I’ve heard a lot of terrible quotes by Calvinist preachers, but this one I saw recently is one of the worst. Coming from the twisted mind of Paul Washer: “There is no such thing as a great man of God, only weak, pitiful, faithless men of a great and merciful God.”
I’m not sure I even need to write an article about why this quote and the religion behind it are bad, but I’m going to anyway.
While most versions of Christianity try to downplay the anti-human message of the Bible, Calvinism and a few other varieties embrace it completely. Also known as “Reformed Christianity”, these sects arose several hundred years ago when corruption in the Catholic church prompted some people to leave and create their own version of Christianity, free from the control of a massive organization. John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, and of course John Calvin are some of the most well-known heroes of the Protestant Reformation. Calvinism is the version that closely follows the teachings of the murderous Calvin.
The initial split was partly due to efforts to translate the Latin Bible into common languages, which the church of the time opposed. Other issues were the selling of indulgences (basically, you paid money for salvation), and the church’s tendency to torture and/or kill anyone who disagreed too much with the orthodoxy. These days, someone who “disagrees with 2,000 years of church tradition” is generally accused of being a false Christian or “satanic” or some such nonsense. Six hundred years ago it could get you killed, since the power and corruption of the church was massive and far-reaching.
So Reformed Christianity had a good start, breaking off from an oppressive organization and promoting personal religion. Unfortunately, some saw this new religion as an opportunity for power rather than freedom, and for several hundred years Protestants and Catholics continued to kill each other and people who disagreed with their established traditions. Instead of one big corrupt church killing you if you didn’t agree, now there were two, and you couldn’t agree with both of them. Michael Servetus is one of the famous examples of someone condemned by both Catholics and Protestants, and he was eventually killed because of his disagreement with John Calvin (an execution approved by Calvin himself).
Reformed Christianity has a harsh history, so it should be no surprise that it’s often the doctrine behind modern Christian extremism. The Christian Reconstructionists, founded mostly on writings of the racist Rousas John Rushdoony, have strongly Calvinist roots. These are the people who want to establish laws and punishments from the Old Testament in modern America, which would include the death penalty for LGBT people. In fact, if they followed everything in the Old Testament, they’d even have a death penalty for unbelievers. For people so opposed to Muslims on the basis of “kill the infidel” scriptures, you’d think they would see the irony.
Fundamentalists in general often follow Calvinistic doctrines, and adhere strictly to cultural patriarchal ideals upheld in the New Testament, particularly concerning what women can and cannot do. They tend to hold a milder version of Reconstructionist views, still thinking that Christianity needs to rule the world but not necessarily believing in executions based on Mosaic law. Because of their view that the “laws of God” are above the “laws of man”, some fundamentalists and Reconstructionists are drawn to the sovereign citizen movement, or hold similar beliefs. My friend Alecia Pennington grew up like that, without any sort of legal ID, without any record that she is an American citizen. Scott Roeder, who killed abortion doctor George Tiller, was involved in the sovereign citizen movement through a group called the Montana Freemen, many members of which were believers in Christian Identity.
Other well-known people in these extreme groups include Doug Phillips of Vision Forum (his empire dissolved after his sexual harassment and infidelity came to light), Bill Gothard (finally removed from power decades after allegations of sexual harassment started coming from the young girls he employed), Douglas Wilson (slavery apologist, blatantly racist and sexist, follower of the notorious Rushdoony), Michael and Debi Pearl (advocates of child abuse and oppressive patriarchy), the Westboro Baptist Church, and of course the Duggars. In the more mainstream Reformed Christianity, we have Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Paul Washer, R. C. Sproul Jr., and plenty of others. It’s growing in popularity, perhaps in part due to its subversive attitude.
Now that we’ve established the history of Calvinism, and its modern-day effects, you might wonder what exactly it is. What do they teach, and how does it lead to such evil?
The core Calvinist beliefs regarding salvation can be summed up in the acronym TULIP…which stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.
- Total Depravity means that every single human is evil, solely because they exist. Basically, this doctrine is original sin–a sinfulness imputed to every human at conception because of Adam’s sin–taken to an extreme. Before being saved, everyone is incapable of doing good by God’s standards. Their mere existence is repugnant, everything they do and every thought they have is sinful because they don’t believe in God (some temper this a bit by saying that people are incapable of not sinning, rather than incapable of doing good). What about after you’re saved? Well, most Calvinists allow that believers do some good things, but it’s always directly attributed to God. They teach that even Christians continue to sin; some say that Christians sin every single moment, introducing a strange situation wherein the person is still just as evil as before, but the presence of the Holy Spirit makes them look good to God.
