Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 2, The Atonement and Universal Reconciliation in Christ

Last week it was my honor to participate in a talkback with filmmaker Kevin Miller after a viewing of Hellbound?.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am using posts this week to work back through some of the Q&A Kevin and I hosted, the queries we fielded and some of our answers regarding "universal reconciliation in Christ" or "evangelical universalism."

Today's post is about universal reconciliation in Christ and the atonement.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about evangelical universalism, that is dismisses the atonement. Specifically, Kevin and I were asked, "If everyone gets to heaven then what's the point of Jesus dying on the cross?"

This question is really strange because so many people think it's a legitimate criticism when, in fact, it is one of the most easily answered objections to universal reconciliation in Christ. It's so easily answered that I wonder if the people raising the question have taken two seconds to think about it.

To be sure, I don't want to criticize someone who has just encountered this conversation for the first time. Many young people are just getting introduced to these topics and discussions. So most haven't really taken the time to think it through.

But pastors with graduate degrees don't get a pass on this! They should know better. So let me be clear. Any pastor who makes the claim "universal reconciliation in Christ negates the cross" is either 1) being thoughtless (I edited here my harsher descriptions) or 2) willfully attempting to mislead people.

Because this is really very simple and rudimentary.

To show this, let us just assume that penal substitutionary atonement is true. Let's just assume the most conservative view of the atonement.

In this view God is both a God of grace and a God of justice. And in order to satisfy God's justice God demands the punishment of sinners, their very lives. But being a God of love God takes on this punishment, Christ substitutes himself in our place taking on the just punishment that we deserve. And in this way both God's love and justice are reconciled in God's extension of grace to a sinful humanity.

Let's assume all that is true. The basic idea is this. The atonement is necessary because God cannot forgive humanity without the just punishment of sin being meted out. Basically, God's extension of grace requires an atonement. Jesus provides that atonement. Thus all humanity can be forgiven by God.

Now, just take a second to ponder all that and ask yourself, how does any of that affect universal reconciliation in Christ?

Answer: it doesn't affect it at all, not one whit.

And why is that? Because if the atonement is necessary for God to forgive humanity then it is necessary no matter if it was one or one million people being saved. If the atonement is necessary then it is necessary. The numbers of people being saved is irrelevant. The number being saved many be few or many. One person or every person who has ever lived. But the math has nothing to do with the necessity of the atonement.

Because the atonement, commonly understood, has nothing to do with the number of the saved but with the inner life of God, the means to reconcile justice and love. The atonement, commonly understood, is about that tension in the heart of God and has nothing to do with the number of the saved/elect.

In short, whenever you hear a pastor raise the issue of the cross in relation to universal reconciliation in Christ you've got either a competence or a dishonesty problem on your hands.

Because this is really very, very simple.

Theologically, this isn't 1 + 1 = 2, but it's pretty close.

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15 thoughts on “Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 2, The Atonement and Universal Reconciliation in Christ”

  1. This gets to one of the enduring questions in my mind about the cross: namely, what did this event effect? Is this something we should even be asking, or withdrawing from in respectful awe? From my search to date, Moltmann gets closest to an answer. PSA gives us a mathematical model of the cross, as you allude to here, but this doesn't answer the deeper question. Answers on a blog postcard...

  2. I think the criticism is fair, as far as it goes. Still, I think theological discourse is actually very fuzzy a lot of the time. Theology expresses a lot in a highly compacted form, which is a remarkable intellectual feat...but this means that we can't just take one meaning of a theological concept and be done with it. So what else is being expressed in the question, "Then what is the point of the atonement?" In this case, I think some of the other implicit questions are: "But why does the atonement of Jesus make the church, or my church necessary? And how does it make me special? Those are things that atonement theology do for me and my community, and this seems like a threat to it." Now, if this is part of what they are asking, I think there is some legitimacy to it. Especially for a church that is predicated entirely on the notion that they are the elect, universal salvation really can pose an existential threat. Some part of me wants to say 'Good riddance', but I don't think that approach works, and I don't think it does honor to what God has done in their own community. I am very, very catholic in this respect. Depending on the particular community and the particular underlying theology, I think a visit to the notion of election might often be in order. For example, if we think that the discussion of election in Romans 9 points to the universalist (?) climax in Romans 11, then we should guide people through the twists and turns of Paul's story...a story whose ending we know, but a story whose middle is yet to be told.

  3. The atonement, what ever it is, is what led me down this path. Whatever Jesus did must have been that all men might be saved. The atonement is much bigger that we can imagine. It has to be, because if we could have imagined being atoned it would have looked something like keeping a set of rules so that we could appease God.

