What about Those Who Never Hear the Gospel: Foreordination versus Foreknowledge

InPart 1,we looked at the Calvinist argument that is supposed to demonstrate that Extensivists (non-Calvinists) have their own form of election since, as they contend, God does not give everyone a chance to hear the gospel and be saved. We saw their argument fails to be convincing. To further clarify and amplify God’s salvific love for everyone, we looked at some of His salvific work in the Old TestamentPart 2.In Part 3, we looked at God’s salvation work in the New Testament.

As we have seen, Calvinists often claim that Extensivists (people who reject Calvinism) are in the same quandary as Calvinists in that God supposedly limited those who could be saved in Extensivism by limiting opportunity and in Calvinism by unconditional election. Another way to present this argument emphasizes the inarguable reality that both positions believe God created this world, knowing many would not repent and be lost in torment forever. I have heard a Calvinist say, “We all worship a God who knowingly structured the plan of salvation and created a world in which the vast majority of humanity will never hear of His way of salvation, much less have an opportunity to accept it and be saved.” Or a Calvinist may say, “We all have to admit God knew His creation would rebel, and most of those He created would be lost forever in hell; thus, we all have the same problem.” This form of the same problem argument is recognizable by its emphasis upon God’s foreknowledge.

I think we can accurately portray this type of argument with this specific question. “Does God creating a world in which He knew many would perish pose the same problem for Extensivists as it does Calvinists?” That is the precise question addressed in this article.

Our Calvinist friends present these statements in order to demonstrate that both perspectives suffer from the same problem, thereby eliminating Extensivist’s grounds for criticizing Calvinists for their view that God elects only some to salvation.[1] It is true both perspectives believe God created a world in which He knew most people would perish, but that does not mean Extensivism suffers from the same problem as Calvinism. The truth is, once we sort through the Calvinist gloss, we find these two statements serve to reveal significant differences between the two perspectives: first, the act of creation; second, the availability of salvation; third, the eternal state of the lost.

Before we look at these three primary areas, we begin with an essential difference between Calvinists’ and Extensivists’ understanding of how God knows the future. Knowing (foreknowing) in Calvinism is based on God foreordaining what will be. He knows what will happen because He predetermined it to happen, and it will happen precisely and only as He determined it to happen. Speaking of this, Leigh Vicens says, “But if God knows the future exhaustively, theological determinists argue, then all future events must be determined, directly or indirectly, by God . . . It must be God himself who ultimately determines the event’s occurrence.”[2] Determinism means there are no contingencies. Contingencies are events that result from choices made by libertarian free humans. Extensivism contends the Creator endowed man with libertarian moral freedom, otherwise choice. Because contingencies come into being by the choices of libertarian free beings, they are certain rather than determined events.

According to Extensivism, God can and does foreknow what He foreordained to happen. He also knows all contingencies, true free acts of man endowed with otherwise choice, which He freely predetermined to be an integral component in his creation. This means the reason there are contingencies in this world rather than everything being predetermined is that God predetermined to create a world with both events that are predetermined (human choice does not affect them) and contingent events (human choice does affect them). I refer to these as definite and indefinite events. Definite events are known by God and happen necessarily because they are predetermined by God to happen and cannot be altered by human otherwise choice, whereas indefinite events are known by God and happen certainly because they can be altered by human otherwise choice.

Our understanding of the structure is quite different as well. According to Calvinism, God intentionally structured a plan that inarguably pedestals His desire that only some could, and therefore would, be saved. According to Extensivism, God intentionally structured a plan that reflects His desire and provision for anyone and everyone to be saved. This plan includes God’s desire to create man in His image with libertarian freedom, which decision substantively included a place for man’s choice in His plan. With this in mind, we are prepared to look at our supposed similar dilemma regarding God comprehensively knowing the three interconnected parts of His plan for mankind.

First, the act of creation

Extensivists believe God knew Adam and Eve would sin, and the whole of humanity would thereby be cast into a sea of sin and judgment. Each person after that would be born with a sin nature and become a sinner by practice, a state in which man would be hopelessly incapable of extricating himself on his own. God always knew all of the sufferings that would ensue because of the decisions of Adam and Eve. However, even though the problem seems to be the same for both perspectives on the surface, I will explain why it is not.

