An Argument about Hell
Published on: May 18, 2011
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  • WigWag

    “Puritanism was deeply imbued with the Calvinist version of Christianity, including the doctrine of so-called “double predestination”, which held that God, from all eternity, had arbitrarily decided which human beings would be saved and which would be damned forever. Arguably the most repulsive doctrine in the history of Christianity, it made hell into a solemn divine project.” (Peter Berger)

    Perhaps Peter Berger is right that it is the most repulsive doctrine in Christian history, but without that doctrine and without the followers of Calvin who advanced it, the Reformation may be very well have fizzled out.

    The treatise “On Calvinism” by the great and witty British historian James Anthony Froude is a “must read” for anyone wanting to gain some perspective on the critical role played by Calvinism in insuring the survival of Protestantism. Froude delivered his thoughts about Calvinism in a famous address at St. Andrews on March 17, 1871. For those who are interested it can be downloaded on the Kindle for free at

    Froude was no fan of Calvinism but he made the point that the Lutheran Church never made a complete break with the Catholic Church. In essence, Froude thought that Lutheranism was “reformation-lite.” He pointed out that Lutherans were content to allow local princes and potentates to assume roles of ecclesiastical authority in national churches in the place of the Pope while it was the Calvinists who insisted on the complete separation of church and state.

    Froude also doubted that the Lutherans would have mustered the courage to survive the counter-reformation and suspected that they would have crumbled when Rome gathered its wits and struck back. In Froude’s view, Protestantism survived because of Calvin.

    Here’s some of what Froude said,

    “The Calvinists have been called intolerant. Intolerance of an enemy who is trying to kill you seems to me a pardonable state of mind . . . The Catholics chose to add to their already incredible creed a fresh article, that they were entitled to hang and burn those who differed from them; and in this quarrel the Calvinists, Bible in hand, appealed to the God of battles. They grew harsher, fiercer, — if you please, more fanatical. It was extremely natural that they should. They dwelt, as pious men are apt to dwell in suffering and sorrow, on the all-disposing power of Providence. Their burden grew lighter as they considered that God had so determined that they must bear it. But they attracted to their ranks almost every man in Western Europe that ‘hated a lie.’ They were crushed down, but they rose again. They were splintered and torn, but no power could bend or melt them. They abhorred as no body of men ever more abhorred all conscious mendacity, all impurity, all moral wrong of every kind so far as they could recognize it. Whatever exists at this moment in England and Scotland of conscious fear of doing evil is the remnant of the convictions which were branded by the Calvinists into the people’s hearts. Though they failed to destroy Romanism, though it survives and may survive long as an opinion, they drew its fangs; they forced it to abandon that detestable principle that it was entitled to murder those who dissented from it. Nay, it may be said that by having shamed Romanism out of its practical corruption the Calvinists enabled it to revive.”

    Froude and others have also pointed out that the doctrine of absolute predestination was the sword that cut the Roman “serpents of superstition and idolatry” to ribbons.

    However repulsive you think the doctrine of “double predestination” is, some very smart people have made a compelling case that the survival of the reformation depended on it.

  • WigWag

    One other thought comes to mind. I was struck by Professor Berger’s choice of the word “implausible” to describe some of the doctrinal conceptions of liberal and evangelical Protestants. What a strange adjective to select.

    We are, after all, discussing religion here. If plausibility is the standard aren’t virtually all religious tenets implausible?

  • Excellent post and timely topic, thank you for writing, Dr. Berger!

  • WigWag

    From the vantage point of the 21st century, it is unsurprising that Professor Berger considers the Calvinist conception of double predestination to be “repulsive” but I think it makes more sense to view this doctrine historically rather than theologically.

    When one considers the context of 16th century Europe, the doctrine of double predestination looks downright progressive. After all, it stood juxtaposed with rampant corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, the doctrine was offered as an antidote to the widespread practice of selling indulgences and granting time off for the period a sinner might spend in purgatory, if only he or she made the appropriate financial contribution to Catholic authorities. Considering the ubiquitous nature of simony and the sale of indulgences in 16th century Europe, it is hardly surprising that the alternative and incorruptible concept of double predestination might actually appear like a great leap forward theologically and ethically speaking.

    It is also interesting to note that double predestination was not a concept unique to Protestants of that era; the concept still survives in some versions of Sunni Islam today.

    My only point is that a doctrine that may seem like an abomination to Professor Berger now, might be viewed in a different light when one considers the context in which it arose.

  • pacificus

    Professor Berger and Wigwag,

    What none of the foregoing addresses is what the Bible says about hell and damnation. The historical and sociological analysis is all very interesting, but does not really get to the orthodox objections to Rob Bell’s ruminations, which to me really do smack of retracing the errand into the wilderness of the mainline Protestant churches in their own flight from orthodoxy.

    The Reformation was more about trying to get an accurate reading of scripture–sola scriptura and all that–than simply opposing Romanism as such. The severe and narrow seeming doctrines to come out of Calvinism are never more severe or narrow than the Bible itself. The attempt must be made to view such “implasuible” sounding doctrines as double predestination and eternal hell in light of the Absolute and His absolute qualities.

    Chapter VI of the Westminster Confession, the apex of Reformation scholarship, can be consulted with profit on sin and punishment, as it is the archetypical Reformation attempt to delineate what the entire scripture says about everything.

    If there is an argument against eternal judgement and hell, it is not with Calvin or the Reformation–it is with the revealed word of God.

  • Pacificus,

    I agree with you about the Bible’s clear teaching about ‘hell’ (it is not referred to as such therein) and damnation — and that Rob Bell is ‘extrabiblical’. A false teacher.

    However, it would seem to me that killing others for their religious beliefs –as both Roman Catholics did, and followers of ‘reformers’ Luther and Calvin did — is a bit worse than just teaching heresy, no?

    The largest untold story of Christianity in the West is that ‘The Reformation’ simply *wasn’t*. Reformers of the body of Christ form an unbroken procession from the first century AD onward. Luther and Calvin were simply very adept public writers and speakers; they both made Falwell and Robertson pale by comparison, yet shared some of the traits of both.

    Orthodoxy is critical to the health of the body of Christ — but those who follow Luther or Calvin (or Rob Bell) instead of Jesus Christ will not find orthodoxy (the gospel once delivered unto the saints). They will find the pitch of a religious careerist; of a ‘great man of God’ whose greatest greatness is in his own head, alas.

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