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Calvinism (also known as reformed theology) is on the rise in the Conservative Protestant world and I am not the only one who finds that deeply preoccupying. In what follows, I had the immense privilege to interview Dr. Jerry Walls, who is an outstanding philosopher of religion defending a view called Arminianism.
Lotharson: Thank you Jerry for having accepting my interview. Could you please sum up your personal background for my readers?
Jerry Walls: I was born and raised in Knockemstiff, a small village in southern Ohio. I attended a small revivalist church where I accepted Jesus as my savior in a revival when I was 11 years old. I preached my first sermon at age 13. After high school, I attended a Wesleyan Bible college for a couple years, where I seriously engaged Wesleyan theology. I graduated from Houghton College, also a Wesleyan school before attending Princeton theological seminary. I also took a degree from Yale divinity school and then pastored a church for three years. Then I went to Notre Dame where I did a PhD in philosophy, writing a dissertation defending the doctrine of hell. So I have a pretty diverse educational background.
Lotharson: Yep! What version of hell did you defense back then?
Jerry Walls: I defended the view that hell is eternal because some people freely choose to remain there forever. I also pointed out that universalism and Calvinism share the assumption that God can save anyone he will. The difference is that for Calvinism, God does not choose to save everyone, whereas for the universalists he does. I argue that God truly desires to save all, but some are lost because we are free and some choose to reject God forever.
Lotharson: Thanks, this is truly fascinating 🙂 Would you say that annihilationism (the destruction of the lost) is perpendicular to the debates between Calvinists and free-will Arminians such as yourself?
A calvinist and an Arminian can (possibly) be either an annhilationist or believe in eternal torment. Do you think this is the case?
Jerry Walls: Yes, those are views that can be combined. But either way, whether God determines people to eternal misery or (mere!) annihilation, either way the Calvinist God does not truly love all persons.
Lotharson: I agree with this! Why do you believe that your view of hell is the right one as opposed to other options? Could you please put it in a nutshell?
Jerry Walls: Well, God’s very nature is love and he created us in his image for relationships of love, both with himself and other persons. For us to truly love God, we have to be free. If God determined our “love” for himself, he would be loving himself rather than receiving genuine love from us. So for genuine love and worship to be possible, it must be possible that we can refuse to love God, to worship and obey him and so on. If that happens, we are necessarily unhappy for we are missing out on the very thing for which we were created–loving relationship with God and other persons. Hell is the natural misery that results when we choose not to love and obey God.
Lotharson: I largely agree with this though I think it begs some questions concerning eternal torment. But right now, I’d like to talk about reformed theology. What is, to your mind, the most concise way for summing up Calvinism?
Jerry Walls: Well, the famous TULIP, particular what I call “ULI in the middle.” God unconditionally chooses to save some, but not all, Christ died only for the elect that God unconditionally chooses to save, and God gives irresistible grace to the fortunate elect.
Jerry Walls: Particularly…
Lotharson: And what about four-point Calvinists rejecting limited atonement?
Jerry Walls: That is only because it is rather embarrassing to admit you don’t really believe “God so loved the (whole) world” and gave his Son for all. But that is only a feeble attempt to mask the hard reality that the Calvinist God does not truly love all persons. So long as you have unconditional election and irresistible grace only for the elect, it does not help to play down limited atonement. You still have limited salvation. It is limited strictly to the elect God unconditionally chooses to save, but no one else.
Lotharson: Yeah, I also think that this distinction between single and double predestination is an illusion. What are now your main arguments against reformed theology?
Jerry Walls: Well, the heart of the issue is the character of God. Is he truly a God of love who is perfectly good? You cannot claim this with any plausibility if you believe God determines people to damnation, people he could just as easily determine to salvation. He could determine all persons FREELY to accept the Gospel (as Calvinists define freedom) but choose not to. God is more glorified by unconditionally choosing to save some and damning others than he would be by determining all to accept salvation. Such claims make shambles of the claim that God is love.
Jerry Walls: Calvinists are skillful at employing the rhetoric of love and most people do not really understand what Calvinists are saying. So Calvinism maintains credibility by way of misleading rhetoric about the love of God that their theology does not really support.
Lotharson: Many Calvinists I told that answered me that God is a JUST judge. We are not free to chose good, but when we sin we are freely sinning, so that we deserve a punishment. What’s your take on this?
Jerry Walls: Freely only means doing “willingly” what God has determined you to do. He determines your will in such a way that you “willingly” choose sin. However, you cannot do otherwise. That flies in the face of how we understand justice. A person is considered culpable only for things over which he has control. And what would we think of a judge who determined a criminal to “willingly” murder someone and then sentenced him to death for murder? We would hardly think such a judge was just. Yet, that is just how Calvinists see God.
Lotharson: Precisely. But then Calvinists say that we have NO RIGHT to judge God’s morality. He is the potter, we are the clay and we have to abide by HIS rules, however repugnant they might seem us to be. Do you often have heard such a reply in your own debates with Calvinists?
