Friday, December 31, 2004

All's well that ends well-2

The universalist is in a bind. Unlike the conditionalist, the universalist must affirm that the hell-bound will live forever, but disaffirm that they will live forever in hell. He needs the eternality, but not the fixity, of the afterlife, to make room for postmortem conversion. There are, however, no passages of Scripture, whether individually or in combination, that drive a wedge between fixity and perpetuity, or teach, or even permit, a postmortem reversal of fortunes.

Sensing, I guess, the inadequacy of his exegesis, Bonda takes another bite at Mt 25:46 later on: "Now his blood will be given as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28). His blood will be poured out for many (26:28). Twice we read ‘for many.’ who are these ‘many’? They are the many who have entered the wide gate and walk the easy road that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13; cf. Mt 22:14). These are the same people of whom he just said that they will end in ‘eternal punishment’" (218).

By way of reply:
i) This interpretation is nonsensical on its own grounds. In Mt 7:13-14 & Mt 22:14, the "many" are relative to "the few." But in universalism, such a contrast is meaningless. In universalism, the choice is not between the comparative contrast of the many over as against the few (a la Calvinism), but between the superlative contrast of the salvation of all (inclusivism) as over against the salvation of some (exclusivism).
ii) It clearly does violence to Mt 7:13-14 to turn two divergent roads into one convergent road.
iii) The "many" is Mt 20:20 & 26:28 is not an antonym for the few or a synonym for all. Rather, it is a literary allusion to Isa 53:11-12. In this chapter, "many" and "all" are interchangeable designations for the covenant community. The Messiah lays down his life for his people.

Bonda goes on to claim that "eternal punishment does not forever continue, since that punishment itself, is not his goal. When God’s purpose has been achieved, there is no need for further punishment--for sin no longer exists!" (219).

By way of reply: notice how this turns the word of God on its head. In Bonda’s interpretive alchemy, "eternal" punishment is temporary. "Unquenchable" fire is quenched. The "undying" worm dies of hunger. Bonda systematically converts Biblical affirmations into Biblical negations, and Biblical negations into Biblical affirmations. This is exactly how the Devil would rewrite Scripture.

"Let us review: The word ‘eternal’ has played a major role in the doctrine of eternal punishment. But what Scripture tells us about God’s purpose with this punishment remained a secondary concern. We have seen that this divine purpose must be our first interest in any Biblical discourse about the eternity of the punishment. Never is there any other purpose than that the unbeliever return to obedience to God. Nowhere in Scripture do we find a statement that tells us that God wants those who are punished to suffer without end--that is not the purpose for which God created humans! If we keep this singular purpose of God in focus, we understand that eternal punishment is punishment that has as its only purpose an obedience return to the God of love...When Jesus refers to this punishment as eternal, he simply underlines...the eternal seriousness--of God in pursuing his one and only purpose" (219).

By way of reply:
i) In what sense did the divine purpose remain a secondary consideration in formulating the traditional doctrine? Is the administration of justice not a purposeful activity?
ii) Even if it were a secondary concern, is there something wrong with deriving a doctrine from passages of Scripture which directly and primarily address the subject-matter of the doctrine in question?
iii) This is an ironic complaint to lodge against Calvinism, for no theological tradition shows the same respect for God’s inviolable purpose.
iv) Bonda is using this appeal as an inner canon and winnowing fan to demote and deny the witness of Scripture whenever it comes into conflict with "his" primary concern.
v) Nowhere in Scripture? Isa 66:24? Dan 12:2? Mt 25:41? Mt 25:46? Mk 9:48? 2 Thes 1:9? Jude 7? Jude 9? Rev 14:11? Rev 20:10?
vi) Isn’t it simplistic to insist that God can have only one purpose for what he does? Why can’t the revelation of his justice be one such purpose? Why can’t the revelation of his mercy be another such purpose?
v) It is difficult to divorce the temporal end of God’s creatures from the teleological end of his creatures. Their final destination in time answers to his final design outside of time. And their eternal destiny marks the climactic realization of any ends-means relation.
vi) To equate the threat of eternal punishment with eternal seriousness in God’s pursuit of every lost sinner is a form of words which bears no resemblance to the wording, import, or intent of our Lord’s usage. This is a wholly artificial gloss that fails to connect at any point with what our Lord ever said or ever meant.

In fairness, though, Bonda defends this reinterpretation by recourse to prophetic usage. By way of reply:
i) Once again, Bonda is confounding historical judgements with eschatological judgments. We need to distinguish preexilic prophecies that have reference to the Exile and Restoration from postexilic prophecies which have reference to the eschaton.
ii) We also need to distinguish oracles that pronounce a common judgment on the nation of Israel from those that pronounce judgment on one party, but deliverance upon another (Isa 26:14,19; 66:24; Dan 12:2)..
iii) On a related, we further need to distinguish judgment on the nation of Israel from the impending or eventual redemption of the remnant (Isa 1:9; 4:3; 6:11-13; 10:22; 45:20) .
iii) On another related note, also need to distinguish between the end of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new (Jer 31:31-40).
iv) Bonda pedals in half-truths. The logic of Isaiah is thus: just as there is but one Maker of men, there is but one Judge and Redeemer of men. Whoever would be saved can only be saved by the one true God.
v) Bonda is very selective in his citations. In Isaiah you can see inclusivity and exclusivity side-by-side. In Isa 45:22-23 you have a universal form of address, but this is immediately followed, in vv24-25, by a dichotomy between the enemies of God, who shall suffer shame (24), and the people of God, who shall be justified (25). Likewise, in Isaiah 66:23, you have a general expression, immediately followed by a dire pronouncement upon the damned (24).

It isn’t hard to relate the two: if there is only one true God, then there is only one true knowledge of God. The God of the Jews is the God of mankind. The saving knowledge of God disclosed to Israel must be revealed in due time to the Gentiles. But just as salvation did not extend to every single Jew, neither does it extend to every single Gentile.

v) Bonda divorces 45:23 from the taunt-song in 46:1-2. But it’s all of a piece. The ancient world was not a democracy. You bowed the knee before your lord and swore fealty to him because he was your lord. What you thought of him was quite beside the point. He was your sovereign, and you were his subject. Even the high "gods" of Babylon must bow before the Lord’s emissary (Cyrus). The kingdoms of Egypt and Mesopotamia were absolute monarchies. This is where we get the phrase "oriental despotism." And the God of Israel is the king of kings.

Bonda rushes by Dan 12:2 in a couple of sentences:
"The text does not deal with a judgment over all the dead...our interest here is limited to the term ‘eternal’" eternal life and eternal shame and contempt. Jeremiah mentioned redemption following eternal shame, but Daniel does not" (216).

By way of reply:
i) The comparison with Jeremiah disregards the fourfold distinction I drew above, viz., mass/remnant; old/new covenant; pre/post-Exilic perspective; common judgment/divergent destiny.
ii) Dan 12 is part of a larger oracle targeting the end-time (11:35,40).
iii) For the rest, one can hardly improve on Joyce Baldwin at this juncture:
"Hebrew rabbim, ‘many,’ tends to mean ‘all,’ as in Deut 7:1; Isa 22, where ‘all nations’ becomes ‘many peoples’ in the parallel v3; and in Isa 52:14-15; 53:11-12, where this key-word occurs no less than five times, with an inclusive significance. As Jeremias points out, the Hebrew word kol, ‘all,’ means either ‘totality’ or ‘sum’; there is no word for ‘all’ as a plural. For this rabbim comes to mean ‘the great multitude,’ ‘all’; cf. ‘Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth...’ (NIV). The emphasis is not upon many as opposed to all, but rather to the numbers involved.

In the light of this usage our author can be seen to be thinking of a general resurrection prior to judgment. Jesus almost certainly had this verse in mind in Mt 25:46 & Jn 5:28-29," J. Baldwin, Daniel (IVP 1978), 204.

Moving from the prophets to Paul, he cites Rom 14:10-11 & Phil 2:10-11. Yet is hard to see how the passage in Romans is a prooftext for universalism. To begin with, it is on the theme of judgment. In addition, it takes the Christian as the object of divine judgment. But if even the believer must stand before the tribunal of God, what hope is there for the unbeliever?

Although the judicial role is unstated in Phil 2:10-11, that is implicit from the parallel passage in Rom 14:10-11. The person and work of Christ in Phil 2:6-9 have qualified him to be the judge of all the world. I’ve already discussed the Isaian background of both passages. This is what is meant by the Lordship of Christ.

We have gone from the age of absolute monarchy, to constitutional monarchy, to titular monarchy, to popular sovereignty. We have forgotten what it means to "reign." But the dominion of Christ is the antitype of the oriental despotism. Either submit willingly or be forcibly subjugated.

You can see this theme in the Messianic Psalms (2:9; 110:1-2), which is, in turn, picked up in the NT (1 Cor 15:24-28; Rev 12:5; 19:15). Indeed, the Apocalypse is a NT version of OT holy war. Christ is a warrior-God and conquering king (Rev 19). Hell is a permanent POW camp. His enemies are vanquished and taken captive. The camp has an entrance, but no exit.

In the section on Revelation, Bonda says the following:
"All nations will come and will worship God (15:4)...In other words, the ‘forever and ever’ of 14:11 was not the final word! Just as the prophecy about Edom in Isaiah 34:10--from which this imagery of the eternally ascending smoke is borrowed--was not the final word. Isaiah’s prophecy and this vision are both related to the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:24,28). We saw that God’s judgment over this city did not imply the end of his compassion for it" (230).

By way of reply:
i) He maunders the meaning of Rev 15:4. As Beale remarks, "’All the nations’ is a figure of speech (metonymy) by which the whole world is substituted for a part of it in order to emphasize that many will worship, which is in line with 5:9; 7:9ff.; and 14:3. The whole for the part is clearly the meaning where pas (‘all’) occurs with ethnos (‘nation’) elsewhere (5:9; 7:9; 13:7; 14:8; 18:3,23)," G. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans/Paternoster 1999), 797-98. Cf. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy (1993), 238-337 (esp. 312-13.
ii) I’ve already dealt with the judgment upon Sodom.
iii) The last word on the fate of Edom is Mal 1:1-4, which is decidedly less than sanguine!
iv) The fate of the damned (14:10-11) presents an antithetical parallel to the rest of the saints (14:13). The saints are forever at rest while damned are never at rest.
v) The fate of the damned (14:10-11) presents an antithetical parallel to the adoration of the angels (4:8). As long as the angels shall praise God, the damned shall suffer.
vi) The same time-maker ("forever and ever") is applied to the very life of God (4:9-10; 10:6; 15:7). As long as God shall live, the damned shall suffer.
vii) The fate of the devil and his minions (20:10) presents an antithetical parallel to the reign of the saints (22:5). As long as the saints shall reign, the damned shall suffer.

For better or worse, the state of all parties is fixed for all time. The timeline is isochronic for God and Christ, saints and angels, devils and idolaters. And once the die is cast, there is no reversal of fortunes.

Bonda then says that those outside the New Jerusalem (22:11) are invited to come inside (22:17). But this commits a level-confusion. The invitation is directed, not to the narrative characters, but to the reader, the audience, the congregation (of the seven churches of Asia Minor) to whom the prophecy is addressed.

"God has created man with the intention that all should love one another, as he loves them. This love allows of no exception: One is even to love one’s enemies, since God loves them all (Mt 5:44-45)...In God’s law the single command of love, given to all human beings, we find the answer to the doctrine of eternal punishment. This law makes it crystal clear that we are dealing with a doctrine that clashes with God’s commandment" 102.

