The topic of who Jesus died for has become a theological argument of great importance in our day. Basically, there are two theological aspects, one that defends that Jesus died for all, while the other one defends that Jesus only died for a few.
We will now analyze the two aspects, always having as reference what the truth of the Bible exposes. As always, we will do it in a concise way so that it is easier to understand. We emphasize that the brevity of the topic does not imply that there has not been a previous in-depth study in this regard. The Truth of the Bible team has studied all aspects in depth, analyzing and reading modern and ancient leaders from each of the aspects exposed.
What does the bible say?
Before entering into the exposition of each aspect, let's see what the word of God says about it. Here we will see some verses that clearly show that Jesus died for the sins of humanity:
1 John 2:2 — 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
1 John 4:14 — 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.
1 Timothy 2:5–6 — 5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
1 Timothy 4:10 — 10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.
1 Timothy 2:4 —4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Titus 2:11 — 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men,
Hebrews 2:9 — 9 But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
2 Corinthians 5:15 — 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
2 Peter 3:9— 9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Acts 17:30— 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent,
John 1:29 — 29 29 The next day he *saw Jesus coming to him and *said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
Romans 5:18 — 18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
Romans 11:32 — 32 For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.
Romans 1:16 — 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
2 Peter 2:1 — 1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
What Peter says here is interesting, because Peter uses the same Greek verb that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:20 when he says: “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
If the Bible is so clear, why is there confusion?
The confusion is that many theologians have confused or equated the death of Jesus for the sins of humanity with a guaranteed salvation, which is a concept called universalism. Therefore, if Jesus died for everyone, then this would mean that everyone is instantly forgiven, justified, and saved. It is for this reason, that against this error, together with the clear testimony of the Bible to the error of universalism, that some doctrines require that Jesus only died for the sins of a few.
However, the Bible never says this, and it not only clearly states that Jesus died for everyone, but it is also clear that only those who believe in Jesus are receivers of this salvation. In other words, Jesus paid for the sins of humanity, but only those who humble themselves, who recognize that they cannot be saved, but only through Jesus, these are receivers of salvation. It is not their merit, believing is not a merit or a work (Ephesians 2: 8-9), all merit is from God and Jesus. He is always the initiator, the important person and the only one deserving of glory in this regard.
To emphasize this concept that only those who believe (put their trust in God) take part in justification and salvation, here we will look at other verses that support it:
1 Corinthians 1:21 — 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
John 3:36 — 36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
Colossians 2:12 — 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
John 20:31 — 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
Ephesians 1:13 — 13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise,
Romans 5:17 — 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
We must clearly understand this, that when we believe it is then when we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13) and at that moment, we are baptized by means of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) and we are clothed of Christ (Galatians 3).
As we have mentioned, equating the universality of Jesus' death for the sins of humanity with a salvation and justification guaranteed to humanity (universalism) is a serious misinterpretation of something that is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. There is a clear distinction between the universality of Jesus' death and who are the recipients of that forgiveness and justification.
It is for this reason that Paul in Galatians 2:20 says that Jesus died for him, but in Romans 16: 7, when he speaks of Andronicus and Junias, he tells them that they were before him in Christ:
Romans 16:7 — 7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.
This is crucial, because if the death of Jesus involved salvation and justification, and was only to a few as some believe, then Paul would have been in Christ since before the foundation of the world, however, Paul clearly explains that it was only when he gave himself to Jesus, that he came to be in Christ. This agrees perfectly with what Paul has been expressing in Corinthians and in Ephesians. Jesus has died for the sins of humanity, but we only become part of the body of Christ when we believe in Him, when we are sealed by the Holy Spirit.
It is important to understand that the act of believing is never meritorious. If it were not for the death of Jesus, we could not be saved. The act of believing is an act that recognizes our incapacity, and like absolutely all of us, we fall short of the glory of God because we have all sinned. If it were not for the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3: 23-25), no matter how much faith we had we could never be saved. Christ is the initiator, both the act of propitiation through the death of Jesus and the victory over death by resurrection are what make it possible for us to be saved.
But doesn't the Bible say that Jesus died for the church?
Those who defend that Jesus did not die for all, but for a few, rely on verses like the following:
Ephesians 5:25 — 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,
Acts 20:28 — 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
John 10:11 — 11 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
According to this school of thought, as it is mentioned here that Jesus died for the church (Ephesians 5:25, Acts 20:28) and for his sheep (John 10:11) then he only died for them.
However, this type of reasoning lacks a logical basis of its own when analyzing a text, in other words, if a proposition is true, it cannot be deduced that a negative inference of this proposition is also true. This can be called "a fallacy of negative inference."
We can see a very simple example in the passage about the rich young man (Mark 10:21, Matthew 19: 16-30, Luke 18: 18-30) where he says that Jesus loved the rich young man. To commit the fallacy of negative inference in this case would be to say that Jesus only loves the rich young man and no one else.
The same is true when the Bible says we have to love our brothers (1 John 4:20). To commit the fallacy of negative inference would be to say that we should only love our brothers, from which we would conclude that we should not love our enemies. To nullify the effects of this type of fallacy, we should put biblical examples where it clearly says that we must love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
We see another clear example in Galatians 2:20 where Paul says that Jesus gave himself up for him.
Galatians 2:20 — 20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Here the same logical fallacy could be committed by inferring that since Paul says that Jesus died for him, then he did not die for anyone else.
Therefore, it is the same way with the verses that we have mentioned in this section. To infer that Jesus died only for the church and for his sheep, in the face of the overwhelming number of verses mentioned above, which manifest without a doubt that Jesus died for the whole world, would be to commit the error of the mentioned fallacy.
Doesn't the Bible say that Jesus died for the many?
Another text used by the defenders that Jesus died for a few is found in Matthew 20:28, where Jesus says the following: “as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The importance of hermeneutics and idioms
When presented with a biblical text, we must understand that, in certain areas of the Bible, writers use idioms. An idiom is an "expression characteristic of a language, made up of a set of words with a fixed structure and a meaning that cannot be deduced from the meaning of the words that comprise it". Idioms are something that we see with some recurrence in the Bible, and that is why we must know how to interpret them in their context.
When we read "the many" we have to understand that it is an idiom of the time to say "all". We see this very clearly, for example, when Paul refers to the same words of Jesus that we have seen before (Matthew 20:28) in 1 Timothy 2: 6. In this instance, the same apostle changes the concept of "the many" for "all". The apostle does so for the simple reason that he understood that saying "the many" was the same as saying "all" since it was an idiom of the time. Here we see the two verses, one after the other:
Matthew 20:28 — 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
1 Timothy 2:6 — 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
In fact, Paul uses the same idiom in other parts of his epistles, specifically in chapter 5 of Romans, where in the same argument he is expounding he exchanges the two terms in a random way, expressing the same thought.
In Romans 5:12, Paul uses the term “all” when explaining how death entered all men through their sin: “12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—.”
However, later in Romans 5:15, speaking of the same concept of death to all through transgression, the apostle uses the idiom of "the many": “15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.”
This same way of speaking where "the many" are exchanged for "all" is also seen in other writings of Paul:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
The word of God is clear as to God's act of mercy and the universal extent of Jesus' death. However, this should not be confused with the universalist erroneous doctrine, which equates God's death for the world with justification to the world. This type of conclusion is based on an equivocal interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' death in terms of justification. We see this very clearly in the pages of the word of God, since it is very clear that only those who believe in Jesus, only those who put their trust in Him, are the ones who are justified.