Reprobation, free will, and skeptical theism

-"how can we reconcile a God of love with the (Calvinist) belief that He decrees some (or so many) people to perish?"

At the end of last Saturday's conference on the problem of evil, wherein I presented on "Calvinists and Arminians on the problem of evil: who can say what?", a thoughtful gentleman came and asked me the above question—definitely an important one for Calvinists like me to think about. We briefly discussed the matter, and it made me realize I had some things to say about the topic, which I hadn't read elsewhere before, so it called for a post. Here is what I have to say in response.

Love and the divine will
The question is raising the worry that there may be an incompatibility between the Calvinist doctrine
of reprobation, and a certain attribute of God, namely the (undisputedly biblical) fact that God is love. When you phrase the objection as an argument, you see that it is really a special case of the problem of evil that would go something like the following syllogism I shall call “mercy for all”:
-Premise 1: if God is love, then He will most want to prevent eternal damnation for everyone,
-Premise 2: if Calvinism is true (i.e. humans do not have a libertarian free will such that God cannot determine the outcome of their choices), then God could have everyone freely repent and believe.
So given that God is love, it follows that everyone should freely repent and believe. But in fact not everyone repents and believes, so one of our presuppositions has to give.
The response from the Arminian is of course to reject the antecedent of premise 2 and its affirmation that Calvinism is true: they respond instead that God does not save everyone because God cannot save everyone, in virtue of humans’ having libertarian free will. On the opposite side, the response from the Calvinist is to reject the first premise instead, namely that if God is love, then He will most want to prevent eternal damnation for everyone. First, notice the word “most” in that premise. For the argument to work, it must be the case not only that God has some degree of inclination toward saving all individuals—something that many Calvinists, myself included, affirm (which renders Arminian uses of 1 Tim. 2:4 irrelevant to the controversy, I should add)—but rather, for the “mercy for all” argument to work, it must be the case that saving sinners is always what God most wants to do in all cases. That is the part Calvinists must dispute. Calvinists do agree that the attribute of divine love inclines God toward mercy to some extent (after all, He does, on their view, gratuitously elect undeserving sinners onto salvation through no merit of their own!), they just maintain that His love doesn’t entail that saving them is always what He most wants to do in all cases. And in that regard, keep in mind that technically, Arminians also affirm that God’s highest will isn’t to save sinners in all cases: on their view, He eventually does condemn many of them. Yes, they are those who freely reject Him using their libertarian free will, but it remains that He wants to give them libertarian free will more than He wants to save everyone. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Arminians would respond to Universalists who press divine love against them, saying that if God really loved everyone, then He’d just save everyone regardless of their Christian faith or lack thereof. When they’re not Universalists, Calvinists and Arminians thus respond in one voice: “God is love, but it doesn’t follow that He shall forgive all sinners at the expense of everything else”. Arminians say He values libertarian free will more, and Calvinists must say He has other reasons instead.

Justice and skeptical theism
So what can be said about those “other reasons”? First, Calvinists say that divine love inclines God toward salvation, but they maintain that God has other attributes that come into play as well when assessing eternal judgment for a given individual. In particular they say that God is just, Holy, righteous, wrathful against sin, etc… all attributes that are uncontroversially biblical, of course—the controversy isn’t there. But accordingly, Calvinists maintain that for any given sinner, God has the freedom to exercise His love to save him, or His justice to condemn him. One sinner receives mercy, another receives justice, and both are consistent with God’s character.

In this light, Calvinists might even offer a rebutting defeater to the “mercy for all” argument, in the form of a reductio ad absurdum based upon the attribute of divine justice. They might say that there exists a relevantly similar (and equally unsound) argument based upon divine righteousness and justice, to the conclusion that no sinner will ever be saved. It would go as follows, the “and justice for all” argument.

