The Cosmic Horror of Calvinism


Though he died a relatively unknown eccentric, H.P. Lovecraft left behind a vast literary universe—a mythos populated by bizarre creatures, cannibal villages, fish-like humanoids, mad doctors, vicious demons, and capricious gods. While these elements place Lovecraft’s work comfortably into the genre of horror, they are merely secondary, serving to unearth a greater terror.

This greater terror, known as Cosmic Horror (or Cosmicism), is the dread that accompanies man’s realization that he is utterly hopeless in the face of an indifferent, sometimes hostile, cosmos. There is simply no objective purpose to his existence. He is adrift in a vast, cosmic ocean. And one day, like dust on a scale, he will be brushed away by the cold breath of time and return to the nothingness from which he came. And, no matter how hard he may try, he is absolutely powerless to change his situation. In the end, he is left with a couple of options—he either goes mad from contemplating such a terrifying reality, or he protects himself from it and flees to the opiate of superstition.

Thus, hopelessness and fatalism, along with an underlying misanthropy, are essential to Cosmicism. This is beautifully illustrated in the opening lines to Lovecraft’s popular story, The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Now, the fatalistic essence of Cosmicism is not found only in the works of Lovecraft and similar authors. Although expressed differently, this same hopeless fatalism is seen within the branch of theological thought known as Calvinism.

The Five Points of Calvinism


Calvinism is a systematic construct based upon the theological expositions of John Calvin.[1] Governed by two essential assertions—humanity is totally depraved and God is absolutely sovereign—the tenants of this system are encapsulated in the acrostic TULIP. The letters in this acrostic refer to one of the five “points” of Calvinism, each of which progressively builds off of the previous point.

 T: Total Depravity

The doctrine of Total Depravity, or Inability, affirms that people, in their natural state, are completely polluted by sin, to the degree that nothing that they do is good or pleasing to God. Calvinist author Edwin Palmer writes, “Evil pervades every facility of (a person’s) soul and every sphere of his life. He is unable to do a single thing that is good.”[2] Thus, the total depravity of man affects both his nature and his standing before God.

Regarding his nature, he is utterly unable to change his disposition before God. On the one hand, he is innately aware that God does exist and that he is accountable to him. Yet, on the other hand, he is so corrupted in heart and mind that he simply suppresses this truth and deceives himself. Thus, he has no desire to turn to God and ask for forgiveness. His will is in bondage, to the degree that he cannot choose to change what he is; he cannot choose to turn to God.

Therefore, regarding his standing, he is an enemy of God. God is so angry against sinners that his wrath against them will never be satisfied. All that awaits them is judgment, followed by an eternity of conscious suffering as God pours out his righteous anger upon them, “to the praise of his glory.”

Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards often spoke of the repugnance that he believed God felt toward sinners. In his most famous example, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, he says:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.

And then:

It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite, horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see along forever a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul. And you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages in wrestling with this Almighty, merciless vengeance. And then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point [dot] to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

And since all people are born into depravity, all are worthy of this condemnation—from the infant sleeping in her crib, to the most inhumane of tyrants.

It is here that the essence of Calvinism’s Cosmic Horror is first observed—because each person is totally depraved, no matter how hard she might try, she is absolutely powerless to change her situation.

Yet, not to worry, God comes to the rescue…for some.

 U: Unconditional Election

Since people are unable to exercise their wills toward God, and are thus powerless to change their standing before him, they are absolutely dependent on God to extend mercy. Unconditional Election concerns the way in which this mercy is extended.

According to this doctrine, from before the creation of the world, God has chosen (elected or predestined) a particular number of people for redemption. However, this is not due to any foreseen merit in the person, since one cannot do anything to attract God’s favor. Election is unconditional, based upon God’s “good pleasure.” Those who have been elected will ultimately turn to God, because God will regenerate their hearts and give them a new nature, essentially freeing their wills that are in bondage to depravity. And, acting in accordance with this new nature, they will see their desperate condition, call out to God, and be forgiven (this is accomplished through Irresistible Grace, the “I” in TULIP).

However, since only a particular number of people have been elected for salvation, and this number was fixed “before the foundation of the world,” to use Pauline language, we then need to ask, “What of those whom God has not elected?” This question leads to election’s necessary opposite—the doctrine of Reprobation.

Reprobation is God’s decision from before time to pass over those whom he has not elected, to leave them in their depraved state, and to ultimately punish them for their sins, and thus manifest his justice, “to the praise of his glory.”

In other words, there is absolutely no hope for the non-elect. In their depravity, they cannot choose to come to God and God has chosen not to elect them.

Thus, rather than providing deliverance from the abysmal, hopeless essence of Calvinism’s Cosmicism, Unconditional Election intensifies it—having essentially sealed the fate of a large portion of humanity before any of them were born.

Even Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem seems to cringe at such a notion, as seen in this telling quote from his popular Systematic Theology:

In many ways the doctrine of reprobation is the most difficult of all the teachings of Scripture for us to think about and to accept, because it deals with such horrible   and eternal consequences for human beings made in the image of God. The love that God gives us for our fellow human beings and the love that he commands us to have toward our neighbor cause us to recoil against this doctrine, and it is right that we feel such dread in contemplating it.[3]

Grudem’s words seem to indicate that he clearly understands, and is rightly disturbed by, the implications of reprobation. That is, if God predestined certain people for salvation before time began, while choosing to pass over the rest, to leave them in their sin to forever suffer under his wrath, then he created some people who will never have the chance to be delivered from eternal torment. It is utterly hopeless for them. There is nothing that they can do to change their situation, because they suffer from total inability and God did not elect them to have their eyes opened.

