By Spencer D Gear
If you’ve ever visited Christian forums on the Internet, you’ll see a regular stream of back and forth between Calvinists and Arminians on the extent of the atonement.
After my engagement in one of these (I’m a convinced Reformed/Classical Arminian), I wrote to a supporter of an Arminian view of the atonement that no matter how many verses OT or NT we muster to show that atonement was unlimited, for the world, for everyone, there is a barrier that cannot be overcome. Those who have a presupposition that requires limited atonement, will constantly make world = part of the world. They will say that world does not mean everyone; everyone = some; all = many; you’re not taking the context into consideration, etc.
I cannot see any way through. When there is a presuppositional bias towards a certain theology, it is very difficult to move, even when evidence to the contrary is presented. This is what this person and I have found in this discussion with Calvinistic limited atonement (particular redemption) advocates.
I think we are wasting our keyboard skills and breath trying to convince limited atonement folks of unlimited atonement as I find that there is a solid rock theological barrier against Christ’s death being the propitiation “also for the sins of the world” (1 John 2:2) and Jesus was to “taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9).
A Calvinist came back with the cynical and inaccurate reply:
Do you realize that if I replaced “limited atonement” with “universal atonement” and “Calvinists” with “Arminian” (and other references), it would make the same argument against you?
Just thought I’d point that out. I’m sure it’s some sort of logical fallacy, though.
Then he took to my idea and made it into his Calvinistic perspective. He wrote:
I think you are wasting your keyboard skills and breath trying to convince unlimited atonement folks of limited atonement as I find that there is a solid rock theological barrier against “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” (John 10:14, 15 NASB). Or “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44 NASB).
You might be saying as you read this article: But surely you have the same problem? You could say: You also have a strong, biased view that is as stubborn as the other person’s. That might be true or false.
I can honestly confirm that if there was an absolutely certain scriptural mandate that Jesus only died for the elect, I would be enthusiastically promoting it. However, there are too many Scriptures to counter the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement. I have presented some of this evidence above.
I recommend Ron Rhodes outlined reasons for rejecting limited atonement. See his article, ‘The Extent of the Atonement: Limited Atonement Versus Unlimited Atonement’.
Logical fallacy committed
What is a logical fallacy? Dr. Michael C. Labossiere has provided this explanation:
In order to understand what a fallacy is, one must understand what an argument is. Very briefly, an argument consists of one or more premises and one conclusion. A premise is a statement (a sentence that is either true or false) that is offered in support of the claim being made, which is the conclusion (which is also a sentence that is either true or false).
There are two main types of arguments: deductive and inductive. A deductive argument is an argument such that the premises provide (or appear to provide) complete support for the conclusion. An inductive argument is an argument such that the premises provide (or appear to provide) some degree of support (but less than complete support) for the conclusion. If the premises actually provide the required degree of support for the conclusion, then the argument is a good one. A good deductive argument is known as a valid argument and is such that if all its premises are true, then its conclusion must be true. If all the argument is valid and actually has all true premises, then it is known as a sound argument. If it is invalid or has one or more false premises, it will be unsound. A good inductive argument is known as a strong (or “cogent”) inductive argument. It is such that if the premises are true, the conclusion is likely to be true.
A fallacy is, very generally, an error in reasoning. This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts. To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support. A deductive fallacy is a deductive argument that is invalid (it is such that it could have all true premises and still have a false conclusion). An inductive fallacy is less formal than a deductive fallacy. They are simply “arguments” which appear to be inductive arguments, but the premises do not provided enough support for the conclusion. In such cases, even if the premises were true, the conclusion would not be more likely to be true.
My response in the online example was:
You have committed another logical fallacy when you try to demonstrate that because Christ died for believers that he did not die for the ungodly (the reprobate, unbelievers, etc).
While the texts you have given demonstrate that Jesus laid down his life for the sheep, I found nothing in your two texts to confirm that Jesus died only and exclusively for those who are believers in the church.
We have examples of how this happens on a human level. I love my friend John whom I have known for 30 years. When I say that I love John, it does not say that I don’t love Monty whom I have known since 1978 and is a close friend.
We know that the NT teaches that God loved the world and gave his one and only Son for it (John 3:16), but the Scriptures also stated that Jesus is ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2). God our Saviour wants all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9); and Jesus tasted death for everyone (Heb 2:9). It also teaches that he gave his life for the church – the sheep (John 10:15).
