Calvinism sounds bad...until you compare it to the alternatives.
On Facebook, Jerry Walls recently plugged a NYT oped attacking Calvinism: "Teaching Calvin in California".
Jerry fancies himself a Wesleyan Arminian, but just imagine teaching Charles Wesley in California. How do you think his sermon on earthquakes as divine judgment would go over in that seismically active part of the world:
Jerry is an Arminian propagandist first and a philosopher second. Always in that order. Jerry is a corruptor of critical discourse. A good philosopher practices critical thinking skills, and cultivates critical thinking skills in his students and listeners. Part of being a good philosopher is to mentally argue both sides of the issue so that you can defend your position in the face of the best the competition has to offer. You anticipate objections. You anticipate counterexamples. In fact, good philosophers will even improve on the arguments of the opposing position, in order to respond to the strongest possible objections to their own position.
Jerry never does that. He always gives a one-sided presentation. He picks on weak opponents. He submits to softball questions by sympathetic interviewers.
I'll be the first to admit that Calvinism has an uncomfortably severe aspect. But I don't think that's a damaging concession. The Bible often has a severe aspect. Take "offensive" passages in the OT. Or the "offensive" doctrine of hell. Or graphic and horrific imagery in the Book of Revelation.
For that matter, extrabiblical historical has an uncomfortably severe aspect. All the horrific events that happen in the world at large, on a regular basis.
It's unintelligent to assess Calvinism merely on its own terms. You need to put Calvinism in context. You need to make a comparative judgment. Comparing and contrasting Calvinism with the alternatives. I'm going to briefly review traditional religious strategies in response to the problem of evil.
I. Indian philosophy
i) The law of karma is a traditional Hindu and Buddhist explanation for the problem of suffering. Why do the innocent suffer? Hinduism and Buddhism cut the knot by denying the premise. According to Hinduism and Buddhism, there is no such thing as innocent suffering. If a 5-year-old girl is run over by a drunk driver, she's being punished for something she did in a past life.
ii) In one strand of Hinduism, evil exists because good and evil exist in the divine, and every possibility must be realized. In that respect, Hinduism is like Neoplatonism, Manichean or Zoroastrian dualism, the multiverse, and the principle of plenitude.
On that view, evil is just as ultimate as good. Evil is an ineluctable aspect of bedrock reality. On that view, evil is not a declension from the way things are supposed to be. Not a temporary side-effect of something more primary.
iii) Apropos (ii), the solution to the problem of evil is twofold:
a) Cultivate detachement
b) Annihilation. The only escape is to break the vicious cycle of karmic reincarnation by passing into oblivion.
iv) Apropos (iii), detachment has different aspects:
a) In Buddhism, we suffer because we lose what we love. Everything is fleeting. The solution is renunciation of human affections. Of course, one could argue that the cure is worse than the disease. But there are no good options.
b) On a related note, both Hinduism and Buddhism have a doctrine of maya, although the interpretation varies. In general, this involves a distinction between appearance and reality. Between the divine and the world or the self and the world.
In one strand of Hinduism, what is ultimately real is the immutable, eternal, preexistent soul. The world of time and space is illusory. But since that's the world in which evil occurs, evil is illusory. You need to practice meditation to withdraw psychologically from the bewitchment of the phenomenal world.
In Buddhism, maya is a delusion that masks the void. In Hinduism, you practice mediation to realize that your real inner self is untouched by phenomenal evil. In Buddhism, you practice mediation to realize that you have no real inner self to be touched by phenomenal evil.
These are very bleak philosophies.
Atheism has some affinities with Buddhism. Indeed, Schopenhauer's nihilistic outlook is similar to Buddhism.
i) Technically, atheism can't have a theodicy, but it must address the problem of evil. One intractable difficulty with atheism is that if you're cheated in this life, you don't get a second chance. In a godless universe, many people suffer irredeemable loss. There are no eschatological compensations. No reversal of fortunes.
ii) In addition, there are no objective goods. We value certain things because our evolutionary conditioning has brainwashed us into believing some things are worthwhile, but when you rip away the mask, there's nothing behind the mask. Just a dumb, pitiless, amoral process–much like the Buddhist void.
On the face of it, universalism has the most appealing theodicy. But on closer examination it has some bloody jagged edges.
i) If God is going to save everybody, why put so many people through a hell on earth in the first place? It's like splashing acid in someone's face, then paying for her skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. Does universalism really require God to stand by as Nazis perform human experimentation on Jewish children?
ii) By the same token, the price of universalism is for victims of horrendous evil to share eternity with their tormenters. Mengele and his victims will be neighbors in paradise.
