“This is My Beloved Son Whom I Hate”: How Modern Evangelicals Have Come to Preach a Different Gospel

There is a compelling logic that unfolds from John Calvin’s penal substitution that goes beyond even where Calvin would take it. As I have argued (here), it is Calvin that creates the full formulation of the doctrine known as penal substitution, bringing together the notion of Jesus bearing eternal punishment in hell, innovating on the Apostles Creed and I Peter 3:18-22, tying the punishment of Gehenna to the chastisement of Isaiah 53, and then moving both of these passages to the context of the trial and punishment of Jesus. Calvin may not have felt the full weight or compelling nature of his innovation, as he will continue to provide orthodox readings of passages such as Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross and describing being forsaken by God and being reduced to a worm. But among his followers there are those who are willing to apply Calvin’s doctrine more consistently than their master.

In some Calvinist extrapolations, Jesus is pictured as being not only forsaken by God but the object of God’s hatred. As Dr. Abner Chou describes the significance of Jesus’ death: “In that death the wrath of God was poured out on Christ, and the darkness exploded. In that instant God cursed Jesus, putting Him in a position of absolute, perfect hatred. God hated Him and desired to make Him nothing.”[1] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman propose that, “God chose to violate His Son in our place. The Son stared into the mocking eyes of God; He heard the laugher of the Father’s derision and felt Him depart in disgust. . . . In a mysterious instant, the Father who loved the Son from all eternity turned from Him in hatred. The Son became odious to the Father.”[2] As Tim Keller put it on Facebook (and quickly revised, due to subsequent criticism), “If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father, out of his infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness.”[3]

Even devout believers in penal substitution such as Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton (from whom I have gleaned these quotes), realize there is an unfolding logic to the doctrine in modern evangelicalism that amounts to a different version of the Gospel:

From the academy, to the pulpit, to the pew, for those who affirm that the Son made atonement by being hated by the Father— albeit temporarily—Christianity has a new message, the simple logic of which goes like this. “The Son became sin; the Father cannot look upon sin without hatred; The Son willingly took our place of condemnation—and for an instant the Son bore the fury of God.”[4]

They raise the question and answer in the affirmative, “Is this the new logical deposit of an all-new dogmatic inheritance for American evangelicals? Some seem poised to accept it as such.”

While Farris and Hamilton want to extract penal substitution from the unfolding logic of the time, perhaps they have not realized the full weight of the logic of Calvin’s doctrine. Eternal wrath in hell as the focus of Christ’s saving work, with Christ becoming the object of wrath, seems to entail “the new logical deposit.” Those who are teaching what Farris and Hamilton dub the “Christus Odium” version of penal substitution, are drawing out the logic of Calvin’s original notion. That is, Calvin (certainly influenced by and extrapolating from Luther) created the context for a fully odious gospel that has been unfolding since he formulated it.[5]

With each innovation in atonement theory there seems to be an accompanying sociological shift. Just as Anselm works out his notion that it is God’s honor that is offended in a feudal society (very much concerned with honor), so too the reformers stressed the juridical, evident in their focus on Christ bearing the punishment of the law. Luther is concerned to point out “how horribly blind and wicked the papists were” in teaching that “sin, death, and the curse” could be conquered by “the righteousness of human works, such as fasts, pilgrimages, rosaries, vows, etc.” rather than “by the righteousness of the divine Law.”[6] Though Luther recognizes the Law has no power to save, he sees the Law of Moses as regulating the necessity of salvation: “a magistrate regards someone as a criminal and punishes him if he catches him among sinners and thieves” and “Christ was not only found among sinners” but due to the will of the Father and his own free will he “assumed the flesh and blood of those who were sinners” and “when the Law found Him among thieves, it condemned and executed Him as a thief.”

Luther becomes woodenly literal in understanding how Christ became sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse (Galatians 3:13) which accords with the notion that God momentarily hated him. He says Christ is, “the greatest robber of all, the greatest murderer, adulterer and thief; the greatest desecrator of temples and blasphemer; the world has seen none greater than this.” He describes Christ taking on eternal punishment in his commentary, but he first describes the nature of this punishment as flowing from human evil: “He took upon Himself and abolished all our evils, which were supposed to oppress and torment us eternally.” He draws back from the sort of split he finds in Calvin’s explanation of the two natures of Christ, and depicts a more coherent unified fulness of deity in Christ:

the curse clashes with the blessing and wants to damn it and annihilate it. But it cannot. For the blessing is divine and eternal, and therefore the curse must yield to it. For if the blessing in Christ could be conquered, then God Himself would be conquered. But this is impossible. Therefore Christ, who is the divine Power, Righteousness, Blessing, Grace, and Life, conquers and destroys these monsters—sin, death, and the curse—without weapons or battle, in His own body and in Himself, as Paul enjoys saying (Col. 2:15): “He disarmed the principalities and powers, triumphing over them in Him.” Therefore they can no longer harm the believers.

