From John Calvin to Stephen King

Stephen King

Stephen King’s novels are famous for their explicit gore.  Monsters, murders, rapes, and vengeance are all described in picturesque terms, with an alarming level of alacrity.

In this sense, the Bible is similar to a Stephen King novel.  A cursory look through the book of Judges (or even the book of Genesis) will reveal a number of stories about demons, murder, rape, lust, battles, power struggles, and sexual intrigue.

But there is an important difference between Scripture and Stephen King novels. . . . In many of the stories by Stephen King, darkness gets the upper-hand.

In 1408, the evil presence is ultimately inescapable. Either you die an unspeakable death while in the haunted room, or else your exposure to the evil brings about your demise at a later date.  The protagonist of the story is one who seems to escape.  Yet at the end of the story, he struggles with burns, trauma, heart problems, and emotional issues.  He also gives up writing.  The rest of his life is defined by his encounter with evil, and genuine escape is ultimately impossible.

In many of Stephen King's novels, Evil is ultimately triumphant, even though it experiences occasional temporary setbacks.

In Duma Key, the protagonist is left utterly desolate.  His marriage, his beloved daughter, and his best friend are irrevocably taken away from him.  He has to think long and hard to remember his “last good day”.  Even his apparent triumph over the wicked Persephone is tinged with doom . . . he laments that she will eventually escape her watery prison, and that she will practice her evil ways once again.  Even if it takes her 1000 years to do so, her eventual release is assumed.

The message is consistent . . . good may gain the upper-hand over evil for a time, but evil will ultimately triumph. If a soul is infected with darkness, all light will eventually be snuffed out, and only the darkness will remain. No matter how good a man is, the sin within him is still stronger.

Scripture agrees that there is no duality. But the reasoning is opposite. According to the Bible, light triumphs over darkness, good triumphs over evil, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against the Church.  No matter how evil a man is, the image of God within him still shines through.

John Calvin

The first view echoes the doctrine of Total Depravity, which was one of the central doctrines taught by John Calvin.  He taught that evil so courses through the veins of all men, to such a thorough extent that every man is rendered worthless.  Twisting Romans 3 out of context, he taught that absolutely no one seeks God, and that all people are therefore naturally without value. No matter how relatively “good” a man may try to be, the sin lying at the root of his heart makes him a depraved being, worthy of nothing but God’s unmitigated wrath and fury.  Even in the rare cases when God unilaterally chooses to save such a wretched being, He does it strictly for His own reasons, with no thought whatsoever of any “value” lying within the sinner himself.  For this reason, this salvation is called “unconditional election”.

Much of our society has inherited the assumptions of John Calvin’s theology, and Stephen King’s novels are the logical result (The Shawshank Redemption notwithstand­ing).  For centuries, the Reformed Churches and their children have been telling us that evil is the single most defining trait of man, and at one level or another, we have fallen for this lie. Even our scary books and horror movies have reflected this base assumption.  A person may seek to do good, attempting to rage against the machine, but all such efforts are doomed to be merely temporary.  No matter how long it takes, no matter how hard the struggle, the dark seed within will grow, and spread, and overwhelm all competition, until the hapless victim is swallowed up in misery. Without a complete and unilateral intervention from God Himself, a human being is doomed to a vile and worthless existence.

Light is more powerful than darkness.

The second view manifests a doctrine which might be termed, “Inescapable Theophany”.  It is a doctrine which is precisely the inverse of Total Depravity.  While Total Depravity suggests that sin is the natural victor within every man’s heart, the position of Inescapable Theophany holds that the spark of God’s glory shines within the heart of even the most wicked men.  Darkness cannot snuff it out.  Wickedness cannot defeat it.  Sin cannot swallow it up.  In such men, the Image of God is like a candle thrust into the vast expanse of a dark cavern.  No amount of darkness, gathered together in a single location, can find the collective strength to overwhelm even the smallest of light sources.  This is proof that light is always stronger than darkness. When the door of a darkened room is opened, light always floods in, but darkness never floods out.

Of course, we really don’t need to coin the term “Inescapable Theophany”, because a better term has already been provided in Scripture.  This term is, simply stated, “the Image of God”.  According to Scripture, man retained the Image of God even after the fall, and no amount of sin can snuff out that central fact about man’s existence.  According to the ninth chapter of Genesis, this is the very reason why murder is forbidden.

