This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

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)


series
Thorny problems with Calvinism #2: the unfairness of election

In which I ask how a God who decides to save only some people can be worthy of worship.

Continued from part 1, on the pettiness of self-glorification

The second thorny problem with Calvinism has to do with the doctrine of election. I’m going to use this as a stepping-stone to the even more hated doctrine of double predestination, which I’ll deal with in the next post.

As one acquaintance put it to me,

I still struggle with the idea that in election, God creates people only to send them to hell without any choice of anything different (also it’s unfair to only save some).

As you can see, there are two related issues here. Although my friend put the unfairness of electing only some second, I think the objection actually starts there, and then builds out—something like this:

  1. God is unfair if he decides to save only some people
  2. God is especially unfair if he decides to create people who have no choice but to be damned

This second point is perhaps part of a more general feeling that God is unfair if he doesn’t give us a choice in our salvation. This is all part of the double predestination package, which I’ll deal with next time. For now, let’s look at (1).

God is unfair if he decides to save only some

There is no doubt that we naturally feel this to be the case. In fact, for many Christians it is such a strong intuition that they reject election out of hand (or reinterpret it). They are so convinced that it would be wrong for God to only elect some—rather than giving everyone an equal chance—that they find themselves declaring with Wesley, “Whatever the Bible says, it can’t say that.”

But assuming that Scripture does teach election, how can we reconcile that with our intuition that it is unfair?

Testing our intuitions

Man’s major problem since the fall is that his notion of what is good and what is evil is fundamentally broken. Indeed, this is what it means to be a sinner: we judge what is good by what we want, and also (by extension) by what other people want. Good and evil for us are centered on ourselves. Because sinners reject God, man’s flourishing is the only and ultimate good we can conceive.

This attitude is repaired to some extent when God regenerates us; when he changes our dispositions to “aim” toward him, rather than toward ourselves. We come to realize that the standard of goodness we’ve been aiming at is too low. Far too low. We learn that there is none righteous—not one!—and that from our youth, every inclination of our hearts is only evil continually (Romans 3:10; Genesis 8:21; 6:5). This is what Jesus saves us from.

But old habits die hard. We continue to instinctively judge actions by how they affect us and other people. That’s our natural shortcut for telling what is right and what is wrong. We have to work hard to overcome it; we have to learn to change our instincts; to judge actions by how they relate to God. It is a steep learning curve to come to grips with Paul’s statement in Romans 14:23 that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. That nice atheist helping the old lady across the road? Yeap, that’s sin. It’s not as bad a sin as Ted Bundy raping and murdering young women—but it isn’t done with the intent of honoring God, and so no matter how well it affects other people, it is done in rejection of goodness itself (God). So it is sin.

The trouble is, because as sinners we are naturally predisposed to reject God’s authority and goodness and substitute them with our own, we should actually expect to feel loathing—or at least unease—about how God deals with people. (Isn’t this why the doctrine of hell is so unpopular?)

As Christians, we should be careful to test our kneejerk reactions against the standard of God himself. But when it comes to election, we quickly see that our initial feeling of how unfair God would be to save only some people is 180 degrees to how we should feel:

God would be quite unfair to save anyone.

Our intuition that God should save all people rather than just some is based in our false but natural feeling that all people deserve saving. Even after we are converted and know better, we still tend to think of people as basically good when of course they are the opposite. But once we look at human beings from God’s perspective instead of our own, we realize that he ought to punish us all in hell forever. He ought not let a single one of us into heaven. That’s why it’s called the “gospel of grace”: grace is undeserved favor.

In other words, not a single person ever has any claim whatsoever on God’s salvation. If God decides to give it to some people, he is being gratuitously kind to them. He is not giving them what they deserve. Commensurately, his failing to be gratuitously kind to other people is not a defect or imperfection on his part. He has utterly no obligation to those he didn’t pick for salvation—because they have utterly no basis to expect his favor. He is not unfair to give them what they deserve—hell—he is, in fact, perfectly fair.

Election and God’s end-game

I noted in the previous part of this series that God’s purpose in creation—his end-game if you will—is to glorify himself. And I argued that God’s glory is simply his revealed perfection. With this in mind, it is actually easy to see why God does not damn everyone, and why he does not save everyone either:

If God wishes to reveal his perfection fully, he must reveal his undeserved mercy and his holy judgment. Which means he must elect some sinners to salvation, and damn others to hell. It is only a man-centered moral calculus that finds this offensive. When we cast it in light of God’s revealed perfection, election is literally a glorious doctrine.

Continued in part 3, on how double predestination makes God a moral monster

4 comments

  1. Federico

    Dominic,

    It seems to me that this post can be summarized in two points.

    1.- God is not unfair if he decides to choose only some because we don’t deserve salvation.

    And

    2.- God’s glory and attributes (his perfection) are fully expressed only if he chooses some people to heaven and condemns some others to hell.

    (Please correct me if I am wrong)

    I totally agree with 1, but not with 2. My question is, why does God receive more glory damming people in hell or saving others in order to show all his perfection?

    God bless you,

    Federico

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Because wrath and judgment are perfections of God.

    How could God reveal those perfections without objects of wrath and judgment in whom to reveal them?

  3. Pascal

    God elects some people to heaven and some to hell. By what standard, a purely arbitrary one?

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    What do you mean by “arbitrary”?

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