According to a recent article from the Huffington Post, former evangelical pastor Rob Bell gave the following answer when asked if he was a universalist: “I have no idea what people mean. That just seems like stuff church people sit around and think about.” For a man who has made his living writing theology, Bell’s condescending attitude towards the discipline is rather ironic. Even when it does not land you on the cover of Time Magazine (as it did for Bell), sitting around and thinking about the gospel has great value.
Few have emphasized this more than John Piper. In his sermons and books, Piper has repeatedly denounced shallow, consumer-driven spirituality and urged modern Christians to reclaim a theologically rigorous worldview. In particular, he has recommended the works of the eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards, a man Piper describes as his “much-loved teacher.” Therefore, as one who shares Piper’s belief in the importance of theology, as well as his respect for Jonathan Edwards, I would like to offer a brief critique of an argument which Piper has advanced concerning the glory of God.
In a recent book entitled, Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, Piper sets out to show “that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for all people to be saved and his will to choose some people for salvation unconditionally before creation is not a sign of divine schizophrenia.” Piper proposes, “God’s will to save all people is restrained by his commitment to the glorification of the full range of his perfections.” In other words, God does not save all people because of “his supreme commitment to uphold and display the full range of his glory,” that is, “the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy.”
This is the same argument which Piper advanced years ago in his lengthy study of Romans 9 entitled, The Justification of God. Concerning 9:22-23, he states,
It behooves every great artist to demonstrate in the variety of his work the full range of his skill and power. And, according to Paul, it is God’s right and his great desire to manifest the full range of his character in the things that he does. This includes wrath and tremendous power in its execution. Since God is the absolutely sovereign creator, his creatures cannot legitimately find fault with him if he so disposes all things that there are, in fact, persons set for destruction on whom God can fulfill his will to demonstrate almighty wrath. For a man to argue that this is wrong for an eternal, sovereign creator to do, he must also argue that it is right for the creator never to reveal to his creation certain aspects of his personhood.Piper proceeds to cite Daniel Fuller, who asserts, “It would be impossible for [the elect] to share with God the delight he has in his mercy unless they saw clearly the awfulness of the almighty wrath from which his mercy delivers them.” Piper’s argument, therefore, can be summarized as follows: God cannot save all people without diminishing his glory, because the damnation of some is necessary for God to sufficiently manifest his wrath.
I suggest, however, that this argument is incompatible with some very clear statements which Edwards makes concerning the cross. In a discourse entitled, The Wisdom of God Displayed in the Way of Salvation, Edwards asserts, “The revenging justice of God is a great deal more manifested in the death of Christ, than it would have been if all mankind had been sufferers to all eternity,” and again, “The majesty of God appears much more in the sufferings of Christ than it would have done in the eternal sufferings of all mankind.” Therefore, the “sufferings of Christ,” more than the “eternal sufferings of the wicked,” serve to impress “upon the minds of the spectators a sense of the dread majesty of God, and his infinite hatred of sin.” Likewise, in the conclusion to a sermon entitled, The Eternity of Hell Torments, Edwards states that Christ came to save sinners “in a way which is perfectly consistent with the glory of God, yea, which is more to the glory of God than it would be if you should suffer the eternal punishment of hell.”
If these assertions are true, Piper’s argument fails. When Piper states that apart from reprobation, the creator could “never…reveal to his creation certain aspects of his personhood,” namely, his “wrath and tremendous power in its execution,” one may simply reply that the full range of God’s character is revealed in the cross. Moreover, in the cross the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy is revealed with unsurpassed clarity. When Piper argues that the elect must see “clearly the awfulness of the almighty wrath from which [God’s] mercy delivers them,” one may simply reply that the elect will see nothing in hell which they did not see with greater clarity on Calvary. In short, if Edwards is right about the cross, then Piper’s argument fails to demonstrate that reprobation is necessary to sufficiently manifest God’s glory, and thus his argument fails to show that this doctrine is consistent with God’s fervent desire for universal salvation.
In conclusion, I note that in the introduction to Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, Piper describes his book as a guide up rough and difficult mountain paths. He explains that he has made this arduous climb up the steep inclines of theology in order “to get the best views of the glory of God.” While I appreciate the analogy, there is only one mountain we need climb to attain the best view, and it is not steep. Anyone who ascends the hill of Calvary will behold God’s glory in full. Here we see the ultimate manifestation of God’s wrath inseparably intertwined with the ultimate manifestation of his love. God’s hatred of sin will never appear more terrible, and his love for sinners will never appear more beautiful.