Calvinism Destroys God’s Justice
“May the Lord curse you and abandon you. May the Lord keep you in darkness and give you only judgment without grace. May the Lord turn his back upon you and remove his peace from you forever.” These words, taken from a popular R.C. Sproul video, starkly reveal the dark underbelly of the Calvinist’s concept of justice, which is what I wish to explore in this post.
Most supralapsarian Calvinists (and quite a few non-supralapsarians) will agree with Herman Hoeksema that “Reprobation exists in order that election may be realized. Reprobation is necessary to bring the chosen to the glory which God in His infinite love has appointed for them…” The idea here is that God could not have properly saved the elect, let alone demonstrated His justice to them, without having a group of people with whom He can be angry for all of eternity.
Imagine a potter who labors continually until he has created a number of excellently wrought vessels of great beauty. But he is not satisfied with that—he must also construct a second class of vessels in order to smash them into a hundred bits. This proves to everyone that he has strength. The God of Calvinism is like this potter; he must have two classes of people: One group with which to demonstrate His love and mercy, and another group with which to demonstrate His wrath and hatred of sin.
In the end, this amounts to saying that God hates sin so much that He wanted it to enter His creation eternally so that He could always be punishing it. But consider carefully what this actually means. Because His hatred of sin is so great, He must create it and it must go on existing eternally in those subjects He is forever punishing.
According to such a theory, if God had chosen to prevent the existence of evil in the first place this would have been a worse state of affairs then the endless perpetuation of evil in an everlasting hell since there would then have been no way for us to know that God is just (for the Calvinist, we cannot know that God is just unless He has something to be angry about). Hence, what this amounts to saying is that God hates evil so much that He must ensure its eternal existence.
The problem is that this idea of justice is imported from philosophy into the Bible. It comes from the philosophical notion that God is absolutely simple in his divinity. Once you accept the premise that God is an absolutely simple essence, the rest of the argument unfolds as follows (at least, as it has been represented to me by Calvinist friends):
- Since God is simple, his attributes are non-divisible, as only compound objects—not simple objects—can be divided;
- Since God’s attributes are non-divisible, He must always be expressing every aspect of His character at all times;
- Both justice and hatred of sin are essential aspects of God’s character;
- Therefore, God must be eternally expressing His justice and hatred of sin in order to be absolutely simple, and therefore to be truly God.
(On the importance of God’s wrath against sin being eternal once divine simplicity is posited, see the articles at Choosing Hats: ‘Propitiation, Wrath and Substitution’ and ‘A Further Example of the Importance of Divine Simplicity.’)
Most Calvinists who hold to these ideas do not realize that their origins are in Greek philosophy rather than the Bible, and so they naively think that the whole package can be inferred from a few verses like Romans 9:22. They fail to appreciate that their philosophy is actually creating a lens by which they read Paul.
Point four is only applied in terms of eternity stretching forward, but if the logic of the above argumentation is fully accepted, it would necessitate that God’s wrath against evil must also stretch backwards eternally as well, and that evil must therefore have always existed in order for God to have material upon which to demonstrate His wrath. If a Calvinist nullifies the need for evil to be present through eternity past by invoking the notion that God is outside of time, then logically this notion could also be invoked to nullify the need for evil to be present for eternity.
As already mentioned, this theory says that God hates evil so much that He must ensure its eternal perpetuation, for if in a trillion years from now there was even a millisecond of time in which God didn’t have a group of sinners to be angry at, then this would be tragic as one whole part of His character (justice) would be unable to be expressed.
As Douglas Wilson once put it on his blog,
In a world without sin, two of God’s most glorious attributes—His justice and His mercy—would go undisplayed. This, obviously, would be horrible … In a world without sin and evil, at least two attributes of God would have gone unrevealed and unmanifested, those attributes being wrath and mercy. Since this is obviously intolerable, God determined to direct our affairs the way that He did.
Jonathan Edwards expressed a similar idea when he wrote:
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all … Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all. If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired … So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.