By way of reply:
i) Mt 5:44-45 doesn’t say that God loves everyone. Rather, the point of Mt 5:44-45, like the parable of the wheat and the tares (note the same agricultural setting), is that God dispenses common grace to all as a way of dispensing special grace to the elect. Because the elect and the reprobate inhabit in the same world, living under same roof (as it were), sun and rain cannot discriminate. All must prosper to some degree for any to prosper at all.
ii) It is illicit to invoke Mt 5:44-45 in order to negate everything else the Bible might have to say on the subject.
iii) This is not the only command that God has given to man. He also commanded the Israelites to execute the Canaanites.
iii) Mt 5:44-45 does not address the destiny of man, but rather, the Christian code of conduct for the duration of the church age.
iv) A divine command is not equally binding on God and man. God is the judge. He bears a different relation to man than man to his fellow man.
v) Bonda has a very flat-footed concept of love. There are different degrees and species of love. Conjugal love is not the same thing as neighborly love. Love can be exclusive as well as inclusive, intensive as well as extensive.

"What has this doctrine of Israel’s rejection brought about? The great catastrophe of our century tells us: The murder of almost six million Jews from 1940-45 in post-Christian Europe would not have been possible without the preparatory work of this ecclesiastical tradition.

The genocide was not committed by Christians, but by pagans who had rejected faith in Jesus. However, this would not have happened in Europe if through the centuries the church had been taught to see Israel as the apple of God’s eye," 132.

By way of reply:
i) This is a form of emotional extortion: either interpret Romans my way or else you’ve got the blood of six million Jews on your hands! That brand of blackmail is irrelevant to the meaning of Romans, and given that the Book of Romans was penned by a devout Jew, no authentic interpretation could possibly be anti-Semitic, so we should follow the text wherever it takes us, without fear of consequences, without dragging in extraneous anxieties or imposing extraneous filters on the material.
ii) It would take a lot of documentation to substantiate Bonda’s charge--none of which is forthcoming. What is the relation between church and synagogue in Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Orthodox theology? Is it all the same? Is it all anti-Semitic?
iii) Even if the church had been more philosemitic, how would that have restrained the Nazis?
iv) What about the effect of German Bible criticism, with its evolutionary view of religion, which necessitated a low view of the OT and OT piety?
v) In what sense is the Reformed tradition anti-Semitic? Wasn’t Holland a haven for the Jews? Weren’t the Jews well-treated by the Puritans? Doesn’t Reformed theology stress the continuity of the covenants? Doesn’t Reformed theology speak of OT saints as well as an OT church?

Supercessionism isn’t a racist doctrine. It doesn’t mean that Gentiles replace Jews. It doesn’t even mean that the church takes the place of Israel. There’s a very real sense in which Reformed theology regards an OT saint as a Christian. To be a Messianic Jew is to be a Christian, whether Abraham, Asaph, Moses, or David; Isaiah, Daniel or Zechariah; Peter, James, or John; Paul or Matthew, Simeon or Anna, Mary or Elizabeth, Zecharias or John the Baptist.
vi) What about Jews who are not Messianic Jews? you ask. What about gentiles who are not Christian gentiles? I ask. It's all the same.
vi) I get a little tired of all the complaints about the gentile complexion of the church. No doubt the church would be better off if it were more Jewish. But let us remember that the church is mostly gentile because most Jews chose to opt out. And let us not write off two thousand years of church history as very large and very long mistake. To do so dishonors the plan and providence of God.

In dealing with the imagery of damnation, a couple of cautionary notes are in order.
i) There is not a great deal in Scripture on the eternality of hell. And yet the eternal duration of hell is far better attested than, say, the Virgin Birth. There are many "evangelicals" who affirm the Virgin Birth, but disaffirm the eternality of hell. For example, John Wenham, in his autobiography, uses this statistical approach to minimize the Biblical witness to everlasting punishment. Yet he would never employ that same methodology to minimize the testimony of Scripture to the Virgin Birth--even though that is built on a much thinner database than hell.

ii) It is important not to over-analyze the imagery. Scripture doesn’t speak with technical precision. The imagery is intended to convey a general impression. The attempt to break down the general impression into atomistic word-studies and isolated images does violence to the authorial intent. The general impression which popular as well as scholarly imagination has always taken away from these passages is one of unending misery.

These passages were never meant to be subjected to minute analysis. They don’t demand much in the way of interpretation. To overinterpret is to misinterpret. The broad brush, and not the fine brush-stroke, is what counts. This is not the time and place for finesse, nuance, or sophistication. Blunt, brutal, graphic and primitive picture-language was used to drive home a dire and unmistakable admonition. And it succeeded, for century upon century.

Those who construe the passages otherwise always do so, not because the imagery is suggestive of another interpretation, but because the conditionalist and the universalist find the idea of eternal punishment intolerable. What they give us is not the exegesis of the text, but a hermeneutic of emotion.

Bonda tries to find univeralism in Paul. One obvious objection to this construction is that faith is, in Paul, a prerequisite for salvation. Bonda attempts to get around this by positing postmortem conversion on the basis of Rom 4:17; 5:15; 14:9! That is certainly a novel interpretation of the verses in question. If nothing else, we must give Bonda some credit for ingenuity!

But the point of these passages is that God will save those who die in faith, such as Abraham--the paradigm of sole fide. Everyone dies, including the faithful. What happens to us when we die? If death is a penal sanction for sin, then salvation must apply to the living and the dead, but not all the living and not all the dead. The God who saved the OT saints shall save the NT saints. To die in the Lord is to live in the Lord.

Bonda denies original sin. Instead, he reverts to the old Pelagian position. He blames original sin on Augustine’s use of the Vulgate rendering of Rom 5:12. By way of reply:
i) It is unclear to me why Bonda rejects Federalism in favor of individualism. If, after all, you were going to concoct a doctrine of universal salvation, the some form of corporate solidarity would afford a more promising mechanism than radical individualism.
ii) It is a fact that Augustine relied on the Vulgate rather than, say, the Old Latin version or Ambrosiaster? For that matter, Augustine was conversant with the Greek text of Rom 5. (See the commentaries by Cranfield and Fitzmyer).
iii) It is inexcusably ignorant for a Dutch-Reformed pastor to allege that the Reformed doctrine of original sin derives from the Vulgate. Even if Bonda has left his hereditary tradition far behind, he should at least know what he has left behind.
iv) His interpretation of Rom 5:12 disregards the five-fold emphasis, in Rom 5, on the one sin of the one man (Adam) as the basis of common condemnation. (See Murray’s commentary).

Borrowing yet another page from Pelagius, Bonda says, "it is utterly impossible that God reveals his will to human beings, and simultaneously wills that they should not reach the point of doing God’s will. Yet, this is what tradition tells us. It suggests that he would reveal his will to people who were destined not to comply with it" (101).

By way of reply:
i) Needless to say, the Calvinist has heard all this before. It is not in ignorance of this objection that Reformed tradition can exist. The objection has been addressed on numberless occasions.
ii) In Reformed theology, revelation is the rule of faith. The God who reveals his preceptive will is the same God who reveals his decretive will.
iii) Whatever the common sense appeal of this objection, it has no force in theology, for we can only know the will of God insofar as God has made his will known to us.
iv) The objection equivocates over the identity of God’s "will." Bonda is really talking about God’s "law." No doubt God wills his law, as well as the revelation of his law. But that does not, of itself, tells us what purpose is served by the law of God. The law may be instrumental to an ulterior purpose, as a means to a higher end, rather than an end in itself. The revelation of the law brings with it the revelation of sin. The law can serve to harden as well as soften. The law teaches us right from wrong, but by that same token, you can choose to do wrong, to go out of your way to make the wrong turn and go down the wrong road or the wrong lane, just to be spiteful and rebellious. This contentious and contrarian spirit is on display throughout the pages of Scripture.
v) The law is a moral guide, but more than a moral guide. It is also a tool used by God to exhibit the depravity of sin and the gratuity of grace.

Bonda rejects the Reformed reading of Rom 5 on the grounds that, in this event, "it is not true that Christ, through his obedience, more than compensates for the havoc wreaked by the first human’s disobedience" (105). By way of reply:

i) This objection is not distinctive to Reformed theology, but would, if valid, apply with equal force to any soteric system which falls short of universalism.
ii) The problem with Bonda’s truncated allusion to Rom 5:20 is that it omits the introductory reference to the law. The sin in view is not sinful mankind in general, but lawlessness, where the "law" is the Law of Moses. In other words, Paul has in mind the national apostasy of Israel. And yet, not only was there a gracious remnant, but Israel was host to the Savior of the nations as well.

Bonda rejects the idea of a "hidden election" on the grounds that "If that were true, no one in Israel would be able to depend on God, and the question would always be: ‘Am I like Esau?" (146). By way of reply:
i) It is illogical to reject something just because you don’t like the consequences. Many things are true regardless of the consequences.
ii) The short answer is that our warrant for the assurance of salvation should not exceed the warrant of Scripture. If certain Scripturally stipulated contingencies are met (e.g. repentance & faith), then we are entitled to the assurance of salvation. But if such conditions are flouted, then we are not entitled to the same assurance.
iii) Election is hidden in eternity, but revealed in time, in the mirror of faith.
iv) Given the eye-popping maledictions of Deut 32, as well as the dire forewarnings and forebodings of the preexilic prophets, the average Israelite had good reason to examine himself and not take his blessings for granted!

Bonda appeals to Isa 19:21-22 to prove that the hardening of Pharaoh is temporary. But this prophecy is about the future, not the past. It has nothing to do with the Pharaoh of the oppression. He had been dead for 600 years when Isaiah spoke, and its fulfillment awaited the Christian era--awaited the living, not the dead.

Bonda says that "if God destines most people to eternal perdition, it would have been better if he had not created the world at all" (151). By way of reply:
i) Better for whom? Better for the damned? Yes! Better for the redeemed? No!
ii) Within the Reformed tradition, there is no received view on the relative number of the elect and reprobate. Actually, the question of how many are saved or damned has less immediate relation to predestination than it does to the condition of faith. Is faith in Christ is a prerequisite of salvation? To do away with hell, Bonda must not only do away with reprobation, but do away with faith in Christ. Of course, he has his pet theory of postmortem conversion, but I’ve already dealt with that.

Regarding Rom 9:23ff., Bonda says:
"To whom does he want to reveal this [the riches of his glory]? To the objects of his mercy? He would not need these objects of wrath for that purpose...No...he wants to show these objects of his wrath something of his mercy for the disobedient, for the heathen [Rom 9:25-26]. Once they were "objects of wrath"--"children of wrath," as we read in Eph 2:3...He wants to do the same for those who are now the objects of his wrath" (151). By way of reply:
i) In this very passage, Paul expressly affirms what Bonda denies: the vessels of mercy are the object of his glorious riches (v23).
ii) The vessels of wrath are instrumental to this aim, for mercy and justice are correlative. To withhold mercy and exact justice is illustrative of the wholly gratuitous character of grace.
iii) The way that Bonda draws the contrast, Jews are to objects of wrath (albeit temporarily) as Gentiles are to objects of mercy. But that is not how Paul draws the contrast. For Paul says that God is calling a people to himself from Jews and Gentiles alike (v24). So we have a part/whole relation here. It is not Jews as over against Gentiles, but some Jews and some Gentiles as over against other Jews and other Gentiles.
iv) Eph 2:3 alludes to original sin, whereas Rom 9:20ff. is spinning off the OT motif of the potter and the clay (Isa 29;16; 45-9-11; Jer 18:1-6). They are not interchangeable ideas.

