Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Salvation of All: A Necessary Inference

In this essay, my primary objectives will be:

1. To briefly present what the alternatives are to the doctrine of the salvation of all within Christian theology (i.e., Calvinism and Arminianism); and

2. To demonstrate that the truth of universal salvation is implicitly taught in Scripture as a necessary inference derived from two foundational facts of Scripture: Christ's love for all people, and his complete Lordship over all people.

Before I do this, however, allow me to first explain what exactly a "necessary inference" is, as well as show how important the use of logic and reason is to understanding Scripture and the truths it contains. Some seem wary of the use of logic and reason when it comes to reading the Bible and trying to understand what it teaches. It's almost as if they see logic and reason as enemies of our faith. The reality, however, is that logic and reason are invaluable allies of the believer. If anything, it is more often our feelings and desires that get in the way of truth, rather than clear, logical thinking.

What is "Necessary Inference?"

"Necessary inference" can be defined as "a conclusion militated by reason and logic applied to known facts." It is simply a truth that is not directly or expressly stated, but which must necessarily follow as a logical conclusion from what is stated. The conclusion drawn from the facts is irresistible.If (for example) there is snow covering the ground in the morning, one may infer that the temperature was below 32 degrees during the night. This would be a necessary inference. We use such reasoning in everyday life so often that we usually don't even realize we are doing it. If I tell you my age, that is a direct statement. But if tell you the date of my birth, you may reason to the same conclusion. This is all that is meant by "necessary inference": a conclusion that is not directly stated but necessarily follows from other known facts. Whether a conclusion is stated directly or indirectly, either way it is just as true.

Now, it is evident that Scripture sanctions the use of reasoning in our coming to believe what is true. We read that Paul "reasoned from the scriptures" to prove that Christ must die and rise again, and that Jesus is the Christ (the "scriptures" from which Paul reasoned were the Old Testament - cf. Acts 28:23). But what Old Testament passage directly or explicitly states that Christ must rise from the dead (without reasoning to conclusions)? What passage directly or explicitly stated that Jesus of Nazareth would be Christ? Old Testament prophecy definitely shows that Jesus is the Christ, but this requires taking passages and reasoning to the necessary conclusion that Jesus would rise from the dead and is the Christ. Note that this was the method Paul "customarily" used to persuade people (Acts 17:2).

Peter used this kind of argumentation as well. For example, he quoted David's prophecy that "you will not leave my soul in Hades nor allow your Holy One to see corruption" (v. 27). He reasoned as follows: 1. David said "my" soul, but he could not have meant himself since he did die (v. 29). "Therefore" (conclusion), the reference must have been to the Christ, David's descendant (v. 30). 2. And if he did not see corruption, then he must have been raised from the dead (v. 31).

Another example of necessary inference can be found in Acts 11:1-18 (cf. 10:9-35, 44-48). The Jews were questioning Peter for teaching the gospel to Gentiles. But it was concluded that Peter was in the right because of the following facts: 1. He had a vision showing he should not consider things unclean if God had cleansed them. 2. The Spirit told him to go with the messengers from Cornelius. 3. An angel had told Cornelius to send for Peter. 4. Cornelius received Holy Spirit baptism as Peter preached to them. Peter and the Jews thus came to the conclusion that the Gentiles had been granted repentance to life (note "therefore" and "then" - vv. 17-18). (cf. Peter's conclusion in 10:28.) Here is one of the most important doctrines of the New Testament; yet the practice was begun on the basis of evidence, none of which directly stated the conclusion. The conclusion had to be inferred.

Jesus himself made use of logic and reason in his teaching and interactions with people, and expected those listening to him to do the same. For example, the synoptic Gospels inform us that the Sadducees (who did not believe there would be a resurrection; see Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8) confronted Jesus with an anti-resurrection argument in an attempt to confound him and undermine his growing influence (Mark 12:18-23). The argument with which they confronted Jesus is an example of a reductio ad absurdum. In such an argument you grant your opponent's premise (in this case, that there will be a resurrection), show that it leads to an absurd or unacceptable conclusion (in this case, that adultery will be permissible in the resurrection), and argue, therefore, that the granted premise should be denied.

