“They Would Have Believed…” – A Molinist Exegesis of Matthew 11:20-24

by Max Andrews

I.  Introduction

The Matthean account of Jesus pronouncing judgment on the cities of Choarzin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum may be found in Matthew 11.20-24.  This passage of Scripture contains a historical context of six particular cities that were condemned for their depravity.  The following contains a grammatico-historical examination of the text, which is an example of the doctrine of revelatory judgment applied, a verse often used to support the soteriological problem of evil, and is a problem passage for the doctrine of transworld damnation.  The purpose of Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on these cities was to convey the depravity of man.

II.  A Grammatico-Historical Exegesis

Before any critical examination of the text can be made a conclusion on the genre must be established.  The book of Matthew is a Gospel, which is a genre in and of itself.  Many studies performed in modern scholarship of the Gospel literature link the Gospels with Hellenistic biography.[1]  Hellenistic biographers did not feel compelled to include all periods of an individual’s life or to narrate in chronological order.  The selected events were carefully ordered to promote a particular ideology.[2]  In slight contrast to Hellenistic biographies, Robert Guelich proposes formal and particular genera for the Gospels:

Formally, a gospel is a narrative account concerning the public life and teaching of a significant person that is composed of discreet [sic] traditional units placed in the context of Scriptures… Materially, the genre consists of the message that God was at work in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection effecting His promises found in the Scriptures.[3]

Formally, the Gospels parallel other literature while materially are uniquely Christian.  Blomberg, Hubbard, and Klein prefer a sort of sub-genre of theological biography, which follows the same interpretive rules as the Hellenistic biography.[4]  The particular passage of 11.20-24 may contain figures of speech not foreign to a narrative account within a Hellenistic [or theological] biography.  Any figures of speech that may be in the text will be examined later due to theological issues that are raised in the text, which may shape how one interprets any figures of speech Matthew used.

III.  Historical Background Information

Jesus cites six cities in the text; one was historically prior to Jesus’ time whereas the other five cities are contemporaneous with Jesus where He performed miracles.  The following are background information for the six cities.

A.  The Cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom[5]

Jesus’ Ministry Beyond Israel[6]


Tyre and Sidon are cities that were often mentioned together and had a history of ungodliness.  They were condemned for pride, rebellion, and their ungodliness (Is. 23; Jer. 25.22, 27.3, 47.4; Eze. 26, 28; Joel 3.4; Amos 1.9-10; Zech. 9).  In Tyre Jesus healed the Canaanite woman’s demoniac daughter (Mt. 15.21-28, Mk. 7.24-30), performed many healings and exorcisms (Mk. 3.1-2, [in the area of Tyre and Sidon]), and healed a deaf man (Mk. 7.31).

Sodom is, perhaps, the most known rebellious city after its destruction for ungodliness (Gen. 19).  God practices great patience with the people of Sodom.  Abraham interceded on their behalf to be spared from judgment from God so long as there were ten righteous men, but the city was so wicked there were not even ten (Gen. 18.16-33).  Sodom was completely depraved, acting in hostility and homosexuality (Gen. 1-29, Jude 7).  The prophet Isaiah proclaims a judgment using Sodom in a simile stating that the Sodomites proclaimed their sin (Is. 3.9).  While Jeremiah condemns false prophets of Jerusalem, he states that they were like Sodom [to him] and that no one turned from their evil (Jer. 23.14).

B.  The Cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum[7]

Fig. 2.  Jesus Ministry in Galilee[8]


Bethsaida was [and still is] a historical site that is not only mentioned in the Bible, but has also been cited by Josephus as Philip the Tetrarch rebuilding an older Bethsaida and renaming it Julias.[9]  On the geological location and setting of Bethsaida, the contributing scholars of the ESV Study Bible have commented that,

Bethsaida was just northeast of where the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee from the north. Research since the 1980s has focused on et-Tell as the site for Bethsaida. This site does have residential remains from around New Testament times (including an apparent “fisherman’s house” with ancient fishing equipment) atop an earlier Iron Age (Old Testament-era) settlement. Excavation geologists suggest that the Sea of Galilee originally extended closer to this site than it does today.[10]

Three disciples were born in Bethsaida: Andrew, Peter and Philip (Jn. 1.44, 12.21).  Bethsaida was the city where Jesus performed His miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, healing a blind man, and preaching (Mk. 6.44-45, 8.22-26; Luke 9.16).

