The Folly of Limited Atonement and Universalism

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The Triune God of grace disclosed to us in the Person and work of Jesus Christ is the only Light that shines in the whole cosmos.  Everything else that has the ability to exercise any form of rationality is in darkness.  Yet, the Light of Christ shines in our darkness.  This exposes the folly of all our thinking.  It is the central understanding of the ancient church that, generally, the knowledge of God must come from God. This is what has happened in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is God who is the only One qualified to speak things of Himself to us.  God who comes to us as this human being can bring the intimate internal dialogue of the Father and the Son and make it known to us.  He gives to us the inside take on what is going on in the life of the Triune God.  No one else can do this. If we are to know God, then we come to Him on an equal footing with our fellow brothers and sisters, all sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and learn from God who speaks on His own behalf.

When we come into the truth of God as Triune, everything changes.  Yet, for some there might be difficulty in letting go, especially if we hold onto some institutional values.  Even they must come under the scrutiny of the watchful eye of the hermeneutic of Jesus Christ.  All too often, we have structured our systematic theologies on a doctrine of God that has severely neglected the significance of the Incarnation of God who has come to us as the Man Jesus Christ.  Though we might enthusiastically embrace the truth of God as Triune which takes very seriously the Christological framework of all theology and applied theology, letting go of inconsistencies still might be too challenging for some.  If our institutional ethical values and sacraments our bound by the scholastic patterns of thought then our starting point may miss altogether the significance of Jesus Christ.  Scholasticism has its origins in philosophical pagan framework of thought.  If we hang onto the dualistic foundation of our systematic theologies, this will severely impact our endeavour to maintain the primary calling of the church, which is to make disciples of all nations.

On the one hand, those who follow the teaching that would come under the umbrella of limited atonement teach that the will of God is inscrutable and make Him out to be obscure, unknown and someone to be a little scared of.  They make the mistake of prioritising His sovereign will over His sovereign love.  On the other hand, universalists find the question of predestined reprobation abhorrent.  So they tend to take the ‘irresistible grace’ from the Calvinists doctrine and make this the premise for all that follows.  What we have here is the thesis and antithesis appealing to the same biblical text but unable to find common ground.  

 As the message of the Triune God takes hold within our communities it falls within in a distinct Western way of processing information.  All Western thought are footnotes to Plato and can be traced through the other significant figures in philosophy such as Aristotle, Newton, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant.  Little do people know that much of the way these people view the world has left its mark on the church and its understanding of theology.  Trinitarian theology has broken free from the shackles of what is fundamentally pagan ways of thinking not at all grounded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. 

Generally speaking, most of modern evangelical theology begin with the premise that God is too holy to look upon sin, human beings cannot tolerate the absolute presence of God, and human beings must be held at an infinite distance from Him.  One of the most famous advocates of this belief was Arius who articulated these ideas at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD.  On the basis of sin defined as separation from God, he concluded Jesus Christ cannot be divine.  He also argued there was a time when Jesus was not.  There was such outrage by the delegates who attended, they covered their ears while he spoke.  He was subsequently condemned as a heretic.  These ideas were never advocated by the ancient church even from the very beginning.  Yet, it has became the ground upon which all modern evangelical theology is built from.  This has led to all sorts of debates surrounding the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that attempts to best explain how he fits in with Arius’s model. 

Arius along with his many contemporaries built a doctrine of God based on the best of human ability, taken to the nth degree and then pasted onto God as an attribute.  God cannot be moved by anything outside of Himself.  He is unable to change.  He does not feel or suffer. It is from his ideas, the concerns with who believes and who does not believe and there ongoing obedience and disobedience respectively determine what is sacred and what is secular.  Ideas of what is sinful and what is holy are carefully calculated to make sure that whatever is sinful maintains this infinite distance from God. Only by confessing our sin, repenting and inviting Jesus into our heart that a bridge between God and us is built.  Those who fail to do this are condemned to an eternity in hell.  This is a heavily Paganised gospel is a far cry from the overall theme of Scripture.

We can see the foundation of this infinite distance between God and humanity is dualistic in its structure.  This structure is brought into the life of the church.  If we do away with this structure then we say there is no dualism.  This of course is true.  There is no divide that separates us from God.  

The mistake some people make is to swing from limited atonement to universalism.  It is first established that everything evangelical theology says about God is wrong.  It is not a question of who is in and who is out as this is a dualistic structure of God.  Instead all are in.  To make this work, one has to restructure an image of God in diametric opposition to the limited atonement image.  Whereas limited atonement will begin with what they believe to be their perceived truth, “If God is too holy to look upon sin . . .”  then universalism will begin with “If God is love . . . “ This mytho-logical muzzle will dictate all that follows.  In universalism, the anthropological definition of love is pasted onto God and all that follows must obey this premise.  In each case, it is decided by people other than God telling God how to be God.

