Probably one of the most common questions that you hear from people who don’t fully understand Christianity is this question: “why did Jesus have to die?”. The answer that most Christians seem to hold to is that 1) humans are rebelling against God, 2) Humans deserve punishment for their rebellion, 3) Humans cannot escape the punishment for their rebellion on their own, 4) Jesus was punished in the place of the rebellious humans, 5) Those who accept this sacrifice are forgiven for their rebelling.
Are humans rebellious?
Some people think that humans are not really rebellious at all, but it’s actually easy to see. You can see it just by looking at how people spend their time. Some of us have no time for God at all, and instead try to fill our lives with material possessions and experiences in order to have happy feelings. Some of us embrace just the parts of God that make us feel happy, like church and singing and feelings of comfort, while avoiding the hard parts of that vertical relationship; reading, thinking and disagreeing with people who don’t believe the truth about God. And so on.
This condition of being in rebellion is universal, and all of us are guilty of breaking the law at some point. All of us deserve to be separated from God’s goodness and love. Even if we wanted to stop rebelling, we would not be able to make up for the times where we do rebel by being good at other times, any more than we could get out of a speeding ticket by appealing to the times when we drove at the speed limit, (something that I never do, in any case).
This is not to say that all sinners are punished equally – the degree of punishment is proportional to the sins a person commits. However, the standard is perfection. And worse than that, the most important moral obligation is a vertical moral obligation. You can’t satisfy the demands of the moral law just by making your neighbor happy, while treating God like a pariah. The first commandment is to love God, the second is to love your neighbor. Even loving your neighbor requires you to tell your neighbor the truth – not just to make them feel good. The vertical relationship is more important than the horizontal one, and we’ve all screwed up the vertical relationship. We all don’t want God to be there, telling us what’s best for us, interfering with our fun. We don’t want to relate to a loving God if it means having to care what he thinks about anything that we are doing.
Who is going to pay for our rebellion?
The Christian answer to the problem of our rebellion is that Jesus takes the punishment we deserve in our place.
However, I’ve noticed that on some atheist blogs, they don’t like the idea that someone else can take our punishment for us to exonerate us for crimes that we’ve committed. So I’ll quote from this post by the great William Lane Craig, to respond to that objection.
The central problem of the Penal Theory is, as you point out, understanding how punishing a person other than the perpetrator of the wrong can meet the demands of justice. Indeed, we might even say that it would be wrong to punish some innocent person for the crimes I commit!
It seems to me, however, that in other aspects of human life we do recognize this practice. I remember once sharing the Gospel with a businessman. When I explained that Christ had died to pay the penalty for our sins, he responded, “Oh, yes, that’s imputation.” I was stunned, as I never expected this theological concept to be familiar to this non-Christian businessman. When I asked him how he came to be familiar with this idea, he replied, “Oh, we use imputation all the time in the insurance business.” He explained to me that certain sorts of insurance policy are written so that, for example, if someone else drives my car and gets in an accident, the responsibility is imputed to me rather than to the driver. Even though the driver behaved recklessly, I am the one held liable; it is just as if I had done it.
Now this is parallel to substitutionary atonement. Normally I would be liable for the misdeeds I have done. But through my faith in Christ, I am, as it were, covered by his divine insurance policy, whereby he assumes the liability for my actions. My sin is imputed to him, and he pays its penalty. The demands of justice are fulfilled, just as they are in mundane affairs in which someone pays the penalty for something imputed to him. This is as literal a transaction as those that transpire regularly in the insurance industry.
So, it turns out that the doctrine of substitionary atonement is not as mysterious or as objectionable as everyone seems to think it is.
Looks like Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable radio show found a pastor with a Ph.D in philosophy, and he can really whip some ass. And that’s a good thing, because he is taking on one of the two leading proponents of religious pluralism, in my opinion, (the other being Paul Knitter).
John Hick is a noted philosopher and theologian who is a proponent of a pluralist view of religion – that there is one light (God) but many lampshades (religious expressions).
Chris Sinkinson is a pastor and Bible tutor who has critiqued Hick’s work. He says that pluralism empties Christianity of any content and in its own way disrespects other religions more than his own exclusivist stance.