Capernaum was evidently a Roman military city.  This was where the tax collector Matthew was called to discipleship (Mt. 9.9).  Peter’s house (Mk. 9.35) probably served as headquarters for Jesus.[11]  Although Jesus was from Nazareth, Capernaum was emphatically Jesus’ “own city” (Mt. 9.1).[12]  The healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt. 8.5-13), the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and exorcism of demoniacs (Mt. 8.14-17) took place at Capernaum.  Jesus preached in the synagogue (Mk. 1.21, Lk. 4.31).  The disciples, James, John, Peter, Andrew, and Matthew were from Capernaum.

IV.  Matthew 11.20-24 & Revelatory Judgment

Paul’s outline of salvation in Romans is clear that men will be judged according to what revelation they receive (Rom. 2.12).  For those who are revealed general revelation, they will be judged according to their response to that revelation.  For those who are revealed general and special revelation [i.e. hearing the gospel message] will be judged according to their response.[13]  Matthew 11.20-24 is that doctrine of revelation and judgment applied.  The three cities that received less revelation will be judged accordingly.  The other three cities that Jesus taught and performed miracles in were direct witnesses.  Those cities heard Jesus teach and saw the miracles and received a personal special revelation from Jesus Himself.  It is only appropriate that Jesus stated that those who are given more would have a greater responsibility and those who believe in Him without personal special revelation are blessed (Lk. 12.48, Jn. 20.29).

V.  The Soteriological Problem of Evil

The soteriological problem of evil attacks the actuality of an all-loving God not granting salvation to all.  If God were all loving, He would want to save everyone.  The Matthew 11.20-24 passage is often referred to support this objection.  The claim is that if God really wants all people to be saved then why did God not place those people who were in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom at a place and time where they would see the miracles Jesus did, or, at best witness the teachings and miracles of Jesus and be saved.  After all, it is God who determines the place and time for man so that they might seek Him (cf. Acts 17.26-28).

If this passage is true, taken literally at prima facie interpretation, God either does not desire certain individuals for salvation or He cannot save all. This, however, is a loaded objection.  This assumes no moral responsibility for a response to the Gospel.  On the Christian view, the doctrine of hell is good [or in this case Jesus refers to Hades].  Hell must exist in order for God to be a just God so that He may have justice against human sin.  Hell is a result of damnation, the penalty for one’s sin.  This, again, brings in the logical order of reprobation and damnation.  If one is reprobated because of one’s sin then there is no objection.  On the contrary, if one is damned because of their reprobation, then there was no human choice and God used that individual to suffer for a divine choice, that is not human moral responsibility.  After all, it appears in the Matthew passage that Jesus condemns the cities for their unbelief.  Jesus places the blame at their feet.  They should have responded, but they did not.  In the following verses (Mt. 11.25-26) Jesus affirms the unimpeded sovereignty of God and praises the Father.  Despite appearances to the contrary, God is in complete control.[14]

To preserve God’s holiness and ontology, God cannot be the author of sin, thus leaving humans with human libertarian freedom to choose between spiritual good and bad.  In God’s sovereignty, He actualizes the feasible world in which He chose to actualize to fulfill His will.  In the actual world, God, via His middle knowledge, actualized the time and place of every individual so that they may freely respond to and affirm the gospel resulting in salvation (Acts 17.26-27).  This holds a better answer to the question as to why does the reprobate exist? –Because of God’s sovereign will.  –But why is he reprobated?  –Because of his own unbelief.  When God brought the world into actualization, He rendered certain, but did not cause the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s grace.[15]

VI.  The Doctrine of Transworld Damnation & Figures of Speech

The doctrine of transworld damnation is a traditional Molinist doctrine that affirms anyone lost in the actual world would have been lost in any feasible world that God could create.[16]  Contrary to Louis Molina’s view of the feasible world in which, the elect could be reprobated as vice versa, God is too good to allow one to be lost due to historical and geographical accident.[17]  God will provide means and efficacious grace to those who would, in any feasible world, freely affirm the gospel.  So in any feasible world, those who are elect would always be elect and never be reprobated.  God has providentially ordered the world such that those who are lost are persons who would not have been saved in any world feasible for God in which they exist.[18]  Those who are reprobated suffer from transworld damnation.  One may point to Matthew 11.20-24 as an argument against transworld damnation.[19]  Fellow Molinist Kirk MacGregor sides with Molina on the issue surrounding Matthew 11.20-24:

