This is the heartfelt question I received from one reader, in response to my observation that everyone in the kingdom of God will have been drawn by the Father in this life, and no one drawn will fail to come; but many will fail to come because they were not drawn, and will suffer eternal conscious punishment.
This reader responds:
I am asking this for real—I want to understand. Why are some not drawn? It seems so cruel. I just don’t understand.
Some thoughts by way of response:
We have to be careful about assuming we can answer everything. The first thing to accept is that we might not be able to deal with this question to our satisfaction. God doesn’t talk all that much about why he doesn’t draw some people. He has left us somewhat ignorant, at least in regards to the finer strokes of the picture. So ultimately, this comes down to a trust issue. When God says, “You need to accept this because I say so,” there are two ways we can take that:
- The person who doesn’t trust God tends to hear it as, “Because I say so.”
- But the believer should hear it as, “Because I say so.”
The first puts the emphasis on God’s power; the second on his character. In my experience, atheists gravitate to the first way of reading it, and then vigorously deny that might makes right. Believers gravitate toward the second, yet correctly make the same denial.
We need to be very careful using words like “cruel” with respect to God’s actions. The reason is that this kind of language takes for granted a certain standard of comparison that the Bible denies. It is cruel to leave people to a fate they don’t deserve. It is cruel to punish innocent people. Or, to use another common analogy, it is cruel for a father to save some of his children from a fire while deliberately leaving others.
But the Bible does not truck with these kinds of analogies. It denies that all people are God’s children (eg 1 John 3:10), and it denies that anyone is innocent or that hell is undeserved. Rather, hell is what we all ought to receive as the just deserts of our rebellion against God. All people should go to hell.
(Now, that’s impossible to accept if we take human well-being as the nexus of goodness; but if God is the ground of goodness, what goodness is, and if we take his character and honor as the nexus of goodness—as the Bible presupposes—then it makes unerring sense.)
In any case, it seems contradictory to say that God is cruel to have mercy on some and pay their debt of guilt himself. Is that not the opposite of cruelty? If he pardoned only one person, that would still be undeserved mercy, and surely no one could complain that he hadn’t pardoned them too.
i. Apropos (2), we need to be especially careful here because our sense of injustice tends to be aroused when one person is pardoned and another is not. That seems unfair. But usually, this is because no commensurate payment was made for the pardoned person. In other words, one guilty person had to pay for their crime, and another guilty person didn’t, and the payment was simply waived. That seems certainly to be a miscarriage of justice. (Or, to vary the analogy, two equally guilty people receive vastly different sentences—that also seems unfair.)
But in the case of hell, it is not that the payment is waived, but that it is paid by Jesus instead of the guilty party. (I won’t cash out here how Jesus suffered hell; suffice to say the Bible does indicate that he took the penalty for sin on our behalf (1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:26-28 etc).)
ii. There is an extra layer of complexity here also, because God has made pardon available to all people. However, because all people are sinners, they reject it. Thus, it is not so much that he does not pardon all people, as that all people reject his offer of pardon, and so he then elects a subset of them to gratuitously save anyway. This complicates the process of assessing his actions.
We may still feel that injustice is done if one undeserving person’s debt is repaid, and another’s is not, if the person doing the repaying seems to be choosing arbitrarily, or does not even need to choose at all. In other words, if God is able to pardon all, does it not seem unfair that he chooses to pardon only some, and quite randomly at that? Is God not above eeny-meeny-miney-mo?
This probably gets to the heart your worry about God seeming cruel. It is perhaps not so much that he is cruel to pardon only some, but that if he is able to pardon all, it seems less than wholly good for him not to. After all, wouldn’t even a fallen sinner like you or me wish to save everyone from hell if he could?
This worry has real teeth, but it also rubs up against some very hard counter-evidence:
i. If this intuition about God is right, why did he choose only Israel for his people under the old covenant? Why not make himself known to all peoples, so that everyone had the opportunity to worship him? It seems that his concern is greater than just for saving the most people possible. That may be very hard for us to understand, but it is certainly a consistent element of how he interacts with people.
ii. By the same token, God could have created any world he wanted, including a world without sin. Or, if he had wanted sin, he could nonetheless have created a world quite different from ours, with much less seemingly unnecessary suffering among people who are relatively innocent (children getting bone cancer, for example). Yet, he created this world, suggesting that he has something more in mind for everything that happens than merely saving the most people possible. Again, there is a certain consistency between present suffering, and the eschatological suffering of the wicked.
iii. Going to the question of what God’s ends are in creation, we also have to consider how those mesh with the people who populate it. Because everyone is a product of very specific circumstances, if God wants to create particular people, some of them may only be possible as “results” of situations in which many other people are not saved. And because humans are social, the connections between them in terms of causality and “producing” new people become immensely complex, thus presumably limiting the ways in which God can achieve certain ends.
What I’m getting at in the examples above is that God is not just a super-powered human. How we expect a human to act is not necessarily indicative of how God will act. An even moderately decent human will not give a child bone cancer. Yet it seems that we cannot accuse God of being less than moderately decent even though he made a world where children get bone cancer. In fact, it is precisely because God is not just a super-powered human that we are inclined to trust in his goodness despite the difficulties of child bone cancer etc. He is so far greater than us in his view of how everything fits together that we simply have no basis to think he has insufficient reasons for what he does—even if we didn’t already know that he must, given that he is the nexus of goodness, and “shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?”
This all gets to the question of what God is setting out to achieve in the world. Why did he create the world in the first place? The Bible says it is for his glory, rather than for some goal like bringing people into relationship with him—although that is certainly a significant element of displaying his glory. John Piper speaks well on this. But if God is aiming to glorify himself in the world, to reveal his greatness, his perfections, then the question naturally turns to how he can reveal perfections like wrath and justice, without objects upon which to focus these things. This makes Paul’s question in Romans 9 seem more than merely rhetorical:
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? Romans 9:21-24
Obviously a great deal more can be said, and a fully pastoral response will say a great deal more. This is a question we all grapple with. Most of my family and friends are not believers, so it is certainly something I have to work through. Yet if I may make a final observation, I do want to draw some attention to the enormous, largely invisible role of cultural attitudes in shaping our perception of God’s purposes. For example, I’ve mentioned in my series on hell how hard it is to take the arguments of many hell-deniers seriously, because of their hysterical emotional appeals. Now, I’m not discounting that hell is an emotionally difficult doctrine; but I do want to fix a long, hard stare on the origin of this kind of hand-wringing. I don’t think it ultimately has anything to do with soft hearts. I think the people who react this way suffer from soft heads. Hell is anathema to an effete culture that is characterized by 30 year old teenage boys, an obsession with tolerating every vice but excising every commensurate virtue, a desperate need to celebrate the authenticity of feeling while censoring the reality revealed through thinking, and perhaps most of all a compulsive need to invent victims, punish aggressors, and ensure equality of outcome. Is it any wonder that Christians raised in such a culture, ingrained with its peculiar, demented “values”, find election and hell intolerable? Of course it isn’t. Yet we would hardly imagine that their reaction has anything to do with the objective moral facts about these doctrines.
So it is deplorably ironic to see people decrying them as an invention of the natural man, saying they are a product of a harder, less enlightened time; a result of cultural conditioning not biblical teaching—yet they are utterly blind to the fact that they are only saying this because of their own cultural conditioning! So we need to be very careful not to be in that boat ourselves. It takes a certain fortitude to think these things through and accept hard truths on trust, even when we can’t find a way to fit them comfortably into our emotional makeup. But I hope, at least, that this gives you some idea of how to fit them less uncomfortably, all the same.