Rob Bell said two things that ended my journey with Calvinism. The first can be found here. The second (again, I’m paraphrasing from memory) was this:
You want to believe in predestination? That’s fine. Just remember that in the Bible, God doesn’t predestine people primarily for their own benefit. People are predestined so they can be a blessing to others.
Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a tendency to talk past each other when debating predestination. The Calvinist asks, “Why don’t you believe in predestination when it’s so clearly taught in the Bible?” And to be fair, some of our answers come across as evasive.
So here it is:
I believe in predestination. I believe God has predestined specific individuals. For example, he predestined Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, Paul, etc.
Exactly when God predestined them and whether they could have resisted, I don’t know. (Moses certainly tried.) I’m not seeking to build a comprehensive theological system, because comprehensive theological systems tend to collapse under their own weight.
But take another look at the individuals mentioned above. They all have at least two things in common. First, each played a remarkable role in the redemptive drama.
In linguistics, there’s a fallacy known as illegitimate totality transfer. It’s when you take one possible meaning of a word and read it into every occurrence without regard for context. (For example, “green” can be an idiom for money. But that doesn’t mean “green” always means money.)
We run a similar risk when we read the accounts of people like Abraham and Moses. We see they were chosen by God in some way, so we assume everyone who comes to know God was predestined in exactly the same way. But on what basis?
Second, each was predestined for a specific purpose. And that purpose always has to do with someone else. Usually, lots of someone elses.
Abraham was predestined to be the father of a great nation, through whom God would bless “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12).
Moses was predestined to deliver an entire nation from slavery and lead them into a covenant with Yahweh (Exodus 3).
Mary was predestined to be the mother of God incarnate (Luke 1).
Every one of them was predestined for the benefit of others. When we come across individual predestination in the Bible, it’s never an end unto itself; it’s a means to a much bigger end. God’s saving plan might start with the predestination of one person, but it never stops there.
For Calvinism, predestination consists of membership in an exclusive club: the “elect.” Which, assuming I see myself as a member of that club, puts the emphasis on me and how I benefit from being one of the lucky few.
In this respect, the Calvinist view of predestination veers dangerously close to that of the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus and John the Baptist.
The Pharisees saw themselves as the elect, part of an exclusive “bless-me” club. Both John and Jesus called them on it.
John warned them not to hide behind their genetic link to Abraham, because God could find children for himself elsewhere, if he pleased (Luke 3). Jesus rebuked them for shutting the door of God’s kingdom in other people’s faces (Matthew 23).
The Pharisees had forgotten their true purpose as a chosen people: to be a light to the Gentiles — to the supposedly non-chosen ones.
By viewing predestination as both the means and the end, Calvinism risks making the same mistake. But there is another way. It starts by taking seriously statements like God “wants all people to be saved.” It accepts that God is very much involved in the redemptive drama unfolding all around us — sometimes even orchestrating events to very specific ends. But his chief goal is to be reconciled to as many people as possible, not a select few for whom he’s rigged the outcome in advance.
This is what I realized when I heard Rob Bell speak in passing about predestination. And that was the day the tulip died.