Does God wish that the damned had been saved? In other words, when a person dies and goes to Hell, is it because that’s where God wanted them from all eternity, or because they rejected His plan for their salvation?
Traditionally, Catholics have said that yes, God does desire the salvation of all, that Christ died for all, and that those who go to Hell go there despite God’s plan for them rather than because of it. That said, some Catholic theologians have thought otherwise, and Reformed Protestants (“Calvinists”) likewise argue in the opposite direction. Their argument is that if God had wanted them to be saved, they would have been. Calvinism goes further and says that Jesus Christ didn’t even die for these people. The Calvinist Synod of Dort declared:
In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that Christ should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death).
The Westminster Confession adds that “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” This idea that Christ only died for the people who end up in Heaven is called Limited Atonement, and the result of this doctrine is that the damned couldn’t have been saved. Their damnation was predetermined long before their birth. A third view, Universalism, is the liberal stepchild of Calvinism. Like Calvinism, it holds that anyone that God wants saved gets saved. It differs only in holding that God wants everyone to be saved.
So those are the three basic camps, and it makes for some interesting agreements and disagreements. While these three bullet-points all contain some oversimplifications, it’s basically true that:
- Catholics and Calvinists agree with each, contra the Universalists, that there are people in hell.
- Catholics and Universalists agree, contrary to the Calvinists, that God wills all people to be saved.
- Calvinists and Universalists agree, contrary to the Catholics, that everyone who God wants saved gets saved. [As we’ll see, we Catholics agree with this in one sense. But let’s not jump ahead too far just yet.]
So what does Scripture have to say? Let’s look at the positive case for why we can say that God wants all to be saved (and that Christ died for all), then consider some objections, and then see if we can’t come to a fuller picture.
I. Scripture on the Universality of God’s Salvific Will
1 Timothy 2:1-4 is a great place to start the discussion:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
That seems straightforward enough. But some have interpreted this to mean simply that God wants to save every type of men (men from every race, class, sex, etc.), rather than actually wanting to save everyone. But this passage isn’t an isolated instance. A few chapters later (1 Timothy 4:10), St. Paul says, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”
Now neither Catholics nor Calvinists believe that this verse means that God saves all men in the sense that everyone goes to Heaven, whether or not they believe. Something different is happening for “those who believe” than those who don’t. But the passage is also pretty clear that salvation extends to everyone, not just those who believe. How do we make sense of that? John 3:16-18 sheds more light on the matter:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Three groups are mentioned in this passage: those who believe, those who don’t believe, and “the world.” Those who believe are finally saved, and those who don’t believe aren’t, but the plan of salvation wasn’t just for the first group. Rather, it was for “the world.” Jesus becomes Incarnate because God so loved “the world”… not just the elect. And Christ comes to save the world. But final salvation, eternal life, extends only to “whoever believes in Him.” That certainly sounds like the Catholic view that salvation is extended to all, but only produces its final result in the elect. The last line of that passage reinforces this: Catholics and Calvinists alike point to it as proof that hell really does exist and that Universalism is false. Damnation really is possible. But it’s worth pointing out why the passage says that these people aren’t saved: they’re condemned because they didn’t believe. It’s not that they didn’t believe because they were already damned, or were never within the scope of Christ’s salvific action.
Still, perhaps none of those passages are clear enough, and you’re intent on reading “the world” as just referring to those of us who are saved. In that case, I would point you to 1 John 2:2, which seems to close the door on that interpretation. It says that Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” And 1 John is one of the “Catholic Epistles,” meaning those New Testament books written to the entire Church. So it when it says that Christ’s Atonement isn’t just for us, that’s the corporate us. By “the whole world,” he seems to actually mean the whole world.
And of course, this fit in well with the broader picture of salvation. St. Paul speaks of the effects of Christ’s salvation extending through “the sons of God” to the entire cosmos, that somehow all of Creation participates (or will participate) in Christ’s redemption (Romans 8:19-23).
So we’ve considered two sets of passages: those that generally speak of salvation as being for the whole world; and those that specifically say salvation is for the whole world, and not just us. But still there are those who reject the apparent meaning of these passages. So what we could really use are verses in which Scripture describes specific individuals or groups who are not saved because they reject God’s plan for them. That sort of passage would simultaneously refute Calvinism and Universalism. And there are a few of just such passages.
The two clearest are in the Gospel of Luke. One of these is in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, in which He says (Lk. 13:34), “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” The passage is clear that (a) Jesus willed to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a brood (or a flock, to use His other pastoral imagery); (b) that the children of Jerusalem were not gathered together; and (c) that this was because of their refusal of God’s plan. These three points, taken together, show the errors in both Calvinism and Universalism. So too does Luke 7:29-30, which says that “When they heard this all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” I’ll let that passage speak for itself.
