I am a member of an apologetics Facebook group, but I never post there. I simply read the links or discussions that pop up if they are interesting. I recently skimmed through a discussion in that group, and there was a back-and-forth between an atheist and a Calvinist, a Calvinist who I think may even be one of the group’s moderators. I have seen this Calvinist post many times, and he seems like a pretty intelligent guy who is well-read in Reformed theology, at least for a layperson. These two were debating about God and morality, with the atheist claiming that God is genocidal and the Calvinist arguing that God has no moral obligations towards his creation because he is God, the source of morality, and so it is a categorical mistake to think God can’t do to his creation what authors do to characters in their story (such as write characters who get raped, murdered, etc.).
While some responses by the Calvinist were good, others I found problematic, including the oft used author analogy. I’ll pass those by for now to focus on this particular thing that he said to the atheist:
The Bible never claims God is all-loving, so if that’s what your impression of Christianity is then no wonder you are confused. Now, God is all-loving to those that are His own (John 17:9) but not those who are not His own (John 10:26)…
Again,if you were under the impression that God all-loving, then I can see where you find a conflict. However neither I nor the Bible makes that claim.
Not only would this surprise many non-Christians, a great many Christians would be shocked at a comment like this. It didn’t help that the atheist promptly cited Psalm 145:9: “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (NIV). The Calvinist did not immediately respond to this. (edit: By the way, if you’re curious about what is wrong with referencing John 17:9, read here).
This Calvinist, of course, isn’t the first Calvinist to reach this conclusion, though most Calvinists these days would avoid flatly saying such a thing. The most common Calvinist explanation of God’s love is to differentiate between his general love for everyone and his particular love for the elect, which parallels their ideas of “common grace” and salvific grace. God loves everyone in a general way, such as allowing the rain to fall on both the righteous and unrighteous (Matt. 5:45), but he has a special love only to those who are saved. This isn’t necessarily wrong in itself, for even non-Calvinists will distinguish between God’s love for everyone and God’s love for his Church. However, when trying to pair this concept of God’s love with Calvinistic doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement as well as the philosophical idea of compatibilistic free will, things get a bit more complicated for Calvinists.
What is love, anyway?
Jerry Walls, a philosophy professor at Houston Baptist University, has presented an argument that is intended to show how Calvinists who say that God loves everyone are being inconsistent. I have read the academic paper that he presented the argument in, and one day perhaps I will discuss it more in depth, but for now I’ll just present it here (also check out this video of Dr. Walls critiquing Calvinism if you are curious).
1. God truly loves all persons.
2. Truly to love someone is to desire their well being and to promote their flourishing as much as you can.
3. The well being and true flourishing of all persons is to be found in a right relationship with God, a saving relationship in which we love and obey him.
4. God could determine all persons freely to accept a right relationship with himself and be saved.
5. Therefore, all will be saved.
This argument seems valid; if the premises are true, the conclusion follows (I will spare the reader from going through the logical steps). If the logic is valid, then the only way to reject the conclusion is to reject at least one of the premises, and most Christians would want to because they’re not universalists. For most non-Calvinists, Premise 4 would get the boot because compatiblism is normally not held by Christians outside of Calvinism. However, Walls argues that it is not immediately obvious which premise Calvinists are going to want to reject. Many Calvinists, as shown before, have bitten the bullet and have rejected the first premise that God truly loves everyone, but that would make many Christians, including a lot of Calvinists, very uncomfortable. Premise 3 is not one that any Christian is going to want to reject, and Calvinists cannot reject Premise 4 without deep consequences to their theology, so that leaves them with Premise 2. This is where Calvinists attempt to make distinctions in the love of God; if God can “truly love” people without actually desiring or promoting their highest good (salvation), then the Calvinist can possibly escape this argument.
Walls, however, is well aware of this maneuver and has sharp criticism for those Calvinists, such as Piper, Carson, and Packer, who believe they can preach “God loves all of you” to unbelievers but actually do not believe that God desires everyone to be saved, or least desires everyone to be saved to the point to elect them unconditionally. Walls not only views this as being ambiguous but also rhetorically misleading because these Calvinists know that if they actually told everyone what they meant by “God loves everyone,” then they would lose substantial credibility. If Calvinist preachers and scholars said explicitly, “God loves everyone, but I only mean that he gives everyone air to breathe and sunshine on their faces while also having a ‘general disposition’ of salvation to the world, not that he really desires all to be saved to determine everyone to come freely to Christ,” Walls thinks that few people would take Calvinism all that seriously. After all, if God could determine everyone to freely come to Christ (and compatibilists have to believe this) but he does not, unconditionally electing only a few and only covering the sins of a few through the death of Christ, then clearly he does not desire the highest good for a great many people. Frankly, it’s difficult to call a few years on this earth with sunny days and good food “love” when the end is eternal destruction that God determines people into. And many lost people don’t even get that much.