The same notion is present in the works of Saint Augustine:
…if all had remained condemned to the punishment entailed by just condemnation, then God’s merciful grace would not have been seen at work in anyone, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the truth of God’s vengeance would not have been made evident. —City of God 21.11
Augustine defends this view by comparing it to the beauty of antithesis that we find in literature:
[Man’s] future evil state … enrich[es] the course of world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem. ‘Antithesis’ provides the most attractive figures in literary compositions … The opposition of such contraries gives an added beauty to speech; and in the same way there is a beauty in the composition of the world’s history arising from the antithesis of contraries—a kind of eloquence in events, instead of words. —City of God 11.17
Interestingly, Augustine unwittingly imported this idea into Christian theology from his Manichean background, and it was taken up and further systematized by the reformers. We get a sense of just how indebted Augustine’s theories about evil were to his Manichean background in the following quotation, where good and evil create an antithesis necessary for maintaining the balance in the universe:
And thus evils, which God does not love, are not apart from order; and nevertheless He does love order itself. This very thing He loves: to love good things, and not to love evil things—and this itself is a thing of magnificent order and of divine arrangement. And because this orderly arrangement maintains the harmony of the universe by this very contrast, it comes about that evil things must need be. In this way, the beauty of all things is in a manner configured, as it were, from antitheses, that is, from opposites: this is pleasing to us even in discourse.
It is not good enough to criticize these ideas merely because of their pagan origins, although the fact that these theories have their roots in the twin pillars of philosophy and Manicheanism should make any Calvinist uneasy.
The problem with these conjectures is that they essentially assert that God requires an opposite (an antithesis) in order for Him to be good, or at least for His goodness to be fully actualized and manifested. It requires us to assert (at least if we are consistent) that throughout all eternity, the goodness and justice inherent in the blessed Trinity was always incomplete, because it wasn’t until evil came along that all the unrealized potencies in the Godhead could finally be realized.
This implication is clear in John Piper’s otherwise excellent work Desiring God and also in his less-excellent The Pleasures of God. Piper suggests that the pain, evil, and misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. This seems to leave us with a kind of dualism since it makes goodness eternally dependent on evil. Again, if taken to its logical conclusion, this would entail that evil must be just as eternal as the blessed Trinity.
On the other hand, if the members of the Trinity are completely self-sufficient and could fully appreciate their own justice independent of creation, then presumably it would also be possible for God’s redeemed and glorified children to appreciate God’s goodness and justice apart from the existence of evil, unless we can first produce an a priori argument to the contrary (which, of course, no teacher from Augustine to John Piper has been able to do).
If evil is necessary in order for God’s goodness to be manifested, and if the manifestation of such goodness is a crucial part of what it means for God to be Lord (since otherwise, God’s hatred of sin could not find an outlet), then it follows that creation is necessary in order for God to be Lord, as creation itself is a precondition to evil. In that case, God would not be Lord prior to creation. Ergo, creation is not an overflow of God’s abundance but something that was necessary in order to realize a certain aspect of His character. This lands us uncomfortably close to what some Arians have proposed. I know Arians who have said that in order for God to be Lord, He must eternally be Lord over something; ergo, the Son must be eternally subordinate to the authority of God the Father. A similar logic lies behind much Calvinist speculation.
Because of this, my wife and I realized that it is better to simply say it’s a mystery as to why God would permit evil, instead of trying to give a problematic philosophical explanation for it as Calvinists might. Evil certainly exists, so there must be some explanation for it that does not compromise the attributes of God, seeing as terms like goodness, justice, and love can have no meaning apart from God. We know from the Bible that God permits evil in order to work good out of it, but that’s about all we know. If we try to fill in the gaps of our understanding with the Augustinian/Calvinist explanation, we are forced to believe that God’s love, grace, goodness, etc. are only intelligible in a world marred by evil. On a purely practical level, this doesn’t make sense. I don’t need to go down to the local dump and gaze upon the garbage there in order to appreciate the beauty of nature. I don’t need to feed on putrefied fruit and rotting bread in order to enjoy lamb chops. Similarly, I’m sure that the persons of the blessed Trinity were fully capable of appreciating one another’s love prior to the advent of evil.
