“Why are some people saved, but others are not?” – this is perhaps the most debated question in the history of Christianity. The way that you answer this question, as much as any other doctrine, contributes to why you end up in the particular Christian denomination (or non-denomination) that you do. So it’s hard to underestimate its importance.
Let’s briefly trace the different opinions of the Christian world today based on their theological histories:
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian during the heart of the French movement of the European Renaissance. An undeniably brilliant law student, Calvin eventually decided to dedicate his life to the reformation of the church. Genius humanist that he was, Calvin believed that man’s intellect was the highest gift that God had given to the human race (outside of the soul itself). This belief had a profound impact on the way that Calvin approached interpretation of the Bible.
If man’s capacity for reason was truly his greatest attribute, to Calvin, it only made sense that the doctrines of Scripture be brought to logical conclusions, even if those doctrines go beyond what Scripture says. This, in essence, is how Calvin arrived at his famous doctrine of “Double Predestination”. Calvin understood that the Bible clearly taught that God knew people before “time” began and foreordained people to heaven (Ephesians 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:4-5; 2 Thess 2:13-14, Romans 9:10-18; Acts 2:23; 13:48; 2 Peter 1:10; Romans 8:29-30; and a host of other passages that reference the “elect”). Calvin, rational mind that he had, operating with the assumption that God, generally speaking, would not plant into Scripture a teaching that defied human logic, brought this doctrine to a humanly reasonable conclusion – Double Predestination.
Double Predestination suggests that if God predestined some people for heaven, then he also must have predestined the rest for hell. According to human deduction, this is logical. The problem is, it’s not biblical.
To my knowledge, there is one passage that makes double predestination sound like a possibility. It’s 1 Peter 2:8 “They (i.e. unbelievers) stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.” This is partially just a translation issue. Unbelievers are “destined” to stumble on Christ not for who God created them to be but for their rejection of Jesus as the path to salvation. So, it’s not that God foreordained that some people would reject Christ, it’s that God foreordained that anyone who had unbelief in his heart would stumble upon Christ. Get it? Combine that understanding with the fact that the basic message of the rest of Scripture seems to follow the thoughts of 1 Timothy 2:3-4 “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The conclusion you draw is that God definitely is not predetermining for a portion of mankind to suffer eternal punishment in hell. Think about it…..what kind of unloving ogre would that turn God into? And yet, much of the Christian world today still buys into this concept of Double Predestination.
Influential Dutch reformer, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), was not buying it though. Personally, although I haven’t run across anything that says this in his writings, I believe part of Arminius’ dislike for Calvin’s Double Predestination was due to the fact that he had to bury 2 of his own young children. The notion that God would arbitrarily throw some into heaven and some into hell without even the opportunity to hear the gospel proclaimed was so offensive to him, that Arminius felt the destiny of souls couldn’t be foreordained. That just didn’t jive with the merciful God he knew. God would never predetermine someone’s existence in hell. And about that, Arminius was correct. The problem that he ran into was that he used human rationale to bring the doctrine to a logical conclusion – Decision Theology.
Decision Theology suggests that if man goes to hell because he outright rejects God, he must also go to heaven, in part, because he chose to accept God. According to human deduction, this is logical. The problem is, it’s not biblical. To almost completely circumvent the concept of predestination in the New Testament is to toss out a lot of literature proposed by a variety of New Testament writers. In other words, it’s not just one writer’s unique way of referring to God’s love or knowledge. This “election/predestination” thing was clearly on the minds and hearts of inspired New Testament authors. Decision theology also circumvents the biblical teaching of Original Sin (Psalm 51:5; John 3:6), which indicates that I don’t come into this planet with a spiritually blank slate, but rather, I come in with the deck stacked against me spiritually. I am “dead in my transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-4) and unable to make any motion on my own towards God.
Nonetheless, today, Americans who love the ideals of John Locke (the English philosopher, not the mysterious bald guy from LOST), who have lived through the civil rights movement of the ’60s, and who embrace the “I can do anything I put my mind to and create my own destiny” are naturally attracted to Arminian theology. I don’t think there’s anything coincidental about the growth of Evangelical churches in America over the past 30 years and the fact that they have largely practiced an Arminian theology. Everyone naturally likes to take some credit for something good in their lives, which Arminianism allows for. The problem is, Scripturally speaking, God alone deserves ALL the credit for my salvation.
Alright, so how are we supposed to resolve this whole debate, one which goes not only back to Calvin & Arminius in the 16th & 17th centuries, but all the way back to Augustine & Pelagius in the 4th & 5th centuries? If God predetermining some for heaven and some for hell isn’t the answer and if man determining his own fate for heaven or hell isn’t the answer, well, what options are left? A very good (i.e. biblical) one.
If someone goes to heaven, God gets all credit for it. God knew that individual before the world was even created (Remember, God exists outside of the laws of our universe. He is not bound to our concepts of time and space. If he wants to see everything at once, he’s free to do so, regardless of our linear notions of time.). Knowing those individuals whom he wanted with him forever in paradise, God also knew that those individuals would be a sinners. Consequently, God sent his Son Jesus into the world to pay for their errors, so that these foreknown individuals could have the full righteousness of children of God. Jesus freely died for the full forgiveness of the sins for the entire world. This truth – salvation for us being to God’s credit – is perhaps best expressed in the most Lutheran passage I know: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
On the flip side, if someone, for their own reasons, chooses to reject Jesus’ payment for their sins, they are free to make that call – the rejection of Christ. The end result, however, is eternity in hell. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16). And if someone indeed goes to hell, that individual gets all the credit for it.
So…….to recap……if someone goes to heaven, God gets the credit and if someone goes to hell, that person gets the credit. This doctrine doesn’t come to a “logical” conclusion that is satisfying to the human rationale, but it is biblically accurate. And if the Bible really is inspired by God, I naturally have to assume God’s logic trumps anything mankind’s logic can produce.
The obvious question for all of this Predestination talk then becomes, “If we can’t fully intellectually grasp the doctrine of Predestination, is it even of any practical value to us?” The answer: Sure. You just need to make sure you’re using it the right way. If I pound in a nail with the handle of a perfectly good screwdriver, I may eventually get the job done, but I may be ruining the handle of a perfectly good screwdriver in the process. It’s the wrong tool for the situation. Point being, the teaching of Predestination certainly does have something to say about salvation. However, if you really want to explain why some people go to heaven and some people go to hell, the most fundamental doctrine of Scripture – Jesus’ forgiveness for our sins on the cross and faith that trusts that truth – this is what best communicates the reality of heaven or hell for the individual to us. Using the doctrine of Predestination to explain that point leads people down an avenue that man cannot know – the mind of God.
Explaining why God went about foreordaining only some is like trying to explain what exists 10 feet beyond the edge of the universe – I know there must be a good answer, but I, on the basis of who and what I am, simply cannot have the capabilities of producing that correct answer. Many have tried to explain God’s process of predetermining souls. For instance, some have proposed the theory that God looked into the future and saw who would believe in him and then he elected those individuals for salvation. That goes beyond what we can confidently say in Scripture though and doesn’t really seem to account for our inherent inability to come to God on our own.
Not surprisingly, the doctrine of Predestination/Election is best used the way we see New Testament writers most often using it – addressing and comforting the children of God by reminding them of God’s grace to them and the depth of his knowledge for them – that he made them his own before they even existed. “Predestination” means that God carried out in the fullness of time for his people the plan that he devised for them before time began. It means that God knows his children better (and for longer) than anyone. It means that God loves his children more than anything. And finally, it means that God would do whatever it takes, even go to hell and back, in order to keep them as his own.