Are Calvinists Saved?

The question of the title (above) is, in the first instance, a Calvinist question which Calvinists have about themselves. While some have assurance of salvation, where this assurance fails or is lacking, the results can be torturous or deadly. When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle slit his own throat in the absence of this assurance, this demonstrated to Edwards himself that the “devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts.” Soon after, many in the community of Northampton were reporting suicidal ideations. The existential realization that one is predestined for eternal damnation, selected as a vessel of wrath, the object of sovereign hatred bound for an eternity of torture, has proven unbearable for many. To imagine that the all-powerful, omnipresent, power of heaven hates you, must be several times worse than a simple, atheistic nihilism which holds that the universe is indifferent toward you. In fact, to be able to rid oneself of belief in this monstrous God and achieve a more harmless atheism would seem to be a positive moral and mental achievement.  A good friend, who concluded that he was one of the objects of wrath, a vessel of destruction, describes his descent into drug addiction and two overdoses and near-death experiences, not as a departure from God or a descent into unbelief, but due to his belief in God. It was his belief that God hated him, the living proof of which was his poverty of spirit, his condition of feeling hated and not loved, which drove him deeper into self-destructive behavior.  If salvation is entry into the benefits of the love and goodness of God, the assurance that the true, the good and the beautiful, are determinative of ultimate reality and the determinative factor in human life and destiny then Calvinism, in the second instance, is indeed an obstruction to salvation. It specifically opposes this understanding and is an obstruction to the practical realization of this reality, as God’s decisions are rendered arbitrary and unpredictable. So, my question is not polemical or sectarian but a question evoked by Calvinists and a true concern that this may be one form of the Christian faith which most effectively obstructs the core teaching of the New Testament. Far from good news, this is the worst news possible.

Calvinism is not an assurance of love, a defeat of death or the destructive drive toward death, but it inscribes death and destruction into the eternal fabric of creation and into the very nature of God. Instead of Christ defeating death and undoing death’s fatal hold upon us, Calvinism would turn the creator into the eternal source of an everlasting living death in eternal hell, made a necessity so that his glory might shine forth. In his commentary on I John, Calvin states that God is not love in his essence. Love is an anthropomorphism while wrath is an attribute flowing from God’s definitive justice.  In book 3 of The Institutes, Calvin explains that even the Fall was predestined by God – so that the fate of both the saved and the damned are preordained by God. The implication is that God is beyond our comprehension to such a degree that he might be said to be both good and evil or merely a sovereign force that makes nonsense of such categories, and anyone who experiences God as love cannot be said to have entered into a realization of the true divine essence but it is simply descriptive (in Calvin’s explanation) of human experience. If one were to make Satan into one’s God, this might be an improvement over Calvinism, as we can at least read a singular intent and goal into evil personified in the devil. Satan is not arbitrary, unpredictable, all-powerful. God in Calvinism becomes an overwhelming and unavoidable malignancy, undefeatable, imperturbable and immovable in his wrath and hatred.

The logic and mechanical like structure reflected in TULIP, even in Calvin’s own estimate, is not so much a reflection on Scripture as it is a turn inward. The presumption is that “knowledge of God and of ourselves” are “connected together by many ties,” such that to examine the self is to arrive at God: “because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”  Good lawyer that he was, and being largely innocent of the countervailing tradition of the church in its reading of the New Testament, Calvin gives us the doctrine of sin as if it is the means to salvation. Sin is an orientation to the law, captured in Paul’s phrase “the law of sin and death,” in which life is presumed to be in the law which is presumed to be determinative of God and humans. Calvin turns to himself to find the logic of the law; the incontrovertible logic needing violence and blood, made up of vengeance and wrath. The predestined damnation of the derelict needs both the derelict and the damnation to prove the power of God. Just as Napoleon once called upon one of his officers to shoot himself in the head to demonstrate his power to a visiting dignitary, God depends upon damned derelicts to demonstrate his sovereignty. Calvin explains, in Book III of the Institutes, that this is why God predestined the Fall of man so that his greatness would show forth in both arbitrary salvation and damnation. Like death itself, this arbitrary divine power cannot allow for any competing liberty or freedom. God is the power behind all that happens to people, blessed be the name of God, the great unadulterated power.

Calvinism does not speak of the undoing of death but succumbs to a worship like that of Mot, Thanatos, Santa Muerte, or the worship of death itself in that in defending the absolute sovereignty of God, transcendence collapses into identity with the realities of the world (clearly ruled by death). Tsunamis, viruses, accidents, homicides, suicides, or the inevitable march to the grave are all the will of God. The world does not possess its own liberty, people have no freedom, but everything is a product of divine power and divine power most superbly expresses itself in death, destruction, and wrath, with love reduced to a human fabrication. As David Bentley Hart notes, “God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.”