Justin does a great job as moderator of this debate. He said what I was thinking of saying a number of times during the debate.
Anyway, here is my snarky summary. I creatively paraphrase some of the things that Hick says to make it more clear. And funny.
– had an experience looking at the buildings of other religions
– other religions have buildings, so all religions are equal
– I spent some time in the East, and met nice Eastern people
– since Eastern people are nice that means all religions are equal
– isn’t Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive path to salvation offensive?
– all religions that are exclusive and have to deal with religious pluralism
– even John Hick writes polemically in favor of his own view
– even John Hick thinks that religions that are exclusive are false
– what about the blind man and the elephant?
– the story seems to say that other people have a partial grasp?
– but the story-teller himself has the privileged view
– so isn’t the religious pluralist just as arrogant as exclusivists?
– well, it’s not arrogant to claim to have the right answer
– Jesus never made the claim to be God incarnate
– Jesus never made the claim to be the exclusive path to God
– historians don’t think that John’s gospel is reliable because it is late
– the proclamation of exclusivity was added by evangelists much later
– the historians who doubt the high Christology are radical skeptics
– the mainstream of historical scholarship accepts a high Christology
– the EARLIEST history about Jesus has the highest Christology
– the moderate scholars do think Jesus was divine but that he didn’t think he was divine
– the phrase “Son of God” was used to describe any remarkable person
– only later did the early church turn the generic term into “God the Son”
– there is reflection on Jesus’ identity and developments, but not invention
– Jesus and his followers were in trouble precisely for linking him to deity
– why else would Jesus get into trouble and get crucified?
– the Romans crucified him because people were saying he was the Messiah
– but the Messiah was not identified as being divine, but political
– and that’s why the Romans crucified him
– do you (Sinkinson) think that people in other religions can be saved?
– the traditional view is exclusivism
– the other world religions are logically contradictory with Christianity
– you have to respect their differences – they are not the same as Christianity
– exclusivists allow that people can be saved by responding to natural theology
– and there are also other cases where non-Christians are saved, like old testament saints and babies who die in infancy
– but people’s religions are based on where they are born
– so it’s not fair for God to expect people to be saved in one religion only
– the plurality of religions grouped by location doesn’t make christianity false
– that would be the genetic fallacy – rejecting an idea because of its origin
– the real question to consider is whether it is true
– and even the objection assumes that God is a God of love, who should be fair
– but how do you know that God is loving? that is an exclusive view
– how can the “blob” ultimate of religious pluralism be “loving” and “fair”
– the ultimate reality is loving or not loving depending on each person’s religion
– but some religions and theistic and some are atheistic
– how can those God exist and not exist?
– God is beyond everyone’s understanding, except mine
– God is beyond all definitions, except mine
– God is beyond all human understanding, except mine
– i’m not contradicting myself, it’s a mystery! a mystery!
– as long as you don’t look to closely, they’re all the same!
– allow me to tell you about God, which no one can do but me
– doesn’t your religious pluralism mean that Christianity is false?
– well, Christianity can’t be true, because it disagrees with other religions
– Christianity can’t falsify other religions, that would be mean to them
– other religions are just as “profound” as Christianity – and that’s what matters – not whether a religion makes true claims
– some religions are older than Christianity, that means they can’t be disagreed with
– we can’t let Christianity be true, because then some people will feel bad
– if people feel bad, then they don’t like me and then I feel bad
– if there’s one thing I know about the unknowable ultimate reality, it’s that it wants me to be liked by lots of people
– your view seems to be agnosticism – that nothing can be known about the “ultimate real”
– if we can’t express in words what God is like, then why are you saying what God is like?
– the indescribable ultimate is described (falsely, but interestingly) by various tradition
– does the “ultimate real” exist?
– are all the exclusive religions wrong, and only you are right?
– all propositions about God in all the religions are false
– the experience of being deluded and having feelings about your delusions is “valid” in all religions
– all religions are equally good ways to believe false things and to have feelings about your false beliefs
– only my propositions about God are true
– everyone who disagrees with me is wrong
– so all the propositions of all the religions are wrong
– but all the experiences and feelings are “right”
– all propositions about God are humanly constructed, and so false
– except mine – mine are true!
