Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


presentations
Has God predestined most people to hell?

Does the Bible imply that God is more glorified in his wrath and justice than his love and mercy?

Quoth a commenter on my article about whether double predestination makes God a moral monster:

The only part that I still struggle with is that the vast *majority* seem to be damned, or vessels prepared for destruction, all headed down the ‘broad, easy road that many find’. It seems so unbalanced somehow… as though God gets more glory from the number of damned than from the number of those graciously chosen. I understand that He can get glory from both; I just don’t understand why so very few find ‘the narrow way’. It’s like His plan for humanity is weighted to focus on the perfection of His wrath, and a lot less on the perfection of His grace. Does that make sense? I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have on that aspect specifically.

That’s a fair question. I don’t think the Bible provides enough information to even select a rough ratio of the saved to the damned; it simply tells us that the judge of all the earth will do what is just.

Some passages, like Matthew 7:13-14, seem to imply that most people will go to hell. But I think that interpretation is overstated:

(1)

(a) Jesus’ statement has a historical, cultural context. It would be a mistake to generalize from a statement about people’s “general direction” made in first century Israel to an assessment of people’s “general direction” universally. It’s true that in first century Israel few found the path to salvation. But in first century Israel, salvation was from the Jews—a miniscule people group among the nations.

(b) On the face of it, Jesus’ statement might not be intended as an observation about the raw number of saved versus unsaved, but rather as a statement of soteriological exclusivity: a statement about the number of ways people can be saved. The path to destruction is wide because there are so many false religions; the path to salvation is narrow because there is only one true religion. One name.

(2)

Apropos (1a), there’s a tension between statements in history about the number of the elect, and statements about that number at the end of history. Although at some times in history, the elect might be greatly outnumbered by the reprobate, Revelation 7:9 indicates that the number of the elect is nonetheless vast. And there is no directly commensurate comment about the number of the reprobate in Revelation. The numerousness of the elect is emphasized, yet the number of the reprobate goes essentially unremarked. That seems telling.

(3)

Apropos both (1) and (2), we need to keep in mind both scriptural and sociological data about the way God starts small, but builds toward something incomprehensibly huge. The birth of Israel is a prime example—a model in miniature of God’s plan for the world in general. Israel starts out as one man. Abraham. It takes a long time to get going. It enters Egypt (which is a miniature for the reprobate world) as only a handful of people. Yet after 430 years, when God is ready to bring Israel out of Egypt with great judgment (a miniature for the final day), they are such a vast multitude that Egypt has had to enslave them and kill their children for fear of their strength.

In the same vein, God does not promise Abraham that in him, his family will be blessed. He promises that in him, all the nations will be blessed. That promise is in the process of being fulfilled—who knows how it will look by the time Jesus returns?

(4)

Apropos (3), we naturally tend to superimpose our view of the world as it currently is back onto ancient history. So we tend to think of the ancient world as being highly populous. But of course, there are vastly more people living today than even a hundred years ago; the population has exploded only quite recently. With that in view, I believe if you check the sociological data you’ll find that there are more self-identifying Christians living right now than there were combined people living all the way from creation to the industrial revolution. Now, I say that with the caveat that I may be misremembering the data; but either way the number of Christians living now compared to people living throughout ancient times is not to be scoffed at.

(5)

Although Christianity is arguably declining in the West, it is certainly blossoming in the East. Who knows what God will do in the future? Perhaps post-millennialists are right and there will be a vast global revival before Jesus returns. Imagine if that happened in a century. If so, the elect of that time alone would astronomically outnumber the reprobrate of all history.

(6)

If infants are automatically saved, as many believe, that significantly swells the ranks of the elect. Throughout history, infant mortality has been as high as 50%. And although medical advances have reduced that number in the West, we’re counteracting it by institutionalizing the murder of preborn babies.

(7)

Of course, it may turn out that the reprobate actually do outnumber the elect. If so, there must be some good reason for this. It might not have anything to do with God being gloried more by wrath, per se. We might have no idea what it is until it is revealed to us. While it’s virtuous to love our enemies and care about the fate of the damned, we shouldn’t try to be more virtuous than God. Ultimately if we love God and our neighbors, we will have done our duty and be ready for either eventuality.

13 comments

  1. rorwal

    Historically, it’s been common to believe that most will be damned. Anselm, Gregory, Augustine….

    >The numerousness of the elect is emphasized, yet the number of the reprobate goes essentially unremarked. That seems telling.

    Not really. The damned aren’t the focus of these eschatological descriptions, so less is said about them in general. The focus is on the glory of the grace of Christ. Nothing about “the number of who fit into XYZ category isn’t mentioned” suggests it’s a small(er) number.