God’s freedom to love
Calvinists like James White have often complained that to say that God truly loves everyone (again, meaning that he desires their highest good, which is a right relationship with him) is to rob God’s freedom to love in a way that he chooses. After all, even though we are to love our neighbor as Scripture teaches, it would be silly to expect us to love a random stranger the same way as we love our spouse, our children, our family members, and our friends. Why do we expect God to operate differently?
The problem with this response is that it misunderstands the issue and gives a bad analogy. The issue is not that God cannot legitimately differentiate his love between different groups of people; all non-Calvinists will gladly say that God has a special relationship with those who are in Christ. The problem is that God is not limited the way human beings are and therefore would not have his love diminished in any way if it extended over everyone, but if this is so, why doesn’t he love everyone in this way if in fact he can determine this? Of course people are not expected to love other children the way they love their own because their own children were birthed and raised by them. This analogy does not hold when we’re talking about the God who creates everyone. Even the Bible says that there is a sense in which every man is an offspring of God, as Paul quotes in Acts 17. A much better analogy for Calvinism would be a father who has ten children but decides to love three of them much more than the others. Sure, he feeds, clothes, and houses all ten, but he’s only concerned about the long-term well-being of three of them to the point that he freely allows (or even somehow causes) the other seven to wander into destruction even if he could prevent it. Nobody would call this man a good father, so this Calvinist analogy fails. However, if such a man truly desires all of his children to have long-term well-being and but seven of his children reject his parental love and kindness such that he is only in a true fatherly relationship with the other three, this would not be an indictment on his character but an indictment on the seven.
Competing desires in God?
Perhaps the best answer Reformed or Reformed-leaning people can give is that God does indeed truly love everyone and desires their highest good, but he has an equal desire to show his glory through judgment and punishment which is why many are predestined for damnation. This only shows that God loves himself more than others, not that he doesn’t truly love these people.
The problem with this argument, other than the fact that many people would still reject this as God “truly loving” the lost, is that while it is true that God is glorified with the destruction of the wicked, the reason it is glorifying is because it shows God’s goodness and justice. Scripture is clear that God does not delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ez. 33:11), but he destroys them anyway because his just character demands it. However, if Christ is the substitute, then God’s wrath is satisfied for those who are in Christ, and God is glorified in that because it shows his love, grace, and mercy. This argument would require suppositions that God somehow requires glory through destruction and A) Would not be satisfied by the justice taken on by Christ if his death applied to everyone and B) Needs a “different kind” of glory from the glory and pleasure he has with the lost being found. These are difficult suppositions to make, in my view. Furthermore, this argument is normally made by people who reject limited atonement but try to hold to the other four points. Such people know that limited atonement does not square with God desiring everyone to be saved, so this is not a route that many five-pointers are going to want to take.
Please do not misunderstand this post. I do not think that Piper, Carson, Sproul, MacArthur, Packer, or other Calvinists out there are deliberately being misleading and do not actually believe that God loves everyone. I think they’re just confused and experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance on this topic. They really do want to affirm that God is all-loving because Scripture teaches this, and it also squares with their own experience with the living God. However, I think the weight of their theology does not allow for them to freely say such a thing without painful and misleading hair-splitting. I agree with Walls in this: More consistent Calvinists are like the person I referenced in the beginning of this article and other Calvinist theologians who simply say: God does not love everyone. He does not desire everyone to be saved but instead chooses to hate many unilaterally in order to damn them for his glory. If this is true, Calvinists should not tell unbelievers that God loves them and desires their salvation because they cannot know if that person is really elect. I actually have some level of respect for Calvinists who take this to its logical end, though I think it is deeply problematic.
This goes to show that while it is true that some Christians fight too much over theological details and need to chill, theology can and does affect how we preach, teach, and share the Gospel. I would have no reservation telling an unbeliever that God loves him, that God desires him to repent and believe, and that Christ died for his sins. I do not think a Calvinist can say such things consistently, which I think is an unfortunate aspect of Calvinist theology.