-Premise 1: If God is just, then He will most want to condemn every guilty party
-Premise 2: God will be the one sitting in judgment over all guilty sinners
Therefore, all guilty sinners will stand condemn. Of course that argument is unsound, as Premise 1 is false, but it is intended to highlight what is wrong with the “mercy for all” argument above: we can’t take one attribute of God in isolation from all others, and speculate on what the Lord would do based upon that attribute alone.
Now as it so happens, I think Arminians could offer a pretty decent response to maintain the “mercy for all” argument, while coherently rejecting the “and justice for all” argument. They could say that when God saves sinners, His justice isn’t in fact at all compromised, since even though the sinner who receives mercy doesn’t get condemned for his sins, justice is still exercised in punishing Jesus for them on the cross. That response is fine, and if Arminians do make that move, I think Calvinists will be hard-pressed to refute the Arminian “mercy for all” argument on the sole basis of the “and justice for all” reply, but here is the crux: the burden of proof isn’t on the shoulders of the Calvinists. They need not demonstrate that the “mercy for all” argument is unsound, they only need to defend the coherence of their rejection of its first premise. To do that, they accordingly need not provide the reason(s) that incline(s) God toward justice rather than mercy for a given sinner. Calvinists can (and I think should) provide to some degree the so-called “skeptical theism” response here: “God has morally sufficient reasons for this choice of His, and even if I personally can’t give you all these reasons, it doesn’t for a moment follow that those sufficient reasons don’t exist”.

“What if God…?”
In fact, when God eventually does give us some degree of explanation in Romans 9, it turns out to be based precisely upon the demonstration of God’s attributes of justice and power, as I suggested above. In that infamous chapter, Paul anticipates that people will object to his difficult teachings on God’s sovereign choice of election, and responds as follows: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory”.
This seems plainly enough to say that God’s wrath against vessels prepared for destruction, to some degree glorifies Him and magnifies His mercy to those He has prepared beforehand for glory. What I find fascinating, though, is that even Paul phrases that answer with a “what if?” His careful formulation is more modest than: “here is the one and only, fully satisfying answer to the objection, or here is the reason for reprobation”; rather, He seems to employ somewhat of the “skeptical theist” approach himself, doesn’t He? He seems to give a defense rather than a full-fledged theodicy. He says “you’re objecting against the doctrine, you’re taking on this ambitious burden of proof, but what if ‘so and so’ were the case?” If “so and so” were the case, the objection would fail to establish that there is any inconsistency in Paul’s teaching, and Calvinists need not even be committed to the idea that the display of God’s justice is the sole response to why He passes over the reprobate. So even though I think Paul’s response in fact provides a rather solid starting point for an explanation based upon the display of divine attributes, it’s also fine to say “I don’t fully know God’s reasons, but I have independently good reasons to think on the one hand that He is love, and on the other that He elects some and not all, so I will just trust that these fit together”. After all, the best way to show that two propositions are compatible remains to show that the two propositions are true! The Bible teaches that God is love, and the Bible teaches that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1), predestinates, justifies, sanctifies and glorifies all those He calls (Rom. 8), shows mercy to whomever He wills and hardens whomever He wills, not based upon human will or exertion but on His mercy (Rom. 9), etc. So even though I hope my above discussion has offered more by way of explanation, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for one to say “I believe God has revealed these things, and even if I lack the full explanation of how they fit together, I will trust that He is Holy and righteous, and come judgment day, ‘will not the judge of all the earth do right?’”
That strikes me as a biblical thing to say or sing: God is mighty to save, and His love endures forever.


  1. This is a great article. Thanks for stating everything so clearly. As a Calvinist myself, I think you touched on all of the difficult issues that we face.

  2. I appreciate your work! Thanks.

  3. Guillaume, would you say that it is logically compatible that God (as understood within the Reformed framework) exists and He could have chosen not to save any humans and that God would have been merciful, just, and loving, in such a world?

