In a recent presentation (at least recent for me), David Bentley Hart presented a defence of universalism. In one part of the presentation (from about 25:15 to about 27:10), he makes an argument against Calvinism and the idea of damnation to eternal conscious torment, i.e. Hell. The argument goes something like this:
- Let us imagine the best-case scenario, that there is only unfortunate soul damned to Hell, let’s also presume that this unfortunate soul is bad guy, let’s say he’s Hitler.
- Let us also accept the Calvinistic idea that God damns people in order to show his wrath and that those who are saved or damned (in other words everyone) are preordained by God to be “vessels of mercy” or “vessels of wrath” not through their own will, but rather Gods decree.
- Given that anyone of us could have just as easily been chosen to be a vessel of wrath then this one who is damned ends up becoming nothing less than our ransom, our atonement, who bares the wrath of God on him so that we, through no will of our own can escape it.
In Calvinistic theology, an individual’s will contributes nothing to his salvation and thus ones damnation has nothing to do with ones will either. This individual “Hitler” may think he has free will, he thinks he is doing the evil things he does out of his own desire, but this is really just a joke played on him, God is fully in control. God ordains Hitler to do evil, and even to wish evil, so that God can demonstrate his wrath on the sinful nature of Hitler. The whole life of Hitler is nothing but a charade, a play acted out in order for God to damn Hitler forever. But remember, just as God is free to save whoever he so chooses, he is also free to damn who he wishes. So just as much as Hitler was pre-ordained to will and do evil and be damned, it could have been you or me or were made as a vessel of wrath, but it wasn’t because thankfully it wasn’t us, it was Hitler (in this scenario). To Quote John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion 22,11:
We come now to the reprobate, to whom the Apostle at the same time refers (Rom. 9:13). For as Jacob, who as yet had merited nothing by good works, is assumed into favor; so Esau, while as yet unpolluted by any crime, is hated. If we turn our view to works, we do injustice to the Apostle, as if he had failed to see the very thing which is clear to us. Moreover, there is complete proof of his not having seen it, since he expressly insists that when as yet they had done neither good nor evil, the one was elected, the other rejected, in order to prove that the foundation of divine predestination is not in works. Then after starting the objection, Is God unjust? instead of employing what would have been the surest and plainest defense of his justice—viz. that God had recompensed Esau according to his wickedness, he is contented with a different solution—viz. that the reprobate are expressly raised up, in order that the glory of God may thereby be displayed. At last, he concludes that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth (Rom. 9:18). You see how he refers both to the mere pleasure of God. Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.
So if we just replace Jacob with all those who are saved and Esau with Hitler, (btw, there is a huge problem with Calvin’s taking God’s election for a people from which the messiah would come and applying the same logic to who is and who is not going to be eventually reconciled to God, but that’s for a different post) then Hitler was chosen before time to be damned. He was predestined to be evil and then damned in order to maximize God’s glory in his assigning of mercy to the saved. However, if the display of God’s glory is partially dependant on God damning Hitler, and predestining his reprobate nature, then how are we to think of “Hitler”? He is damned so that we may be saved, since had he not been damned it would have been one of us who suffered God’s wrath in order to that God’s glory is fully displayed. Does that not make Hitler our real ransom? Our real atonement?
In Trinitarian Calvinistic theology, The God/man dies for our sins, but not really, just the human nature of the God man, God himself does not die, and that human nature is resurrected on the third day. But that doesn’t really fully appease God’s wrath against sin, since God’s wrath against sin is still poured out on those who are pre-ordained to be reprobate, and necessarily so, in order to demonstrate Gods glory in showing mercy on the saved. The real saviour is the damned, since he doesn’t just go through a pseudo-death (like the Trinitarian Godman) but he rather suffers eternal torment, believing his rebellion from God is his own, when really it was all Gods decree all along that this damned person receive his wrath so that others may be vessels of mercy. He dies and is damned so that we may be saved and see God’s mercy, the death and resurrection of Jesus becomes, in this scenario, frankly, trivial.