A believing friend recently wrote with a serious question about his own election and the question of trust in a God who eternally loves some and hates others. The following is my attempt at an answer. Chapter 9 of Is There Anything Good About Hell? contains some of these thoughts.
How can I trust a God who elects to eternally love some and hate others , when I don’t know to which group I belong (Rom 9:13)?
The apostles speak not of delving into the mind and sovereign will of God in order to figure out which camp they are in, an idea it seems to me that that would align more with occultism than the truth of the gospel, but of looking to prove election on the plane of human experience with God. 2 Peter 1:5-11 speaks of practicing virtues and graces that demonstrate God’s eternal call (also 2 Peter 1:3). There are clear evidences in the lives of people that God has called them, for certain works are only of God: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5) Here and in other places the apostle Paul can confidently state that he knows certain people are truly Christians, and their names are written in the book of life (Php 4:3).
It is important in theology not only to consider the whole counsel of God, but also to balance it correctly and ascertain where the emphases are as well. In spite of insights (like that in Rom 9:13) which reveal small parts of God’s sovereign will and actions, the emphasis in scripture is on the fact that we are personally transgressors and rebels, deserving of Esau’s final punishment, but that in spite of that fact we are shown mercy because of God’s electing love. And so election is revealed primarily in scripture as a fact to be believed, underpinning and explaining how a guilty sinner could possibly be accepted by God in the believer’s experience. Election provides the history to our experience.
So the question “how can I trust a God who destines some to destruction and some to glory?” is not primarily a theoretical or philosophical one, but a personal one. It must be approached with a sense of our own transgressions before God who loved us enough to send His only begotten Son to deliver us. We do not approach the question from some kind of theoretical neutrality–it doesn’t exist in any person’s experience.
This perspective also helps answer the question of the “hopelessness” or eternal “wretchedness” of the Esau’s–those whom God has destined for destruction. We must emphasize what the scriptures emphasize, which is that people willingly offend and hate God (Rom 1). In fact, so strong is that hatred that when God reveals Himself fully and finally in Christ, they rather call Him the prince of demons and kill Him, than receive Him. There is no question that God chose Esau for destruction, but this must not overturn what is the larger emphasis in scripture, which is that Esau traded the singular birthright of God for a bowl of lentils. There is a very persistent desire we have, which I can only assume is a remnant of our sinful nature, to play God’s free will against our own. But they are consonant. For instance, the tendency is to assume that it is only because God chose the wicked for destruction that they will be eternally destroyed. But the entire tenor of scripture is against that. In fact, the scriptures go to tremendous lengths to demonstrate that nothing more could possibly be done for the wicked than has been done, the coming and crucifixion of the Lord of glory being the ultimate example.
This may not be entirely satisfactory to some philosophers, as they may retort that there is one further thing that has been done for the saints (election and calling), and this is the very thing that separates people from eternal glory and destruction. Whether or not one can satisfactorily answer this question or not (and I have attempted to do so in chapter 9), the answer cannot occur in some theoretical theological vacuum. Over and over again, and in a variety of ways, the scriptures demonstrate God’s patience with sinners, their lack of excuse, their hardened bent towards evil, His incessant warnings of approaching punishment, and finally the sending of His own Son. The whole apparatus stands or falls together. This is why someone like Thomas Talbott (The Inescapable Love of God) arrives at the bizarre place in his book of claiming that God never hates anyone, and that His “love” for Jacob and His “hatred” for Esau are the same thing. And you end up wondering not only how such a brilliant person could arrive at such a position, but whether they have ever read the Bible at all!
One thing further, however, can be said about the interaction of human free will and God’s free will. I have so far emphasized a few different interactions of will. In one sense God’s will is that none perish (revealed will), but the wicked are bent on perishing nonetheless (and so God does not get what He “wants”). In another sense God chooses those to destruction (sovereign will) who in fact are bent on self-destruction (and so both God and the wicked get what they “want”). But it is also true that there is an important sense in which God frustrates the plans of the wicked so that they do not get what they want, namely to frustrate God forever. On page 158 of the book, I quote Anders Nygren (Romans),
At the end of the day, I think this is why I can trust a God, indeed can only trust a God, who is sovereign in all things, including in election. If God’s ultimate will can be frustrated, what assurance do I have that upon arriving at the throne on judgment day that it will be God there, and not Satan? Or that my sins are not completely covered by Christ’s atonement? Or that the powerful in this world will not continue to convince the heavenly court that I am an evil, hateful bigot? Although it is possible that the ultimate sovereignty of God poses problems for our understanding, undermining it causes far more.