Feedback: If Christ Died For Those Who Ultimately Perish, Do Unbelievers Receive Any Benefit From the Atonement?

This week’s feedback:

Question: ‘If Christ died for those who ultimately perish, as Arminians believe, do unbelievers receive any benefit from His death?’

Answer: Quite simply, no.  But such does not militate against the Arminian view of the atonement at all, for the fact that those who ultimately perish do not receive any benefit is not because their (potential) salvation was not provided for by Christ’s death, but is because of their own rejection of said provision.  When we look to three Old Testament foreshadows of Christ, this truth is plainly seen:

The Passover Lamb

The blood of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:6, 21) was provided for all of Israel (Ex. 12:3), without a hint of it being only for an ‘elect’ group within Israel.  But the fact that the blood of the Passover lamb was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it.  The blood became effectual only after it was applied to the door posts (Ex. 12:7, 22); the blood itself didn’t save anyone.  Any Israelite who failed to apply the lamb’s blood to their doorpost would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.

It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the lamb. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

The Serpent in the Wilderness

Because the people of Israel became impatient and complained against God and Moses (Num. 21:4-5), God sent fiery serpents among the people, and the serpents bit the people, so that many people died (Num. 21:6).  When the people acknowledged their sin, they asked Moses to pray to God for them (Num. 21:7). God answered Moses’ prayer, saying,

“‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Num. 21:8-9)

The bronze serpent was a provision for “everyone” and “anyone”. But the fact that the bronze serpent was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it.  The bronze serpent became effectual only after someone looked at it by faith. The serpent itself didn’t save anyone. Anyone who refused to look by faith at the serpent would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the bronze serpent, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.

It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the bronze serpent, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the serpent.  The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

The Cities of Refuge

The cities of refuge were a provision for the manslayer (Num. 35:9-15). Furthermore, it was a provision for any manslayer – the people of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner (Num. 35:15).  But the fact that the cities of refuge were provided for any manslayer did not automatically guarantee that any manslayer would benefit from them.  The city of refuge was only effective as long as the manslayer entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35:26-28).  Any manslayer who refused to either enter in (in the first place), or remain in, the cities of refuge would thus fail to receive any benefit from said cities, in spite of the fact that they could have, as provision was made for them.

It is obvious that even if a manslayer did fail in receiving benefit from the provision of the cities of refuge, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the cities. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.

Jesus Christ

And so it is with Christ, our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), our Serpent in the Wilderness (John 3:14), our City to whom we have fled for refuge (Heb. 6:18). Christ was provided for the whole world (Isa. 53:6, cf. Acts 8:30-35; Jn. 1:7-9; Jn. 3:16-17; Jn. 4:42; Jn. 6:33, 51; Jn. 12:32, 47; Rom. 3:23-24; Rom. 5:6, 15; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 1 Tim. 4:10; Titus 2:11; Heb. 2:9; Heb. 10:10; 1 Jn. 2:2; 1 Jn. 4:14, etc.).  

But the fact that Christ was provided for all does not automatically guarantee that all will be saved. The blood of Christ our Passover Lamb becomes effectual only after it is applied; our Serpent in the wilderness becomes effectual only after we look to Him in faith; our City of Refuge becomes effectual only after we enter into union with, and remain in union with, Him.  Christ’s death itself doesn’t save anyone. And anyone who refuses to apply the blood of Christ, anyone who refuses to look to Him in faith, anyone who refuses to enter into union with Him or remain in union with Him will receive no benefit from His death, in spite of the fact that they could have, as provision was made for them.

The refusal to accept a provision, and thus, any benefit that would have otherwise been obtained, does not militate against the quality of, or the scope of, the provision itself.  So we see that even though those for whom Christ died may yet ultimately perish, and thus, receive no benefit from His death, there is no reason to believe that because such is reality, the atonement must be for the elect and the elect alone.

Refuting Nonsense: Jesus as a Good Man, Teacher, and Prophet, but Not God

Often-times when dialoguing with Atheists and other non-Christians, I have heard it said that Jesus was not God; He was merely a good man, a good teacher, and/or a good prophet.  This line of reasoning is easily refuted though.  All we need to do is ask the non-Christian three simple questions:

1. Do you believe that Jesus is God, yes or no?
2. Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, yes or no?
3. Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, yes or no?

As sure as night follows day, the answer to all three questions will be ‘No.’

Little does the non-Christian realize that he simply cannot affirm on the one hand that Jesus was a good man, good teacher, and good prophet, while on the other hand deny Jesus’ deity, exclusivity, and resurrection.  Here’s why:

» On the one hand, the non-Christian affirms that Jesus was a good man, but on the other hand, he denies that Jesus is God.  Yet Jesus Himself said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” (Jn. 14:9) “I and the Father are one,” (Jn. 10:30) and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life… No one comes to the Father except through me,” (Jn. 14:6) which is a claim to deity, for besides YHWH, there is no Saviour (Isaiah 43:11).

Here the issue becomes apparent: if Jesus was not God, i.e., if He was not who He claimed to be, then He either knew such and yet perpetuated the lie, in which case He was a liar, or He didn’t know who He was, but still claimed to be God, in which case He was a lunatic.  Hence the trilemma: either Jesus was Lord, or He was a liar or lunatic.

The non-Christian has a problem though: liars and lunatics do not qualify as good men.  If the non-Christian wishes to maintain his position of affirming Jesus as a good man, but not God, he has no legs upon which to stand.

» On the one hand, the non-Christian affirms that Jesus was a good teacher, but on the other hand, he denies that Jesus is the only way to salvation.  Yet Jesus Himself taught, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6)

If there is another way to salvation, then Jesus not only failed to teach it, but He also taught the exact opposite.  If what Jesus taught was incorrect (regardless of whether He knew it or not), then He was a false teacher.

The problem: false teachers do not qualify as good teachers.  The non-Christian again has no leg to stand on if he wishes to maintain the position of affirming Jesus as a good teacher, but denying that He is the only way to salvation.

» On the one hand, the non-Christian affirms that Jesus was a good prophet, but on the other hand, he denies that Jesus rose from the dead.  Yet Jesus Himself said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn. 2:19)  We are then told that Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his body.  When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (Jn. 2:21-22)

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then he got it wrong when He prophesied that He would rise after three days.  If Jesus’ prophecy was wrong, then He was a false prophet.

The problem: false prophets do not qualify as good prophets.  The non-Christian again has no leg to stand on if he wishes to maintain the position of affirming Jesus as a good prophet, but denying that He rose from the dead.

To summarize, the non-Christians want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to affirm Jesus as a good man, but also want to affirm that which makes Him either a liar or a lunatic; they want to affirm Jesus as a good teacher, but also want to affirm that what He taught was wrong; they want to affirm Jesus as a good prophet, but also want to affirm that what He prophesied was wrong.

The only way that Jesus can be considered a good man, a good teacher, and a good prophet is to affirm that Jesus was (and is) God, that He is the only way to salvation, and that He did rise from the dead.  If He was a good man, then he was neither a liar nor a lunatic, in which case He is Lord.  If a good teacher, then what He taught about the exclusivity of the Gospel was correct, in which case He is the only way to salvation.  If a good prophet, then His prophecies would likewise have been correct, in which case He did rise from the dead, just as He prophesied.

The non-Christians have a choice before them:

Either abandon this nonsense in which you claim to know who Jesus was, or stop trying to re-invent Jesus; He is who He is, the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”

– C. S. Lewis