Jerry Walls: Well, that is a very compliacated question. Can God make anything right, just by willing it? Can he make lying right? Blasphemy? I believe whatever God wills is right, but I DO NOT think it follows that God can will just anything and make it right. He is necessarily good and loving in his nature, and can only will things that are compatible with his perfect goodness. So it is not a matter of us judging God by OUR standards, but rather that our moral intuitions are part of the image of God in us. To judge the Calvinist account of God to be morally abhorrent is not to judge God, but only the Calvinist account of him. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between God and morality, see the book David Baggett and I co-authored, “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality” that was published in 2011.
Lotharson: Thanks for the link! What I don’t understand is how Calvinists manage to live. They profess that God predetermined Hitler, the Shoah and predetermined most victims to eternally suffer. How is it possible to keep living without sinking into a dark depression?
Jerry Walls: Great question! I think the answer again goes back to the inconsistency of Calvinism. They affirm the love of God for all persons, that he is perfectly good, and so on, but fail to see how these claims are utterly incompatible with their theology. They do not consistently work out the implications of determinism and compatibilism, and often think and say things that only make sense on a libertarian view of freedom. And of course, they often resort to “mystery” under the guise that it is true piety to believe things they do not understand or that do not make rational sense. But again, if people really understood compatibilism and the true implications of Calvinism, many could not believe it.
Many however, do sink into depression if they really understand Calvinism and its implications. I recently got an email from a guy who had been watching my videos and said he was moving to embrace Arminianism after being a Calvinist his whole life. He admitted the Calvinist view of God was at odds with the biblical picture of Jesus, and that he had little joy in his Christian life. The strain between what Calvinism teaches and what he truly believed was too great, and he finally realized he needed to give up Calvinism.
Lotharson: I am glad to hear about this happy ending 🙂
Jeremiah 32:35 is extremely embarrassing for all divine determinists holding fast to Biblical inerrancy.
“35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”
How do Calvinists interpret this passage?
Jerry Walls: I’m not sure, but this may be good candidate for the infamous distinction between the revealed and the decretive will of God. He reveals one thing to be his will, and commands it, but decrees something altogther different! Talk about internal conflict!
Lotharson: If a human being spoke and acted in this way, would we not universally call him or her an infamous deceiver?
Jerry Walls: Or worse. For the Calvinist, God’s ways that are “higher” than ours are actually lower than the standards we expect for a decent human being.
Lotharson: Yeah, and this is truly frightening. Is Neo-Calvinism on the rise in modern Evangelicalism?
Jerry Walls: Well, if you mean by Neo-Calvinism, just classic Calvinism, then yes, very much so.
Lotharson: Are there countless Arminian Churches who are being taken over?
Jerry Walls: I’m not sure of the number, but yes, some Arminian churches are being taken over by Calvinists.
Lotharson: Does it have regrettable consequences, especially in the way non-Christians view the Church?
Jerry Walls: I doubt that non-Christians know the difference. But it does cause conflict and division in some churches.
Jerry Walls: And again, Calvinists are not usually forthright in their views to unbelievers. Calvinists often say God loves everyone.
Lotharson: Is it morally praiseworthy to worship a deity having condemned one’s own son to an eternity of suffering BEFORE he was ever born? (I’m thinking on John Piper)
Jerry Walls: The idea of unconditional election to salvation and damnation is morally abhorrent, and applying it to your own children only makes it more graphic. But that is Calvinist piety at its best. You sacrifice not only your child but also your moral intuitions in the name of worshiping a God whose “goodness” is utterly at odds with the normal meaning of that term.
Lotharson: I wholeheartedly agree with you! But it seems to me that Conservative Arminians have also many troubles.
For (the overwhelming majority of) Conservative Evangelical Arminians, if a non-Christian goes onto the other side of the grave, he can AUTOMATICALLY count on an eternity of terrifying distress. Do you agree with this?
Jerry Walls: I believe God’s mercy endures forever and his nature of perfect love does not change the minute we die. I agree with CS Lewis that the doors of hell are locked on the inside and that God is always willing to welcome the prodigal home.
Lotharson: So, do you expect post-mortem conversions?
Jerry Walls: Yes. I believe God truly desires to save all persons, and that many persons have not had a full opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel in this life. You do not go to hell for lack of opportunity to be saved, but for steadfastly resisting the opportunity to do so. If this is true, it makes sense that persons who have not had opportunity to receive the gospel in this life will do so after death.
Could you put your views on purgatory in a nutshell and mention useful resources?
Jerry Walls: Well, in a nutshell, purgatory is about completing the sanctification process begun in this life. For a full defense of this claim, see my book “Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.” For a shorter account see my article “Purgatory for Everyone” that appeared in “First Things” several years ago. I also have a couple of videos on You Tube. One is CS Lewis on Why our Souls Demand Purgatory and the other is CS Lewis and Mere Purgatory. Thanks for the interview.
Lotharson: I was delighted to have had you!