– so everything distinctive about Christianity are literally false?
– yes, Christian doctrines are all false
– because if they were true, other religions would be false, and they would feel bad
– and we can’t have that, because everyone has to like me
– only things that don’t offend people in other religions can be true
– so do we have to then treat all religions as non-propositional?
– well just don’t ask people about the content of their beliefs
– just treat their religion as non-cognitive rituals, feelings and experiences
– don’t inquire too deeply into it, because all religions are all nonsense
– i’m very respectful and tolerant of different religions!
– but Muslims, for example, think their religion is making truth claims
– but there can be tolerance as long as you treat religions as non-propositional nonsense
– um, I have a higher respect for religions than you do
– I actually consider that the claims of other religions could be true
– I think that other religions make truth claims and not nonsense claims
– well they are all useful because they are all false
– I don’t emphasize beliefs, I emphasize living, experiences and feelings
– as long as everyone accepts my view and rejects their religion, we’ll all be tolerant
– erm, isn’t that an exclusive claim?
– you’re trying to say that your view of what religion is is right, and everyone else is wrong
– I’m not arrogant, I just think that all the religions of the worlds are false
– only my statements about religion are true – everyone else is wrong
– I’m tolerant, and Christians are arrogant
– but you think Sinkinson’s view is wrong
– why should we accept your view and deny his view?
– His view of salvation is false, and mine is true
– you use words with set meanings, but you mean completely different things
– when I say salvation, I mean deliverance from sins through Jesus
– I get to decide what salvation means for everyone, you intolerant bigot
– but that word has a specific meaning that has held true in all of Christian history
– but what you mean by salvation is people having subjective delusions that are not true
– I don’t like using the word salvation
– but you just used it!
– and you think that it is present in different world religions, but it isn’t
– God is unknowable and indescribable
– God isn’t a wrathful God though
– and the Christian description of God is false
– Evangelical Christians are mean
– I had experiences with people of other faiths
– and these experiences taught me that religions that think that the universe is eternal are true
– as long as you reduce religion to behaviors and not truth, then religions are all good at producing behaviors
– if you just treat all religions as clothing fashion and food customs, they are all valid
– the main point of religion is for people to agree on cultural conventions and stick to them
– never mind the propositional statements of religions… who cares about truth? not me!
– but Christianity is definitely false
– the Judeo-Christian God is different – he reveals himself to humans
– he is distinct from the other religions
– he is personal, and is loving but also angry at sin
– But God isn’t a person, and he isn’t a non-person
– I can’t say what he is – I’ll offend someone if I say anything at all!
– except Christians – I can offend them because they are arrogant bigots
– I’m also very spiritual – I meditate on my breathing
– you can’t assess a religion by the experiences that people have
– people who have weird experiences do all kinds of evil things
– so the real question has to be about truth – is the New Testament reliable?, etc.
I listened to this excellent discussion between Dr. William Lane Craig and Oxford University Calvinist philosopher Dr. Paul Helm. I think this is a useful discussion in general because atheists often bring up problems with Calvinism as objections to Christianity in general, such as:
If God exists, then he controls everything and I don’t have free will
If God knows the future, then I don’t have free will
If God controls everything, then I am not responsible for my sinning
If God has to choose me to be saved, then I am not responsible for my damnation
If God ordains the future, can humans have free will? Are people predestined for salvation? And what does the Bible say on the matter? William Lane Craig is a Christian philosopher and leading proponent of Molinism, a view of divine sovereignty that seeks to reconcile God’s fore-ordination with human free will. Paul Helm is a leading Calvin Scholar. He defends the view that God predestines the future, limiting human freedom.
I was surprised because my Calvinist friend Dina thought that Dr. Helm won this debate, but I thought that Dr. Craig won. So without further ado, here is the snark-free summary of the discussion. I also sent the summary to Dina to make sure that it was reasonably fair and accurate. She said it was biased, but she was predestined to say that. Anyway, there’s a commentary on the debate over at Michael’s Theology blog. And Calvinist Remington has a podcast review in parts. Part 1 is here.
