In this series, I forward a considered case for a universal atonement, presenting what I find to be the most compelling arguments for it, defining what exactly it entails, and interacting with the most common and persuasive objections against it.
This is part 5 of 6, in which I refute the objection that universal atonement entails either universal salvation, or a double payment for sins.
Perhaps the most common objection to universal atonement is the double jeopardy or double payment argument, which says: if Christ died for everyone without exception, then either (a) everyone is saved, or (b) those in hell pay for sins which were already paid for once on the cross. The former is obviously unbiblical—not everyone will be saved (Matthew 7:13–14)—and the latter is plainly unjust—and shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just (Genesis 18:25)?
In this way, universal redemption seems to be skewered effectively on the horns of a dilemma. This is the same argument I used in my discussion with Darryl Burling when we were thinking about the atonement. The way I formulated it then was as a reductio ad absurdum of the universal view:
- Christ’s atonement was sufficient to save from all sin (as per universal atonement).
- Unbelief is a sin (by definition).
- Therefore, Christ’s atonement was sufficient to save from [all] unbelief.
- But unbelievers are not saved (standard biblical doctrine).
- Therefore, Christ’s atonement does not save from [all] unbelief.
- Therefore, his atonement is not sufficient to save from all sin.
The problem with this line of argumentation, as I acknowledged to Darryl in my followup article ‘Thinking more clearly about the atonement’, is that it presupposes a pecuniary view of the atonement—that is, a view which treats penal substitution as a commercial transaction, as described in part 1 of this series. Aside from the problems with this which I brought up there, there are two obviously fatal defects with presupposing this view for the purpose of disproving a universal atonement:
- It begs the question against universal atonement, which presupposes not a pecuniary, but a judicial view. By taking the pecuniary view, the double jeopardy argument misrepresents—or at best misunderstands—the view it attempts to refute, and so does not actually interact with it at all.
- It proves too much, since the implication follows unavoidably that, were the argument to succeed, God’s elect would never have been under his wrath, having been justified from the cross—a view which most particularists reject.
The first premise of the argument is sound, as far as it goes. It could be better phrased to say that Christ’s atonement was sufficient to save all people from all sin—but this is a minor point. Certainly, the view I’m defending has it that the atonement was, and is, sufficient to save from all sin—that is, that its scope includes every person, and every sin of every person. Premises (2)–(4) are also entirely indisputable under the universal view: unbelief is a sin, the atonement covers it, and yet unbelievers aren’t saved. And premise (5) is not in question either—though, to offset confusion, let me admit that I have amended it slightly with the inclusion of the word “all”. I think this more fairly represents the way the particularist would argue (its omission was really an oversight on my part to begin with) because obviously he does believe the atonement covers the unbelief of the elect prior to conversion. This is the very premise which leads inevitably to the conclusion that the elect, in the new era at least, have been saved since the cross—that they were, in fact, never “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).
The double jeopardy argument runs into trouble at (6), however. Notice the obvious non-sequitur. What does the fact that the atonement does not save all people have to do with whether it can not save all people? Plainly, there is a connection in the particularist’s mind—but that connection doesn’t reflect anything in the universal view. It is being unnaturally imposed upon it in order for the argument to work. The universal view admits no such connection, because it does not suppose that specific sins were imputed to Christ at the cross—rather, it recognizes that such a notion leads to real problems, both in terms of the mechanism of federal headship (as noted in part 1), and in the temporal justification of the elect (as noted above). But, as James Anderson once explained to the Reformed Baptist Discussion List,1
the double-jeopardy argument only assumes that for any person S, S’s sins will be atoned for if and only if (i) S’s sins are imputed to Christ and (ii) Christ suffers a punishment for those sins sufficient to fully satisfy the demands of divine justice.
But of course, the universal view rejects (i), denying that imputation occurs in this way at all. For one thing, imputation is not quantitative as the argument assumes. For another, it takes place at the moment of justification—that’s what justification is: the imputation both of our guilt to Christ and his righteousness to us—and not at the cross. As I discussed in part 1, it’s reasonable to think that Christ represented us on the cross in a penal or judicial payment; not in a pecuniary or commercial one.
So I reject the conclusion of the double jeopardy argument as a non-sequitur. It merely presupposes the particularist view of imputation, and tries to tacitly impose this on the universal view. In contrast, if the argument is corrected so that it no longer begs the question, (6) might look something like this:
- Therefore, the nature of Christ’s atonement is not such that it actually saves all people from sin.
This, of course, says nothing necessarily about the scope of the atonement being limited, and everything possibly about its application being so. Subsequently, since it doesn’t entail a limited scope, it isn’t contradictory with any of the prior premises which have been accepted. Thus, the argument, fairly reworked, does not select for the particularist view: it merely selects for a view wherein the atonement is limited either in scope or in application.
In light of my previous arguments in this series, I think it far more reasonable to take the latter view. In other words, the atonement, in and of itself, does not justify anyone: it only provides the grounds of justification, so that it may then be applied by faith. But this leads into the final objection I’m going to consider: that a universal atonement doesn’t accomplish actual redemption for anyone.