Christology Eschatology

The double intent of the atonement and the nature of hell

An interesting discussion arose in the Facebook group of Rethinking Hell, in regard to my identification of the genuine issues involved in the choice of annihilationism or endless conscious punishment as the biblical teaching concerning hell. (I’ll not mention names, because of the informal nature of FB conversation and the closed membership of the group.)

One commenter doubted that I was right to identify penal substitutionary atonement as a non-issue, because he claimed that I had failed to identify the real challenge which a traditionalist must face from annihilatonism. The real question, this person suggested is “why Jesus as our penal substitute died, even though the risen lost will not.”

I responded with an explanation of why I continued to believe that this is not an issue, since traditionalists can explain why it is that the wicked live forever, even though Christ did not bear their penalty. Here is what I proposed as a plausible traditionalist line of reasoning:

As the second Adam, born in all the “goodness” in which Adam was created, Jesus took the place of fallen Adam, so he experienced both the physical death that came upon the race (“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all” [Rom 5:12]) and the “judgment” that “brought condemnation” (Rom 5:16). As second Adam, hence representative of, or substitute for, the race, Jesus both died and experienced the condemnation of the Father. But he did not stay dead or condemned, he was raised from the dead, and the bodily resurrection of all humankind is one of the universal fruits of Christ’s atoning work. But only those “in Christ,” those who through faith have become children of God and joint heirs with Christ, are also justified (Rom 5:16), a “justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:21). Although everyone rises from the dead, only those who “belong to Christ” are raised into the life of which Christ was first fruit (1 Cor 15:20-21).

[Addendum (13/10/27): In retrospect of this quickly constructed response to the question raised above, I think that it would have been helpful for me to make at least one other point about the breadth of the effectiveness of Christ’s penal substitution. I think that we can reasonably posit that the atoning work of Christ is applied to the sins done in ignorance, with a clear conscience, both for believers and unbelievers. Provided we do what we wanted to do, we are morally responsible for our actions. When we do what is objectively wrong we are objectively guilty. But what God holds us accountable for is subjective guilt, that is, the instances in which we do what we believe to be wrong, even if we are mistaken about that. I have elsewhere suggested that one of the universal benefits of Christ’s atoning death was his expiation relative to the multitude of human sins committed in ignorance, but which entailed objective guilt. In this regard, I suggest an analogy between Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross and the ministry of the high priest in the holy of holies, on the Day of Atonement.]

A different commenter was a bit surprised by my reply to the first, and he wrote:

I’ve always taken the meaning of the second Adam to indicate Christ as the representative/first-fruit/covenant head of the new, redeemed humanity. That’s normally how it is in non-reformed circles, I think, so now I’m curious as to whether the above rendering is more about what unlimited atonement would look like in a much more reformed context.

It was only then that it dawned on me how my move to classic moderate Calvinism, about which I said quite a bit last year on this blog, had informed my description of the effects of Christ’s death for the wicked, as I’ve quoted it above. Here is what I replied to the second commenter:

 I can understand your slight puzzlement here. For decades, I was a high Calvinist, influenced by John Murray, and following John Owen’s reading of the atonement, so I too spoke of Christ only in terms of his being the new covenant head of those in him. I was what is often dubbed a 5 point Calvinist. I believed that Christ died with a single intent, to redeem the elect.

Last year, I became a classic moderate Calvinist, believing that God had various intentions with regard to the work of the Son. I still consider myself a 5 point Calvinist, because I argue that my current position actually better represents the Canons of Dort than does Owenist Calvinism, but I realize that many high Calvinists would now consider me a 4 pointer. As I read the statement of the Remonstrants and the position of Dort, I think that there was actually no substantive difference on what became the L in the in/famous TULIP. Dort very clearly reaffirmed the medieval tradition that Christ’s atoning work was sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect. Much of the English delegation, and some others, were classic moderates, and Dort did a bit of very careful footwork to come up with a statement that everyone could sign.

I think that a classic Arminian could say “Amen” to Dort on the T and L, and Arminius himself only had a “maybe,” not a “no” on the P. The real bone of contention had to do with how the elect are chosen (conditionally or unconditionally), and how the atonement becomes efficient.

Since my paradigm shift (though still within soteric monergism), I have been gradually cashing out this divine double intent with respect to Christ’s work. That is what you heard in my response to [the original questioner]. I am trying to specify how it is that, in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, as the Word made flesh, he represented the whole of humanity while, in a more particular way, being head only of the new covenant people.

[Addendum (13/10/27): For a more complete discussion of Dort’s position in regard to the divine intentions for the atonement, I suggest my analysis of Michael Horton’s discussion of the atonement]

It was only later that the original commenter revealed his high Calvinist understanding of the (single) intent of the atonement. From that perspective, universal resurrection appeared anomalous: the wicked dead live forever, according to traditionalism, but death is the penalty for sin, and Christ was the penal substitute only for the elect, so the resurrection of the wicked is inexplicable.

Since I remain convinced that a plausible explanation for the resurrection of the wicked is possible for traditionalists who believe in penal substitutionary atonement, I still consider it a non-issue in regard to the nature of hell. What I find myself wondering now, however, is how I would have responded in my high Calvinist days. I have gotten so used to understanding God’s intentions in the atonement as including both elements of sufficiency and of efficiency, thereby binging some benefits to all of Adam’s descendants, that it is hard for me now to construct a plausible explanation for the resurrection of the wicked, from the perspective of single divine intent. It appears that it is easier to affirm traditionalism, for those who have a robust understanding of Dort’s affirmation of the universal sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, than it would be for high Calvinists. That strikes me as a rather surprising proposal, but the interchange today leaves me with that impression. Perhaps some high Calvinist reader can throw other light on this.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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