Calvin and his followers would disagree with Luther, claiming Christ was damned and that he bore the full weight of the curse which is also eternal. Though both Calvin and Luther subscribe to several images and theories of atonement, both rely heavily on Anselm’s satisfaction theory and both translate satisfaction of debt into payment of punishment under the law. They share reliance on the metaphor of the criminal justice system in their theology (the apprehension and punishment of the guilty) and the presumption is that Christ became the sin that God hates (though Luther’s failing and grace may have been his inconsistency).[7] But it is Calvin’s innovation, his notion of penal substitution, that wipes away the relative significance of any other theory.

There is nothing more logically weighty than substitution for eternal torturous punishment, in which God’s wrath takes on the singular hue of eternal white-hot destruction (how can this not be hatred?). Thus, mere finite imagery and categories, such as those found in ransom theory and Christus Victor (still to be found in Calvin), will be gradually displaced in his most influential followers for focus on penal substitution. John McArthur, for example, concludes that any theory other than penal substitution is false (listing theories such as ransom theory and Christus Victor).[8]

There is a gradual and logical whittling down of other theories as penal substitution takes center stage through George Whitefield,[9] Jonathan Edwards,[10] Charles Hodge, and into modern times with J. I. Packer, John Piper,[11] D. A. Carson, and John McArthur. What evolves in these thinkers is the central weight that must be given to penal substitution, even when there is acknowledgement of other theories. It is inevitable that penal substitution be given central focus, more than Calvin gave it, as it bears a logical eternal weight that diminishes all finitudes (death, the devil, sin, evil). For Packer, this doctrine is the distinguishing mark of evangelicals, “namely the belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution, and that it was in virtue of this fact that it brought salvation to mankind.” He believes penal substitution “takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.”[12] For McArthur, “The doctrine of penal substitution is the only view that incorporates the full range of biblical principles regarding atonement for sin.”[13] As Carson puts it, “if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is . . .  grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it.”[14] For Carson, penal substitution provides internal coherence to the gospel, bringing all the theories together. “In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.”[15] Of course he is correct (assuming penal substitution is the case), as all other theories pale into insignificance next to penal substitution. In light of being saved from eternal torturous wrath, mere finitudes such as death, the devil, sin, and evil, (the actual focus of the New Testament) must take second place.

What Farris and Hamilton miss is that the “Christus Odium,” the new gospel of divine wrath and hatred, is simply the final step entailed in Calvin’s innovation.[16]

(If you are interested in pursuing this topic further sign up for our class on the atonement with PBI starting at the end of January.)


[1] https://www.adamsetser.com/blog/2015/7/25/the-big-picture-of-gods-mission-a-concise-over[1]view-of-the-entire-bible-by-dr-abner-chou. [June 19, 2018] Quoted from Joshua R. Farris & S. Mark Hamilton, “This is My Beloved Son, Whom I hate? A Critique of the Christus Odium Variant of Penal Substitution” (Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, Volume 3, Issue 2).

[2] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman, In the Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, [1999] 2015), pp. 184-85. Quoted from Farris and Hamilton.

[3] https://calvinistinternational.com/2017/07/27/tim-keller-the-cross-and-the-love-of-god/ From Farris and Hamilton

[4] Ibid, Farris and Hamilton

[5] Farris and Hamilton almost acknowledge that the origins of penal substitution are with Calvin: “Despite some recent and rather awkward attempts to forge a genetic link between contemporary evangelical articulations of this doctrine and the Fathers and Medieval Schoolmen, proponents of the penal substitution theory ought to be cautious when looking for the origin of this theory not to look much beyond the Reformation, particularly John Calvin.”

[6] This quote and the following from Luther are from Martin Luther, On Galatians 3:13 (Luther’s Works 27.276-291). The commentary on Galatians 3:13 is quoted in full on the website https://wolfmueller.co/did-martin-luther-claim-that-jesus-was-an-adulterer/

[7] This is the way Joel B. Green and Mark Baker characterize it in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) 142.

