In “Calvinism as a logical contradiction,” I reproduced Zeno’s very detailed attempt to demonstrate that Calvinism entails a logical contradiction. I’m grateful for Zeno’s efforts and his clearly evident acumen. Despite this fact, I’m wholly unpersuaded by his efforts.
In this response I’m going to direct my criticism at premise (10) of Zeno’s argument. To recap,
(10) Necessarily, it is wicked to freely decree the eternal ruin of human persons for the sake of one’s glory. (a priori moral truth)
The problems begin with the fact that Zeno fails to present the strongest form of his interlocutor’s position. This leaves him susceptible to the charge of a Strawman fallacy.
God’s glory and Batman
There are two primary problems with this premise and they relate to the phrases “sake of one’s glory” and “freely decree”.
To begin with, the phrase “for the sake of one’s glory” is deeply misleading here. After all, it conveys the sense of a person perversely seeking to gratify themselves through the suffering of others. Frankly, this is a caricature if not a rank perversion of the Reformed position. Certainly it is a caricature of the Reformed position that I’ve adumbrated several times in the discussion threads precipitated by my initial argument.
The point of God’s issuing decrees of election and reprobation is not to glorify God for God’s sake but rather for the cumulative benefit of creation. Any Reformed theologian will tell you that God exists a se and his glory is infinite independent of creation. His glory is already infinite and cannot be increased. What can be increased, however, is the creature’s grasp of God’s glory. And since God is perfect, he always acts to maximize the creature’s grasp of his glory, not for his own benefit but rather for that of the creature.
Next, the Reformed position I’ve defended here proposes that the maximization of God’s glory for the sake of the creature requires the opportunity for God to demonstrate every one of his attributes.
Consider an analogy. Imagine that Bruce Wayne gets married, has a child, and settles into comfortable suburban life. One might think that for the child to know their father most fully, they would have to experience Bruce Wayne not only as the laid back suburban dad, but also as the foreboding, nocturnal, crime fighting Batman: black cape, mask, raspy voice, and all. And if this is the case, then Bruce Wayne would require some conflict as an occasion for him to assume his Batman persona and thereby exhibit the full range of his traits so that his child might know him more fully, not only as the suburban dad, but also as the crime fighting superhero.
That analogy, imperfect though it may be, gives us some sense of the intuition at work here. Just as Bruce Wayne requires conflict to demonstrate his crime fighting attributes, so God requires some degree of conflict to demonstrate his attributes of justice, wrath (for the reprobate) and mercy (for the elect). It is only by way of some degree of conflict and rebellion in creation that God can most fully maximize his glory for the benefit of his creatures.
From what I’ve said thus far, it should be clear why “freely decree” is equally problematic. On the Reformed view I’m defending here, God is not free to create creatures without reprobating a subset of those creatures insofar as the reprobation of some of those creatures is a requirement for the divine drive to maximize God’s glory.
God and the Trolley Dilemma
So if Zeno wanted a more accurate premise, he’d need to drop (10) and substitute something like this:
(10′) Necessarily, it is wicked for God to issue a decree of reprobation for a subset of creatures even though this decree is issued for the cumulative benefit of the majority of creatures.
At this point, the Trolley Dilemma is relevant. Imagine God standing by the railroad tracks. The trolley is hurtling down the tracks and if it is not averted, it will egregiously injure untold numbers of people. This is equivalent to the world in which, per impossibile, God never issues a decree of reprobation, resulting in all creatures being deprived of the full maximization of the divine glory.
And so, in all possible worlds in which there are creatures that can benefit from the maximal presentation of the divine glory, God acts to secure the benefit of the majority by flipping the switch and sending the trolley onto the sidetrack wherein exists a decree of reprobation that aversely affects a subset of humanity whilst benefiting the majority.
The intuitive appeal of the Trolley Dilemma and Compatibilist Free Will
Note as well two additional points that support the intuitive appeal of this account.
First, most people sympathize with the reasoning behind the Trolley decision. We need not be straight up utilitarians to recognize that there are instances where we have a forced choice and we act to minimize the harm (and maximize the good) to the greatest number. So if human beings can envision the occasion where we might need to flick the trolley switch, we should concede the possibility that the maximally great creator and sustainer of all might likewise have occasion to flick a cosmic switch of election … and be well within his rights when he does.
Second, please keep in mind that on this account, compatibilism is true. That is, the free will of creatures is consistent with the divine determination for them to act. And compatibilism is the majority position among philosophers when it comes to free will. So on this account God violates no person’s free will. Nor does he force them to do anything. Statements to the contrary are simply mistaken and suggest that the objector really has a problem with compatiblism as a theory of free will rather than with Calvinism per se.
The Arminian Dilemma
Finally, let’s also note that Arminians who retain their objection to the propriety of God treating the reprobate in such a “callous” way need to address their own dilemma. Consider two scenarios of election based on the assumption of libertarian (Arminian) freedom:
In world 1, Randal freely chooses to follow God and is saved while Adolf Hitler freely chooses to reject God and is lost.
In world 2, Randal freely chooses to reject God and is lost while Adolf Hitler freely chooses to follow Go and is saved.
God ultimately decides to create world 1 (*fingers crossed!*) instead of world 2. By doing this, God effectively chooses Randal and all others that freely choose God in that possible world. And God is effectively rejecting Adolf and all others that freely reject God in that possible world.
Note how close this picture is to the Reformed picture. In both cases, God is seeking to attain a particular good (Calvinist: maximization of divine glory; Arminian: free will), and in each case the desire to attain that good results in the effective “sacrifice” of a subset of creatures (i.e. the reprobate).
This suggests that if Zeno’s argument did work, it would arguably apply not merely to Calvinists but Arminians as well.
But it doesn’t work, not least because Zeno has yet to address Calvinism in its strongest and most plausible forms.
Two final caveats
First, the Calvinist is not committed to a pessimistic view on the ratio of elect to reprobate. Indeed, it could be that the elect vastly outnumber the reprobate. So one cannot sustain an objection based on a pessimistic assumption that the number of the reprobate is substantial relative to the number of the elect.
Finally, also note that the Calvinist need not be committed to eternal conscious torment. It could be, for example, that annihilationism is true and that final destruction resulting in the cessation of existence is sufficient to demonstrate God’s glory. The nature of hell is also an intramural debate among Calvinists. So one also cannot sustain an objection based on an assumption about the eternal horrors of hell since a Calvinist need not endorse eternal conscious torment.
Let me conclude by reiterating that I am not a Calvinist. Indeed, I have written many articles critiquing Calvinism. But I always try to make it a point to consider my interlocutor’s position in its strongest forms. And when I do that in this case, I am persuaded that Calvinism can be articulated as a logical and possibly true position, even if it remains in my opinion a very implausible view.