Are there few that be saved?
Carl M. Chambers
Beginning with the view that all are saved, we will increasingly ‘narrow’ our focus becoming more and more pessimistic in quantities. Unsatisfied with the doctrinal arguments proposed, we will then seek to develop an answer by observing the progressive revelation of God in Scripture - some would call this ‘a biblical theological perspective’. This analysis will result in a “pessimistically optimistic” response to the question - pessimistic with respect to mankind’s hostility to God and the judgement deserved (few saved), yet optimistic with respect to God’s graciousness, sovereignty and the salvation he provides (many saved).
Before this, however, we will briefly discuss two crucial assumptions behind the question. The first concerns the nature of ‘salvation’, which we will take to be the process resulting in a perfect relationship with the living God. The second debates the meaning of the word ‘few’, with the need to hold in tension both its absolute and relative meaning.
We begin with a brief look at Jesus’ response to this question, on the assumption that this should at least frame the rest of our thinking.
As Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, he was asked the question: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” »1 The question is recorded only in Luke, and Jesus does not answer it directly, answering not so much with ‘how many’ but ‘who’ will be saved. Although the immediate context in Luke is of two parables speaking of the greatness and all pervasiveness of the kingdom of God (the mustard seed »2 and yeast »3), it is clear that Luke 13v22 is the beginning of a new section in the narrative of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem »4.
In response to the question, Jesus lays down a “personal ethical challenge” »5 to his hearers to strive to enter through the narrow door, which means to respond to his message, and to acknowledge him as Lord and King. The warning continues with the need to respond urgently to this message, lest the ‘owner of the house’ denies knowing them when they finally knock on the door. This imagery suggests that the answer to our question is indeed ‘yes’, with Jesus being pessimistic in front of his hearers. However, Jesus tempers this with the comment in Luke 13:29 that people will come from “east and west, from north and south” to “eat in the kingdom of God”, therein suggesting a huge number eventually will come.
We note that the context of the question originally asked of Jesus was during his preaching ministry, on the way to Jerusalem »6. People clearly had heard of Jesus then, and had heard his gospel, and yet we have seen that his imagery of the narrow door suggested that indeed, few would be saved. If that suggestion is valid, then one may rightly fear for the consequences of those who have heard of Jesus, yet have not believed. Yet as we will see, much of the debate concerning this question revolves around the question ‘what about those who have never heard?’, a conundrum not explicitly addressed by Jesus here.
So Jesus does not answer the question directly, but combines his personal challenge with both immediate pessimism and ultimate optimism.
We must define the nature of ‘salvation’. Generally within religions, there is a necessity for ‘salvation’ of some sort, although there is broad disagreement on why salvation is needed, how it is achieved, and what it means in reality.
For some within Christianity, salvation is political. So-called ‘liberation theologians’ see mankind’s problem as class oppression and poverty, and see Jesus as a revolutionary who is the model of struggle for political liberation, which is salvation. Moltmann joins them with a critique of the fact that the political aspect of the cross and resurrection is “absent” »7. Whilst Jesus is rightly seen as a kind of revolutionary, the revolution he brought in was not one of earthly politics so much as the enabling of a complete change in the relationship between man and God.
Others therefore incorporate a sense of restoration of relationship with God, but therein risk redefining God. So Hick defines salvation as the “transformation of human existence from self-centredness to God- or Reality-Centredness” »8.
We would affirm that salvation must be linked to a focus on God, but deny that it can be defined so broadly. Scripture links salvation and eternal life intricately and inseparably. Yet for Jesus, both were dependant not on a reality-centredness or existential feeling, but on a personal knowledge of God, and of Jesus, as God’s Son. So, Jesus prays to his Father in the presence of this disciples: “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” »9.
Within this context, the reason mankind does not already have eternal life, is because of man’s rebellion against the living God, which is sin. Scripture speaks of mankind being ‘dead’ in sin and as a consequence, by nature objects of God’s wrath »10.
Man is therefore totally dependent on God to restore the broken relationship with him. The fact that we are made in God’s image demonstrates that God cares for us, but does not automatically imply that the relationship between Creator and created is unbroken.
The nature of this debate revolves around not so much whether God saves, but how. All know God is gracious, but how is this grace operative?
Throughout this, we need to hold a tension between the relative and absolute definition of ‘few’. The usual understanding would be to take ‘few’ as meaning both relatively and absolutely. It may be, however, that relatively few are saved, proportionate to those who are lost, but that this number is absolutely huge. Similarly, and perhaps somewhat pedantically, if none are ‘lost’, because none end up in hell (for instance, because many are annihilated), then we could say that absolutely few are saved, but that this is ‘all’ relative to those in hell (which is none).
