Saturday, March 8, 2008

More on the Limited Extent of the Atonement in Response to Rob Bell's Apparent View and Subsequent YouTube and Blogger Discussion on the Matter

This is a reply to the latest of the comments on a former post.

Hi Katie,

Thanks for continuing this conversation with me. A love of God ought to drive us all to strive to understand more about His nature, character, and dealings with humanity. Hopefully through this conversation we can both become better lovers of God and other humans. Hopefully our struggle to understand how God works will inspire us to worship Him and respect His unfathomable greatness!
I... think that you have misinterpereted the bible to think that Jesus only bore the sins of his sheep. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for ALL, to be testified in due time"
I appreciate your use of scripture to support your position, however I believe that you have misunderstood the meanings of a few words, including the one translated into our English "all".

"All" doesn't mean "all", all the time. In fact, rarely does "all" mean "all", even in English! For example, 'I sit in front of my Mac all day' is a perfectly typical sentence but it doesn't mean that literally every minute of my day is spent in front of my Mac. In grammatical and cultural context it communicates the fact that I spend a lot of time on my Mac, perhaps both during business hours and afterward - it isn't intended by its author to be an exhaustive claim.

So the question is whether Paul intended this particular "all" to be a hands-down, no-holds-barred statement about every single human soul.

I strongly assert 'no', for the following reasons.

Many Bible scholars maintain that Paul's use of the term "all" in the passage you cited is intended to communicate something more like "all categories of men" or "not just Jews but Gentiles also":
The term "all men" taken by itself is capable of an absolute meaning but the the context of 1 Tim. 2 does not support it. That "all" or "all men" do not always mean all and every man that were, are, or shall be, may be made apparent by nearly 500 instances found in Scripture. "Paul definitely mentions 'groups' or 'classes' of men; kings (v.2), those in high position (v.2) etc., the Gentiles (v.7). He is thinking of rulers and (by implication) subjects, of Gentiles and (again by implication) Jews, and he is urging Timothy to see to it that in [the] public worship [at Ephesus] not a single group be omitted" (William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles).

But in addition to hermeneutical reasons to prefer the non-exhaustive reading of "all" in this case, there are logical ones.

If it were so that Jesus gave Himself as a "antilutron" (the Greek word translated as "ransom" in this passage, which means "redemptive price") for every single person, then there would be no single person sentenced to hell.

Now, I know that your answer to this would be something like "well, Jesus paid the price for every single person, but since some people reject the free gift, somehow they don't receive it". But I think that if you understand Who it is that sentences individuals to their eternal destinies, you will see why such an answer doesn't suffice.

You see, if God is the only Judge - the only One who can damn - and if Jesus paid the redemptive price for an individual, there is no longer any charge that can be levied against that individual. And if there is no charge against that individual, then there cannot be any sentence for that individual to serve - it already has been served in full by Jesus Himself.

It would be like this: let's pretend that you get a parking ticket whose price is $400, because of the extremity of local laws. Not wanting to pay the money, you appeal the ticket. The day you show up in court, the judge says "your price has already been paid in full, you can go home". In such a case, there is nothing you can do about it - the debt has been paid and the judge (if he is a righteous judge) won't sentence you.

Now, I know what you're thinking "well, in such a case I was aware of the debt and I received the gift in some capacity". So let's alter the scenario a bit: you drive through a red light and one of those intersection cameras takes a snapshot of your license plate. The ticket comes in the mail to your house, but before you see the ticket, your mom pays it in full. Whether you accept such a gesture or not, the authorities aren't going to come after you and sentence you, since there is no charge they could bring against you!

You see, when it comes to salvation and damnation, it's God Who is the Judge. He is the only one who can damn. So if an individual's "redemptive price" (as the passage you cited calls it) has been paid in full, then there are no charges that can be brought against such individual by God - God has no grounds for sentencing such a person to hell. If God is a righteous judge, He cannot require that a debt be paid twice! And if God is the only one Who can damn, then who can send that individual to hell? If God is for you, who can possibly be against you!? If an individual's debt has been paid in the yes of God, what other pair of eyes matter?

The only way one can coherently maintain that Jesus' atonement is applied to every single human soul is to say that the atonement does not guarantee salvation. I can't exactly tell, but your view seems to imply this - you say my belief that the Bible teaches that Jesus only bore the sins of His sheep is mistaken, implying that you believe the Bible teaches that Jesus also bore the sins of those who are not His sheep. But if this is the case, then the atonement of Jesus wasn't powerful enough to completely guarantee salvation - there are some, under such a view, who are "atoned for" and yet still fail to be "saved". How can this possibly be so? Is it that Jesus death was a redemptive price that fell short of the full price of the debt? Why would we possibly prefer that view to the view that Jesus paid each of His sheep's debt in full?

Now, there may be something else you're thinking in opposition of my argument. Perhaps you think that I am wrongfully applying legal judgement and debt language to this whole "sin" thing. Perhaps the atonement of Jesus was not the payment of a debt, or the substitutionary serving of a prison sentence on behalf of Jesus' sheep. Perhaps - as you seem to hint at - this concept of "sin" can be more accurately viewed as "separation from God", and since Jesus experienced a separation from God, then somehow this counts for grounding God's forgiveness of sin for all people, except somehow those that reject it.

I have two reactions to this.

