Point 1. God loves the whole world (John 3:16). God does not delight in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 33:11). God does not willingly bring affliction or grief on anyone (Lamentations 3:33). God is not willing that anyone perish (2 Peter 3:9), and God would have all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).
Some Calvinists try to restrict the meaning of such texts only to the elect, but let's take them at face value for the moment and see where the biblical texts take us.
Point 2. Following on from the first point, in the free offer of the gospel, God desires everyone who hears the gospel to believe it, and he knows that everyone who believes it will be saved, therefore God must desire everyone who hears the gospel to be saved in some sense at least - as the texts in point one also indicate.
Yet despite the truths of the first two points, there is a theological problem here since not everyone accepts the gospel offer, and not everyone is saved.
Point 3. God does not decree that everyone be saved since not everyone is saved (if he had decreed it then everyone would be saved, but Scripture is clear some are condemned and lost).
So a huge theological question presents itself if all three of the above points are true (as they would seem to be scripturally): How can God be said to desire something to happen that he decrees will not happen?
This question is particularly significant since whatever God decides shall be must also be desired by God in some sense at least, even if only in a permissive sense. In the case of evil that God permits, he does not desire the evil as such; in fact, he hates it, but nonetheless he must willingly allows that the evil be permitted to occur for some other reason that he deems sufficiently good.
Yet while this question is very important, it is not my real question in this post. We'll come to that. Evangelical theologians have basically answered our question in one of four ways.
1. God doesn't actually desire to save everyone at all in any sense (so the texts quoted in point 1 do not apply to the non-elect).
This is a fairly common Reformed response, especially historically, and it is the inevitable answer given in all kinds of hyper-Calvinism, but in all honesty it does strain the exegesis of texts that "all" and "everyone" doesn't really mean all or everyone, or that "world" means only "the world of the elect" and so on. Such exegetical gymnastics are unlikely to convince anyone outside the Reformed camp; even many in the Reformed camp are unconvinced by such an approach these days.
2. The correct approach is to recognise that God both and desires and decrees to save everyone and he achieves this aim. All are therefore saved in the end.
The universalist says the desire to save all is fulfilled and all are decreed to be saved. This is the diametric opposite to the hyper-Calvinist answer to the question. But the Bible is clear that not all are saved and punishment in hell is a reality, so we can set aside and dismiss this view.
3. It's a mystery how it can both be true that God desires to save all, yet decrees to only save some. We can't understand it, we just have to accept it.
This is what might be termed the fall-back Reformed position of divine mystery. There's nothing wrong with this choice, except it leaves us feeling a little unsatisfied and may not be acceptable to anyone genuinely questioning the issues. Few theologians are content to appeal to mystery without working through the theological issues a bit further than this.
4. God desires to save all as a thing viewed in isolation, but decrees not to save all in the whole infinitely complex matrix of things, even though their loss in itself pains him. The reason he does not save all is because he desires something else even more than their salvation to come about.
This is by far the best answer to a difficult question and is well explained in John Piper's article "Are There Two Wills in God?" written of course from a Calvinist perspective as to what that "something else" is. It means that in effect God orders or ranks his desires and so though in itself he may desire something good and hate its non-occurrence, or hate something evil and desire its non-occurrence, nevertheless in light of the totality of his overall plan, he chooses at times give up one desire in order to fulfil another, higher ranking desire. In effect, this must operate in a similar way to the "lesser of two evils" idea in ethics: God chooses either the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils at times and this explains how his desires and decree can be apparently at odds.
Most evangelicals hold to a version of this view, but there is sharp disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians as to what greater good or higher desire might overrule God fulfilling his desire that everyone be saved. As Piper puts it:
The difference between Calvinists and Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is. What does God will more than saving all? The answer given by Arminians is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving all people by sovereign, efficacious grace. The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God's glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29).So for non-Calvinists the thing that God desires more than seeing everyone saved is for humanity to have libertarian free will or, more accurately and fundamentally, for there to be freedom so there can be genuine relationships of love with human beings (for which freedom is surely a prerequisite). So if a person chooses not to believe and rejects salvation, God will reluctantly accept this and grieve over their loss, bound by his own sovereign choice to allow them freedom. Yet, after all (the Arminian would say), what kind of love is it that is causally determined or as we might say in modern terms, "pre-programmed" into us? In stark terms, it would seem that God would rather have 10 people love him freely than 10,000 "love" him by force.