Bonda quotes Ridderbos as denying that Rom 9 teaches the reprobation of Pharaoh or Esau. By way of reply:
i) Citing scholarly opinion is no substitute for argument. Perhaps Ridderbos has a supporting argument for his conclusion, but, if so, Bonda doesn’t quote it. So all the reader is left with is a baseless assertion.
ii) The predestinarian force of Rom 9 has received a detailed defense by the likes of Murray, Piper, and Schreiner.
iii) Even if what Ridderbos says is true, it is irrelevant. The case for reprobation and/or damnation does not depend on Scripture naming every reprobate or hellion. All that is needed to draw a conclusion in any specific case is a general statement concerning the preconditions of salvation (e.g., grace, faith, regeneration), in conjunction with enough information about an individual to draw a reasonable inference regarding his compliance, or not, with the requisite conditions. To be saved, one must be a believer. The burden of proof is on the believer. What is needed is not positive evidence that the individual is damned, but positive evidence that he was in a position and disposition to meet the preconditions of salvation.
iv) Again, even if what Ridderbos says is true, it misses the point. It is sufficient for Paul’s argument that an Esau, Ishmael or Pharaoh should typify the state of the reprobate, whether or not they themselves were reprobate.

Bonda glosses Rom 9:20 as follows:
"The point here is not that God has the absolute sovereignty to do as he pleases with his creatures and that he tolerates no protest. It is rather: Who are you, a mere human being, that you should tell God what he ought to make all people, the living and the dead, want to come and be saved" (155). By way of reply:
i) The question at issue is not how God deals with his creatures, but how he deals with sinners.
ii) Bonda’s interpretation assumes that Paul’s was teaching universalism, and his sparring partner took offense at that. But what evidence is there that this is how Paul’s words were generally understood? After all, Bonda believes that the church as a whole is guilty of misinterpreting Paul. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is so, then why presume that Paul’s opponent thought otherwise?
iii) And if, moreover, Paul did not teach universal salvation, then Paul would be correcting his theological opponent.

Bonda asks, "Where does Scripture speak about…[a] God who punishes people, and continues to punish people who have repented and have ceased to sin?" (228). By way of reply:
i) This is a stawman argument. There are no penitents in hell.
ii) As a matter of fact, there are Scriptures in which men repent of their sins, yet still suffer the consequences (e.g., 2 Sam 12:7-12; 2 Kgs 23:26-27; Heb 12:16).

In my opinion, Bonda is no more successful in making a case for universalism than Adams or Talbott. And it isn't for want of scholarly sophistication. But they are handicapped by the falsity of their position. Ability, however great, cannot overcome the disability of a crippling error.

All's well that ends well-1

Jan Bonda’s The One Purpose of God (Eerdmans 1998) is the third book-length monograph in defense of universalism that I’ve reviewed, the other two being Adams’ Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, as well as Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God.

I’ve chosen these three books because they present the most astute defense of universalism on the market. Adams is more philosophical, Talbott philosophical and exegetical, while Boda is basically exegetical, with a certain amount of historical and pastoral theology thrown in. It is striking that Talbott and Boda both hail from the Dutch Reformed community. This bears out Chesterton’s old quip that universalism is an optimistic form of Calvinism!

Although conditionalism was the initial alternative favored by "evangelicals," it is being overtaken by universalism. This is not surprising. Conditionalism is a compromise position transitional to universalism. Anyone who finds everlasting torment to be morally or emotionally repugnant will find annihilationism about as distasteful, for the difference is a difference of degree, not of kind.

Conditionalism is a negative position, a reactionary position. But universalism entails a drastic deconstruction and reconstruction of traditional Christian theology. It presents a positive, albeit radical alternative to the traditional reading of Scripture.

Bonda’s book comes highly recommended. Of course, the author can’t be held responsible for what they say, but they’re an important barometer of the theological climate.

On the back cover, Michael Bauman tells us that "what Charles Chauncy did for Rom 5, Bonda’s volume does for the entire epistle." Ah, yes, good old Charles Chauncy, the gadfly of Christian revival and Presbyterian turned Unitarian. Not all of us would regard that historical endorsement as altogether auspicious.

John Hick pipes in with the admonition that "the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment shatters the Christian conception of a limitlessly loving God. Many of us have rejected the doctrine for that reason."

But given Hick’s Kantian religious epistemology, how is he in a position to know what God is like? To know that God is a loving God--much less a limitlessly loving God (whatever that might mean)? Isn’t it essential to Hick’s pluralism that God be unknowable? We may know "that" there is a God, but not "what" he (she? it? them?) is/are like?

For his part, John Sanders informs us that this is "easily the most biblically grounded case for universalism to appear in some time." For that reason alone, the book is worth reviewing.

The book comes with a foreword by Sierd Woudstra. His foreword doesn’t add anything substantive to the argument, but merely highlights certain strands in the body of the text.

Bonda also has a preface. He and Woudstra indulge in a bit of name-dropping as they mention their encouraging correspondence with Herman Ridderbos and Hendrikus Berkhof. This is a telling commentary on the sorry state of the church in Holland.

As you might expect, Bonda’s book was originally written in Dutch. I’ll be referring to the English translation by Bruinsma. It is possible that this will result in my seizing upon certain words or connotations thereof that do not reflect the original text.

However, the audience for the English edition is not the same as the audience for the Dutch edition. And the audience for the English edition is, potentially, at least, far wider than the audience for the original text. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to review the English edition on its own terms, as it stands. My only interest is with the argument, and not its degree of correspondence with the original. Whether the argument is identical with the case made by Bonda is irrelevant. For convenience, I’ll attribute the argument to him. And I’ll confine my comments to what I regard as the leading strands of his argument.

Bonda begins with a couple of tearjerkers. This is a softening-up exercise to win the reader’s sympathy in advance of any argument.

One is the case of a parishioner who was heartbroken over the fate of her brother, who had died outside the faith. Says Boda, "Did this mean that all she could do was accept God’s judgment? Was that what I was to say? I could not bring myself to do that" (2).

This is, of course, one of the most wrenching situations in pastoral ministry. We see a person in pain. We’d like to offer some words of consolation, but we can’t. Yes, any reader can empathize with that situation.

But this is not a problem for pastoral ministry alone. There are many professions where you must be the bearer of bad news, where you are called upon dispense devastating, soul-crushing news. The oncologist who must tell the parents that their five-year old has terminal cancer. The policeman who must tell a widow that her husband was just shot to death. The commanding officer who must write a letter of condolence to grieving parents. The doctor who must go into the waiting room to tell the parents that their only son died of an overdose. The fireman who must tell a child that her mommy didn’t make it out of the house in time. The detective who must tell the parents that their abducted daughter was raped and murdered. And the list goes on.

Tragedy is a fixture of life in a fallen world. We can’t put a happy face on everything that happens just to make the orphaned and the abandoned, the victims and the bereaved feel better. Not every story has a happy ending. You can’t rewrite the ending if you don’t like how it comes out. Turn every tragedy into a comedy. The knight rescues the princess from the dragon, and they live happily ever after. The princess breaks the spell with a kiss, and they live happily ever after.

Of course, there’s a sense in which universalism is a fairy tale come true--if you believe it. But that’s a separate argument. My immediate point is that terribly things happen every day. If a pastor can’t bring himself to state a hard truth, he should leave the ministry.

And suppose, for the sake of argument, that her brother were a convicted killer. Everyone is related to someone. What would he say to the mother of the victim? Would what is comforting to a relative of the convict be comforting to a relative of the victim? It isn't possible to make everyone happy all of the time.

Bonda also introduces the case of a life-long friend who broke with the faith. His friend found the text of the baptismal service especially offensive: "O almighty, eternal God. Thou who hast according to Thy severe judgment punished the unbelieving and unrepentant world with the flood, and hast according to Thy great mercy saved and protected believing Noah and his family; Thou who hast drowned the obstinate Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea and led Thy people Israel through the midst of the sea upon dry ground--by which baptism was signified... (5)"

This his friend characterizes as "unashamed sadism" (5). And what is the reader to make of that reaction?

To begin with, there’s nothing wrong with our having a soft spot for a friend or family member. That's only natural. Such fellow feeling goes with being a member of the human race, with our emotional codependency as needy creatures.

We don’t have to feel the same way about everyone. At the same time, there are limits--even to friendship. It’s one thing to fix a parking ticket for a friend, quite another to buy him an airline ticket so that he can skip the country if he’s complicit in a fatal hit-and-run. Friends and family do not command our ultimate allegiance--or if they do, then our loyalties are seriously skewed.

God is not kin to us. God is not subject to emotional arm-twisting. This is one reason that God is a just judge. And that is why, by the same token, a human judge must recuse himself if the defendant is a friend or family member.

This is a book in defense of universalism, but notice what his friend finds so very outrageous. There is nothing in the text of the baptismal service--at least the portion seized upon by his friend, that addresses eternal punishment. Rather, the punishment in view is a historical judgment. Do Bonda and his friend take equal exception to any form of divine judgment whatsoever? Does Bonda deny the historicity of the Flood and the Exodus?

Bonda is incensed at a God "who did not show his goodwill toward humankind" (5) in general. So be it! But I don’t see Bonda’s friend in the same light that Bonda does. Instead of waxing indignant that God didn’t save everyone, his friend ought, instead, to be humble and thankful that God favored him with birth and life and length of days in a Christian land. Indeed, the damned will judge Bonda’s friend all the more harshly for doing so much less with so much more (Mt 11:21-24). It is often the blesséd who take their blessings for granted. Those that lead a charmed existence within the walled garden of the church, shielded from the full fury of the wilderness, bite and spite the hand of a loving providence--like a pardoned offender who lashes out at the judge because the judge did not pardon every other offender. To be such an ingrate does despite to the very marrow of mercy.

From there, Bonda switches to a primer in historical theology, with many interesting quotes from Augustine. Bonda finds the Augustinian argument downright "shocking." I, however, find the argument to be, in the main, reverent and reasonable. It is true that one can pick apart some of the detailed exegesis, as well as his privative theory of evil, but his theodicy is broadly and deeply Scriptural.

It is not as though the Reformed are unacquainted with the Arminian side of the argument. This is very well trodden ground. In every generation, the same threadbare criticisms are voiced, as if they’d never been answered before. For what it’s worth, I myself have written lengthy reviews of books by Geisler, Picirilli, and Walls in which these men marshal their best arguments against Calvinism and in favor of Arminianism.

It is funny to see Bonda take Augustine to task for his Neoplatonic theory of evil when he goes on to oppose Origen to Augustine--even though Origen is far more indebted to Neoplatonism than Augustine ever was.

Bonda takes umbrage at the idea that "God uses this lostness to reveal how, through his grace, he freely gives them his salvation. Does this mean that salvation is bought with the lost state of the doomed; that it is enjoyed at the expense of their lostness?...What would we think of someone who would bring happiness to others in such a way? And what would we think of people who want to be made happy n such a way?" (24).

By way of comment:
i) This is the wrong question to ask. The first question to ask is not, "What would we think?" but, "What does God think?" Reality is not a designer dress, cut-and-tailored to suit our personal prejudice.
ii) Salvation is bought by the blood of Christ, not the lost state of the damned. To say that God uses the state of the damned to reveal the gratuity of grace does not attribute redemptive value to their demise.
iii) Bonda disregards the crucial distinction between innocence and guilt. God does no wrong to sinners by damning them. Their damnation is just punishment for sin.
iv) The eschatological reversal of fortunes in a common theme in Scripture. The godly who suffered in this life will prosper in the afterlife, while the ungodly who prospered in this life will suffer in the afterlife. If Bonda has a problem with that, he is at war with a major theme of Scripture.

