Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Thorny problems with Calvinism #3: double predestination makes God a moral monster

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8 minutes to read In which I defend the most despised doctrine in Christianity.

In my experience, double predestination is the doctrine that non-Calvinists hate the most. This is true of many classical and Molinist Arminians, open theists, Catholics—even atheists.

Double predestination: the doctrine that God, in planning out the course of history (before he even created the world), picked exactly who he would save and who would suffer unending conscious punishment in hell.

In the previous post I said that this doctrine is a logical consequence of election. If God creates all people, and he chooses to save only some people, then logically he also chooses not to save the others (aka “sends them to hell”)—yet he creates them anyway.

A common error

Some people think that double predestination must mean that God wills or causes the sin of the reprobate in the same way that he wills or causes the good works of his elect. This is a serious error called equal ultimacy. Suffice to say double predestination does not entail that God’s relationship to sin is symmetrical with his relationship to righteousness. Put simply, he does not will sin for its own sake as he wills righteousness for its own sake; and he does not cause sin by the working of his Spirit as he causes righteousness by that working.

That particular part of my butt now covered, it still goes without saying that most people have a strong intuition that God is especially unfair if he decides to create people who will inevitably be damned. But as we’ll see, robustly explaining why this is unfair is actually quite difficult. And the first part of that difficulty is explaining…

How does any Christian get around this problem?

I’ve noticed many people think this is a Calvinism-specific issue. But it’s not. Any theology which affirms an orthodox view of God’s foreknowledge has to deal with it. Look:

Suppose there are two possible worlds God can create. In the first, Booker freely believes the gospel and is saved. In the second, he freely rejects it and is damned.

Now, imagine God decides to create the second world for his own good reasons. Given the fact that in this world Booker goes to hell, is it possible for Booker to go to heaven in this world?

Of course not. That would be a contradiction in terms. But that being the case, clearly God has created Booker even though he knows Booker will go to hell and there’s not a sweet dally thing Booker himself can do about it. God has determined that Booker will go to hell by foreseeing his miserable lot and yet creating him anyway. If that’s a problem for Calvinism, it’s a problem for non-Calvinists too.

How can a non-Calvinist reply?

The problem is what God determines

He might say, well, the unfairness of Calvinism is that God determines not merely that Booker will go to hell, but what choices Booker will make that send him there; whereas under freewill theism, God merely foresees the choices Booker may make that send him to hell, and “ratifies” those choices (as opposed to others he could make), by creating that particular world.

The difficulty with this response is that it still has God’s determining what choices Booker will make! God creates the world in which Booker chooses sin rather than salvation. By doing this, he determines that Booker will make those choices rather than any others. So this doesn’t get the non-Calvinist off the hook.

The problem is that the ultimate source of Booker’s decisions makes him non-culpable

Here, the non-Calvinist might say the problem is not God’s determining which choices Booker will make, but rather that Booker is not the ultimate source of those choices. If Booker isn’t the ultimate source of his own decisions (even if they are inevitable), then God cannot rightly hold him accountable for them.

This is what I call the freewill theist’s “governing intuition”. And it tends to be an unfruitful conversation because there are competing intuitions at work here. Calvinists just don’t have that intuition that “ultimate sourcehood” is required for moral responsibility—often because reading the Bible has trained it out of us. But suffice to say, resolving this problem forces us to confront the issue of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. I’m not going to talk about that here because I’ve discussed it extensively elsewhere. I have argued that the governing intuition is provably false from Scripture; sovereignty and responsibility are demonstrably compatible. So this objection to double predestination is stillborn.

God’s intentions

The non-Calvinist might also say that the unfairness of Calvinism is in God creating Booker for the purpose of sending him to hell. In other words, under Calvinism, God actually wants Booker in hell—which seems unloving—whereas under a non-Calvinist view God lovingly wants him in heaven but is limited by what Booker himself will do.

I’ll talk about why the idea that God cannot create a world in which Booker chooses salvation is absurd some other time. For now, let’s suppose that’s true. How does that help the non-Calvinist?

Is it loving or fair for God, under freewill theism, to create Booker, knowing he will suffer eternal conscious punishment? What does it even mean to say that God wants Booker to be saved? Given that the choice is between creating him for eternal death, or not creating him at all, isn’t the only loving option to not create him?

Now of course, the non-Calvinist is welcome to say that God has some overriding reason to create Booker. The world in which Booker goes to hell, perhaps, is overall a better world than one without him, or one where he is saved. But that mimics the Calvinist’s argument! Under Calvinism, it is better that God be glorified through Booker’s reprobation than for Booker to be saved or not exist at all. The end for which God creates Booker is not reprobation itself. He does not want Booker in hell for its own sake, but rather for the purpose of revealing his perfection. A non-Calvinist might disagree about God’s ultimate goal, but his position remains functionally identical to Calvinism, and therefore offers no justification whatsoever for thinking that double predestination is unfair or unloving.