In response to their argument against the resurrection, Jesus used Scripture and reason to expose the error of the Sadducees, and to teach those listening the truth on this subject (vv. 24-27). Note that Jesus did not condemn reasoning from scripture; what he condemned was reasoning incorrectly. A scribe who overheard this interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees understood them to be "reasoning together" (Mark 12:28). But Jesus exposed the erroneous premises on which the Sadducees' argument was based, and concluded that they were "greatly mistaken"(v. 27). By applying reason to what Scripture said, Jesus was able to infer this remarkable conclusion from a verse that directly said nothing about resurrection, and thereby confound those who had attempted to confound him.

Finally, consider also the use of rhetorical questions in Scripture. These are questions asked for which the hearer is expected to understand the answer without explicitly being told it. Some examples are 1 Corinthians 1:13; Luke 10:36f; Mark 8:36f; 1 Peter 4:17f; etc. All these instances require the student to reach conclusions that are not directly stated, but must be inferred.

Many other examples of such argumentation being used in Scripture could be given, but these should be sufficient to convince the reader of the importance on which Scripture places the use of logical thinking in coming to know what is true. The capacity to reason and think critically is a gift from God, and we should make every effort to use it as we seek to understand what God has revealed to us in Scripture.

An Inferior Hope

Consider the following question that a person might ask their pastor concerning a loved one who (as far as they know) died in unbelief: "Is there any hope for those who die before coming to faith in Christ?" In response to such a question, the only honest and consistent answer that a herald of the gospel (as it is popularly understood) could give is, "None whatsoever." Thus, the gospel as popularly understood by both Christians and non-Christians alike is a message woefully inadequate in its ability to provide hope for all people. It is so inadequate, in fact, that it provides no hope whatsoever for a vast number of human beings (i.e., those who die in a state of unbelief, without having yet been justified by God). It is my belief that the true gospel is a sure and abundant source of inspiration and encouragement in all circumstances - even the death of a loved one who dies in unbelief. And it is also my belief that the hope which the gospel provides is consistent with our purest and loftiest desires. But if this is the case, this hope is also incomparably greater than the hope that most Christians have, unfortunately, settled.

It is a widely-held belief among most professing Christians that our life on this earth is probationary, and that God has suspended the eternal destiny of his image-bearing creatures on something that they must do or experience before they die. "Where will you spend eternity?" is a somber question often included in the presentation of the gospel by "evangelical Christians" (especially prominent in gospel tracts). This rhetorical question is, of course, meant to elicit a repentant response of faith from those to whom it is posed. But the underlying assumption of this and other similar questions is that there is more than one location or state in which a person might spend the entirety of their future, post-mortem existence, and that their final, eternal destiny ultimately hinges on a decision they must make - or a conversion experience they must have - before they die. According to the traditional view, those who die in unbelief regarding Jesus Christ and his redemptive work will find themselves irreversibly and irredeemably condemned to a hopeless, God-forsaken place of suffering and despair with no possibility of relief or deliverance. After billions and billions of years of separation from all that is good and worth living for, the unredeemed will be no closer to an end of their suffering than they were the moment it first began. It is this disturbing and nightmarish scene that is implicit in every presentation of the traditional, "orthodox" gospel.

According to the traditional view, "hell" (a place or state of eternal conscious torment or permanent loss) is to be the fate of a vast number of human beings. And assuming such a place of unimaginable horror and hopelessness awaits those who die in a certain state or condition, how could anyone avoid this fate without a Savior who is both able and willing to save them? But according to the gospel as it's traditionally understood and proclaimed, Jesus is either unwilling or unable to do just this. Consider the two most popular theological camps into which most Christians fall: the Arminian camp (named after Jacobus Arminius, 1560-1609) and the Calvinist camp (named after John Calvin, 1509-1564).

For those Christians who fall into the Arminian (or "free will") theological camp, humans are able to successfully thwart God's sovereign purpose for them by resisting his best efforts to save them. According to this position, God genuinely wants all people to be reconciled to himself, and sent his Son into the world to die for all people without exception. This position also affirms that God is doing everything he can (at least, up until a certain point) to make the salvation of all people a reality. However, Arminians also believe that God is ultimately unable to achieve what he wants due to the exercise of human "free will." A small number of so-called "Free Will Theists" hold that, even though God may pursue the salvation of sinners forever, this is no guarantee that God will actually succeed in saving them (for, they believe, his will may simply be forever resisted by them). The more common view, however, is that God will pursue the salvation of sinners only up to a certain point (e.g., physical death, or even some time prior to this), after which time God gives up on them completely, and they are lost forever. Either way, God is ultimately unsuccessful according to the Arminian position, and loses many whom he'd desired and hoped would be saved.

