Philosophical Defense of Arminianism

By James M. Rochford

We have already explained the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism (see “Calvinism versus Arminianism”). Here we will offer a philosophical critique of Calvinism from a moderate Arminian perspective. We see three major problems with Calvinism philosophically.

PROBLEM #1: Calvinism makes God responsible for sin and evil

Calvinist John Piper published a sermon after September 11, 2001, saying that God didn’t just permit the atrocity of 9/11, but he caused it.[1] In a 2003 on The Bible Answer Man, James White said,

[Interviewer] When a child is raped, is God responsible? Did he decree that rape?

[James White] If he didn’t, then that rape is an element of meaningless evil that has no purpose whatsoever.

[Interviewer] So, what is your answer then?

[James White] I’m trying to go to Scripture.

[Interviewer] What is the answer to the question that he just asked?

[James White] I mentioned to him… Yes. Because, if not, then it is meaningless and purposeless. And though God knew it was going to happen, he created without a purpose. That means God brought the evil into existence, knowing it was going to exist, but for no purpose, no redemption, nothing positive, nothing good.

[Interviewer] Then, if he decreed it, it has meaning to it?

[James White] It has meaning. It has purpose. All suffering has purpose. Everything in this world has purpose. There is no basis for despair. But if we believe that God created knowing that all of this was going to happen, but with no decree… he just created and all of this evil is out there. Then there’s no purpose. Then every rape, every situation like that is nothing but purposeless evil, and God is responsible is responsible for the despair.

[Interviewer] For years, I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that in order for rape to exist… or unless God caused it to happen… there can’t be any purpose in it. God can use evil, and he does. But to blame God, which is what a decree does, to blame God for the rape of a child is a horrible attack on the very character and love of God.

John Calvin writes,

Let us imagine, for example, a merchant who, entering a wood with a company of faithful men, unwisely wanders away from his companions, and in his wandering comes upon a robber’s den, falls among thieves, and is slain. His death was not only foreseen by God’s eye, but also determined by his decree. For it is not said that he foresaw how long the life of each man would extend, but that he determined and fixed the bounds that men cannot pass (Job 14:5). Yet as far as the capacity of our mind is concerned, all things therein seem fortuitous. What will the Christian think at this point? Just this: whatever happened in a death of this sort he will regard as fortuitous by nature, as it is; yet he will not doubt that God’s providence exercised authority over fortune in directing its end.[2]

To sum up, since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience.[3]

If everything in the universe is according to God’s will, then this would include sin and evil. But this would make God an evil being. We have obvious problems with such a view—given the goodness of God.

PROBLEM #2: Calvinism has a problem explaining the Fall (Gen. 3)

Calvinists offer one of three answers for the moral Fall:

First, the Fall is a mystery. This is an oft-repeated answer for Calvinists when an aspect of their theology is contradictory. For instance, Calvinist R.C. Sproul writes,

We are fallen creatures. But Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know. In spite of this excruciating problem we still must affirm that God is not the author of sin.[4]

There is a reason for every choice we make. In a narrow sense every choice we make is determined.[5]

Sproul believes that Adam and Eve fell because of his “free will, not by divine coercion.”[6] However, this answer to the Fall is guilty of double talk: They can’t have it both ways. Either we have freewill or we don’t.

Second, the Fall is the result of God removing his sustaining grace from Adam and Eve. Calvinist Paul Helm holds that human sin occurs from “divine withholding” of grace.[7] That is, God merely allows humans to choose for evil. But if the first humans had freewill to choose for sin, then why do humans currently not have freewill?

Third, the Fall is God’s sovereign decision so that he can reveal his attributes of mercy and justice. Without sin, God’s attributes of mercy and justice would never be revealed to the world. Lorainne Boettner writes,

Sin… is permitted in order that the mercy of God may be shown in its forgiveness, and that His justice may be shown in its punishment. Its entrance is the result of a settled design which God formed in eternity, and through which He purposed to reveal Himself to His rational creatures as complete and full-orbed in all conceivable perfections.[8]

Citing Romans 9:22-24, Boice writes,

God considers the display of his attributes to be worth the whole drama of human history—to be worth creation, the Fall, election, reprobation, and everything else. From God’s point of view, the revelation of his glory—meaning the revelation of all his glorious attributes—is the grand priority.[9]

We agree that God demands us to glorify him. Since God is the greatest conceivable good, it is wrong for us to love other things above him. It would be similar to a house fire, where a homeowner saved his pet goldfish over his newborn baby! We need to keep our loves in their proper order. Since God knows that our love of other things over him will ultimately be damaging, it is good for him to desire our love. Paul Copan writes,