The more I reflect on these issues, the more reasonable the non-Calvinist answer seems to become.
For Calvinists on the other hand, what God desires more than saving everyone is for his own glory to be displayed in the righteousness and justice shown in the condemnation and punishment of sinners, even if that means allowing things in his overall plan that grieve him as things in themselves. The argument put forward by John Piper is, in stark terms, that more than he loves anything or anyone else, God loves himself and so it is out of divine self-love that God chooses to fulfil his desire to display all his glorious attributes, including his justice and wrath, even though this is at the cost of allowing some to be lost in their sins.
It is this traditional Calvinist answer that troubles me, deeply troubles me in fact - and as a result, my theological furniture is moving around a bit - and so this article is the result.
When the apostle John says that "God is love" (1 John 4:8) he uses the Greek word agapē. And agapē is a very special kind of love. It is a love that is not directed at the good of the self. It is a selfless, generous, self-giving, sacrificial love that looks to help and do good to others. It's the love that God is said to have for the world so that he gave his Son to save it (John 3:16-17). It's the very opposite of the kind of "love" that it takes God to have for himself that he would choose to create people with the sole purpose of damning them so he can display glory in showing off his justice and wrath. And remember, Scripture does not just say God has this love that focuses on the well-being of "the other" but that God is this kind of love. It is because God is this special selfless love and shows it to all that he wants us to share in this love and extend it to each other, as Christ teaches in Matthew 5:45-48.
It would seem to me that Arminians have a strong prima facie case on this point. Perhaps some are not saved not because of God's sovereign purpose to display his wrath, but because of their own free choices given to them by God because of a sovereign purpose to grant freedom in return for the possibility of love? There is direct scriptural support for this also in Luke 7:30, which says explicitly that it is possible to reject God's purpose for our lives. So the burden is perhaps on Calvinists such as Piper to prove that God does put his desire to display his own attributes above his desire to have genuine love relationships with people. Because that's what the Calvinist v Arminian dispute ultimately and precisely boils down to as far as I can see.
So which "love" is more in line with God being agapē? Is it the Calvinist agapē that chooses to display justice to glorify self even though this requires the damnation of millions, or is it Arminian agapē that chooses to display a different kind of glory in having genuine love relationships with created beings, even though reluctantly this means that some of them will be lost in order that his relationship with those who are saved can be genuine, two-way and above all filled with the thrill of having real love at its centre.
Much as it shocks me to say it, I am struggling, when the issues are framed as starkly as this, to see how the Calvinist approach is fully consistent with the picture of the Father revealed in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ or with the texts of Scripture listed at the beginning of this article.
It is crucial to notice that the issue is not as Calvinists tend to portray it. Firstly, the issue is not about divine sovereignty versus human freedom. A God who sovereignly chooses to set his creatures free so they can truly love him (or not) is no less sovereign than a God who chooses to predetermine all his creatures responses. Such a God is arguably more sovereign. And the important thing that I think few Calvinists really understand about Arminianism is that it is not, as Piper puts it, that human self-determination is at the centre of Arminian theology. Human freedom is a secondary desire and a necessary means to a greater end. The primary desire in God is to have real relationships of love with human beings.
Secondly, the issue is not about God's glory. In an important sense, both Calvinists and Arminians recognise that it is indeed God's glory (or rather the desire to glorify himself) that is the highest desire in God, and it is this desire that means God does not decree that all should be saved. The precise and fundamental difference lies in what each side sees as the choice by God that he assesses sovereignly to glorify himself most. Is it the divine desire to have a reason to display justice and wrath, or is it the divine desire to have relationships that can truly display mutual love between Creator and creature? That is the irreducible difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.
So the issue really comes back to the nature of God's glory and the nature of agape love. If God is love - agape, selfless love - how can Calvinists claim that God chooses most of all to glorify himself out of a kind of self-love and as a result then make a choice to allow human beings to be damned merely so he has a reason to display his justice? After all would the punishment of Satan and the demons, and above all the punishment of Christ on the cross not suffice to display justice and wrath?
If the Calvinist view is correct, then God comes across as the most selfish being in the universe. Hardly consistent with the loving Father revealed in Christ who gives, and gives and gives.
