What can it mean, that Christ's blood was spilt for our sins, that "by his bruises we are healed"? Perhaps His perfect love means His identification with human suffering is so complete, that in one fell vision He comprehended the depth and range and terror of all our individual pain. Perhaps it is the almost irresistible power of His superabundant love manifest in His choice to suffer what He suffered, that transforms the sinner's heart.

In some way He deflected the consequences of our own sinful choices, absorbing them Himself, willingly suffering the alienation even from His Father that His fearful words on the cross signified. Thereby He upholds and affirms human agency, by ensuring consequences follow choice—and we witness how terrible they can be, without ourselves experiencing their full onslaught. Somehow He "suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent." In some manner and by some mechanism that the scriptures decline to explicate, Christ suffered for, on behalf of, on account of, and in the stead of, us. The question, however, remains: on what basis can the consequences of our choices be deferred or abated?

The law of moral agency, of choice and consequence, does not require that we entirely bear the burden of our own choices made in this life because those choices are always made under circumstances that are less than perfect. Our accountability is thus always partial, incomplete. Into that gap between choice and accountability, the Lord steps. Christ's atonement provides a way to break the cycle of sin, and begin a new life-course (in ways large or small) with a newly forged disposition. Growing in the hard-won knowledge of good and evil, we are better able to choose in the greater light of a fuller understanding, or with a more unencumbered will.

The Greek term, metanoia, means a change or reversal of mind, purpose, or disposition. Repentance, in other words, means to re-decide, to choose afresh. But the mercy thus freely offered through Christ's atonement, His gesture of supernal grace, cannot extend to the point of choosing on behalf of individuals. Repentance is therefore an ongoing process by which we repudiate unrighteous choices, acknowledging Christ's role in suffering the consequences of those sins on our behalf, and choosing afresh in accordance with purified desire. And so we go on choosing, again and again. The process continues—perhaps aeons into the future—until in perfect harmony with the laws that underlie the nature of happiness (and thus the nature of God), we have reached a sanctified condition that permits a perfect at-one-ment with God. God's desire to save is reconciled with the sanctity of human choice. Love and agency, justice and mercy, meet.

At least, that is the hope Christ's atonement holds out for us. How many, in actual fact, will be partakers of the feast to which they are invited? Was Wesley or Whitefield right about the proportion of the blessed and the damned? The answer hinges on what we consider to be the time frame, and the circumstances, under which repentance and moral growth can occur. Exactly who, in other words, is eligible for heaven?

One reason for the horrifying statistics cited by the eighteenth-century friar was the understanding, commonplace from the Middle Ages forward, that two enormous classes of humanity were outside the saving grace of Christ: unbaptized infants, and non-Christians. For many centuries, Christian theologians defended the inscrutable justice of God and cared little for making His harsher decrees palatable to humans. But condemning biblical figures from Adam to Abraham, who happened to be born before the era of Christian hope, seemed patently wrong even to the most stalwart defenders of orthodoxy, so exceptions were made for them. Museums are full of paintings by the masters, depicting Christ leading a line of bearded patriarchs out through the underworld's gates, in what theologians called "the harrowing of hell."