Here [Mt. 11.20-24] Jesus articulated His knowledge that if He had performed His miracles in different spatio-temporal locations than in those He actually performed, then certain groups of individuals who had not in fact repented and were damned would have repented and been saved, a statement significantly touching on divine predestination.  Thus God was aware, prior to His creative decree, that He could have created a different world in which some of the same individuals who are reprobate in our world would have been elect and, notwithstanding this fact, chose to create the actual world instead.[20]

As far as the figures of speech Jesus used in the passage, it is probably religious hyperbole meant merely to underscore the depth of the depravity of the cities in which Jesus preached.[21]  The words are not parabolic in the sense that Jesus is using historical cities and people to pronounce judgment on the three contemporary cities He performed miracles in.  Nothing is necessarily being taught in the passage and does not reflect the literary construction of other parables.  Matthean scholars disagree with Craig on the issue of hyperbolic language [purporting transworld damnation].  D.A. Carson states,

[One of the] three large theological propositions… presupposed by Jesus’ insistence that on the Day of Judgment, when He will judge, things will go worse for the cities that have received so much light than for the pagan cities… is that the Judge has contingent knowledge:  He knows what Tyre and Sidon would have done under such-and-such circumstances.[22]

MacGregor sides with Carson on the issue stating that,

Craig’s interpretation of this texts seems to be a clear case of allowing philosophical presuppositions to trump grammatico-historical exegesis rather than, as I advocate, utilizing a hermetical circle governed by the two poles of grammatico-historical exegesis and philosophical data derived deductively from Scriptural premises.[23]

Jesus’ use of religious hyperbole ought to be preferred over the literal prima facie interpretation.  MacGregor’s reason for objection cannot be consistently applied throughout all of Scripture.  The truth is that presuppositions are integrated with grammatico-historical exegesis all the time.[24]  The presuppositions that Craig integrates are that 1) God genuinely desires that all men come to repentance and be saved (Ez. 33.10-11, 1 Tim. 2.3-4; 2 Pt. 3.9), 2) God judges based on revelation (Rom. 1-2), 3) God determines the time and place of man so they may seek God (Acts 17.26-28), and 4) that humans are damned because of their sin.   On the basis of these presuppositions Craig’s interpretation is consistent.  If it were feasible for God to actualize such a world in which the people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have repented then God would have actualized such a world [granting the validity of (1) and (3)].  Jesus rightly judges all six cities based on their respective revelation and holds those who bear more revelation more accountable [hence harsher judgment consistent with (2)] and Jesus damns these people because of their sin [Mt. 11.25-26, consistent with (4)].[25]  All four of these presuppositions are biblically based so MacGregor’s appeal to lofty philosophy eisogeted into the text is invalid and Craig’s interpretation of Jesus using religious hyperbole in the form of a subjunctive mood should be preferred.  Craig summarizes this thought by stating that, “It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined, but it is up to us as to whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.”[26]

VII.  Application

            There is primarily one principle that may be applied in practical living.  Jesus gave preview to what judgment may look like for those who are given special revelation.  He gives a reminder to take what is given and respond to it appropriately.  His miracles were efficient; His teachings were sound and have the utmost beatitude.  God will always extend sufficient grace, enough for everyone to respond affirmatively to [being that Jesus judges based on revelation].  Believers should heed the words of Jesus, the instruction of leaders, obey the commands of Scripture, and be obedient to the Holy Spirit.  Jesus expects that of His people.  Believers ought to obey in humility and take what revelation there is today and use it appropriately and to draw closer to Him, to produce good fruit.  Everyone will be judged and Christians today have repented and believed in the Gospel, but it ought not to end there.  Christians ought to repent of every sin they continually entangle themselves in and to obey the teachings of obedience and Jesus preaches, to obey and respond to the revelation He has graciously given.

VIII.  Conclusion

            Matthew’s account of Jesus’ condemnation of the unrepentant cities contains the depth of depravity of certain cities, is an example of the doctrine of revelatory judgment applied, is used to support the soteriological evil, and is a problem passage for the doctrine of transworld damnation.  The passage has been shown that it does not contribute to the soteriological problem of evil and does not contradict the doctrine of transworld damnation.  In conclusion of the exegesis, Jesus used religious hyperbole to stress the depravity of the unrepentant cities.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, William W. Klein, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 1993), 400.