    >I believe if you check the sociological data you’ll find that there are more self-identifying Christians living right now

    That number includes Romanists, Mormons…

    More importantly, in studies by Barna, when people are asked about theology related to the Gospel, only a tiny number are actually able to even give intellectual assent to the Gospel. Of those who can verbally affirm the Gospel, how many are actually regenerate?

    Scriptural descriptions of the children of God give a rather negative evaluation of most people’s Christianity.

    >Although Christianity is arguably declining in the West, it is certainly blossoming in the East.

    It is arguably nominal Christianity. I have exhaustive experience with Indian churches, including having connections within the largest (one of the largest?) denomination (IPC), and anecdotal though it be, it is mostly culture, not Christ. Even the daughter of an Indian Pentecostal preacher told me just last week that all of these preachers and churches are about money and reputation and aren’t truly Christian. Granted, India’s only roughly 1 billion people, and the “Christian” India is only a few percentage points, so maybe you’re talking about some other “East”. But then, India is a large chunk of the East that clearly is not embracing Christianity, in numbers or in deed.

    >If infants are automatically saved

    What a mighty big “if” that is! But yes, this seems to be a valid point.

    I don’t see reason to say that Christ’s statement in Matthew is a historical statement. It seems to me to be a general observation.

    Also, your attempt to interpret this as historical runs contrary to your later assessment that the “narrow” path might refer to many religions. Is it about Jews rejecting Christ historically, or about hundreds of religions generally?

    Some interaction with other passages might be useful as well. Luke 13:22-30, for instance, where the question is asked if only a few will be saved.

    What about, “Many are called, but few are chosen”? Many versus few?

    And what about eschatology? How will the world be filled with followers of Antichrist and persecution of Christians if Christians will be the majority? And if Christians are not the majority for quite some time, how could they ever overtake the world’s history of mostly damned inhabitants?

    Finally, I’d like to offer an explanation of my own: The damned must have some role, no matter how many or how few. What is that role? Well, the entire Gospel is about the glory of the grace of God in Christ. So then, perhaps the multitude of the damned serve the purpose of demonstrating God’s love towards the elect, rescuing them graciously from the destiny of the vast majority. It is not normal to be saved — it is uncommon grace.

  2. BobF

    Hi, I’m an atheist, so according to your worldview, this objection is rebellion. But please hear me out: I do not consider myself to be a jerk or troll, but I do have the following objection to Calvinism that #7 doesn’t seem to cover. Because the divine decree of election is not tethered to any decision of the creature, it is by necessity arbitrary in that sense. You can argue that people so created sin freely and joyfully according to their will, but it feels wrong somehow to say that God simply ordains this. It seems there is a sense in which an innocent potential being was marked out for punishment for something it had not done yet. Or maybe this is just off topic since the post is about numbers. But numbers wouldn’t even be an issue if personal autonomy were in play. Calvinists seem to act out of the pious impulse to impute all things to God. But in most forms this seems to go in a supralapsarian direction and impute the bad things as well.

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Rorwal, fair points. I won’t argue with much of what you’ve said as I actually incline toward your view myself. That said…

    Firstly, my comment about Christianity being on the rise in the East was actually directed toward China. I’m not really aware of the situation in India, but from my understanding Christianity is a force to be reckoned with in rural China.

    Secondly, with regard to the passages you mention, Steve Hays has a useful rundown of some major commentaries which support the view I suggest: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/10/are-there-few-that-be-saved.html.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Bob:

    It seems there is a sense in which an innocent potential being was marked out for punishment for something it had not done yet.

    The problem is, this is confused on several levels:

    (1)

    Who is the “potential innocent being” you’re talking about? No one following the fall is potentially innocent since we all inherit Adam’s guilt.

    (2)

    In what sense is this potentially innocent being marked out for punishment for something it has not done yet? In the nature of the case, anyone marked out for punishment is marked out for punishment due to a wrong they commit. Are you saying that potentially, this being might not have sinned if left to his own devices? But what “own devices” would those be? Creatures don’t exist outside of God’s determination under Calvinism. There is no way we would be, or might be, aside from God’s decree. Possible worlds in which we do or don’t sin are merely alternate ways in which God could have determined us to exist and act.

    Moreover, your complaint seems obviously reversible. In cases where we don’t sin, a potentially guilty being is marked out for reward for something it hasn’t not done yet. But how is that problematic? And if it is not problematic, why should we think the converse is?

    (3)

    Assuming the concept of a potentially innocent being is coherent under Calvinism at all, in what way can God wrong a potential person? In the nature of the case, a potential person is not an actual person. A potential person does not exist. Do you think God wrongs a nonexistent person? That seems strikingly incoherent.

    Calvinists seem to act out of the pious impulse to impute all things to God.

    Maybe some Calvinists do, but I don’t act out of impulse. I impute all things to God because I believe the Bible imputes all things to God, and analytic theology (especially of the classical theistic variety) requires us to impute all things to God on pain of metaphysical contradiction or absurdity.

