by Matt Slick
Universal atonement is the teaching within non-Reformed theology which states that Jesus bore the sin of every individual who ever lived, and that he died for that sin on the cross. Therefore, the atonement is universal in that it paid the price of redemption for everyone. The argument used to support universal atonement is found in such verses as John 3:16 which says that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever would believe in him would never perish but have everlasting life." Here, the word world is interpreted to mean every individual who has ever lived. Likewise, 1 John 2:2 states "He is the propitiation not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world." Again, the word world is interpreted to mean every individual who has ever lived.
However, even though Jesus bore the sin of everyone who ever lived, not everyone receives Christ. So, as salvation is a free gift (Romans 6:23), and gifts must be received, those who do not receive the gift do not benefit from the atonement. Therefore, Jesus could atone for everyone who ever lived but it is up to the individual to receive, by faith, that atonement so as to appropriate it to himself.
The extent of the atonement is debated within Christianity. The Reformed camp teaches limited atonement, which is the doctrine that Christ only bore the sins of those whom God had predestined to salvation. Non-Reformed Christians hold to the universal atonement theory.
We should be careful not to pass judgment on debatable issues. This is a debatable issue, and both views (Reformed and non-Reformed) are within orthodoxy. As Romans 14:5 tells us, each person must be convinced in his own mind. This tells us that we ought to study the word of God and make up our own minds regarding this issue. Furthermore, we are not to condemn our Christian brothers and sisters who do not agree with us in this area.