  4. I talked to a man who employed more than 3,000 people about his business success once, and he credited it to his ability to put people in jobs where they would succeed. Then he made this comment. Many people who don't have a talent think they do, while the people who actually have it often don't know it.

    So my vote's for "incompetence." But without a harsh judgment about it...

  5. Richard, you're right that this is a logical ("simple") answer. I wonder if it would help you understand these people--not dismiss them as dishonest or thoughtless--if you thought less in terms of propositions, and more in terms of story.

    A standard Christian story--one I find throughout my Bible--has two paths, one to destruction, one to salvation. Jesus' death allows a "transfer point" for humans to switch from one path to another.

    I think to you it is obvious that "universalism" means that the transfer point is still in Jesus, but all people get to make the transfer, so what's the problem?

    But for many people, being told that everyone goes to heaven--including those who reject Jesus completely, and do not seem in any believable way to actually take the transfer point that Jesus provides--is tantamount to saying that there aren't two paths, after all. There's only one path, and everyone's on it; the whole story falls apart.

    Admittedly, these people are being inflexible, unable to easily imagine a different narrative substructure of their worldview; they could recognize in universalism a new story in which there is only one path, but because of Jesus' death it's a good path. But I think that imagining a different narrative substructure is hard for all of us, and doesn't imply mere thoughtlessness or dishonesty. And pastors are called and paid, not for the ability to imagine alternative narratives, but for the ability to stubbornly hold to and live out the community's own narrative. . . .

  6. I've been rereading Leviticus and Deuteronomy recently and was struck by the language around the system of sacrifice- it is repeatedly emphasized that God does NOT need sacrifice. The implication is that sacrifice was somehow for us, giving us a language to approach God that we could understand. And it was perhaps due to our own broken/blind state and/or separation from God that the language took the bloody form it did. So Jesus's sacrifice was also, on some level, only for us. And it also brought the whole system to an end, which is perhaps what God wanted in the first place. To me this meshes well with the idea that universal reconciliation wouldn't negate the atonement.

  7. that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not
    counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message
    of reconciliation.

  8. If Hell is the thing we are saved from by the cross, then the complaint that the lack of Hell means the cross is unnecessary is a valid point. To be sure, I don't think it is Hell we are saved from by Jesus, but I know a lot of people who do. It may not be as 1+1=2 as you think.

  9. Does anyone here have any recommendations for a good book about the different theories of atonement?

  10. Scot McKnight's book gives a nice overview of the basic theories:


  11. "Because the atonement, commonly understood, has nothing to do with the number of the saved but with the inner life of God, the means to reconcile justice and love. The atonement, commonly understood, is about that tension in the heart of God and has nothing to do with the number of the saved/elect."

    Hi Richard. I agree that this is pretty straightforward. So it occurs to me that people that ask this question about cross, may really asking a different question. Specifically, I wonder if they are really asking "If universal reconciliation is true, then what is the point of my response to the cross?"

    I suspect you may ask this question if your primary understanding/motivation for accepting Christ/the cross is to avoid Hell (probably a flavor of ECT). In this scenario, you have done the work (believing, baptism, rule-keeping, etc.) so the suggestion that someone who hasn't done the same work you have might get the "reward" violates your notion of justice. It isn't fair. In other words, why follow Jesus if it doesn't give me any advantage over those who don't (follow Jesus in the way I think they should)?

    I have been thinking about the parable of the prodigal son this week and I see a similar dynamic at work (Luke 15, NLT):

    28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

    31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

  12. Well, I just read Part 1 of this series :)...now my post above seems to be in the wrong thread...that is what I get for reading out of order.

  13. That looks great. Come for the thought-provoking posts. Stay for the book recommendations.

  14. Well, sure. That's why any discussion of this topic virtually requires a discussion on what "Hell" actually is (and isn't), and what the scripture actually says about "Hell" (There are '3', and then there is the lake of fire to complicate matters further.) It also pretty much requires a discussion on what the words translated "eternal" and "forever and ever", etc. (aion and aionios, specifically) actually mean as well, because as long as people continue to think about these things as they traditionally have, they won't get anywhere.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Gregory.

  15. I would agree; but I would also add that it's not quite that simple either. Pastors and teachers have a lot invested in the traditional view, and keeping an official position in the church often requires toeing certain party lines. But more than that, they have been taught (that's right, taught) a certain way of thinking about these things, and it's hard to overcome that. It's very difficult to make a large paradigm shift in thinking, especially when there seem to be good reasons not to. I have seen this in other professions as well. Ironically though, the scripture says it is precisely through the "renewing of our minds", literally changing the way we think, to experience transformation.

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