[8] John McArthur, “The Offense of the Cross,” From his website,  Grace to You,  (Wednesday, February 10, 2021), https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B210210/the-offense-of-the-cross

[9] George Whitefield for example, probably the most famous religious figure of the eighteenth century, with newspapers referring to him as the “marvel of the age,” and who is estimated to have reached an audience of some 10 million hearers, would focus on penal substitution. (From Christian History, published by Christianity Today https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/george-whitefield.html)  In his Sermon entitled “Of Justification by Christ” (1771-1772a), Whitefield emphasizes the need for penal substitution. 

 “he [God] hath also given us both a natural and a written law, whereby we are to be judged and that each of us hath broken these laws, is too evident from our sad and frequent experience. And if we are thus offenders against God, it follows, that we stand in need of forgiveness for thus offending Him; he demands our obedience to that law, and has obliged us universally and perseveringly to obey it, under no less a penalty than incurring his curse and eternal death for every breach of it unless some means can be found to satisfy God’s justice, we must perish eternally.”

George Whitefield, 1771-1772a. Sermon 46: Of Justification by Christ. In The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics Website, http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe= Quoted from WOOD, MAXWELL,THOMAS (2011) Penal Substitution in the Construction of British Evangelical Identity: Controversies in the Doctrine of the Atonement in the Mid-2000s, 76, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3260/

[10] It was Jonathan Edwards who may have most colorfully and successfully spread Calvin’s version of penal substitution, with his focus on being saved from the torments of hell as in his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Where even Whitefield refers to eternal death, Edwards makes death and the grave a refuge from the eternal torturous hell of divine punishment. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”

[11] Prior to the atonement he says, “God was not my Father. He was my judge and executioner.”

[12] J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution” The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973. https://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html     

[13] McArthur, Ibid.

[14] D. A. Carson, The SBJT Forum: The Atonement under Fire, https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/2007_forum_penal_substitution.pdf

[15] Carson, Ibid.

[16] Which in no way denies the lineage of missteps that can be traced from Augustine, Anselm, Scotus, and Luther, which lead to Calvin.

10 Contrasts Between Romans 7 & 8 Proving 7:14-25 Cannot Be Describing the Redeemed

Part of the value in rehearsing failed theories of atonement is that the failure will follow a universal pattern, the same pattern that Paul is demonstrating in Romans 7 as it contrasts with chapter 8. I would argue, Paul is setting up a contrast between the non-Christian and the Christian Subject, with chapter 7 from verse 7 focused on the experience of Adam, or every man. The fact that Anselm, Augustine, John Calvin, John Piper and company read 7:14-25 as part of the normal Christian life is not an insight into Paul but an insight into a theology which could mistake non-Christian experience (that of the “wretched man” of v. 24) for Christian experience. I do not mean this as a dig against the spirituality of these men, but simply to say that their mistake (spelled out in my previous blog here) is the universal mistake which Paul is explicating.

To miss Paul’s point about the nature of sin is not simply an Augustinian or Anselmian error, it is the human error. It points not only to the blunder of Augustine in his reading of Romans 5:12 (described here), but the universal repression of the way in which sin is propagated. To miss that sin reigns through death is not simply a theological error but the human error (the work of the deception) that Paul is tracing throughout Romans. From 7:7-24 he is describing life under the lie (inclusive of vv. 14ff) at which point he introduces the deliverance of Christ, which he will explain in chapter 8.

As I put it in the above blog, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout chapter 5 is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters. But there is a sense that human experience mitigates against a correct reading of Paul, as sin’s deception in the law of sin and death reigns.

If we have missed Paul’s point in chapter 5, we are likely to miss his point in the contrast between the orientation to death and the law (the “law of sin and death”) described in chapter 7 and how this contrasts with life in the Spirit in chapter 8. If we have understood 5 correctly (sin reigns through death), then we can see that he is drawing out his point about two forms of human life – in the first Adam (7:7ff) and in the 2nd Adam (chapter 8).

1. The Cosmic and Corporate versus the Alienated “I”

Chapter 8 marks the transition in Paul’s argument to the description of an alternative understanding of the human Subject. Where 7:7ff is focused primarily on the isolated individual before the law (with its repeated reference to “I” with its clear reference to Genesis 3:10 and Adam’s self-description), ch. 8 speaks of a corporate identity in the Holy Spirit which has cosmic implications (“those in Christ Jesus” (8:1); “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (8.19)). Paul is still working in the universal categories he set out in chapter 5 in contrasting the two Adams, but now the cosmic implications are spelled out.

