I talked last time about why I’d stopped trying so hard to ‘save’ everyone, or to impart to them a particular version of the gospel message about Jesus saving them from their sins.
These next 2 posts follow on from this, but from a less personal, more theoretical and theological angle. The question I’m trying to answer is, Why does God leave other people’s eternal fate in our hands – or indeed does he?
I was listening to a friend give their ‘testimony’ the other day, the story of how they came to faith in Christ from having been a drop-out; of how he felt God calling him in his darkest hour. It struck me for two reasons – one, because it bore parallels to my own story. Two, because if God chose to or managed to get to both of us in our similar places, why not all the many others like us? And why not everyone? Why us at all?
Or to put it another way – why doesn’t God just save everyone?
What is salvation, who gets it – and why?
Firstly though, what does it even mean to be saved, and is it the same as being Christian? My rough working definition of both (which many will disagree with!) is:
Being drawn into a redemptive relationship with God in which one is gradually inwardly transformed into Christlikeness, and in which one participates in the redemption of humanity and the world.
But I’m not sure one has to be ‘Christian’ in the usual sense for that to happen, though again many would disagree.
Still, ‘Why doesn’t God save everyone?’ has long been a puzzling question for Christians. Different believers have attempted different answers over the ages, starting with the very first apostles. The views seem to fall broadly into three camps:
- God could save everyone because he is utterly sovereign, but for his own mysterious reasons only chooses to save some (Calvinism)
- God wants – and tries – to save everyone, but he respects our choices and he will (or can) only save those who are willing (Arminianism)
- God does ultimately save everyone (Universalism); and he doesn’t require people to make a Christian commitment in this life in order for them to be redeemed finally (Inclusivism).
Option 1 – God could save everyone, but chooses not to
This is the classic Calvinist position, based on a view of God as utterly sovereign and in control of everything that happens. I don’t like it and don’t think it’s true. Still, I acknowledge that it seems to have fairly strong backing from some of the New Testament writings – and even apparently from the words of Jesus himself.
So in John’s gospel Jesus makes two statements, ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6) and ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me’ (John 6:44). Accepting for now that Jesus actually said these things, and taking it at face value, it sounds unequivocal – only those whom God directly calls can come to Jesus and receive his eternal life.
Paul of course appears to reinforce this in several passages: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Eph 2:8-9); ‘What if God… bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction’ (Romans 9:22).
For me, there have to be alternative ways of reading these passages – or else (in the last resort) I may simply have to reject them as mistaken. Because the view of God they present seems to me so utterly abhorrent, and so unlike the God I think I know a little.
A monstrous God?
If it’s true that God simply chooses some to be saved and others not to be, then to my mind it makes him controlling, unlovable and almost monstrous. Indeed the extreme version holds that God not only actively chooses those to be saved but also actively chooses those who are to be lost or damned – which ends up in the same place but makes God seem even nastier.
How can you unconditionally and freely love someone – indeed how can you love them at all – knowing that it’s only the luck of the heavenly lottery that God has chosen to love you, and that you could equally well have been chosen for eternal destruction? How can you love someone who is actively and deliberately choosing to consign billions of your fellows – perhaps your family and friends – to hell, purely on the basis of his sovereign right to choose?
And how can God simply choose to love some and not others anyway – surely love doesn’t work that way? Unless they’re massively psychologically scarred, a parent has no choice about loving their children – they just do, like it or not. (Though Calvinists argue we only become God’s children by his sovereign choice.)
God’s will and God’s glory?
And what is the mysterious reason that Calvinists put forward as the basis for God’s choice to save some and condemn others? For some it’s simply pure will, the divine right of choice – which amounts to a meaningless tautology to my mind.
For others it’s ‘for God’s glory’. It glorifies God to show mercy to some who don’t deserve it (which could be any of us), and equally glorifies him to punish others who do (which again could be any of us). Maybe so, in a legal or even mathematical kind of way – but I find it hard to see how it would be possible to love such a God.
Indeed, the Calvinist view has understandably been responsible for causing many to hate and reject the Christian God, even to oppose him. And if such a view were true, I might be tempted to join them.
Obviously rejecting these difficult scriptural passages as erroneous does present us with some other difficulties, which for some will be insurmountable. But it seems to me that Paul was wrong about some things – most notably about the imminent return of Jesus within his lifetime – so he may have been mistaken about this as well. We don’t have to discard all of his writings just because they aren’t completely infallible or inerrant.
Another approach is to accept these ‘Calvinist’ passages, but to uncouple them from the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment that normally accompanies the Calvinist viewpoint. This softer version still holds that God chooses only some people for eternal life, but not that he consigns the rest to an eternity of punishment and suffering; rather, he merely lets them cease to exist (Annihilation not Damnation). I’m still not entirely happy with this idea, but I think it’s an improvement.
Of course, there are alternative ways of interpreting these difficult passages of Scripture (more on this next time). But even if we’re sure they mean what they seem to, and we accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word (which I’m no longer sure I do in a strictly evangelical sense), that’s not all the Bible says on the subject.
Which brings us on to options 2 and 3 – that God wants to save all but can’t, or that he does save all. Next time…