Martin Luther and John Calvin, the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, taught that salvation was by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and that any who lack such saving faith are condemned to eternal damnation, regardless of whether they have ever had the chance to hear the gospel. That means that uncountable millions of men, women, and children have been born, lived their lives, and died without one shred of hope for mercy in the judgment, simply because they did not live in the right place or time to hear the Christian gospel. They were all doomed from the start to everlasting torment in "hell."
But to Calvin and Luther, it is not simply a matter of chance -- being born in the wrong place and time. According to them, most of humanity is condemned to eternal damnation for the crime of being chosen by God to spend eternity in hell. If this does not make any sense to you, it is because their teaching actually does not make any sense. We would not even expect you to believe it if we had not read it ourselves in these men's own words:
We call predestination God's eternal decree, by which He determined with Himself what He willed to become of each man. For not all are created in equal condition, rather eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.1
Of course, this seems to give the greatest offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, who is proclaimed as being so full of mercy and goodness, should of His own mere will abandon, harden, and damn men, as though delighted in the sins and the great eternal torments of the miserable. It seems iniquitous, cruel, intolerable to think thus of God. It has given offense to so many and many great men down the ages. And who would not be offended? I myself have been offended at it more than once, even unto the deepest abyss of despair, so far that I wished I had never been made a man. That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was and how near it was to grace.2
Many insightful men have seen the horror of this teaching down through history, how it makes human life meaningless and God heartless. One of the men with clearest insight was the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. His words ring out still with crystal clarity:
...the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin... that good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing; that faith is everything and the more incomprehensible the proposition the more merit in its faith; that reason in religion is of unlawful use; that God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved and certain others to be damned, and that no crimes of the former can damn them, no virtues of the latter save.3
Thomas Jefferson saw these men for what they were:
Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazed imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of [Mohammed]. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed Author Himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to Him.
Thomas Jefferson made no boast that the Holy Spirit spoke through him. He understood that men had to grope for the truth in their own natural understanding.4 Jefferson understood something that caused him to continue to do good to his fellow man. He understood God's eternal power and divine nature through the witness of creation. This understanding led him to devote his life to doing good, especially for the cause of liberty of conscience for all.
On the other hand, men like Luther and Calvin claimed to see. They believed they spoke for the God who loved the world so much that He sent His only Son to be a sacrifice for their sins. How is it that a "natural man" like Thomas Jefferson should uphold the fundamental freedoms we cherish so highly -- freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly, of religion -- and "spiritual men" like Luther and Calvin should deny all of these to whoever disagreed with their interpretations of Scripture? Even a brief study of their words and actions makes it clear that these men could never have written such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is because they didn't believe in freedom, either in their theology or in their politics. The most strenuous censorship of the press and even speech was practiced in the areas under their authority. John Calvin said one could not be a believer in the Bible and support toleration of other religions besides Christianity. Is this what America has in store if it becomes a "Christian nation" again?
And Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and that those who see may become blind." Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things, and said to Him, "We are not blind too, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." (John 9:39-41)
What will be the judgment for men like John Calvin if in fact the light within them is darkness? What were the deeds that resulted from their understanding of the Scriptures? A tree is known by its fruit.
John Calvin, the spiritual father of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, dominated the town of Geneva, Switzerland. From 1542 to 1546 the civil government enforced severe penalties against those who disagreed with his reforms. Although a Protestant, He showed by his actions that he was in agreement with the basic principles behind the Spanish Inquisition -- that the church was charged by God to enforce uniform belief and proper Christian behavior among the entire populace. As one biographer put it, "It was not in his nature to be evasive with heretics..."5 During a five-year period of Calvin's reforms in Geneva, fifty-eight people were executed and seventy-six were banished because of his straightforward nature.
The most famous execution occurred in 1553. Michael Servetus, a Spanish protestant, was passing through Geneva, fleeing the death sentence of the Catholic Church for his heretical views. Yet because of his lively interest in religious matters, he went to listen to Calvin, now one of the most famous leaders of the Reformation. Unfortunately for Servetus, he had sent some of his papers to Calvin seven years earlier, questioning many established doctrines, including that of the Trinity (the three Persons of God). Calvin had responded harshly to Servetus, refusing even to return the papers. Calvin had even then condemned him, showing his full agreement with the judgment of the Catholic Church. He wrote to a friend that if Servetus ever came to Geneva, "I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority."6
On that fateful day in 1553, Calvin recognized and denounced Servetus, who was promptly arrested and condemned as a heretic. The laws of Geneva regarding heretics had changed several years earlier, and exile was the strictest penalty that remained. Nevertheless, Calvin favored cutting Servetus' head off. The town went even further than this and burned him alive. History records that he shrieked with agony when the flames reached his face, and burned for another half hour before dying.7 Such facts trouble sincere people. Do they trouble you? And a very troubling question is, why do the people with "good doctrine" kill the people with "bad doctrine," and not the other way around?