A wife who doesn’t get jealous and angry when another woman is flirting with her husband isn’t really all that committed to the marriage relationship. A marriage without the potential for jealousy when an intruder threatens isn’t much of a marriage. Outrage, pain, anguish—these are the appropriate responses to such a deep violation.[10]

Since God is the ultimate good, he rightfully deserves worship and praise, as philosopher Paul Copan writes,

For Yo-Yo Ma to claim that he ‘really can’t play the cello all that well’ or for Landon Donovan to say he ‘can’t really play soccer’ would be equally out of touch with reality—a false humility. (What’s more, these kinds of statements are usually a backdoor attempt to get attention!)[11]

Actually, in the Bible, God isn’t the one commanding us to praise him. Typically, fellow creatures are spontaneously calling on one another to do so—to recognize God’s greatness.[12]

However, God is a giver and lover by nature. He doesn’t glorify himself at the consequence of torturing us in the process. He glorifies himself, ultimately, for our benefit—not his. Paul writes that God created his plan for “our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). In the gospel of John, we learn that God received glory by being stripped naked, beaten, and nailed to a Roman Cross (Jn. 12:23-24; 13:31-32). Thus we agree with Calvinists that God does everything for his own glory, but God’s glory is ultimately for our good—not his own.

By contrast, the Arminian explanation to the Fall is straightforward and close to the text of Scripture: The first humans chose to rebel against God, by virtue of their own freewill (see “Problem of Evil”).

PROBLEM #3: God chooses NOT to save everyone

Some Calvinists believe in double predestination (i.e. where God sends some to heaven and others to hell).[13] If God causes all things, then this seems to follow logically from the Calvinist view.

However, other Calvinists hold that God merely withholds grace from certain people, and this is why some are judged. James Montgomery Boice writes,

The reason why some believe the gospel and are saved by it is that God intervenes in their lives to bring them to faith. He does it by the new birth or regeneration. But those who are lost—and this is the crucial point—are not caused by God to disbelieve. They do that all by themselves. To ordain their end, God needs only to withhold the special grace of regeneration.[14]

Election is active; reprobation is passive. In election God actively intervenes to rescue those who deserve destruction, whereas in reprobation God passively allows some to receive the just punishment they deserve for their sins.[15]

Why doesn’t God save everyone? Remember, Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Paul writes, “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Jesus said that he would “draw all men to [Himself]” (Jn. 12:32), and the Holy Spirit would “convict the world”—not just the elect (Jn. 16:8). Based on God’s own character, this would be internally inconsistent.

Calvinist thinkers usually claim that this is simply a “mystery.” For instance, regarding this question, James Montgomery Boice writes, “A perfectly legitimate answer to our question is that the ‘why’ is none of our business! God does not owe us an answer.”[16] R.C. Sproul writes,

The only answer I can give to this question is that I don’t know. I have no idea why God saves some but not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why…. One thing I do know. If it pleases God to save some and not all, there is nothing wrong with that. God is not under obligation to save anybody. If he chooses to save some, that in no way obligates him to save the rest.[17]

Again, appealing to “mystery” is really not an answer here. God’s revealed word explains that he desires all people to be saved. Thus for him to send individuals to hell is inconsistent with his own character. This isn’t a mystery; it is a logical contradiction.

Rejoinder to Calvinist arguments

In addition to the arguments against Calvinism, we will respond to common Calvinist objections as well.

OBJECTION #1: “The Arminian God doesn’t save the sinner; they save themselves when they decide to receive Christ! If we are able to exercise faith in the gospel, then we are playing a role in saving ourselves.”

Calvinist James Montgomery Boice writes, “The efficacy of the atonement does not rest on Christ’s saving work alone but also on the sinner’s faith and repentance. Although God’s grace is attractive and persuasive, it is not powerful enough to triumph over those who stubbornly resist his love.”[18]

However, faith is not a work. Calvinists might believe that accepting Christ is a work, but Scripture does not define this as a work. Faith and works are contrasted as opposites in the NT:

(Rom. 4:5) But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.

(Gal. 2:16) Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.