Calvinism believes God only foreknows what He foreordains, and God created man with a compatibly free nature.[3] Either of these concepts leads to the idea that God created man where not only would he sin, but he could not resist sinning. However, Calvinists are quick to distance God from direct responsibility or causing man to sin by employing secondary causation. The inescapable fact is even though the Calvinists’ claim is correct that man did freely choose to sin, the corollary is equally true; their God-given nature and past unalterably determined the desire from which Adam and Eve freely chose.

As a result of these two components, Adam and Eve’s decision was a predetermined free decision. Consequently, while it can be said God did not directly cause them to sin, He did predetermine they would freely choose to sin by endowing them with compatible freedom in concert with the past He established for them. Therefore, it is inescapable that God desired to create them so they would choose to sin because it is, given their nature and past, the only thing they could do. God knew they would sin because He predetermined that state of affairs by decree and by endowing them with compatible moral freedom.

This understanding is quite different from Extensive, wherein God foreknow man would sin because He knows everything. He knew creating a man with libertarian freedom would result in him misusing his freedom to sin. Although this result was certain, it was not necessary. This means given man’s nature and past, he could have chosen differently; therefore, the sin was neither necessary nor predetermined.

It was certain since God knows everything, and God cannot hold to a false belief. Sin was not God’s desire for man, but He did allow it. Allow or permit in Calvinism is indistinguishable from determined since even His permissive will is determined. Whereas according to Extensive, permission includes the idea that God truly did not desire man to sin and die, but He permits it within the context of His creation-redemption plan. God overcomes man’s sin through His creation-redemption plan. This means the origin of sin was the misuse of the wonderful gift of being created in the image of God with libertarian freedom. According to Extensive, God desired and provisioned man so that he could have and should have resisted the temptation to sin. Whereas in Calvinism, God endowed man with compatible moral freedom, and man could not have done other than he did in the moral moment of decision.

According to decretal theology and compatibilism, God could have freely chosen to create man with a nature that emanated desires not to sin, from which man would have freely chosen not to sin, and sin would not have entered man’s world. In absolute contrast, the prevention of the presence of sin in the original libertarian free world wherein the option to sin exists seems to be an impossibility. In Calvinism, God knew He could have predetermined man to choose a path that would not have ushered in sin, whereas He could not have so predetermined man endowed with libertarian freedom, or it would not be libertarian freedom.

The two perspectives regarding the way God knows the future are as follows. According to Calvinism, God knows what He predetermined to happen. His predetermination includes every microscopic detail with exact precision. This is why there is actually little, if any, difference between what God foreknows and what He foreordained.[4] He foreknows what He foreordained, and He foreordained what He knows. Everything happens, including all human actions, precisely as predetermined. There is no such thing as indefinite events or contingencies resulting from otherwise choice. Every good and every evil, every help and every hurt is because God predetermined people to act the way they do, in fact, act. The fall of man was predetermined by creating man with compatible freedom and a specific nature and past, which is the nature of decretal theology. God’s predetermination includes the use of secondary causation but excludes the remotest possibility of even the minutest change in what He predetermined to be; what is, is because God desired it and predetermined His desire to be actualized.

There are two perspectives regarding God creating a world where He knew everyone who would be saved and who would not. According to Calvinism, He knew because He predetermined whom He would save and whom He would not save without any consideration of, or the possibility of, humans affecting His plan. Everything is the result of God unalterably predetermining that outcome. It pleased Him to select some unconditionally to be the beneficiaries of His grace. It equally pleased Him to withhold the same grace (that would have most assuredly resulted in their salvation) from the majority of his creation. They are known as reprobates. Therefore, people do not choose to act differently because they cannot choose to act differently than God predetermined that they will act.