We will now consider the argument, tracing our thread through three categories : pluralism, inclusivism, exclusivism »11.
For writers such as Robinson and Hick »12, their central concern is to see the nature of God’s love fully portrayed. They hold that because God is a God of love, he must want all people to be saved; because he is all powerful, he must be able to save all people. Therefore, all people must be saved. According to Barnes »13, Hick argues that the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation would require that only those within the church are saved. God is such a God of love, that is he is present in a saving way in all religions. The difference between religions is simply each individual’s own personal circumstances - cultural, geographical, and the like. Hick addresses those who disagree, pointing to conflicting truth claims, by arguing that God is ultimately beyond us - infinite compared to our finity. So God transcends all human understanding, yet religions are able to operate savingly to bring every human to an encounter with the ultimate God who is behind all religions.
These arguments rightly seek to uphold the wonder of God’s love, yet are wrong in both their understanding of this love, and of Jesus’ own truth claims. God’s love means that he hates evil »14, and will judge it accordingly. Since evil is fundamentally a rejection of God’s rule, and since so much of the Bible is a warning against following ‘foreign’ gods, it is impossible to hold that God accepts all religions, as well as hates those who go after other gods. Similarly, Jesus’ teaching was as clear as it was shocking for the Jews who heard him: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except though me” »15. In its context of John’s gospel, this was a clear repudiation of all non-Jesus-centred religions.
The inclusivist view holds that Jesus alone is Saviour of the world, but seeks to include other religions within the scope of that salvation. This typically holds that many are saved. An ‘extreme’ position would be that of the papal encyclical: “every human person without exception has been redeemed by Christ” »16.
For Rahner the possibility of people not being saved is very real. He believes that “Jesus Christ is the saviour of all people” »17 and so must be present everywhere: in every time, place, people group and therefore every religion. It is through the Holy Spirit that God has revealed himself to all people, whether people want or reflect on or accept it, or not »18. Yet the possibility of hell is a reality, which people must face as a warning »19 to acknowledge the God who has made himself known to us. However, Rahner holds this warning must be held alongside “the doctrine that the world and the history of the world will in fact enter into eternal life with God” »20. Meanwhile, because there is some form of delay between death and the full bodily resurrection, he argues that we can not say anything “decisive” against what he calls “a place of maturation” (akin to purgatory or post-mortem opportunity for repentance) »21.
Rahner is helpful is high-lighting that God has made himself known to all people, but neglects the fact that many (in scripture at least) have rejected him. Similarly, we need to clarify that general revelation is not salvific in itself: Rahner separates Christ from the salvation event, a separation which is contrary to the fact that it is the name of Christ which saves »22.
In a different view, Bauckham »23 argues that whilst Karl Barth was not “strictly” a universalist (even though Brunner accuses him so »24), for Barth “the final salvation of all mankind as a possibility” could not be denied. Barth considered that Jesus Christ was the only elect one »25 - who was elected both for salvation annd for condemnation. Through being ‘the elect’ he is certain of heaven with God; through rejection, Jesus takes on himself the sins of the world. The world, therefore, both sees its sins paid for in Christ, and in the same Christ, receives reconciliation with God. Because Christ is therefore both condemnation and reconciliation, for all people, no-one need be lost. The possibility remains that some may be lost, because, effectively, God’s patience with those who “persistently try to change the truth into untruth” »26 runs out.
We concur with Brunner, that there is no biblical warrant for this view. It also questions God’s justice. If all mankind’s sins are paid for, then how can God justly condemn anyone?
A further proponent of inclusivism is Clark Pinnock »27. Pinnock’s two principle axioms are both that Jesus is unique and final as the God Saviour of the world, and that God’s desire is for all to be saved »28. Strange summarises succinctly the result of the two axioms in Pinnock’s thinking: “given the truth of the above axioms, salvation must be universally accessible” »29. Pinnock is then faced with the problem that, over history, relatively few people have (he claims) ever heard the gospel: how can this be held in tension with the ‘fact’ that God wants all to be saved, and all can attain that salvation? Pinnock objects to this, arguing that it would seem that: “God cannot save those he would like to save if indeed it is true that there is salvation only where the gospel is preached and accepted” »30.