The fact that the victims, like Servetus, often held heretical opinions tends to confuse the real issue for many Christians, namely: isn't such killing the bad fruit of a bad tree? While no one in America today would want Unitarians executed, assuredly Calvin would, and so would Luther, and most certainly Augustine and many other Catholic theologians. The history of their churches leaves absolutely no doubt about this.
Calvin executed Servetus under the ancient law of the Empire known as Justinian's Institutes, which, since 533 AD, had made two beliefs capital crimes: denial of infant baptism and denial of the Trinity. As the Encyclopedia Britannica states, the Emperor Justinian's concern for religious matters stemmed from "the extent to which church and state were indissolubly linked as essential aspects of a single Christian empire, the terrestial [earthly] counterpart of the heavenly polity [political organization]."8
This was the exact understanding of church and state that Calvin possessed, and it is not hard to find in the books of many who proclaim America a Christian nation. It is sobering to consider that at least five American Presidents (Unitarians or Deists) would have been executed under this code of law, and many, many other Americans as well. Every attempt of men to bring heaven to earth through law -- and not through grace -- has ended up freely shedding blood to do so.
So the question must be asked of all sincere believers: was Calvin justified in his view that heretics should be executed? And what does it say about him if he was wrong? A letter he wrote the King of England concerning the spread of the Anabaptists to England presents an even more difficult issue -- the persecution of people who believed in all the orthodox Christian creeds. The problem with the Anabaptists was that, according to their conscience, they could not go along with Christians bearing arms, serving in government, or baptizing infants who could make no confession of faith. Calvin wrote King Henry VIII, "It is better to burn a few [Anabaptists] at the stake, than for thousands to burn in hell."
If it was right to execute heretics back then, then why is it not right now, also? This is what many people fear whenever talk of a Christian nation comes up. On the other hand, if it would be wrong now, was it not wrong then? What then is the condition of the tree from which today's mainstream Christianity has branched forth? This is no light issue. The answers to these questions can help determine which of the two women spoken of in the Book of Revelation you are a part of: the Bride of Messiah9 or the Harlot drunk with the blood of the saints.10 Which woman were Calvin and theologians like him a part of? Calvin's words on his deathbed shed light on this question, for as he faced death his cold doctrines could no longer silence his conscience. All he could say was, "I am a wretched sinner."11
Can Calvin's actions in the case of Servetus be called anything less than pre-meditated murder? Did such deliberate violations of conscience on Calvin's part cause him to become totally depraved, or was he always that way from birth, as his doctrines proclaimed? Is it not by their deeds that you shall know the false prophets?12 Is God a Calvinist, or is He the righteous Judge who will repay the wicked for their wicked deeds as Revelation 19:2 proclaims?
Too late, too late, Calvin awakened on his deathbed out of the drunken stupor he had lived in for so long.13 Too late to bring any of his slain back to life, too late to undo the demoralizing effects his doctrines would have on millions. Too late to alter the evidence that proved he never knew God, or His Son -- as the Savior's own words make clear: "...an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. And these things they will do, because they have not known the Father, or Me."14
Many have made excuse for the violence of the Reformers, saying their deeds just reflect the times they lived in. Others have acknowledged it, but have swept the horror of it under the thought "All men are sinners, aren't they?" All men are sinners, but not all are murderers, not all are oppressors, not all have ruined other people's lives as these men did. All sin is not the same, and not all sin makes a man worthy of the Lake of Fire.15 Even in the days of the Reformers some men were crying out for the freedom of the human conscience, often at the risk of their own lives.
The denial of human freedom in the history of Christianity is a scarlet stain stretching across centuries of agony and oppression. It is known sin for which there is no atonement, the complete denial of the words and example of the Messiah, who never once forced others to believe in His costly message. Indeed, the history and doctrines of Christianity are the greatest justification for not believing in her savior, as the third President of America saw so clearly:
I can never join Calvin in addressing his God. He was indeed an athiest, which I can never be; or rather his religion was demonism. If ever man worshipped a false God he did. The Being described in his five points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent Governor of the world, but a demon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all than to blaspheme Him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin."16