Did Jesus Die for Those Who Were Already in Hell When He Came into the World?
Did Jesus die for those who were already in hell when he came into the world? I think back on how this question disrupted my wrong belief in God’s universal love for all mankind and Christ’s universal atoning death for all people. In other words, it was my last day as an Arminian. If Jesus died for all sins, did he die for the sin of unbelief? Did he die for those who die in unbelief? If you answer, “yes,” then these people would have never gone to hell.
It is awkward when someone says, “I don’t believe in predestination, and I don’t believe in election.” What makes it awkward are the repeated references to these doctrines in Scripture. What they are really saying is, “I don’t believe the Bible.” Election for the Arminian is God the Father using omniscience to see into the future, to find out who will believe in Jesus. He then chooses these future believers. So, in Arminian election, not everyone is saved. This is what separates Arminianism from Universalism.
For the Arminian, Jesus came into the world and died for everyone. Having believed this myself, you can now see why my opening question above was so disturbing to my theology. I had never considered those people in hell prior to Jesus’ first advent. He could not possibly have loved them and died for them. Arminian Jesus makes salvation possible for everyone, except those already in hell.
The Arminian Holy Spirit is still trying to woo unbelievers into becoming believers. He does this through preaching, which is presented as an unbeatable deal, offered to sinners. I always think of a used car salesman in a checkered jacket when I hear someone say, “the offer of the Gospel.”
In truth, preaching is not an offer, with the Spirit hoping for the right decision from some random, depraved sinner. Rather, it is a heralded proclamation of what God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit have done in perfect unity, regarding salvation. It is the work of God for a person to believe in Him who God has sent (Jn 6:29).
Arminianism fractures the Godhead unity in salvation. The Father is looking into the future to save some; yet, Jesus died for everybody. The Holy Spirit is wooing still others. There is nothing exact in Arminian salvation. It is mired with uncertainty. Whereas the Bible declares the sinner’s utter disinterest in God (Rom 3:11), the Arminian preacher is convinced he can persuade the spiritually dead man to make a choice for Jesus. He does this despite the clear teaching that the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14). The fact that no one seeks after God (Rom 3:11), and no one can receive anything spiritual, without first receiving the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:14), together ruins Arminianism. The Arminian Trinity is three divine persons working in three different directions to save three different groups of sinners.
The Bible teaches definite atonement. Definite atonement is simply the alignment of three persons of the divine Godhead in the work of salvation. Stated very simply: first, God the Father chose a group of sinners to be saved; second, Jesus Christ died for this very same group of sinners; and third, the Holy Spirit comes to this exact same group of sinners, to regenerate them. That is it. That is the simple Gospel. It has perfect alignment, and it makes perfect sense. However, it is a message that is commonly despised and rejected by men.
In my article, “Definite Substitutionary Atonement for Elect Jews and Gentiles,” I put emphasis on the fact of real atonement. Jesus really did take away the sins of elect Jews and Gentiles (Jn 1:29), not just create a potential for the removal of sins. There, I also answered the problem question about the meaning of “world” (Gk. kosmos).
I also touched on the common misinterpretation of John 3:16, by showing the nature of God’s specific atonement. Jesus has given Himself for all nations beyond ethnic Israel. God’s love was not just for the Jews, but He so loved sinners chosen from all nations. These are the ones who receive the Holy Spirit, in order to believe in Jesus Christ, and His atoning sacrifice.
When Jesus came to die, it was an exact atonement, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out (Jn 6:37).” God chose a select group of people for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4–5; Rev 13:8; 17:8). Before Creation, God the Father gave this select group of people, who He would create to live at various times and in diverse nations, to His Son.
Jesus came into the world with these people in His mind and on His heart. He knew His people when He met them (ie. Nathanael; Zacchaeus; Simon Peter; etc.). He also knew those who had no love for God in their hearts (Jn 5:42). Judas Iscariot did not belong to Jesus, and Jesus did not die for Judas. The omnipotent grace of God could have stopped Judas in his betrayal of Jesus, but God had made Judas to be the son of perdition. Judas performed his task responsibly. He could not help himself. Judas was fully given to the task, even following through with his own private piñata party.
Jesus Christ is in perfect alignment with God His Father. He only did the will of His Father (Jn 6:38). Note here the context of John 6 is salvation. His mission: Jesus came to save all the people whom the Father had chosen and given to Him. At His birth, it was announced, “You shall call Him, ‘Jesus,’ for He shall save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21).”
