This article was originally published at The Christian Post in January, 2010.
Many Christians assume that God loves all people. This is hardly surprising since scripture declares that God loves all creation (John 3:16-17) and desires to see all people saved (1 Tim.2:4; 2 Pe.3:9). Indeed, the notion that God is loving to all, a doctrine known among theologians by the fancy name “omnibenevolence”, would qualify for many as a basic axiom, a starting point for all further theological reflection.
As such, it may be surprising to discover that theologians within the Calvinist tradition reject the doctrine of divine omnibenevolence. There are two ways that they do this. To begin with, some affirm that God loves all people but that he has a special love for the elect, or those he has chosen for salvation. (Thus, he is not maximally benevolent toward all, as omnibenevolence declares.) This position affirms a passage like John 3:16-17, but clarifies that the general love God has for all creation is different from the saving love he has for his elect creatures.
The other position stakes out a more unambiguous position by declaring without qualification that God does not love those he does not save; indeed, he hates them. And why does he hate them? I will argue in a subsequent post that the reasons are arbitrary. That is, he could just as easily have loved those he hates and hated those he loves as hated those he hates and loved those he loves. That, I would submit, is a deeply disturbing implication, both theologically and pastorally. But more on that later.
Let’s focus here on the first view that God loves all but loves some with a special love. Consider the words of Reformed theologian and New Testament scholar D.A. Carson:
When he says he loves us, does not God rather mean something like the following? “Morally speaking, you are the people of the halitosis, the bulbous nose, the greasy hair, the disjoined knees, the abominable personality. Your sins have made you disgustingly ugly. But I love you anyway, not because you are attractive, but because it is my nature to love.” And in the case of the elect, God adds, “I have set my affection on you from before the foundation of the universe, not because you are wiser or better or stronger than others but because in grace I chose to love you.” [The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 63.]
Note the Carson is claiming here that God loves all people, and then places a special love on those he has chosen for salvation.
There is no problem understanding the second part. If a particular individual is unlovable and not worthy of salvation and God chooses to save them anyway, then that would indeed seem to testify to God’s benevolence toward and thus love of them.
But what about the rest, those left unchosen or (conversely) those chosen not to be saved? In what sense does God love them? Carson begins with the observation that the unchosen (and the chosen too) are morally abominable.
This leads us to the first problem: according to Calvinism, the primary reason that people are morally abominable is because God willed that it would be so. Thus, those who are ripe for damnation (that means all of us) are damnable because God willed that we would fall. God could also have willed that we not fall and so not be damnable, but he did not.
(Amazingly, this point is sometimes missed by Calvinists. Thus you can have Calvinist flag bearer Mark Driscoll talking about the “free will defense” of God’s goodness over-against evil when this theodicy contradicts his Calvinist theology.)
Second, having left the unchosen in a damnable state, God then proceeds to damn them for eternity. According to a traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment, this means that God subjects them to the most unimaginable, excruciating punishments, and he does so for eternity.
So to sum up, the unchosen are fallen because God wills as primary cause that they reject his perfect will (or what theologians sometimes call his preceptive will). Second, when they (freely) act in accord with God’s primary determining will, he then subjects them to the most horrifying suffering imaginable for eternity.
But then how can Carson seriously propose that a God who elects all to fall and only some to be saved can then declare, “But I love you anyway, not because you are attractive, but because it is my nature to love”? What love is it that could will a creature to fall, and then will that that creature suffer the most unimaginable torment forever? Would it not make more sense to call this hatred?