Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.
Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement. Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death. He offers an illustration:
Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries. The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled. Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again. The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed. Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it. Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).
Of course, the gift of atonement must be accepted by faith, but the problem with the illustration is that it proves insufficiently analogous when it comes to the day of judgment and to the doctrine of eternal punishment in Scripture (assuming one still holds this doctrine, as Horton and Olson both do). It is not just that those who do not receive Christ experience a negative consequence (i.e., that they do not experience the blessings of salvation) but that they also experience a positive (in the technical sense) consequence (i.e., that they face condemnation and eternal suffering as the wages of their rebellion against God). Thus, a more adequate analogy for unlimited penal substitutionary atonement without universal salvation would require that the government sign off on the pardon, leave it up to those pardoned to return and enjoy the benefits, and then also in the end still actively impose a penalty on such ones (whether it be a fine, time in jail, or something else). In other words, it would involve a reneging on the part of the government, just as, it seems, penal substitutionary atonement for all persons without exception would involve a reneging on the part of God whenever someone who rejects Christ should face divine judgment and be cast into hell.
However, Olson anticipates this sort of response and writes that the same sin can be punished twice:
‘Imagine a person who is fined by a court $1,000 for a misdemeanor and someone else steps in and pays the fine. What if the fined person declines to accept that payment and insists on paying the fine himself or herself? Will the court automatically refund the first $1,000? Probably not. It’s the risk the first person takes in paying a friend’s fine. In such a case, the same punishment would be paid twice. It is not that God exacts the same punishment twice; it is that the sinner who refused the free offer of salvation by default subjects himself or herself to the punishment that has already been suffered for him or her. As noted above, that’s what makes hell so terribly tragic’ (pp. 149-50).
Of course, that anyone should experience hell is unfathomably tragic. Yet the illustration suggests (1) that the person assuming the penalty for another is, though a friend, somewhat haphazardly intervening and (2) that the acceptability of the intervention depends on the perspective of the original offender rather than the judge. However, in Scripture, the acceptability of Christ’s substitutionary death rests with God, not with us, and the person (Christ) serving as the substitute was appointed out of love by the Judge himself to be the representative of those for whom he is the substitute (e.g., Rom. 5:12-21). To sharpen (and at the same time destabilize) the analogy, then, one would have to envision a judge proactively appointing a representative to pay the fine on behalf of the offender, accepting that payment as adequate, and then still permitting (even requiring, if God is actively involved in condemning sin) the offender himself or herself to pay the fine. In brief, the two illustrations, retooled by a second look at some biblical themes, suggest that penal substitutionary atonement without either particular redemption or universal salvation does involve a double punishment on the part of God and therefore does raise significant questions about the righteousness (and wisdom) of God.
Obviously, this is not a full-fledged critique of Arminian atonement theology, but it does hint that proponents of ‘unlimited atonement’ who affirm penal substitutionary atonement and deny universal salvation may have a more difficult task than one might initially think in holding these commitments together.
Thoughts on this?