[2] Ibid., 400-401.

[3] Robert Guelich, “The Gospel Genre,” in The Gospel and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmanns, 1991), 206.

[4] Blomberg, Hubbard, Klein, Biblical Interpretation, 401.

[5] The location of Sodom is not included in the map provided.  Scholars have not come to a consistent conclusion on the location of Sodom, though some think it was on the southeast end the Dead Sea.

[6] Taken form the ESV Study Bible, Matthew, “Jesus’ Ministry Beyond Israel.”

[7] Interestingly, Matthew 11.21 and Luke 10.13 are the only passages of Scripture that account for Charozin.  It should therefore be assumed that though there are no accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Chorazin, He did perform miracles and teach in that city.

[8] Taken from the ESV Study Bible, Matthew, “Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee.”

[9] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18, 2:1, 4:6.

[10] Taken from the ESV Study Bible, Luke 9.10 ftn.

[11] Baker Bible Atlas, “Capernaum.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will be judged according to their response, which is less than what Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum received.  There is nothing to stress the depravity of Chorzain, Bethsaida, or Capernaum whereas the remaining three have a depravity that is stressed throughout Scripture.

[14] Ken Keathley, A Molinist View of Election, or How to Be a Consistent Infralapsarian, eds. E. Ray Clendenen, Brad J. Waggoner, Calvinism:  A Southern Baptist Dialogue (Nashville, TN:  B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 212.

[15] Ibid., 195-196.

[16] Kirk R. MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology, (Lanham, MD:  University Press of America, 2007), 68.

[17] William Lane Craig, The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingents from Aristotle to Suarez (Leiden:  Brill, 1988), 204.

[18] William Lane Craig, “’No Other Name’:  A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Faith in Christ,” Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989):  184.

[19] Mt. 11.20-24 is cited as an argument against the doctrine of transworld damnation for the same reason it is cited as a soteriological problem of evil.  The passage seems to purport the counterfactual that if the inhabitants of the city witnessed Jesus’ miracles then they would have repented [thus created a feasible world in which those who are reprobated would have not been in another feasible world.

[20] MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology, 44. Citing Molina from On Divine Foreknowledge, 4.51.1-3, 13-25.

[21] William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1987), 137.

[21] Craig, “No Other Name.”

[22] D.A. Carson, Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gæbelein (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1994), 214-215.

[23] MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology, 69.


[24] An example of granting presuppositions in grammatico-historical exegesis is the exclusivity of Christ [as opposed to universalism] in Romans 5.15-19.  See Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans:  Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 1998), 282-293.  Here Schreiner supposes that one rendition of the text purports universalism whereas that interpretation is not consistent with other passages of Scripture, thus, a presupposition of exclusivism is read into the text.  The same could be said about this passage.

[25] Craig’s view is consistent in that those who are reprobated are damned because of their sin.  An interpretation other than Craig’s [religious hyperbole] suffers deleterious theological consequences.  To be consistent, one would have to adopt a supralapsarian view of election, which states that those who are damned because they are reprobated [thus not allowing human responsibility and are damned due to circumstances beyond their control].  David Engelsma criticizes this concept by giving an analogy:  “If reprobation is the decree not to give a man faith, it is patently false to say that unbelief is the cause of reprobation.  That would be the same as to say that my decision not to give a beggar a quarter is due to the beggar’s not having a quarter.  That reprobation is an unconditional decree is also plain from the fact that if unbelief were the cause of reprobation, all men would have been reprobated, and would not have been elected, for all men are equally unbelieving and disobedient.”  Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Reformed Free Publishing, 1994), 57-58

[26] Ibid., 172-188.

4 Responses to ““They Would Have Believed…” – A Molinist Exegesis of Matthew 11:20-24”

  1. Great post! I have a question for you. Is God’s actualizing of this possible world consistent with a Calvinist understanding of predestination? I’m no philosopher, but this would seem to accomodate what you called “soft determinism” (or compatibilism) in your previous post.

    It seems that any possible world that God chooses to actualize will lead to the election of those who freely chose salvation in that world.

    Tell me if I’ve either misunderstood you or Calvinism.

  2. How would Jesus respond to persons from would religious groups who never heard. I don’t know if you take requests but I’d like for you to make a thread like that.

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