How Can God Be Loving?
Another objection usually follows quickly on the heels of the previous two. It is often conceded that whereas it may not be unjust of God not to save all, it is surely unloving of him at least not to try. If God is love, the Arminian argues, then he must manifest that love equally and universally. To answer this objection properly it will be necessary to discuss yet another controversial doctrine, the extent of the atonement. But our primary concern is still with election.
This objection has been articulated by Normal Geisler in the form of an illustration, and it is in that form that I will address it. Here is the illustration.
“Suppose a farmer discovers three boys drowning in his pond where signs clearly forbid swimming. Further, noting their clear disobedience, he says to himself, ‘They have violated the warning and have brought these deserved consequences on themselves.’ Thus far we may be willing to agree. But if the farmer proceeds to say, ‘Therefore I will make no attempt to rescue them,’ we would immediately think something is lacking in his love. And suppose by some inexplicable whim he should declare ‘I have no obligation to save any of them, but out of the goodness of my heart I will save one of them and let the other two drown.’ In such a case we would surely consider his love partial” (Norman L. Geisler, “God Knows All Things,” in Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, ed. David Basinger and Randall Basinger [Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1986], pp. 69-70).
No one expects an illustration to be perfect, nor for all its points to correspond in every respect with those truths of biblical reality it is seeking to portray. But oftentimes so much is left unsaid that what is said is misleading. These kinds of illustrations can misrepresent a position and thus prejudice the reader against the view to which the author is objecting. The illustration cited above is a case in point.
Clearly the farmer in the illustration is analogous to God. I have no objection to this as long as we understand something. The farmer is not to be thought of in terms of a man who himself has probably been shown mercy by others in similar circumstances. The temptation is to charge him with heartless cruelty and even ingratitude for being unwilling to do for all three boys what someone else once graciously did for him. But if the farmer is analogous to God he must be conceived as infinitely holy, pure, just, and righteous, as well as loving. Our tendency is to think little of a man who declines to show mercy, because we assume that all men are obligated to do so. However, this farmer is not a man, but God. And God, to be quite blunt about it, is obligated to no one or no thing other than himself. He is sovereign and free to act in a way that a man is not. Let us be careful, therefore, not to pass judgment on what God does based on our expectations of what a man should do.
Related to this is the tendency to think that if he really wanted to, it would not affect the farmer in the least simply to take down the sign, suspend the punishment, and turn his pond into a swimming hole for everyone to enjoy. But again, God’s retributive justice is not like an old hat that he can discard if he so chooses. Retributive justice is as much a part of God’s nature as love is.
I am not suggesting that the author of this illustration denies that God is infinitely holy and righteous, and that retributive justice is essential to his character. I am only arguing that the illustration leaves so much unsaid about the farmer that it inevitably creates a prejudice against him in the minds of most readers. The farmer, as he is portrayed, is a “straw God.”
Does it not also seem that this illustration trivializes sin? The analogy portrays human sin to be as petty and insignificant as disregarding a “No Swimming” sign! Thus we are led to pass judgment on the loving character of the farmer based on the idea that he would let these poor boys die for no more than a childish prank! I can only say, as St. Anselm once did, “You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is.” That sin on account of which we stand in peril of death is infinitely heinous, grievous, pervasive, and altogether repellent.
Furthermore, in the illustration it is not against the farmer himself that the boys have transgressed, but against an abstract and impersonal law, one that prohibits swimming in the farmer’s pond (where, in fact, “No Swimming” signs have been posted). But in biblical reality we are bound to confess, as David did, “against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight” (Ps. 51:4a; italics added). And it is not merely one sin, one unhappy violation, but an entire life given over to wickedness and rebellion.
We are not talking about three “good old boys” who never before had a brush with the law. It is not as if they are in peril of death because of a momentary lapse from what was otherwise an upright and upstanding life of morality and obedience. These boys are by nature and choice the enemies of this farmer and of all that is good and proper. “From the womb they have gone forth speaking lies,” and every intent of the thought of their hearts “was only evil continually.” Their fling in the pond is but one of a multitude of willful, morally despicable deeds for which they have become known. Precisely because it is a multitude of high-handed transgressions against an infinitely holy and righteous God, their sin is infinitely unholy and unrighteous. He who in all respects is worthy of praise, honor, and obedience receives nothing but mockery, hatred, and rebellion. These boys (indeed, all of us) have spit in his holy face, have slandered his holy name, and have exposed to open shame all that is sacred and pure.
