Did Jesus Die for Every Person in the World?
The question of who exactly Jesus died for can be a controversial one, and no matter what your conclusion is on the subject, it holds many deep implications for how we view our own redemption and how we approach evangelism with others. The main thing to consider when we analyze this question is, “What was Christ’s death meant to accomplish?” Some Christians believe when Christ died, He atoned for the sins of all humanity, while others believe it applies only to the elect. There is some support for both in Scripture. But we believe that when studied objectively and in context, Scripture overwhelmingly supports the doctrine that Christ died only for His elect.
This was a new concept to me until a couple years ago. I can’t count how many pastors and evangelists I’ve heard pleading to entire congregations with lines like this: “Jesus Christ died on the cross for every single person in this room, and in doing so He reconciled humanity with God. Won’t you accept Him?” I believed this as well until I started formally studying theology in college. Two major arguments on the issue stood out to me which swayed me in a different direction:
Firstly, if we rightly understand atonement, we inevitably arrive at universalism if we claim Christ has atoned for every person. Think about it: what happened when Christ died on the cross? Many passages in Scripture speak to God’s just wrath against sin, such as Psalm 145:20: “The Lord keeps all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy." Another good sampling of these passages are 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Isaiah 13:11. God cannot possibly treat sin as insignificant or neglect to punish it (Romans 3:5-6).
In light of that, one of the most powerful purposes of Christ’s death was to take this wrath upon Himself, thereby satisfying God’s requirement for justice. He took on the wrath of God in the place of His people: “God displayed [Christ Jesus] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. . . for the demonstration of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-28). God is both “just and the justifier” as a result of the sacrifice of Christ. He is just because He did not ignore sin or brush it under the rug; He fully inflicted His wrath on it. And He is the justifier in that those who will put their faith in Christ receive His righteousness and are thus reconciled with God.
Even according to non-Reformed dictionaries, propitiation means “turning away of wrath by an offering” (Trier, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology). But if Christ fully and finally satisfied the wrath of God against sin when He was crucified, and if He died for every single individual, then God would be going back on Himself if He continued to punish anyone for their sin. It has been paid for, right? This is akin to universalism, and it’s completely anti-biblical. Scripture constantly states that some people will receive redemption and others will die in their sins and be punished (see Matthew 13:40-42).
In the words of John Owen, “I cannot conceive an intention in God that Christ should satisfy His justice for the sin of them that were in hell some thousands of years before, and yet be still resolved to continue their punishment on them to all eternity.” The most biblically and logically consistent conclusion, then, is that the propitiation was offered for the sins of God’s children, who were given to Him before the foundation of the world and who stand justified throughout eternity (Ephesians 1:3-14; John 17:24).
Secondly, by removing the intentionality and specificity of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we cannot help but make it out to be a rather hollow, ineffective endeavor. Jarvis Williams writes for Desiring God:
“The Scripture teaches that Jesus died for all people in the world without distinction - meaning, Jesus died for all kinds of people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. And he died not only to give a bona fide offer of salvation to all, but to actually purchase and effect the final salvation of his elect. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul teaches that Jesus’s death actually achieved the benefits of salvation for those for whom he died. Paul does not present Jesus’s death as hypothetically accomplishing the salvation of all people without exception, but as actually accomplishing salvation for all for whom he died.”
Scripture doesn’t present the sacrifice of Christ as though He simply built a bridge between all of humanity and God and then steps back to see what humanity will do with it. It presents it as though He tears down the barrier with His bare hands, builds a bridge in its place, and then carries His people over the threshold victoriously. Christ was doing something and effecting something and bringing something into actuality when He suffered and died in the place of His people.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” 1 Peter 3:18
He died in order that He would then bring us to God. He. Brings. Us. To. God. This is why the cross of Christ is so incredibly powerful, effective, glorious, and definitive. Christ did not hang on the cross - bloody and battered to the point of deformity - and say, “It is possible.” He said, “It is finished.”
Jessica Hageman is a native to the Appalachian mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, although she now resides in northern Virginia with her husband. She has been a lover of reading since elementary school and a lover of Christ since high school. She is a full time English major, in hopes that her studies will help her more effectively minister to other through written words. Her favorite things in the world are British tea, old books, autumn leaves, dry humor, and rainy weather. Her goal as a writer is to demonstrate how the Gospel, objective truth, and sound theology are not only applicable, but essential, to all aspects of life as a woman, especially in a world that celebrates sin, false doctrine, and self-sufficiency.