Falsifying Views on the Extent of the Atonement

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:

  1. General or universal atonement: God intended for Jesus to die for the sins of all humans without exception.
  2. 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 [2010]: 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.


  1. says

    Andy, from what you have written, I understand that there is no “absolute negative” type of statement in Scripture that falsifies the definite atonement view. Do you believe there is a statement in the Bible that falsifies the general atonement view?

  2. says

    Very good, Andy. You could append to that the contraries — that is, God does not unambiguously employ such emphatically universal language regarding the atonement, but He does frequently use specific language — Christ dying for “us,” for “My friends,” for “the church”; and couple that with considerations such as the fact that Christ expressly excludes the world from His high priestly prayer (Jn. 17:9).

  3. says

    I’m not sure I agree. You can hold together the following claims:

    1. There’s a sense in which Christ died for all.
    2. There’s a sense in which Christ died only for the elect.

    In fact, this is what I believe scripture teaches, and this is also what I believe the classic doctrine of limited/definite/particular atonement holds.

    The problem with your falsifiability test, it seems to me, is that you can express an absolute negative of those not covered by the atonement when speaking in the first sense, all the while holding to a particular application only to the elect in the second sense. So I’m not sure such a statement would require denying particular atonement. It just requires affirming general atonement in some sense. I think the context would have to make it clear that it’s talking in the first sense to falsify it, or else it would have to say pretty explicitly that there’s no way in which the atonement applies to everyone. I’m not sure the biblical authors had such precise concepts in their minds to be able to do so, but I’m sure God could have inspired them to think in such terms and thus to say so if such a doctrine were (a) true and (b) important enough for us to have explicit teaching of scripture on it.

  4. says

    I can give you two reasons: (1) because it’s so prevalent in scripture and (2) because it better captures ordinary language use when it comes to matters of possibility and ability

  5. says

    Well, if it’s “prevalent” in Scripture, it should be easy to give five or six unambiguous verses that say Christ made atonement for already-dead lost people, for reprobate people who will never believe and will go to Hell unaffected by said atonement; or that say unambiguously that Jesus died a death that accomplished nothing… except, of course, hypothetically.

    Have at it. Be the first, ever.

  6. says

    Since hypothetical atonement would not be actual atonement, and actual atonement is what accomplishes salvation, I suspect you’re working with a straw man. All hypothetical atonement amounts to is that when scripture speaks of Christ dying for all it means that if they were to believe they would be saved, i.e. if God had elected them then they would have been atoned for. The atonement covers everyone in that sense. It only covers the elect in the actual, salvific sense, but it covers everyone in the sense that the offer is made to them, and if they were to believe (which would require a divine work) then they would be saved. That conditional is vacuously true, and any Reformed person should believe it. It’s actually pretty silly for a Reformed person to deny the hypothetical, since it follows from the traditional notion of unconditional election. It amazes me that anyone in the general Reformed camp (as opposed to hard-determinist hyper-Calvinism, which people like Calvin and Edwards unambiguously rejected) should have a problem with this.

  7. Caleb Gallifant says

    Hey Andy,

    I know you probably had this in the back of your mind as you wrote the post; nevertheless, I’d still like to see how you’d interact with 1 John 2:2 (He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world).

  8. Lee Garcia says

    I John 2:2 is really the key verse for all this. That verse says that Christ indeed died for “our sins” (the elect), but not only for the elect but also for the whole world. Although it also implies that the atonement is made special only to the elect. While Christ’s atonement’s scope is for all (universal); it is only made effective for the elect.

    Scope–for all
    Effectiveness–for elect only

  9. says

    Interesting approach, Lee. You assume “our” means the elect as opposed to non-elect, assume “world” means non-elect as opposed to elect, and then assume that “is the propitiation for” means “is only the actual propitiation for the elect but is also a hypothetical and ineffective propitiation for the non-elect.”

    Mercy, that’s a lot of assumptions.

    Yeah, as I observed, this verse is a MASSIVE problem for views other than particular (effectual) redemption.

  10. Lee Garcia says

    What do you think that verse is saying? Why the contrast “but not for ours only”? I would love to hear what you think and make me understanding things clearer.

    What do you think, Andy?

  11. says

    I’m happy to share my view at some point (I wrote a short paper on it almost a decade ago). But now is not the time, and here is not the place. The point of my blog post was merely to introduce the concept of falsifiability w.r.t. this debated (and unfortunately sometimes contentious) issue.