Ron Rhodes (courtesy ‘Reasoning from the Scriptures’)
Ron Rhodes provides further examples:
There are certain Scripture passages that seem very difficult to fit within the framework of limited atonement. For example:
Romans 5:6 says: “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” It doesn’t make much sense to read this as saying that Christ died for the ungodly of the elect.
Romans 5:18 says: “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”
Regarding this verse, John Calvin says: “He makes this favor common to all, because it is propoundable to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all [i.e., in their experience]; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive Him.”
Regarding the two occurrences of the phrase “all men,” E. H. Gifford comments: “The words all men [in v. 18] must have the same extent in both clauses.”
1 John 2:2 says: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” A natural reading of this verse, without imposing theological presuppositions on it, seems to support unlimited atonement.
Isaiah 53:6 says: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6).
This verse doesn’t make sense unless it is read to say that the same “all” that went astray is the “all” for whom the Lord died.
“In the first of these statements, the general apostasy of men is declared; in the second, the particular deviation of each one; in the third, the atoning suffering of the Messiah, which is said to be on behalf of all. As the first ‘all’ is true of all men (and not just of the elect), we judge that the last ‘all’ relates to the same company.”
Theologian Millard Erickson comments: “This passage is especially powerful from a logical standpoint. It is clear that the extent of sin is universal; it is specified that every one of us has sinned. It should also be noticed that the extent of what will be laid on the suffering servant exactly parallels the extent of sin. It is difficult to read this passage and not conclude that just as everyone sins, everyone is also atoned for.”
1 Timothy 4:10 says: “…we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.”
There is a clear distinction here between “all men” and “those who believe.” Erickson notes that “apparently the Savior has done something for all persons, though it is less in degree than what he has done for those who believe.”
In 2 Peter 2:1, it seems that Christ even paid the price of redemption for false teachers who deny Him: “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves.” Millard Erickson notes that “2 Peter 2:1 seems to point out most clearly that people for whom Christ died may be lost….there is a distinction between those for whom Christ died and those who are finally saved.”
So I don’t fall for the line that Jesus died for the church so he cannot have died for all of humanity. Why? Because what this person online was perpetrating was a misleading logical fallacy that is called a fallacy of ‘biased sample’ or a ‘fallacy of confirmation bias’. Jesus’ death for the church and for all of humanity are solid biblical teachings. His teaching on limited atonement denies one of these biblical emphases.
How do you think he would reply to the above about the fallacy of biased sample? His response was simple: ‘And….you still completely missed the point of my post. Hopefully it wasn’t deliberate’.
My reply was:
You have committed a red herring logical fallacy with your response. Your comment did not address the content of my post. In addition there was your committing a fallacy of biased sample in the previous post.
I directly dealt with the content of your post from John’s gospel, dealing with Jesus’ dying for his sheep AND for the whole world, and demonstrated how you committed another fallacy.
You can’t tolerate it when I call you for your use of a fallacy of biased sample. So what do you do? Give me another logical fallacy – a red herring. This is used to divert attention away from the content of my post about the fallacy of biased sample to a topic that he wanted to speak on. But it leaves the charge of his committing the fallacy of biased sample unanswered by this poster.
I asked him when he would quit his use of logical fallacies so that we can have a rational conversation. I am not hopeful that that will happen as he is too committed to his unbiblical doctrine of limited atonement. He is not ready to give that up in his TULIP theology.
Let’s look at some definitions of logical fallacies that this person used:
Fallacy of biased sample
What is the nature of a fallacy of biased sample? The Nizkor Project provided this definition:
Also Known as: Biased Statistics, Loaded Sample, Prejudiced Statistics, Prejudiced Sample, Loaded Statistics, Biased Induction, Biased Generalization
Description of Biased Sample
This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is biased or prejudiced in some manner.
The example I have been pursuing in this brief article, was of a fellow who wanted to demonstrate that Jesus died only for God’s elect (his sheep, the church) but he excluded the verses that demonstrate that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. His bias is towards limited atonement, so he is determined to pull out verses that support such a view. His approach is one of jeopardy for his view because when it is examined against Scripture, we find two views presented:
(1) Jesus died for his sheep, the church, the elect of God, AND
(2) He died for the sins of the whole world – everyone.