Who has the final say on theology regarding this issue?  Does not Paul say, “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4)? This begs the question as to whether using human logic to bring about the concluding messages of limited atonement and universalism is a reliable means of exegesis of Scripture.  What Paul means is God is the only One who can be true to Himself while all humanity who even attempt to explain God will only misrepresent Him.  God has come to us as this Man Jesus Christ and we should allow Him to clear up all our misconceptions.  As much as we might sincerely offer our bodies as living sacrifices, we must also offer our minds for sacrifice along with our body.  Our mind is corrupted by a way of seeing and knowing that is inherently pagan.   By allowing our minds to be offered with our body as living sacrifices, we can be fully transformed by the renewing of our minds so that our seeing and knowing are transformed and are in sync with what God has revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. (Romans 12:1-2).

This however can take time.  As we gain clearer insight into the framework of thought of the ancient church we realise that Jesus Christ provides us with the knowledge of all the ways and works of God in Himself.  We realise as we navigate by the Light of Christ that we have structured a doctrine of God on a deity who does not even exist except within the terms and condition set down by the pagan world.  Theological libraries are filled with such books that are grounded upon this non-existent “god”.  The subsequent understanding of Christian activity begins with the assumption based upon the impassibility and immutability of God.  This is a pagan God who is not able to suffer or feel pain and cannot change thus stepping around or over the incarnation and undermining its significance.  God makes the ultimate decree for those who will be saved and those who will be condemned in the form of a “yes” or a “no”.  Jesus Christ as the electing God and the One who elects is disregarded leaving us with a fickle somewhat irrational God.  

Why is this such a concern to Trinitarian theology?  If God is not able to change, then we have a real problem with the event of creation and of the Incarnation.  God is always Father, Son and Spirit but He has not always been Creator.  In addition, the act of the Incarnation as well as creation was something new, even for God.  If God is immutable, then how do we explain the event of Creation and the Incarnation? If God is incapable of suffering or experiencing emotion, then how do we explain the humanity of God in Jesus Christ?  If we take seriously the Incarnation, then we are serious about God who has come to us as Man who has assumed into Himself everything it is that makes us human. Jesus Christ still remains Creator and Yahweh in whom all things are held together and consist.

The universalist, on the other hand, has the tendency to turn the pagan “god” from a “yes” and  a “no” God into a “Yes” and defined against the “No.”  They determine this “god” behind the back of Jesus is neither fickle in His nature nor irrational.   It is the logical-isation and causal-isation of the Calvinist’s irresistible grace of God making it the necessary attribute upon which all subsequent theology is built upon.  By the logico-causal method both limited atonement and universalism reach into the unfathomable mystery of God’s love and make it “logically” comprehensible.  For limited atonement apparent distinctions are drawn up between the believer and the unbeliever as well as Christian obedience and disobedience based on how they interpret the eternal decree grounded in the unknown God.  For the universalist, no apparent distinction exists between those who believe and those who do not.  It appears these twin heresies are appealing to the same pagan god who does not exist.  

Once we establish Jesus Christ as the one who is in Himself the whole content of the election of God, then we find a healthy corrective against all forms of mythology that have crept into limited atonement and universalism. These twin heresies are desperate to trace out the logical and causal steps of their order of salvation to conclude in their respective outcomes resulting in a god far removed from the one that  is revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Even to the universalist, the appeal to the irresistible grace of God is the mythological ground upon which their order of salvation is hammered out using causal and logical explanations to force universalism as their outcome.  

As much as limited atonement ignores the work of the incarnation and the cross, universalism paints the non-negotiable “irresistible grace of god” decree onto Jesus Christ and His work, paganising christology and turning it into mythology.  In both cases, the question of the unity of the human and divine natures are distinctly Nestorian.  Limited atonement will rip the divinity from Jesus Christ and make it into something entirely different from God revealed in Him.  God is defined according to anthropological definitions of who god should be and what he should be able to do.

All universalism does is to modify this unknown god beginning with an anthropological definition of love and paint this god onto Jesus Christ.  God has to be made into something that satisfies a human self-understanding of love which is projected back onto Him like an attribute.  The divinity of Jesus Christ is severed from His humanity modified and then sown back together.  This again is precisely what Nestorius tried to do.   Each use Arian/pagan thought processes to state their cases.

This leaves the argument between two points of view like limited atonement and universalism at a standoff.  If one follows each argument purely from point of view of a logical process, then we can see why each side have concluded in their respective outcomes.   If one wants god to fit into their idea of the one who elects some to salvation and some to perdition by either God’s choice or foreknowledge, or by God’s irresistible grace or their own free will, then they will side with those who follow the limited atonement argument.  If one wants god to fit into their own understanding of love and irresistible grace, then they will follow the universalism argument. 