According to Extensive, God knows everything because He is essentially omniscient (here, we are specifically considering the future). God knows what He predetermined to happen. He predetermined to create a world that includes some predetermined, foreordained events (definite events) and some non-predetermined events (indefinite events). Some events are a mixture of both, such as the crucifixion of Christ (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23). Definite events are uninfluenced by human choice. Indefinite events are influenced by the human choice of libertarian, morally free beings. The events that include both are simply mixed. It is the indefinite events (and mixed events) Calvinists reject since they believe God can only know predetermined future events. Extensivists contend God did not predetermine nor desire that man would sin, but as with angels, God knew man would sin because God is an essentially omniscient being.

To negatively state essential omniscience, God cannot fail to know. Stated more positively, God knows Himself and His intentions exhaustively. God’s knowledge includes His intent to create man with otherwise choice. Because He knows His intentions eternally and comprehensively, God innately knows the choices and actions of the man He would create, including the consequences of His choices. He does not look down the halls of history to see what man will do, nor does He even look outside or beyond himself. God knows innately rather than perceptively.

God does distinguish between the sequences of events (both definite and indefinite), but that does not mean He comes to know them sequentially. For example, He knew He would create the sun, and, consequently, the sun would produce sunlight from which would come warmth, the growth of plants, and countless other things; some of them have their own sequential relationships that spawn other sequential relationships. Even by what we humans know of this dynamic, it is truly incomprehensible how a being could know this from all eternity. I suspect there is even more He has always known about this one aspect of creation that we do not know. Now, multiply that by billions of sequential relationships, and we begin to contemplate what kind of being God is. The same is true of His knowledge of both determined and non-determined man, albeit with still more complexity. Multiply that times billions of individuals alive today or who have lived throughout history.

Both determined and undetermined man entail sequentiality. If God determined to create determined man, He would have always known He would. This choice would include always knowing every aspect of sequentiality–events taking place as entailed in that choice. If God determined to create non-determined man, He would have always known He would. This choice would include knowing every aspect of sequentiality. He would know either plan as He would know the sequentiality entailed in the creation of the sun. Therefore, the difference between the two is not in what or when He knows but rather in how He knows.

Determinism says God knows because He determined it to be, but there still had to be the knowledge of sequentiality. Extensive says He knows because He is essentially omniscient. Being who He is, He could not have always known He would create a world with contingencies (acts of libertarian beings) and that knowledge be separated from His knowledge of what that entails. Regarding determinists’ argument that contingencies do not exist until the libertarian being decides and therefore cannot be known; I would respond that even though they do not exist in time, they exist eternally in the mind of God because He would have always known He would create such a world, which entails knowing everything about that world. From an Extensivist perspective, the only predetermined requirement is that God predetermined to create man with libertarian freedom and permit some indefinite events. All God had to know was that He intended to so create man, and by this, He would know what that entailed.

Extensive’s perspective allows God to genuinely desire that man would choose holiness, even though He knew he would not always so choose. Calvinism excludes such because God could have given man a different compatible nature and past if He had truly desired only holiness. These distinctions make it clear that while it is true that both views believe God knew man would sin, the process by which God foreknew in each perspective is vastly dissimilar. This dissimilarity reflects our differences, not only in the realm of soteriology but theology proper as well (the nature of God); hence, we do not have the same problem.

Why would God create man with libertarian freedom, knowing man would misuse it and sin? Such a state of affairs would have to do with God’s eternal plan. If He desired to create beings who choose to love Him when they do not have to do so, as He did not have to create beings to love, it seems that would necessitate those beings having the ability to choose to love Him or not love Him. God could have chosen to create beings to love or not create them at all. He could have acted or refrained.

In like manner, to receive the same kind of love from created beings would require they be endowed with otherwise choice; they could choose to love God or not. God’s love is by free choice, and the loftiness of the relationship He has designed for man to experience seems to require undetermined love. The biblical portrayal and our own understanding of such concepts as love, valor, nobility, honor, compassion, and faithfulness are understood as including a choice between these and their evil counterparts or not acting at all. We should not understand this as the only reason God created man or created man the way He did. Scripture gives the impression there may be many reasons, such as: for His glory, to share His love, to create loyal followers, or to demonstrate His worthiness to others, to name a few.