If a sinful man was truly worthless, then it would be very difficult to explain why killing him would be such a bad idea.  Mosquitoes are generally considered to be worthless, and a nuisance besides, so killing them is rarely frowned upon.  But according to God, a man is not a mosquito. A man may acquire some of the habits of the mosquito, draining his fellow man, irritating him, and generally being a nuisance.  But even this man was created in the Image of God, and no matter how much he may sin, he still retains this Image.

If you honor the King, then you will also honor the image of the King.

It is as if we had a magnificent portrait of the King, caked over with cobwebs and mud and dust. The filth itself may be worthless and offensive, but the portrait remains extremely valuable. Intentional destruction of this portrait would offend the King Himself.  So we must not destroy the painting . . . we must clean it off and restore it.

This is how God views every human being. Each one was created in His Image, and therefore each human is of infinite value.  A man does not become worthless, regardless of his guilt.  A woman does not become worthless, no matter what she has done.

This is not to say that judgment day will never arrive.  It will.
This is not to say that every man will survive judgment day.  He won’t.

Rather, this is to say that the Image of God is of great value, and we dishonor God whenever we fail to recognize this fact.  The doctrine of Total Depravity suggests the possibility that “The Image of God” can be “worthless”.  This suggestion I heartily reject.

Stephen King imagines a world in which darkness snuffs out light, and where men are irrevocably overcome by an infection of evil which festers and overwhelms from within.  Stephen King’s novels manifest an imagined horror which stalks throughout the world, overwhelming all that is holy.

John Calvin’s theology shares Stephen King’s worldview. The doctrine of Total Depravity is the infection of evil which festers and overwhelms from within. And Calvin’s god is the horror itself, which irresistibly creates millions of men and women in a state of misery from which they stand no chance of escaping. For those who are not “elect”, the slow and hideous march of Death ultimately overtakes each soul, like the sadistic work of a vile spirit emerging from the pages of a Stephen King novel.

But if man is truly created in the Image of God        (and he is),
And if man cannot cease to bear this Image               (and he cannot),
And if the Image of God is inherently valuable         (and it is),
Then John Calvin’s doctrines cannot be true.
And Stephen King’s worldview must be in error as well.

The next time you look at a person . . . any person at all . . . test yourself to see whether you truly believe that man is created in the Image of God.  Look at your brother, look at your sister, and say, “That’s what God is like.”  If you find yourself unable to even whisper those words, then you do not yet believe that all men were created in the Image of God.  You do not yet believe the words of Scripture.

But if you can truly say, “That’s what God is like”, and see the Truth of that statement, then you have begun to view your brother as God views him. You have begun to appreciate your sister as God appreciates her.  You have begun to value God’s Image truly, even if you simultaneously recognize that His Image has been covered over with much dust and many cobwebs which need to be gently and lovingly removed.

A Calvinist looks at a group of sinful people, and says, “How utterly worthless!
A Christian looks at a group of sinful people, and says, “Behold the pantheon!”

The difference between these two points of view is the difference between day and night.  It is the difference between darkness and light.  It is the difference between Christ and Satan.

The first person looks at dirty portraits, and sees God nowhere.
The second person looks at dirty portraits, and sees God everywhere.

If Jesus was sinless, then Jesus obeyed Leviticus 19:18, loving His neighbor as He loved Himself.  And if Jesus Himself was God, then that means Jesus loved His neighbor as He loved God.  Let that sink in . . . .

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Calvinism, Church History, Heresies, Icons. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to From John Calvin to Stephen King

  1. Father Fergus Farken says:

    Inescapable Theophany! Beautiful! You are truly a minister of the Gospel! Thank you so much! The Peace of The Lord! FFF

  2. Who wrote this beautiful gem? It is a much needed message!

    • Father bless . . . I am Joseph (Basil) Gleason with Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois. We are in the Antiochian Archdiocese. I am grateful that you enjoyed the article. Thank you for the encouragement!

  3. Chip Edgar says:

    Calvin never states that the imago dei is utterly destroyed. You dont have to get far beyond I.1.i and ii to see that he believes that knowing one’s self is a prerequisite for knowing God.

