Double Predestination: The Elected Ones and the Crowd of the Condemned
By Jürgen Moltmann
Professor of Systematic Theology at Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen, Germany
The strong points of Reformed Theology are at the same time her weaknesses. In order to become fit for the 21st century in the common house of ecumenical theology and in the universal house of humankind and the earth, it seems necessary to reformulate the strength of the Reformed Tradition. This cannot mean adapting our tradition to the others or integrating our originality into what is common to all, but to find our own profile in new communities of Christianity and humankind. “If two are saying the same, one is superfluous,” says an old Russian proverb. It is not the intention of ecumenical community and interreligious dialogue to make each other superfluous. The difference is interesting.
Since John Calvin and Theodore of Beza, the founder of the reformed orthodoxy in the 17th century, “Calvinism” is famous on the one hand and notoriously accused on the other hand for the doctrine of double predestination: Humanity is divided into the elected here and the rejected there. God is totally free to choose whomever he wants and to reject whomever he doesn’t want. Both serve the glorification of his majesty, and who can argue with the sublimity of the infinite God?
The belief in divine election was and is indeed the strength of Reformed faith. It gave believers an invincible certainty in their faith to know that one is not only loved by God, and not only justified by the grace of Christ and sanctified by the inspiration of the holy Spirit of God, but also elected by the will of God. From this belief in the divine election follows the trust in the divine perseverance through the ups and downs of personal life until the final redemption: I shall not fall and nobody and nothing can tear me out of the hands of God. God is faithful to his election, Christ has prayed for me “that my faith shall not fail" (Luke 22:32), the divine seed of the Holy Spirit in my heart will not die. This belief was the power of resistance in persecutions, i.e. of the Huguenots in France and Reformed Christians in the Netherlands. Marie Durand was incarcerated in the Tour de la Constance in Aigues-Mortes in Southern France for thirty-eight years, sustaining and exhorting her companions in captivity for the sake of their faith, and here she made her famous inscription in the stone “Register.”
But does this strength of belief in one's divine election mean that the rest of humankind is lost and damned to eternity as the crowd of corruption, the massa perditionis as Augustine called them? Must we tell the rest of the world: “According to the Bible and our belief those who do not believe in Christ will perish?” as the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches Choan-Seng Sonq from Taiwan asked? There are always two different explanations of the simple fact that one and the same Gospel provokes belief in one, and disbelief in others. It is either due to the will of God or of human beings. Because believers confess that they owe their faith to the grace of God, they see in unbelief the disgrace of God. Since they feel in their faith “elected,” they can see in unbelievers only “rejected” people. The other explanation refers to the free choice of human will: Those who decided for Christ see heaven as their eternal future, and for those who decide against Christ they see only hell as their future—or more recently “total nonbeing.” The result of the view believers have of unbelievers is the same, whether one follows Augustine and Calvin in their doctrine of double predestination, or Pelagius and Erasmus in their doctrine of the double end of human free choice.
I think it is not characteristic of the Christian Gospel to confront people with the statement, “You belong to the crowd of the condemned and your future is hell.” It was terrible to see in the movie “Breaking the Waves” a Calvinistic pastor burying a person having lost faith with the words, “We now hand you over to hell.” It is certainly not in the Spirit of God the creator of everything to condemn 95 percent of the people he has created in his image, and it is not in accordance with Christ to limit salvation to 144,000 elected only, for whom he died. We need no theological explanation for the existence of unbelievers or people of another faith. Our only answer to the rejection of the Gospel is preaching and explaining the Gospel to unbelievers and people of other faiths.
Faith is not only human trust in God, but also and in the first place God's faithfulness. It is in this sense that I take every unbeliever as a person in whom God is trusting, in whom God is present and for whom God is waiting. God believes in every human person. This can be called “objective faith” (Christoph Blumhardt).
It was Karl Barth who—following Blumhardt—gave us an ingenious christological reformulation of the Reformed doctrine of double predestination (Church Dogmatics II/2). The sequence of his argument is this: 1. Before God elects or rejects anybody, God determines himself to be the God of the people: “I shall be your God and you shall be my people,” is the covenant-formula of Israel. This can be called the self-election of God. 2. In the passion and Crucifixion of Christ, God has put his righteous condemnation of sin, evil and death on his own Son. Between Gethsemene and Golgatha Jesus suffered hell and eternal death for all of us, when he cried out: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” 3. With Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead, hell and eternal death are therefore overcome. The election of grace is revealed: “Hell, where is your victory!” (1 Cor. 15:55). Grace flowing out of the resurrected Christ is pure grace and as such unconditional and also universal, all-embracing and excluding no one. This is the content of the Gospel and there is no terror in the doctrine of double predestination anymore.
“The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom,” said Karl Barth in § 32 of his Church Dogmatics (trans. is from Bromiley ed.). Why is this so? Because “God took upon himself the condemnation of sinful men with all consequences, and elected man to participate in his eternal glory (§ 33).” Is Barth teaching “double predestination?” Yes! But in a new dialectical form: God took the condemnation upon himself in order to embrace all in his election of grace. This is the new dialectical form of the old doctrine of “double predestination.”
Of course, this new formulation is not an explanation of the fact that some believe in the Gospel and others not. But do we really need a theological explanation of this fact, or can we best answer the fact that there are unbelievers with a new and better witness to the Gospel that God loves them with grace and is carrying all their sins and sufferings for them? Another question is whether universalism is the result of this reformulation. The answer is “No,” because we are witnesses of the Gospel not judges in the final judgment of God. Whether God will in the end embrace all with his transforming grace is His sake, ours is the witness of the Gospel to everybody. But if somebody dies in unbelief, is he then out, or is there hope also for him? The answer is: Our means of preaching and praying come to an end with death, but not Christ's power, because he was resurrected and has his possibilities with the dead, preaching the Gospel in the world of the dead. There is, therefore, no reason and no right for us to condemn and exclude anyone, living or dead. We are not the judges of faith, but the servants of joy.
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2001, VOL. 2, #2.