Is the “Arminian God” Good?
Several times I have argued here that a main reason high Calvinism (double predestinarianism) must be wrong is that if it were true God would not be good in any meaningful sense. If it were true, we would have no idea what we mean when we say “God is good” other than “God is God.” The adjective “good” would add nothing explanatory to “God.” That’s because there is no analogy between “good” attributed to the God of double predestinarianism and “good” attributed by us to anyone or anything else. “Good” then becomes equivocal, not analogical (to say nothing of univocal). It is no different from saying God is “supercalifragilisticexpialadocious.” (According to the film “Mary Poppins” that’s something you say when you have nothing to say.)
A few Calvinists have challenged me to explain how the “Arminian God” (God as believed in by classical Arminians) is good.
Two specific challenges were: 1) That “putting Satan in the garden” was not good in any analogous way to what we know as good by our highest and best intuitions of “goodness,” and 2) That a good God (understood according to our best and highest intuitions of goodness) would give all sinners an equal opportunity to be saved and avoid hell. This is, of course, a form of argument known as “tu quoque” (literally “you, too”). Most logicians consider it a logical fallacy. It does nothing to help one’s own cause because it doesn’t speak to the argument presented.
However, I will address these two challenges here briefly.
I think if those Calvinist challengers thought it through carefully enough, they would see they are wrong.
But first, we must keep in mind what double predestination entails, because the Calvinist challengers are saying there is some parity between God’s character according to their theology and God’s character in my theology (classical Arminianism). According to the doctrine of double predestination, God either selected some sinners to save and some sinners to damn or selected some sinners to save and merely permitted others to suffer their deserved damnation. What you must remember is that in both cases, it is believed that God’s selection was absolutely unconditional—so not based on anything about the individuals selected. If it wasn’t arbitrary, it’s impossible to say what it was based on.
Now let me address the first challenge stated above. The challenger assumed that, according to classical Calvinism, God “put” Satan in the garden to tempt Adam and Eve and that there is no human analogy in which a good person would do anything like that.
A couple of responses are possible. First, some Arminians would say (like some Reformed theologians!) that the story of the fall in Genesis 3 is “saga,” not literal description of what happened in some geographical location during some datable time period past. Its point is theological, not historical. It is history-like without likely being history. To those who object that that is a “liberal” interpretation I ask if they believe Satan appeared to Adam and Eve as a literal serpent and, if so, which species of serpent (reduction ad absurdum)? And I ask if they believe the “fruit” of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was literal fruit and, if so, what kind? In other words, few people other than the most literally minded fundamentalists interpret every aspect of the story literally. Many Reformed and Arminian theologians consider Genesis 3 to be a narrative about us—humanity—and our existential condition. In that interpretation, God most certainly did not literally “put” Satan in the garden; the serpent represents (for example) the tension between finitude and freedom (Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, et al.).
But—even for classical Arminians who do take Genesis 3 literally (or at least semi-literally), God did not “put” Satan in the garden! ONLY a Calvinist would believe that! (After all, in Calvinism Satan is God’s instrument in a way Arminians reject.) Rather, Satan simply “appears” there and God permits him to be there.
So, the proper way of putting the challenge would be (I smile at helping my Calvinist interlocutors make their own arguments!) that a good God (as I mean “good”) would never permit Satan into the garden. I believe that is wrong. I can think of numerous examples where a good person would permit temptation into a situation in order to test the sincerity or quality of another person’s love or good will.
Imagine a very wealthy and not particularly studly man who has fallen in love with a younger, very beautiful woman who came into his life under sudden and somewhat strange circumstances. He wonders if her stated love for him is sincere or if she’s just after his money. The man has a very studly, young male “pool boy” who he knows is a “player.” He arranges for his girlfriend to be at his home on a warm day when neither he nor anyone else except the pool boy is there. For security reasons he has “spycams” situated throughout his house.
(Now, just to head off anyone saying “But if the woman fails the test she won’t go to hell,” let me remind them that I have many times here explained my view of hell as self-chosen, a “painful refuge” a la C. S. Lewis.)
I can think of many scenarios in which a truly good person would permit such a test of another person’s loyalty, love or trustworthiness and still be good in a meaningful sense.
Now, let me address the second challenge. A Calvinist critic argued here that a good God, as I understand goodness, would make sure every sinner has an equal opportunity to avoid hell.
First, remember that I have revisioned hell (a la C. S. Lewis) as self-chosen, the “painful refuge” whose door is locked on the inside. In my opinion, that is the only view of hell that is consistent with a truly good and loving God. That by itself pulls the teeth of the challenge.
But, I will go on to respond anyway.
Must a truly good person give everyone under his or her influence an equal opportunity to flourish and succeed, to avoid disaster and failure? No. Such a good person must only give every person under his influence sufficient opportunity to avoid disaster and failure. That the “Arminian God” has done. We Arminians believe in Romans 1! Go back and read it. There Paul says that everyone has sufficient revelation to know God truly and it is no argument in their defense that they have not found God that way but have worshiped the creation rather than the creator. In other words, sin is a mystery; there is no accounting for it. God has not withheld anything necessary for repenting and turning to God. In Romans 2 Paul strongly hints that some people do actually turn to God in a saving way through God’s revelation in nature. But his point in Romans 1 is that if they don’t it’s not God’s fault because God has provided them (us) all with sufficient means to know and worship him.
Many Arminians believe God is an equal opportunity savior in that prevenient (supernatural) grace is made available to all people. However, even universal prevenient grace would not seem to give everyone equal opportunity for salvation. After all, even people affected by prevenient grace would seem to have a better chance for salvation if a Christian witness reached them with the gospel.
Still, the point is that, according to Romans 1 and classical Arminian theology, God has given everyone sufficient opportunity to be saved. He has not closed the door in anyone’s face without them pulling it closed from their side.
However, some Calvinist will surely still challenge me that a good God (in my sense of good) would assure that every fallen person receives an equal opportunity to be saved.
So here is an analogy that defeats that.
Imagine a good teacher who really wants all his students to pass his course. The class has one hundred students. The teacher has selected five assistants to work with the students all of who are failing (except the five) in spite of being given everything needed to pass the course. The teacher knows that the students are failing due to their own fault.
Right in the course syllabus the teacher has stated that any student who finds himself or herself in trouble in the course can come and see the teacher for special help. The five did that. The teacher is under no obligation to the rest who have simply neglected to come to him for help.
So the teacher graciously and mercifully assigns the five who did come to him for help and who are passing the course (all with flying colors) to help the others as much as they can. He promises them extra credit based on how much effort they put into helping the failing students (rewards in heaven). Some put forth greater effort to help their fellow students than others. The “help” they are to offer their fellow students is nothing other than convincing them that they are failing and that they need to go to the teacher for special help and that if they do they will pass the course. Remember, this is already stated in the syllabus which many of the failing students have neglected to read!
Now who would consider the teacher “not good?” He has done everything a good teacher and a good person should do.
Now, imagine that behind the scenes, so to speak, the teacher has already determined who will pass and who will fail the course—unconditionally! He hides the offer of special help from some of them and offers it (via his assistants) only to certain ones he has pre-selected based on nothing at all about them.
Who would consider that teacher “good?”