  4. That's a great question. I'm frankly not sure what would have been the case with respect to His being merciful in such a world (which I'm not sure is an actually possible state of affairs, since I don't know to what extent His actually saving people as He does in this world is tied to an essential property of His necessary nature). At the very least we would not have *seen* that He was merciful in that case. That would minimally have given me pause before I declared that He was. I suppose that's the most I can say without special knowledge of that counterfactual (perhaps counterpossible) state of affairs.

  5. You said:
    " But accordingly, Calvinists maintain that for any given sinner, God has the freedom to exercise His love to save him, or His justice to condemn him. One sinner receives mercy, another receives justice, and both are consistent with God’s character."

    Love is when God saves. It is not there when He condemns.
    Or, what definition of love are you using?

    Love not exercised is not love at all.

  6. I just watched your testimony/interview with David Wood which eventually led me to this page, and I really appreciated what you had to say. I also watched another video with the two of you where you talked about the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism where you also mentioned open theism and Molinism.

    I've found that almost everyone that I've heard from on the subject of open theism who isn't actually an open theist consistently misconstrues the real issue that distinguishes open theism from most of the rest of Christianity. The most common misconception about open theism is that people assume that we think that God doesn't know everything about the future. While this may actually be the case for some open theists, most of us who actually understand it recognize that the real issue isn't about God's knowledge at all. Rather the issue is about the nature of reality, or perhaps rather the kind of creation that God made. If God really did create a world in which people genuinely have libertarian free will and people really can make decisions themselves and actualize one of perhaps many possible futures then what an omniscient God would know about such a future is that it is partly open / indeterminate. If that is the case then God's foreknowledge could not possible be exhaustively definite because that would mean that God holds false beliefs. Since this is the kind of world I believe we actually live in, God's knowledge of the future must actually consist largely of possibilities that never become actual.

    Of course this philosophical question is quite irrelevant to most Calvinists unless it can be shown that their interpretation of passages such as those you mentioned in the last couple sentences of this article are mistaken. Much has been said about this topic by others who are better writers than I, but I would like to offer a few thoughts.

    First of all I will say that I can certainly understand how a person can read the bible and become a Calvinist especially considering how many of their tenets have been reduced to popular cliches among Christians such as “everything happens for a reason”. If one is going to be a serious student of the bible we simply cannot ignore the prevalent use of the words elect and chosen throughout the new testament. We certainly cannot ignore Romans 9:15 which makes it very clear that God decides who He will have mercy on.

    As I see it the problem lies in the presuppositions that people sometimes bring to the text and the frequent failure to recognize the context of old testament passages that are being quoted in the new testament. In Romans 9 in particular Calvinists usually interpret the election that is being spoken of as pertaining to individual people, but the matter that Paul is directly addressing is the salvation of the descendants of Abraham (physical Israel) and whether God's promise had failed. He makes this clear in verse 6. If we note that the promise that is in view in Romans 9 is being expounded on in Galatians 3:16 we can see that the promise applies to those who will be “in Christ”. If you are looking for it you will notice the phrase “in Christ” throughout the new testament. I believe that we are saved by being “in Christ” and that it is in / through / by virtue of this relationship with Him that we are “predestined to sonship”.

    Consider that Ephesians 1 doesn't tell us that God predestined certain individuals to be “in Christ” before the foundation of the world. Rather it tells us that we were chosen “in Him” and that we were predestined “through Jesus Christ”.

  7. Also consider that while Romans 8:29 does say that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” it doesn't specify when or in what way God foreknew them. It is often assumed that when the bible speaks about foreknowledge that it is talking about God's eternal definite foreknowledge of EVERYTHING, but the word foreknowledge doesn't require this meaning. In fact I don't think that it can mean that here at all. If God's eternal foreknowledge of the future actually is exhaustively definite as Calvinists and Arminians suppose and that is what is in view in this verse then we must conclude that since God eternally foreknew everyone He must have also predestined everyone to be conformed to the image of His Son for that is exactly what this verse says. However we have other biblical reasons for rejecting that conclusion, so what else could the word foreknowledge mean in this context? I think that the word foreknowledge in this context refers to the fact that God had “known” certain people in another sense before they became predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. Ephesians 1:13 makes it clear that the Ephesians were included “in Christ” when they heard the message of the truth which I take to be the same kind of knowledge that God also previously had of those Peter is writing to in 1 Peter 1:2.

