I have a friend (I think), a Baptist who, though contemplating Seventh-day Adventism, converted to Judaism and moved to Israel instead. In his Baptist-toward-Adventist phase, I had questioned him about his understanding of salvation. Because my only meaningful contact with Christianity has been with Adventism and, being thoroughly and uninhibitedly awash in it, I was fascinated by his belief that God had predestined some people to be saved and some to be lost. That’s a concept which makes my Adventist-sculpted neurons go snap, crackle, and pop.
“Paul,” I said, “I’m going to tell you how I understand your belief. Now, if at any point I misrepresent or caricature your belief, stop me. Ok?”
“Shoot,” Paul said.
“For starters,” I began, “you believe that, in eternity past, God had chosen, had predestined, some people to be lost.”
Paul said nothing.
“Ok,” I continue. “So, let’s say Joe had been one whom God, in His infinite love and wisdom, chose not to have salvation in Jesus.”
Paul said nothing.
“So poor Joe was born in this sorry world by no choice of his own, and no matter what choices he does make—even choosing to follow Jesus—it doesn’t matter. God has predestined Joe to be lost. Period.”
Paul said nothing.
“Finally,” I say, getting ready to hurl out the coup de grâce to end Paul’s Calvinist albatross, “poor Joe, who never asked to be born to begin with, dies, and because of God’s choice for him in eternity past, Joe will burn in hell for eternity future. Knowing nothing about this divine decree, issued perhaps a billion years before Adam, and though claiming the blood of Jesus for himself and earnestly seeking to perfect “holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1), Joe is still going to burn in hell forever?”
Paul, to my astonishment, said nothing.
God’s way are not ours, nor His thoughts, either; I get it. And when all is over, and when we shall know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12), if the humble turnip is probably going to awe us with its mysteries, how much more so the “everlasting gospel” (Revelation 14:6), established “before time began” (Titus 1:2)? I get it; that and the fact that the Sovereign of the universe is under no obligation to explain Himself to us piddling mortals, anyway.
Yet explaining Himself to us piddling mortals is, precisely, what the Sovereign of the universe intends to do. The great controversy, a free will theodicy, was captured somewhat by the lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I may assert Eternal Providence, /And justify the ways of God to men.” How “Eternal Providence” predestining Joe, who has no chance of appeal—"O man, who are you to reply against God?” (Romans 9:20)—to the eternal fires of hell could justify the ways of God to men is beyond me. And the argument that everyone deserves the fire of hell, and so it’s only God’s goodness and grace that saves anyone, solves nothing. If eternal torment, even for a pedophile priest or pastor, is grossly unjust, how much more so for poor Joe, who simply wanted to love and serve the God who had already consigned him to burn?
Instead, because God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice “for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). That’s why everyone was chosen “in Him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), even if not everyone chooses Him in return. After all (as just one example), why would Moses plead with the Hebrews, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19)—if the choice, life or death, had already been made for them in eternity past?
My friend Paul’s predestinarian theology doesn’t square with Scripture, but add to it eternal torment in hell, and God appears arbitrary and cruel, precisely what He is not. I have to give it to my friend, though: to love a God who could predestine poor Joe to eternal torment takes a faith that I couldn’t have. Paul ultimately couldn’t, either, and (even if other reasons were involved) he converted to Judaism. I don’t agree with that move but, considering his theology, I understand it.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. His latest book is called Risen: Finding Hope in the Empty Tomb.