2. Living Death Versus Life in the Spirit

The Holy Spirit does not appear in ch. 7 but is the theme of ch. 8 (mentioned nineteen times explicitly and the main subject of each section of the chapter). Where ch. 7 focused on describing the dynamics of the body of death (7:24) and agonistic struggle, ch. 8 counters each of the Pauline categories constituting the Subject addressed in ch. 7 with the work of the Spirit, which constitutes a life characterized by peace (8:6). This is perhaps the key contrast; that between the living death of chapter 7 and new life in the Spirit. The Spirit can be equated with life (8:2, 10-11), and with the introduction of the Spirit in 8:2, Paul’s question of 7:24 is definitively answered: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law,” but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.

3. The Ego of Desire or What is Seen Versus a Life of Hope

Paul’s depiction of desire, as with the first couple, is focused on the register of sight. In chapter 7 Paul describes a law of sight (βλέπω v. 23), which as with Adam is connected to the rise of shame and the repeated “I” (I heard, I was afraid, I was naked, I hid, 3:10). Paul’s “I” (ἐgὼ) is exchanged for a life of hope, focused not on the seen but on the unseen (v. 24), which brings about a conformity to the image of the Son (v. 29) (who is not an image or object for the eyes but occupies the Subject position in place of the ego) and a reconstitution of the Subject. As a result, the “I” does not appear in chapter 8 but as in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me.”

4. Suffering Under the Law Versus Suffering as a Co-Heir with Christ

Paul describes two forms of suffering in chapters 7 & 8. The work of the law (the law of sin and death) is displaced by the law of the Spirit of life (v. 2) which results in freedom from slavery to fear due to relationship to God as “Abba, Father” (v. 15), reconstituting the Subject a child of God. Paul ties this new relationship to God directly to a different experience of suffering. An implicit element of Paul’s agonistic struggle (in ch. 7) is a depth of suffering which he cannot endure. “Who will rescue me,” he cries, as this suffering is deadly, arising as it does from within. In contrast, the suffering of chapter 8 (the source of which is outside the self), is a sharing in the suffering of Christ which marks one out as a co-heir with Christ of glory (8:17).

5. The Body of Sin and Death Versus Resurrection Life Now

The “body of sin” (6:6) or “body of death” (7.24) is displaced in the resurrection life of the Spirit (8:10-11) which is not a departure from the material body or material reality but the beginning of cosmic redemption (“the redemption of our bodies” (8:23) and the redemption of the cosmos (8:21)). The only resolution to life in the flesh, in the brand of Christianity that reads chapter 7 as the normal Christian life, is future. But in chapter 8, Paul is describing an enacted resurrection life which has defeated this sinful flesh principle in the follower of Christ.

6. Through the Work of Christ People are Made Righteous Versus a Failed Righteousness

There is no work of Christ in Paul’s description of his sinful predicament but only the work of sin and the law (in chapter 7:7ff), but chapter 8 describes how the work of Christ changes up this damnable sort of existence. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death can no longer condemn, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8:1-3) ushering in the law of life in the Spirit. Where 7:7ff described the characteristics of this living death (marked by incapacity), ch. 8 describes life in the Spirit, which sums up the difference God’s righteousness makes. The body is dead due to unrighteousness but the Spirit is life and this is God’s righteousness imparted (8:10). This then results in the capacity to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which enables the mindset and hope of the Subject in Christ.

7. Living in the Lie Versus the Truth of Christ which Exposes the Lie

Paul is describing sin in terms of a deception on the order of the deception foisted on the first couple by the serpent in the Garden. In the opening verses of chapter 8 (countering the opening of 7:7-11), Paul explains how Christ defeats and exposes the lie of sin in the particular death he died. The punishing effects of the law of sin and death (the condemnation he has described in chapter 7) are finished so that there is no condemnation in Christ (8:1). God has “condemned sin in the flesh of Christ” (8:3) so that it can no longer deal out death (an active taking up of death) by deception.

Paul adds to his description in 8:3 by saying “and as a sin-offering.” The sin offering was for the ignorant or unwilling sin, which answers the problem of sin of the “I” (7:15) who does not “know” and does not “will” what he does.[1] Christ does not die for a general wrongdoing but to address the particular work of sin as it appears in ch. 7. This sin which works through deception and ignorance brings about disobedience unto death, and the one who was obedient even unto death makes obedience possible (5:18-20). The disobedience unto death describes an orientation founded in deception (it cannot obey God – it is hostile to God, 8:7) and obedience unto death recognizes death but obeys in light of the resurrection life by which it is empowered (8:11-12). Living according to the lie is to actively die (in death resistance) while to live, in spite of death, is the death acceptance of living in the truth.

