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How Many Will Be Saved? (Updated 4-3-2022)

by Tony M.

We have had little traffic here of late. This post is meant to get some commentary and useful debate.

There have been any number of discussions online about whether the Bible tells us ALL will be saved, or tells us that some will be damned to eternity in Hell. (Here, and there, just for starters.) I don’t intent to repeat those discussions, because I think the issues have been beaten to death. Here, I am going to start with an assumption that not all are saved, i.e. that some are (or will be) damned to Hell for eternity. This assumption (for this discussion) is not up for debate here. That there are a great many supports for it in Scripture, in the Fathers and Doctors, and in official Church teaching, is worthwhile but not of conclusive effect for this post. The question I am introducing here is separate:

HOW MANY will be damned?

Let me contextualize this question. In the modern Church of Feels-Good, the typical pastor, Minister Nice, preaches at every funeral that the deceased is “in a better place, now”. The (usually unstated) assumption is that somewhere between “most” and “virtually all” people will end up in heaven, with only the absolute worst of all men - the Hitlers, the Stalins, and the Kardashians - will be damned.

At the other end of the spectrum, one can locate old tracts in which teachers of the time seemed to be saying that it was just about the opposite: somewhere between “most” and “virtually all” will be damned, and only the very few, very best of all of us – the St. Francises, the St. Theresas – will go to heaven.

To be fair, the latter do have Gospel texts to draw from, including the several in which Christ says things like

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat.” (Mt 7-13).

But there are other quotes that suggest something less confidence in the conclusion that most will be damned. For instance,

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Mt 5-26).

Which can be taken with the idea that once you HAVE paid back the last penny, you will be released from the punishment…i.e. that it will end.

In spite of the latter verses that one might point to, the predominant view in the Church’s history is that many will be damned, and that “many” likely means “most” seems to be the common opinion. In the view of people who hold this, the second quote above can be “explained” by a reading that does not credit that it really means “everyone (or nearly everyone) will eventually pay off the whole debt”. Just for one example of such an explanation: a true penitential suffering that “works” to pay off the debt due to sin would have to be suffered with remorse and contrition, but the people in Hell have no remorse and contrition. Therefore, they cannot even begin to pay off the debt, and so their punishment (rightly) goes on and on without cease.

There are, in Catholic literature, a wide range of stories of saints who were given visions of Hell, in which they (seemingly) observed that Hell was stuffed to the gills, with ever more pouring in, in a huge torrent. These are called “private revelation” which are not approved by the Church and are not required to be credited as true revelations by God. I have never heard of a private revelation in which a saint saw an opposed view of Hell, one virtually unpopulated.

It seems that among the many teachers of old that announced the view that many or most would end up in Hell, apparently there were some teachers who either said, or at least gave the appearance of teaching also that they relished the fact that most would be damned, and that salvation would be reserved for the few, the elect, the proud… Well, maybe not the last adjective, "proud". I had a question, from an apostate Catholic who seemed to have had such teacher in his youth: Would you be disappointed if nearly all people end up saved? My response was simple: not disappointed at all, but pleasantly surprised better describes it. I would welcome it, but I don’t expect it.

Yet I see room in the Gospel passages for a pretty large range as possible. For instance, just as the citation from Mt. 5 can be “explained away” from the conclusion that all or most will be saved, the citation from Mt. 7 can be explained away from the conclusion that most will be damned. For instance, one might point out that To be on the road to perdition is not the same as ending up at perdition. You can be a great sinner and still go to Heaven: it only takes turning around and heading in the other direction AT THE END to escape Hell – if done truly. The “Good Thief” on Jesus’s right hand at the Crucifixion shows us that. How much time you spend headed towards Hell does not determine, all by itself, whether you end up there. And so even if 95% of all people spend 95% of their whole lives in grave sin and headed to Hell, it would be possible for 90% of them to repent of their sinful lives and be saved.

Also, “many” can be taken in absolute terms, rather than a percentage: If 1 million are damned, that is “many”. But if the total number of humans who have existed so far is 20 billion, that is a very small percentage.

But my intuition tells me that this is a forlorn hope, mere wishful thinking, for 2 reasons. First: because people get set in their ways. By living a life of habitual, knowing rejection of God, the sinner makes it harder and harder to even conceive of making the opposite choice, much less be open to the idea, much less actually do it. As the decades pass, people get more, not less, set in their choices. It would take an extraordinary grace by God to punch through that shell of habitual rejection of Him, and we should not EXPECT that to be the norm.

