Did John Calvin Invent A New Religion?

I concluded in my previous blog (here) that John Calvin, by tying the place of the dead (hades) to eternal punishment (Gehenna) and then linking this with the punishment inflicted on Christ on the Cross so as to achieve forgiveness, invented the doctrine of penal substitution. In this blog, I indicate how this shift changes the meaning of Christianity. By changing the meaning of the death of Christ, making punishment of an innocent man the payment for the guilty and calling this justice, tying it to future eternal suffering or eternal death and making this suffering a legal requirement of God, and by then equating this with mercy, forgiveness and salvation, there is almost nothing left of New Testament salvation. The biblical focus on a practical deliverance from a real-world problem, the ordinary understanding of justice, punishment, forgiveness, and the understanding of Christ and God as united, loving and good, are obscured. More troubling is the depiction of a God who requires and delights in suffering, and who, by any normal standard, would be judged positively evil. Where this God is called good and the methods he deploys considered merciful, all standards of meaning and value are turned on their head.

Suffering does not right a wrong.

The gold standard for Calvin, the line that he moves and which even non or anti-Calvinists have acceded to, is his notion that punishment, as suffering, is tied to justice. The two terms, punishment and justice, abstracted from their biblical context and tied together in his depiction of pure suffering (in Gehenna), completely misses the biblical depiction of justice or righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), which is not simply a legal abstraction but a description of the personhood of God shared with humans in Christ so as to make things right. It misses the biblical depiction of punishment as a loving correction geared toward achieving rectitude. Both terms are obscured in being tied to suffering, as if suffering is equal to punishment enacted and justice achieved. While these are equated in pagan religion and Roman law, and have been preserved in modern notions of legal retribution (a maze of confusion between rehabilitation, revenge, and deterrence), it is Calvin’s fusion of the suffering of the Cross with the suffering of Gehenna which paganizes biblical justice.

The suffering of a thief or a murderer, or the eternal suffering say, of Adolph Hitler, does not restore what has been lost. If my precious android phone is stolen, having the thief imprisoned does not make it right, as far as I am concerned. No matter what suffering the thief may be put through, I am still out one phone. Maybe I derive a certain pleasure, as Calvin depicted it, in seeing the thief suffer but this points to my human perversity. We may have the tendency of delighting in seeing those who have wronged us suffer, but in the biblical framework, this is counted as evil not good (let alone as God-like).

In our human perversity we may link our sadistic sense of seeing our enemies suffer (having their teeth broken, as in David’s prayer) with justice, but this is completely removed from the biblical concept of restoration (restoration of relationship, restoration of the kingdom, restoration of fullness). The way of this restorative justice necessarily involves the one who has done the wrong and the wrong committed. It involves not only their reform, but the setting right of all that they have made wrong. God does not impute honesty where there is none. He does not presume the possibility of theoretical or legal reform apart from the person. The slaves are not theoretically set free and the healing is not a future legalistic reordering of the books.

Where in Calvin, punishment and suffering accomplish atonement, this is a non sequitur.  It does not follow that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes atonement for the wrong done. It does not restore the lost phone or the lost lives if the thief or the murderer is punished. Maybe he should be punished or jailed but this has nothing to do with atonement. It does not help the situation that the man suffers or that he volunteers to suffer or even that he, Luther-like, takes a whip to himself to induce suffering. Suffering per se does not address the problem.  Should the man’s innocent brother volunteer to serve his time or suffer the lash (maybe for a more expensive phone than I own), and I say this is very satisfying to me, this would not reflect well on my character.

Does it help the situation if it is God that finds satisfaction in suffering – the eternal suffering of a completely innocent man? Calvin argues from the incomprehension and mystery of things eternal, but shifting this sort of behavior onto God projects onto God the image of evil humans.

Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.

Calvin pictures forgiveness as enabled by Christ bearing the equivalent of eternal suffering in hell on the Cross. The demand of the law, according to Calvin, is that the offense against an infinite God receive the due payment of an infinite penalty. Only when the penalty is paid can the offense be forgiven. Only when God’s wrath is completely satiated (and it never is for Calvin) can he find it in himself to forgive. This is an odd notion of forgiveness and mercy, subsequent as it is to infinite wrath being propitiated.

The biblical depiction is the opposite of that of Calvin, as God’s love and mercy endure forever but his wrath quickly passes.[1] Mercy is a key attribute of God, but Calvin subsumes mercy under the attribute of wrath, as if wrath is an attribute – the prime attribute of God. Most of us would not consider it merciful to demand that those who have wronged us be executed first, and it would be considered diabolical should we desire that those who have transgressed against us be tortured forever prior to our offer of mercy. Is it that we are too merciful, too forgiving, and once we learn the ways of God, we too will demand our pound of flesh before the debt is forgiven?

