Total Depravity- the Gateway to Universalism?

A fundamental doctrine of Christianity is original sin, that all people have the inborn nature to commit sin, will commit sin and must get forgiveness from God for sins committed. No one can claim to have committed no sins.

Catholics and Jews believe in atoning for sins, that is doing something to correct the wrong done. They also both believe that atonement for sins will occur after death. Jews believe those who are not completely righteous but not seriously evil will spend some time in hell, while Catholics believe this will occur in a place separate from hell, called purgatory.

The demand or request for money from believers by the Catholic Church created a great deal of resentment, which in part led to the Reformation. Luther said salvation came only by faith, not by any action of the believer. Calvin went farther, to say that all humans were totally depraved, that is to say that no action or even faith made it possible for a person to be saved, but only by the election of God does salvation occur. One who believes in Jesus is saved, and one who does not is not, regardless of anything else or any other action or behavior.

With this view of original sin, each person has simply through their sin nature a debt to God that cannot be settled by any charity or piety. It is simply forgiven by God. The grimness of Calvinism comes from the total helplessness of the individual before God and his complete dependence on God’s mercy.

We think of Calvinism as being a conservative type of belief, insisting on a high standard of behavior, not as useful for achieving salvation but out of gratitude towards God and as a matter of honor and respect. On the other hand, a lot of theological liberals are Calvinist. Where does the contradiction come in?

The thing about total depravity- the idea that all human beings are deeply sinful, which is shared by most Christians even if they are not Calvinists- is that it makes all human beings equally evil. The parable of the unforgiving servant is the usual example. A servant owes a king a huge debt which he cannot hope to pay, although he insists he will. The king just forgives the debt. The servant then leaves and runs across a man who owes him a much smaller debt, and demands payment. The king hears of this and reinstates the debt.

The unforgiving servant is said to represent any person who will not forgive any other person anything. Each person via original sin has a huge and undischargeable debt to God. Since this is forgiven, he must then forgive all debts or offenses by others against him, or he will not be forgiven.

This is all wonderful parlor talk but it produces practical problems. Think of the best person you know, and think of Green River killer Gary Ridgway. By this doctrine, they are basically the same. Killing 50 people is bad but compared to original sin it’s nothing. Can Gary Ridgway be judged? No, not by human beings who are no better than him. Must he be forgiven? Yes, because each and every one of us is just as evil as he is. Can Gary Ridgway be saved? By accepting Jesus Christ as his savior, yes, and he need do nothing else. Can any of the 50 or so women he murdered (he sort of lost count) be saved? No, because it is safe to say that if you are working as a street prostitute you aren’t saved, and once they expired with Ridgway’s hands around their throats their judgment was final.

You may accuse me of reductio ad absurdum, but this is what most Christians believe. If this is true, then God is crazy and evil. God is not crazy and evil.

The trouble with Protestant Christians is that they feel the need to completely dispense with the idea that people are judged by their actions, or that obedience to the law is of any value. There is essentially no provision in the New Testament for justice. But the New Testament is meaningless without the Old Testament, which it is meant to fulfill. Most of the law in Numbers and Deuteronomy is eminently practical and necessary. The idea it can be chucked and replaced with good intentions is directly against what Jesus said.

A more holistic view is that yes, all people sin but some sins are more serious than others. Repentance is required for all sins, but repentance is harder the worse the sin. I don’t think Gary Ridgway is sorry he strangled 50 or so hookers, even if he was sad in court. I think he’s sorry he got caught, which is totally different. He could repent murder, but I think he fell in love with this sin pretty quickly and didn’t want to give it up. In Revelations it says murderers and the sexually immoral will be outside the city walls.

The moral nihilism represented by liberal interpretations is not biblical, not scriptural, and not holy.

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2 responses to “Total Depravity- the Gateway to Universalism?

  1. There was an old blog post by a Calvinist named Aaron Armitage, no longer up alas, which argued thus: total depravity does not mean someone is the worst they could possibly be, but that everything they do, even their best and noblest, is nevertheless tainted by sin. He had an interesting metaphor. Imagine a wine bottle filled with raw sewage; that would be analogous to someone being the worst they could possibly be; say, a Hitler or Stalin, and perhaps even this serial killer you mention (even if on a smaller scale than a Hitler or Stalin). Now imagine a bottle of wine that is full, but to which a teaspoon of raw sewage has been added. It may be only a teaspoon, but it’s still raw sewage, and just as no-one sane would want to drink the bottle of pure raw sewage, similarly, no-one sane would want to drink the bottle of mostly-good-wine that has been contaminated with a tiny amount of raw sewage. Perhaps we are like that bottle of wine. We may not be as evil as we could possibly be, but nevertheless, there isn’t one part of our being that isn’t contaminated with sin, like that bottle of wine with just a teaspoon of raw sewage mixed into it. This can avoid the error of equating ordinary sinners like you and I with the likes of serial killers and genocidal maniacs, whilst not lettting us off the hook for our sin.

    The problem with liberals following a secularized version of Calvinism, is precisely that it has been secularized. It’s not the traditional Reformed view itself, which is more nuanced, and doesn’t refuse to judge killers as deserving of capital punishment, for instance.

  2. thewhitechrist

    Moreover, the view of Total Depravity is not an invention of Calvin, but is the BIBLICAL Definition of what sin is! All of Calvinism can be found by comparing Scripture with Scripture, and then drawing the necessary conclusions. One of the great strengths of the Westminster Confessions is their catechism, which has more pure scripture references in its body, than any other document penned by the Reformers I know of. Yes, it denies (implicitly) the mixed nature of the Visible Church, but that’s a small point in this argument. God is not evil, and never can be. But God will merely confirm a sinner’s penchant for evil, giving him EXACTLY what he or she WANTS- and thereby, allowing them to be/do what they DESIRE. That these actions (sodomites, for example) mean they are going to Hell for what God’s law says is an abomination, does not make God the author of Sin- for the sins are committed by the Men, who have free moral conscience!

    Now, conversion is both necessary and a good thing- or don’t you believe in the intervention model for an alcoholic or a drug addict? If not, then there’s no hope for YOU. But if you do, then why cavil about God doing the very same thing, via the means of Election?

    Only until you are so low, that anywhere is up, can you begin to realize the ‘so great salvation’ that Christ offers to the Elect- for only the Elect will avail themselves OF that salvation!

    You seem to be doing a lot of ‘straw man’ arguments in this column. Which is not cricket of you…. – Fr. John+

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