One Helluva Problem

Part 1: Election

  1. All humans have rebelled against God (and are guilty of Adam’s sin). Therefore, all humans deserve to go to Hell — the place of eternal conscious torment.
  2. However, in his grace, God has elected some to be exempt from it.
  3. In Hell, the people who rebel against God will be punished forever. In this way, Hell displays God’s power, wrath, and justice.
  4. For that reason, God and those who are saved will find eternal joy in Hell (point 1 & 3), the latter being especially grateful for God’s mercy towards themselves (point 1 & 2).

1. When did election happen?

Theologians have disagreed about the logical order of the decrees concerning creation, fall, election and redemption in God’s mind. The two positions are supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, which can be sketched as follows:

(1) Supralapsarianism — Election ‘before the fall’ (supra lapsum)

  • Decree of Election in Christ
  • > Decree of Creation
  • > Decree of the Fall
  • > Decree of Redemption for the Elect

(2) Infralapsarianism — Election ‘after the fall’ (infra lapsum)

  • Decree of Creation
  • > Decree of the Fall
  • > Decree of Election in Christ
  • > Decree of Redemption for the Elect
  • It degrades the wisdom and power of God, as if he ever has to change plans. (Alternatively, it is simply inscrutable, first setting up plan A knowing it will fail, before executing the ‘real’ plan.)
  • In so doing, this position also degrades the work of Christ, as if Christ had to come to the rescue but was actually not ‘first choice’.
  • Lastly, it endorses a functionally Marcionite view of creation, that is, a creation without the involvement of Christ, contra, e.g., Colossians 1:16, which states that all things were created not just ‘through him’ but also ‘for him’.

2. What is the scope of election?

Now the question arises: whom did God elect then? All humans, or only some?

(1) Arminian: God elected all humans — but not all are redeemed

In this view, God loves all humans and truly has a ‘good plan for their life’, as the catchphrase goes. So, he did not create people for the purpose of sending them to eternal Hell (or annihilating them). Nevertheless, God ends up doing just that, supposedly because of human free will: God chose to create the situation (for some unimaginable reason) wherein people can make certain choices that separate them from him forever — because only this could sustain ‘true’ (i.e., ‘free’) love.

  1. Firstly, he would be imperfect. A God who cannot accomplish his creational and salvific purposes is not a perfect being. God’s plans would be conditional upon human choices. That is not in accord with the apocalyptic, unconditionally liberative nature of salvation revealed in Christ — and most Calvinists will broadly agree with me here. But even for Arminians, there should be a scenario where God’s will to save people weighs stronger than their ‘autonomous’ (and completely irrational) choice to reject him. Is the free will of people you love really more important than their eternal fate? [3]
  2. Secondly, God would be unhappy. Of course, in himself, he always enjoys perfect bliss, but in relation to creation, he does not get want he want! He had a good plan for humans, but because of their own foolish actions, he has to punish some of them forever (or simply extinguish them). So, there will always be a degree of sadness and pity in God for their fate. (If he wouldn’t feel any compassion toward them, he wouldn’t be God.) He wishes he could have spent eternity with them, but his justice has gotten the upper hand.
  1. First of all, contrary to popular opinion, no one will be brainwashed in Heaven. On the contrary, we will perfectly remember all the people we interacted with and loved on earth. For if we would not remember anyone or anything, we would no longer be ourselves, because we are who we are in and through our relationships, with humans and with God. Our stories are full of them.
  2. Secondly, there will be no ‘blissful ignorance’ in Heaven, so we would be aware of the fact that some of the people we knew and loved, and who thus constitute a part of our story and identity, are now separated from us. We’ve lost a part of ourselves — in tragic cases, our parents, spouses, children, or other close family members and friends. And, if you trace these networks long enough, it goes for the whole of the saved community: it is sundered from its organic relational unity with the rest of humanity. [5]
  3. What’s more, we would be aware that these loved ones are suffering relentlessly forever at the hands of the very God we’re spending eternity with (or that they have just dropped out of existence). Even if it would be a just punishment (but see part 2) or simply the consequence of their free choices, our love would not be conditional on their previous actions. We would always keep wishing the best for them, and have a deep and even inconsolable sadness and pity every time we remembered their excruciating suffering (or nonexistence). (If we wouldn’t feel any compassion toward them, we would not be human.) Lastly, we would always regret not having done more for their salvation during our earthly lives, maybe even wishing that God would have had the power to save them. But alas, it depended on their free will.

