We know that our immoral acts of sin deserve punishment by a morally perfect God. But if a morally perfect man, such as Christ, were to take that punishment upon Himself in our place, God can substitute the punishment put upon Him for our punishment if we have faith in Him. Theologians call this "atonement". More specifically, we use the term "substitutionary atonement" – Christ is our substitute, receiving the punishment due to us. And because Christ received that punishment due to us, the price is paid and we no longer have to pay it ourselves. But if Christ paid the price for all people, then how could anyone go to hell? The person that goes to hell would be paying the price for their sins a second time, since they were already paid for on the cross. That would not be just. Since the Bible clearly teaches that there will be people who go to hell, some theologians suggest that Christ did not pay for the sins of those people who will go to hell. We call this the doctrine of Limited Atonement; that Christ only suffered and paid the price for the sins of God's “elect” – those who would come to have saving faith in Christ.
This argument seems very compelling and logically sound. Nevertheless, the Bible doesn't seem to support this view! And for that reason I must reject it. I believe, rather, that the Bible supports what is called "Unlimited Atonement". That is, that Christ did pay the price for every individual's sins. (It is not limited to the elect only.) The Bible says, for example:
“He is the propitiation [or atonement] for our sins, and not for ours only [John writes to Christians] but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2).
We read elsewhere...
“Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6).
And in 2 Peter, Peter speaks of certain men who are destined for hell because they are “denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)
But if Unlimited Atonement is true, how do we deal with the difficulty posed at the start of this post? Namely that if Christ atoned for the sins of all mankind, how can anyone be sent to hell? People will be sent to hell for rejecting Christ, and therefore rejecting the atonement provided for their sins. The Bible says that all will be judged according to the things they have done; there is no “favouritism” with God. But if you have faith, God will count the righteousness of Christ as though it were your own. Why? Because you believed and trusted God that He would do that. (That's faith.) I think I'll talk more about “Why faith?” tomorrow.
The fact that the atonement is “Unlimited” means that it is available for all people. But it is only applied by faith. It is a matter of God's justice to reward faith. But the "availability" of faith will come to an end for each of us. The Bible clearly states:
It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
When we die, there is no more opportunity to receive faith. We are all judged for the things we have done, and nobody will be found innocent. Even those who have never heard of Christ cannot deny that they've done things which they knew were wrong, and they will be judged for what they have done. And the faithful will be judged for what their faith has enabled them to do.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)