JB: Has Lewis had any impact on your apologetics?
Craig: Not as a scholar, but more as a model of a scholar who leaves a legacy through his published work
JB: How did you become interested in Calvinism?
Helm: Starting from childhood, and lately writing more on Calvinism from a philosophical point of view
JB: How do you view God’s sovereignty?
Helm: Strong view of divine sovereignty, God is sovereign over all events, but that doesn’t mean that they are determined by him
JB: What is Calvin’s legacy?
Helm: He amplified an existing concept of predestination, and wrote on many other topics
JB: What is Molinism?
Craig: Molina affirms divine sovereignty as Paul Helm does, but he also affirms libertarian free will
Craig: Every event that occurs happens by God’s will or by God’s permission
JB: What about open theism?
Craig: Paul and I both oppose open theism
JB: How does Molinism reconcile human free will and divine sovereignty
Craig: God has knowledge of what would happen under any set of circumstances
Craig: God has knowledge of everything that COULD happen, and he has knowledge of everything that WILL happen
Craig: God knows what each person freely choose to do in any set of circumstances and he can place people in times and places where he is able to achieve his ends without violating creaturely freedom and creaturely responsibility
JB: How does this apply to the issue of salvation?
Craig: The circumstances in which God puts a person includes God leading people to him and he foreknows who will respond to his leading
Craig: God has ordered the world in such a way that he foreknows the exact people who will free respond to his leading if he puts them in certain circumstances
JB: Does God want to save the maximum of people?
Craig: My own view is that God does order the world in such a way that the maximum number of people will respond to God’s drawing them to himself
JB: Is the Molinist view gaining ground?
Craig: Yes, Calvinists and open theists are both moving towards it, and Molinism is the dominant view among philosophical theologians
JB: Why has Molinism not convinced you?
Helm: It’s an unnecessary theory, God’s natural knowledge and free knowledge covers what middle knowledge covers
Helm: Calvinism has a stronger view of sin, such that God has to act unilaterally and irrestibly to save them
JB: Are creatures free on your view?
Helm: My view of free will is weaker than Craig’s view of free will
Craig: For the Calvinist, grace is irresistible, but for the Molinist, grace is effective when it is met with a response from the creature
Craig: The Bible affirms the strong view of free will, when it says that in certain circumstances people can freely choose to do other than they do
Helm: But if a person is in circumstances X and they are free, then why don’t they choose something that isn’t what God can foresee
Craig: In identical circumstances, a person has the freedom to choose, and God doesn’t determine what they choose, he just foreknows what they choose
Helm: How can God foreknow what people will freely do if people have this strong view of freedom that allows them to do anything? God would not know what people can freely do if they really are free
Craig: God has knowledge of what his creatures would freely do in any set of circumstances, he has knowledge of subjunctive statements
Craig: The Scripture is filled with statements that show that God has this knowledge of what people would do in other circumstances (e.g. – 2 Cor 2:8)
Helm: I am not denying that the Bible is full of subjunctive statements, but if humans have real libertarian free will, then God cannot know what they will do
Craig: I think God does preordain everything, Molinism has a strong sense of divine sovereignty BUT the foreordaining is done with the knowledge of what humans would do in any circumstances, so that what God ordains achieves his ends, but without violating creaturely free will
Craig: I take at face value the passages of the Bible where it says that God wants all persons to be saved
Craig: When the Bible says that God wants ALL persons to be saved (2 Pet 3:9), the Bible means that God wants ALL persons to be saved
Craig: So either universalism is true OR there is something that stops all from being saved outside of God
Craig: the something that prevents all from being saved is creaturely free will
Helm: Most people don’t have the opportunity to hear the gospel, so God doesn’t want all to be saved
Helm: People can still be responsible for what God “fore-ordains”
JB: Can a person really be responsible for wickedness if they didn’t freely choose it?