II. Some Objections
Given these passages, why does anyone believe in limited atonement? A few reasons are consistently given. The first is that there are other passages, in which Christ’s salvific action is described as being done for His people, or for the Church, or for the Saints, etc. GotQuestions defends the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement this way:
The doctrine of limited atonement affirms that the Bible teaches Christ’s atoning work on the cross was done with a definite purpose in mind—to redeem for God people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9). Jesus died, according to Matthew 1:21, to “save His people from their sins.” This truth is seen in many passages throughout Scripture. In John 10:15, we see that He lays “down His life for the sheep.”
Here’s the thing: all of that is true. But it’s a logical fallacy (a subtle form of affirming the consequent) to say that since Christ died for His sheep, He died only for His sheep… for the exact same reason that you can’t make the logical leap from “all sheep are animals” to “only sheep are animals” or “all animals are sheep.” This can be seen from Scripture quite plainly. In Galatians 2:20-21, St. Paul says,
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.
That is, St. Paul is claiming that Christ died for him. Does that mean that Christ died only for St. Paul? Of course not. So let’s consider what we’ve seen so far. Scripture describes Christ as dying for:
- St. Paul
- The elect / the sheep
- The Church
- The world
Calvinists typically assume (incorrectly) that #2 & #3 are the exact same group (despite passages like Matthew 13:47-50, and the fact that Judas was an Apostle), and that if 2 & 3 are true, then 4 is false. That reasoning, as we’ve just seen, is fallacious.
But there’s a second argument, less obviously fallacious. It’s that Scripture sometimes speaks of two groups: the sheep and the goats, the just and the wicked, etc. It’s easy to imagine these two groups as entirely fixed in such a way that someone born into the wrong group could never be saved. If you read only those verses, that’s a completely reasonable reading. But you should also read Ezekiel 18, in which God explains at great length that this isn’t what He means, and that people can enter and leave either group (Ezekiel 18:20-32):
“The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
“But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die.
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
That’s unambiguous. There are the righteous and the wicked, yes; but the wicked can be saved (and God declares that He desires that they be saved!), and the righteous can be condemned. The wicked man who turns back to God is no longer numbered amongst the wicked; the righteous man who rejects God is no longer numbered amongst the righteous. So an argument for limited atonement that starts from the assumption that the just and the wicked are in two eternally-fixed, static groups is beginning the inquiry by rejecting a truth revealed directly by God.
So what arguments for limited atonement does that leave? Honestly, not many. If you don’t believe me, read the rest of the GotQuestions article I linked to above. Most of the arguments for limited atonement aren’t rooted in Scripture at all, but in particular Protestant theology. If their theology is true in teaching that we can’t refuse or reject or lose the salvation that Christ merited for us upon the Cross, then we would have to affirm either limited atonement or universalism. But since we’ve just seen enough Scriptural evidence to reject both limited atonement and universalism (and there’s woefully little to support either idea), the obvious conclusion is that it’s their theology that’s problematic here.
III. On the Will of God
So far, I’ve left off addressing one huge objection: if we say that Christ died for everyone, and that not everyone is saved, aren’t we denying God’s omnipotence? Protestants are absolutely right to be wary of any argument that sounds like (a) salvation is something we win for ourselves, or (b) we can overpower God. But we can’t take those theological truths as an excuse to ignore Biblical truths like that “the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves.”
So how can we hold both? An important distinction needs to be made in the will of God. This distinction will also help to make sense of how we can believe in both predestination and free will. St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) explains:
Also one must bear in mind that God’s original wish was that all should be saved and come to His Kingdom. [1 Timothy 2:4] For it was not for punishment that He formed us but to share in His goodness, inasmuch as He is a good God. But inasmuch as He is a just God, His will is that sinners should suffer punishment.
The first then is called God’s antecedent will and pleasure, and springs from Himself, while the second is called God’s consequent will and permission, and has its origin in us. And the latter is two-fold; one part dealing with matters of guidance and training, and having in view our salvation, and the other being hopeless and leading to our utter punishment, as we said above. And this is the case with actions that are not left in our hands.
But of actions that are in our hands the good ones depend on His antecedent goodwill and pleasure, while the wicked ones depend neither on His antecedent nor on His consequent will, but are a concession to free-will. For that which is the result of compulsion has neither reason nor virtue in it.
To understand this distinction, imagine that you tell a child “if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.” Your desire is that the child will obey you, eat the meat, and be rewarded with pudding. So your will, in an antecedent sense, is that he should get pudding. But if the child refuses to obey you, you’re not going to just give him pudding anyway. Now your will is that he shouldn’t get pudding. But notice: you didn’t actually change your mind, and the child didn’t overpower you (as he would have if he had disobeyed and still received pudding against your will). The whole time, your will was “if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.” And whether he obeys and is rewarded or disobeys and is punished, that remains intact.
The same can be said of God, only instead of “if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding,” it would sound more like Ezekiel 18: “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live.”