Thus, there was no atonement made for their sins.

 L: Limited Atonement

The word atonement is one of the few theological terms that originated in the English language. It refers to the reconciling of two parties that are, in some way, alienated from one another and the process by which they are brought back into a state of “at-one-ness.” In this case, the two alienated parties are God and humanity.

Now, within Christian thought, there are numerous “atonement theories,” each of which attempts to explain the mechanics of the atoning process. The specific theory within the Calvinistic paradigm, though not exclusive to it, is penal substitutionary atonement.

This theory states that there is a penalty for sin—that penalty is to suffer under the just wrath of God forever. However, in being crucified, Jesus Christ stood in the place of humanity as their substitute, suffered what they deserved to suffer, effectively paid the debt they owed, and thus satisfied the wrath of God. Now, because of Christ’s work on the cross, people may be reconciled back to God and escape eternal suffering.

However, since God unconditionally elected only a particular group of people to be redeemed, and this was determined from before the foundation of the world, the atonement that naturally flows forth from this is limited in its scope. That is, Christ only substituted himself for the elect. Thus, no payment has been made on behalf of the non-elect. Because of this, they are destined to forever pay off their sin debt under the “exquisite, horrible misery” of God’s relentless, violent wrath.

Therefore, the “good news” of Jesus is only good news for some. For the rest, it is the most unimaginable form of Cosmic Horror. In reality, the cold indifference of Lovecraft’s fatalistic universe, and the capricious gods that populate it, provide more psychological comfort than the kind of universe supposed by Calvinism.

 I: Irresistible Grace

The fourth point, Irresistible Grace, also known as Effectual Calling, refers to the process by which God draws the elect to himself. Within this process, God regenerates the heart of a person and gives him a new nature, making him willing to repent, and thus be forgiven though faith in the work of Christ accomplished on his behalf.

Again, this is excellent news for the elect. For the non-elect, however, this is terrible news. For, rather than effectually drawn to God, he will be passed over, reprobated, and left in his dreadful state, until he is ultimately set on fire for all eternity.

 P: Perseverance of the Saints

This final point of the TULIP system states that once a person is regenerated and given a new life, it is impossible for her to fall away, either by willful rejection or a lapse into sin. The elect one is forever safe from the wrath of God.

As for the non-elect, I think we got the point—it’s hopeless.

 Calvinism’s Cosmicism

When the five points of Calvinism are considered in light of the essential characteristics of Cosmicism—fatalism and hopelessness—we see that, long before Lovecraft, certain theological constructs were devising an even more terrifying view of the universe. In a Calvinistic conception of the cosmos, the portrait of God is similar to that of a deranged child aiming the sun through a magnifying glass over the anthill of humanity. People are spiders, loathsome insects, abhorred by God and worthy of nothing else but to be cast into fire, to use the language of Jonathan Edwards.

Sadistic imagery aside, Edwards’ Angry God sermon demonstrates the misanthropy that is inherent within the Calvinistic system—God is so disgusted by human beings that he cannot even look upon them. His violent anger against them will never be quenched. All they have to look forward to is an eternity of conscious suffering, choking and burning in the Lake of Fire, begging for God to kill them, and yet unable to die, each moment more terrifying than the last.

And, again, there is absolutely nothing that they can do to escape this.

Some Calvinistic theologians have attempted to explain away the fatalistic essence of their theology. In a fatalistic system, they argue, human choices and decisions do not make a difference; everything will turn out as has been ordained. Therefore, accountability for any action is removed from the individual. In a Calvinistic system, they contend, the choices people make have real consequences. One has the power affect his surroundings, for better or worse, based upon what he chooses to do. Therefore, the non-elect are not poor victims of capricious chance. They have chosen to willfully sin against a righteous, holy God, refuse his invitation to come to him, and thus they deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions—the justice of God.

However, when the doctrine of total depravity is considered in light of such a defense, we see that a person is unable to make a choice toward God in the first place. According to the doctrines of election and reprobation, one’s destiny was fixed before the foundation of the world. When we continue through TULIP, we see that no atonement has been made for the non-elect and thus they will not be effectually called to God and persevere until the end.

Whether we call it fatalism or not, the reality is that, when the essence of Calvinism is examined, an all-knowing God created people for the sole purpose of burning them forever in order to demonstrate his glory in justly punishing them for their sins. Before time began, God certainly could have chosen to save them, to heal them, to give them what they would lack, namely, the will to turn to him. But, he didn’t. Rather, he chose to leave them in their wretched state. He allows them to continue on their downward spiral, at the bottom of which is eternal condemnation “to the praise of his glory.”

Therefore, regardless of the philosophical maneuvering employed, according to Calvinism, the non-elect are without hope. Consider again Wayne Grudem’s quote:

In many ways the doctrine of reprobation is the most difficult of all the teachings of Scripture for us to think about and to accept, because it deals with such horrible   and eternal consequences for human beings made in the image of God. The love that God gives us for our fellow human beings and the love that he commands us to have toward our neighbor cause us to recoil against this doctrine, and it is right that we feel such dread in contemplating it.

Calvinism is Cosmic Horror, the most terrifying form of it. In its conception of the universe, most of humanity is without hope. If such a terrifying reality were to be true, we would be left with nothing more than to weep with Francis Wayland Thurston in the closing lines of The Call of Cthulhu, “I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me.”


[1]. Though attributed to Calvin, the five points did not originate with him. Rather, they emerged out of the Dutch Reformed tradition in the Synod of Dort as a theological response to the five points of the Remonstrance. A full exposition of this controversy is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2]. Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972), 11-12.

[3]. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 684-685.






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