This past spring was one of the wettest on record. That might be why we had tons of flies around the house. As the kids ran in and out of the house, flies would get in, so we set an electric bug zapper on a kitchen counter to deal with the problem.
One day, my youngest child became enamored with the zapper, which pulsated with a pretty purple light. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her little finger slowly move to touch it.
“Scout, don’t touch that—it’ll hurt!”
She snapped her hand back. But when I turned around, her little finger inched towards that purple light again.
“Honey, if you touch the light, it’ll zap you, and that will hurt. Don’t do it!”
But Scout couldn’t resist and there was a loud “zap!” followed by shrieking. Now, don’t worry, Scout was more surprised than hurt. But she’s never touched the bug zapper again!
As I see it, there were two theologically significant issues in that incident—
First, Scout’s disobedience.
Second, her getting zapped.
First, where her disobedience was concerned, I knew what Scout was going to do, and I forgave her for not listening to me. But did my forgiveness mean she wouldn’t get zapped? Of course not. Getting shocked is the natural consequence of touching a bug zapper, whether you’re forgiven or not.
I was thinking of that when I recently re-read John Owen’s famous conundrum. Owen tried to demonstrate the logical necessity of the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement. Here is what he wrote:
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for,
1. either all the sins of all men,
2. or all the sins of some men,
3. or some sins of all men.
If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God entered into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: “If the LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?” (Ps 130:3). We might all go to cast all that we have “to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty” (Isa 2:20, 21).
If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.
If the first, why then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.”
But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?
If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.
Let them choose which part they will.
Should we all throw in the towel and become Calvinists?
Not so fast.
Owen makes two enormous assumptions, neither of which I accept.
First, Owen assumes the benefits of the cross come as a package. In other words, he assumes that if Jesus suffers the punishment of your sins, He must also automatically give you eternal salvation. If you have one benefit, you must have them all.
Second, Owen assumes the only reason anyone goes to the Lake of Fire is due to punishment for unpardoned sin.
Are those safe assumptions?
I don’t think so. Let me explain why.
First, Owen thinks that if Christ was punished for your sin you must automatically get eternal life because the benefits come as a package. But here’s a different theory—what if the cross has different benefits, for different people, under different conditions? (see here and here and here and here). (I am toying with calling that the “manifold atonement” view).
For example, what if your legal problem and your life problem are two different issues, requiring two different solutions? I was reading about a man who was executed for a crime he did not commit. Years later, he was exonerated by the State. His legal problem was solved, but what about his life problem? Sadly, he was still dead. Likewise, what if Jesus can take away the sins of the world in a legal sense (John 1:29), but only give eternal life to believers (John 3:16)? In that case, Jesus can die for the sins of all men, and yet not necessarily give eternal life to all men.
Second, Owen assumes the Lake of Fire is judicial punishment for unforgiven sin. But is that a safe assumption? What else could explain people going there? Well, think of Scout and the bug zapper. What if the Lake of Fire is not judicial punishment, but a natural consequence of lacking eternal life? Did Scout get shocked because I was punishing her for disobeying me? No. In fact, I had forgiven her. The reason she got shocked is because that’s what happens when you touch an electrified bug zapper. It’s the natural consequence, not the legal one.
Zane Hodges used the illustration of a drug dealer suffering the natural vs the judicial consequence of his crimes:
Here is a man who has long been a drug dealer. One day, in a drug war he is shot and killed. This is clearly a consequence of his drug–dealing ways. But it is a natural consequence in the sense that circumstances led to it. On the other hand, he might be arrested and sentenced to death for murdering another dealer. When he is executed, he is suffering the judicial consequences of his drug dealing (p. 40, see here).
Could that explain the true nature of the Lake of Fire? Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, hence, no one goes to the Lake of Fire because he is being punished for owing a sin debt. Instead, maybe people go to the Lake of Fire because that is the natural consequence of lacking eternal life and not being in the Book of Life (Rev 20:15). If you reject eternal life, then you naturally reap eternal separation from God.
So, to answer Owen’s riddle—
I believe Owen’s first option is true, that Jesus died for all the sins of all men. However, only believers get eternal life. And anyone whose name is not found written in the Book of Life will be cast into the Lake of Fire, not because that person is being punished for unpaid sin (such as the sin of unbelief), but because when you lack eternal life, there’s nowhere else to go.