Humility is the beginning of understanding all the ways and works of God.  It is by first stating that we do not know God as God knows God.  For God to be known, then God must disclose Himself to us. Then in disclosing Himself to us, He must make Himself understood in such a way that is comprehensible and intelligible.  When we acknowledge that God has made Himself known in precisely this way in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, then we confess our sin is that in the futility of our own minds, we do not know God as God knows God.  We confess that all our preconceived ideas of God are wrong.  We confess that we are in no position to tell God how to be God.  What we can do though is to testify to what is disclosed by God as the Man Jesus Christ doing full justice to His humanity and divinity as understood in the proper sense of His Jewish heritage.  When God speaks His mind, then it is our minds that must conform.  in Jesus Christ, God actually speaks His human mind making our mind totally compatible with His mind.  It is distinguishing between knowledge from out of Light and knowledge from out of darkness.  Darkness has no knowledge of the Light.  The only One who truly walks in the Light is the Light Himself who is the Person of Jesus Christ.  All others are in darkness and therefore need to be enlightened.

In Jesus Christ we see the eternal election of God acted out in His Person and work.  It is God’s self-disclosure on His own terms regardless of what we think.  Jesus Christ comes to us as the exact representation of the Father’s being showing us precisely what God is like.  We hold the holy action of Jesus Christ in consubstantial relation with the gracious and loving kind heart of the holy Father together.  Here we see the mystery of God’s love disclosed in the holiness of His person and work in Jesus Christ in the most unconditional way that is beyond our ability to fathom.  In addition, God coming to us in this way was never anticipated and was never known to be as close to us as it is in the humanity of Jesus Christ.  Upon Him is the ground upon which all is real making His reality deeply embedded within our human being. In Him, we really know God.  

Yet, the vast depths of His love goes beyond the horizon of our frail human mind.  The loving kindness of His decision (krisis) is also beyond the horizon of our frail human mind.  To provide certainty in regards to how the blood of Christ is effective on those who do or do not believe is to claim one has reached the core of the love and justice of God and see it in precisely the same way God sees it.  This surely is crossing the line when one tries to turn mystery into some fanciful truth.  Claiming to have such insight is surely heresy.  Why some believe and some do not believe is beyond our capacity to understand.  Why God has gone to such lengths to reach even the most abhorrent and despicable human being is beyond our ability to fathom.  We cannot make logical dot points leading to limited atonement or universalism from this place beyond the horizon of our frail human mind and conclude in one or the other.  Conjecture can never be established as reality no matter how much we appeal to reason.  As T F Torrance would say, “Truth is not invented, it is discovered.”

Therefore, we can only conclude that both limited atonement, which strongly convey in their message the threat of hell, and universalism, which strongly convey in their message the explaining away of hell, are both inventions.  They both lack a truly christological foundation.  To pursue one or the other is working from the same foundation upon which all heresies build from.  They start apart from Jesus Christ from a god structured within the imaginations of mere human minds and take logical steps to their desired conclusions.  In doing so, they have both entered into and claim to see what no one can see.  That is, they claim to see into the ineffable mysteries of His love.  They both claim to share the inside take on the intimacy of the Father and the Son.  We do realise that as far as our frail minds are able to see, we see nothing but the love of the Father through the revelation of the Son.  Their love, however, goes far beyond this.  Trying to fathom beyond this is what both universalism and limited atonement attempt to do.  The love of the Triune God is far too big for us to contain and fully understand.  To try and make sense of it in the way these twin heresies do is to run the risk of misrepresenting the very intrinsic nature of God that is beyond our ability to understand.

All we can know about God, judgment, heaven and hell must begin in the revelation of God who became Man, the Person of Jesus Christ.  Our mission today as we tackle issues of heaven and hell and how one qualifies for one or the other, is to peel away all the Graeco-Roman/Pagan thought from the Judaeo-Christian theological field.  What we are guaranteed is the destiny of every single human being is Jesus Christ who is the Teleos of all.  For those who believe on God’s terms we wait with much anticipation to meet our Lord and our Saviour without veiled eyes and to see ourselves for who we truly are and to see Him for who He truly is.  The beauty of our Triune God will be expressed to the fullest in our new found eternal existence that is beyond our ability to express in mere human words.  This also must contain the possibility a place for those who resist this truth.  What a state to be in!  How this will be, what this will look like and for how long it goes on for is not clear enough to just simply explain it away.  We must not go down the same road as the twin heresies.  Nevertheless, we can cautiously pray that all will come willingly to the source and ground of their existence in such a way that only magnifies the very essence and nature of our Triune God.  This may not agree with our debates.  Yet, it is much safer to let God be God on God’s terms.

Our position is to remain disciplined and to declare what we are able to see and know through the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Playing the same games of semantic gymnastics of limited atonement and universalism are entertaining the same games the heretics have played since the very beginning of the church.  The Gnostics, Docetists, Arians, Sebellius, Nestorius, Apollonarius all played the pagan game of semantic gymnastics to justify their cause to uphold the infinite distance between God and humanity.  If we can maintain this distance, then we are free to modify god that best suits our needs. There are elements of these characteristics of their heresies right throughout both limited atonement and universalism.  For this reason, we regard both limited atonement and universalism as the “twin heresies” and both do not belong within the field of trinitarian theology.