    • I never suggested that Calvin taught such a thing. Rather, I simply point out the inconsistencies of Reformed doctrine. On the one hand, they posit the “total depravity” of man, which supposedly makes it impossible for a fallen man to do anything good. On the other hand, there are Reformed teachers who say that all men are created in the image of God. But when you put these two points together, what is the result? The result is the horrific idea that the “image of God” can be totally depraved and worthless. A big problem with Calvinists is that they do not think through the implications of their doctrines. Ultimately, Calvinists are not logical.

  4. Joanne Canda says:

    As an Anglican studying at a protestant seminary, everything was going fine until we got to Soteriology,and I learned about Calvinism. To my surprise, my classmates were enthusiastic supporters. Not being an Academy Award winning actress myself, I am sure my horror registered. I regurgitated the T.U.L.I.P. doctrine for the test, and have been haunted by its effect on mankind since that time. How could anyone come to the faith believing we were created by God knowing we are only worth eternal destruction, saved only by his indiscernible decision to save one or another of us? No wonder so many “love Jesus, hate religion.” That makes a point, doesn’t it? Also, thank heaven, the truth once delivered to the saints does not include this hateful theology. Thank you for posting this. God Bless You!

    • May the Lord bless you too! I believe most Anglicans are not 5-point Calvinists, and I am very thankful for that! I myself used to be an Anglican minister, and I was a 5-point Calvinist at the time. I am so grateful that God was patient with me, and that He led me out of that error! Calvinism paints a horrific picture of God, and I thankful that the vast majority of people have the sense to reject that view of Him.

  5. hypostasis says:

    This is also reflected in how so many view Jesus as the divine “whipping boy” for an angry God. Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath and anger toward humanity… Western Christianity is saturated with this view. This is why the Orthodox Faith is so critical to America. God is in love with His children and the cross is the source of therapeutic healing from a loving Father. In the resurrection all darkness is snuffed out. Great article my brother!

  6. You lack of understanding about Calvin is monumental and is one reason why Eastern Orthodoxy will never inform Evangelicalism as much as is could or should. “Total Depravity” is only the bad news that makes more glorious the good news. You only confirm my basic suspicions about Orthodoxy – you are weak on sin, therefore you are weak on human nature, therefore your view of salvation is weak and you tend toward a weak and watery form of Universalism. Until you can reconcile your theology with the insights of Augustine and move in a more “catholic” direction you will remain weak evangelistically speaking. The caricatures and straw men you throw up regarding Calvin and Western theology are misleading and uninformed (and impress only those looking for excuses). We need to be working on how we might work together. From the Eastern Orthodox I hear only increasing attacks on some rather central doctrines such as sin and atonement. You are going to have to reconcile with the West here or face the prospects that you are only creating greater schism. We need to explore more what we can agree on not on what no Bible believing Evangelical can ever capitulate.

    • I was a 5-point Calvinist pastor for years, and I have read Calvin, Edwards, Pink, Bavinck, Sproul, Sproul Jr., Wilson, Horton, and many others. I was also a regular contributor of articles on the website for years. So if I have a “lack of understanding about Calvin”, I’m not sure how much more I could do to remedy that. Perhaps you are more enlightened than I am.

      You said that Total Depravity is “only the bad news that makes more glorious the good news.” That may be true for the “elect” under the Calvinist system. But for the Reprobate, it is bad news that turns into worse news. According to the Calvinist version of “Total Depravity” which I reject, there are billions of totally depraved persons whom God *never* enables to believe the Gospel. Thus they are utterly and irrevocably lost, because God Himself desires to damn them. If this is what you call “good news”, then I want no part of it.

      Orthodoxy takes sin very seriously. We just happen to take the love and mercy of God even *more* seriously. Light triumphs over darkness. Mercy triumphs over legalistic justice. And the Resurrection triumphs over sin, death, hell, and the grave.

      “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!” Hallelujah!

      • Guy Longuépée says:

        ¨You said that Total Depravity is “only the bad news that makes more glorious the good news.” That may be true for the “elect” under the Calvinist system. But for the Reprobate, it is bad news that turns into worse news. According to the Calvinist version of “Total Depravity” which I reject, there are billions of totally depraved persons whom God *never* enables to believe the Gospel. Thus they are utterly and irrevocably lost, because God Himself desires to damn them. If this is what you call “good news”, then I want no part of it.¨

        Bless your heart for such a clever and godly response brother!