Second, the availability of salvation

We may summarize this component of the supposed similarity between the two perspectives in the following way. God created man, knowing sin would affect every person in the human race. Still, He structured the plan of redemption so that only a very limited and specific number of people would ever have an actual opportunity to be saved. According to Calvinism, the only difference is that the number is selectively limited by unconditional election, whereas in Extensive, God selectively limits the number of people who will be saved by limiting the opportunity to hear the gospel. Let me point out three essential dissimilarities between the two views.

First, Extensive believes God has sufficiently worked so that everyone has received enough light to know Him.[5] If they receive that light (which they can do by grace), He will get enough light to them to afford a genuine opportunity to be saved. This is not true in Calvinism. (See my article, “What About Those Who Never Hear the Gospel: The New Testament,” or see my book, Does God Love All or Some? for a more exhaustive explanation)

The second essential dissimilarity is the obvious difference between Extensive’s contention that everyone who does hear the gospel has an accessible opportunity to believe and be saved, whereas, according to Calvinism, they do not. Accordingly, believing that God knowingly created a universe where most would reject a genuinely accessible salvific opportunity sufficiently provisioned by grace enablements and therefore be lost forever is not equivalent to his knowingly determining the same eternal result via unconditional election in Calvinism. Unconditional election necessarily means God is actually pleased to damn most of His creation, something that is not true of Extensive, given the nature of libertarian freedom.

I illustrate the third essential dissimilarity in this way. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, we were to consider a state of affairs in which all do not have an opportunity to be saved by the gospel. The two plans are still essentially dissimilar. Considering the comparison from this vantage point does mean both perspectives would preclude the possibility of everyone getting an opportunity to be saved, but that is as far as the similarity extends. This dissimilarity is because Calvinism’s delimitation is clearly by intentional design, which it did not have to be. God could have elected everyone to salvation.

In contrast, not hearing the gospel in an Extensive state of affairs would not necessarily require that to be reflective of God’s desire. That is to say, not getting the gospel to everyone is not necessarily equivalent to unconditional election. According to Extensive, it is possible for God to truly desire that all be saved while also limiting His plan exclusively to the right exercise of libertarian freedom by His people to carry out His plan. In other words, He could have decided to inextricably connect the opportunity for the salvation of people only to the obedience of His people evangelizing. Such a plan would have God remaining genuinely desirous of the salvation of all but incorporating only the free choices of His people to go and tell as well as those who hear to believe.

Even though I believe libertarian free choice is an immense part of His plan to carry out world missions, I do not think this scenario represents the full story of His plan. But, had He limited the efficacy of His plan to just this, it still would not be equivalent to unconditional election. According to unconditional election, it is impossible to defend the idea that God genuinely desires everyone to be saved because if that was His true desire, all He would have had to do is elect everyone to salvation. As I have demonstrated in parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, there are good biblical, experiential, and logical reasons to believe He makes sure that the gospel gets to everyone He knows will believe. However, He is under no obligation to get the gospel to those whom He knows will not believe even though He may and has done so many times.

To argue that because the gospel was not taken somewhere in the world necessarily means God did not give them the opportunity, Extensive has a sort of unconditional election of its own is totally without merit. We believe foreknowledge is God’s side of the equation, knowing where to lead His people to go. Someone feeling the call of God to go to a certain place as a missionary is our experiential side of the equation (Rom 1:8). This understanding in no way limits or minimizes the command of God for all of His people to go and evangelize their neighbors and the world. The failure to do so is disobedience to the gospel and the heart of God and does substantially affect the missionary endeavor. Nor does it in any way approximate Calvinism’s idea in which man freely chooses, but he does not choose between accessible options of obedience or disobedience, believing or disbelieving.

Therefore, this attempt, like similar attempts, to assuage the disquieting realities of Calvinism by showing we all have the same problem is meritless. There is simply an irreconcilable difference between a plan intentionally structured so that sin and its consequences are extensive with an equally extensive offer of salvation compared to a plan of redemption that is a finely tuned exclusive plan that inviolably withholds salvational grace from the non-elect. While we may not know all of the details God uses to bring sufficient knowledge to all, we do know His actions are based upon His revealed character, specific revelatory declarations, workings in both the Old and New Testaments, and testimonies of individuals. Based on Scripture and God’s character, we can be sure when God says He loves the world of humanity (John 3:16) and is not willing for any to perish (2 Pet 3:9), He will not sit idly by and fail to get the truth of salvation to those who have a willing heart. If we can figure that out, I am quite sure He is capable of doing so as well.