Bonda tells the reader that Barth convinced him of the unbiblical character of Calvinism (25, n.33). Needless to say, a number of Reformed theologians (e.g., Frame, Klooster, Van Til) have indicted Barth for an unbiblical doctrine of election.

Even a very sympathetic mediating theologian like Berkouwer has leveled many of the same criticisms. For that matter, Jürgen Moltmann, who’s the greatest living universalist, has this to say:

"Calvin wrote disciplined commentaries in addition to his Institutio. Barth’s Epistle to the Romans does not fit into the category of scholarly New Testament commentaries...Barth’s dialectical doctrine of predestination cannot be found in this form in the Bible, nor can the magnificent structure of his doctrine of reconciliation," God Will Be All in All, R. Bauckham, ed. (T&T Clark (1999), 231.

Bonda summarizes, with evident disdain, the view of Dante that "here piety can exist only when there is no more compassion and vice versa: No one can have faith if he allows himself to be compassionate" (26).

This calls for a couple of comments:
i) What Dante has in view is the state of the damned, not the state of the living. Yes, there comes a point at which continued compassion is out of place--when continued compassion is a synonym for sympathy with evil. In hell, there is no distinction between the sinner and the sin.
ii) Again, this is not about compassion in general, but compassion for the damned. Even if this life, mercy or empathy for the wicked can be out of place. It is morally deranged to feel the same way about Stalin and his innocent victims.

Bonda summarizes, with palpable disapprobation, the view of Aquinas that "the saved will in fact rejoice at the pains of those who are condemned" (26). It should be unnecessary to point out that you can find exactly that same sentiment expressed at length in holy scripture (e.g., Rev 16-19).

But, of course, univeralism is committed to this amoral attitude. Like the übermensch and the psychopath, the universalist is beyond good and evil. For the universalist, morality is a vice, not a virtue, for too much morality is judgmental. To be a universalist you must gouge out your eyes and cultivate a state of moral blindness. Once you repudiate the principle of retributive justice in favor of remedial punishment, you are wedded to moral relativism.

He goes on to say:"We have grown up with Augustine’s arguments...we listened to this teaching and accepted it. It was horrifying, but nothing could be done about it. Who were we to argue with God...You had no option but to accept it passively. But it kept churning in your thoughts. You could not voice it because to do so was sinful. Nonetheless, it was always there: How marvelous would it be if God were different!" (27).

Notice the sudden shift from the autobiographical third-person to the compulsory, inclusive second-person. This is so characteristic of the moral conceit of the universalist. He assumes that everyone feels the same way as he does, only a universalist has the courage to cast off his shackles.

Unlike Bonda, I didn’t grow up in the Reformed church, much less a Reformed culture and country. I do not find the Augustinian picture to be at all horrifying. Sobering? Yes. Humbling? Yes.

Actually, we need not be passive recipients of the Word. To the contrary, we should follow the motto of Anselm: I believe so that I may understand. We happily and trustfully submit to whatever God tells us, and then proceed to seek out the wisdom of his ways.

If you can’t trust in God, if God is not trustworthy, then the game is up. If you can’t bring yourself to trust in God, then you're not a believer. It’s a simple as that.

This is not a choice between a questioning or unquestioning faith. It is because we have an unquestioning faith in the goodness of God, in his wisdom, veracity, and justice, that we are free to ask questions. But we ask questions the way a child will ask a question of his father. You don’t question someone you don’t trust? If you can’t trust him, you can’t trust the answer. We never question God’s answers; rather, his answers supply the raw material for our follow-up questions.

I do not wish that God were other than he is. The assumption here is that if I were God, hell would not exist. Now, there are many men who feel that way. This is a great dividing line.

There are people who never get it. For them, sin is not a big deal. No matter what they see, no matter what they hear, they can never bring themselves to take sin all that seriously. They are a little too nice for their own good. This is the dividing line between Augustine and Pelagius, Erasmus and Luther, Salodeto and Calvin, Butler and Whitefield, Chauncy and Edwards.

The stranger to grace is oftentimes a more likable man than the champion of grace. He oozes with charm. He’s magnanimous and gregarious. He has a deep and unshakable faith in the goodness of man. If you were sharing a dorm or ship cabin, poor old Jeremiah wouldn’t make the cut!

The nominal Christian is a half-breed--having the church for his mother and the world for his father. If he were a purebred pagan, he wouldn’t be half so gentle and generous. But as a half-breed, he’s used to living off the fat of the Motherland, basking in the radiant warmth of maternal grace, dining on the tender morsels and juicy appetizers from the oven of Mother Church. It is easy for this corn-fed freeloader to be easy-going because he’s had it so easy all the days of his life. But by the same token, it only takes a little adversity to scratch the pretty coat of paint and instantly expose a very cold and steely frame beneath.

It’s like the life of a rich man. When you’re rich, everyone goes out of their way for you--but as soon as you loose your fortune, you loose your fiends.

No one really wants to see everyone saved. Ironically, the appeal of universalism is far more provincial than that. The only people any of us care about at a personal level are those close to us. Everyone else is an abstraction. We project our feelings for our loved ones onto strangers, but this extension is purely intellectual, for we don’t truly feel the same way about a stranger as we do about a friend or family member--not unless we get to know them, to befriend them.

Not only do we not wish to see everyone saved, but as Wouldstra is candid enough to admit, "all of us can think of individuals we would ‘hate’ to see go to heaven" (xviii). So let us, once and for all time, drop all the mock sentiment, all the false piety, all the perfunctory and hypocritical cant about how hard it is to stomach the doctrine of hell.

It is important, here, to distinguish between guilt and modesty. A Christian is very self-conscious about being an object of grace. That is good. We ought to feel self-conscious, even to the point of embarrassment, about how God visited his mercy and grace upon the likes of you and me, of all people.

But we should not, on that account, feel survivor’s guilt. We should feel infinitely humbled by grace. We should feel our guilt. We should sense how undeserving we are of grace. But we should never act as though we were in the wrong to be favored by God when others were passed by. A Christian is a trophy of God’s grace. This reflects badly on us, but well upon God.

Bonda introduces the nonsensical charge that hell is blasphemous. Nonsensical, I say, because hell and blasphemy are both Biblical categories to begin with. This is just a rhetorical ruse--a calculated ploy to put the Bible-believer on the defensive by charging him with heresy before he can charge you with heresy.

Bonda takes issue with Piper’s contention that there are two types of divine love. This is, however, a separate issue from either reprobation or damnation. Not every Calvinist would agree with Piper’s bifurcation. It depends on how you define common grace.

Bonda also trots out Talbott’s objection that a parent can’t love a God who would predestine his child to hell. I’ve already written a lengthy review of his book, so I’ll just confine myself to a few brief comments:
i) As a practical matter, countless Christian parents do love God despite the fact that some of their errant children may well be hell-bound.
ii) Conversely, there are parents to spoil their kids rotten; who lie, cheat and steal for their kids; who will brook no discipline or breath of criticism, who will sue if their delinquent kids are expelled from school, who will buy a plane ticket if their kids commit murder.

Surely we need to draw a distinction between good parenting and bad parenting, between godly love and godless love.
iii) In addition, is this an objection to hell, or to reprobation? Since a universalist would take exception to hell whether or not you plug the fire and brimstone into a predestinarian scheme, it’s a red herring at this point for Bonda to bring Calvinism into the argument.
iv) Actually, predestination makes hell easier to defend, because it means that hell serves a purpose in the wisdom and the justice of God.
v) The universalist is committed to a deterministic scheme of some sort himself--otherwise he cannot guarantee the salvation of all. So predestination is not the salient issue.
vi) Everyone is someone’s "child." Charles Manson was someone’s child. To be someone’s child is hardly exculpatory. If a grown man commits rape and murder, can he hope to be acquitted by lifting his shirt and pointing to his navel? Innocent by reason of a belly-button? If this is the best that a universalist can do, he does more damage to the credibility of his cause than anything I could ever hurl at it.

Bonda says that we should ditch the doctrine of hell because it induces anxiety in insecure believers. To this a couple of replies are in order:
i) This is a perfect illustration of just how mindless and childish univeralism really is. You might as well say that we should stop believing in natural disasters or fatal accidents or terminal illness or violent crime for fear the belief in such a dire possibility might give us bad dreams, panic attacks, depression, hypertension, and the like. And, indeed, some people are plagued by irrational worries and crippling phobias.

But that has nothing to do with the reality of the risk. These dangers do exist. Whether the peril is great or vanishingly slight is quite independent of my anxieties. And whether there is a hell is quite independent of my blood pressure or insomnia. Is a cliff not sheer because I’m afraid of heights? For better or worse, the world I inhabit isn’t all that accommodating!
ii) The solution is to put fear into its proper perspective. Some professing believers have good reason to fear, for they are only nominal believers. Some true believers lack the assurance of salvation because their theology is defective. As with a disease, the cure is not to pretend there is no illness, but to correctly diagnose and treat the disease.

When Bonda says that some believers become so despondent over hell that they kill themselves, this evinces their unreasonable state of mind, for if you’re really afraid that you might be hellbound, then suicide would be a fate worse than death! A real pastor would talk them through their confusion and despair.

This is all before Bonda gets around to exegesis. One methodological flaw in his analysis is the way in which he jumps about. Instead of interpreting each author on his own terms, he will start with one author, then insert material from another author. Frankly, this looks like a way of caulking the gaps where his argument breaks down.

Boda devotes the first two sections to the intercession of Abraham and Moses in order to show that the final judgment is not the final word on the fate of the lost. But there are several problems with this line of argument:
i) His examples involve historical judgments, not the final judgment.
ii) His examples illustrate the value of intercessory prayer. But in Scripture, as well as church history, you also have the phenomenon of unanswered prayer. Just as God is sovereign in judgment, so is he sovereign in prayer.
iii) As a matter of fact, God did visit his judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and in quite spectacular fashion, as a future deterrent.
iv) Bonda tries to get around this by appeal to Ezk 16:53,55. However, this appeal falls flat on two counts:
a) It disregards the allegorical character of Ezk 16.
b) It would, in any event, have reference to future "Sodomites," and not to those who perished in the past. If anything, this allegory is prophecy of the New Covenant.
v) As a matter of fact, Israel did incur the judgment of God, many times over. What survives is a remnant. A remnant survives the flood (Noah’s family). A remnant survives Sodom (Lot’s family). A remnant survives the Exodus (Caleb, Joshua). A remnant survives the Assyrian deportation. A remnant survives the Babylonian captivity.
vi) Intercession has its limits (e.g. Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14-15).

Boda then spends a few pages on the parable of the prodigal son. But, once again, he’s grasping at straws:
i) Even if this parable were consistent with univeralism, it is hardly a prooftext. It doesn’t imply universalism.
ii) For that matter, it is equally consistent with Calvinism. The prodigal is the backslider. The elect can backslide. But by the grace of God, the backslider, if elect, will be restored.
iii) And although the younger son is reconciled to his father, the older son is estranged from his father--and for the very same reason. The action of restoring the younger son results in the equal and opposite reaction of the older son, who is alienated by reception accorded his younger brother.
iv) Such a one-sided appeal turns a blind eye to the parables of judgment (Mt 24-25; Lk 12:35-46).