Helm: Even though God is the only one who can act unilaterally to make save people, the people who act wickedly are still responsible
Craig: Molinism provides an answer to the problem of why not all people have heard the gospel, because by using middle knowledge he is able to know who would respond to the gospel if they heard it and he places those people in the times and places where they will hear it
Craig: That solution means that NO ONE is lost because they have not heard the gospel
Craig: There is Biblical support for (Acts 17:27) God choosing the times and places where people will live SO THAT they will be led by him and be able to respond to his leading
JB: Is God the author of sin, on Calvinism?
Craig: If Calvinists define providence to mean causal determinism, then he is the cause of every effect including human actions, and he is the one who causes people to sin
Craig: This view (determinism) impugns the character of God
Helm: I don’t think that sovereignty requires determinism
Helm: God has mysterious resources – which I cannot specify – that reconcile his sovereignty with human responsibility for wickedness
JB: But if God is the cause of people doing wrong things, then how can they be responsible for it?
Helm: Well, humans do cause their own actions
Craig: Helm is right to say that God has resources to reconcile God’s sovereignty with free will and human responsibility, and that resource is not an unknown mystery, it’s middle knowledge
Craig: I can affirm everything in the Westminster Confession except for the one clause where they expressly repudiate middle knowledge as the mechanism for reconciling divine sovereignty and free will
Helm: Well, Calvinists have a strong view of sin so that humans cannot respond to God’s leading
Craig: Yes, and that’s why humans need prevenient grace in order to respond to him
Craig: God has to take the initiative and draw people to himself or they cannot be saved, but that grace is resistible, and that’s what the Bible teaches (Acts 7:51), so humans are still responsible if they resist God
Helm: My view of grace is that it is monergistic and irrestible, it is a unilateral action on the part of God, like pulling someone out of an icy pond which they can’t get out of
JB: If humans freely choose to respond to God’s drawing and leading, does that diminish grace?
Helm: Many are called but few are chosen
Craig: Molinism does not require synergism – which is the idea that humans are partly responsible for their salvation
Craig: In Eph 2:8, Scripture is clear that faith opposite to works, and responding to God’s drawing is not meritorious
JB: So receiving a gift is not meritorious?
Craig: It’s the passive acceptance of what someone else has done for you
Helm: But doesn’t this mean that you can lose your salvation, because you can accept and resist the gift of salvation?
Craig: That’s a separate question that Christians can differ on, but if the Holy Spirit indwells a person and seals them, then that would argue for the view that salvation cannot be revoked
Helm: This is called the “golden chain”, and it does support Calvinism
Craig: Actually, this text is no problem for Molinists because the first link in the chain is foreknowledge, which, if it incorporates middle knowledge, is no problem for Molinists
Craig: What God is electing in Romans 8 is a specific group of people that he knows in advance of creating the universe will freely respond to his drawing them to him
Craig: In Acts 4:27-28, it is talking about God’s foreknowledge, which involves and incorporates knowledge of what any individual would freely choose if placed in those circumstances
JB: If God actualizes a set plan with set circumstances for everyone, isn’t that very similar to Calvinism?
Craig: Yes! It’s a strong statement of divine sovereignty
Helm: Foreknowledge doesn’t mean that God knows what people would do, it’s just refering to God “knowing his own mind” about what he wants to do
JB: How do you respond to the fairness of God unilaterally and specifically choosing some people for salvation and choosing other people for damnation (because he refuses to act unilaterally for them)?
