Jean Calvin saw the challenge of evil to lie in the endlessly inventive character of the human imagination along with the human mind which essentially is a fertile ground for evil, lustful and ever-changing. Something that other Renaissance figures identified and praised in humans, Calvin saw as precisely the locus of the problem of evil.
Reformation and the Exodus
Jean Calvin’s was a cosmopolitan reformation of fugitives. Many of the people who came to Geneva, and Calvin himself, had fled from persecution elsewhere. For Calvin, they weren’t just literal refugees, but more profoundly, theologically, refugees from Satan on the roads of the earth.
His theological stories too would always talks about Christians as being on the road. This is a Reformation that is emphasizing the exodus character of the Christian life; the idea that everyone is a pilgrim in this world.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Calvin’s Idea of Predestination
Central to Calvin’s belief is his understanding of predestination which he passionately believed in. He affirmed it is a super-lapsarian double predestination. It meant that the blessed are predestined to Heaven and the damned are predestined to Hell, and they are both predestined in those ways—that’s a double predestination—from before the Fall.
Calvin thinks that before humans fell, God foreknew and preordained—not just knew but determined, ordered, willed—that some would be blessed and some would be damned.
What’s interesting about the discussion of providence in his masterwork, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, is that Calvin takes it as a crucial thing that God’s providential control is over all aspects of our lives, even the evil aspects. In fact, Calvin took the doctrine of election as itself a kind of doctrine of comfort.
Simply put, the doctrine of election means that, in fact, everything about us is outside of our immediate control. For Calvin this is a good thing; as it ties up with his second belief—his doctrine of total depravity of humanity.
Learn more about the Hebrew Bible.
The Doctrine of Total Depravity of Humanity
Total depravity here—Calvin’s assessment of the human as totally depraved—is not nihilism; the human is not utterly evil, just thoroughly corrupted. Human nature has been changed, deranged in the Fall; but it’s not, per se, evil. The sinful human is perverted, but because he is essentially creative—again, this is a residue of Calvin’s renaissance humanism here—this is the mind in an unceasingly laboring ‘factory of idols’. For Calvin, the mind is a fertile ground for evil, lustful and ever-changing.
Humans are trapped in sin. It is seen by Calvin as rather a compulsion. Their desires are so warped that they actually want to sin; they desire to make idols of things. This means that if you remove God’s providential control over your life, you are certain to send yourself to Hell.
The Practice of Sanctification
Our salvation according to Calvin—and this is the other huge development that Calvin offers the rest of modernity and definitely the rest of Protestant Christianity—lies in sanctification.
The practice of sanctification is the practice whereby those Christians who have been saved come ever more fully to live into their lives as sanctified and holy people. Evil resists sanctification because evil is slothful and narcissistic, and turned inward; sanctification is a growing deepening of our energy and a growing deepening of our turning outward to one another and to God.
The Importance of Discipline
The success of Sanctification for Calvin lies in discipline. It was the central immediate strategy to counteract evil. If evil wants us to lounge around in our self, to wallow narcissistically in ourselves, to drown ourselves in ourselves, the remedy to all of this is to practice discipline. It allows us to be more self-aware and to see our sins as things that God has saved us from.
Christians are not free from sin for Calvin. In fact, in the process of sanctification, after they have been justified, that is the only time they are genuinely able to see the sins they have been caught up in.
Nature is deranged for Calvin. Grace, and through grace the reading of the Bible—which functions as a kind of set of ‘spectacles’ for Calvin in seeing the world aright—helps you come to see the world as properly a place of sin. This is very important for Calvin.
Learn more about Greek philosophy, human evil and malice.
The Seduction of Evil
Calvin sees the difficulty to be that evil relies on the endlessly inventive character of the human imagination. It also tied directly with the metaphoric seduction into evil, represented in the metaphor of drowning. Evil, sin, death, indirectly the Devil; these things always threaten to drown you for Calvin. This was akin to falling back into our own self, into our own ego. For Calvin that is the very definition of Hell; it’s not so much an assertion of pride as it is a collapse back into the self.
Knowledge of sin, then, is, in a way, a sign of election and it is also a sign of retrospection; it’s a sign of reflection on our history that makes sense of our history in a new kind of world.
A later Calvinist, Karl Barth, famously said “only Christians can sin”. What he meant by that is that it is only from within the condition of attempting to live out a genuinely Christian life, only from within the Christian story, can a person come to see who they have been and who they still all are, namely, a sinner.
Common Questions about Jean Calvin and Evil and the Human Imagination
Calvin passionately believed in predestination and according to him, the blessed were predestined to Heaven and the damned were predestined to Hell. He felt that before humans fell, God preordained that some would be blessed and some would be damned.
In his masterwork, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin says about providence that it was a crucial thing and that God’s providential control is over all aspects of our lives, even the evil aspects.
According to Calvin, evil resists sanctification because evil is slothful and narcissistic, and turned inward; sanctification is a growing deepening of our energy and a growing deepening of our turning outward to one another and to God.