Atonement and the Extent of Grace

One of the lectionary texts for the Second Sunday of Easter is 1 John 1:1-2:2. It is a remarkable passage that stresses the experiences of the earliest witnesses to the resurrected Christ. The writer describes the encounter of the Johannine community in this way:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it . . . (1:1-2).


Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.


The relentless physicality of their witness—seeing, hearing, touching—is determined to put to rest any notion that Jesus was not fully human; secessionist teachers apparently emphasize the divine Jesus and deny the significance of his human reality. The text also underscores his exalted status after the resurrection; he is the righteous advocate before God (2:1b).

Further, this epistle proclaims that he “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”(2:2).  This is an interesting affirmation in a letter that seems intent on circumscribing who is in and who is out of the community formed around the Risen Christ.



The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not limited to those, evidently, who adhere to the emerging orthodoxy.  His death holds significance for the whole world, and a general atonement has occurred.  An old Calvinist theological adage is that Jesus only died for the elect; otherwise his death would be in vain if persons did not respond to his self-giving. Unlimited atonement means that God has dealt with the sin problem for all of humanity. How they access this grace, given this construct, is less clear.

Jürgen Moltmann has written: “On Good Friday God offers a general pardon to the whole world.”  This sounds like a God who doesn’t keep a record of who the really bad characters are, which troubles our moral equilibrium. Moltmann goes on to say that God does deal justly with all sinners—including those who believe themselves to be in a different dimension morally from the unrepentant.

In his fine book The Coming of God, he argues for appropriate punitive and restorative consequences for all in the biblical language of heaven and hell. His proposal, however, does not accord the same eternality to hell as to heaven.  That all will be ultimately included in the great harvest of corporate resurrection is the outcome of the work of Good Friday.  Let’s pray he is right.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares theologically formed leaders for varied ministries.

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