  7. tpkatsa says:

    “While Total Depravity suggests that sin is the natural victor within every man’s heart, the position of Inescapable Theophany holds that the spark of God’s glory shines within the heart of even the most wicked men. Darkness cannot snuff it out.”

    With all respect to the more learned than I who have already commented, my position is probably somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that we are utterly depraved. The Imagio Dei is not shattered but rather cracked (and perhaps cracked badly). However, I am not convinced that it is impossible to shatter the Imagio Dei by our own evil actions. Just as we move closer to Christ in union by works of goodness (not that we are saved by works, but rather saved FOR good works), we can also move away from Christ by works of evil. I would find hard to believe that figures such as Hitler, Eichmann, Stalin, Pot Pot, Mao, Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, “Kurtz” in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, and so on, did not utterly destroy the image of God within them. That is not to say these are beyond God’s power to save if He so chooses, just to say that through their OWN choices they have destroyed the image of God within them. Now I hasten to add that such cases are extremely rare, but I do not say that to destroy the image of God within us is impossible. Ironically, only we can do it through our own evil choices. More later…

  8. tpkatsa says:

    …so to continue my thought, if on the one hand we have total depravity, and on the other hand what Brother Joseph calls “inescapable theophany” I surmise that the truth is somewhere in the middle. In the link referenced above it’s claimed, by extension I suppose, that Osama bin Laden is “worthless” in the eyes of God. Well, I can’t be the judge of his worth in God’s eyes. We can say that he like all men was created in the image of God. But through his free choices he became the archetype of evil in the modern world. And I do think – and are there not passages that suggest? – that when a man commits evil on a massive scale over and over again, his heart becomes desensitized to this evil. So this desensitization in my opinion is the destruction of the Imagio Dei within him.

    “You are going to have to reconcile with the West here or face the prospects that you are only creating greater schism.”

    Curiously, why is the Orthodox who are being asked to reconcile? Perhaps the Christian West ought to reconcile with the Christian East…After all it was not the Orthodox who broke from the Roman Catholic Church, it was Rome who broke from the four Eastern Patriarchates after 10 centuries of united Christendom. And it was not the Roman Church who broke away from the Protestant churches but the Protestants who broke away from the Roman Church after 500 years of an undivided Roman Church. This is history. Meanwhile the Orthodox have not changed the Christian Faith at all in 20 centuries. If Orthodox are “weak on sin” and “weak on human nature” it is because in the West God the Father is perceived as a Judge, salvation as a legal transaction, Christ’s work on the cross as “atonement” and Christ as merely a sacrificial victim to appease the “wrath” of God the Father.

    But God the Father is the Merciful Great Physician. Salvation is not a legal agreement between us and God but rather it is divine medicine to heal our fallen and broken nature. Yes there is a sacrificial element in Christ’s redemptive work but more to this Christ reigns Victorious over sin, death and the devil. That is why you do not see Christ depicted on the Cross in Orthodox icons except in the icon which depicts the event of the Crucifixion itself, and even then Christ is not shown in agony – He is shown in glory – on the Cross. In the Eastern View God is not “all-wrathful” but rather “slow to anger, plenteous in Mercy,” “for God commended His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

    Don’t get me wrong. There is still a choice to be made (Joshua 24:15). We still have to make a personal “decision for Christ” as the evangelicals put it – No one is saved just by “going through the motions of Church.” And it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t hate evil – He does. It doesn’t mean that all the fire and brimstone of Revelation may not one day come to pass at some point in the distant future. But it does mean that in this life, the Christian East chooses to emphasize God’s love and mercy over his wrath and anger.

  9. Joseph, this may be your best piece I’ve read. Thank you for this important message. I wish I hadn’t spent so many years looking at my neighbors and seeing a worthless mess. But I’m grateful to God that I can look at my fellow hard-boiled sinners and exclaim, “Behold the pantheon!” God be praised!

  10. LOL. This whole post is about as fair a look of Calvin and his theology as the American Atheists might put up–what a joke. Kudos to Fr. Phil Lewis and others above for making that clear.

