Terry Tiessen, author of Providence & Prayer : How Does God Work in the World? and Who Can Be Saved?: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions, writes this in response to some Arminian arguments that Calvinism tends toward a view of God that is monstrous (and good Arminian theologians who say such a thing also say they know Calvinists don’t affirm such monstrosities). I post this in the interest of fairness to our readers:
In describing the God of Calvinist understanding a “monster,” one has to speak very strongly but no more strongly than did Wesley in his hymn against predestination. Berkouwer aptly spoke of the “scandal of election,” and I too have felt its scandalousness. Yet, I am currently at a point in my own thought where I feel its scandalousness less than I do its wonder and its praiseworthiness.
I think that Jerry Walls is right when he identifies the doctrine of hell as one of the chief tenets of Christian faith that calls forth a theodicy. Like you, he has found resolution in the free will defence. I have been unable to do so because my reading of the biblical narrative continuously impresses upon me the meticulousness of God’s sovereign control in the world. Its history is the one God has chosen should occur, though much of it comes about by the action of free agents who bear responsibility for any evil they do, while obligated to acknowledge God as the source of any good they do.
So, how can I worship and gladly serve a God who chose to create a world in whose history some would not be saved, even though the saving of sinners is something God alone can do and which no one can thwart, if God wills to do it?
1) I acknowledge that God’s judgment is just. Those who suffer eternally in hell are given no more than the just penalty for the sins they have committed “in the body.” That suffering is proportionate to their guilt.
2) I confess that the salvation of anyone from the fate we deserve is purely of God’s grace. He apparently chose to save none of the fallen angels, and his justice is not impugned in his not doing so. But, amazingly, God has chosen to be merciful to a great host of human beings from every tribe, tongue and nation. Grace is, by its very nature, undeserved and therefore its not being given to some is no violation of justice. I am forever grateful that God has shown me grace in making me his child and fellow heir with his eternal Son.
3) In Who Can Be Saved?, I spelled out my reasons for being hopeful that God has chosen to save most of the human race. Furthermore, I find some comfort in the suggestion of John Frame that even in hell, God exercises common grace, so that even there sinners are preserved from the full terrors of their just deserts.
4) Nevertheless, I find myself puzzled that God did not choose to save the entire race. (I’m convinced, with universalists like Thomas Talbott, that universalism is incoherent apart from monergism in regard to salvation.) His reasons are hidden from us. Paul offers his best shot at a possible reason in Rom 9:22-23. Might it be, he wonders, that God determined that the “riches of his glory” would best be revealed if demonstration of his justice were given in the case of some of the wicked? I do find the contemplation of hell so terrible that the magnitude of God’s gracious mercy in snatching me from that fate is cause for much praise and glorification of God’s Name.5) Since I am a monergist, I can not have recourse to the free will defense. (I think McGrath is correct, however, that even synergists share the greater good defense at the bottom line, though they differ in their understanding of the greater good. Synergists and monergists both believe that God desires the salvation of everyone but that not everyone is saved because God valued something more highly. Synergists, in appealing to the free will defense, assert that libertarian freedom is the factor God deems more valuable than a salvation of everyone brought about by God’s work alone. Calvinists [like the apostle Paul ☺], on the other hand, believe that God’s glory is best served by the just condemnation of some sinners.) On the other hand, I have been helped considerably by John Feinberg’s “integrity of humans defense” (No One Like Him, 787-95). Feinberg demonstrates that the compatibilist freedom which God has given moral creatures offers more constraints than libertarians (and probably many compatibilists too!) generally realize.
Feinberg asserts that there is “reason to believe it may be harder for God to get us to do right than we think. . . . It might turn out that God would have to constrain many people to do things he needed done in order to organize circumstances to convince a few of us to do the right thing without constraining us. Of course, that would contradict compatibilistic free will for many of us, and would do so more frequently than we might imagine. Moreover, one begins to wonder how wise this God is if he must do all of this just to bring it about that his human creatures do good. Why not at the outset just make a different creature who couldn’t do evil? But of course, that would contradict God’s decision to make humans, not subhumans or superhumans” (790). Feinberg walks us through eight ways in which God might have gotten rid of evil and excellently demonstrates why “none of them would be acceptable” (790-94).
Feinberg then concludes: “This discussion about what God would have to do to remove moral evil shows that God cannot remove it without contradicting his desires to make the kind of creature and world he has made (causing us to doubt the accuracy of ascribing to him attributes such as wisdom) or making a world we wouldn’t want and would consider more evil than our present world” (794).
I agree with Feinberg that “modified rationalism does not demand that God create the best world or even a better world than some other good world. It only requires God to create a good possible world” (795). (Interestingly, when I sat in on Richard Swinburne’s seminar on Providence, back in 1995, he made the same point, from his open theist perspective!)
6) Finally then, I believe God to be good and to have chosen to create a good world. I accept the wisdom of his having chosen to create a world with compatibilistically free creatures. I acknowledge that “moral evil has come as a concomitant of a world populated with human beings” (Feinberg, 795). I acknowledge that God’s reasons for his choosing this particular world are not ultimately revealed to me but, given the above, I find nothing incoherent in affirming simultaneously that God is good, that he is meticulously sovereign and that he justly punishes some of the human race and some of the angelic creatures without remediation.