The Platonist God of Calvinism

Consideration 1

In the Spring of 1999 I attended a debate between Christian, Dr. William Lane Craig of Talbot Seminary and Dr. Walter Sennett-Armstrong (an atheist) of Dartmouth College held at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The subject was, “God and the Existence of Suffering and Evil.”

Now imagine the setting. You have a packed house debate between an atheist and a Christian on the subject of, “God and the Existence of Evil and Suffering.” The Christian spokesperson leans toward Calvinism in his theological formation.  You have listened to sixty minutes of debate where the Christian has argued that God is all good, all loving, completely powerful and all knowing. He has argued that God uses evil and suffering for good even though in our finite limitations we do not always understand his purposes. Everything that happens will ultimately glorify God. In order to support his defense he has used Job as the primary example.

Here’s the story.

The atheist is as familiar with the Job argument as is Dr. Craig. The atheist proposes a number of questions that stretch the emotions of everyone in the room. His most powerful example is this: “a six-year old child who contracts terminal cancer. The family attempts every possibility to save their only child. They have exhausted every resource and still, after suffering horribly, the child dies. Does God, as with the example of Job, have some lofty purpose that we just don’t understand? Will this human tragedy in some way glorify God? I think not. In fact, I think this circumstance does the exact opposite. This defames God rather than glorifies Him.”

He goes on to say something like this, “Here let me do it this way. You live next door to someone. He or she seems friendly, waves occasionally and appears in almost every way, normal. There is however, one thing that bothers you. As you watch out the window you notice that the neighbor treats his children horribly. Much of the time he leaves them on their own. You look out of the house and see that they are on the street even at midnight. They are dirty, malnourished and poorly clothed. What would you think of this neighbor? What would be your impression? Let me tell you what you should think. You should think that this person is a bad parent and a terrible neighbor. This neighbor may have some lofty purpose for leaving his kids on the street. The problem is, you don’t know what that reason is! All you know is this person appears to not care for his children and someone ought to call in The Department of Child Welfare to investigate the situation. Based upon this example, it appears to many that the Christian God is a bad neighbor.”

Dr. Armstrong concluded by saying, “Don’t misunderstand me. I am not opposed to the idea of God or those who choose to believe in God. What I do struggle with is the kind of God that Christians attempt to convince me of. Let me say that I think that you have just described the wrong God. Your God is not fashioned by the New Testament but rather by Greek (Platonist) philosophy. As long as you enter debate with the kind of God that you have read out of your text you cannot suitably win a debate on, God and the Existence of Evil and Suffering. Your God is responsible for every evil as well as every good. There is no way around it. There may be some lofty purpose that we don’t know about. The fact is, I don’t care. Logic tells me that if God has the power to heal a child and does not, then this God is not a good God and therefore unworthy of my respect, let alone my allegiance and adoration. But if on the other hand you resolve this enigma by presenting the God that I see in the New Testament- in the life and teaching of Jesus- then I will agree, He is a good God. He did not, in fact, allow this to come upon the child. He is opposed to it. This is either simply a bad situation that might befall anyone or an evil thing- something outside of His purpose and will.

The problem for you is that you cannot have a God as you describe Him and not at the same time have Him absolutely responsible for good and evil alike. Like the gods of Greece and Rome your God is a dualistic entity. He has equal capacity for both good and evil since it is His will that ultimately determines the outcome of everything. Philosophical consideration cannot escape this fact. If this God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent in the way that you describe Him, if He is in control of every event, large and small, then this conclusion is inescapable- He is the responsible for both good and evil alike. This God is a two-sided God and I and many others simply don’t want him as a next door neighbor. He is too capricious to be trusted.”

Consideration 2

With this in mind, let’s turn to a familiar incident in the New Testament. Almost everyone is acquainted with the story of Jesus dispatching his disciples to do ministry. He tells them that in his name they should go two by two, preach the gospel, heal the sick and cast out demons. They start off confidently enough but soon they discover that they fail to perform 100% of the time. Actually, the way this comes about is someone complains that Jesus’ followers just don’t measure up and they want to know the reason why. The father of a boy comes to Jesus and says, “ My son has a demon, a horrible one that tries to kill ‘em by shoving him into a fire. I took him to your graduates of Deliverance 101 and they couldn’t do it. How come?”

Here’s what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Well that’s because the Father has so ordained that this young man should be tormented even more, even though we may not completely understand why. This sort of torment for a son of Israel *glorifies my Father.” No, he says, this is a special situation that demands a different approach. He doesn’t fall back on God’s will, foreordination, or any other argument. Instead, he makes a strange statement. Jesus says, “You can’t get this one without much fasting and prayer.” Did I hear this right? Did Jesus essentially say that there is some relationship between human activity and divine action? Does this mean that, for some things, there is some sort of equation between what we do and what God does in response? This seems to be the way that the text reads.

*The writer admits that there are occasions when sickness and infirmity is for the Glory of God. This being said, there are also times when sickness is for correction as well. Sometimes people get sick and even die because we live in a fallen world where there are  diseases and germs.

Jesus does not see the demon as some friendly agent sent to ultimately perform the will of God. Instead Jesus sees this demonized boy as infested by something alien and casts it out of him. Think about this. What does this tell us? Essentially, it describes a God / man who enters a fallen world, engages it in a fight and takes it back from hostile forces.

The lyrics from the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is poor theology. There is a “god of this world (present age)’ and this god deceives and blinds people.  Here’s my rule: never develop a theology from hymnals, Christmas cards or hearsay.


1 Response to “The Platonist God of Calvinism”

  1. June 23, 2009 at 10:41 am

    To be honest, I can’t remember what he said. I don’t think anyone remembered what he said. I took a Jewish guy with me and he thought that (on the issue of evil and suffering) that the antagonist had a more compelling argument. A Calvinist will say, “Well, the problem is you allow your emothions to carry you rather than truth. You prefer a different kind of God than God is.” No, I don’t think so, I think that there are better interpretations of God than that of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Calvin, Beza, the Puritan Reformers and Piper. I think that Calvin was more a philosopher than anything else.

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