In passing, Bonda takes the distinction between many stripes and few stripes (Lk 12:47-48) to indicate a temporary punishment. But how does that follow?
i) If you take "few" stripes to indicate temporary punishment, in contrast to "many" stripes, then you would have to infer that some of the damned suffer for a while, while others suffer forever. But if you soften the contrast, then you no longer have an argument at all. This illustrates the limitations of figurative language.
ii) Why not cash out the contrast in terms of degree rather than duration? As intensive rather than extensive? The duration is the same, but the severity is not. Surely this is a familiar distinction. Some forms of punishment are sterner than others. A shorter punishment may even be harsher.

He then turns, as he must, to Mt 25:46. His interpretation is nothing short of remarkable:
"Yet it is clear that the sins Jesus lists in this passage do not constitute the blasphemy against the Spirit. Assuming that Jesus did not utter this severe word with the intention of contradicting what he said moments before, we must accept that the sins mentioned in this passage will eventually be forgiven. This means, however strange this may sound to us, that this statement of Jesus about eternal punishment is not the final word for those who are condemned," 70.

Strange indeed! By way of reply: to single out the unpardonable sin, committed in this life, does not imply that everyone will be forgiven of every other sin even if they die impenitent. To say that sins are forgivable is not to say that sins are forgiven. That is to confuse a necessary condition with a sufficient condition. In Scripture, remission is contingent on contrition and atonement.

Bonda then tries to shore up his assertion in a footnote: "the Greek word for eternity (aion) is translated both ‘age’--’this age,’ and the ‘future age’ (Mt 12:32)--and world ‘the end of the world’ (Mt 13:40,49; 28:20). In both cases a time period is intended that has an end" (70).

By way of comment:
i) This would not be an argument for universal salvation, but universal annihilation. Based on the symmetry of Mt 25:46, "eternal" life as well as "eternal" damnation would each enjoy a limited shelf-life.
ii) Bonda offers no semantic evidence that "aion" bears this singular import. He says he consulted a number of reference works, but it doesn’t show. All the reference works that I consulted (BAGD, DNTT, EDNT, Louw-Nida, Turner: Christian Words) boil down to much the same thing: you have a handful of occurrences of the aion/aionias word-group where the it bears a past temporal sense ("ages ago"); another handful where it bears a past atemporal sense ("before the world"); and yet another handful where it bears a spatial sense ("world without end").

In most occurrences it either bears a future temporal sense ("never ending"), or an eschatological sense ("the age to come"). In Johannine usage, the future temporal sense ("eternal life") takes its inception in the present. Now the future temporal sense is operative in at least some of the traditional prooftexts for everlasting punishment, while the eschatological sense is operative in the others.
iii) Even if we limit the force of "aion" to the "age" or the "world" to come, that only pushes the question back a step, for we then must ask, how long is the age to come? And surely one of the distinguishing features of the two ages, in Biblical eschatology, is that the present age is characterized by mortality, as over against the future age. The future age is ageless.
iv) In the Apocalypse, you even have a duplex form ("to the ages of the ages"), which is repeatedly applied to God as well as creaturely agents.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


The term "Hyper-Calvinism" is used in two or three different ways:

1. It is used as a term of abuse for anyone who is more Calvinistic than the accuser. For example, a 4-point Calvinist will accuse a 5-point Calvinist of being a hyper-Calvinist.

In this sense, it is used by someone who wants to strike a compromise between Reformed and Arminian theology. He believes that both are half-right, two halves of a whole, but their relation is one big imponderable paradox.

This usage is unhelpful because it blurs the meaning of a term and confuses what something stands for with what we stand for. I can disagree with something without bending the meaning of the word all out of shape. Labels cease to be useful unless they clearly demarcate a given position and distinguish it from a contrary position. If someone doesn't believe in 5-point Calvinism, he should just find (or make up) a label for his own position rather than stealing ours.

2. It is used of a preacher who refuses to call everyone in the audience to repent of their sins and believe in Christ.

This begins with a Reformed premise, and derives what it considers to be a more consistently Calvinistic conclusion, to wit: if no one can come to Christ who is not chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and regenerated by the Spirit, then it is inappropriate to call on the reprobate or unregenerate to repent of sin and believe in Christ. And since we don't know the state of grace, or graceless state, of every listener, we shouldn't call on anyone to repent and believe.

To my knowledge, this is pretty rare. It seems more often to be a scarecrow erected by the enemies of Calvinism to frighten away any passersby who might take an interest in the doctrines of grace.

By way of reply:

i) Since we have examples of indiscriminate preaching in the OT prophets, the Gospels, and the Book of Acts, hyper-Calvinism, in this sense, is overscrupulous and unscriptural.

ii) We can accept the premise, but reject the conclusion. Since the preacher doesn't know who's who, he should preach to everyone in order to reach the elect.

iii) Since the preacher has no control over election, redemption, and regeneration, there is nothing he can say to make the reprobate come to Christ, or make the elect stay away. So what is he (the hyper-Calvinist) afraid of?

In the name of God's sovereignty, he acts as though he might do something to violate God's sovereignty unless he's oh-so careful. But if God is sovereign, then there is nothing he can do to mess up God's plan.

Ironically, the hyper-Calvinist is guilty of playing God. He's assuming responsibility for certain prior conditions (election, redemption, regeneration) for which God alone is responsible. He's trying to act on what he doesn't know, rather than acting on what he does know.

iv) He is also buying into the old Pelagian principle that ability limits responsibility. If the reprobate or unregenerate can't believe in Christ, then they shouldn't believe in Christ. Hence, they shouldn't be told to believe in Christ.

But this is another false inference. A man who is enslaved to a compulsive-addictive behavior (e.g., drugs, booze, gambling, pornography), may be unable to provide for his family. Yet his inability doesn't discharge him of his familial duties.

3. It is sometimes used of a preacher who does, in fact, call on everyone to repent and exercise faith, but who denies that God loves everyone or wants everyone to be saved or has conferred common grace on everyone.

Ironically, this accuser is the mirror-image of the hyper-Calvinist. For he is saying that the objective offer of the gospel is invalid unless certain divine preconditions are acknowledged and respected. It isn't enough to call on everyone to repent and believe: unless you (the preacher) believe that God seconds your call from the pulpit, then the offer is insincere and sub-par.

For more info on this debate, cf.

I don't quite agree with everything he says, but he does a decent job of untangling the issues.


There is not much more for me to add to what I've already said. What your friend sent you is so confused that it's hard even to make sense of it, much less respond to it.

i) I don't see that the infra/supra debate is relevant to the error of hyper-Calvinism. Infras believe in reprobation, double predestination, special redemption and spiritual inability right along with the supras, so the logic, if we want to call it that, of the hypers is the same under either the infra or supra view.

ii) The summons to repentance and faith is not limited to a one-time conversion experience. Christians always have sins to repent of, and they must always exercise faith in Christ.

iii) As to whether we characterize this summons as an "offer" or something else is one-sided. If you run through the various prooftexts for the offer of the gospel, it is various described as an offer, invitation, command, calling, gift, &c. It is a mistake to insist on one of these formulations to the exclusion of the others. That leads to unscriptural reductionism.

iv) To say that if the Arminian gospel is not the true gospel, then Arminians are not saved is muddled in several respects:

a) Arminian theology is an admixture of truth and error. It can be taken in either a more evangelical direction or else a more Pelagian direction.

b) We are saved by election, but not by believing in election. Because election is true, we should believe in it and commend that belief to others, but one of the things which makes sovereign grace to be sovereign is that it can save men and women with a defective theological understanding--up to a point.

For example, I have no reason to doubt the salvation of John and Charles Wesley, or Moody, or Billy Graham. I'm not so sure about Finney.

c) What, exactly, is there in the offer of the gospel (or whatever we want to call it) that we should not urge upon elect and reprobate alike?

Take repentance. Don't all men have a moral duty to obey God? And if they sin, don't they have an obligation to repent?

Total depravity subtracts from their ability, but not their duty. To say otherwise is to say that the more wicked I am, the less responsible I am for my sin. By that line of logic, the more evil I am, the more innocent I am. Talk about another gospel--that sounds like how the Devil would rewrite the gospel! :-)

What about faith in Christ? If it is true that Christ is the Savior of the world and the Lord of the universe, then shouldn't everyone believe that and trust in him? Isn't there a standing obligation on the part of everyone to believe in whatever is true?

Ah, but if Christ didn't die for the reprobate, then they are not qualified to believe in him, right?

Wrong! It's Arminians who define the offer of the gospel in those terms. In the examples of Gospel preaching in the NT, you never run across a conversion formula which consists of believing that Christ died for me as a condition of salvation.

The *fact* that Christ died for the elect alone is a condition of salvation, but *believing* that Christ died for the elect alone is not a condition of salvation. Since the Scriptural offer of the gospel is never framed in those terms, it is applicable to elect and reprobate alike.

As, as a practical matter, the reprobate will never believe it any way, while only the elect will believe it, so where's the harm?

The elect will believe that Christ died for them as a result of believing in him. Let's not get the cart before the horse.

Again, the point is not that the preacher goes self-consciously out of his way to target the reprobate. No, the point is that he shouldn't be inhibited by any self-conscious scruples and anxieties. Leave the sorting out of the sheep and the goats to God on the day of judgment!

I actually don't seem much point in getting into an argument with a hyper. Its like debating with a Shaker. Some problems have a way of taking care of themselves. Just as cults which insist on celibacy have a way of dying out of their own accord, for lack of physical offspring--cults which don't evangelize have a way of dying out for lack of spiritual offspring. They lose by winning!

A few other points:

i) Most of the folks on this website are nobodies. Those worth reading are: Brine, Hoeksema, Owen, Pink, Romaine, Rushton, Spurgeon, and Toplady.

ii) As to Hoeksema, I think Hoeksema is right about the well-meant offer, and Murray is wrong; I think that Murray is right about common grace, and Hoeksema is wrong.

Hoeksema's strong points are as follows: he has a very logical mind. As a restored backslider, he has a heavy doctrinal and existential emphasis on the grace of God. He is also a clear-headed critic of Arminian theology and Arminian tendencies in theology.

But his strengths can also be weaknesses. He is not much of an exegete. Yes, he did commentaries on Romans and Revelation, but these are really exercises in systematic theology under the garb of expository preaching.

He is something of a Johnny-one-note on his pet causes. In addition, his reactionary fixation betrats him into some half-truths and errors.

As to Murray, Murray is a much better exegete. Murray is not nearly as polemical. In addition, Murray has no hobby horse to ride. With Murray, you get a more panoramic vision of Biblical truth.

iii) Puritans and neo-Puritans are excellent at systematic theology and practical theology. They are not as good at exegetical theology. They show their age.

Systematic and practical theology do not date in the same that exegetical theology does. Systematics is dependent on having a good eye for the broad contours of Biblical theology. You can make some mistakes on the interpretation of individual verses, and still get it right on the big picture.

But the art of commentary writing has made advances over the centuries. If you want to know what the Bible means at a verse-by-verse level, you should read a good modern commentary rather than a Puritan or neo-Puritan writer.

Of course, commentators have a theological slant, too. One must be mindful of that. But too many modern-day Calvinists are getting their exegesis from the Puritans. And, frankly, they are inhabiting an allegorical cloud land. It needs to have a firmer footing in the text as it was originally heard.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Is God to blame?

Mr. Nguyen,

A friend drew my attention to your article on the religious implications of the tidal wave.

A few comments:

1. Your article bears a startling resemblance to one published by Martin Kettle in The Guardian:

Do I smell a whiff of plagiarism?

