In a post in which I explained T.F. Torrance’s contention that the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement implies a heretical Christology, specifically that of Nestorianism. Following Torrance, I argued that a fully orthodox Christology, resting on the twofold concept of anhypostasia (the Word assumed the flesh and nature common to all humanity) and enhypostasia (the Word become a particular human, Jesus of Nazareth), requires us to affirm that what Christ did on the cross he did for everyone who shares the humanity that he assumed in the incarnation, meaning that he made atonement for all people.
Usually one of the first questions (and objections!) that arises in response is this: will then all people be saved and, if not, why? I have heard this rejoinder countless times, and it was once again expressed in a comment on the aforementioned post. From the perspective of a traditional Reformed soteriology, it seems illogical, unless one falls back on the notion of libertarian free will, to affirm universal atonement but deny, as Torrance adamantly does, final universal salvation. If Christ died efficaciously for all, then why are not all saved? I am sympathetic to those who respond this way because it is precisely how I would have reacted myself a few years ago! So I think it would be beneficial to sketch out an answer to this question (which is the purpose of this post), but with the caveat that I can only address, given the constraints of a blog post, one particular part of what could (and perhaps should) be a much longer answer.
I would like to quote a section from the introduction to Torrance’s book Atonement written by his nephew Robert Walker. Walker, who edited the lectures that comprise the book, helpfully summarizes Torrance’s resolution to this seeming conundrum:
The fact that God has become man and that the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a real act of man, means that God has not come half way to humanity as it were, leaving humanity to go the other half, but that he has so come to humanity that in time and in human flesh he has actually completed for humanity their whole salvation. In the humanity of Jesus, the word of God has become truth in the heart of man, the covenant has been fulfilled from the side of God and from the side of man, and the kingdom of God has begun on earth…
It is the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ which makes his entry into times even more decisive and eschatological. If Jesus has acted on behalf of all humanity and completed the salvation of all inside his person, then whether they will or not he has made it a fait accompli and something they are confronted with in his person. If by contrast salvation is simply on offer in his person, then there is a sense in which people can take it or leave it and pass by on the other side. But if Jesus has actually taken the place of each and every single human being before God, and in their place and on their behalf has achieved salvation for them, then they are inescapably involved. The radically substitutionary and representative nature of Jesus’ action for each and every person means that they have been set aside and something has been done in their name. They have been signed up for salvation by the action of God and of man in Christ while they were still enemies. The ground has been taken from under their feet and in the person of Christ they are confronted with their own salvation, inescapably involving them in decision.
If is the fact Jesus is not only God but God acting as man for humanity, and not only as man but as individual man, achieving salvation for us in the reality and individuality of his person and meeting us individually in personal encounter, that involves us in existential decision and in eschatological tension between reality of what-and-who he is for us and what we still are in ourselves. It is the fact that Jesus has done something in our name and in our place for each person individually that means we are inescapably involved in decision as he meets each person individually in personal encounter, in the reality of what he is for us in his love and grace and in his calling us to follow him in faith.
If we pay close attention to what Walker says, we can begin to see why Torrance’s understanding of the atonement, far from logically terminating in universalism, actually grounds the stark reality of eternal damnation and intensifies the evangelistic call to faith and repentance. While this may seem like a paradoxical statement, Walker shows us why it is the necessary correlate to “the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ”. It is only because in Christ a divine decision has been irrevocably made regarding every single human being – a decision not ultimately for damnation but salvation – that every single human being is called to make a decision for Christ. Had Christ not vicariously substituted himself in the place of all humanity, then it would not be true that all humanity bears the responsibility of repenting of sin and trusting in Christ.
Why is this? Because, as Torrance himself reminds us numerous times in his works, the cross was just as much judgment on sin as it was salvation from sin. As Paul affirms in Romans 8:3, God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and thereby “condemned sin in the flesh”. In Christ, God has passed his divine sentence once for all on human sin, pouring out upon it the full measure of his judgment and wrath. It is precisely for this reason, and only for this reason, that Paul, two verses prior (Rom. 8:1), can exclaim that in Christ condemnation for sin now no longer exists. That is to say, the atonement must first pass judgment on sin before it can save from sin. Better still, the atonement must pass judgment on sin in order that it might save from sin.
This, in turn, has significant ramifications for how we construe the relation of the atonement to the final destiny of humanity. If atonement is inextricably bound up with judgment, then, in order to affirm the universality of judgment, we must also affirm the universality of the atonement. If Christ died efficaciously for only a limited number of human beings, then judgment has likewise only been passed on a limited number of human beings. But this would contradict, among other biblical passages, Paul’s exhortation to the Athenians in Acts 17:3o-31:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Notice the logic of Paul’s discourse. Prior to the coming of Christ – “the times of ignorance” – there was a sense in which God “overlooked” the sin of the nations of the world. The coming of Christ, however, changed all that. The coming of Christ means that now God is commanding “all people everywhere to repent” through the preaching of the gospel. What accounts for this change? It is because, as Paul makes clear, God will “judge the world in righteousness” in Jesus Christ, a reality attested publicly by his resurrection from the dead after his shameful execution at the hands of the Romans. In other words, Paul draws a direct correlation between the person and work of Christ, the final judgment, and the necessity laid upon every single human being to repent. Yet this correlation would make little sense if that which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection had been intended to have ultimate validity only for a select number of humanity. It is only because Christ represented and substituted himself for “all people everywhere” that all now stand under the divine judgment manifested in the cross and thus bear the responsibility to obey God’s command to repent and believe. As illustrated by the Athenians’ reaction to Paul’s sermon, not everyone will, however, repent and believe, and for such people there remains nothing but the consummation of that very judgment at the end of the age.
Again, as indicated by Walker’s introduction, this is only one piece of a much longer and more nuanced answer that the question to which it responds requires (involving, among other things, the positive role of the salvation Christ achieved in himself and the implications of his vicarious humanity), but hopefully this much allows to see better why Torrance’s view of universal atonement does not lead to universal salvation. Before it ever means salvation, atonement means judgment. Hence, only universal atonement means universal judgment. Because in Christ all are judged, all are commanded to repent and believe the gospel. Tragically, not all will repent and believe, and thus not all will be saved.
One final point: If we press Torrance as to why not all will repent and believe, he will not respond with the typical answer given by those who hold to an Arminian soteriology (which is one reason why we cannot accuse him of Arminianism!), namely, that such is the result of libertarian free will. Torrance will have nothing of that, precisely because he knows that the will that we suppose is free is merely self-will, a will curved in on itself intent on sinfully usurping the place of God. Free will is a mirage that upon close inspection dissolves into a rebellious will hell-bent on its own destruction. Rather, the refusal to repent and believe can only be attributed to the irrational and absurd nature of sin before which, Torrance says, we can only stand aghast and tremble. Were we able to explain the sin that lies at the root of humanity’s rejection of the gospel, then sin would no longer be sin, for sin is by nature inexplicable. However unsatisfying an answer this may be, it is the only one that can be given in the face of the “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7).
 Robert T. Walker, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. lxvi-lxvii. Emphasis mine.