Here’s the problem with Calvinism, or the doctrine that God has determined in advance who will be saved: it means that in the end those who perish apart from God never had any chance. Nothing they could do or could avoid doing would have made any difference. They had no chance and no choice. How could God punish or destroy or judge a person who never had any choice? It isn’t fair. It isn’t justice.
Here’s the problem with Arminianism, or the doctrine that God chooses to allow each person to chose whether to accept his offered salvation: it’s no better at the fairness problem.
Think about what goes into a choice. The first component is opportunity. There are people in this world today who will never in their lives have to choose between Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Some of these people will die within days of being born, or before being born. The doctrine of free will clearly indicates that everyone has a choice, and to reinforce this often the idea is offered that there is an age of accountability. If you are young enough you are found innocent by default; later, if you haven’t made the right choice, you bear the consequence. But that doesn’t really resolve the problem. If you say that the age of accountability is 12 years, for example, then it seems clear that the person who lives exactly 12 years has less opportunity than the person who lives to 98. Even if you believe that spiritually the choice is available from the moment of conception, the stillborn have less opportunity than the aged.
The second component is expectation. If a nasty-looking strange man offers you a surprise you are not likely to accept, whereas if your own loving father offered you a surprise you would likely be happy to accept. Unless of course your father was nasty – abusive and cruel in ways hard for those of us with loving fathers to even imagine. All of the descriptions of God (as a father, a shepherd, a husband, a king) rely on us having some positive context for those descriptions. People have said that they have difficulty thinking of God as a loving Father because they did not have a loving father when they were young. There is a lot more to be said about knowing God than just this one image of the heavenly Father, but certainly no matter what you could say about God the person who has had positive experiences with more of those types and examples will be more positively disposed towards him than the person whose experiences were strongly negative.
The third component is comprehension. By expectation I referred to the general emotional reaction a person might have to the message of the gospel; by comprehension I mean how thoroughly or comprehensively they understand it. Ask a young child to chose between complete forgiveness of a mortgage debt or a piece of candy and most of them will choose the candy. Perhaps one or two have heard mom and dad talking about the mortgage and know enough to ask and understand what mortgage forgiveness might mean, how much bigger it might be than candy; but you can hardly fault a child for choosing the candy. So if there is any depth to the riches of the mercy of God, surely one who understands it better is more inclined to choose it.
The fourth component is capability. We tend to think of our own lives as basically a series of choices we made. We might exaggerate the influence of our choice in things we enjoyed and exaggerate the influence of other peoples’ choices in things we did not enjoy — sure, our view isn’t perfect — but we are at least convinced that we keep making choices and we have definitely made some good choices and some bad choices. But even those of us with tame and comfortable lives know that sometimes we don’t feel like we have a choice. Whether its a matter of eating too much dessert or oversleeping an alarm or saying unkind words, sometimes we regret a thing before we even do it, as well as afterward. But we do it. It is axiomatic to the free will belief that people do have a choice, so I won’t suggest that in the final analysis people have no choice whatsoever. However, it seems to me that a fair-minded review of every lifestyle we have ever known will show that some people just had an easier time choosing to exercise, to diet, to mind their tongue. Some were better at math. Some were better at mountain climbing. Some were better at being good. Even if salvation comes down to just one choice that needs to be made only once for one instant (and is thereafter permanent and irrevocable) – even so, why should this one choice somehow be precisely as easy for all to make? There is no other choice in living experience that we can point to and say it is that way.
Nobody ever chose their parents. Nobody ever got to pick the character of the most influential people in their early childhood, or their material circumstances. If people must choose, then it is as though God scatters golf balls far and wide all over the course and tells everyone they need only to sink their first shot. Those close to the hole assure us it’s easy.