2. Speaking for myself, I’ve never had any respect for folks who only bring up the problem of evil when something spectacular happens in their own generation, or something tragic happens in their personal life.

To begin with, this is a rather psychopathic reaction. The attitude seems to be: evil is only an abstraction unless it happens to me.

Now, at an emotional level, this may be true. But at an intellectual level, you don’t have see something for yourself to know it’s real and form an opinion about it. There have been plenty of well-reported natural disasters over the centuries. A new catastrophe doesn’t raise any new questions. There is no reason to revise one’s worldview in light of the latest instance of natural or moral evil. The exercise reminds me of all those fatuous book titles about the possibility of faith after Auschwitz.

3. In addition, it makes no moral difference whether 30 people die in one day, or one person dies every day for 30 days in a row. When a lot of folks die all at once, that grabs our attention, but there is no moral difference between a sudden sum and a serial sum.

4. It isn’t clear to me why you choose to attack Christian theism rather than Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim theism. Why do you classify Yahweh as an "interventionist" God, but decline to classify Allah as an interventionist God? What about Shiva--the Destroyer?

Is it because you regard the God of the Bible is the only God worth either believing in or disbelieving? If so, I agree! Otherwise, your bias is blatant.

5. You then level a totally incoherent charge against Christian theism. On the one hand, you say that "they might have been chosen because an interventionist God actually regarded the Hindus of India and the Muslims of Indonesia and the Buddhists of Thailand as deserving of earthly suffering."

"In the aftermath to last year's Bam earthquakes, which killed more than 20,000 (mostly Muslim) Iranians, conservative American rabbi Daniel Lapin argued in the Chicago Jewish News that God dispatches natural disasters to punish those who have not embraced Judeo-Christian traditions. Noting that the US had been relatively untouched by natural disasters, Lapin wrote: "We ought to acknowledge that each day, every American derives enormous benefit from the faith of our founders and of their heirs." So goes the pungent logic of one who believes in an interventionist God."

On the other hand, you ask: "And what of the many Christians and Jews, including charity workers, still missing? Do they, and their family members, deserve their suffering?"

Okay, so which is it? Are non-Christians being singled out? Or are Jews and Christians targeted as well? Is it discriminate or indiscriminate?

BTW, Rabbi Lapin, fine man that he is, does not speak for all of Christendom. The very Christians who lay great weight on the sovereignty of God also lay great weight on the often-inscrutable character of divine providence. We do not assume a one-to-one correspondence between a particular sin and a particular judgment. The Bible itself denies such a mechanical correlation. Read John 9:1-3. Read the Book of Job.

6. You bring up the case of underage victims. To this I’d say three things:

i) Christian theology has a doctrine of original sin. You may not like it, but if you’re going to attack the inner logic of Christian theism, you need to take that into account.

ii) Every adult began life as a child. We see a child as he is. God sees a child as he would be or will be.

iii) You complain when children die along with their parents. But if the children survived, I expect you’d gripe about the plight of all the orphans. So this seems to be a red-herring.

7. You confound responsibility and blame. The title of your article poses the question, "Is God to blame?" But the body of your article attributes ultimate responsibility to God. Yet these are too different things. Responsibility is a necessary condition for blame, but it is insufficient to entail blame. Yes, according to Scripture, God is ultimately responsible for whatever happens. That goes with the pay-grade. But he is not solely responsible, and he is not blamable.

There is a vast apologetic literature on this subject. Do you ever read the people you write about?

8. Christian faith is not like a light-switch we flip on and off depending on the vicissitudes of the nightly news. Christian faith is a God-given apprehension of God’s reality and revelation. In Calvin's classic definition, "faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit," Institutes 3.2.7.

9. Of much more interest is the faith of the unbeliever. Why is a secularist so emotionally and intellectually ill-adapted to the only world he claims there to be? Why does he act so disappointed? Why does he act as though there is something wrong with the world when a natural disaster strikes? Why does he act as though things are not the way they’re supposed to be? Where does he get this ideal? Not from the world, obviously.

From and evolutionary standpoint, a tsunami is just an arm of natural selection weeding the garden. If we feel bad about the victims, that is only because evolution has programmed us to empathize with members of our own species.

It is not the nominal Christian who loses his faith in God, but the atheist who loses his faith in the world, which is so very telling. The unbeliever behaves like a believer in a state of deep denial.


<< I don't think Nguyen or other secularists think there's something wrong with the world when an earthquake strikes. They are not questioning the workings of nature, rather they are questioning the workings of theistic belief, especially the interventionist model of God, and also the notion of God as benevolent. >>

No, I think it cuts deeper than that. Certainly it is possible to mount an argument based on the internal logic of a belief-system. The critic doesn't have to subscribe to the belief-system himself to do this. He is merely examining the coherence of the position on its own grounds. Yes, that can be done.

However, the reaction of the typical secularist to natural evil isn't that self-contained. He assigns a tragic significance to the catastrophic loss of life. He thinks it is a bad thing when a natural disaster sweeps away hundreds or thousands of human lives. He renders a value judgment about the consequences of a natural disaster.

So this is based on his own worldview. And this can be one reason, quite irrespective of Christian theism, that he does not subscribe to Christian theism. This is an independent value-judgment which he brings to bear in the evaluation of Christian theism.

And that reaction doesn't make much sense from a secular outlook. A cold-blooded secular analysis would run more along the following lines:

A natural disaster is a mechanism of natural selection. It is a way in which the blind watchmaker weeds his garden. We find the loss of human life disagreeable because almighty natural selection has programmed us to empathize with members of our own species. Such fellow feeling confers is survival advantage on the species by tricking the human carrier into altruistic behavior which will up the odds of passing along his smart genes to the next generation.

As Edward Wilson and Michael Ruse put it, "human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey," "Moral Philosophy as applied science," _Philosophy_ (1986), 61:179.

The underlying fallacy, committed by Kettle and Nguyen alike, is the double standard they apply to theism and atheism. On the one hand, they suggest that a natural disaster is incompatible with their preconception of what Christian theism *would* allow. On the other hand, Nguyen quotes some passages from Scripture to suggest that the outcome is, in fact, consistent with Christian theism, but this is incompatible with his preconception of what God *should* be like.

And beyond that ground-floor duplicity, neither of them regards a secular worldview as disqualified by its dire ramifications. So why do stern consequences disqualify theism, but not atheism? To the extent that we live in a harsh world, any realistic theology will have a hard-nosed aspect. That is not all it will have, but that will be part of the picture.

<< You write that "Every adult began life as a child. We see a child as he is. God sees a child as he would be or will be." Are you suggesting that God foresaw what they would be like as adults and decided to condemn them to an early death because of the sins they would commit? >>

No, my point was in response to Nguyen. He presented the underage victims as an especially problematic case for Christian theism.

Many people see children as innocent. This is a rather romantic view. Children have a violent temper which would turn murderous if it were within their power to act out their impulses. There is no more frightening spectacle than the imaginary idea of a child with godlike powers of omnipotence.

However, it is true that children under the age of discretion are in a condition of diminished responsibility--although they have a keen sense of fair play if you break a promise!

But it is also true that if we knew what some children would become, we would look at them rather differently. In fact, I recall reading a philosophical debate over whether it would be moral to smother Stalin (or some such) in the cradle if we knew the future destiny of that child. This is also the stuff of SF stories about time-travel.

I'm not entering into that debate for now. My immediate point, in relation to Nguyen, is that he is judging God by a narrow, human viewpoint when God would have a far more sweeping perspective. He postulates an omniscient God, only to disprove him by the application of a near-sighted point of view.

The question is not whether kids are especially deserving of death. The question is whether they are morally immune--from a divine vantagepoint. In Christian theology, there are reasons for death above and beyond the guilt of the decedent. It may further some larger objective.

To take a human analogy, a foot-soldier may be more evil than a field commander, but it terms of strategy and tactics, you aim for the field commander, not because he is especially depraved, but because he is more important to the success of the enemy.

As I also said in my reply to Nguyen, astute Christians are extremely reticent about reading divine providence like a cautionary tale.

A few final clarifications:

1. I'm not the one trying to assign blame, here. Kettle and Nguyen are the ones playing the blame-game. Since that is how they chose to frame the debate, I have to answer the question the way the answer was cast.

2. It is also possible to say that there's some blame to go around without blaming everyone concerned.

For example, the West Coast has had a tsunami monitoring system since the 60s. And this is very low-tech. Why didn't the authorities in S. Asia take the elementary precaution of installing a monitoring system as well?

Likewise, the West Coast has certain evacuation procedures in place in case of an earthquake which might generate a tsunami. A few years ago, when I was still living in the NW, some coastal schools were evacuated due to submarine earthquake in the vicinity of Japan or some such place. No tsunami in fact materialized, but the schools were evacuated just in case--since an evacuation needs a little lead time.

Now, seismologists had, naturally enough, registered the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, but they didn't relay that info to the authorities. Why wasn't there a protocol in place for doing that?

In addition, one precursor to a tsunami making landfall is that the water goes out before it comes back in. I've heard on the news that when this happened, what people did, instead of heading for high ground or an upper story building, was to head for the teach and mull around, gawking at the spectacle. This reflects elementary ignorance. Shouldn't the school system be teaching the coastal population what to expect?

The answer is that most folks, including most politicians, are crisis-driven. They put off the day of reckoning until disaster strikes (literally!), then they throw up their hands and ask how this could have happened. With 120K casualties, you can be sure that, after all the recriminations are duly ventilated, all the obvious precautions will now be put in place--now that its too late to do the victims any good.

In a natural and moral order, there are consequences for failing to anticipate and make minimal provision for predictable natural disasters. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if, by the time another natural disaster should strike, preparedness had once again fallen by the wayside and the populace is caught off guard.

3. Kettle and Nguyen contend that an event like the S. Asian tsunami falsifies belief in the Christian God. This objection can take two forms.

i) They can mount an internal argument to the effect that this is inconsistent with what Christian theology would predict for the state of the world.

Indeed, both of them broach that line of argument. However, their objection is prized, not on what Christian theology actually teaches, but on some sort of thirdhand, greeting card version.

There are a lot of fatalities in the pages of Scripture. Some of these reflect the judgment of God, and make use of natural disasters. And some of those entail underage fatalities as well (e.g., the Flood; the Plague of the Firstborn).

In addition, children can die through no fault of their own. We just celebrated the Christmas season. One of the traditional elements of the season is a commemoration of the massacre of the innocents (Mt 2:16-18). In order to kill the Christchild, Herod orders the slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem 2 years and under. And this in fulfillment of OT prophecy (Jer 31:15).

So there is nothing in Christian theology which is contradicted by a natural disaster. Kettle and Nguyen don't know what they're talking about. They attack the Christian faith in studied ignorance of what it allows or disallows.

4. The alternative is to mount an external argument, based on their own value-system. Kettle and Nguyen hint at this tactic as well. They oppose secular naturalism to Christian supernaturalism. But this assumes that naturalism has the inner resources to derive a secular system of ethics. To see some of the hurdles in the way of that program, just read a review of Richard Dawkins latest missive (see below).


<< I'm not an expert on the Christian God - but Christians do seem to believe that God can intervene in individual cases. >>

Yes, this is the traditional view, as held by such classic exponents as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards.

<< In almost every disaster (whether natural or man-made) where there are survivors, you often hear people thanking God they survived. But they overlook the fact that God allowed many others to perish. >>

That depends. "Miracle" is often used rather loosely for highly improbable events like being the only survivor of a plane crash. Skeptics discount this sort of claim on the grounds that, sooner or later, an improbable event is bound to turn up. And there is some truth to that.