Pinnock’s methodology is to use the concept of general revelation, which he considers enables people not just to know about God, but to know him, personally, for themselves. He rejects the idea that this revelation merely makes people all the more culpable, as if God were to “tantalise them with truth about himself that can only result in their greater condemnation” »31. God’s common grace then operates on people, that they may reach out and find him.
Furthermore, God then considers them on the basis of their “faith in him, even when it is forced to rely upon defective and incomplete information” »32. Just as people before Christ believed and were saved, even though they had never heard the name of Christ, so people today can be saved in the same way, as long as they renounce their sin and seek God. This is similar to the Roman Catholic doctrine that those who “sincerely seek God” can also be saved, without knowing the gospel »33.
This is helpful in acknowledging that we do not need perfect understanding of the gospel to be saved. But Pinnock treats faith generically, as if it has more to do with the subject of the faith than the object. Jesus is comprehensively clear that he alone is the object of salvific faith, regardless of how little or much someone has »34. In this case, we affirm: “the Bible offers no hope that sincere worshippers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ” »35.
The implications of God’s universal salvific will drive Pinnock to another area of hopefulness: that of post mortem evangelism. Although he admits that this is not a doctrine that is as biblically certain as, for instance, the deity of Christ, he concludes that there are enough “broad hints about post-mortem probation” in the Bible to allow him to hope for this »36. The case rests on the passage in 1 Peter 3v19-20. [1 Peter 4v6 is also used, but this confirms that all are judged in this life, and is silent on post-mortem opportunities for change]. Pinnock accepts that the verses are unclear, yet argues that there is sufficient in them to warrant the idea that Jesus proclaims the gospel to the dead, and that he is thereby giving them a chance to repent. Depending on one’s views, this proclamation is made only to those who have never heard, or to all who have rejected Jesus in the physical world. This proclamation may also be a limited affair, or may continue until people eventually “give in” »37 to God, and accept the gospel message.
Against this, we deny that ‘post-mortem evangelism’ is a possibility. The use of 1 Peter is unacceptable, not least because it is unhelpful to formulate such a specific doctrine from so complicated a text. It is unclear who the ‘spirits in prison’ are. The passage itself refers to them as “spirits in prison, who in former [Noah’s] times did not obey” »38, presumably referring to a limited group, in a limited time period. It is therefore, we suggest, exegetically fanciful to claim that they are all those people, in eternity, who have never heard the gospel. Furthermore, Jesus makes a proclamation to them - but there is nothing in the text to suggest it was a call to repentance, or that they responded with repentance to the proclamation. Pinnock’s ‘hermeneutic of hopefulness’ has allowed him to read into this passage, conclusions which are simply not there. The Bible teaches that we are judged on death, for works done in the body »39. It is man’s attitude towards God in this life that determines whether or not we are saved. We grant that some hold that, on the moment of death, God gives a person a vision of the gospel, and determines either their response, or what would have been their response, and judges them according to that. But since this is pure speculation, however attractive in different ways, and since it holds no biblical warrant in and of itself, we do not consider it an option we can rely on.
It is at this stage that we should consider, for a moment, the concept of purgatory. Purgatory is a place which is neither heaven, nor hell, where souls go, for some form of punishment. There are variety of beliefs that would come under this thinking. At one end of the spectrum, Barclay holds that all are saved in the end, by means of purgatory »40; others hold that purgatory is only for the saints, that they may be purified from those sins which Christ was not punished for, and that those who die outside of Christ are condemned.
We will not consider whether purgatory exists for those who died believing in Christ, for if they did, then Scripture assures us they will be saved. Rather, we address the issue of whether people who died outside of Christ, can be forgiven, through some form of post-mortem experience (in this case: purgatory).
We deny that this kind of possibility exists. After death, we are judged »41. It is our attitude towards God at the time of our death which determines whether we are accepted by him because of Christ’s punishment on the cross, or whether we face the punishment for our sins which we deserve.
The exclusivist believes that salvation is in Christ alone, and none will be saved outside of him. This view is held both by those who believe many are saved, and by those who believe only a few are saved: the deciding factor is not so much God’s grace, as the extent of man’s sinfulness.
