I observed a lot of dissertation proposals and defenses in the PhD program at TEDS, and this was one of the most frequently asked questions that examiners posed students: “What would falsify your thesis?” In other words, what exactly would it take to disprove your thesis?
It’s a question worth asking for any position you hold.
For example, consider the two most common views on the extent of the atonement:
- General or universal atonement: God intended for Jesus to die for the sins of all humans without exception.
- Definite or limited atonement: God intended for Jesus to die effectually for the sins of only the elect.
What would falsify general atonement? Some proponents say that all it would take is a Bible passage that explicitly says that Jesus died only (key word) for the elect.
What would falsify definite atonement? I suggest that absolute negative language would falsify it (“John Owen’s Argument for Definite Atonement in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ: A Brief Summary and Evaluation,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 14:4 : 75–76, 82 [formatting added]):
Scripture could be more explicit regarding the extent of the atonement.
For example, Scripture distinctly emphasizes the universality of human sinfulness by using language that is more precise and is unequivocally unlimited, extending to all humans without exception. [Endnote: This paragraph reflects a discovery that Phil Gons and I made while we were studying for our doctoral comprehensive exams in July 2005.]
Perhaps the most effective way to communicate this through language is with absolute negatives, which are indisputably clear and unambiguously inclusive.
- For example, “Absalom has struck down all the king’s sons, and not one of them is left” (2 Sam 13:30 NASB).
- [Endnote: Emphasis added. One could find scores of examples like this by searching on the words “not one,” “not even one,” “no one,” or “none.” Cf. Exod 8:31; 9:6; 10:19; Num 11:19; Josh 10:8; 21:44; 23:14; Matt 24:2; Luke 12:6; John 17:12; 18:9; Acts 4:32; Rom 14:7.]
- [See also 2 Sam 17:22.]
Absolute negative language clarifies in order to avoid misunderstanding and emphasizes universality without exception. That is why when God wants to emphasize that every single human without exception is sinful, he expresses it with absolute negatives:
- “There is none righteous, not even one; . . . all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom 3:10, 12 NASB). [Endnote: Emphasis added. Cf. Psa 53:3.]
This language is indisputably unambiguous.
- God could use this type of language with reference to the extent of the atonement, but he does not.
- God has not stressed an unlimited nature of the extent of the atonement like he has the doctrine of sin.
- Scripture could say, “Christ died for x (e.g., “all humans” or “the whole world”); there is not one human for whom Jesus did not die.” That would be a strong case for general atonement.