Calvinism, Arminianism and Omnibenevolence

, posted by SEA

Calvinism, Arminianism and Omnibenevolence

This post was written by Randal Rauser, PhD

[Please note that Dr. Rauser is not a member of SEA and that SEA does not necessarily endorse all of his theological positions. We include this post on our site because we think it helpful in some respects.]

Arminians like to point out that according to Calvinism God elects some people to damnation. Of course some Calvinists try to soften this teaching by claiming that the election to damnation is a passive divine act according to which God simply “passes over” and thereby opts not to redeem these people.

Unfortunately this shift in nomenclature doesn’t really make the divine act of election to damnation passive in an ethically significant way. Indeed, it calls to mind James Rachels’ famous thought experiment on passive euthanasia so I’m going to borrow from that thought experiment to make my point.

Imagine that Bob decides that old Mr. Jones should die. There are two ways Bob could bring about Mr. Jones’ death.

Scenario 1: Bob drowns Mr. Jones in the bathtub.

Scenario 2: Bob witnesses Mr. Jones slip in the bathtub and stands by passively as Mr. Jones drowns.

Scenario 1 may result in Bob’s legal culpability in a way that scenario 2 does not (though for regions with a Good Samaritan law Bob may bear some legal culpability in scenario 2 as well). But few will dispute that Bob’s moral culpability in Mr. Jones’ drowning is equivalent in scenarios 1 and 2.

When the Calvinist avers that God passes over the reprobate, thereby refusing to impute to them the righteousness of Christ which will result in their salvation, the divine withholding parallels Bob’s withholding of life-saving aid to Mr. Jones. Just as God withholds divine aid to result in reprobation so Bob withholds human aid to result in death.

At this point the Calvinist might raise the following tu quoque objection. “Arminianism faces a similar problem,” he says. How so? “On the Arminian view God foreknows who will freely reject him and yet he still elects to create those people knowing that they will be reprobated. That isn’t any different.”

The objection reveals an important confusion. Let’s say that there are ten people. 1-5 are elect and 6-10 are reprobate. On the Calvinist view God could have elected all to salvation but opted not to. In other words, on the Calvinist view there is a possible world in which 1-10 are elect. But God opted not to create that world.

Things are very different on the Arminian view. On this view there may be no possible world in which 1-10 are elect because there is no possible world in which 1-10 repent. That’s an important difference.

But still, the Calvinist does have a point, doesn’t he? Why didn’t God just create a world with 1-5 so that everybody would be elect? The problem with that suggestion is this: there is no reason to think that 1-5 would all be elect in a world where only 1-5 exist.

Let’s say, for example, that in the actual world Smith is reprobate and Smith Jr. is elect. Could God create a world in which Smith doesn’t exist but Smith Jr. does? Let’s assume that he can. Still, does it follow that in that alternate world (or, more specifically, in that subset of worlds in which Smith doesn’t exist but Smith Jr. does) that Smith Jr. is elect? This doesn’t follow. It may indeed be the case that in every possible world in which 1-5 exist but 6-10 do not that not all of 1-5 are elect.

In conclusion, the Calvinistic view deals a heavy blow to any doctrine of omnibenevolence and consequently faces a unique problem not faced by the Arminian.

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