    I think the key to properly understanding Romans 9 is to recognize what it means for God to choose who He will have mercy on and who He won't. It is very clear throughout the new testament that the ones who will receive mercy are those who put their faith in Jesus. God elects to have mercy on them and elects not to have mercy on those who do not. I don't know of a single place in scripture where a particular individual is said to be elected / chosen for salvation. Rather what you find is that God elects people corporately, that is to say He chooses all who are in Christ.

    There are a few other things worth noting in Romans 9. The references to Jacob and Esau are from two different places in scripture Genesis 25:23 and Malachi 1:2,3. It is clear from these passages and Genesis 36:8 that these are references to people groups not particular individuals.

    I also think it is important to read Paul's account of the potter and the clay in the context of Jeremiah 18 which is the only other place in scripture where the potter / clay analogy is used. In that context it is very clear that the point that God is making to Jeremiah is that God is flexible and will respond to form a purpose for the clay that is in keeping with the way the clay behaves in the potter's hands and that He will repent of what He intends for the clay if the clay changes.

    Another point I'd like to make is that according to Ephesians 1:11 God does work out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. As Proverbs 16:4 puts is “The Lord works out everything to its proper end even the wicked for a day of disaster.” I think that is what both Jeremiah 18 and Romans 9 are talking about when God is hardening and/or forming people for destruction. I think that as people reject God's ideal purpose for themselves like the pharisees did in Luke 7:30 that God responds by forming them into a vessel fit for destruction.

    I think the big question should be something like “what is the purpose God seeks to accomplish by giving people free will?” In my opinion the reason God does this is so that our love for Him and each other might be genuine. If we have no other choice but to do exactly as He desires then we would be little more than sophisticated puppets on God's hand, but if we really can choose otherwise a real relationship with an other becomes possible for God.

  8. Perhaps the larger issue that may keep Calvinists from seriously considering the open theist perspective is that of God's sovereignty. I don't deny God's sovereignty at all, but I do have a different concept of what it means for God to be sovereign than most Calvinists would hold. I believe that God really is free and that true sovereignty doesn't necessarily entail unilateral meticulous control of everything. All that it actually entails is the power and authority to do whatever He wants that is logically possible and does not violate His own nature. Since God cannot lie it must be the case that if He was to create a being with a given sphere of influence and libertarian free will that He couldn't unilaterally revoke that free will without revealing that He hadn't really given them free will in the first place. Thus if God did want to create a world populated with such beings they could sin and do terrible things against His will, which is apparently exactly what has happened.

    Thank you for leaving this article open for comments. I hope that you find what I've shared to be thought provoking, and I hope that you eventually come to appreciate the wonderful benefits of being an open theist. I find that it's much easier to see the true beauty of God from this perspective.

  9. Hello Paul,
    I entirely agree that open theism is not a denial of divine omniscience; if there is no truth to know about future-tense statements describing our free actions, then God's not knowing them doesn't count as ignorance. So we're on the same page indeed: the debate opposing open theists to Calvinists and SF Arminians and Molinists is over whether God is said in the Bible to foreknow such propositions; which of course we think He is.

  10. While I was never sold on Molinism, after recently listening to the Bill Craig v. Paul Helm debate again on Unbelievable, I think I now see why. It seems the very concept of libertarian free will is incompatible with God's foreknowledge, which is necessary for Molinism (and Arminianism now that I think of it) to work - i.e., how can God know what I would/will freely do if I could equally do A and ~A? Have I missed something, and if not, why do you think a someone like Craig doesn't see it?

  11. Sad part of history of humanity. Thanks for stating this article so clearly


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