Okay, I admit it, when I said that our view of the atonement can have major implications for our approach to universalism, it was a bit of an understatement. The more I wrestle with my own views, read what universalists have written and re-read the scriptures (yes, I have a Bible and sometimes I read it!), the more I think that our view of the atonement virtually is
our view on universalism.
The question is, what did Jesus achieve through his atoning work? Did he pay the penalty for every individual sin of every individual person and provide the possibility of salvation for those who would repent and turn to him? (So, potentially, achieving nothing if no one did!) Or, did he actually secure the salvation of the elect?
Or did he confront and defeat the powers - chiefly the Power of Death and the Power of Sin - and liberate the captives?
We sometimes act as if Christians disagree about many things, but on the essentials they agree. But that strikes me as a whole load of baloney (however well-intentioned)! Why did Jesus die? For whom? What did he achieve? Is atonement actual or potential, universal or particular? And that's just one section in one chapter of your average systematic theology text-book! :-o
I don't intend to answer all of these questions, in this post or later ones. (Think of me as The Bible Question Man!) But I did want to highlight again this link between atonement and universalism, provide some quotes from others and - in a later post - explore one of the implications.
John Murray used this illustration: When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation every slave in the confederate states was objectively a free person; however, no slave was subjectively free and able to enjoy that freedom until they heard about, believed, and acted on the basis of that proclamation.
Athanasius' wrote in De Incarnatione
: "By [Christ's] death salvation has come to all, and all creation has been ransomed."
And Spurgeon, coming from a salvation-for-the-elect-only angle wrote, "We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved."
Of course, the difficulty with weighing all of these thoughts against the scriptures is that when we speak of terms like 'saved' we know that the Bible does not always mean the same thing by them. It can be a reference to deliverance from enemies, physical healing, have-been-saved, am-being-saved and will-be-saved and more.
Perhaps joining all of these thoughts is the Princeton Scholar, Charles Hodge. Reflecting on Romans 5:18, he wrote: "All the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved... It is more congenial with the nature of God to bless than to curse, to save than to destroy."
I do like that, very much. The alternative is that Adam's sin was more effective and far-reaching than Christ's righteousness! But doesn't Paul go on to say that the gift surpasses the trespass?
So, should we assume that everyone is lost, accept those who are clearly saved? Or can we assume that everyone is saved, accept those who are clearly lost?
2 Cor. 5:19 'God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting peoples sins against them.'
Titus 2:11 'For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all people.'
Romans 5:18 'So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone.'
1 Tim. 4:10 'For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.'
It strikes me that our thoughts on all of this will have pretty significant implications for how we address the question of the fate of the unevangelised. I'll try to post some more thoughts (well, questions!) on that soon. But, for now, I'll let the ever-gracious Edward Fudge have the last word:
"Until men and women learn the good news of their salvation, they continue to live as if nothing had happened. They remain as they had been – without hope, not knowing God, unaware of his forgiveness and favor. The gospel ministry is for the sake of such men and women – that they may obtain salvation, subjectively as well as objectively (2 Tim. 2:10). Like Paul at ancient Corinth, we also need to declare the gospel fearlessly and without ceasing, for God still has many people who have not yet heard the good news of what he has done for them in Jesus (Acts 18:9-10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; 2 Peter 3:9)."