain reformed churches that didn’t believe in evangelism, but isn’t this belief the logical conclusion of Calvinism?  What’s the point of witnessing when God has already selected the people he will save?

A silly argument that I’ve heard over and over again is that by asking us to make the choice to believe in Jesus’s saving grace, we are diminishing God’s power and taking credit for our own salvation.  Ridiculous!  Did we live a life without sin?  Did we die a horrible, horrible death?  Of course not.  All we did was believe that God did this for us.  This is heroic equivalent of grabbing on to a life guard when he swims out to save us from drowning.  In my opinion, it is much more insulting to God, much more a diminishing of his power, to suggest that he would need to create people with the illusion of free-will to torture and spare from torture just so he could feel good about himself.

Speaking of the illusion of free-will, there is, of course, what we call general revelation.  One of the first things we understand as children is that we have the option to behave or misbehave.  One question my brother and sister-in-law ask their daughter that demonstrates this is: “Are we going to make good choices today?” Arguably, the first way we understand our faith is that God is the ‘good guy’ and Satan is the ‘bad guy’ and that they are fighting with each other.  We get to choose which side we want to be on. Also arguably, pretty much every single book, movie, television show, and video game ever created carries the theme of good vs. evil and the choices people make with regard to them.

What we come to understand, however, is that we can’t be good on our own.  We will inevitably choose to act selfishly, to hurt others – even, and especially, the ones we love.  We do all deserve to burn in hell when you come right down to it.  That sounds offensive to a lot of people, but I challenge those people to look back and remember the most selfish, shameful thing you’ve ever done and see if you don’t feel like casting yourself into hell at that point.  And that’s where God steps in.  In the person of Jesus he lived perfectly, then credited that perfection to our account through his sacrifice on the cross.  All we have to do is repent and accept his forgiveness.  There are plenty of people who choose not to accept him, obviously.  But we all have a conscience and we all know we’ve failed at being good; that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’

But he has offered us salvation.  All we have to do is accept his mercy.  It’s pretty incredible and God gets all the glory he wants and deserves.

Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Comments (3)