Helm: God ordinarily bypasses other people in the Bible, like when he chooses the Jews as his chosen people
Craig: The problem with that is that the Bible clearly teaches that God has a genuine will that all will be saved and he makes a genuine offer of salvation to all people
Craig: Also, just being a Jew and a member of the chosen people doesn’t mean you were saved, because some Jews rebelled against God
Craig: And there were also people outside of the Jewish people who were righteous and in a relationship with God, like Job
Helm: “the fabric of our faith” depends on God’s choice and his not-choice, it is fundamental to the Bible and to God’s character, and choosing them “effectively” (irrestibly and unilaterally)
Helm: The idea of God considering “possible worlds”, some of which are feasible and not feasible, with conflicts between the wills of free creatures in different circumstances, and then actualizing one world that achieve these ends is very messy
Craig: Some worlds may not feasible for God to create, for example a world in which everyone is saved – it is logically possible, but may not be feasible
Craig: God will not exercise any divine coercion to force people to go to Heaven against their own will
Helm: If God chooses a world because it is feasible, then he doesn’t love me directly, he is choosing a world, not individuals
Craig: Well, when God actualizes a world, he specifically knows which individuals will be saved within that world, but without disrespecting free will
Craig: The world isn’t primary, the individuals are primary
Helm: I think that middle knowledge can he included in God’s natural knowledge and free knowledge
Craig: The knowledge of what people would do in different circumstances is based on the freedom of the individuals
JB: Make your conclusions!
Craig: Molinism is a Biblical model for reconciling divine sovereignty with human freedom
Helm: It is intellectually mystifying to introduce this strong view of human freedom and it is not Biblical
Calvinists have told me that this quotation from Dr. Craig is “heretical” or “borderline heretical”. They are claiming that Dr. Craig thinks that God is lacking in power somehow. But why is God’s power limited, according to this quote?
Well, it’s because God respects FREE WILL. That quote is simply Dr. Craig’s way of saying that God does not override the free will of his creatures.
So let’s make sense of Craig’s statement. Either there is determinism and God causes people to act, or humans have free will and they cause themselves to do things. If you do not cause yourself to act, then you are not responsible for what you do. Just think for a minute. If I push you into someone and you fall into them and then they fall off a cliff, then are you a murderer? No – I would be, because I am the cause. The Bible teaches that God has chosen to limit his power so that that people have genuine responsibility for their actions, and that means they have genuine free will. Humans can only be responsible for their sins if they have the ability to do other than they do, and this is the traditional Christian view.
It’s true that human beings are totally depraved as a result of the fall, and do not want God in their lives, but they are responsible because God wants them to be saved, and it is their free choice that prevents it. Rather than force humans to love him against their will, God lets them resist him, and so they are responsible for their sin.
The classical Reformed [scholars]… acknowledge that the reconciliation of Scriptural texts affirming human freedom and contingency with Scriptural texts affirming divine sovereignty is inscrutable. D. A. Carson identifies nine streams of texts affirming human freedom: (1) People face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands, (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God, (3) people sin and rebel against God, (4) people’s sins are judged by God, (5) people are tested by God, (6) people receive divine rewards, (7) the elect are responsible to respond to God’s initiative, (8) prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God, and (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension, pp. 18-22). These passages rule out a deterministic understanding of divine providence, which would preclude human freedom.
On Calvinism, however, all of these 9 features of reality, supported by dozens and dozens of Bible passages, are all false. On Calvinism, God is the sole causal agent. There is no free will. People go to Heaven or Hell as a choice of God. People can only perform good actions if God acts unilaterally to “regenerate” them, making obedience to God possible. Calvinism teaches that God and his agents are constantly exhorting and commanding things that they literally cannot do because they are unregenerate, and the only way to get regenerate is for God to regenerate them, against their will. And they can’t resist that.
So let’s make sense of D.A. Carson’s list of 9 items:
On Calvinism, when God or his agents exhort or command people to perform good actions, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so that they can perform the good actions.
On Calvinism, when God or his agents tell people to obey, believe and choose God, it’s meaningless because God has to unilaterally regenerate them first, so they can obey, believe and choose God.
On Calvinism, when people sin and rebel against God, it’s like people are soda cans that God shakes up some of them, and then pops the tabs on all of them and the ones he shook up fizz.
On Calvinism, when God judges people for sinning, it’s like God sends the cans who don’t fizz to Hell for eternity, even though he unilaterally chose not to shake them, which is the only way they could fizz.
On Calvinism, when God tests people, it’s meaningless, because there is no way they can pass the tests unless God unilaterally regenerates them first, so they can pass the test.
On Calvinism, when people receive divine rewards, it’s meaningless, because all the credit goes to God for regenerating them. They are just fizzing because he shook the can.
