T.U.L.I.P. – The Doctrines of Grace
Jesus Died for Aliens on Planet Zeno
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Hopefully, you are chuckling. The title of this short excerpt was birthed out of a spontaneous meditation on the nature and design of the atonement of Jesus Christ. There is a reason this excerpt is titled this way. I’ll explain momentarily. Let me first, though, make a couple of important notations. Some people believe, dabbling with a bit of Amyraldian speculation, that Jesus’ death is “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect.” This has become a widely used catch phrase in certain theological disciplines. Really, though, it has emerged as a reaction to historical theological errors. Amyraldius attempted to fuse together the Arminian tenant that Christ died for all, while holding to part of the Calvinistic tenant that Christ died only for the elect. These are, theologically and biblically speaking, mutually exclusive. The twain shall never meet if taken at face value in each of those two respective systematic theological packages. The Synod of Dordt, though, changed this distinction and has blurred some of the lines to a certain extent. This is unfortunate, and many have used their catch phrase as a license for speculation.
In trying to relay information to the public at large as gracious as possible, the Synod of Dordt, one of the most respected councils in the history of the church, said this: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” The last part of this sentence was a reaction to a problem in association with the Amyraldian sentiment which was purported by the Arminian Remonstrant. Personally, I do not like the phrase. When they say, “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value,” I am in agreement wholeheartedly. When they say that the atonement is “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,” I take issue with this. There are certain reasons why.
It is biblically true that Christ’s life and death did not remove all men’s sins. It is biblically true that He did remove all the sins of all the men He died for. Using Dr. John Owen’s thoughtful response to Arminianism on the atonement, as the maxim goes:
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for either:
1) All of the sins of all men – which means all men are saved.
2) Some of the sins of all men – which means men are still in their sins.
3) All of the sin of some men – which is the biblical position.
Some desire to purport that Christ’s death could have been efficacious for all, but that it was intended for His elect. And this seems to follow suit with the Synod of Dordt. What these, and Dordt, were expressing is the constituted nature of the value of the atonement. Jesus Christ’s atonement for sin was of infinite worth. If God desired, He could have saved everyone, and the same atonement that saved His elect, could have saved a million billion worlds – hypothetically speaking of course. But here is the rub; the Scriptures never speak hypothetically in this way – ever. Instead, they always speak of what Christ did do and what Christ accomplished. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Romans 5:6, “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is what Christ did. A pondering god on what “might have been” or what “might be” is not a all-sovereign, and all knowledge God. God speak in terms of reality, not possibility. He operates in the real of the actual, not the realm of “what if?”
When dealing with what Christ’s death “did do” for “non-believers” many purport to stretch out and apply concepts of common grace to them saying that the atonement affects them in a positive manner according to God’s desire and intent. This often appears when trying to rightly manage hard concepts about the “will of God,” and one can get into very tricky theological ideas rather quickly when misconstruing these things. I would direct the reader to my Ph.D. thesis The Two Wills of God that covers the issue on this in depth. I am unable to go into all of the problems to this now, but suffice it to say that Christ’s death did not affect the reprobate in a positive manner, except that they positively glorify God according to God’s intention under His wrath. I cannot believe, though, that somehow, in whatever way one would like, that the atonement of Jesus Christ is going to make hell more tolerable for non-believers in any way shape or form – I would never consider such a thing “positive.” As a matter of fact, I would lean further in the other direction that the universal application of the atonement is only “applicable” in the sense that it renders those with more light about the Gospel more inexcusable and thus, as Edwards stated, “prepares ‘em for the pit,” or heats hell hotter for them. There is no doubt that the atonement of Jesus Christ has had profound positive affects on the world at large in terms of a great many luxuries that are outwardly discernable for the elect to admire. But for the non-elect, such things tend their greater destruction under God’s judgment, not their temporal or eternal good. In this way I do not think that the atonement has a positive affect for non-believers. As a matter of fact, Christ Himself renders this verdict: John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The Apostle Paul says that reprobate people exist, “as always to fill up the measure of their sins” (1 Thessalonians 2:16). In this way, the disparity of their non-election demonstrates the intention and desire of God for them salvifically. And in their wickedness, they heat hell hotter for themselves. This is dreadful to say the least. But it does not render the purpose of the atonement as ineffectual to its end – to save only the elect – or its intention – to atone for only the elect.
To place, then, the atonement of the Lord of glory into the realm of possibility is a theological mistake. To speculate about the nature of the atonement, or what the atonement could have done, is a mistake. To say that the atonement of Jesus is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” is to say the same thing as the crazy statement – the atonement of Jesus Christ is “sufficient to save aliens on planet Zeno, efficient for the elect,” or any other wild construction you would like to place in the beginning of the statement. It remains completely and utterly hypothetical, which is, in fact, meaningless. Meaningless propositions are those that have no weight or no reality to them, and do not press orthodox theology forward to become more defined and helpful. Instead, they confuse people, and confuse good theology. If one wants to say “I mean that the atonement is infinite”, then that is simply a reiteration of the “infinite worth” that the Synod of Dordt previously stated. With that phrase I am very much in agreement. Why? Let me explain.