At this point Calvinists will often counter with Romans 9: "But who are you, a mere human, to answer God back?" Nevertheless, these issues must be faced squarely by Calvinists. God may not have to answer human questions, but Calvinists are not God! Calvinism can be questioned hard. Who are Calvinists to deny that God can be so sovereign that he can insist we have to freely choose whether will love him as our God or not?
And remember that the real issue is not about God's sovereignty, but about God's character: not what could the sovereign God do with us as creatures, but what would the God of love do with us.
Surely the Father revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ would certainly not enjoy punishing sinners when (as Calvinists hold) he could just as easily have saved them instead? Bible passages such as Ezekiel 18:32 and Ezekiel 33:11 say that God does not delight in the death of anyone and Lamentations 3:33 that God does not willingly afflict anyone. Punishment is a reluctant duty God carries out. It gives him no pleasure and it is a last resort, as God is slow to anger and abounding in love (Exodus 34:6; Joel 2:13). Certainly God is glorified in displaying his just wrath against sin, but the Scriptures hardly indicate that God ordains events so he has the opportunity to do so.
On the other hand, for a God who is love and agapē love at that, it would be entirely consistent to place his desire to have a loving, reciprocal relationship with creatures created in his image above all other things. And perhaps in this light, it is significant that of all the things the Father could promise the Son, he promised him a people (John 6:37-39); and of all the things the Son could do for the Father, he glorified him in coming to rescue sinners (John 17:1-3); and the great purpose to which all creation is moving is a relationship with Christ (Ephesians 1:10 and 5:25-27; Colossians 1:20). It would seem on good scriptural grounds, that relationships with human beings - just as more fundamentally relationships between the three persons of the Trinity - lies dearest to the heart of our Father God. This is not to set God's determination to have relationships with people above his glory. For God to love and be loved is his highest glory. As the Psalmist put it: "Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness." (Psalm 115:1, emphasis added). The glory of his name is dearest to God, yes, but his name is Yahweh - the covenant God who loves his people so much he would die for them. As great passages like Isaiah 43 show, though God's concern for his own glory underpins everything he does, even God's glory is no abstract principle, and his glory is no selfish glory, for that glory is displayed most in working to bring about salvation and restored relationships with people.
Having said all that, it is important to note that every evangelical theological system faces a similar problem here. The non-Calvinist (except Open Theists) faces the problem of why God still chooses to create those whom he foreknows will never choose to believe and so be lost. Even the Open Theist faces the question of why God takes the risk of allowing possible futures in which people might be lost forever in hell. So the Calvinist is not alone in facing a problem at precisely this point in his theology, but that still leaves the Calvinist with a serious challenge to answer and the Calvinist's problem is perhaps greater given his doctrine that everything is ordained by God.
The only counter argument open to Calvinists, it seems to me, is to say that agapē love is not selfish when God loves himself most and chooses to glorify himself most. The argument runs that what would be selfish for us as creatures (and therefore wrong) is right for the Creator because God is God. And for a perfect being to give his own glory the highest priority is not selfish but completely right. It might also be said that agapē in God can be self-directed without being selfish, and that's because of the plurality of persons in the Trinity. The Father glorifies the Son and the Spirit, the Son glorifies the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit glorifies the Father and the Son. This means that agape love in the Trinity is thereby still directed in some sense at "the other" even when it is directed within the Trinity itself.
Yet these arguments are hardly likely to convince anyone not already committed to Calvinism. If Christ is the perfect image of God. If to see the Son is to see the Father, as Christ claimed, then it is almost incomprehensible to imagine God choosing for creatures to suffer eternity in hell in order for him to exercise justice and wrath. Nowhere do the Scriptures explicitly teach this.
In the end, whether the Calvinist view and its rather complex matrix of explanations is preferable to the rather simpler Arminian approach that God desires and loves personal love relationships freely chosen by people more than he desires to save everyone by overpowering their wills, depends on our view of God's love and especially our view of God's glory. Is a God who does not or cannot give libertarian freedom to human beings more or less glorious than a God who does? And can there be something that can truly be called love if it not freely chosen between sentient beings, even when one is almighty God and one a mere human being?
The difficulty of those questions is why the Calvinist-Arminian dispute can never really be settled this side of eternity. We must each freely choose what to believe on this one.