When All is not All

Questions regarding the extent of salvation, the effect of the atonement and other things that bring up frequently nasty debates about Calvinism often revolve around “all” passages of Scripture. One advocate cites the Limited Atonement prong of the TULIP acrostic, the other refers to God desiring “all” to be saved. (I, like many, prefer the term “Definite Atonement,” because it conveys the idea that Christ actually accomplished atonement, rather than simply making it possible).

While extended exegesis of biblical terms is not on the horizon for this article (all you Greek geeks check back later…by the way, the term “Greek geeks” throws college stereotypes on their collective head: in college, the “Greeks” were the cool dudes and chicks, whose knowledge of Greek probably ended with the ability to recognize jerseys and determine who the opponent was on the intramural field — I know, but I was one, too) — what a parenthetical! — sometimes simple comparison with other passages of Scripture prevent colloquial and dogmatic interpretation of pet verses.

For example, in Genesis 6:17 God informs Noah, in explaining his marine construction project, that “everything that is on earth shall die.” That’s pretty close to an “all” statement: in fact, most of us would admit that apart from some spurious quibbling over what “everything” is, or what “earth” is, or what “die” means (yes, a few would), that this is about as absolute and inclusive as a statement can get.

Yet just after this, God instructs Noah to prepare a boat not only for him to pilot (steer? drive? ok…ride), but one big enough to handle his family and two of every kind of animal, plus some. As we know from the rest of the story, those on the boat did NOT die.

“Wait a minute, God!” some will say. “You said everything that is on earth will die. What gives?”

What gives is common speech between sentient beings. Noah, his family and maybe even the animals knew that everything on earth would die, everything, that is, except for those God chose. Our speech with each other today confirms the use to which Scripture put these terms yesterday: “all” and “every” as they occur in Scripture — or in everyday language — cannot be reduced to mathematical precision in the same way that “1+1=2” or the area of a circle can, nor do we expect that they would.

In Noah’s time, everything died except those God chose. The same is true now: all die except those God chooses to save. All will live except those God does not choose to save.

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