(2) Calvinist: God elected only some humans — and those are redeemed

Nevertheless, many ECT-adherents will assert that God only elected a part of humanity for the purpose of redemption. Out of his mercy, he chose some to be rescued from his wrath—but he didn’t have to (that’s supposedly why it’s merciful). It’s what John Piper calls ‘the glory of the freedom of his sovereign grace’, in a phrase resemblant of Paul’s (see Rom 8:21). [6]

  • Up front, this account has a mistaken view of God’s freedom of will (cf. this recent online debate). His freedom is not deliberative, making a choice between different options, with the ‘ability to do otherwise’ (libertarianism) — in this case, to have mercy or not to have mercy. God is not a whimsical sovereign, basking in the freedom of arbitrary decision-making. He necessarily does what he wants, because what he wants is the most rational and good thing, since God is Goodness and Rationality in himself, and God cannot deny himself.
  • But even if God had some kind of arbitrary freedom, what kind of God would neglect saving people just for the sake of showing off his freedom not to save them? God does not have to ‘prove himself’ to anyone, since he is self-sufficient (see below). And God could still maintain that freedom and save all, if that’s what he wanted; it would not compromise his freedom at all, and it would show the glory of his superabundant grace all the more (Rom 5:20)!
  • First, the argument that ‘God does X for his own glory’ is dangerous if that glory is not defined properly. Without the appropriate, in this case Christological, control (see below), we tend to project our own assumptions unto God (see Campbell, Dogmatics, ch. 2, on foundationalism). Moreover, in the places where the Bible does seem to say something along these lines, it associates his glory with mercy (Rom 9) and grace (Eph 1), not with wrath and justice.
  • To start off with, it’s problematic to divide up God’s character in this way, as if love and justice are somehow two different and mutually exclusive sides of God’s character, to be displayed in Heaven and Hell respectively. This goes against God’s simplicity. It is not as if God is just toward some humans and loving toward others. Nor is it the case that God is just to all but only loving to some. If both are essential, integrated parts of his character, then he is both to all people at all times, ‘since God is one’, as Paul would say (cf. Rom 3:30) — that is, unless one for some reason sees love as non-essential to God’s character (but see below). [8]
  • Moreover, saying that Hell is forever necessary for God to display part of his glory that Heaven can’t, makes God eternally contingent on something outside of himself. This goes against God’s self-sufficiency. God existed perfectly in an eternity without Hell, so Hell will exist — as do all things — ‘simply’ because God wants it to (and that is not so simple, as we saw above on God’s freedom of will).
  • But this would make God essentially eternally malevolent toward (presumably) a large part of humanity, whom he purposefully created for the sake of eternally consciously tormenting them. This goes against God’s omnibenevolence. God necessarily wills the best for all the people whom he has chosen to create, no one excluded. There can’t exist even a small bit of malevolence in the God — not in his revealed will, nor in his hidden will (which would be all the more malicious and make his ‘benevolence’ hypocritical).
  • Jesus reveals God as Triune and thus relational love in himself. God is love. This (and not retributive justice) is what truly distinguishes God as the Christian God. Now, God’s love is generous and overflowing and wants to draw all of creation into this joyful communion. However, this is not some weak sentimentality, but expressed in concrete action: Jesus died on the cross, showing that God is pro bonis — for humanity, not against it. The cross shows God is unconditionally committed to realising his eternal, benevolent plans for humanity. And when we realise that the Christ who will judge the world (cf. Rom 2:16) is the same Christ who died for the world, that changes everything. [9]
  • Now, it is necessary for ECT to define God’s justice purely retributively, since it involves infinite retribution without even a hint of restoration or correction. But the core value of retributive justice is impartiality, as opposed to favouritism. This means that God’s love is either nullified or universalised. God must either love everyone or not love anyone to be completely impartial. But double predestination is the epitome of favouritism! So, the ECT-system breaks down at its core.
  • However, there are strong biblical and Christological reasons for defining the ‘justice’ of God not in a primarily retributive sense at all, but in a saving, restorative, and utterly gracious fashion, and thus as an extension of his love. To take the most obvious example, the phrase dikaiosyne theou in Paul refers to God’s powerful action to put things right (cf. Rom 3:21–26), namely by liberating the cosmos in Christ — a cosmos that did absolutely nothing to merit it. So, God’s justice is a free gift to all, paying no regard to desert. [10]
  • God’s wrath is a punitive expression of his justice against evil. As such, it is not an essential part of his character or ‘glory’, because in a state of perfection, evil necessarily does not exist (more on that in part 3). Wrath, like evil, inherently cannot exist forever! Moreover, since justice flows from God’s love, wrath does so too. Therefore, God’s wrath, while being to an extent retributive, is ultimately corrective in nature — as a father who disciplines his children.
  • God’s power, again defined in the light of Christ and therefore of the cross, [10] is not like that of the ‘rulers of this world’ (cf. Mark 10:42)— domineering, aggressive, violent, destructive, coercive, enslaving, and torturous, all of which Paul would rather associate with the powers of Sin and Death. No, God’s power is human weakness (1 Cor 1:25; 2 Cor 12:9). On the cross, Jesus became the victim of worldly power and, in overcoming it, redefined true power as loving kenosis, i.e., self-emptying (see Phil 2:7). It is incarnational, relational, and noncoercive. All of this speaks against ECT as a display of God’s power.

(3) ‘Barthian’: God elected all humans — and all are redeemed

This is the final position, besides the Arminian and Calvinist positions described above (see summary table below). Arminians think God wants to save all (universal) but can’t (conditional); Calvinists think he does not want to save all (particular) but could (unconditional); ‘Barthians’ think he does want to save all (universal) and can (unconditional) — and therefore will (although Barth himself hesitated to draw this conclusion). [13]


[1] Everything Piper argues is refuted in this article series, although that was not my purpose beforehand. Let’s just say I ‘passed it over’.



Thoughts on Pauline theology and the Christian life

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