Notice that it doesn’t help to say that under freewill theism, God wants Booker to be saved, or tries to save Booker. Surely the non-Calvinist doesn’t think God would try to save someone who, from God’s timeless perspective, is not only currently living but indeed is already in hell? That would be even more irrational than, say, me trying to convince a prisoner on death row not to murder the person he is in jail for killing.

Testing our intuitions again

I talked about this in the last post, but there are some particularly pertinent “tests” we can run at this point to demonstrate how ill-fitted to Scripture the non-Calvinist view is. As you may have guessed, we’re going to look at Romans 9.

Naturally, non-Calvinists have their own interpretations of Romans 9. They often say it is not referring to God’s election of individuals. Or they say it is hypothetical. I’m not going to get into exegetical arguments here; I just want to call your attention to some simple points:

The obvious parallel between “Booker” and Pharaoh

In the discussion above, I used the example of an imaginary man, Booker, who God creates for hell, with the purpose of glorifying his wrath—something non-Calvinists find very objectionable. I think I’ve shown how their objections end up shooting down their own position, but here I want to make a different point, which is how closely my example of Booker corresponds to what Paul says about Pharaoh:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I caused you to be raised up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then, he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires. Romans 9:17-18

Is this not precisely what I have already articulated—that God uses people to glorify himself, and that depending on how he intends to do so, he will either save them or damn them? Of course it is. And as I have said, and will say again, this is offensive only if our moral faculties are fundamentally disoriented—pointing at man as the ultimate good, rather than God. I think this is the mistake of freewill theism. And notice how incongruous this explicit explanation of Pharaoh’s purpose is, if the freewill theist’s intuitions about God’s love and fairness are accurate. How is it loving or fair for God to use Pharaoh in this way, and never even offer him salvation?

The incongruity under freewill theism of Paul’s riposte

The second thing to note is how nonsensical the next few verses of Romans 9 seem if Paul is intending not to teach double predestination:

You will say then to me, “Why does he still find fault? For who withstands his will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed ask him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” Or hasn’t the potter a right over the clay, from the same lump to make one part a vessel for honor, and another for dishonor? What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath made for destruction, that he might make known the riches of his glory on vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory? Romans 9:19-23

Needless to say, the verse I have bolded is precisely the kind of objection that freewill theists raise against Calvinism! Let me suggest that if your theology is committing you to an objection similar to the one Paul anticipates here, then it is precisely the theology which Paul is intending to correct. And the corrective he gives is not something like, “God wants to save everyone and is thwarted by their own choices,” as non-Calvinists would say. It is, “God makes us as we are, whether for glory or for destruction, so as to reveal his own attributes, and he has every right to do so because we are no more than clay jars are to the potter who makes them.”

If that offends you, your moral faculties are disoriented.

Israel: the elephant in the room

The final point I’d like to make is regarding God’s purposes in history. For some reason, non-Calvinists find it extremely objectionable that God would, today, elect particular people to salvation while consigning the rest to hell; yet they find nothing at all wrong with God electing Israel as his people while consigning the rest of the nations to hell.

What do non-Calvinists think happened to all those people living in Egypt or Canaan or Babylon or China or South America or Australia? God never even offered them the chance at salvation. That was offered exclusively through Israel (John 4:22). So in the paradigm case of God’s covenantal dealings, we see him creating a majority of people who had no choice about going to hell, and conferring salvation on a select few.

Is that what we would expect if non-Calvinists’ intuitions about God’s love and fairness are accurate? Or is that double predestination?


Philip C

For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.


I’ve been working at trying to get better identifying the issues in people’s arguments, but I’m a little stumped here. I read this shortly after I read this post, and I can “feel” that there’s an issue in his thinking, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. If you could help me think through this, that’d be great…

“I’ve bumped up against this question a few times. On the face of it, it seems to have merit, but it’s based in a misunderstanding of how foreknowledge works.

Kevin suggests God is basically as culpable for Bob’s damnation in free-will theism as he is in Calvinism, because God knew Bob would end up in hell when he created Bob and yet did nothing to stop it. The assumption Kevin makes is that God could have used his foreknowledge to “easily prevent” Bob’s damnation. But these are two dots that simply won’t connect…a non-sequitur argument.