    • I’m not sure it adds anything substantive to the conversation for someone to merely assert that “This whole post is about as fair a look of Calvin and his theology as the American Atheists might put up“. To assert it does not make it so.

      However, if you want to make a post which offers more than mere assertions, I would be happy to interact. Feel free to offer substantive proof that my article is at odds with the teachings of John Calvin and the other classic Reformers. I do not claim to be without error. I welcome any intelligent critique.

      For what it’s worth, I spent several years of my life as a hard-core 5-point Calvinist, and 2 years as a Calvinist pastor. I read Calvin, Edwards, Packer, Sproul, Sproul Jr., Witsius, McMahon, Wilson, Luther, and many others. I was an active member of the Puritan Board for several years. I attended two pastor’s conferences at Highlands Study Center. I wrote numerous Reformed articles which appeared on the website, and I was the manager of the Covenant Theology section on the same website. During that time, I encountered many Calvinists, most of whom seemed to think that I had a pretty good hold on what “Calvinism” is all about.

      Does all of that “prove” that I truly understand Reformed Theology? Of course not. Such a thing is probably impossible to categorically “prove”.

      But at the very least, I believe I have earned the benefit of the doubt. If you think I have misunderstood Calvinism, then don’t just assert it . . . *demonstrate* it.

  11. Gary S says:

    Serious Question for reformist. BTW, I have read, listened and studied many reformed church teacher, James Boyce, Ravi Zaccharius, Sproul. Does a reformist believe that God “sends” people to “hell” as punishment for being “bad?” (bad = being a sinner, or sinning in general). If yes, then I have a follow up question. If no, then I have a different follow up question. Then I will stop asking my stupid questions.

    • Since I spent several years as a hard-core Reformed 5-point Calvinist, and a couple years as a Calvinist pastor, I believe I can answer your question.

      Yes, the Reformed teach that God sends people to hell for being bad. Specifically, they teach that the disobedience of a sinner is an offence against God’s justice, and that His furious wrath is therefore poured out upon the damned for all eternity. The only solution, they say, is for God to pour out the same wrath upon Jesus on the cross.

      Basically, they teach that we are saved via cosmic child-abuse. One Person of the Trinity (the Father) pours out wrath upon another Person of the Trinity (the Son), so that God’s “justice” can be satisfied.

  12. Gary S says:

    Thank you for your reply. So if “God sends people to hell for being bad,” does he therefore “send people to heaven for being good?” I am not trying to be funny. I think that the answer is no. No one is good, so he can’t send people to heaven for being good. So, why do people get sent to heaven? It can’t be a reward. Reward for what. We are bad and we get a free ticket to heaven. It doesn’t make any sense.

    • I agree that it makes no sense. But that is what Reformed Theology actually teaches. I once actually heard R.C. Sproul Jr. say that “Jesus was the only successful Pelagian”. In other words, Jesus worked and gained enough merit to earn his way into heaven. They teach that the rest of us get to heaven by being in-Christ . . . we receive the reward which Christ has earned.

      In short, we go to hell as a payment for being bad, and we go to heaven as a result of Jesus paying the way to heaven for all of us. That is the Reformed understanding of the Gospel.

      Roman Catholics say: Jesus and men merit.
      Protestants say: Jesus alone merits.
      Orthodox say: Merit?

      It’s not about merit at all. It is about restoring relationships. It is about Jesus conquering Satan, death, hell, and the grave. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

  13. Gary S says:

    Thanks. I feel a bit better now. I have an in-law that became a big time Calvinist just at the same time he became a Christian. It wasn’t so much like he had joined a cult (like many people think that Christianity is, when you first become a Christian), but election and pre-destination was ALL he wanted to talk about. That to him was the gospel. However since you can’t know if you are actually elected or not by God, there is no way to know if you are actually a follower of Christ or of Satan. So what’s the point? I joke with people sometimes and ask them if they are a 5 1/2 point Calvinist. However I still do listen to James Boyce on the radio. He is still deceased obviously, but a local radio station still airs his sermons. I can agree with most of what he preaches on the radio. He is very careful to describe election and pre-destination and most of the time I can stomach it. It is far from the entire point of the gospel, to me, it is really unimportant, but for some people it gives them a warm and fuzy. I rather be warm and fuzy about the Sermon on the Mountian. Hey, but that’s just me. Peace.

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