  5. David Anderson

    Further point: we do not know when Christ will return. Specifically, we don’t know that it isn’t a vastly long time away from now, relative to the time already passed since Christ first came.

    It seems to be common in popular evangelicalism to believe that the “signs” are lining up to show that it’s likely to be within years, or at most decades, but not more. However, a ) this belief in these “signs” (mostly to do with middle Eastern politics) has been promoted without much significant modification in the circles it’s coming from since the 19th century at least, and b) the belief seems to gain most strength from West-centric narrative of decline which should not be universalised to the whole world.

    I do not claim that the Bible teaches that Christ’s return is centuries away. However, I do suggest that anyone teaching that it is likely to be years/decades, rather than more, does not have Biblical evidence sufficient to back up their claim.

  6. BobF

    “Do you think God wrongs a nonexistent person? … in what way can God wrong a potential person? ”

    I see your point, but I still feel there’s something wrong, but cannot articulate it as yet. Thanks for giving me something to ponder.

    “In cases where we don’t sin, a potentially guilty being is marked out for reward for something it hasn’t not done yet.”

    Also, that is a very interesting observation. Steve at triablogue had made an analogy between predestination and an author creating a character, I believe trying to make the point that the author is not responsible for the misdeeds of the characters. It sounded like a cheat, but your observation gives more symmetry to the matter. Thanks again for the food for thought. Calvinism is not why I reject religion per se, but I’ve always found it troubling for whatever reason.

  7. Zest

    Thank you so much for your detailed response, and the comments that followed. Very thought-provoking stuff!

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Calvinism is not why I reject religion per se, but I’ve always found it troubling for whatever reason.

    From my perspective, and coming at this as someone who used to be an atheist also, the reason you find it troubling is because it is true :)

    So why do you reject religion?

  9. BobF

    I reject religion because I think that Russell’s teapot argument is sound: if there is no good reason to think X exists, then assume X doesn’t exist. I do not think the kalaam argument proves necessarily the existence of God. There could be some X not the Christian God, that is responsible for this current state of affairs. The strongest argument for God’s existence is consciousness imho, since one wohld think that on the evolutionany hypothesis, we might behave as.we do now, but we wouldn’t be conscious. We’d act as robots. But that is problematic as well: animals are conscious, people can control consciousness in precise ways that make me feel it might have arisen naturalistically, though I could not say how presently.

  10. BobF

    I’m attracted to Christianity because whatever I do I’m aware of my base motivations, ie total depravity. I feel guilt. But of course this proves nothing. Ths system forged by Paul and Luther might be nothing more than therapy fictjon, from people like me for people like me.

  11. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    It could be therapy fiction, true. But when you compare it to all the other therapy fictions people have created (ie, other religions), it looks strikingly different, doesn’t it? In fact, it seems calculated to defy many of our strongest intuitions about how to be righteous, how to get to heaven, etc. I’m not aware of any other religion that has a doctrine like total depravity. Other religions say we are basically good; that’s what appeals to us. It seems much more successful as a therapy than Christianity’s approach. Other religions say we must perform good works and earn favor with the divine; that’s what appeals to us. Christianity says there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor, and we must be made righteous by faith. Other religions say we must pay for our own sins; that’s what appeals to us. Christianity says that someone else paid for our sins—a huge stumbling block for many.

    Moreover, if Christianity were therapy fiction, its originators did nearly everything wrong in the most brazen and incompetent ways. Have you read Holdings’ “The Impossible Faith”? Really fascinating stuff if you’re interested in psychology or the development of religion or ancient historical thinking etc.

    I confess I find your attraction to Russell’s Teapot puzzling, to say the least. It strikes me as one of the most useless, jejune arguments against Christianity I’ve ever seen. Bill Vallicella does a good job of explaining why.

  12. BobF

    The Valicella article is excellent, though I have potential issues: ie the essential reason the Russell comparison is valid is the principle that if the evidence for X is insufficient, you ought not believe in X, But Vallicella’s discrepencies may have a point I’m not seeing – again I need to think about this. If nothing else, if I go to an admittedly well deserved hell, I will go in an intellectually fascinating way. I’m like a low rent version of Bob Price.

  13. Andy

    I believe in God of the the bible. I take solace that I have no choice or control in matters pertaining to my birth or eternal destiny. I make decisions within the human limits established by God. Creation and destiny of all things are solely under His prerogative, and for His pleasure. Whether destined to perfectly deserved hell or non deserved heaven I am inclined to marvel at life and creation, having been allowed to partake in human joy and suffering. I can surmise, opine and believe without dogmatic conclusion on issues of theology and eschatology because my knowledge is staggeringly limited. All in all I thank and glorify God for having allowed me a glimpse of Him

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