When a fallacy of biased sample is used, it prevents the continuation of a logical discussion between two people.
What about the use of logical fallacies?
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (from Purdue University) made this comment about the use of logical fallacies:
Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Fallacies can be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points, and are often identified because they lack evidence that supports their claim. Avoid these common fallacies in your own arguments and watch for them in the arguments of others.
I particularly watch for them in my own arguments but also keep an eye open for their use in the writing or conversation of others. I’ve noticed there are far too many of them used on Christian forums and I have called a number of posters for using them. Many do not like this tactic as it catches them out. It shows how they are avoiding engagement with rational arguments in discussions.
However, rational discussions are not possible when people engage in the use of logical fallacies.
There is another parallel fallacy that this person could be using, it is the….
Fallacy of confirmation bias
A related fallacy is:
confirmation bias (similar to observational selection): This refers to a form of selective thinking that focuses on evidence that supports what believers already believe while ignoring evidence that refutes their beliefs. Confirmation bias plays a stronger role when people base their beliefs upon faith, tradition and prejudice. For example, if someone believes in the power of prayer, the believer will notice the few “answered” prayers while ignoring the majority of unanswered prayers (which would indicate that prayer has no more value than random chance at worst or a placebo effect, when applied to health effects, at best).
observational selection (similar to confirmation bias): pointing out favorable circumstances while ignoring the unfavorable. Anyone who goes to Las Vegas gambling casinos will see people winning at the tables and slots. The casino managers make sure to install bells and whistles to announce the victors, while the losers never get mentioned. This may lead one to conclude that the chances of winning appear good while in actually just the reverse holds true.
Another has helpfully described conformation bias:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor evidence and information which already supports previously held ideas or beliefs. The human mind will trick itself into protecting currently held beliefs regardless of evidence….
Confirmation bias is comprised of two main behaviors. The first behavior is searching and the second is filtering or appraising.
When searching for information a person with confirmation bias will actively search for information that supports their currently held belief, think liberals hitting up CNN or conservative only watching Fox. This aspect to confirmation bias is all about filling up your time with material that reinforces your world view.
Filtering or Appraisal
Alternatively, the mind may also filter out information which contradicts the currently held belief. When appraising multiple pieces of information a person might favor their current belief over contradictory data. In this case picture a liberal rejecting anything they hear from Glenn Beck or a conservative rejecting something they hear from CNN.
So the fallacies of biased sample or confirmation bias are the ones used by this person who was promoting Calvinism’s limited atonement while ignoring the Scriptures that disagreed with this perspective. He seems to have deliberately chosen biblical information to support/confirm his view, to the exclusion of other biblical information that confirms that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world of all people.
Conclusion: Observe how people use logical fallacies
You need to know your product – the name and nature of logical fallacies – to be able to notice them in conversation, particularly in discussion or debate. When you see this happening, I encourage you to calmly and gently draw this to a person’s attention.
Why is it not possible to have a rational conversation with people who use logical fallacies? Simply stated: A logical fallacy is an error in logic so accurate, logical discussion then is impossible.
Norm Geisler & Ron Brooks put this challenge to us:
Of making many fallacies there is no end. For every right way to think there is at least one wrong way. The real shocker is that the wrong ways often sound more persuasive! This is the power of sophism. So as not to be trapped in the persuasive pit of these fallacies, practice in recognizing them is necessary (Geisler & Brooks 1990:115).
I highly recommend the Geisler and Brooks publication (see works consulted) and The Nizkor Project’s online site on ‘Fallacies’.
Geisler, N 1999. Chosen but free. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.
Geisler, N L & Brooks, R M 1990. Come let us reason: An introduction to logical thinking. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
 Hammster#408, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-41/#post64342160 (Accessed 21 October 2013).
 OzSpen#409, ibid.
 I received the essence of this idea from Norm Geisler (1999:75).
 The Nizkor Project, ‘Fallacy: Biased Sample’, available at: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/biased-sample.html (Accessed 21 October 2013).
 Hammster (see above).
 Logic & Critical Thinking 2011, available at: http://logical-critical-thinking.com/human-thoughts/confirmation-bias/ (Accessed 21 October 2013).
 Hammster, as above.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 November 2015.