- Unconditional Election simply means that before creating the universe, God chose every single individual he would save. By omission, he chose not to save everyone else and thus condemned them to hell. This choice was not based on anything favorable in “the elect”, and Calvinists are quick to stress the fact that Christians are exactly as evil as everyone else, except for the grace of Jesus that covers their sin like an invisibility cloak. God’s reasons for choosing to save some and not all, therefore, are a mystery.
- Limited Atonement is mostly only relevant to people who are really hardcore about their theology. It states that Jesus died specifically for the people God chose to save, and his “saving power” is no more and no less than the exact amount required to save the elect. Seeing as his “sacrifice” was nothing compared to the infinite suffering of just one human in hell, this whole point is a sick joke.
- Irresistible Grace is based on the concept of God controlling every single thing that ever happens, and states that anyone God chose to save will be saved, no matter what they do or what they want. It also, by extension, states that anyone who isn’t “of the elect” will go to hell, no matter what. Logically, this view of sovereignty makes God entirely responsible for everything that ever happens, since it has him controlling us like puppets. To get around the fact that this makes God an immensely evil being, usually it is claimed that somehow we deserve to suffer for eternity because we’re inherently evil. If you push the issue further, asking how God isn’t responsible for evil if he planned and caused every single evil thing that ever happened, the response is almost always an appeal to mystery or a convoluted paradox. Some try to get around it by claiming Adam and Eve had free will but lost it after they sinned, but this still leaves the issue of God planning and perpetrating every evil thing that has happened since. Also, this point in conjunction with Unconditional Election causes a problem: The Bible clearly states several times that God desires to save all of humanity, which is at odds with an arbitrary selection of people to save. If it’s totally up to him whether or not someone gets saved, and he wants to save them, what would stop him from doing so? We don’t know, they say, but that’s how it is.
- Perseverance of the Saints says that someone who is saved will always be saved. In light of Irresistible Grace, this point seems superfluous, but I suppose they needed a P to make the whole thing more…flowery. Obviously it gets too ugly when you look any deeper than the acronym. The concept of “once saved, always saved” goes far beyond Calvinism, and is why former Christians like myself are tuned out so easily; we were never “True Christians”, so anything we have to say is wrong and evil.
There is, of course, a lot more to it, but these foundational ideas inform the Calvinistic view of most other issues. Like I’ve said before, the doctrine of depravity is effective at keeping people within the religion. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy–you believe you will keep sinning, so you do. You keep going back to the church for affirmation of your salvation because you’ve been instilled with the terror of hell, and hell is for sinners, and you’re a sinner.
It’s interesting that Reformed Christianity teaches so emphatically that “salvation is by faith alone”, and yet Paul Washer’s quote characterizes all men as “faithless”. Undoubtedly he has a convoluted argument for how faithless people have faith, probably rooted in the idea that faith is something God does to you just like salvation…I suppose if you’re going to cling to the idea that God controls everything we think and do, then it would have to be. Honestly, the deeper you get, the less sense it makes.
The evil of Calvinism is that it disables people, suppresses their autonomy, and makes them unable to properly understand morality. Anything not done “for God” is evil…and even morally objectionable things like murder are good if God wants you to do them. As we’ve seen, it provides a convenient excuse for people who give in to their wicked desires, so they can do horrible things and even believe it was “God’s will” simply because it happened. It tells people they are helpless, worthless, and repulsive, and they can’t change that because it’s inherent to their physical bodies. All they can do is wait for God to cover their sin with “Jesus’s righteousness”…which doesn’t mean the sin goes away, only that God doesn’t notice it anymore.
It should come as no surprise that so many leaders in this version of Christianity turn out to be child molesters, adulterers, and worse. It should come as no surprise that the states where fundamentalism is popular also have higher teen pregnancy rates, porn use, violent crime, obesity, divorce, racism, and so on. Convince people they’re helpless, and they become helpless.
It’s a dark worldview and the only hope is to be one of the elect so you can go to heaven after you die. If you aren’t…well, too bad. For the crimes of being born and failing to do something you are incapable of, you will burn in hell for eternity.
Normal Christians may still use the fear of hell to keep people from leaving, but at least in their view everyone has a chance. Which sells better than fatalism…