We expect tyrants to punish every wrong and to revenge every transgression but we do not call it forgiveness should they grant pardon to an already slaughtered enemy. Again, it is presumed by Calvin that locating this evil in the mysteries of God somehow makes it good. The presumption is that humans are more able to be merciful than their maker due to their less strict code of justice (but this has nothing to do with biblical justice).

God’s punishment does not buy mercy, it is his mercy.

Punishment gets a bum wrap in Calvin as it is equated with eternal suffering which in no way restores, rectifies, or reforms. In the Bible God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6) and this is the point of the punishment that comes with sin. The presumed split between mercy and wrath, a necessity brought about by Calvin’s insistent misreading of the Bible, so eternalizes God’s wrath as to make it of no earthly good. The question is not simply, how could God be just and not punish sin, but how could God be loving, merciful, restorative, and kind, without punishing sin. His is a cleansing, purifying punishment which is synonymous with his mercy and love.

God is not split between anger and love, but his anger flows from his love. We all “were by nature children of wrath,” but this does not stand opposed to the love of God but explains how his “being rich in mercy” extends the love of God so as to solve the real problem (Eph 2:2-5). “Being dead in trespasses and sins, walking according to the course of this world’s prince, being disobedient sons, following the lusts of the flesh,” is the problem – being children of wrath is a consequence of the problem.  The wrath is not the problem, but sin is the problem, and God is concerned with the problem not the consequence. God does not hate us in his wrath but like the much loved children of the Father being described, his wrath is an element of his love.

If the solution (being made alive) tells us what the problem is, clearly our problem is not simply that God is angry with us, as this verse tells us that his wrath or anger is no obstacle to his life-giving love, but indeed seems to be subservient to his love. Where in Calvin, wrath describes the prime destiny which Christ is dealing with, for Paul wrath is not describing a destiny or an end point. Paul does not mean that people were destined for wrath, since he is talking about himself and in this case other Jewish Christians. He means that they were acting in a fallen way like those who deserved God’s wrath. In fact, wrath is part of the solution.

The phrase “children of wrath” or “sons of death” is a Hebrew expression which occurs in several places in the Old Testament. As in Psalms 102, these children seemingly consigned to death are to be set free so as to constitute “kingdoms to serve the Lord” and to “tell of the name of the Lord in Zion” (Ps 102:20-21). Ephesians seems to be echoing this tradition of building a kingdom by its citizens purifying passage through the love/wrath of God. The “sons of wrath” are those very ones who will be shown mercy and who “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The way to enter this dwelling is not, as in penal substitution, through by-passing or foregoing the divine wrath (directed somewhere else).

Where Calvin absolutizes wrath, he splits God the Father and Son between wrath and love. But the passage from wrath to love is not a change in God (from wrath to love) but a passage through a purifying love. God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. As George MacDonald puts it, “For Love loves unto purity, and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away.”

Calvin’s Religion?

The notion that infinite wrath can be equated with God’s justice (the first perversion), and then that this justice demands suffering as punishment to achieve forgiveness (the second perversion), as God’s wrath stands over and against God’s mercy, and God is split between his love and wrath (the third perversion), all of which perverts justice and mercy and God (the ultimate perversion). This God that demands infinite suffering as justice would cause us to take refuge from the Father in the Son. As MacDonald describes it, this is “to take refuge with his work instead of with the Son himself; to take refuge with a theory of that work instead of the work itself; to shelter behind a false quirk of law instead of nestling in the eternal heart of the unchangeable and righteous Father.”[2] Is it possible that Calvin’s interpretation of Christianity might cause some to miss the revelation of Jesus?

Perhaps the question is itself a perversion, imagining that knowing the Son is dependent upon proper theology, but we all know those who are much better than their theology (hopefully myself included). As each of us follow Jesus, we make progress in recognizing evil and extracting ourselves from falsehood. That certainly describes my understanding of my own journey. But as MacDonald points out, there must come a point where those who have believed a lie must abandon it as they come to a fuller knowledge of the truth. Otherwise, “They yield the idea of the Ancient of Days, ‘the glad creator,’ and put in its stead a miserable, puritanical martinet of a God, caring not for righteousness, but for his rights; not for the eternal purities, but the goody proprieties.” Surely, knowing and following Jesus is a faith that will not and cannot be thwarted, no matter what obstacle should be thrown in the way. On the other hand, false prophets such as Calvin “take all the glow, all the hope, all the colour, all the worth, out of life on earth, and offer you instead what they call eternal bliss–a pale, tearless hell.”[3]  


[1] Psalm 30:5 For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning. Psalm 106:1 “Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever”; Psalm 118:1 “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting”; Isaiah 12:1 “Then you will say on that day, “I will give thanks to You, O LORD; For although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, And You comfort me.”

[2] George McDonald, “Justice,” in Unspoken Sermons. I am loosely following MacDonald in the sections and concepts “Suffering does not right a wrong” and “Demanding retribution is not forgiveness.”

[3] McDonald, surrounded by Scottish Calvinism, makes the point.

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.