The law of sin and death taken as God’s law, results in a religion which takes on a resemblance to various cults of the dead but also to a Lacanian psychoanalytic orientation which presumes the real or death drive is the unchangeable reality of the human condition. The infinite struggle with sin posed by Calvinism is precisely the Lacanian picture of the symbolic order of the law pitted against the imaginary or egoistic order. As in Paul’s explanation, law is felt as the inexorable controlling power in life so that all of one’s desires, all of one’s mental and bodily effort, might be described as a working out (an agonistic fight with oneself) of this seemingly sovereign power in one’s life. God is mistaken for the law in Paul’s definition of sin, and this means that one must reinforce the good through the evil. Paul gives some four formulas for this perverse understanding each of which might be mistaken for Calvinist doctrine: evil establishes the good, sin makes grace abound, or the law is sin itself. This dualism is read into God and is lived out in the struggle for salvation – a continual grasping after an ultimately unattainable object – which Paul describes as being subject to the “body of death.”

A mind conditioned to imagine this wickedness is Christianity is in a worse estate than a sincere pagan who has never heard but may still hear of the good news. The good news of God’s love falls on deaf ears as this Calvinist mind has been twisted to believe that a moral hideousness is a paradox that one must swallow so as to be saved. Only the blessed have this insight, and I suppose as with the satisfaction of belonging to the most elite club, part of the satisfaction (as Calvin testifies) is to delight in the suffering of the masses. This translates into the health and wealth notion that the blessing of possessing wealth is made clear by those who are dispossessed – after-all money only works in a zero-sum game. So too Calvinist salvation, the few, the elect, possess at the expense and through contrast with the damned.  

The price of admission to this elite club is to believe in the contradiction that this morally hideous God is good and then to submit to the notion that ultimate injustice is justice. This was demonstrated on Sunday to Faith and I in a documentary, I will not name, for fear someone may watch it. In this portrayal there are two options: one can either accept the basic tenets of Calvinism or one can give up on the true Christian faith. As John MacArthur puts it, if a person does not hold to penal substitution he cannot be saved. He acknowledges that one might not understand penal substitution and still make it in, but a clear sign that one is damned is if they reject this damnable doctrine. The focus of the documentary is to suggest that there are those (e.g. Rob Bell, Richard Rohr) who do not accept the Calvinist version of God’s justice and wrath, but they apparently do so on the basis of their own willfulness. No mention is made of the large majority of Christians in the world who are not Calvinist and who do not accept penal substitution. In place of this, one Calvinist after another gives us a “universal” opinion gained by sheer repetition and multiplied singular opinion.

The result was a feeling that these people were either dishonest or profoundly ignorant of world Christianity and Christian tradition. What the documentary succeeded in demonstrating to me, is the large population that imagines that their moral idiocy might only be appreciated by those who might mistake contradiction and incoherence for profundity. For the first time I appreciated how Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, or Bart Campolo (who is an honest atheist), might be taken as a breath of fresh air or a positive relief from the stifling religious nihilism being passed off as a more nuanced faith. Any voice, any counter narrative, any note of objection, came to be a relief from the noxious smugness and presumed moral superiority of the heretical proselytizing. Given the options posed by the film, I understood how happy flakiness is certainly preferable to moral and spiritual insipidness. If this is the actual option posed to most people, I think I better understand this cultural and political moment. But of course, this is a false choice.

The primary doctrine of biblical Christianity is that the law of sin and death and all that it includes – evil, suffering, violence, the orientation to death marking human moral failing – are not the tools of God but precisely that which Christ came to destroy and that which God opposes. The person of God made manifest in Christ reveals the life, love, beauty, and goodness of God, without admixture of evil. Where Calvin does not allow for any clear distinction between what God wills and what he permits (though he speaks of God’s permissive will it is still the will of God), the New Testament pictures a world in which human choice has profound consequences for both good and evil. God in Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to deliver it from willful evil, sin and death. In the words of Hart, “For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Be assured the choice is not that maybe Jesus died for you or maybe he didn’t. In this understanding, statistically your chances are poor and experientially you may one day realize you are damned – or maybe you already have this confirmation. The good news is that God loves you, and there is no question, no qualification, no obstacle that can obstruct this love (Romans 8:38-39).


[1] The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.