Unconditional Election and Universal Atonement

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by Roger E. Olson

Contrary to what one respondent claims, classical Calvinism does believe that God’s election of persons to salvation is absolutely unconditional. To say it is not absolutely unconditional because it is based on God’s “good pleasure” does nothing to ease the problem. What causes God’s “good pleasure” to be found in electing one person and not another to salvation? I have read literally scores of classical Calvinist authors on this very subject (from Calvin to Piper) and found no hint of any answer to why God chooses one person and rejects another. The answer is always an appeal to mystery or something like “God has his good reasons” (without any suggestion what they might be), or “according to his good pleasure,” which doesn’t even begin to answer the question. Jonathan Edwards was consistent in admitting it is an arbitrary choice on God’s part. I just wish more contemporary Calvinists would admit that.

I find there to be a great difference between intentionally foreordaining some to hell (which, as Sproul rightly points out is the necessary corollary to foreordination to heaven) and creating persons knowing they will freely choose hell over heaven. The key difference is intentionality toward the person. In classical Calvinism God actually wants the person foreordained to hell to go there “for his glory” (even if, as some Calvinists claim, he does so reluctantly). And he renders it certain.

It does no good to say God loves and blesses the reprobate (as Piper and other contemporary Calvinists say). All that is as much as saying he gives them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in. It would have been better not to have created them in the first place.

Finally, the objection to God’s creation of persons foreknown to reprobate themselves (by resisting God’s grace) is fallacious. God knows they will reprobate themselves because they will reprobate themselves. His foreknowledge of their free choices does not give God a chance to not create them (unless one believes in middle knowledge, which I do not).

Some here have argued that Arminian belief in universal atonement necessarily leads to universalism (i.e., belief that all will be saved). Again, that is simply false. Even Calvin (to say nothing of many later Calvinists) believed the atonement itself does not save. It “secures salvation” for the elect, they say. The elect person for whom Christ died is only saved when he or she meets certain conditions which God provides through regenerating grace (viz., the gifts of repentance and faith).

The argument that hell, combined with universal atonement, would be unjust (because the same person would be punished twice for the same sins) is also fallacious. Think of an analogy. When Jimmy Carter was elected president, he gave blanket amnesty to Vietnam War protesters who had fled the U.S. to Canada and other countries. They were then free to come back to the U.S. without fear of prosecution. But many did not come back.

The universal atonement of Christ secures the potential salvation of everyone. (And, in classical Arminian thought, sets aside the guilt of original sin for everyone.) All a person has to do to receive it is repent and trust in Christ alone (which God enables). But God will not impose his pardon on people. So, yes, a populated hell is tragic because it is so unnecessary (and yet necessary consequently). The atoning death of Christ made it unnecessary. People’s rejection of God’s mercy makes it necessary.