The second is this: the apparent meaning and purpose of Jesus’ several comments like “many there are who go in thereat” is to ramp up our apprehension of the danger. But this would be nearly pointless if the danger is itself minimal because God arranges for nearly all to be saved at the end after all. He would be guilty of exaggeration, at the least, by those several warnings: scaremongering, which is an accusation I have heard more than once from atheists referring to teachers who impress their students with the "many are damned" position. I think Jesus meant us to take his warnings at face value because they are true in that prima facie sense.

A third reason to add would be that in inspecting my own motives and actions, I can see that it would be relatively easy to take the soft, easy way "of the world" and stop resisting temptations to sin. I have to assume that MANY are subject to similar temptations, and at least from exterior observation (so far as they can tell us, which is inconclusive) it is also true that MANY don't make all that much noticeable effort to resist. That is, "many are on the road to perdition" does seem to be empirically probable. I don't have to think that I can JUDGE any individual neighbor to think that the overall evidence indicates a probability of certain conclusions, in the aggregate.

But I try to not be over-trusting of such intuitions. I would rather rely on solid, definitive grounds if I can get them, or if not just admit that my view is an opinion and open to correction.

So, I offer this as a venue to take up the issue and go at it with hammer and tongs. Let’s get some debate going.

Comments (16)

Hi Tony,

You write:

...I can see that it would be relatively easy to take the soft, easy way "of the world" and stop resisting temptations to sin. I have to assume that MANY are subject to similar temptations, and at least from exterior observation (so far as they can tell us, which is inconclusive) it is also true that MANY don't make all that much noticeable effort to resist.

Which temptations are you referring to, specifically? The only area I can think of where this generalization might plausibly hold true is in relation to sexual temptations, and even that's debatable, if one compares (say) the divorce rate for various Christian denominations with that for atheists. Otherwise, there isn't much to distinguish worldly folk from religious people: for instance, I doubt whether the latter are significantly more loving, more honest, more generous, less prone to anger or less covetous of worldly goods than their secular counterparts.

It seems to me that we all fall far short of perfection, judging by the standard depicted in the Didache. Cheers.

Vincent, thanks for the question.

Yes, I think that sexual temptations are indeed one of the main pathways for the grave sins by which "many" are on the road to perdition. In our day, as I hear it from my adult children, regular use of pornography is extremely common among young men (and not uncommon among young women). I take it that this implies, usually, a situation of grave sin for many of them, for even if the individual's subjective condition (after regular use) is "habitual" and this habit mitigates his guilt from any one such act, the original acts by which he became habituated could not have had such mitigation. Yes, there are some young men who are not in thrall to pornography. Yes, there are some who have such a habit but who try to break out of it. But, from the general tenor of the (non-definitive) evidence abounding, most young men are in grave peril of Hell. Similarly, rampant promiscuity (including the hook-up culture), fornication and adultery would lead to the same result.

But I think that other sins are also likely to be implicated. Anger is another of the cardinal sins, and there does not seem to be any obvious dearth of individual acts of gravely wrong anger. For example, a grown man says as he starts the fists swinging "I am going to kill you" and he means, if not ACTUAL death, at least a severe mauling. But I also often hear of people who refuse to talk to their parents or siblings, and (usually) over a tiff that has no adequate basis for such grave reaction.

Interestingly, sloth is listed as a cardinal sin, and while most acts of sloth are not grave in nature, a habitual disregard for even considering "what is my final end, and what must I do to align myself with it" probably counts. A person can be worldly and focused very much on the goods of this world, without gravely sinful acts of sloth, but where sloth becomes a grave sin can be seen in his forming a habit of saying to himself "I will not think about that now, it's something to consider 'some other time' " when he has an errant thought like "what's it all for, anyway?" And then trying even harder to make sure "some other time" never comes about. A person cannot be wholly excused from reflection on his ultimate end.

Gluttony, too, can hardly be ignored, given the rampant health crisis in obesity. Surely not ALL obese people are gravely guilty of gluttony, but surely also SOME are.