The situation is very different for the traditional Reformed/Calvinist position. For those who fall into this theological camp, God is fully able to save all people and reconcile them to himself, but he is ultimately unwilling to do this, and did not send Jesus into the world for this purpose. Some Calvinists believe (inconsistently) that Jesus died for everyone, and that the atonement is thus universal in its scope. What makes this view inconsistent is that they also believe that God elected only some to be finally saved, and that he works redemptively and efficaciously in the hearts of only this select category of people to bring them to saving faith in Christ and his atoning work. From the rest of humanity he withholds his redeeming grace, leaving them to die in a state of sinful rebellion and unbelief (and ultimately, to suffer his wrath for all eternity in hell). Thus, according to Calvinism, God is fully successful in his redemptive purpose, and saves no less (and no more) than the exact number of people that he wanted to save from before the foundation of the world.

As is obvious from the above descriptions, the Arminian and Calvinist positions differ radically in what they affirm and deny in terms of God's willingness and ability to save people. This has, unsurprisingly, been a source of ongoing debates and controversies between both parties throughout much of church history, with some on both sides of the debate being reluctant or unwilling to consider the opposing party as being within the bounds of what they consider to be Christian orthodoxy (or, in more extreme cases, to be considered "Christian" at all!). It is significant, however, that both views ultimately lead to the exact same conclusion - namely, that most people will never be reconciled to God but will instead spend their final state in endless separation from him. Thus, according to these two theological views, those persons who end up forever lost do so ultimately because God either lacked the will or the power to actually save them. But is this the true and living God revealed in scripture? I don't think so. I believe that God is much better - infinitely better - than this, and that the facts of the gospel - and the unavoidable implication that follows from these facts - will bear this out fully, as we'll see in the remainder of this article.

Fact 1: Jesus Loves You, This I Know

Scripture teaches that Christ was conceived and born a human being (Heb. 2:14, 17; 1 John 4:2-3), and that he lived his entire life without sin (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 7:26-27; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). And since "sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4), it follows that Christ perfectly kept - and continues to keep - the law of God. That is, Christ perfectly met, and continues to meet, the holy demands of God's law. But what is the law of God? What does it demand of men? Along with the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, the greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31). This sacred commandment is called the "royal law" by the apostle James (James 2:8). And according to the apostle Paul, it is this commandment in which the entire law is "fulfilled" (Gal 5:14) and "summed up" (Rom 13:9). There can be no denying the centrality and supremacy of this law in the NT.

But what is love? Although the word is never explicitly defined in Scripture, enough is said about love to give us a good understanding of its nature. According to Paul, the reason why the entire law is "summed up" in the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is because "love does no harm to a neighbor" (v. 10). By doing "harm to a neighbor" Paul evidently meant doing anything which is inconsistent with a person's best interest. Love, then, necessarily does the opposite - i.e., it seeks to promote a person's best interest in whatever way it can. Love wills the highest good and well-being of others, not their harm. Though love may at times appear severe from the perspective of the beloved, it always looks to the future happiness and well-being of its object (Heb 12:5-11). It does not and cannot will pain and suffering as an end in itself. In Lamentations 3:31-33 we read, "For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly (lit., "from the heart") afflict or grieve the children of men." Here the prophet reveals what may be understood as a universal principle underlying God's relationship with humanity: the grief that God causes his human creatures is temporary, and is not an end in itself. God's ultimate purpose for humanity does not involve anyone's being afflicted or grieved. And in 1 John 4:8 the apostle reveals why this is so: because "God is love." Because God's nature is unequivocally defined by love, it is impossible for him to do anything that is inconsistent with anyone's best interest.

