The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 2, The Atonement and UR

This is the second post of four discussing my talkback with filmmaker Kevin Miller after a viewing of Hellbound?.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I am cross-posting these from my blog as I work back through some of the Q&A Kevin and I hosted, the queries we fielded about UR.

This post is about universal reconciliation in Christ and the atonement.

One of the biggest misconceptions about evangelical universalism is that it 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.

well said.

i like to say that without the death and resurrection of Christ, universalist hope would not be possible…it’s the very thing that makes it possible. God wanted to save everyone, and this was the way to do it. it seems pretty clear to me, too.

Dr. Beck,

I follow what you wrote, and agree in principle. What do you say if the person’s next question is “Do you believe in penal substitution”?.



I’d ask “Do you believe in penal substitution”? If yes, then penal substitution is necessary for UR. If not, then it’s not.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I don’t really believe in penal substitution but I don’t have a clear alterative that I can articulate yet. (I’m excited to read Darren Snyder Belousek’s Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church.) With penal substitution I clearly understand how, in that framework, Christ’s work on the cross was “necessary”. Though I’m drawn towards other models, I don’t yet see how his atonement is necessary in these. I suppose some sort of Barthian? atonement model where ontologically we must unite with Christ both in the death of our old selves and then rise in union with him in the resurrection. I suppose that could be somewhat necessary.

So just some muddled thoughts, but I’m hoping to talk with my pastor this fall, and I’ve already anticipated his response being negative and me saying that one can still hold to PSA and be universalist (though logically would that be an ultra-universalism as opposed to a purgatorial universalist?). And so if he asks me what I think about the work of the cross, and I’m advocating universalism and a non-psa model, that’s a double whammy against me.



I can relate to your struggle. Lots of people are wrestling with the various atonement models. The only thing I’d say is that UR is relatively unaffected by those debates. As I tried to show above, even the most conservative view of the atonement is compatible with UR. Alternative views of the atonement are even easier to reconcile.

As for your pastor, if he can’t see how PSA and UR are easily reconciled then I’d say he’s not thinking clearly, likely because he’s reacting emotionally rather than rationally. That’s not surprising, but it is unfortunate.


If I may be so bold, you might find Dr Beck’s blogpost on George MacDonald’s view of the atonement, as articulated in his Unspoken Sermon Justice, helpful: … l-and.html

It’s long, as is the Sermon itself. But it’s a fantastic analysis of a truly fantastic piece of theological writing - surely one of the foundational works for modern Universalism. I’ve just been re-reading it, and one sentence from MacDonald, highlighted by Dr Beck, really leapt out at me: “To believe it (ie substitutionary atonement) is your punishment for being able to believe it.”




Richard, I think you answer their question very well. Thank you.

I am just trying to understand why this objection always comes up - to understand their thinking - there must be some reason that makes them think of this question.

For those who believe in PSA, does their logic go:
1 Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sin so that we wouldn’t need to go to hell.
2 If we don’t accept His offer before we die, then we must pay for our own sin ourselves by suffering in hell forever with never ending punishment.
3 If universalism is true and hell doesn’t last forever then people must be able to pay for their own sin themselves by spending a bit of time in hell.
4 If people can pay for their own sin, then Jesus didn’t have to die?

Is that the way they are thinking, or does their objection spring from something else?

I think it has to do with #2, that what happens at the cross has to be consciously “accepted” by the believer before he or she dies. Since that is not happening in many cases (there are people who die without confessing Christ) and yet UR believes these persons will eventually get to heaven it is assumed that the cross is being negated, set aside. But the necessity of the cross isn’t the real issue. The real issue is if God’s salvific work continues postmortem. Because evangelical universalists will cite the universal and postmortem confession of Christ in Philippians 2.10.

Could it also be that for #2 that the only reason the period in hell is NOT never-ending is because everyone will eventually reach the end of themselves and accept the sacrifice? Under the purgatorial PSA model, i mean…So hell “could” be everlasting, in theory…but it won’t be, because God is too persuasive for that, thus one day EVERYONE will believe, and the last enemy (Death) can be destroyed (especially if the 2nd Death is what Paul meant by that).
I’m sure there are problems with that explanation, however… :laughing:

Interesting views all. But I don’t think there is any logic at all to this common objection to Universalism. I think Dr Beck is correct in saying that it is basically lazy, almost knee-jerk thinking - or more accurately lack of thinking. You’ve hit the nail on the head, James - “without the death and resurrection of Christ, universalist hope would not be possible…it’s the very thing that makes it possible. God wanted to save everyone, and this was the way to do it”.

