For most of my life I was an Arminian Christian. I wrote and taught Arminian theology for many years. But I was not merely an Arminian, I was passionately against Calvinism. No one wrote against Calvinism with more passion than I did. I even prayed against Calvinism. I think it would be accurate to say that I hated Calvinism. I honestly believed that I was the last person on the planet who would ever become a Calvinist. I always believed that I would be the last man standing. I turned out to be wrong about that.
After all those years of speaking and teaching against Calvinist theology, here I am today a full-blown Calvinist. I often think about that and I still find myself shaking my head. It seems unbelievable to me that I ever crossed that bridge. But I did. Not only did I cross that bridge, but I’m now at peace about Sovereign unconditional election and particular redemption—something I thought could never happen.
Before switching sides, the idea of limited atonement (I prefer particular redemption) was deplorable to me. I could not and would not accept the idea that God elected certain individuals for salvation, and that Jesus died only for those elect individuals—while the rest of humanity is left without hope. The idea used to anger me. But even Paul mentioned the fact that Gentiles were at one time “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), where God’s focus was on the nation of Israel. This is a statement that Arminians either don’t consider carefully enough, or they explain it away. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
With feelings against Calvinism such as I had, how did I ever get to the point where I finally felt compelled to cross that bridge? The bottom line is, God’s Word trumps feelings. I began the transition when I first realized the implications regarding Corporate Election, which is normally associated with Arminianism. This is not the place to go into the details about it. I do that elsewhere on this website. I wrote a four-part series titled, “Arminian Corporate Election vs. Calvinist CE.” You can read about that here.
But to continue, one of my theological focuses was on Corporate Election. I wrote extensively about it, which I believed disproved the Calvinist position on election. Ironically, it was my study of Corporate Election that began to lead me away from Arminianism. I had a “lightbulb moment” when my eyes were opened to a couple serious flaws. I had one foot on the bridge at this point. Again, if you wish to read the details about that, you may do so in the link above.
Once I realized the implications of Corporate Election, what followed were the implications regarding the atonement that I was introduced to. I read an article by Got Questions? You may find that here. It’s the longest and most scholarly article I’ve read on that website. While I was already quite convinced about the Calvinist position on election by this time, the arguments in favor of particular redemption that I read in that article were powerfully compelling, and it completely settled it for me. I was finally ready to cross the bridge to the other side.
Note: If you’re married and ever make the same announcement to your spouse that I did, make sure a doctor is on hand in case of heart attack.
Since that time, now that I’ve been in both theological camps and have taught from the viewpoints of both theological camps, I’ve become more and more convinced that there is stronger biblical support for Calvinism. It makes more sense overall. I see more harmony. There are fewer puzzling questions about Calvinist theology than there are about Arminian theology. Also, the plain statements of Scripture about the doctrine of election are on the side of Calvinism. I used to have to work really hard to explain (explain away) the Scriptures that seemed to support Calvinism. My explanations were, at times, very complex. Too complex. What I didn’t realize at the time was that if you have to go to unusual lengths to prove your position right and the other side wrong, it’s an indication of incorrect and biased interpretation of Scripture. I actually find Calvinist theology easier to teach and explain than Arminian theology, because it’s supported by an abundance of clear statements of Scripture. The passages that seem to support Arminianism are much easier to explain (from a Calvinist position) than it is to explain the passages that seem to support Calvinism (from an Arminian position).
However, once I found myself on the other side of the bridge, into Calvinist territory, I still had to deal with the troubling reality of Sovereign election. I needed peace about that. It took awhile, but I eventually found my peace in God Himself. I now have a settled peace, knowing that God is good, kind, compassionate, merciful, just, and loving. While I may not understand it, my trust is in God. I trust that God, in all of His glorious attributes, knows what He is doing and will do what’s right—far beyond anything we would do ourselves.
I also know that the Bible teaches degrees of eternal punishment, and that no one will ever suffer more than what they deserve. Those who are truly evil, will suffer far more than those who are good and kind and lived moral lives. Those who live well and do good to others, and those who seek God (via false religion), I believe their suffering will be minimal.
I also found peace in my understanding about the lake of fire. I don’t believe hell is a place of literal fire. It’s a place of eternal torment, for sure, but I don’t believe it’s a place where the lost are walking around in literal flames, such as someone who is trapped inside a burning house. Below is an excerpt from my commentary on Revelation regarding the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
Lake of fire: What is the lake of fire (eternal hell)? While I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it, I do want to spend a little time answering that question. I don’t believe that it’s a lake of molten lava, nor do I believe that it’s a place where people are completely engulfed in the flames of a literal fire. For most of my life I’ve believed that hell is a place that is nothing but a literal fire. However, I no longer believe that’s what Scripture is referring to. In some circles, you’re regarded as a heretic if you don’t believe and teach that hell is a place of literal fire.
Nevertheless, just as with so many other terms used in this book, and just as with so many other scenes in this book, I believe the term “fire” is symbolic. It fits the pattern of symbolism in this book. I believe that “fire” is symbolic of judgement, the torment of judgement—while the phrase “lake of fire,” is symbolic for the place of torment. As when someone goes fully under the water of a lake and is engulfed by the water of that lake, so will they be engulfed in God’s judgement (see commentary on Rev 11:5).
As with the everlasting kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2), we don’t have a clear picture of what the place of eternal punishment is really like. The most important thing to understand about Heaven (everlasting kingdom) is that it’s a place of total joy, where we will dwell in the glorious presence of the Lord forever and ever—completely absent of pain and suffering. Likewise, the most important thing to understand about the lake of fire, is that it’s a place of torment, absent of all joy, where sinners dwell forever and ever away from the presence of God. These are the things that most of us can agree on.
For all we know, the lake of fire is a planet where people will have dwelling places according to their punishment. We already know that they will be in resurrected bodies, so existing in a real place with real bodies is certain. How they will live and spend eternity, we simply don’t have the details about that, other than the fact they will suffer torment away from God and all the blessings associated with knowing Jesus.
As bad as the lake of fire will be, the thought that the unsaved will not be walking around in literal flames of fire, such as what we would experience in this life, is a little more comforting to me.
While we may not fully understand this matter of election and how God carries out His will, this is where we need to trust God that He will do what’s right, just, merciful, and compassionate. This is who God is, and He can do no less. Thus, I’m now able to rest in God as a Calvinist at peace.