Having briefly considered the nature of love, let us now ask: does Christ perfectly obey the commandments that he himself declared to be the greatest of all? That is, does Jesus keep God's law? It would be impossible to deny this while at the same time affirming Jesus' sinless nature. Thus, we may say with confidence that, not only does Jesus love his Father with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, but that he also loves his neighbor as himself. Now, it is evident that by one's "neighbor" Christ meant anyone within the sphere of one's influence, whether they be considered a friend or a foe (Luke 10:25-37; Matt 5:43-45). This means that Christ loves (i.e., wills the best interest of) all people, both dead and living- for as Lord of all, all people are within the sphere of Jesus' sovereign influence. And his perfect obedience to God's law necessitates that Christ's love not only embraces the entirety of Adam's fallen race, but that his love for all people is at least equal to his love for himself.

That Paul understood Christ's love to be greater and more extensive than anyone can fathom is evident from his writings. Consider, for example, Paul's powerful prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Notice how Paul speaks of people who are "rooted and established (or "grounded") in love" as needing power just to grasp (or "comprehend") "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ." If Christ's love was somehow limited, it would not require any power to grasp, and it certainly couldn't be said to "surpass knowledge." We encounter such limited, imperfect love every day, both in other people and in ourselves. But the love of the one who not only commanded his disciples to love their enemies, but then showed what this kind of looks like by laying down his life for a sinful, selfish world, can truly be said to "surpass knowledge." Christ's love is infinite in scope; there are no limits to its width and length and height and depth. It is for this reason that fallen human beings require power from God just to grasp it.

Now, let us ask: What would such perfect and limitless love want to do for those who comprise the objects of its embrace? Answer: Anyone whose heart was motivationally governed by such perfect, unsurpassable love would want to do all that was within their power to promote the best interest of their neighbors to the fullest extent possible. Thus, because Jesus' disposition toward all people is one of complete benevolence, it would be impossible for him to neglect to do all that he could to promote the best interest of his fellow man. His perfect obedience to God's law means that he could never will anything less than this for anyone. Because perfect love is necessarily redemptive in nature, it follows that if Jesus could save everyone and make them fit for heaven, he would do so, ultimately. But can he?

Fact 2: Jesus is Lord of Everyone

As important as the fact of Jesus' love for the world is to our faith, this fact alone would be insufficient as a grounds for trusting him to actually save anyone. For to have the will and desire to do something does not, by itself, mean one also has the authority and power. The latter fact must be established independently of the former. While Jesus is fully willing and inclined to save everyone, this in itself is no guarantee that he will, in fact, save everyone. So let us ask: does Jesus also have the authority and power to do what we know he has the will and desire to accomplish? To answer this question, let us consider another essential aspect of Christ's identity: his Lordship.

Central to the believer's understanding of the gospel is the fact that Jesus is Lord (Luke 2:10-11; Rom 10:9). When God raised Jesus from the dead, we are told that he made him "Lord of all" (Acts 2:36; 10:36; Rom 10:12) and gave him "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matt 28:18). In Romans 14:8-9 Paul gives his readers the end or purpose for which Christ died: so that he "might be Lord both of the dead and of the living." The "dead and the living," of course, includes the entire human race, for all people come under one of these two divisions. Moreover, the word "Lord" (kyrios) is a title of respect and dignity, and in its fullest sense denotes one who has absolute ownership rights of another, claiming them as one's property. Because of his humble, lifelong obedience to God that culminated in his death on a cross, God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him this exalted status, thereby making Christ the "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36; cf. 1 Cor 11:3). Elsewhere we learn that all people have been given to Christ by God (John 3:35; 13:3; Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22) and that Christ is "the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15) and thus the inheritor of "all things" (Heb 1:2 cf. Psalm 2:8). While some Christians today seem to hold to the mistaken idea that Jesus must be made Lord of one's life, the truth is that Jesus is already Lord of everyone's life. He is our Lord regardless of whether or not we realize it or are presently submitting to his Lordship. And as Lord, it is his will - not ours - that will ultimately be done.

We are further told that Jesus has the power to subject all to himself (Phil 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:25-28), and that there is nothing outside of his control (Heb 2:8). Thus, that which had previously been said of the Father can now be said of the Son: "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2). "Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all the deeps" (Ps 135:6). "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'" (Dan 4:35). To be "Lord" is to have absolute ownership rights. As Lord of all, it necessarily follows that Jesus is completely sovereign over the destiny of all people, whether living or dead. That is, Jesus has the full power and authority to determine the final state of each and every individual; as Lord of all, our lives are completely at his disposal, and he alone is the final arbitrator of human destiny.

