In this final post on reforming Calvinism’s doctrine of irresistible grace, I arrive at a burning question—perhaps the burning question—that constitutes for many the deal-breaker when it comes to an evangelical reworking of Reformed soteriology. With its emphasis on the “one-for-all” dynamic of Christ’s person and work (i.e. in Christ all people are represented in his election, incarnation, and atonement), it seems to imply, if not downright demand, the heresy of final universal salvation. Is this indeed the ultimate defeater of the revised form of Calvinism that I have been advocating throughout this series?
I can think of no better response to this question than the one that T.F. Torrance gives in his introduction the Reformed confessions and catechisms in The School of Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp.cxiii-cxvi). Torrance writes (and I quote at length):
If Christ had not come, if the Incarnation had not taken place, and things between man and God had been and are allowed to take their course as a result of man’s estrangement from God and God’s judgement upon man, man would disappear into nothing. It belongs to the nature of sin that it is alienation from God, and therefore that it is alienation from the source of all being in the Creator. There is nothing that the rebel or the sinner wants less than to be laid hold of by God in spite of his sin and be restrained from his sinful movement away from God, but that is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love, and His loving affirmation of His creation, that He refused to let man go the way of his sin, from alienation to alienation, and so ultimately into non-being. The Incarnation means that God Himself condescended to enter into our alienated human existence, to lay hold of it, to bind it in union with Himself; and the consummation of the Incarnation in the death and resurrection means that the Son of God died for all men, and so once and for all constituted men as men upon whom God had poured out His life and love, so that men are for ever laid hold of by God and affirmed in their being as His creatures. They can no more escape from His love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves men for whom Christ has not died. How can God go back upon the death of His dear Son? How can God undo the Incarnation and go back upon Himself? How can God who is Love go back upon the pouring out of His love once and for all and so cease to be Himself?
That is the decisive, final thing about the whole Incarnation including the death of Christ, that it affects all men, indeed the whole of creation, for the whole of creation is now put on a new basis with God, the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in pure unending Love. That is why creation still continues in being, and that is why man still exists, for God has not given him up, but on the contrary poured out His love upon him unreservedly once and for ever, decidedly and finally affirming man as His child, eternally confirming the creation as His own handiwork. God does not say Yes, and No, for all that He has done is Yes and Amen in Christ. That applies to every man, whether he will or no. He owes his very being to Christ and belongs to Christ, and in that he belongs to Christ he has his being only from Him and in relation to Him.
All this is not to say that a man may not suffer damnation, for he may in spite of all reject Christ and refuse God’s grace. How that is possible, we simply cannot understand; that a sinner face to face with the infinite love of God should yet rebel against it and choose to take his own way, isolating himself from that love—that is the bottomless mystery of evil before which we can only stand aghast, the surd which we cannot rationalise, the enigma of Judas. But it happens. Just as it is by the very breath God gives us that we sin against Him, so it is by the very being that a man is given in and through Christ that he may yet turn his back upon Christ and deny Him, and so shatter himself against the love of God that will not let him go just because it does not cease to love. But this does mean that if a man irrevocably chooses the way of his sinful self-will and suffers damnation, he does not and cannot go into non-being, disappearing into annihilation, for the Incarnation and death of Christ cannot be undone. The sinner cannot undo the fact that Christ has gathered him into a relation of being with Him, and has once and for all laid hold of him in His life and death and resurrection.
This may be stated in another way. The sinner cannot isolate himself from God by escaping into an area where God’s love does not love and where he can be left to himself. Even in hell he cannot be left to himself for there he is still apprehended by the fact that God loves, that His love negates all that is not love just by being love, that His love refuses to allow the sinner to escape being loved and therefore resists the sinner’s will to isolate himself from that love. His being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love. This negative decision of God’s love is the wrath of the Lamb, that is to say, the once and for all fact that Christ has died for the sins of the world, the finalising of the love in an eternally decisive deed, which just because it cannot be undone stands irresolutely opposed to all that is not love, or that resists it. Just because the love of God has once and for all drawn all men into the circle of its own loving, it has thereby rejected all that rejects God’s love. It does not reject by ceasing to love but precisely by continuing to love and therein rejecting all that rejects love. Therefore the sinner in hell cannot escape the fact that he is loved, cannot escape into being left to himself, and therefore even in choosing himself so as for ever to be himself, he cannot escape from himself as one loved, so that he is for ever imprisoned in his own refusal of being loved and indeed that is the very hell of it.
Words and thoughts fail us when we try to think like this. We can only stammer for we hardly know what we say, but must we not ask what is the relation of Christ of those who ultimately refuse Him? And since we cannot think it out to the end, if only because the end, the eschaton, is still to come, must we not yet say, that ultimate refusal of Christ cannot undo the fact that the sinner was made brother to Christ by His Incarnation, and bought with the blood of Christ, and in that He died for him and even rose again for him, must we not also say that when he stands before God at the final judgement it is what Christ has done for him that raises him to judgement? Such implications may baffle us until we clap our hands upon our mouth, but whichever way we turn we are still faced with the inescapable fact that the Incarnation and the Cross involve the being of all men, so that they have their humanity only from Him.
This is certainly a dense offering from Torrance, one that alone warrants a book-length treatment to expound all of its underpinnings, nuances, and implications. Nevertheless, I only want to add a couple of comments in conclusion. First, Torrance helps us to see that far from leading to universalism, the universal scope of the incarnation and the atonement is actually the only way to make sense of the stark reality of an eternal hell. Most other explanations either seem to make God out to be cruel and unjust, or they elevate God’s justice to the point of stripping him of his other essential perfections such as mercy, grace, compassion, and love. Torrance’s account, on the other hand, provides a compelling logic for hell’s reality and eternality. It is precisely because God has bound himself to all humanity in virtue of his loving assumption of that humanity in the incarnation of his Son that none can simply slip into non-existence (or be annihilated). The Word became flesh so that this could never happen! Therefore, God could no more permit the dissolution or effect the annihilation of anyone than he could, as Torrance says, undo the incarnation itself. What is more, the atonement that Christ carried out in his state of incarnation (thus implying its universal scope) demonstrates the infinite measure of the love of the God who pledged his very self in death for the sake of humanity. Those who reject this omnipotent love can only, as Torrance states, “shatter themselves” against the love that will not let them go. In rejecting the love of God in Christ, they find themselves on the shadow side of the cross where they are rejected by the love that opposes all that is opposed to it.
Second, Torrance dislodges the mystery of damnation from some mysterious, hidden pretemporal decree and relocates it to its proper place: in the mystery of sin. This is “the enigma of Judas”, an incomprehensible rejection of the love of God that was first displayed in the choice of Adam and Eve to rebel in Eden. There is no satisfying way to explain how or why Adam and Eve rebelled, and likewise there is no satisfying way to explain how or why anyone else would, or will forever, reject the love of God in Christ. Sin is by nature irrational, and thus it is by definition impossible to find a rationale for it. If we could rationally explain sin, then we would empty sin of the very thing that makes it what it is. We can only, as Torrance cautions, “stand aghast” and “clap our hands upon our mouth”. While this will certainly not satisfy those who press for tidy logical systems, it is the only answer that can be given when we peer into the bottomless pit of evil, of what Paul calls in 2 Thessalonians 2 the “mystery of iniquity”. What we must not do is strip the incarnation and the atonement from its full range and power in the attempt to rationalize that which is ultimately irrational.
All this to say, the question of universalism should not stand in the way of reforming Calvinism!