To say that the atonement is of infinite value or worth is to correctly describe it biblically speaking. I agree with that sentiment because of the design and nature of what the atonement had to be to redeem an elect number of people for their sin. You may say, “I don’t understand – why does the atonement of Jesus Christ have to be infinite to atone for a limited number of sins that a limited number of people committed, even in Adam?” Even though this is a good theological question posed by someone trying to work through some tough theological ideas, it is still ill-qualified as a question in this case because it is really wrong thinking. It is reversed thinking. The atonement of Jesus Christ is of infinite worth, and must be of infinite worth, because it is a propitiation and expiation of the elect’s sin before the infinite holiness of an infinitely holy God. God’s character defines the kind of sin offering that must be given. God is infinitely holy. Men have sinned against an infinitely holy God. The sacrifice, then, of the Mediator that God sends, must be infinitely given – an infinite sacrifice. For this reason alone, the Mediator must be God for only God is infinite. We know, Scripturally, Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Only God could offer up to Himself an infinitely holy sacrifice for sin.
Let’s think practically about this and use “me” as a test case. In my own case the atonement given for my sin alone must be of infinite worth since my sin is realized as an infinite sin against an infinite God. God sees my one sin committed as an infinite transgression of His infinitely holy Law and would be sufficient to send me to hell for all eternity under His infinite wrath. That is one scary thought! When I get angry and sin, that one sin, in and of itself, is of infinite value because it is a sin before a God of infinite holiness. Thus, that one sin must be propitiated and expiated by an infinite sacrifice. Not to mention that Adam’s sin is reckoned to me, but one sin, just one, which I commit, is enough to send me to a hell of infinite duration. No other sacrifice could take away my sin (like the sacrifices of bulls and goats), nor could another kind of sacrifice atone for that one sin. It must be, of necessity, an infinite sacrifice of infinite worth. In regards to the elect, on that note alone, the Mediatorial work of Christ must, of necessity, be of infinite value and worth to save a limited amount of elect individuals because just one of their many sins is an infinite transgression against an infinitely holy God. I hope you followed that.
It would be helpful to define “infinite.” The word is only used twice in the Bible, but is significant. It is a Hebrew idea which means “without number.” Its derivative means “immeasurable.” It is used in Job and in the Psalms. Psalm 147:5 uses the term this way, “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.” Infinite in this Psalm means it is immeasurable or uncontainable. God has no limitations as to knowledge. Job 22:5 uses it this way, “Is not thy wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite?” Here, infinite means “without end.” Continuing to use the word “infinite” in these ways, Christ’s worthiness and sacrificial death is “immeasurable” and “without end.” It is, by its very nature, infinite for my sin, even if it were simply for me alone. In other words, if Jesus only died for Matthew McMahon, and no one else, it would still have to be of infinite worth, not hypothetically, but actually, to atone for my sin. Why? Because the sin I commit is against the one and only God who is infinite and must be infinitely satisfied. God is infinitely angry with every sin that anyone has ever committed. Those in Christ are covered from His anger and are given the righteousness of Christ’s infinitely holy disposition to please God. They are infinitely atoned for by His blood. Those not covered will receive their just reward in the judgment, and in hell. They will suffer for an infinite duration under God’s infinite wrath. Every sin will be punished accordingly – infinitely.
To say the atonement of Jesus Christ is “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect” is really saying only half a truth. The atonement is only sufficient and efficient for the elect. It is sufficient to do exactly what God designed it to do – that is – atone for all the sins of the elect. Could God have decreed something different? Let’s speculate! Sure He could have. He could have decreed that trees grow upside down, that men are born with wings to fly around and live in giant green pea-pods that float in the sky. He could have decreed that all fish breath air, and that the ocean is really made of strawberry jelly. He could have decreed that we see with our nose, smell with our ears, and see with our toes. He could have decreed that the stars are really just pinholes in a large blanket over the earth. He could have decreed that pigs fly, and that the moon is made of cheese. He could have decreed that Christ’s sacrifice could save everyone, including a million billion worlds. He could have decreed that brown cows give chocolate milk. He could have decreed that cats and dogs really fall out of the sky when it rains hard. He could have decreed anything. But He decreed what He did decree. As you can see, to speak otherwise is just to speculate, and speculating can become very weird very quickly. Instead, why not simply follow the biblical directives of what Christ actually did, and what He actually accomplished in His infinite sacrifice which had to be infinite for the infinite sins against an infinitely holy God. And mind you, the Bible never depicts God as the one who speculates in hypothetical possibilities, and thus, neither should we. However, if you impose the necessity to say that Christ’s atonement is “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect” I will have to insist that you view my hypothetical view as equally possible as well – that Christ’s atonement is “sufficient to save aliens on planet Zeno, efficient for the elect.”
 The Canons of Dort, Second Head of Doctrine, The Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby – Articles of Faith, II.3.