If Jesus wants everyone to remain sinful for all eternity, he has the power and authority to make it so (we certainly have no power or authority to make ourselves fit for heaven!). And if Jesus wants to ultimately transform all people into loyal and obedient subjects of God, he has the power and authority to bring it about. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. It is, therefore, entirely up to Jesus whether or not people will remain sinful wretches for all eternity, or be transformed into holy subjects of God's kingdom. We are all, quite literally, at Jesus' complete mercy. As Lord of all, there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can prevent Jesus from accomplishing his will and purpose for each and every human being. Jesus and Jesus alone has the final word in regards to our future destiny. Like his Father, Jesus is to us the Potter, and we are but clay (Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18:6). Any threat to his sovereignty is only apparent, not real. All opposition to his will must ultimately yield.

But mustn't a person's subjection to Jesus be voluntary if they are to be truly saved and made fit for an eternity in heaven? Of course. We should rightfully think it absurd to speak of people being forced into heaven whilst remaining in a state of willful disobedience and hardened rebellion against God. But this is not at all what is being argued for here. The salvation of any sinner ultimately involves a transformation of the heart (brought about by God) which leads to the voluntary re-alignment of the human will with the divine will. And since God is all-wise and all-knowing, he necessarily knows the exact conditions and circumstances in which such a response to his grace would be elicited from all people without exception. That is, God - being God - necessarily knows exactly what it would take to elicit such voluntary love and obedience from every one of his image-bearing creatures. Being all-knowing and all-wise, God knows the exact conditions necessary to bring about a state of universal salvation in which all people respond to Jesus' Lordship with heartfelt obedience, and to his grace with love and thanksgiving. And since Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth from his Father, it follows that he has the authority to bring about the exact conditions and circumstances necessary to elicit such a response from all people, regardless of how sinful and hardened in rebellion against God they might presently be.

The apostle Paul, perhaps more than any other person, had a clear understanding of the truth of divine sovereignty (Rom 9:19-20). Consider that it is Paul who declared himself to be the "chief of sinners" whom Christ came into the world to save (1 Tim 1:15). But in spite of his hard-heartedness and self-righteousness, Jesus graciously saved Paul from his own unbelief. On the road to Damascus, Paul was neither seeking out God, nor repentant, nor deep in prayer contemplating whether or not to "accept Jesus as his personal Savior." He was instead in the middle of hunting down more believers in order to have them imprisoned, or worse (Acts 9:1-6). Though overflowing with religious zeal, he was deep in unbelief, and utterly oblivious to the fact that he was, in actuality, living in rebellion against the true Messiah and Lord of the universe.

Yet when the appointed time came (see Gal 1:13-16), Christ appeared to Paul and subjected him to himself in an instant with the glorious revelation of who he is. As a result of his remarkable encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was forever changed, and his will forever yielded to Christ – and this took place without any resistance from Paul. Paul tells us that "the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 1:14). Jesus' grace was "more than abundant" (lit., "super-abounded"; cf. Rom 5:20) and overwhelmed Paul, irresistibly producing within him both his faith in, and love for, his Savior. Paul was incapable of fighting it off or rejecting it; it would have been like trying to stop the sun's rays from lighting up the sky at daybreak. And if Jesus thus saved Paul, it stands to reason that he can save anyone, irrespective of their present unbelief or unwillingness to seek God.

Putting Two and Two Together

As Lord of all, it is evident that Jesus has unlimited power and authority to do for all people what he is, in his heart, inclined or willing to do for them. So if it is indeed true that Jesus is Lord of all, then it follows that Jesus has all power and authority to promote, to the fullest extent possible, the best interest of all people. Christ has the authority and power to ultimately transform each and every sinner into a loyal subject of God, just as he did for Paul on the road to Damascus. Again, as Lord, there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can prevent him from doing what he wants to do. And since the extent to which the best interest of others can be promoted is determined by one's power and wisdom, it follows that Jesus is fully able to promote the best interest of all people to the fullest extent (for he has all power and wisdom). This means that Jesus is fully able to bring every person who has ever lived to the same place of willing, humble submission to himself that Paul was brought to on the day that his apostolic destiny was revealed to him.