Helm »42 also struggles with the belief that a God of love could not allow only a few to be saved. His model gives grounds for optimism by affirming that Christ only saves, yet stressing that the key to salvation is a relationship with the living God. He reasons that none of us call on God perfectly, but rather rely on his grace towards us, as we call on some of his attributes. Therefore, it may be that someone does not know the name of Christ, yet in their prayers call on God, by calling on him because of one of his incommunicable essential attributes »43. Because this attribute belongs to the true and living God alone, the person is referring and relating to God, even without a direct knowledge of Jesus Christ. The implications could therefore be that many around the world call on this true God, without knowing Christ, and without knowing they are really calling on the God and Father of the Lord Jesus. This is certainly a superficially attractive proposition. Yet it is unsustainable because it assumes that a fallen world really does want to call on God, whereas the Bible describes humans as being God’s enemies »44, and dead in our sins »45. God’s method of reviving people to life is through his word, which is the gospel, carried by the Holy Spirit.
May there be some in heaven who are there, without ever having heard of the name of Jesus in their own lives? Whilst the above theologians would typically argue this, even the conservative J.I. Packer would not disagree immediately. If there are such people, he says, they “will learn in heaven that there were saved by Christ’s death and that their hearts were renewed by the Holy Spirit, and they will join the glorified church in endless praise of the sovereign grace of God … But we have no warrant to expect God will act thus in any single case where the gospel is not known or understood” »46.
BB Warfield is a well-known advocate of ‘many’ being saved. Exegetically, he finds only four ‘dicta probantia’ »47 that speak of the fewness of people being saved. Yet in each one, Jesus is urging his listeners to work very hard to “make their election sure, rather than revealing to them the final issue of His saving work in the world” »48. This warning is clearly valid, yet one has to ask whether Jesus could be accused of being somewhat deceitful if the warning were only hypothetical. For this to be a real warning, there had to be a real and present risk of many not being saved.
Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of hell was clear and undiluted, as was more so his doctrine of God and God’s graciousness and holiness »49. Yet Edwards was convinced that “but few [are] converted and saved, and many perish” »50. For he saw that the whole world was ungodly, and deserving of condemnation, all the more so now that the world continued in hostility to God, despite the promise of salvation offered to the world in Christ »51. Edwards can not be fairly accused of denying or even diminishing God’s grace, but such was his conviction of the sinfulness of humanity, that he was extremely pessimistic as to the relative final number of those saved - even though each one saved represented a wonderful mark of God’s glory.
One particular implication drawn by many from an exclusivist position such as Edwards is the fate of infants. This issue is emotive, not least since it seems they are unable to hear the gospel and respond. (The same principles in this discussion could apply to those with severe learning difficulties.) Many would argue that all infants are saved, if they die at birth. God ‘must’ show them mercy, not least since Jesus was one to call children, the innocent, to him »52. Boettner claims that “Calvin never says those dieing in infancy are lost” »53. However, Boettner had previously explained Calvin’s teaching as based on election: that there are elect infants, who are saved, and reprobate infants, who are finally lost »54. Whether they die as infants or in old age, God’s election determines whether they are saved or not. So on this argument, as with others who have not heard, we heed Packer’s call to wisdom in “not spend[ing] much time mulling over this notion” »55, for it is the responsibility of the Christian to proclaim the gospel to those they can, that they may hear.
However, if the unevangelised are part of the ‘elect’, then when they hear the gospel, one would expect them, sooner or later, to respond to that gospel with repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Circumstantial evidence suggests that relatively few respond thus. Because of this, many have tried to find ways of imputing the salvation Jesus offers to those who explicitly have not received it. We have seen that these arguments are ultimately unsatisfactory.
We suggest that the above positions fail to hold in balance the thrust of scripture, which is that we should be pessimistic as to man’s own position before God, yet optimistic in the hope that many will be saved.
In this account, we will see that the world is rebellious against its Creator, and comes under his righteous judgement. Wonderfully, God does not condemn the world as it deserves, but is rather active in reconciling the world to him.
v Old Testament Realities
The Bible begins most optimistically. The created world is “very good” »56. Mankind is commanded to fill the world »57. God’s initial desire is therefore for the whole world to be filled with many people, all of whom are in loving relationship with him.
Almost immediately, there is a downward spiral of rebellion against God, which is sin. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden »58, and their first son, Cain, is a murderer »59. The world became so wicked, that God resolved to destroy it, saving only a few: Noah and 7 members of his family. In the New Testament, Peter notes, albeit as a subsidiary point, that only a few are saved in the Ark »60.
God then called Abram, one man only amongst many, to be the one through whom he blessed the world »61. The number of Abram’s descendants would be as great as the stars in the heavens »62, or sand on the seashore »63. So amidst the pessimism of a rebellious world at Babel, one man is chosen to be the father of countless children of God.