On Calvinism, when people respond to God’s initiative, it’s meaningless, because God’s regeneration is irresistible and irrevocable. They can do nothing other than fizz when he shakes the can.
On Calvinism, when people pray, it’s meaningless, because God unilaterally decides whether to regenerate people or not, and all their fizzing comes solely from his decision to shake or not shake the can.
On Calvinism, when God pleads with sinners to repent and be saved, it’s meaningless, because God has to unilaterally regenerate them before they can repent.
Universal, divine, causal determinism cannot offer a coherent interpretation of Scripture.
Universal causal determinism cannot be rationally affirmed.
Universal, divine, determinism makes God the author of sin and precludes human responsibility.
Universal, divine, determinism nullifies human agency.
Universal, divine determinism makes reality into a farce.
If God’s choice, to regenerate or not, causally determines whether we can respond to him, or not, then that is determinism. And it makes our lives meaningless because we are not responsible for anything we do. Life is a puppet show, and there is only one person pulling the strings. Evangelism makes no sense, because God decides unilaterally and irrevocably who is saved. When I explain this to Calvinists, their response is that God commands us to evangelize, so we must even if it makes no sense on their view.
A Calvinist might respond to this defense of free will and human responsibility with passages from Romans 8 and 9, but those are best understood as speaking about corporate election, rather than unilaterally-determined selection. Membership in the elect group is based on people responding to God’s drawing of them to him. That interpretation fits with the rest of the Bible, which is uniformly affirmative of human free will and human responsibility. Concerns about diminished divine sovereignty are resolved by middle knowledge, in which God chooses to actualize exactly the world that achieves his sovereign will out of all the possible worlds, and he saves exactly the people he chooses to save – but without violating their free will. Yes, it’s cosmic entrapment, but at least the cosmic entrapment does not violate the free will of the creatures, which would render then irresponsible for their own sins.
Disclaimer: I don’t think that this is an issue that should divide Christians, and I do think that Calvinists are most definitely Christians. And that they are very devout and intelligent Christians, too.
If you are looking for a good book on this issue, I recommend Kenneth Heathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty“, which is a thorough discussion of the problem of divine sovereignty and human freedom.
Here’s an article from Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason.
He answers the question “Am I going to Hell if I don’t believe in Jesus?”.
Sometimes we have to reframe a critic’s question in order to give an accurate answer. The questions, Am I going to Hell if I don’t believe in Jesus?, is an example. As it is asked, it makes it sounds as though Jesus were the problem, not the answer. As though failing a theology quiz sends us to Hell. Instead, we need to reframe the question to answer accurately and show that sin is the problem, and Jesus is the only way because He alone has solved that problem. Sinners don’t go to Hell for failing petty theology quizzes.
While giving a talk at a local Barnes & Noble, someone asked why it was necessary for him to believe in Jesus. He was Jewish, believed in God, and was living a moral life. Those were the important things, it seemed—how you lived, not what you believed.
To him the Christian message depicted a narrow-minded God pitching people into Hell because of an arcane detail of Christian theology. How should I answer?
Remember that the first responsibility of an ambassador is knowledge—an accurately informed message. What is our message?
One way to say it is, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’ll go to Hell. If you do believe, you’ll go to Heaven.”
That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. The problem is it’s not clear. Since it doesn’t give an accurate sense of why Jesus is necessary, it makes God sound petty.
So how do we fix this? Here’s how I responded to my Jewish questioner. I asked him two simple questions.
Christians all need to understand how to explain why sincere beliefs and good works are not enough to satisfy God’s moral demands on us. God is more concerned that we understand the truth about his existence and character – that is the whole point of sending Jesus to die as an atonement for our rebellion. The problem isn’t just that we lie, cheat, steal and murder. The problem is that we want to get our own happiness apart from God, without wanting to know him as he is, and without having to care about his goals and his character in the relationship.