If Jesus wants all people to be reconciled to God that they might thereby fulfill the "chief end" for which they were created (which, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is "to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever") then there is nothing to prevent this from happening. And since Jesus loves all people perfectly, we can be confident that Jesus does, indeed, want all people to be reconciled to God. So what is the conclusion (the "necessary inference") that we should draw from these facts? Answer: We should conclude that all people are ultimately going to be reconciled to God and become willing, obedient subjects of his kingdom.

Consider the following argument:

(1) Jesus' love for all people is equal to his love for himself, which means he is fully inclined to save all people (i.e., Jesus genuinely wants to ultimately bring about the circumstances in which voluntary love and obedience will be elicited from all people).

(2) Jesus is Lord of all, which means he is sovereign over the destinies of all people, both dead and living (i.e., Jesus is fully able to bring about the circumstances in which voluntary love and obedience will be elicited from all people).

(3) Because Jesus is both fully able and fully inclined to save all people, it follows (as a necessary inference) that all people, whether living or dead, will ultimately be saved by Christ, and will become willing, obedient subjects of God's kingdom.

The conclusion of this argument follows unavoidably from the known facts. According to this argument, if some people will not ultimately be saved, then it will either be because (1) Jesus was unable to save them (which would mean that Jesus is not Lord of all), or because (2) Jesus was unwilling to save them (which would mean Jesus does not perfectly keep God's law). One would be trying in vain to discover a third option. Jesus is either able to save everyone, or he is not. Jesus either genuinely wants everyone to be saved, or he does not. If Jesus is neither able nor willing to save everyone, then it follows that not everyone will be saved. But if Jesus is both able and willing, then it is inevitable that everyone will ultimately be saved. One may not understand how or when Jesus will accomplish the salvation of all people, but we can be certain that it will be accomplished. Jesus' love for sinners (manifested most fully in his sacrificial death on the cross - 1 Pet 3:18; Rom 5:8; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Luke 23:34) and his power and authority to subject sinners to himself (manifested most fully in the miraculous conversion of Paul) unite to forge an unbreakable divine promise that all sinners will ultimately be reconciled to God. To deny this conclusion one must deny either Jesus' power and authority to save all people, or his desire and willingness to save all people.

But What About...?

In spite of the above argument, many will still find themselves unable to embrace the conclusion at which we've arrived (in spite of the fact that the conclusion irresistibly follows from the premises). The following are three objections that may be raised.

Objection 1: "Universal Salvation Contradicts Scripture"

What about the passages in Scripture that have traditionally been understood to teach or imply that some will never be saved? This is a legitimate question. The short answer is that such passages have been mistranslated and/or misinterpreted. However, it is not the purpose of this article to examine such passages. While the importance of carefully examining Biblical texts and weighing the validity and probability of interpretations cannot be overstated, a lack of full understanding of how exactly a verse or passage should be interpreted need not be a hindrance to trusting that God will ultimately save all people. Consider the following: Is it more certain that Jesus Christ is both able and inclined to save everyone, or is it more certain that the traditional interpretations given to a certain set of passages are correct? In view of the above arguments, I submit that every candid reader will have to admit that the former is far more certain than the latter. Jesus' ability and willingness to save all people are undeniable and irrefutable facts which, when seriously reflected upon, no Christian can honestly deny. However, the traditional interpretations given to passages such as Revelation 20:11-15 or Matthew 25:46 (for example) are not nearly so certain. It is far more likely that those texts which have traditionally been thought to teach or imply that some will never be saved have been misinterpreted by readers of Scripture than it is that the Bible does not teach Christ's universal Lordship or his redemptive disposition toward Adam's fallen race.

So while a person may have some degree of confidence as to the correctness of the traditional interpretation of passages like Matt 25:46 or Rev 20:1-15, nothing can be more certain than the dual facts that (1) Jesus is a sinless human being who is perfectly obedient to God's law and, consequently, fully inclined to ultimately reconcile every person to God, and that (2) Jesus is Lord of all, and consequently has the power and authority to reconcile every person to God. Upon these two pillars of truth rests the glorious hope of the final salvation of all mankind. When considered in the light of these essential truths about Christ, the doctrine of an "eternal hell" for any portion of mankind is shown to be false and of uninspired origin. If Jesus is in fact Lord of all, then the ultimate salvation of all people is a future certainty. There is no possibility that it will not take place. But if, according to the traditional understanding of the gospel, some people will never be saved, then it would entail that Christ is either unwilling or unable to save them. And as we've seen, neither is, nor can be, true. They are utter impossibilities. Jesus is both fully able and fully inclined to save everyone. Thus, it follows that the interpretation of any inspired Biblical passage which would entail that Christ is either unwilling or unable to save all people is necessarily a false interpretation, and must consequently be rejected. Even if one is unsure of how exactly a verse or passage harmonizes with the Scriptural fact that Jesus is going to save everyone, one need not doubt this fact, or the inspiration of the verses in question. Assuming one is willing to affirm the authority and internal consistency of Scripture, it is not necessary to know how exactly a verse should be interpreted in order to know how it can't be interpreted.