Once again, I can’t provide an alternative explanation for why a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good would allow evil to exist. While we know from scripture that the Lord allows evil in order to work good out of it, we don’t ultimately know why He chooses to tarry as His people suffer persecution or why He allows the wicked to prosper. This is a mystery for us just as much as it was a mystery for the Psalmists or for the long-suffering Job. We just don’t know how God can be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and yet evil still exists. This is not just a profound philosophical question but is also a very real existential question—especially for those Christians who have been victims of both cruelty and injustice.
The problem with Calvinism is that its quest for rationalistic clarity does away with this necessary mystery. Calvinism asserts that evil exists because God wants it to be there—end of story. As Calvin put it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “I say with Augustine that the Lord has created those who, as He certainly foreknew, were to go to destruction, and He did so because He so willed,” while later Calvin extends this idea to its consistent corollary, which is that “man by the righteous impulsion of God does that which is unlawful.” In other words, according to Calvin, the sinner sins because God impels him to do so.
Calvin picked up on this same theme later when he wrote that:
[M]an falls, the Providence of God so ordaining …that by the will of God all the sons of Adam fell into the state of wretchedness in which they are now involved … Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.
God, in His own pleasure, arranged evil?
These are difficult words, especially since they appear to directly implicate God in all the wickedness of the world. It easily solves the problem of evil, but does so at the expense of other scriptural teaching. For example, Psalm 5:5. In the Septuagint—the Old Testament text quoted by the New Testament writers and the canonical text of the ancient Church—Psalms 5:4 reads “For You are not a God who wills (thelon) lawlessness (anomian).”
In fairness to Calvin, he was able to maintain some degree of dialectical balance that would be lacking in his followers. That is why my critique of Calvinism recognizes that Calvinism is larger than simply the teachings of John Calvin. This was impressed upon me when our former church put on a family camp and invited R.C. Sproul, Jr. to speak. The younger Sproul has taken Calvin’s teachings to such an extreme, going even further than his father—let alone Calvin himself. For example, Sproul took particular delight in describing to us in detail how God desired sin to come about, and how God forced the devil to sin like a man operating a remote control. In his book Almighty Over All, Sproul expands on this point, writing, “I am suggesting that he [God] created sin … Where, I must ask, does the law of God forbid the creation of evil? I would suggest that it just isn’t there.”
This leads to what I consider to be a trivialization of evil.
R.C. Sproul, Jr. posted a Facebook status saying that since God is sovereign, even those things which are not as they ought to be really are just as things ought to be. He went on to say that there are ultimately no “bad” things, since God is completely sovereign. Now if all he means is that even bad things work out ultimately for good, then I have no problem. But there is a great difference between saying, on the one hand, that God works good out of evil, and on the other hand, saying that that since God is the author of all things, evil isn’t really bad (or that everything which happens ought to be).
If, as Sproul maintains, God is the author of evil, then we would have to say that He fosters wickedness in people’s hearts. But if so, then God is sinful by the Biblical definitions of sin and evil. Consider that in the Proverbs, the ones who incite and tempt to evil (like the fool’s friends or the prostitute) are as morally guilty as the simple man who falls prey to those temptations. James says that God does not tempt us, but if God is the author of evil then He is doing a lot more than merely tempting us: He is fostering the evil in our hearts and inciting us to sin.
Under this scheme, the words “God is good” are no longer intelligible, as God is violating His own self-revelation of what constitutes “goodness.” Consequently, if God really is the energizing principle behind both the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, then we would have to conclude that the Biblical categories used to describe God are ultimately non-descriptive. Moreover, it would make a mockery of the antithesis that we find throughout the war-Psalms, if God is the causal force behind both sides.