The only area I can think of where this generalization might plausibly hold true is in relation to sexual temptations, and even that's debatable, if one compares (say) the divorce rate for various Christian denominations with that for atheists. Otherwise, there isn't much to distinguish worldly folk from religious people: for instance, I doubt whether the latter are significantly more loving, more honest, more generous, less prone to anger or less covetous of worldly goods than their secular counterparts.

The question this post raises is "How many will be damned", not "will many Christians be damned". Your point is a sad statement about the condition of Christians in general in this day, and also about the various Christian churches. If it is indeed true that there is, by and large, no measurable difference between the sins committed by Christians and those committed by atheists, then Christians have much to worry over. If, that is, atheists are on the road to perdition for their sins. But a conclusion that "many Christians are on the road to perdition" is not even slightly damaging to the thesis urged by those who point to Mt. 7 and argue that "many" will be damned. And, indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, there have been numerous saints who described just that situation: in their estimation, many Christians were on the road to perdition. They may have been making that judgment from the general tenor of the culture, or from being a priest sitting in the confessional hearing confessions and wondering about all the people NOT coming to confession, or on account of private revelation.

It seems to me that we all fall far short of perfection, judging by the standard depicted in the Didache.

I agree that we all fall short, we are all sinners. I agree with the "all" in "fall FAR short" if we take "all" in a rough, approximate way: there are some few of us who fall short noticeably less than most of us do. These are, sometimes, the men and women proclaimed to be saints. (Some saintly men and women were so quiet in their holiness that no public notice was made of their sanctity. So, not ALL holy people are proclaimed.) There are some men and women whose behavior is clearly far closer to the measure of perfection than what is common among mankind: far more loving and generous, far less prone to acting on anger, honest even in the face of great loss for it, even to the point of being murdered for it, etc.

Nor am I claiming that only Catholics can be found like this, to live lives of manifest holiness. I am not commenting on where such holiness can be found: I am here considering how often it is found - or rather, its opposite.

Note, also, that Catholic teaching leaves room for "ordinary persons", i.e. those who are NOT noted for unusual sanctity, that they may still get to heaven through Purgatory, in which they become cleansed from sin that is not "mortal" in nature or guilt. Thus, even if MOST Catholics (or most Christians generally) are "far" from the measure of perfection in the Didache, that does not by itself imply that they are in a state of mortal sin and destined for Hell (unless they repent of their grave sins). Thus, among the portion of the population who are actively and consciously trying to conform to a right model of holiness, I suspect many probably are not headed for Hell most of the time. But this portion of the population is, itself, probably a minority.

I think it common among even serious Christians to fall into grave sin on some occasions, and then have need of repentance before they can be restored to a condition in which they would even make it to Purgatory (much less straight to Heaven), and thus it is probable that among non-serious Christians, they have such occasions often and (also probably) relatively fewer of them bother to repent of them and return to the the road headed for the "narrow gate" that leads to heaven. I don't know how it is in the Protestant Churches, but in the Catholic Church as it currently exists in the US these days, fewer than 1/3 go to mass every week, and I would be hard pressed to come up with a reason why nearly all of the 2/3 + who do not do so could possibly be classed in the category "serious Christians" as I used it above. So, to me it seems probable that MOST are on the broad and easy road toward Hell. That's why it is broad, to take the heavy traffic.

Your comment, Vincent, seems to be based on a premise only implied, that if the standard of who gets to Heaven is that of the Didache, we would ALL be lost and headed to Hell, and thus it would be not just "many" but "all". And since (I think you are implying), that will be considered to be an absurd result, this shows that the deciding standard isn't that of the Didache, and therefore, many may go to Heaven.

I would distinguish between the standard of what it takes to get into Heaven and what it takes to "avoid Hell", being not identical.

If your asking about people who have lived so far, there's a more definitive way to answer. Nulla salus extra ecclesiam. Even if every person who is nominally Christian will be saved, most people aren't. "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his."

But if we are taking into account future history, I feel much less confident about answering the question. I'm a postimillenialist, so I expect a global Christendom before the second coming. And I expect the church will then be significantly more holy in practice than it has been hitherto. So it might be that a large majority in future will be ultimately saved, and it's reasonably likely that the world population will be larger in future. But whether that adds up to a majority of all humans who will have ever lived, ... seems to me there's not enough information to make even an educated guess.

