Justin Taylor & Scarlett Johansson’s Liver

September 13, 2011

You have to give Justin Taylor credit for wading into unfriendly waters when he agreed to answer questions about Calvinism on Rachel Held Evan’s blog last week (to be clear, Rachel is very friendly; it’s just that her blog isn’t exactly home turf for a Calvinist). If you missed the post, here it is.

One of Taylor’s answers caught my attention. A reader named Charissa asked:

The idea of God pre-destining someone to hell with no POSSIBLE way of anything other than that happening is repulsive to me and offends my sense of justice. …  So my question is this: How does that logic not make our understandings of right and wrong completely arbitrary and meaningless? What does it make of our God-given sense of right, wrong, justice, and mercy?

In my view, Taylor’s response danced around the question without directly answering it. Understandably so, I suppose. It’s not easy to explain how a just, loving and merciful God would create whole swaths of humanity with the intention of damning them to hell, irrespective of any action or choice on their part.

Taylor points to Romans 9 and says, in essence, that we have to submit to what the Bible says, whether we like it or not. In like fashion, the message of Romans 9, as Taylor construes it, is that God can do as he pleases with his creation and we shouldn’t question him:

Paul goes on to explain that God has compassion and mercy on whomever he wills, not dependent upon human will or effort (vv. 15-18). Paul once again knows what all of his readers must be thinking: “Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Paul goes on to explain that God is God and we are not.

I don’t disagree that Paul is arguing here for a divine prerogative of sorts. But I do disagree that Paul is suggesting that God arbitrarily picks and chooses individuals for salvation or damnation.

In my view, the argument Paul makes in Romans 9 is wholly inadequate for supporting the meaning Taylor assigns to the passage. In verses 19-21, Paul writes:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? 

If this is an analogy to justify the predestination of individuals to eternal conscious torment, it is an incredibly poor one. The reason it seems absurd for pottery to complain about its lowly purpose is that pottery is an inanimate object. Few of us have sympathy for the lowly chamber pot. It’s just mud.

But if we adjust the analogy to bring it closer to the Calvinist understanding of the passage, the weakness in the analogy becomes glaring. Replace the pottery with humans — self-conscious beings capable of feeling love and joy, pain and suffering. Does the argument still work?

I cannot help but think of the 2005 movie, The Island. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson discover that, although real human beings, they have been manufactured by the profiteering Dr. Merrick for the sole purpose of being harvested for their organs should their “sponsor” in the real world require a transplant.

The movie’s plot only works because it is self-evident that these characters do indeed have a right to question the justice of being made for such a purpose. When you’re talking about sentient beings who have emotions and feel pain, it becomes a lot harder to say, “I can make you for whatever purpose I want. Don’t question your maker.” That, frankly, sounds like something Dr. Merrick, the movie’s villain, might say.

At least in The Island the clones were kept in pleasant conditions until their organs were required. But if we’re going to make the analogy truly apposite to Taylor’s Calvinism, we need to add the element of eternal conscious torment. Even Hollywood thought it a bit much to portray the clones as living in a state of perpetual torture. Yet, according to Taylor, this is the fate that awaits those whom God has preordained will receive no mercy.

This is why Taylor’s Romans 9 argument is unsatisfying. It’s not sufficient simply to assert that God is sovereign. If he uses his sovereign prerogative to do unjust, morally abominable things, then we’ve got a problem. This is what lies at the heart of Charissa’s question. This is what makes the notion of predestination to hell repugnant. And that is the issue Taylor fails to address.

When your hermeneutic results in a God too monstrous even for Hollywood villain standards, it’s time to rethink your hermeneutic.

In my next post, I will get in way over my head offer some thoughts in Paul’s defence. I don’t think Paul means what Taylor thinks he means.


  1. “This is what makes the notion of predestination to hell repugnant.”

    I don’t think you go far enough. That’s what makes *hell* repugnant.

    • Paul, I must confess that my views on hell are not entirely settled. I intended in this post only to address the issue of predestination. But I think I would at least meet you half way and say, “That’s what makes the notion of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment repugnant.” I take it you would go further?

      • Yes, I no longer think there’s any value (moral, theological, biblical, or practical) to the idea of hell any more. I think this realization is sinking in elsewhere. The Church of England, for example, now defines hell simply as a state of nonexistence.

  2. Your post immediately reminded me of a post I read on Jesus Creed a few months ago and he (Jeff Cook) articulated so well what I have felt but could never find the words to share that I think it worth passing on here. Most of my Christian friends hold to the traditional view of hell and I can’t for the life of me find the words to express my sentiments (with biblical support) when we get into a discussion about it.


    Now I’m off to read that Taylor article on RHE.

    • Thanks Michelle. I hadn’t read that article by Cook, but it’s a good one. I liked this: “The response that, ‘God knows things we don’t’ or ‘God does things we wouldn’t do’ is insufficient here (In philosophical jargon, this is a ‘phantom argument’). Some kind of story needs to be told that makes initiating eternal conscious torment morally praise-worthy and in accord with what we mean (or should mean) by ‘justice’.”

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