Here’s what God wants us to know about ourselves:
we have to realize that what we really are is rebels against God
rebels don’t want God to be there
rebels don’t want God to have any goals or character different from their goals and character
rebels don’t want God to place any demands on them
rebels don’t want to have any awareness that God is real or that he is morally perfect
rebels want to be liked as they are now – they don’t want to change as part of a relationship
rebels want to conceive of their own way to happiness, and to use other people and God for their own ends
rebels don’t want there to be a mind-independent objective reality, they want to invent their own reality that allows them to be praised and celebrated for doing whatever makes them happy at every point along their lives
rebels would rather die that put their pursuit of happiness second
rebels have no interest in rules, judgments, accountability or punishments
Here’s what God wants for us to be saved from our rebelling:
we have to know his real character so we have a genuine relationship with him
the best way to know his character is by taking time to study what Jesus did in history
what the incarnation tells us is that God is willing to humiliate himself by taking on a human nature
what the crucifixion tells us is that God is willing to die in our place even though we’re rebelling against him (Jesus is Savior)
part of being saved is to trust God by allowing his character to transform our desires and actions (Jesus is Lord)
as we grow in letting the character of Jesus inform our actions, we build a set of experiences that are like Jesus’ experiences – i.e. – we obey God rather than men, and we suffer for our obedience – just like Jesus
So don’t Christians have to do good things? Yes. But a Christian’s good deeds are the result of identifying Jesus as Savior and Lord, and then following him by making decisions that respect his character. God doesn’t need you to solve all the world’s problems – he could do that himself. It’s not what you do, it’s who you know and trust that counts. The good deeds are just your way of trying to be like him and trying to feel the same thing he felt when he gave his life for you. You have a friend and you want to be like him in order to know what he feels so you have sympathy with him.
The main point is that knowing Jesus as the revelation of God’s character, and then following Jesus, is more important than doing “good things”.
34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.
35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38This is the first and greatest commandment.
The second commandment which comes after that one has to do with loving your neighbor. But the second one is not the greatest commandment. You can’t love God unless you know God. That it, unless you make knowing about his existence and character a priority in your life to the point where you find out the truth about his existence and character. And not as your own opinion, or as the opinion of the people around you, or as the faith-tradition you were raised in. No. You have to value God enough to respond to his overtures to you. You have to know him in truth, not as a quick checkbox that you check off for an hour on Sundays to make your life “easier” because you are happier and the people around you like you. You have to know him before you can act to love him – who he is and what he’s done.
The way that Protestants like me draw the line is as follows – justification (how your rebellion is canceled) is God’s job. He draws you to him while you are still in rebellion, but you have a choice to resist him or not. If you resist his action to save you, then you are responsible for rejecting him. Sanctification (about doing good works) is not about canceling your rebellion, it’s about the later step of re-prioritizing your life, so that you make decisions that reflect the character of Jesus, so that you become more like him. Even your desires change as the relationship progresses. It is something you work at – you study and experience, study and experience. The whole point of studying apologetics is to build yourself into a love machine that fears nothing and holds up under fire, because you know the truth and the truth makes you free to do what you ought to do regardless of the consequences (e.g. – failure to be recognized and requited by someone you loved well).
The most important relationship is not the horizontal relationship with your neighbor, it’s the vertical relationship with God himself. And when you know God as he really revealed himself in history, then your desires – and consequently your actions – will change naturally. When you know God as a person, you freely make all kinds of sacrifices for him. You put yourself second because you want to work on the relationship. You start to believe that your own happiness isn’t as as important as working on the relationship. It’s like building a house. You don’t notice the sacrifices.
Sometimes, I think that the whole point of Christianity and that vertical relationship is so that we know God better. We sympathize more with him than we do with ourselves, because of how unfairly people treat him, how good and loving he is, and how right his goals are. It’s not that he needs help, because he’s God – he’s sovereign. But the relationship gets to the point where it becomes reasonable for you to put yourself second with God, and to let his goals become your goals – you want the relationship with a loving God more than you want to be happy. You get tired of ignoring the person who loves you most – you start to wonder what it would be like to actually respond to him. For Christians, the demands of this other being eventually seem to be not so terrible after all – and we try to put aside our own desires and to give him gifts and respect instead of worrying so much about being happy all the time.
It’s not irrational to be kind to the person who loves you the most – who sacrificed the most for you.