Moreover, if God is the author of evil, then we would have to conclude that evil is just as much an intrinsic part of God’s character as His goodness. But in that case, we are left without a standard for distinguishing between good and evil. Using God’s character as the standard would then be akin to using a tape measure on which inches and centimeters are all mixed up. God can only be the standard for distinguishing between good and evil if the former and not the latter is fundamental to His character.
This has pastoral implications when dealing with people who have been subject to either grief or abuse. Certain extreme Calvinists will confront human grief with the words of Rodigast’s famous hymn, “What ‘er my God ordains is right.” Their approach is “This is happening; therefore, God ordained it; therefore, it must be right.” Thankfully, the Calvinist church we attended was not so reductive, but the same cannot be said of many others. For example, Dr. Morton H. Smith, one of the founders of the PCA, was fond of preaching to his congregations that when confronted with any evil or misfortune, the only appropriate response is, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
It is true that I have mostly been discussing certain extreme, supralapsarian expressions of Calvinism. But even in more moderate reformed theology we see a distortion of the Bible’s actual teaching on the subject of justice. In both the Old and New Testaments, we find that justice is not really about God punishing sin as an end in itself; justice is more about God setting things right. To be sure, when God sets things right, this involves judgment against sin, but the Bible tends to place this justice within the context of His covenant faithfulness to His people in a way that is often lacking in systematic Calvinist thought.
Objection #1: Your critique of the Calvinist concept of justice criticizes the conclusions of Calvinist theology without actually pinpointing where Calvinism goes wrong in the process of scriptural argumentation leading to those conclusions. It is insufficient to simply find the conclusions of reformed theology objectionable if you have not demonstrated from scripture that the premises leading to those conclusions are wrong.
Answer to Objection #1: This objection is easily answered by quoting a point made by the mathematician John Byl in The Divine Challenge. Byl writes that “if the falsity of the conclusion is more plausible than the truthfulness of the premises, then it is rational to reject the premises … The advantage of this method of refutation is that one need not pinpoint exactly where the initial error occurred.” This is the approach I have taken in my critique of Calvinism. The falsity of Calvinist conclusions are so apparent that it is unnecessary to actually show where the argumentation leading up to those conclusions has gone wrong.
Objection #2: Some of the implications you draw from the Calvinist concept of justice, such as your argument about the Trinity, would be repudiated by any self-respecting Calvinist. This suggests that, once again, you are misrepresenting Calvinism and creating straw man arguments.
Answer to Objection # 2: If the above objection were true, then any reductio ad absurdum argument would be a species of misrepresentation. For example, consider the following argument:
- Michael says that P is true.
- But if P is true, then Q follows.
- Q is clearly absurd.
- Therefore, what Michael says about P cannot be true.
Suppose you are Michael in the above example and that you disagree. You could dispute premise one, and say that I had misunderstood. Or you could dispute premise two by arguing that Q does not follow from P. Or, you could dispute premise three and argue that Q is not absurd. In all such cases, the conclusion in premise four would no longer follow, but in only one case (namely the first) could you claim I had misrepresented you; that is, only by disputing my argument by arguing that premise one is false would you be able to legitimately claim that I had misunderstood you. Even if you strongly protested against the second premise and violently disagreed that Q followed from P, you still couldn’t legitimately claim I had misrepresented you unless I claimed that you also drew Q as an implication of P.
Let P stand for the Calvinist idea that God must have a group of people with which He is eternally angry in order to demonstrate His justice, and let Q stand for some of the implications I have drawn. Here’s the rub: even if I am wrong that Q follows from P, this itself is insufficient to establish that I have misrepresented the Calvinist position, unless I also claimed that they too affirmed this implication. But nowhere in the above argumentation did I claim that Calvinists affirm the implication I drew, and precisely because of this, it cannot be legitimately argued that I misunderstood.
- Penal Substitution and the Problem of Justice
- Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions
- Augustine and Hell
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 1): Calvinism presents a dehistoricized Bible
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 3): Calvinism Dislocates God From our Experience of Him
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 4): The Heresy of Monergism
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 5): A Deformed Christology
- Links to all my Articles on John Calvin or Calvinism