Most arguments against the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement are doomed to failure from the start for the simple reason that they never address the foundational presuppositions of that doctrine. Instead of quibbling over the definitions of words like "all," "whosoever" and "world," my argument for a Benevolent Atonement is an attempt to use the Calvinist's own logic against him and to reveal the dangerously weak foundation of his doctrine.
The primary reason that the Calvinist accepts the doctrine of limited atonement has nothing to do with his diligent study of Scripture. It is primarily an emotional reaction to the idea that someone for whom Christ died might still end up in hell. This thought is anathema to the Calvinist, for it contradicts his view of the sovereignty of God.
Consider Charles Spurgeon's reaction to this idea:
To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice. That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever have been imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities. God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good!
The idea that Christ could die for someone who would ultimately end up in hell is so repugnant to Mr. Spurgeon that he was willing to accept any explanation which avoided it, and this admission has been made by other Calvinists as well. R. C. Sproul, for example, writes:
I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death.
And James White writes similarly that:
I was faced with a decision. If I maintained a "universal" atonement, that is, if I said that Christ died substitutionarily in the place of every single man and woman in all the world, then I was forced to either say that 1) everyone will be saved, or 2) the death of Christ is insufficient to save without additional works. I knew that I was not willing to believe that Christ's death could not save outside of human actions. So I had to understand that Christ's death was made in behalf of God's elect, and that it does accomplish its intention, it does save those for whom it is made.
These men are making statements of volition, not biblical exegesis. Dr. Sproul does not want to believe that someone for whom Christ died could still end up in hell. Dr. White is not willing to believe that God leaves the ultimate fate of each man in his own hands. These are not well reasoned arguments based on Scripture; rather, they are admissions of an underlying presupposition which dictates how the Calvinist must interpret the Bible.
The existence of this presupposition is the reason that most arguments against limited atonement fail to convince the Calvinist. Dr. Sproul cannot accept that the word "all" in II Peter 3:9 means each and every individual on earth because he does not want to believe in the kind of God that such a concept would imply. Dr. White cannot accept that the "whole world" in I John 2:2 is a reference to every human being because he is not willing to believe that God would allow those mere human beings to determine their own destiny. Attempts to use verses such as these to argue against limited atonement will always be met with frustration because the Calvinist approaches these verses with his will already determined. He will not accept any interpretation of those verses which contradicts his view of atonement.
In order to change the Calvinist's view of atonement, we must focus our efforts on changing his volition. This requires us to show that his presupposition is false in and of itself, and to do this, we need only take him to the tenth chapter of Hebrews. In verses 26-29 of that chapter we find the following statement:
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
Now notice what John Calvin wrote about this verse in his commentary on Hebrews:
Those who sin, mentioned by the Apostle, are not such as offend in any way, but such as forsake the Church, and wholly alienate themselves from Christ. For he speaks not here of this or of that sin, but he condemns by name those who willfully renounced fellowship with the Church. But there is a vast difference between particular fallings and a complete defection of this kind, by which we entirely fall away from the grace of Christ. And as this cannot be the case with any one except he has been already enlightened, he says, If we sin willfully, after that we have received the knowledge of the truth; as though he had said, "If we knowingly and willingly renounce the grace which we had obtained."
And a little further on, he adds:
The clause, "after having received the knowledge of the truth," was added for the purpose of aggravating their ingratitude; for he who willingly and with deliberate impiety extinguishes the light of God kindled in his heart has nothing to allege as an excuse before God. Let us then learn not only to receive with reverence and prompt docility of mind the truth offered to us, but also firmly to persevere in the knowledge of it, so that we may not suffer the terrible punishment of those who despise it.
Here, in this passage of Hebrews, we discover a man that Calvin admitted was a recipient of the grace of God. According to Calvin, this man was part of the church, a member of the elect of God, yet he chose of his own will to renounce that fellowship, to defect from the church and to extinguish the light of God which was in him. In short, here we see a man for whom Christ died but who still ended up in hell.
Granted, some Calvinists have recognized this flaw in Calvin's logic and have taken a different approach to this verse. Instead of viewing the man in this passage as the one who was sanctified by the blood of the covenant, they claim that Hebrews 10:29 is referring to Christ as the one who was sanctified. John Owen advocated this view in his commentary on Hebrews:
But the design of the apostle in the context leads plainly to another application of these words. It is Christ himself that is spoken of, who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto God, as I have showed before. The priests of old were dedicated and sanctified unto their office by another, and the sacrifices which he offered for them; they could not sanctify themselves: so were Aaron and his sons sanctified by Moses, antecedently unto their offering any sacrifice themselves. But no outward act of men or angels could unto this purpose pass on the Son of God. He was to be the priest himself, the sacrificer himself, -- to dedicate, consecrate, and sanctify himself, by his own sacrifice, in concurrence with the actings of God the Father in his suffering ... That precious blood of Christ, wherein or whereby he was sanctified, and dedicated unto God as the eternal high priest of the church, this they esteemed “an unholy thing;” that is, such as would have no such effect as to consecrate him unto God and his office.
The problem with this view is that it is blatantly heretical. Christ claimed to have been sanctified by the Father (John 10:36) and to have sanctified Himself (John 17:19), but to claim that He was sanctified by the blood of the covenant is to deny the sinlessness of His sacrifice. According to Leviticus 17:11, blood was necessary for the first covenant in order to atone for the sins of those who were sanctified thereby. And according to Hebrews 9:22, the same is true of the new covenant, for there we read:
And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.
Thus, the purpose of the blood in the covenants is to atone for sins, to purge of sins and to provide remission from sins. Jesus Christ did not have any sins to be atoned for, purged of or given remission from. Therefore, Christ did not need to be sanctified by the blood of the covenant. He was sanctified by His own sinless nature as God. Given this purpose for the blood of the covenant, it thus follows that the one sanctified by the blood of the covenant in Hebrews 10:29 was not Christ but rather the very same man who was condemned to hell for despising that blood.
Once again we are brought to the conclusion that Christ did in fact die for at least some people who ended up in hell. Now, if Christ actually died for some people who are in hell, then the Calvinist's emotional reaction to that idea is fatally flawed, and we are left with the alternative view that Christ's atonement was an act of benevolence toward all mankind. Those holding to this view see passages like II Peter 3:9, I John 2:2, John 3:16 and Revelation 22:17 as stating that Christ's death paid the debt of sin for every human being that has ever lived. This view considers the atonement to be part of the goodness of God which leads men to repentance.
Read more in this series:
The BIBLE and the TULIP
Basic Ability vs. Total Depravity
Individual Soul Liberty vs. Unconditional Election
Benevolent Atonement vs. Limited Atonement
Limited Mercy vs. Irresistible Grace (coming soon)
Eternal Security vs. Perseverance of the Saints (coming soon)
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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