There's a sense in which the purest form of punishment, pure retribution, is to be denied a second chance. You crossed a line of no return. Your burned your return ticket. Despair is the truest form of just deserts. The damned have no hope. That's what makes hell hellish. If there's no injustice so heinous that it's unforgivable, then is there any ultimate justice?
i) Molinism attempts to harmonize freewill with determinism. Possible worlds contain moral evils caused by human agents with libertarian freedom.
If, however, God instantiates a possible world, that's a package deal. Everything that happens in the actual world is bound to happen. Even though alternative courses of action are viable options, those only happen in possible worlds that God did not instantiate. If a possible world is indeterministic, an actual world is deterministic. By instantiating that particular world history, every event must unfold accordingly and inexorably.
It's like a library of DVDs. Some DVDs are unplayable (infeasible). But of the subset of playable DVDs, God chooses which DVD to play. And the plot is predetermined. From start to finish, everything happens according to script.
Compare it to instant replay. Even if the original outcome was indeterminate, the replay is determinate. If we think of possible worlds as abstract objects, then (according to Molinism), the human agents were free, but these aren't real people. In the ensemble of possible worlds, they can do otherwise. Indeed, there are possible world where they do otherwise. But in the real world, where they are real people, with consciousness and feelings, they can't rewrite the plot. Each possible world has a single history. It can't combine two or more alternate histories from different possible worlds.
ii) In addition, human agents don't get to choose which possible world will be instantiated. Suppose there's a feasible world in which Judas is heavenbound. In that world, he doesn't betray Jesus. That would clearly be a better world for Judas to find himself within, but he gets stuck in the world where he's hellbound. He is fated to betray Jesus the moment God instantiates that particular timeline rather than some alternate timeline. Trapped in a world where he is doomed.
Superficially, this seems kinder and gentler than Calvinism. But on closer examination, you will cut yourself on razor wire.
Arminianism has two basic commitments: God's love and man's freedom. These two principles tug in opposing directions. The claim is that for love to be genuine, humans must be at liberty to refrain from reciprocating God's love.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that contention, it's only plausible at an individual level. Problem is, humans are social creatures who interact with fellow humans. As a result, God must respect the freedom of Nazi scientists to experiment on human guinea pigs (to take one example). Protecting the innocent from horrendous harm is less important than creating a theater in which "true love" is possible.
VI. Open theism
According to open theism, God is in a situation of diminish responsibility for evil inasmuch as God is ignorant of the long-term consequences of his creative actions. But there are problems with that theodicy:
i) If you don't know whether you're inserting innocent people into a dangerous situation, shouldn't you play it safe? When it doubt, is it not morally incumbent on you to avoid exposing people to an unforeseeable, but potentially catastrophic risk?
ii) Moreover, even if God can't foresee the outcome a year in advance or a month in advance, surely he can foresee the outcome a day in advance or an hour in advance. As events come to a head, the future becomes increasingly predictable, even if the outcome is not a dead certainty.
In addition, we don't generally think the bare possibility that something might not be harmful is an excuse to insert innocent people into what is, in all likelihood, a hazardous situation.
According to Calvinism, God predestines every event, including evil events. Although that's a sobering claim, an implication of that claim is that everything happens for a reason. Indeed, there's a good reason for whatever God ordains.
Especially in cases of evil, we typically demand that there better be a good reason to justify it. And that's precisely what Calvinism claims.
Compare that to the candid admission of sophisticated freewill theism:
According to the story I have told, there is generally no explanation of why this evil happened to that person…It means being the playthings of chance. It means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly, and it means something worse than that: it means living in a world in which innocent children die horribly for no reason at all. It means living in a world in which the wicked,through sheer luck, often prosper.
But whether a particular horror is connected with human choices or not, it is evident, at least in many cases, that God could have prevented the horror without sacrificing any great good or allowing some even greater horror.
No appeal to considerations in any way involving human free will or future benefits to human beings can possibly be relevant to the problem with which this case [Auschwitz] confronts.
There are many horrors, vastly many, from which no discernible good results–and certainly no good, discernible or not, that an omnipotent being couldn't have achieved without the horror; in fact, without any suffering at all. P. van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), 89,95,97.
Is that clearly preferable to Calvinism? What's disturbing isn't so much the idea that God predestines horrendous evils, but the fact of horrendous evils. The world has exactly the same horrendous evils regardless of your theodicy.
It's just immature, as well as deceptive, for Arminians like Walls to constantly attack Calvinism based on the disagreeable implications of Calvinism while constantly refusing to compare it with the disagreeable implications of every other theodicy. In our fallen world, there are no nice theodices. Every theodicy has serrated edges. There's no escaping that.