If one were to take the relative number of people ‘saved’ from Egypt »64, one could have grounds for optimism. However, Paul warns the Corinthian church »65 that in fact very few of the people who were rescued from Egypt reached the promised land, because of their rebellion - a warning also picked up in the book of Hebrews »66. So optimistic beginnings, through God’s mercy, result in pessimism, through man’s idolatry.
The thrust of the Old Testament is that despite man’s wickedness, God is sovereign, constantly reaching out for people to be reconciled to him. Whether it be with individuals or nations, God will move so as to cause people to come to him, or to continue in their rebellion. So we see the wise woman from Tekoa, in 2 Samuel 14, saying: “God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence” »67. Elijah was alone as a faithful prophet of Yahweh, routing the four hundred prophets of Baal in Israel »68; not one survived »69.
Similarly, although God brings judgement on all who rebel against him, there are times when he graciously spares some. The language of Isaiah is full of judgement on the wicked, both within Israel and Judah, and amongst the foreign nations. Yet amidst so many chapters warning of judgement, there are rich veins of the promise of salvation - there will be a remnant from amongst Israel »70. There is even, quite remarkably, one mention in Isaiah of a remnant from Aram, a small nation which, with the Philistines, had earlier devoured Israel »71. Pessimism, however, reigns outside of Israel, and within, until the final days of the new creation, when God will make all things right.
In Ezekiel, God promises to bring judgement on the whole house of Israel, wherever they are - but he “will spare some” »72. The purpose of these few, and in the context it seems very few, will be so they can tell the nations of God’s actions, partly in salvation, but principally in judgement. This leads us not only to a severe pessimism, but also to thinking that one result of world evangelism is actually the working out of God’s judgement on the nations.
It would be very difficult to argue that the widespread judgement and destruction of God’s enemies in the Old Testament was in fact a cloaked form of salvation: the language of destruction and retribution is too strong for that. So there is much to be pessimistic about in the Old Testament. Yet strong veins of hope keep appearing, as a Saviour is promised.
v Jesus - inauguration of new world order
Jesus’ birth is described as light shining into darkness »73. Surely now the world will know who God is, and it will now honour him as he deserves?
Yet the world does not recognise its God, Jesus, who has come into the world »74. Time and again, those who are supposed to be closest to the ‘kingdom’ (e.g. the Pharisees and teachers of the law) betray their hostility to Jesus, and therefore God. Jesus’ use of parables is even for the purpose of hardening their hearts against him »75. Jesus dies, rejected by all but a few of his own people »76.
In this context, we would argue that for Jesus, the ‘default’ position for mankind is condemnation. It is only because Jesus has come into the world that a hope of salvation is offered »77 - a salvation offered to the whole world »78.
As the New Testament continues, the theme of pessimism because of man’s rebellion, but optimism because of God’s graciousness, develops. Although the epistles were typically written to churches, the evidence is that those outside of the church stand condemned. So Paul speaks of how all men not only are “without excuse” »79 (because they have denied the living God), but also must hear of the Lord Jesus, and believe in him, for salvation »80.
The very picture of salvation being offered to the whole world, to the ends of the earth, affirms that optimisim: no longer is there a division between Jew and Gentile.
So the New Testament ends optimistically with the wonderful picture of hope, as the victorious Lamb reigns, with his people numbering multitudes upon multitudes »81. The number saved is clearly absolutely very large, since the 144,000 »82 is symbolic of the completeness of the house of Israel, and yet over and above this, there is a “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” »83. In terms of relative numbers, it seems as if the number in heaven are ‘countless’ because they are so many, and the number in hell ‘countless’ because the Bible does not seem so concerned with counting them.
We conclude by returning to a point of common agreement: ultimately, God alone saves. All our thinking therefore centres on his grace - not just on the extent of it (which all agree is boundless), but also the nature of it.
So we would argue that because of his grace, we have good reason to be optimistic: heaven will be full. Yet as we consider mankind’s rebellion, we can not but be pessimistic as to man’s response to God’s grace. This serves to magnify God’s grace, because it demonstrates just how patient God is with a wicked world.
We could ask : why not be “optimistically pessimistic”? We would argue against this, because the final decision is God’s, and his alone. God has most graciously acted in history to save all his people: optimism should be predominant. Yet human observations, and the reading of the thrust of scripture, yields us great pessimism in the number who respond to God’s gracious activity.
Despite all this argument, we would do well to use Scriptural principles only in the way that Scripture uses them »84. Since scripture is arguably ambiguous on this specific question, we should be cautious in our answer. But if scripture does teach us anything, we conclude that our attitude should be pessimistically optimistic.