“This is the will of Him who sent Me, all He has given me, I will lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day (Jn 6:39),” is Jesus’ own statement of unity, alignment of wills, and definite success for His mission. When Jesus later stated, “I and the Father are one (Jn 10:30),” He was making a claim about wills, not persons. This is demonstrated by the Greek word for “one” being in the neuter gender. Christ secured eternal redemption with a real (Jn 1), specific (Jn 3), and exact atonement (Jn 6).
John 10 is loved by many readers of the Bible. The Good Shepherd is Jesus, and Jesus loves His chosen sheep, given to Him by His Father. He says about this select group, “I lay down my life for the sheep (Jn 10:11, 15).” The reader should note the definite article “the.” This is the language of exclusive atonement. Jesus died for “the” sheep, not for the goats. Jesus is telling the crowd that He knows His sheep, personally, and He calls them by name (Jn 10:3). Jesus was in complete control of His own death (Jn 10:17–18), and He even offered commentary on it for us to understand exactly for whom He was dying.
Today, I will go to the grocery store. I will choose a gallon of milk. I will only pay for that select gallon of milk. Once it is paid for, I own it, and I will carry it home with me. This is a precise economy. My intent is to have milk. I have the currency enabling me to make my purchase. Although I could buy other gallons of milk, the extent of my purchase is limited. In the same way, there is an intimate relationship between the intent and the extent of Christ’s death. It is a particular purchase, but it was entirely successful. In redemption, there are no other buyers. That which was not chosen, was not paid for, and that which was not paid for, was not taken home. It waits for its expiration date, and then it is discarded.
Did Jesus die for those already in hell and who would not come out of hell? Would you purchase rotten milk that has been poured down a drain? Now the reader can join me in saying, “Of course not.” Of His own, He says, “I lay down my life for the sheep (intent + extent),” and Jesus can also say of others, “You are not of my sheep (Jn 10:26).” Later, Jesus taught His disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, than he lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).” So we see Jesus repeatedly telling us for whom He died on the Cross: elect Jews and Gentiles (Jn 1:29; 3:16); His chosen ones (Eph 1:4–5); those born again of the Spirit (Jn 3:18; 1 Pet 1:3)); His people (Mt 1:21); those who believe on His name (Jn 6:29); His sheep (Jn 10:11, 15); His friends (Jn 15:13); His bride (Eph 5:25); and all who had been given to Him by the Father (Jn 6:37, 39; 17:2, 6, 9, 24).
Even the high priest, Caiaphas, who put Jesus on trial, tells us who Jesus died for, “…it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish (Jn 11:50).” He was speaking about the removal of Jesus, the troubler of ethnic Israel. If Jesus would continue, how would Rome feel about Israel? The spiritual significance of the high priest’s prophecy about Jesus’ death was much greater (Jn 11:51). Jesus would die for the elect Jews, but also to, “gather together into one, the children of God, who are scattered abroad (Jn 11:52).” John’s allusion is to the elect Gentile remnant from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9).
One might object, “But didn’t Jesus say, ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself (Jn 12:32).’” In speaking here of His death (Jn 12:33), Jesus could be saying that He would die for all men without exception. This is what the Universalist preaches. Or, Jesus could be saying that He would die without distinction. This means, in His exclusive atonement, He would show no partiality to any particular nation, tribe, or tongue. Jesus died for His chosen people, men and women, from all nations (Rev 5:9). We remember the context of this passage is the approach of the Greeks to Philip. They wanted to see Jesus.
There is one final chapter I wish to explore. In John 17, Jesus prayed His high priestly prayer. He was soon to be arrested. There are four verses that use the same language in this prayer, verses: 2, 6, 9, and 24. John 17:2 reads, “even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.” Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and He gives eternal life to a specific group.
In John 17:6, it reads, “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.” The Father gave a select group of people out of the world to Jesus. Note: Jesus did not say God the Father gave Him all people in the world.
In John 17:9, it reads, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” Jesus refused to pray for the world of the non-elect. He prayed for the chosen group of people God the Father had given Him.
Finally, in John 17:24, it reads, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” Jesus desires for an elect group, not for everyone in the world, to see His glory and to be with Him in heaven.
In summary, we have answered our opening provocative question, negatively, and we have looked at the atonement, positively. We have considered why only those the Father has given to the Son are atoned for on the Cross. If there were a primary reason to believe in the Bible’s clear presentation of definite atonement, then it is the unity of the Godhead. Father, Son, and Spirit have worked in perfect harmony to save the one and the same group of sinners.
All whom the Father gives to the Son are those for whom Christ died. The Father’s motive was love for the Son, and the Son’s motive was love for us. The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Rom 5:5). His desire was for the elect to be kept from evil in this world, to receive eternal life, and to see His glory in heaven.
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
April 18, 2021