But how does the illustrator portray these boys? Almost not at all. But by not portraying them as the Bible does one is left with a distorted impression. The illustration as it stands leaves one with the idea that these poor helpless victims are crying out from the pond for deliverance. Having realized the stupidity and immorality of their deed, and now repenting, they flail away helplessly in the water, treading with all their strength to stay afloat, hoping that God (the farmer) will save them.
On the contrary, the biblical portrait would be of three boys who are thrilled to be where they are! They knowingly, willingly, and happily jumped in and would not have it any other way. They could not care less about God or his revealed moral will. In fact, they revel in their offense and the grief they bring to him by their transgression. Not only that, but they seek to entice and lure other passers-by to jump in with them (Rom. 1:28-32). Not content with their own sin, they refuse to be satisfied until they have been joined by all in a united front against God and his law.
And how do they respond when they see God’s attempt to deliver them? Do they reach out to grasp his hand? No! They splash water in his face, mocking him and laughing at his compassion. They had rather drown in misery than so much as touch the hand that reaches to deliver them.
When the farmer is finally portrayed as seeking their deliverance, he does so on an “inexplicable whim.” A “whim”? This sort of needless caricature portrays God’s solemn, most blessed, and altogether gracious determination to save as little more than a bothersome afterthought, with no purpose or design. What the author of this illustration calls a "whim” the Word of God calls “the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:5b).
In a subsequent paragraph the author of the illustration appears to suggest that the “loving” effort of the farmer to save these boys finds its correspondence in biblical reality in God’s sending Jesus Christ to die for the world. Dying on the cross for every single lost sinner, but doing nothing whereby to secure and guarantee the salvation of any for whom he suffered, is the illustrator’s idea of divine love. In this view of the atonement, it is theoretically possible that no one will believe and be saved. Christ’s death was designed neither to procure for them saving faith and repentance nor to produce it within them through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I find this to be a curious sort of love.
On the theory of the atonement advocated by the illustrator, what might the farmer be inclined to do? Does he actually jump in and carry each boy safely to shore, or perhaps build a pier out to them and reach over the edge to pull all three out of the water? No. Otherwise we would conclude that everyone will be saved, and universalism is not warranted by Holy Scripture.
Given the illustrator’s view of Christ’s atoning work, he might think of the farmer as throwing out a life line, or some life jackets, or perhaps some inner tubes, and then entreating the boys to reach out with their hands and avail themselves of the opportunity to be saved. But if our understanding of total depravity and the bondage of the will is correct (and obviously the illustrator does not believe that it is), they are neither able nor willing to grab hold of the life line. And the farmer (God) knows this. He is aware that their rebellious plunge into the pond resulted in the breaking of their arms and hands.
But remember, these boys could not care less. Even without hands or arms by which to grab the life line or put on the life jackets, they rebuff God’s efforts, declaring their intent to stay right where they are. The illustrator would have us believe that it is a great and majestic love that tries to save these three boys but refuses to provide them with what he knows is absolutely essential to get them out of the water safely. He knows they will otherwise drown, but his saving efforts deliberately fall short of guaranteeing that any of the three will survive.
Divine, biblical love, on the other hand, entails that the farmer casts his own son into the pond, knowing full well that if his son makes an effort to save the boys he will die. The son swims to the three boys, notwithstanding their vehement and hostile cries that he get out of the water and leave them alone. As he reaches the three, he extends his arms in love to but one of them. Though that one boy is vile and reprehensible in every respect, the son of the farmer brings him back safely to shore, but in doing so he himself drowns. The two remaining boys laugh and mock that the farmer’s son has drowned. Their glee is beyond control. The one boy for whom the son gave his life to save is suddenly brought to tears as he senses the magnitude of the love that has been shown him, while he was yet hateful and full of blasphemy. The farmer lifts the boy up, dries him off, cleans the mud and filth from his body, and clothes him in the garments of his own dear son. They embrace in everlasting love. The young boy falls to his knees in gratitude, tears flowing. The two who remain in the water continue hurling their taunts at the farmer, declaring that even if they could start anew, they would dive defiantly into the middle of that pond without a moment’s hesitation.
I will tell you what love is. It is not providing a life line to drowning men who have no arms or hands with which to grasp it. It is sacrificing your only son to jump in and rescue someone by wrapping that rope around his waist and drawing him firmly but surely to the safety of the shore. And what of the two who remain, and demand loudly that they be left to their chosen plight? “So be it,” says the farmer. “You not only deserve to drown, but take delight in it as well. Have it your way.” And they do.