Objection 2: "Universal Salvation Wouldn't Be Fair"
While some people will happily embrace the idea of universal salvation as good news, others are much less thrilled at the thought of anyone's being saved apart from their becoming a believer before they die. "If everyone's ultimately going to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth," some might ask, "what's the point of being a believer in this life?" Others will go so far as to say something like, "If I believed everyone was ultimately going to heaven, I would just do whatever I wanted to now, and live it up. If we're all going to be saved regardless of what we do, why shouldn't I?" But what a person seems to be saying when they respond in this way is that they see no present advantage to being a believer. They would (it would seem) trade every spiritual blessing that is presently available to believers for all that this world has to offer if they thought that everyone was ultimately going to be saved. The belief that they're avoiding some kind of post-mortem calamity of eternal consequence by being a faithful "Christian" is (it would seem) the only thing that's preventing them from abandoning their faith altogether and doing what they really want to do (which, apparently, is living a life of godless hedonism and yielding without resistance to every temptation that presents itself to them).

Little needs to be said in response to this kind of reasoning. As will be evident to most reading, such a response to the idea of universal salvation is little more than a knee-jerk reaction that, unfortunately, betrays a rather dubious motive for becoming (and remaining) a disciple of Christ. The simple fact is that the truth of universal salvation in no way means there is no advantage to being a believer now or in the future.Moreover, it's important for those who think it's "unfair" for people to be saved without believing on Christ in this life to understand that, apart from God's graciously bringing about saving faith in our hearts, no one would be saved by faith in this life. It is ultimately because of God's sovereign will and purpose that anyone becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever. The faith that distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever is not something that the believer originated by the power of his own "free will" (i.e., will-power), and for which he/she can take any credit. According to Paul, a person is a believer rather than an unbeliever because God predestined them for this and chose them as the "firstfruits" to be saved (Rom 8:28-30; 2 Thess. 2:13). A person believes because it was granted to them by God that they should believe (Phil 1:29), and God graciously assigned to them a measure of faith (Rom 12:3). Paul understood that it was God's grace - not his own innate goodness or willingness- that was the source of his faith and love (1 Tim 1:13-14). When a person believes and becomes a "new creation in Christ," this is no less the sovereign work of God than the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is all God's doing (2 Cor. 5:17-18). God alone is the efficient cause of our believing the truth and being "born again" (John 1:12–13; 1 John 3:1–2, 9; 5:1).

Because God is working all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11), someone's being a believer or an unbeliever must ultimately be attributed to God's purpose and will, and not their own. Although God certainly works through the instrumentality of human beings in reconciling people to himself, it is God alone who "gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:5-9). There is nothing that we contribute to our salvation that does not ultimately have its source in God.Apart from God's Spirit at work in one's mind and heart, one would have no interest in spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). Our hearts must be opened by God just so that we will pay attention to what is being said when the gospel is proclaimed to us (Acts 16:14), and those who hear and believe the truth do so only because they were appointed by God for this (Acts 13:48). No one becomes a believer or remains an unbeliever apart from the divinely-controlled circumstances that God is using to accomplish his redemptive purpose in the world. There is not a single person who is saved apart from God's will that they be saved, and there is not a single person whom God has tried to save but was unsuccessful. Any objections that the salvation of some people apart from faith would be "unfair" are, therefore, entirely unwarranted.

Objection 3: "All Are Not Saved Now"

The final objection we will consider could be expressed as follows: "Granting that Jesus could save everyone and make them fit for heaven, the fact is that he hasn't done this yet. And since Jesus is clearly permitting people to remain unsaved now, why not believe he will permit people to remain unsaved for all eternity? Why think it will be any different in the future?"