However, not all miraculous events (or reports thereof) are statistical anomalies. Premonitions, say, or the sudden and utter remission of terminal cancer after prayer, are resistant to that sort of parsing. The fact that everyone is not cured of terminal cancer in answer to prayer does not, of itself, explain away the cases that are--any more than if I went into a casino, and every hand I played was a royal flush, would my appeal to random chance or the fact that most of the other gamblers were losing save me from a pair of concrete galoshes!

<< I think theism makes more sense if you think of God as the creator of the natural order, including the process of evolution, but not as a power that intervenes in specific cases to affect human beings one way or another or passes judgment on human beings. >>

You don't say why you think this makes more sense than the interventionist model. In Christian theology, there is a balance between providence and miracle. There is room for miraculous intervention, but if that became the norm, then chaos would ensue.

<< I know you'll cite the Bible to refute this notion, but the Bible was written by human beings -- any divine "input" or inspiration is unprovable. Well, that's a whole other matter for debate! >>

It's not that I cite the Bible to refute it. Quoting Scripture to someone who doesn't believe it is obviously a question-begging exercise.

However, it is not question-begging to quote Scripture when folks like Kettle and Nguyen contend that natural disasters such as the recent tsunami falsify Christian theism. There are no simple refutations of Christian theism. For we're dealing here with an interlocking belief-system in which one doctrine can come to the aid of another doctrine at any given pressure point. Hence, there are built-in answers to stock objections. It is not so much that it was designed that way, but it works out that way.


Different religious traditions have different strategies for dealing with the problem of evil. The Hindu/Buddhist theodicy is based on the law of karma. This does involve blaming the victim. And it is, of course, also bound up with belief in reincarnation. For a classic critique, cf. P. Edwards, _Reincarnation_ (Prometheus Books 1996).

This is a philosophical theodicy. At a more down-to-earth level, folk Hinduism and folk Buddhism are polytheistic, so that life is an obstacle course in which you bribe the gods and play one off against another.

Because Muhammad claimed to be the successor and seal of the OT and NT prophets, Islam has a nominal commitment to the notion of an interventionist God. That is a pillar of OT narrative theology, not to mention the life of Christ in the Gospels.

However, this is a rather perfunctory apologetic move on Muhammad's part. He had no real knowledge or grasp of the Bible. He was just using what little he knew of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a launching pad for his own "prophetic" career.

Stripped of this Judeo-Christian residual, Islamic theism is essentially deistic and apophatic. Islam is not a redemptive religion--hence, it has no central place for redemptive miracles. According to a Muslim philosophy of history, the major events in world history are creation, the revelation of the Koran, and the day of judgment.

In addition, Allah is utterly other and intrinsically unknowable. His will is both inexorable and inscrutable--not unlike the old Greek notion of fate.

As a consequence, there is, in Islam, a strong emphasis on blind submission to the capricious will of Allah. Unlike Yahweh, Allah is not a God who binds himself by covenant to a people. Rather, we're just ants on an anthill.

Incidentally, I think this is the major reason why Muslims are so often so irrational. Muslims are just as smart as anyone else, but their religious tradition cultivates a totally unquestioning faith--unlike, say, the Anselmian tradition of faith seeking understanding.

Also, because Islam is not a redemptive religion, their prophets have to be well-nigh perfect. The sins and foibles we run across in the Scriptural accounts of Abraham, Moses, David, and the like are simply inadmissible in Islam. This is why Muslims fly into a homicidal rage against the slightest suggestion that Muhammad may have been subject to the commonplace passions and iniquities of every other man.

The idea of a test of faith or test of character is an ancient one, and is not necessarily religious, although it can be.

This frequently has a humanistic coloration. There is, for example, then ancient idea of trial by ordeal. Here the contestant proves himself to be worthy of some reward.

You can find a carryover of this principle in Catholic martyriology, as well as mysticism (the dark night of the soul) and monasticism (the counsels of perfection--poverty, celibacy, obedience; not to mention other austerities, viz., vow of silence, self-flagellation, hair-shirt, &c.).

In classic Protestantism (e.g., Calvinism, Lutheranism), there is no place for human merit in salvation, and hence, no place for trial by ordeal in this sense.

You also get, in liberal theology, the idea that faith in God is an inherently dubious affair, and hence, faith is an act of the will, suppressing our doubts. On this view, a test of faith is a test of our willpower.

Again, in classic Protestant theology, faith is a gift of God. God is both the source and object of faith. Hence, there is no need for a test of faith in this sense.

At the same time, the heat of adversity can either melt or harden an untested faith. It has opposite effects depending on the believer. And this is also a mark of whether faith is of grace, or simply a hereditary relic.

One function of adversity in Christian piety and theology is to give faith an existential dimension. For the most part, Christian faith is a form of knowledge by description rather than acquaintance--of faith in things past and future rather than here-and-now. But by experiencing the providence of God in our lives as he carries us through various adversities, faith is enriched.

In Scripture there are some notable challenges to faith. Among the best known cases are the trial of Abraham (Gen 22), the Book of Job, and the temptation of Christ in the desert (Mt 4; par. Lk 4), as well as the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26; par. Lk 22).

People usually read the Book of Job out of context, ignoring the programmatic function of the prologue (1-2). The book of Job is not about the worthiness of Job, but about the worthiness of God. Is God worthy of total devotion? Job's faith under fire supplies the occasion for illustrating an affirmative answer to this question. Job is singled out to honor God by his steadfast faith.

There is no entirely satisfactory explanation of the trial of Abraham if we limit ourselves to Gen 22. It can only be understood as it was understood in the Gospel of John, where Abraham prefigures God the Father and Isaac prefigures Christ as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29,36; cf. Gen 22:8) and only Son of the Father (Jn 3:16). Just as Isaac brings the firewood to the altar, Christ bears his cross to Calvary (Jn 19:17). Just as Isaac submits to self-immolation, Christ submits to crucifixion.

Likewise, the temptation of Christ in the wilderness recapitulates the temptation of Israel in the wilderness. He suffers for his people. And when his people suffer, they take comfort and courage in the fact that they have in him an empathetic high priest who has been there before them and gone before them to prepare a way to God. This is the leading theme of the Book of Hebrews.


I agree with this and would only add a few other points:

1. You know the old distinction between the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues, and there is some truth to that. Neighbor-love really is a Christian virtue. It is not something that common grace supplies.

Ecumenists decry the fact that denominationalism makes a poor witness to the world, and there's a grain of truth in that, but you only have to compare a broadly Christian culture, even a nominally Christian culture, with a pre-Christian, post-Christian, or anti-Christian culture, be it Buddhist, Marxist, fascist, Dutch, Hindu, pagan (e.g., Aztec, Assyrian, Iroquois), Muslim, &c., to see how much we're taking for granted.

2. In Calvinism, God is translucent to reason; in Islam, God is opaque to reason. In Calvinism, God has a plan for the world. What is more, his has a revealed plan for the world. It is not revealed in exhaustive detail, but it is knowable and known in broad outline.

His providence is often mysterious in detail, but our knowledge of his plan enables us to make some sense of his providence.

In Islam, God has a will, but no apparent plan or purpose. Islam has a doctrine of revelation, but it is the revelation of an inapprehensible God. Although various attributes are apparently predicated of Allah in the Koran, their ascription is equivocal rather than analogical.

There was a fight over in the early days of Islam between the progressive, rationalist wing (Mu'tazilites) and the apophatic old guard (Ash'arites). The Ash'arites won, the Mu'tazilites lost. The former represent orthodox Islam, the latter--heresy. So we end up with a classic contrast between predestination (Calvinism) and fatalism (Islam).

3. This also accounts, I think, for our (US) failures in Iraq. Americans are a charitable, proactive, problem-solving, can-do people. Bush acted as though Iraqis would react to the liberation the way Americans would.

But Iraq, being a Muslim country, Iraqis are passive, suspicious, superstitious, risk-aversive, uncharitable, and fatalistic.

This is not to deny that we've make some friends there and have some success stories (under-reported in the media), but it's obvious that the level of public support has been pretty pathetic. And it was naive to expect otherwise.

Natural disaster

Mr. Kettle,

A friend drew my attention to your column on the problem of evil.

It is hard to know where to begin.

1. Unlike you, many Christians don’t wait around for disaster to strike before working out a position on the problem of evil. Augustine wrote about the problem of evil in his magnum opus on _The City of God_. This is widely available in translation. Aquinas wrote about the problem of evil in his commentary on the Book of Job. This is also accessible in translation. Cf. _Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition of Job: A Scriptural Commentary Concerning Providence_, A. Damico & M. Yaffe eds. (Scholars Press 1989). There is even an online precis of the argument at:

For a more recent treatment of divine providence, cf. P. Helm, The Providence of God (IVP 1994).

I notice that, when it comes to the subject of religion, many op-ed writers feel that they have a perfect right to air their opinions without benefit of research. Perhaps you can explain that presumptuous policy to me and your other readers.

2. For reasons you never explain, you set up a dichotomy between a theological explanation and a scientific explanation. What makes you think that belief in a seismic mechanism is incompatible with belief in God? Christian theology is not opposed to the idea of second-causes. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith discusses second-causes in relation to the plan and providence of God (cf. WCF: 3:1; 5:2).

3. You describe the Lisbon earthquake as “appalling.” Interesting choice of words. Is that a scientific analysis? Is that an empirical property adhering to earthquakes?

To call an earthquake appalling is not to render a scientific judgment, but a value judgment. But, according to your column, there are only two types of explanation: scientific and theological. And you treat these as mutually exclusive. So where does the ethical evaluation of a natural event fit into your worldview?

4. How, exactly, do you think that a natural disaster undermines the notion of a divine order? How can you ask why an earthquake will strike in some places, but not others?

Natural disasters are not random events. To begin with, natural disasters (e.g., volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, forest fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, electrical storms) serve a natural purpose. Many of them function as a natural safety valve to equalize the buildup of potential energy, extreme pressure or heat imbalance.

Moreover, different natural disasters are generated by different natural conditions. This may be news to you, but one only encounters a volcanic eruption where one encounters a volcano.

5. We choose to characterize certain natural events as “disastrous” or “catastrophic” because they are disastrous or catastrophic for us. But natural elements and natural forces have a constructive as well as destructive aspect. Fire warms, but fire burns. Too little water will kill you, but too much water will kill you as well.

6. Many natural disasters are avoidable. Men choose to live in regions prone to certain natural disasters. Men choose to wait until disaster strikes before they take precautions. Men often create the conditions for a natural disaster through shortsighted policies.

One consequence of living in a moral order is that if you tempt fate, if you choose to be foolhardy, you may lose the bet. If you choose to live in the tropics, you expose yourself to tropical storms. If you choose to live at sea level along the shoreline, you expose yourself to coastal flooding. If you live in a dry, wooded area, you expose yourself to wildfire. If you love to live around mountains, you expose yourself to volcanoes, earthquakes, and snowslides. If you deforest a hill, you expose yourself to mudslides. If you build on a landfill, you expose yourself to liquefaction. If you live on a riverbank, you may get inundated. If you live in a drought-prone region, you may suffer from famine. If you go outside in a thunder storm, you may be struck by lightning. If you swim with sharks, you may be eaten. If you swim at all, you may drown. If you live around rattlesnakes, you may be bitten. If you hike in the mountains, you may die of exposure. If you climb a mountain, you may tumble to your death.