Christopher, I am comfortable with postmillenialism of sorts, though I think that there being a period of (relative) thriving of the Church throughout the world is not fundamentally incompatible with there being long periods, both before and after that millennium, of dreadful times. Which would imply the possibility that the numbers from the bad times would (or could) greatly outweigh the numbers from the good times.

But that aside, do you think that the Bible also doesn't give us enough information to make an educated guess? Is it so opaque that no result is more probable than another?

Update on 4-3-2022

I should have included this in my original post, but I will add it now: One of the intuitions I have that I am willing to consider open to correction is that there is a range of "acceptable" percentages of those damned (who are members of the Church) versus those saved (who are in the Church) that is reasonably anticipated from what God lets us see through revelation, but then there is some higher ratio of those damned compared to those saved that exceeds what we could reasonably accept representing what revelation indicates. Here's what I mean: let us say that at the end, 80% of Christians go to Hell and 20% go to Heaven. One might say of this "Yes, this is what God prophesied would be the case, and it fits just fine with his Plan, which shows Christ overcoming Satan and death. The Church was the success it was meant to be in saving 20%." But if the percentage of Christians damned ends up being 99.999999%, and those saved only 0.000001%, I am not so easily persuaded that one could equally well say of this outcome that it represents "Christ's success in overcoming death, and the Church was the success it was meant to be and what God indicated for it in Scripture." I have seen comments suggesting that this would be "just my modern, worldly bias" about the matter, even ONE person saved by Christ in the Church is enough to show God's mercy and power over death and fulfill God's promises - even if all the rest end up in Hell. (Well, let's say about 10, since there are roughly that many that - pretty explicitly - the Bible says are among the saved.) But that just sits wrong in my guts. Yet I don't feel confident that I can prove the point, either. And yet even more, I feel like picking "THE" percentage where it flips from OK to not OK, even granting a gray area in between, is a task we are unfit for.

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

Seems to entail that at the height of the triumph of the church militant, an overwhelming majority of the world population will have their sins propitiated by the blood of Christ.

That verse was important in moving me from amillennial to postmillennial eschatology. The Biblical case for Calvinist soteriology is, my view, conclusive. But when Arminians challenge Calvinists with this verse, the things amillenial Calvinists say to interpret John sound like squeezing and forcing the text to make it fit. Just as bad as anything Arminians say to try to wriggle out of the overt teaching of Romans 9.

When John begins by saying he is the propitiation for our sins, that's because he propitiated for our sins. He didn't just make propitiation for our sins a possibility. He is the propitiation. Which means our sins are propitiated. Then the deliberate expansion, contrasting "us" a smaller group, with "the whole world". The phrase "the whole world" is most reasonably interpreted as referring to the whole world. Not a small number of people taken from all over the world. Because that's not what "the whole world" means. It means the whole world. What it is for Christ to be the propitiation for their sins is the same as what it is for him to be the propitiation for our sins, because the same expression (numerically the same!) is applied to both in the same verse.

This can only mean that the whole world will be saved. But John certainly did not think that most everyone in his generation would be saved.

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
So John is not taking a perspective sub specie aeternitatis, but rather an anticipatory perspective on the historical progress of salvation, beginning with a tiny flock of Jews in the first century, and expanding to fill the whole world, as the rock in Daniel's vision.

Christopher, I see the point, but I think it is lacking a little. For one thing, the verb "is" sits in the present tense, in saying

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

You can propose that he is using "is" for the propitiation of the few saints in his own day, but it is meant in the prospective, as he will be the propitiation for the whole world, but this is certainly not the definitive way to reconcile these passages. Not at all.

For one thing, there seems to be something rather arbitrary about how the when of "the whole world" being saved occurs: if we go on for 10,000 more years before the anticipated "whole world's" people are saved, and during the next 9,900 years 99% of all people go to Hell, the fact that at the end it's everybody alive at that moment saved is still a pitiful portion of humanity, and there is no particular reason to think those last people are somehow more rightfully the ones to be saved en masse than prior generations.

Furthermore, Scripture strongly suggests that at the end the world will be full of many people living lives of sin, who will beg the mountains to fall on them, and "even the elect" will have trouble maintaining their faith - which John says is crucial, in the passage you cited. Insofar as revelation has it, the last generation will be even worse than usual, not better. (Yes, God can save even such a generation, en masse, but...why?)