I understand the beauty in the thought that only God could choose to make a Man capable of choice. Surely if we were in the Garden with that power, we would have made a Man that would have always, always loved us. I understand how it is meant as an honor to say that the all-powerful God chooses to give up his choice and allow us to choose. It is a lovely poem and a beautiful and evident explanation of how we came to be in this world full of so much awfulness, if there is a God of love. We chose it (we all make bad choices sometimes), but we can chose better.
It’s just that you didn’t choose your parents, and along with them a whole stream of experiences in your life that you didn’t choose to have. You might have chosen how to react to those experiences, but you couldn’t choose altogether on your own which experiences you would have; and some experiences are much harder to deal with than others. And all those experiences you didn’t get to choose are pulling on you just as much as the experiences you did choose. And what is that grand Choice of Salvation if not the sum of all those experiences – the ones you chose, directly or indirectly, but also the ones you never chose at all?
Here we hit the real dilemma. If our choice in the matter of salvation is significantly influenced by our experiences (including those resulting in part from choices we did not make ourselves), how is our choice of salvation anything other than a destiny we were born into? Sure, we made a lot of our own choices along the way, but each choice we made was influenced by the choices we already made–and the choices are lined up like dominoes back to that time when we first made a choice. And all of those choices are set in a context we didn’t choose; our parents first of all, but the very existence of the world, its rules, and the consequences of thousands of years of choices made before we were born. What different choices would you have made if your parents were murdered while you were young? What different choices would you have made if your parents were drug addicts? The universe we live in is to us an unfathomably complex result of countless choices, and it is only natural that we should have a clearer and higher view of our own choices. But thinking for a moment of a world bigger than our small share of it, who could possibly understand all those interacting choices except God? And so when God sent your soul to meet your body, did he not know what choices you would make based on the experiences you would have?
And if that is not true, and our choice in salvation is completely untouched by our experiences, so that no bad experiences can ever rob us of perfect freedom of choice – how is that different than predestination? Isn’t it like taking a fair coin and flipping it? Sometimes it comes up heads, sometimes tails. Who can guess in advance – who but God? And if you Choice of Salvation is not basically just a summing up of your experiences, how is it different from predestination? If each person makes their choice in some divinely offered moment of pure spiritual possibility, free from the baggage of life’s ancestors’ choices, and every soul makes a choice untouched by earthly experience – how is that different than God making the choice when he makes the soul?
The concept of free will, at least as I understand it, is that each person experiences both good and evil in their life, and is presented with a choice of which they will pursue. Those who choose to chase God – though they may err along the way – find life. But surely those who experience more evil than good arrive at the moment of decision differently than those who experience more good than evil. If so, God cannot be just to judge them both equally, can he?
So then God must offer a sliding scale, which credits how much good a person gives in accordance with how much good that person receives. But if God adjusts the scales to properly and completely account for everything a person experiences and everything they were born into through no choice of their own, then surely every person makes the best choice they can under their circumstances, right? So either the only ones who do not choose well enough are those who were born evil (right back into predestination) or else, in the final analysis, everyone is saved because they reflected as much good as they received, all things considered.
Now universal salvation does address the problem of predestination. I think to get to universal salvation we must reject so much of what the Bible reveals about God (and what nature reveals about the Creator) that I would have a hard time understanding how to discuss the matter further. If we are all going to be saved, why put us through this circus of misery in the first place? Why not start off in bliss? Why allow creation to run so far amok? If things were allowed to become this bad, how do we really know that they will ever be set to right?
But if we allow that some will be judged, I cannot see how God is not to be blamed for every one not saved. If he is indeed all knowing, and if he is indeed the creator, than in the moment of creation he new precisely how each exactly how each molecule and atom of creation would interact. He knew every hormone, every mis-wired neuron, every accidental collision, the exact strength of intensity that each body would feel in desire, anger, sorrow, and hope. If we were not predestined spiritually, still at least I cannot see how we were not predestined physically. It seems to me that free will just moves God back behind the curtain – behind a haze of interacting factors so complex we cannot see through it. But he is still there, pulling all the strings. Or else he is not there at all.