My point here is not to assign blame. My point, rather, is that where you choose to live is often a calculated risk. Life consists in a series of tradeoffs. A natural disaster is only a challenge to religious faith for a columnist who entertains an utterly childish notion of how the world should work.

7. You can only become disillusioned if you nurse illusions in the first place. You can only see your expectations dashed if you foster false expectations. People in Bible-times knew about earthquakes (Amos 1:1; Zech 14:5).

8. Nature is cyclical. God has made it so in order that we can plan our lives accordingly (Gen 8:22). Without a measure of constancy to the natural world, life would be utterly unpredictable, which would, in turn, make it very difficult to live at all.

This enables us to harness the forces of nature. But, by the same token, we must respect the forces of nature. In ancient Egypt, the agricultural economy was dependent on a natural disaster--the annual flooding of the Nile.

Electricity is a source of electrocution and electrification alike. Used the right way, it will make life a lot easier; used the wrong way, it will put an end to life.

Life would be pretty inconvenient without gravity. Imagine trying to survive in a weightless environment? But if you fall off a cliff, then gravity becomes, for you, a natural evil. Ought God to suspend the laws of nature every time someone somewhere does something dangerous? Consider how that would jeopardize everyone else? If everything were miraculous, life would be a nightmare.

9. Yes, there's a sense in which many accidents and natural disaster are indiscriminate. Yet they are indiscriminate, not in the sense that the innocent die along with the guilty, but in the sense that some sinners live, while other sinners die. Jesus spoke of this. He refers to an incident, fresh in the minds of his audience, of a tower that collapsed, killing eighteen people (Lk 13:4). He then says something which must be shocking to modern sensibilities: “Do you think they were worse sinners than anyone else? Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish!”

The victims were sinners, and the survivors were sinners. Those who died didn't die because they were especially sinful, especially deserving of death over and above those who came out of it alive.

In a fallen world, every life is forfeit, every life under divine judgment. God is under no obligation to spare the lives of sinners. Everyone dies sooner or later. And death is a sanction for sin.

You say there is only one big question to ask about the tidal wave: why did it happen? But, no. The one big question to ask is this: what happens to you after you die? And the lesson we should take away from a natural catastrophe is this: “Repent, lest you perish as well!”


<< Some comments about choice:

You talk about people "choosing" to live in the tropics, or on the coast, or various other places where potential dangers lurk. Actually, the vast majority of people in the world don't choose where they live. They're born there and grow up there. They're part of societies and cultures that have been rooted in a given place for hundreds or thousands of years. >>

This objection teeters on an obvious equivocation. No, people don't choose where they are born. But that wasn't my point, was it? There is a clear difference between where you were born and whether you choose to live out your days in your place of birth.

Yes, they are rooted in an ancient culture. And this supplies a disincentive to pull up roots. People generally like to live among their own kind, stick with what they know.

That's natural and understandable. There's nothing wrong with that. Often there's a lot that's right with that. But it's a choice all the same, and it comes with certain consequences.

<< Also, most of these people are not in a financial position to just pack up and go somewhere else. >>

i) Isn't it often the other way round? People emigrate to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves? To take one example, the Irish emigrated to America to escape the potato famine.

ii) The question of poverty is where natural and moral evil sometimes intersect. Why are people poor? Well, there are a variety of reasons. They may live in a region that lacks the natural resources to support a large population. That is a natural evil, but to some extent it is an avoidable natural evil.

Or they may be poor because a powerful few exploit the masses. That is a moral evil. At the same time, some oppressed peoples revolt while others suffer under the yoke for generations on end. That is a choice. Both choices have consequences. To mount a revolt is not risk-free. But to live under oppression carries a cost as well. Each choice is reasonable. Each choice has its tradeoffs.

iii) Some people continue to have more children than they can support. This was understandable before the days of contraception, but it continues to be the case in many parts of the world where contraception is available.

That, again, is a choice. I have no objection to large families. But there are consequences in either case.

<< Certainly the kids who were killed were not in a position to assess the dangers of living there and decide to move elsewhere. >>

Parents make choices for their kids. Kids benefit from having prudent parents, and suffer from having imprudent parents. If a father is jailed for theft, his kids will suffer. One of the things that makes a moral evil evil is that the innocent may suffer along with the guilty, for things done by evil-doers.

<< Besides, tsunamis are not a frequent phenomenon in the Indian Ocean region. >>

True, but that's a gamble, isn't it? A calculated risk.

<< As for the millions living on the coasts of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, or Tamil Nadu (southern India) being a foolhardy bunch -- if anything, it's the opposite. >>

Now you're applying my characterization to examples to which it does not apply. Risk ranges along a continuum. If I build a house on the bluffs of La Jolla, erosion may eat away at the foundations. If I build a house on a riverbank, or shoreline, or dry, wooded area, I assume a heightened risk. I do so for a heightened advantage--the pretty view.

Fine, I like pretty views. But if disaster strikes, I either have no one to blame but myself, or else it isn't a question of assessing blame at all.

If mountain-climbing is my hobby, I assume an added risk. You could multiply examples as well as I can. Some risk-taking is reckless, other forms are more reasonable, but they still play the odds, and when you choose to play the odds, you're luck may run out.

Only an ideology drenched in the politics of victimology, an ideology which treats every adult as a minor incapable of informed consent, would take exception to my common sense observations on this particular point. But that seems to be where Kettle and Nguyen are coming from.

<< These are all areas where people can earn a livelihood through fishing, coconut harvesting, and various related activities. They're lush, temperate areas that normally provide ample food and materials for shelter. >>

Yes, and that makes it a reasonable choice--a reasonable risk assessment. But the cost/benefit ratio doesn't make it 100% safe or risk-free. It only means that the positives generally outweigh the negatives.

<< To talk about "choosing" the region one lives in is a very American way of looking at things, where people pack up and move pretty much at will. >>

Surely you're not serious? How was America colonized in the first place? And not just by the Europeans. What about the Mesoamerican civilizations (Inca, Aztec, Maya). These are not indigenous to the new world.

Trade & travel (by land and by sea), immigration/emmigration, invasion, conquest, empire-building are a commonplace of Far Eastern, ANE and Levant--of Orient and Occident alike. Writers like Charles Hapgood (Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings) and Cyrus Gordon (Riddles in History; Before Columbus) have written extensively on this subject, while field archaeologists like the late Thor Heyerdahl have actually recreated some of the ancient mechanisms of cultural diffusion. The itch to discovery the unknown is not a modern phenomenon--think of Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and Pytheas of Massalia? Think of how Alexander sent cultural artifacts back to Aristotle.

<< And even in the US, millions live in harm's way, for example, in Charleston, South Carolina, which is in a hurricane zone, in Florida, also hurricane country, the Midwest, which is prone to tornados, Southern California, which is prone to earthquakes and wildfires, etc etc. >>

Yes, and the point of that is...what? I referred to general geographical phenomena which are applicable wherever they apply. We happen to be talking about S. Asia because that's where the tsunami struck, and not because the US is immune to natural disasters.


Thanks for the Safire article:


By way of comment:

1. The date of Job is any one's guess, but I'm inclined to date it to the Solomonic age or a little thereafter.

2. Safire appears to date it to the Exile. I don't see that the book was occasioned by a national crisis of faith. On the face of it, the book was occasioned by a personal crisis of faith. The inspired record of Job's tribulations was canonized for its benefit to other believers who must suffer in the dark.

3. I seem to recall reading a review of Safire's book which indicated his belief in a finite God--a la Kushner.

4. Readers are often disappointed by the fact that God, in the speech from the whirlwind, never directly answers Job's question. But this misses the point:

i) The answer is given, not at the end of the book, but the beginning (prologue).
ii) The answer is given, not to Job, but to the reader. The very nature of Job's ordeal is that he cannot know the reason. If he were in on the huddle between the Lord and the Accuser, then the tension between faith and sight would be dissolved.

5. There is a difference between saying that so-and-so got what he deserved, and saying that so-and-so's calamity is a direct punishment for his sin.

Due to sin, we are all liable to suffering and/or punishment. None of us get worse than we deserve from God. But it does not follow from this that because so-and-so got what he deserved, he got it because he deserved it.

Sin makes me deserving of punishment. Thus, if I suffer for sin, I suffer no injustice on account of sin--not from God.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm suffering a particular punishment for a particular sin. It is just that, as a sinner, I have no claims on God, so God can treat me more harshly than a sinless person. Now, he may not be treating me harshly because I'm a sinner. He may be treating me harshly because that serves a long-range objective which has very little to do with me, except as a means to an end. But my sinful status is a precondition for this treatment.

To take an example from the proverbial illustration of lifeboat ethics, suppose the ship is on fire and taking on water. There is only one lifeboat left. Suppose I have a handgun. That gives me the power to say who gets on and who gets left behind. There are more passengers than room on the boat. I have to choose between an abortionist, on the one hand, and a wife and mother, on the other.

Given that choice, I would let the mother and child onto the lifeboat, but bar the abortionist. In effect, I'm handing him a death-sentence.

Now, I'm not doing so because he's an abortionist. All other things being equal, it's none of my business. Ordinarily, I wouldn't throw him over board on sight! His occupation, taken by itself, is not a sufficient reason for me to discriminate.

But in this situation, given the different moral status of the abortionist in relation to the mother and child, I do treat him differently. His occupation does supply a necessary condition, to treat him less well than the mother and child. (If you don't like the example of an abortionist, you can make a mental substitution more to your liking.)

So sin gives God a moral warrant to treat sinners rather ruthlessly. Sinners are not entitled to a sense of entitlement. Given that the sinner's life is forfeit to God, God wrongs no sinner by taking his life or causing him to suffer.

And in some cases, that may be a direct punishment for a specific sin. But it need not be.

Job is not being punished for anything in particular. But given that he is deserving of punishment, this renders his ordeal at the hands of God a just desert, even if, as is the case, it was inflicted for reasons other than the exactation of divine justice.

4. Sinners never have a right to get angry with God. This is an irrational reaction. If you believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and beneficent, then it is unreasonable to challenge the wisdom of his ways.

Now, when men are in a state of physical or emotional pain or exhaustion, or when they find themselves in a truly desperate situation, they are prone to mindlessly lash out.

And God, in his magnanimous mercy, puts up with a certain amount of this--like a father with an ill-tempered child. But when the sinner recovers his right state of mind--which only obtains in the case of a Christian--then he should repent of his folly and impiety, praising God for his long-suffering love.

5. I'd add that getting angry with God is a half-truth. When unbelievers get angry with God's disposition of the world, they pay a grudging regard to the fact that God is, indeed, the Lord of all.

When unbelievers deny the existence of God on account of evil, they act like a child who is disillusioned with his father. Their reaction bears an attitude which is at once childish (in the bad sense), and childlike (in the good sense).

6. Safire is mistaken to insinuate that the OT lacks a doctrine of the afterlife.

7. The happy ending is not a prosaic add-on. God is not a sadist. Because Job passed the test, he is restored. This is not like Greek tragedy where Oedipus gouges out his eyes and curses the darkness for the remainder of his days.

Of course, there are losses in life which cannot be redeemed on this side of the grave. Yet there has also been a moral and spiritual progression in the Book of Job--from beginning to end. It is not all loss without compensatory gain, and the gain is more than a mere reversion to the status quo ante.

This is the difference between Greek tragedy and Christian comedy. Comedy, in the technical sense, is a uniquely Biblical genre. Tragedy is the genre of the damned, and comedy of the redeemed.

8. It is certainly a gross misreading of Job for Safire to suppose that God is in charge of the natural order, but not the moral order. In the wisdom literature, God is very much the Lord of both domains.