Can we really claim that it is work to accept a gift? Consider if a man is standing on the top of a burning building. At the last minute, a rescue helicopter flies above his head and lowers a rope. The man desperately reaches out and clings to the rope, as the chopper carries the man to safety. If the man didn’t make the decision to grab the rope, he would have died. But can we really claim that the man, therefore, saved himself? In the same way, while humans have the decision to receive Christ, no one can claim that they saved themselves. Likewise, if a person wins the lottery and redeems the winning ticket, they can’t claim that they earned the money—just by cashing in the ticket. Total depravity does not mean utter depravity (Rom. 2:14-15; see “Total Depravity”). Therefore, perhaps humans are totally depraved, but they are still given enough freedom to receive the gift of grace.

OBJECTION #2: “Freewill is incompatible with God’s sovereignty and omniscience. You need to show how these two can coexist, in order to make it a doctrine.”

It is certainly mysterious how God’s sovereignty can still allow for human freewill. This is truly a mystery to us (1 Cor. 13:12; Deut. 29:29), but not a contradiction. For God to explain his sovereignty and omniscience to us might be impossible—perhaps like a human explaining the rules of chess to a chimpanzee.

To answer this difficulty, Calvinists claim that God knows the future by causing the future. On the opposite extreme, open theists err by claiming that freewill invalidates God’s knowledge of the future; therefore, he doesn’t know the future! Both views are wrong. Instead, we should hold both biblical teachings (e.g. sovereignty and freewill) and say that we don’t know how God knows the future, but he does, because he says so!

Some have created models for explaining the antimony between freewill and God’s sovereignty. Consider the show To Catch a Predator.[19] On the show, producers entice child molesters to meet young girls through internet chat rooms. When the molesters decide to meet up with the girls, the film crew brings the Police to trap and arrest them. If you watch the show, the men often plead, “I’m innocent! This was entrapment!” However, the Police retort by saying, “No way! You freely chose to meet this girl for the express purpose of molesting her. You’re going to jail…” Some have argued that this illustration is similar to God’s sovereignty and human freewill. Perhaps God allows us to enter into situations, knowing that we will freely choose a certain path. It is, therefore, extrapolated that God places every human in a specific situation, knowing how he or she will freely choose (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). While no model is perfect, various models demonstrate that sovereignty and freewill are not logically contradictory concepts.[20]

However, once again, we should recognize that this is speculation. We need to remember that we should hold to the coexistence of God’s sovereignty and human freewill—even if we can’t perfectly explain how these fit together.


[1] John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say, ‘God Did Not Cause the Calamity, but He Can Use It for Good.’” Found here.

[2] Calvin, Institutes. 1.16.9.

[3] Calvin, Institutes. 1.18.2.

[4] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 20.

[5] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005. 132. Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 79.

[6] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 97. Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 81.

[7] Paul Helm writes, “What determines the actions in so far as it is an evil is divine withholding. God withholds his goodness or grace, and forthwith the agent forms a morally deficient motive or reasons and acts accordingly.” Helm, Paul. The Providence of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994.  171. Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 81.

[8] Boettner, Loraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Tae-ku: Bo Mun Publ., 1975. 234. Cited in Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 93.

[9] Boice also claims that it is because he can show his power to the nations for those who are rebellious (Ex. 9:16). Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 109.

[10] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 35.

[11] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 28.

[12] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 31.

[13] John Calvin: “(God) does not create everyone in the same condition, but ordains eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others.” Cited in Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 396. Not all Calvinists believe in double predestination (i.e. some chosen for heaven and other chosen for hell; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:8; Jude 4; Rom. 9:22-23). Instead, they follow Augustine’s teaching that God is active only in the salvation of the elect, while he is passive with regard to the non-elect.

[14] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 103-104.

[15] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 104.

[16] Italics mine. Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 109.

[17] Sproul, R. C. Chosen by God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. 25.

[18] Boice, James Montgomery, and Philip Graham Ryken. The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. 26.

[19] Craig, William Lane. Response to Gregory A. Boyd. In Four Views on Divine Providence. Zondervan Counterpoints Collection. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2011. 226.

[20] Advocates of libertarian freewill should make the caveat that freewill is not the same as free choice. Even though we have freewill, it doesn’t follow that we are free to do anything we want. I’m not free to speak German (because I never learned it). I’m not free to bench press eight hundred pounds (because it’s too much weight). I’m not free to incinerate someone alive with mind power and telekinesis (because “thought-killing” doesn’t work). Therefore, we do not always have free choice, even if we do have freewill. For instance, a prisoner might will or desire to escape from prison, but he does not have the choice to do so. Moreover, the Bible teaches that sin is addicting (Rom. 6:6, 16ff). Therefore, our decisions often feel out of our control, because we have forfeited our freedom due to poor decisions (e.g. alcoholism or drug addiction).