    Have at it, Dan.

  12. says

    First, I see no exegetical grounds for multiplying senses of “propitiation” in one verse. That is sheerly motivated polemically, not exegetically. Whatever Christ is for “our sins,” He also is for “those of the whole world.” So if Jesus is the sacrifice that absorbs and deflects God’s wrath for our sins, then He is the sacrifice that absorbs and deflects God’s wrath for the sins of the whole world.

    Therefore, if “our” is “the elect’s,” and “the whole world” is “the reprobate,” then you’re saying Jesus deals with God’s wrath for absolutely everyone, including those already dead and without hope suffering under God’s wrath (hel-lo?), including Judas, including the Beast, and all.

    In other words, you must affirm universal salvation. It’s just exegesis.

    Or you could let the text say what it says, study the many senses in which (again, hel-lo?) John himself uses “world” (as John Owen did, excellently, centuries ago), and see it as conceptually parallel to John 12:49-52, and take the words in their natural sense.

    So, to paraphrase: Jesus is the effectual sacrifice that actually deals with God’s just wrath for our sins. And not ours only. He is not a local deity, like Baal or others. He is not merely the savior of the Jews, nor merely of Christians in Ephesus. He is the one and only sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world – Jew and Gentile alike.

  13. says

    Andy, a follow-up to my previous question. Thought experiment: are there any other types of statements that would falsify the general atonement than what you suggested in the post? And then, more generally, what do you suggest if neither of two opposing views can be clearly falsified? Are we dealing with an argument from silence that gives us no progress? Perhaps a third view is the correct view? Or perhaps one of the opposing views is correct from the positive teaching of Scripture?

    • says

      Good questions, Matt. Once again, the point of this blog post is merely to introduce the concept of falsifiability w.r.t. this issue. I don’t have time here to unpack the many implications.

      This is a good illustration of an issue that involves a full-orbed theological method. It’s not as simple as quoting a few verses. It requires rigorous exegesis, BT, HT, ST, and PT (cf. this article).

      Mark Snoeberger and I are co-editing a book on the issue that should address this issue more fully: Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: Three Views (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, forthcoming—hopefully by Nov. 2013). The essays and responses are by Grant Osborne, Russell Moore, and Carl Trueman.

  14. says

    I checked the John 12:49-52 reference. Chapter 12 only goes to verse 50. I’ve checked all the variants and there are none that extend the chapter. Also, could you enlighten me about the conceptual parallel?

    My Greek Text reads: 49 ὅτι ἐγὼ ἐξ ἐμαυτοῦ οὐκ ἐλάλησα, ἀλλ’ ὁ πέμψας με πατὴρ αὐτός μοι ἐντολὴν δέδωκεν τί εἴπω καὶ τί λαλήσω. 50 καὶ οἶδα ὅτι ἡ ἐντολὴ αὐτοῦ ζωὴ αἰώνιός ἐστιν. ἃ οὖν ἐγὼ λαλῶ, καθὼς εἴρηκέν μοι ὁ πατήρ, οὕτως λαλῶ.

    The Greek text of 1 John 2:2 reads: καὶ αὐτὸς ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν, οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων δὲ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσμου.

    Do you mean that the parallel is the syntax of the strong adversative αλλα? Or is there some other concept that I’m missing? Perhaps in the two verses you referred to that are missing from the UBS 4? I don’t have my Nestle Aland on me.

    It seems that the best exegesis of the passage relies upon the lexical, rhetorical, and syntactical data in the Greek text. I’m having a hard time finding your “hypothetical/effectual” distinctions in any of the lexicons. Is there some linguistic nuance I’m unfamiliar with.

    Also, I’ve never seen the word “exegesis” refer to the unpleasant possible inferences one might make from a passage. I’m referring to “In other words, you must affirm universal salvation. It’s just exegesis.”

    It would seem that if John’s rhetorical function is to give adequate grounds for trusting God’s desire to forgive those who confess their sins, he would refer to the fact that Jesus died for all. In other words, he is a competent mediator/advocate for those who confess their sins precisely because he died for all (whatever you take that to mean), not just those hearing the letter read. So, God’s desire to put forth a propitiation is why he can be a benefactor to those who confess their sins. I’m not sure that the Jew/Gentile distinction is what’s being referred to at all.

  15. says

    It’s simply a persistent mis-remembering on my part. I keep remembering it as being in chapter twelve, it keeps actually being in chapter eleven. The verses are correct.

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