Finally, it seems right to mark the present tense of the "is" specifically to Christ and his salvific death on the cross, and not to the people being saved: Christ IS the propitiation, once and forever, as he does not need to die over and over again. His salvific sacrifice suffices for the whole world as to ALL of time: those then alive, those dead already (for Abraham was saved on account of Christ, and his belief in Christ), and those yet to be born. Therefore, there is no need to seek out a difference between those then alive and those later, as to the extent of his propitiation. Which, when you take that with the point you made about John's comment, means that both in that moment there were some saints who would be saved and some who refused to believe and would not be saved, so also later.

Just a couple of quick notes on the Scriptural passages from the OP.

The common interpretation of the "last penny" passage, often with reference to the parable of the unforgiving servant and his outlandish debt, is that making such a payment is impossible, and thus the punishment never ends. Indeed, if it were possible for us to pay the debt on our own, what was the purpose of Christ taking on flesh and dying for us to begin with?

The other thing I wanted to note is that the "narrow gate" passages in Matthew and Luke are not synonymous--they're complementary. The passage in Matthew speaks of how few find the narrow gate. All those who don't find it are lost.

The passage in Luke, however, speaks of those who try to enter the narrow gate, but are not strong enough. The fact that they try to enter the gate would have to mean that they've already found it--they are in the smaller subset from Matthew's passage. But here, again, most of those who try to get in are too weak, and they too are lost.

Altogether, it's a rather depressing picture Jesus paints.

"Altogether, it's a rather depressing picture Jesus paints."

Exactly the conclusion of the disciples: "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus, of course, had an answer for them. Not depressing at all, really.

You can start an entirely new life in Jesus, but not before you bring your old life to an end. To avoid misunderstanding, let me say that we are not talking here about suicide! We are talking about a radical change of life—a change so radical that it truly feels like a death experience.

The Bible talks about a “new birth”, a second birth. Even a Jewish rabbi was confused by what this means: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4, NASB). There is a pattern of transformation that was established in the “gospel events” of the life of Jesus—His death on the Cross, burial in a tomb, and resurrection to newness of life. Jesus set the pattern: first a death experience, which is followed by a “new birth” (a resurrection). When people of faith follow Jesus through this pattern, they are born again.

Listen carefully to Jesus. All through the Gospel of John, Jesus insists “my hour has not yet come.” When some Greeks seek Him out, Jesus knows the moment has arrived: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him" (John 12:23–26). First, observe the pattern in the germination of a plant from seed. Its existence in seed form comes to an end—a form of death. But out of the destruction of the seed, new life emerges—a picture of resurrection. Second, that experience is lonely, solitary for the poor seed. But once it sprouts forth, it generates seeds that will each repeat the pattern of death and rebirth—alone no more!

The New Testament writings often discuss this death experience. Paul exclaims, “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” (Galatians 2:20, NASB). The pattern is clear, isn’t it? And again, “I die daily!” (1 Corinthians 15:31). It is clear that Paul is following the pattern set by Jesus, both modeled (on the Cross) and taught to followers: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).

Now, let’s transition to the new birth: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus told Nicodemus. And again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:3–6, NASB). The new birth generates new life because God puts His Spirit into the heart of every person that dies with Jesus. Baptism (in water) is where death and rebirth take place. When one goes under the water, it is a burial of the “old self”—"Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him” (Romans 6:3–8, NASB).

Baptism is also the place where the Holy Spirit is received, following the pattern set by Jesus with His baptism: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him” (Mark 1:9–10). For us who follow into baptism, we are “born of water and Spirit”, just as Peter promised on the day of Pentecost: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The new birth brings a radical change of life. Sin had a place in the old life; it has no place in the new. How is change possible? The Holy Spirit brings the power for holiness against the power of sin. The reborn Christian is now a “saint” who is “sanctified” (that is, made holy). The new quality of life may be described in such positivistic terms, without requiring an absolutely perfect and immediate break with sin. There is a growth process. Even so, the new birth breaks the previous slavery under sin: “ Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:3–9, NASB).

The new birth brings you fresh into the family of God, adopted and in line for a full inheritance. The Spirit, now dwelling inside you, recreates you into the image of Jesus. When He returns, you will look very much like each other!

John, what you say is all good, but I am not sure how it addresses the questions raised in this thread. Do you have any thoughts about how the number of those who will finally be saved does, or does not, seem to readily match up with the implications of the Gospels?