8. Life in the Flesh Versus New Life in the Body of Christ

In ch. 7 Paul locates the law of sin “in my members” (7:23), in the flesh (7:25), or as “sin that dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). The place from which sin works death is the flesh. As N. T.  Wright explains, the reason there is now no condemnation is “because God has dealt with sin in the flesh, and provided new life for the body.”[2] Those in Christ experience the death to sin and the new life which he provides. The sentence of death is passed on sin in the one who was in the true “likeness of sinful flesh” (8.3), so those who are found in his likeness through baptism (6:5) will also experience this death to sin rather than death by sin.

9. Life in the Split “I” Versus Participation in the Unity of the Trinity

The key difference between the living death of 7:7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates, while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8:3) who leads by his Spirit (8:14). The Father is the primary agent who subjected creation in hope (8:20), who makes all things work to the good for those who love him (8:28), who has foreknown and predestined those he called (8:29) and these he has justified and glorified (8:31). This communion is “in Christ Jesus” who was sent to free from the law of sin and death (8:2, 3) by condemning sin in the flesh (8:3), who gives his Spirit of life (8:9) so that those who suffer with him will be glorified together with him (8:17) and who died and was raised and intercedes so that nothing can separate from the love of God (8:34-35). The Spirit is the source of life (8:2) who empowers the walk and mindset of those in whom the He dwells (8:9). The Spirit is God’s righteousness (8:10) whose resurrection power will “give life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as by his life “you put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13). Through the Spirit adoption as sons enables his sons to cry “Abba” (8:15) and He helps the saints in their weakness and through prayer by interceding for them (8:26-27). The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8:4), has their mindset (8:5-8), sonship (8:15), endurance of suffering (8:17) and saving hope (8:20, 24).

10. Shame Versus Glory and Love

Paul, from 7:7ff, is providing a commentary on Genesis 3 which describes the shame of the first couple. He is giving us an interior view of that shame, which is marked by an incapacity for being present for the other (love). Shame marks not only the loss of God’s presence but the possibility of interpersonal love – being there for the other. The anatomy of jealousy, anger, and violence are to be traced in this genealogy of shame. Those who are hiding cannot be present for others or even for themselves but are set in an antagonistic relation with God, self, and others. Paul, in chapter 8, is describing a love that is indestructible and indivisible – nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ (8:28).

To miss this contrast between Romans 7:7ff and chapter 8, (which I have only partially filled out) would seem to be on the order of missing the reality of Christianity. There is no prayer, no hope, no Spirit, no Abba, no love, no work of Christ, and no other but only law, desire, deception, unendurable suffering, alienation, and death, in 7:7ff. Compounded with this, to mistake Paul’s description of the damnable (κατάκριμα) life of sin as if it is salvation, would seem to leave one stranded in a punishing life from which there is no deliverance.


[1] Wright, Romans , 579.

[2] Wright, Romans, 575.

(Recent critiques of my blogs on John Calvin, Augustine, and penal substitution have mainly focused on what was not said in a particular blog, when I have usually covered the topic in an accompanying blog. To answer some of these critiques here is a guide to what I have written:

Critique One: “Axton does not reference Calvin directly.” My article on his development of penal substitution is an engagement with the Institutes, “Did John Calvin Invent Penal Substitution?” to be found here and my depiction of his purported confusion of sin and salvation is an engagement with his commentary on Romans, “Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?” is to be found here. My depiction of his work on predestination also deals with the Institutes, “The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s ‘Incomprehensible’ Anti-Gospel” is here. I reference the Institutes in this article dealing with Calvinist assurance of salvation, “Are Calvinists Saved?” which is here . In this piece on Calvin’s view of the necessity of evil, “Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity” here I deal with his depiction of evil in the Institutes.

Critique Two: “Axton does no history,” (or something on this order). I have dealt with the Constantinian shift and its impact, “The Shift from Love to Freedom is the Turn to the Law that Kills” here and “The Gospel Versus Constantinian Commonsense” here and here “A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift” deals with the history and references a series of primary works. I have dealt with the Augustinian misreading of Romans 5 here in “The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin.”

Critique Three: “Axton does not recognize Calvin is following Anselm.” Some have objected to my notion that Calvin “invented” Penal Substitution, with reference to Anselm, suggesting he is the true culprit. I have probably written more on Anselm than any other figure and what is not to be missed is that he does set the context in which Calvin is working (along with a host of other factors), nonetheless Calvin is also innovating. I discuss the relationship between the two theories here in “Beyond Divine Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor to a Healing Atonement” here in “Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath,” here in “The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction” and touch upon it here in “Deconstructing ‘Absolute Truth’ to Arrive at the Truth of Christ.”)

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Phillip Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.


[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.