Notice the word "yet" used in the above objection ("...the fact is that he hasn't done this YET."). This small word makes a huge difference, and even if it was absent from the objection, I would urge its inclusion. For just because Jesus hasn't saved everyone YET doesn't mean his intention isn't to save everyone at some future time. Is Jesus doing everything within his power and authority to make every person who has ever lived fit for heaven right now? If Jesus is, in fact, doing everything within his power and authority to make all people fit for heaven right now, then it would mean that Jesus' power and authority over human beings is extremely limited (for of course, there is not a human being living on this planet who could be considered fit for an eternity in heaven right now). But as noted earlier, Scripture does not allow us to affirm anything less than the complete sovereignty of Jesus over all people (Matt 28:18 Acts 10:36; Rom 14:9; Phil 2:9-11; 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:25-28). We are even told that there is nothing outside of Jesus' control (Heb 2:8). Thus, the only tenable position for the believer is that Jesus isn't presently doing everything within his power and authority to make all people fit for heaven right now.

But if Jesus has the power and authority to make any given person fit for heaven right now, can we consider his unwillingness to do so as being inconsistent with his love for the person? Not at all. For an unwillingness on Jesus' part to exercise his power and authority to make any given person fit for heaven right now is perfectly consistent with Jesus' love for the person. How so? The answer is simply that love does not merely seek to promote the present happiness of another, but rather seeks promote their ultimate well-being, or best interests. In order to secure a more lasting and worthwhile blessing for human beings, it is quite possible that Christ must be willing to allow us to experience temporary unhappiness and pain, apart from which the "chief end" for which we were created by God could not be realized. Thus, if Jesus' will is that all people will ultimately be perfected and realize the chief end for which they were created (which is glorifying God and enjoying him forever), then his being unwilling to make all people fit for heaven right now is perfectly consistent with his love for them.

Consider the fact that no one thinks they've already experienced the fullness of their salvation from sin, pain and death yet. But this doesn't mean we're never going to experience it. There is an infinite difference between Jesus' permitting the temporary sinfulness and suffering of those within the sphere of his influence, and his permitting the endless sinfulness and suffering of those within the sphere of his influence. To truly love a person means to will their ultimate good or well-being as an end. That is, love is concerned with a person's best interests, and not merely with what will make someone happy right now, in the short-term. The permitting of temporary sin and suffering is fully consistent with a person's ultimate good and well-being, and thus may be considered fully consistent with Jesus' love for them. The permitting of endless sinfulness and suffering, however, is not consistent with a person's ultimate well-being and best interests, and thus cannot be consistent with love.If some people are never going to be saved from everything from which they need to be saved - and Jesus has the power and authority to accomplish their salvation - then their fate is ultimately due to an unwillingness on Jesus' part. And this unwillingness to ever save them (which is a willingness to leave them in a permanent state of sin and suffering) could not possibly be understood as an expression of love for the person. Rather, this unwillingness would betray either hatred/ill-will for the persons or (what's just as evil) a calloused indifference toward them. But any unwillingness to promote the bests interests of those within the sphere of his influence would be impossible for Jesus.

I'll close this essay with a quote from one of the "early church fathers," Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c. 215):

For either the Lord does not care for all men (and this is the case either because he is unable- which is not to be thought, for it would be a proof of weakness - or because he is unwilling, which is not the attribute of a good being - and he who for our sakes assumed flesh capable of suffering, is far from being luxuriously indolent) or he does care for all, which is befitting for him who has become Lord of all. For he is Savior; not of some, and of others not. But in proportion to the adaptation possessed by each, he has dispensed his beneficence both to Greeks and Barbarians, even to those of them that were predestinated, and in due time called, the faithful and elect...And it cannot be said that it is from ignorance that the Lord is not willing to save humanity, because he knows not how each one is to be cared for. For ignorance applies not to the God who, before the foundation of the world, was the counselor of the Father...Nor does he ever abandon care for men, by being drawn aside from pleasure, who, having assumed flesh, which by nature is susceptible of suffering, trained it to the condition of impassibility.

And how is he Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all? But he is the Savior of those who have believed, because of their wishing to know; and the Lord of those who have not believed, till, being enabled to confess him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by him.

The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter II.—The Son the Ruler and Savior of All


No comments:

Post a Comment