Third, the eternal state of the lost

Considering the last component of the “same problem” contention, Extensive believes God created a universe where He knew most would reject a genuine salvific opportunity sufficiently provisioned through grace enablements and be lost forever. This scenario is obviously not equivalent to determining the same eternal result via unconditional election (Calvinism), which means God is genuinely pleased to damn most of His creation (Eph 1:11). Some Calvinists recoil at the suggestion that God is pleased that people go to hell, but it is an inescapable part of Calvinism, as is attested to logically and declaratively. Calvin commented, “We say . . . that God . . . determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction.”[6]

The Canons of Dort assert, “Holy Scripture . . . further bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God’s eternal election–those, that is, concerning whom God, on the basis of his entirely free, most just, irreproachable, and unchangeable good pleasure, made the following decision: to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion, but finally to condemn and eternally punish them . . . not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice.”[7] (italics added).

One may argue Extensive is wrong, and Calvinism is right, but one cannot cogently argue the two perspectives have the same soteriological problems. To seek to expunge the essential dissimilarities of the two perspectives obscures the disquieting realities of Calvinism. Any attempt to soften the harsh realities of Calvinism leads to obfuscating double talk.

Given our look at these attempts by Calvinists to entangle Extensivists in their web of contradictions and misrepresentations of God’s salvific love, we are better equipped to answer the question, “Do Calvinism and Extensive have the same problem?” The only legitimate answer is no. Another way to see we do not suffer from the same problems is that, unlike Calvinists, Extensivists do not require nor do they utilize phrases or double talk that ostensibly give the appearance that God truly desires the salvation of all or He is truly sorry that some perish in hell when He undeniably does not desire all to be saved, nor is He sorry about those who perish. Because according to unconditional election, all He had to do was choose to elect everyone. Therefore, Calvinists’ commitment to unconditional election requires them to employ such verbal maneuverings.

In Extensive, which substantially incorporates libertarian freedom into God’s plan, the lacking is not the love of God nor the provision of God, but, rather, according to Jesus, the lacking is His followers’ commitment. “Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few'” (Matt 9:37). We are to go, which is connected to people hearing the gospel and believing. Those hearing must harken to the words, “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). Therefore, we do not need special interpretive lenses to explain verses like John 3:16, whether we are speaking to a single person, group, or the world. The message is the same; God loves you and gave His Son for you so that you would not have to die in your sins. That is the difference.

[1] This is not an argument regarding supralapsarianism, but simply acknowledges that God being omniscient did, in fact, know that most would perish if He created the world as it is. All agree God, by His very nature, knew this.

[2] Leigh Vicens, “Theological Determinism,” under the heading “Arguments for Theological Determinism” par. 2. in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., http://www.iep.utm.edu/theo-det/, accessed 7/8/17.

[3] Compatible moral freedom contends that moral freedom and determinism are compatible; hence the name. Man is considered to make a free moral choice so long as he chooses according to his greatest desire. What is not mentioned many times, is that while the choice is free, the desire from which the choice emanates is determined by the person’s past, which is determined by God.

[4] There does not seem to be a difference as far as what will happen in time. There may be a difference between what God foreknew He could have predetermined to be and what He actually did predetermine to be–foreordain, although I have read some who do not seem to allow for even this. They contend His present plan is all there could be since God only does what is perfect and their contention is that there is only one perfect plan.

[5] Two things can have dissimilarities and be the same, whereas essential dissimilarities between them means they can only be similar; they cannot be the same. For example, you and I can both be human (same beings), even though we may be dissimilar in various ways; we still have humanness, created in the image of God. In contrast, a chimpanzee can be similar to a human (some abilities and physical characteristics), but a chimpanzee cannot be a human being because we are essentially dissimilar; both are not created in the image of God.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, bk. 3, chap. 21, sec. 7, translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997) 210–11.

[7] Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, article 15.

Ronnie W. Rogers