How could God have used his foreknowledge of Bob’s damnation to prevent Bob’s damnation? I am not aware of any answer to that. It’s not as if God goes, “Hmm…if I were to create Bob, what would happen to him? [Cue foreknowledge] Oh I see—he would be damned. O well, I’m going to create him anyways.”

No—God’s foreknowledge is foreknowledge of what WILL happen, not what MIGHT happen. So God can’t use his foreknowledge to see that Bob WILL be damned and then act to make sure Bob won’t be damned, for then God’s foreknowledge would have been incorrect (a.k.a. not foreknowledge). To be fair to Kevin, it’s an easy mistake to make and many people who believe in simple foreknowledge make the same mistake.

So in short, the suggestion that free-will theism doesn’t really have much more to offer than Calvinism when it comes to God’s goodness in the face of hell is, in my estimation, more smoke than fire. From where I’m sitting, it means the difference in a good God who looks like Jesus crucified and one who doesn’t.”


David White

That interpretation of God’s foreknowledge makes God a slave to the future. In Arminian theology, God has no overarching decree, but the future events God foresees are fixed in time. Somehow, even though God has not decreed or even desired them, those future events already exist and are completely unalterable.

You may find helpful. Peter Pike’s comment is especially on the mark:

…since God cannot be wrong then He has no option but to have everything happen as He foreknew. God is a slave to what He knows will happen, and what He knows will happen isn’t even what He has decreed will happen… He’s just watching a DVD that He can’t even interact without messing up what He knows is coming.

and Steve is right to point out:

Fischer ironically concedes that divine foreknowledge is incompatible with alternate outcomes. If God knows what Bob will do, then Bob can’t do otherwise. God’s foreknowledge dooms him to hell.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

David is right; if God only has foreknowledge of events that will happen, and has no counterfactual knowledge of what could or would happen given certain circumstances, then he could not choose which world he makes. He could only know the future once the world was already made.

Needless to say, that’s not too far off open theism. It also has the absurd consequence of turning God into the functional equivalent of a time traveler. God cannot know how his actions will affect the future until he actually acts. By that point, it’s too late if his actions have consequences he didn’t intend. So he has to “go back” and do something else at some point before his original action, thus changing the future so he can try again. It’s ridiculous.


I’m guessing you’re one of the ‘elect?’

You write,“God makes us as we are, whether for glory or for destruction, so as to reveal his own attributes, and he has every right to do so because we are no more than clay jars are to the potter who makes them.”

Bleak. So very bleak.


“That particular part of my butt” – nice word choice.


Thank you for writing this series of posts! They have been helpful to me as I’ve been troubled by these issues recently. I agree with what you’ve laid out; I agree that this is the biblical view. 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. Thanks once again.


“yet they find nothing at all wrong with God electing Israel as his people while consigning the rest of the nations to hell.”

Could you cite the verse(s) where G*d sends the Ninevites to hell? I could have sworn HE CHANGED HIS MIND after they repented — and without the blood of Jesus. Calvinism & Christianity refuted in one awesome little book!

I refuse to “interpret” the OT in light of the NT; I reject the latter because it flatly contradicts the former. (For instance: Paul says there are no righteous men. Either he’s lying or the OT is. What about Noah, Job, Lot, Abraham, King David, King Asa, King Hezekiah, King Josiah, Enoch, Moses, and others?)

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

John, this is completely off topic. But I’ll bite, briefly.

Could you cite the verse(s) where G*d sends the Ninevites to hell?

How does one (highly questionable) exception disprove my general statement? Also, why are you spelling “God” like a swear word?

I could have sworn HE CHANGED HIS MIND after they repented

He changed his mind about destroying the city. How does that equate to eternal salvation?

and without the blood of Jesus.

Talk about begging the question. Guilt is not removed without sacrifice, and the blood of bulls and goats doesn’t cut it. So if it wasn’t Jesus who took their sin (on the assumption they were eternally saved, which you have yet to offer even circumstantial evidence for), then who?

I refuse to “interpret” the OT in light of the NT; I reject the latter because it flatly contradicts the former.

No, it flatly contradicts your faulty reading of the former. You can’t pretend that the Old Testament, and your personal interpretation of the Old Testament, are one and the same thing. In fact, the Old Testament makes no sense without the New.

Paul says there are no righteous men. Either he’s lying or the OT is. What about Noah, Job, Lot, Abraham, King David, King Asa, King Hezekiah, King Josiah, Enoch, Moses, and others?

Have you even bothered to find out how Christians answer this question? Did you think they didn’t notice this? Maybe you should go away and acquaint yourself with the basic arguments in play before you come swaggering in here posting off-topic bluster again.