1. To be honest your view isn't exactly well-defined. It is not exactly clear me precisely how you view the atonement, and I am not convinced that your view is identical to Bell's. You yourself even say that God has not forgiven those who haven't asked for forgiveness. But Bell says that those in hell are people God loves, died for, and forgave. You vaguely, tacitly accept my language of bearing sin, but then you are not entirely clear as to whether Jesus did in fact bear the sins of every single human soul. If you are committed to this, then you haven't answered the question about the grounds for damnation - if their sins have been paid for, what charge can God bring against them?

2. In mainstream Christianity the two most popular models of the atonement are the "penal substitution" model, which some would accuse me of holding to, and the "natural consequences" model. Penal substitution holds that each sinner deserves to be sentenced hell because of his sin, and that Jesus serves the full penalty for each of His sheep's sins. The natural consequence model demonstrates the damaging effects of sin and says that hell is essentially the natural consequence of refusing to relate to God or allow Him to heal. I would guess that Bell maintains something like this view, and it might provide a way for you to coherently maintain what I estimate to be your commitments about the atonement.

To clarify my own position: I believe that both models are helpful ways of look at heaven and hell and are both valid for making certain points clear when it comes to the death of Jesus and what it accomplished. I don't think either is an exhaustive model that covers all the facts. Perhaps new models may be posed which do better jobs than either of these popular models.

It seems like the Bible talks about the atonement using different analogies and metaphors, and sometimes using straightforward language. I am committed to believing that however God sees the atonement, it is perfectly and completely logical and meaningful - just and merciful.

The reason I bring these two models up is that even if one adopts a sort of natural consequences model of the atonement, in fact perhaps even more so if one does, my arguments should remain persuasive. If hell is the natural result of living a life in separation from God, then what else could Jesus' death accomplish than the redemption of those for whom He died?

You see, if Jesus wasn't then dying (at least in part) to fully pay a legal debt to God, then what was He dying for? What did it accomplish? How much more should the natural consequence theorist affirm the limited extent of the atonement of Christ! For Christ must have died to accomplish and apply what is lacking in the souls of His sheep, strongly influencing them to cease the sins that further their advancement toward hell!

If Jesus experienced the separation from God that those to whom His atonement is applied should rightfully experience, then those individuals must become that much CLOSER to God - not FARTHER AWAY from God in places like hell!

If Jesus closed the gap - the distance of individuals from God - then how can those people possibly go to hell - the exact opposite direction!?

Therefore I highly appreciate your participation in this conversation and I fully agree that the Bible doesn't contradict itself, and that Jesus died "for" everybody. All anybody has to do to receive the blessings of the atonement is to repent of his, or her, sin and pray to Jesus.

I maintain that Jesus' death is so powerful that it actually and fully redeems men such that it is impossible for Jesus to have died for you, and for you to yet go to hell. I elaborate on this by saying that Jesus died for you if you have accepted Him as your savior. I further maintain that any single individual can accept Jesus as his, or her, savior.

I remain open to arguments in disagreement with my position, and I would love to hear thoughts from anybody on this topic!

Love in Christ,


  1. You see, if Jesus wasn't then dying (at least in part) to fully pay a legal debt to God, then what was He dying for? What did it accomplish? How much more should the natural consequence theorist affirm the limited extent of the atonement of Christ!

    Comment: The understanding of the "natural consequence theorist" is that there wasn't a legal debt to God at all. There was a natural debt. "The wages of sin is death." Our consequence for sin was death, and Christ redeemed us so that we would no longer die.

    In one fell swoop, Jesus died for the world and paid the price for all. "For God so loved the 'world' that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not 'perish' but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the 'world' but that the 'world' be saved by him."

    God's atoning power is beyond measure, but it is a person's willingness to accept it or not that sends them to hell.

    I used to think like you, but part of coming to an accurate understanding in all this is to de-program our minds from what we've previously understood, and look through the issues through a different pair of glasses.

    A couple of notable "scholars" to read:

    St. John Chrysostom
    St. Thomas Aquinas

  2. Excuse my assuming you had not read St. Thomas Aquinas. Upon further reading in your other blogs, it seems you have. But nonetheless, his understanding of the atonement is very much the same as the "natural consequences theorist" you refer to.

  3. Christ died for the sins of the world.

    All sins, of all people, everywhere, of all time.

    2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Ezekiel 18:23-24,32; 33:11, and Jonah 4:1-2 just to name a few. It seems to me that the heart of God is to redeem all of mankind to Himself...not just a few.

    Now, about your view of the atonement. Personally, I find the whole idea of Christ repaying a "legal debt" to a God whose just wrath must be subdued to be completely devoid of one of God's primary attributes...LOVE.

    The understanding that we have a debt with God like the many examples you brought up and that Christ came to pay that debt (a.k.a. "Penal Substitution") seems to me to lack the key ingredient of salvation...FORGIVENESS.

    If this is to be our understanding of the atonement then we shouldn't see God as forgiving us of anything, for indeed, our debt has been payed...not forgiven.

    The example of the $400 ticket doesn't show the forgiveness of the judge. It shows that someone was willing to stand in your place pay the price that you owed. While very still lacks forgiveness. The debt wasn't forgiven...the debt was paid or satisfied.

    I certainly accept the aspect of the atonement known as "Substitutionary atonement" but not within the context of "Penal Substitution" but within the context of "Christus Victor," a view of the atonement that I believe truly represents the forgiveness and love of God as well as the cosmic battle between good and evil.

    Check out:

    ...for a list of questions regarding penal substitution.


    ...for an in depth look at Christus Victor vs. Penal Substitution.

    much love bro,

    in Him,


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