Now I ponder it, I do wonder whether or not a lot of infernalists’ opposition to UR is actually a purely emotional reaction - a ‘gut feeling’ that bad, unrepentant people ought to end up suffering in hell forever (coupled with an inherited, completely non-Biblical belief that post mortem salvation is impossible). The irony, of course, is that one of the grounds on which infernalists object to UR is that it is based on emotion and sentiment!

I agree that it’s probably mostly not thinking much at all. But I do understand the objection that if people don’t suffer in hell forever, if everyone is saved even if they didn’t confess Christ in this life, then why did Jesus have to die?

Because in the view of the questioner, the sinner who dies without Christ CAN pay for his/her sins if hell is temporary. In their mind, the fact that the person “gets out of hell” in this view implies that s/he paid the penalty that we can never pay. I didn’t think about this myself until after I was in too far to turn around (into UR, I mean). It was at that point I started studying alternative views of the atonement. The typical Evangelical in the USA is told that our sins will be forgiven IF we confess and believe in Jesus and repent from our sins. If we don’t, then the sins aren’t forgiven, and after we die, it’s just flat too late. This point is emphasized very, very strongly. So the knee-jerk response is to assume that since sins can’t be forgiven after death, the sinner must be paying the penalty for the sins successfully all by himself – if he is released from hell, that must mean he’s atoned for his own sins, as he’s already passed the time when Jesus’ death would have worked for him.

Yes, it’s convoluted and no the logic doesn’t work. But there’s a huge disconnect here as the searcher encounters massive paradigm shifts. Things are bound to get a bit chaotic until all the bits slot into their (we hope) appropriate places. In the end, you see how much BETTER UR accounts for the whole witness of scripture. Suddenly all that “dynamic tension” we were told we have to live with as Christians just . . . isn’t there. Suddenly it all works. That was a HUGE ah ha! moment for me. Wow! All those paradoxes (calling them contradictions is not, um, encouraged) . . . gone. It all works; it all makes sense. It was an amazing feeling. A lot of it was thanks to you all and your great answers to my questions. Thanks!

Thanks Richard, James, Johnny and Cindy for your helpful comments.

I agree Cindy that there is a “massive paradigm shift” because it is so often emphasised that “after we die, it’s just flat too late”.

I agree Richard that “the real issue is if God’s salvific work continues postmortem”. This seems so difficult for some to get their minds around.

Like many of you, I have close friends and family who are lovely Christians and yet infernalists. I need patience to be understanding of their difficulty, and keep praying and trusting that God will open their minds to be able to appreciate his never failing love.

Hi again Richard:

It’s come as a tough pill to swallow, but I do recognize that UR and Penal Sub models of the Atonement (I really have serious problems with the PS model!!!) are completely compatible. It was our own James Goetz who first made me see this. (thanks James!)

To the accusation that UR dismisses the Atonement, well, that is a very serious charge…
It’s a bit strange that to say since Penal Substitution fails (badly) to encompass the full import and meaning of the Atonement, it must therefore mean that for us, the Atonement is null. As if to say the ONLY thing the Atonement can possibly mean is … penal substitution.

I get pushed to this all the time in my discussions with PS adherents; well Bob, if Penal Substitution is NOT what it’s about, Why DID Jesus have to die?

And unfortunately my answers do not lend themselves to quick and easy cliches and sound-bites. PS has really got me there. Jesus died to pay my penalty. Thank you Jesus; end of story.

But PS fails, and quite badly in my view, when I state that while I’m grateful for God paying my penalty, that is mere treatment of a symptom; for I remain a wretched man and a sinner. Yeah - my sin’s “gone” and “paid for” as it were, but I remain, as I was; a veritable “sin factory”. I need to be changed; transformed; healed. (Plus the whole problem of what kind of God demands the death of an innocent victim?)

Should we be better at articulating exactly what the Atonement means and accomplishes, and how, even while steering clear of PS? Of course we should.

For me, the Atonement is about God doing whatever was necessary to demonstrate – not with talk and claims, but to actually come a prove in the flesh – the truth of His claims. And it is this demonstration of these truths that forms the basis of our return to “one-ness” with Him. And yes, it may take us a while, even a long while, to grasp the depths and relevance of this demonstration (given “for” us) but the truth thus demonstrated serves as foundation for God declaring that the revelation of Himself is complete (and at great “cost” to Himself) through the person of His Son, the Christ.

And this truth is not negotiable or movable. It simply shall stand forever as a monument to God’s willingness to do whatever it takes to pave the way for one-ness with His creation again. In time then, every single mind shall, eventually, see this evidence for what it truly is; nothing less than God’s entry into history itself and His transformation of it all. To His glory…