Tony, my post aims to recover the theological essentials necessary for one to be saved. As I read the present situation, these essentials have largely been missed or set aside. This has direct bearing on the final number to be saved--the gospel as my witness. Alternative theologies are readily offered with the promise of salvation. As inadequate responses to the Cross, they will fail and are failing multitudes. A final number? As I read it, much slighter than the total religiously active and affiliated. It gives me no pleasure to be this stingy.

So, John, I suspect you would lean in the direction of "explaining away" those passages in the New Testament which appear to say or at least suggest that all or nearly all will be saved. Do you have a general take on HOW to explain those passages so that they make sense, either individually, or taken globally in the whole context of the Gospels?

I ask this not as an attack, because I have the very same inclination - to believe that "many" go through the wide gate to perdition, and that this is meant to contrast to "few" who go through the narrow gate to heaven. But the main point of this thread is to elicit a firm ground from which to interpret the two streams of passages, each in tension with the other.

If it's necessary to accept Jesus in order to avoid hell, then all of the 47 billion people who lived before him are toast. Anyone could come up with a better plan.

Tony, I'm not sure I understand your criticism of me. You say the present tense, if it does not undermine my interpretation completely, at least disfavors it, all things considered. But your own interpretation does not take the present tense to require that the propitiation is applied to those said to be propitiated at the time John wrote those words. Rather, you think the present indicates the fact that Christ had already accomplished the propitiation at that time, so that nothing follows one way or the other (just from the verb tense) about when the propitiation is applied to the individuals whose sins are propitiated.

Well, that makes sense to me. And if it is correct, then the present tense of the verb doesn't tell against my interpretation, right?

Therefore, there is no need to seek out a difference between those then alive and those later, as to the extent of his propitiation.

Wherefore the 'therefore'? The need to seek out a difference derives from the natural meaning of the phrase, "the whole world" together with the plain fact that most people, then and now, do not believe, and thus are not saved. That's the core of my argument, and I don't see that you have addressed it.

As for your counter-argument about passages implying vast hordes of unbelievers at the end of the world: I tend to preterist interpretations of those passages, consistent with the fact that the NT writers viewed their own time as "the last days," (e.g., Hebrews 1.1-2) and with the fact that our Lord's Olivet discourse, which bears all the marks of a typical "end of the world" prophecy, is explicitly about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Finally, I notice I left out an important part of my case: the OT background. The OT contains a slew of passages predicting that the Messiah would bring salvation to the ends of the earth. There are psalms saying that all nations will worship the Lord. Isaiah says that it is too small a thing for the Messiah to save Israel. The knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth like the waters fill the sea. The stone in Daniel's vision that smashes the statue of pagan empires grows until it fills the whole world. Etc., etc. A first century Jew, with a mindset shaped by the OT, would be very likely to have such things in mind, when speaking of the salvation of the world. Such an author would be very likely to be thinking in terms of the historical progress of salvation. By contrast, a sub specie aeternitatis viewpoint is how someone of a later period of church history would more naturally think. We have in our background theological debates that ask those kinds of questions. But John's background was different, and I claim that because of what his background was, we should prefer an interpretation in which salvation is viewed in its historical unfolding, which is how the Scriptures most often treat it.

Tony,
Just to take one example (without getting too deep into the weeds), John 12:32 has Jesus declare, conditioned on His being "lifted up", His ability to draw all people to himself. Although this might be heard as suggesting universalism, tending to the wider context of the Fourth Gospel tamps down this reading as overreach. In the Good Shepherd narrative, Jesus differentiates His sheep from those who follow a false (hireling) shepherd. I know no passage that will bear the weight of unrestricted universalism. Beyond exegesis of particular texts, the rather narrow scope of salvation is supported by the widest sweep of NT theology. Old Covenant Israel had failed to live up to God's requirements in covenantal Law. God's recourse was to call people of all nations under a New Covenant. It differed from the Old with the gifts of Divine Son and Spirit, which make it possible for Christians to succeed precisely where Israel had stumbled. This is achieved through "positivistic sanctification", which deals with sin by effectively eliminating its eruption in Christian life. without claiming a life that is absolutely sinless, many texts attest to a life so purified after baptism that it is solid evidence that slavery under sin has been broken. This sets the bar so high that, obvious to all, very few attain it.
John

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