Two Wills, Yes; A Will to Damn, No: A Response to Piper

I’ve been reading Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?; here’s a way of thinking about the issues. Consider the following argument:

  1. If the doctrine of Unconditional Election is true, then God prefers that not all be saved.
  2. But the Bible says that God prefers that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, 32).
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of Unconditional Election is false.

How might the the defender of Unconditional Election respond? One might deny [2] by some method of interpretation that concludes that the verses in question do not really say God prefers that all be saved. Piper entertains this idea, but rejects it; perhaps he interprets things this way, but his point is that it not necessary to do so. What about [1]? Some deny it by saying things like, “God does not reject anyone; rather he passes over them in sorrow.” But this is a distinction without difference. If a President receives two petitions for pardon and only pardons one rather than both, we would not make sense of the President’s actions by saying that the one unpardoned was not rejected but only “passed over.” So what is the defender of Unconditional Election to do?

Piper’s response is simple: the argument equivocates the meaning of the word “prefers.” In [1] God prefers to actualize states of affairs that do not entail the salvation of everyone; in [2] God prefers that the states of affairs in which everyone is saved were actual. In the first sense, God prefers to actualizes something; in the second, God prefers that something else were actual. A nice way of putting it (borrowed from Steven Cowan) is that all things being equal, God prefers to save everyone, but all things considered, God prefers not to save everyone. Think of a physician who intends to help people overseas ward off a deadly disease, but upon hearing that his homeland is being impacted by the disease, he decides to stay and help his own people. It is perfectly coherent to understand his conflicting preferences in this way. And it is this sort of “two wills” theology that is unavoidable when trying to answer the problem of evil.

Let us suppose this is right. Then, we have to answer this: what sort of consideration is it that so constrains God from saving everyone? What is at stake for God if he saves everyone? Piper’s answer is that God’s glory is at stake: God would fail to maximize the revelation of his glory to the elect by virtue of failing to send some sinners to hell so that they might bear, and in so doing reveal, the full weight of divine wrath. Piper believes that a world where this sort of wrath is not actualized is on the whole less preferable than a world in which it is actualized (alongside a display of mercy), because it fails to exemplify the sternness of God’s wrath.

I have three objections to this consideration. First, it imposes a rather strong limitation on God’s freedom in that He is not really free to show mercy to whomever He likes. Piper elsewhere assumes that the failure to uphold God’s glory is a moral failure  (see The Future of Justification, 64). Since presumably saving everyone would do exactly that, and God is morally perfect, it follows that God is morally obligated to elect some for damnation if God is to create a world in which he reveals himself to creatures like us. Therefore, God is not permitted to save everyone. But this is an odd result, to say the least. It is one thing to say that God is under no obligation to save anyone; it is quite another to say that God is under an obligation not to save everyone. Add to that the plausible assumption that God is necessarily morally perfect. Then, it follows, at least in worlds like ours, that it is impossible for God to save everyone. That, if anything, is a unacceptable consequence for a Calvinist to embrace.

A second objection grants the truth of the penal substitution theory of the atonement and argues that the fullness of God’s wrath could be sufficiently displayed (if it must be displayed) in the work of Christ. The elect would need nothing more than the cross of Christ to understand the depths of their sin and the severity of God’s response to it. But if a populated hell is required to sufficiently display God’s wrath to the elect, then the cross of Christ is insufficient to display God’s wrath to the elect. There is nothing contradictory about this outcome, but it is an odd one nonetheless, especially for someone who considers the cross of Christ to be the “blazing center” God’s glory (Don’t Waste Your Life, chapter 3).

Third, given the sort of sovereignty Piper affirms, it is hard to understand what could be glorious about God’s wrath if it is meted out for sins that were causally brought about by God. The doctrine of divine wrath contains two components. The first is a sense of righteous indignation towards a wrong; the second is a just punishment brought to bear on the wrongdoer. But how does one wrong God and thereby merit his wrath by doing exactly what God determines one to do? The appeal to the distinction between what God prefers, all things being equal, and what God prefers, all things considered, is of little help here. The picture we are left with is a God who frustrates himself by ordaining states of affairs that he judges to be bad. God’s anger and punishment are irrational as they are directed towards objects that do exactly what they are supposed to do. God is like an incompetent computer programer who gets angry at his computer for doing exactly what it is told to do. The programmer’s anger is irrational and his throwing of the computer out the window is stupid. How much more irrational and stupid is God’s wrath on sinners for sins God causes them to commit? There is nothing glorious about it apart from a raw display of power in which there is no justice, but only strength.

I see no way around these objections, and therefore, we should reject the “display of wrath” constraint Piper offers as the reason why, all things considered, God does not prefer to save everyone.


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