Tuesday, December 17, 2019

1 Timothy 4:10 vs. the Christian Doctrine of Salvation (Part Two)

A refutation of several attempts to reconcile 1 Tim. 4:10 with the Christian doctrine of salvation

Having considered the nature of the salvation that belongs distinctly to believers (and which makes it possible for Paul to have referred to God as the Savior “especially of believers”), let’s now consider the various ways in which Christians have attempted to get around what Paul wrote in 1 Tim. 4:10. We’ll begin with the following remarks from 19th century Anglican Christian scholar, Charles Ellicott (as found in his commentary, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers):

These words, like the assertion of 1 Timothy 2:4, have been often pressed into the service of that school of kindly, but mistaken, interpreters, who ignore, or explain away, the plain doctrine of Holy Scripture which tells us there are those whose destruction from the presence of the Lord shall be everlasting, whose portion shall be the “second death” (2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 21:8). These interpreters prefer to substitute in place of this terrible, but repeated declaration, their own perilous theories of universalism.

Evidently, Ellicott was unable to reconcile the plain meaning of 1 Timothy 2:4 with his belief that many people would never be saved by God. However, Ellicott’s disbelief notwithstanding, the verse he referenced as being “often pressed into the service” of those who believe that all mankind will be saved does, in fact, support the truth that all mankind will be saved. As noted by one of Ellicott’s contemporaries (Thomas Whittemore), “If [God] wills the salvation of all men, he wills all the means by which it shall be accomplished; it must therefore take place.”

Ellicott went on to assert that the doctrine of universal salvation was contradicted by the “terrible, but repeated declaration” of Scripture that “there are some whose destruction from the presence of the Lord shall be everlasting, whose portion shall be ‘the second death.’” Concerning the “second death” referred to in Rev. 21:8, I’ve argued in greater depth elsewhere (see my five-part study on this subject) that this judgment will involve certain people – i.e., those whose names will not be found “written in the scroll of life” – literally dying a second time, and then remaining dead for the final eon of Christ’s reign. Understood in this way, Rev. 21:8 in no way undermines the truth of the salvation of all mankind (for we know that death is ultimately going to be abolished, and that all are going to be vivified in Christ; in fact, in the same letter in which Paul affirmed that God “wills that all mankind be saved,” Paul explicitly affirmed that God “is vivifying all”; see 1 Tim. 6:13).

What about what Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 1:9? Although the expression “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” appears in less literal Bible versions, the word translated “everlasting” in these versions is aiónion. And – as argued in the previous installment of this study – this term does not mean “everlasting.” Rather, it means “pertaining to (or lasting for) an eon, or eons” (with an eon, or age, being understood as the longest segment of time known in the Scriptures). See, for example, the definition of aiónion provided on the Perseus Greek Word Study Tool (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ai)w%2Fnios&la=greek).

In fact, Ellicott himself admits elsewhere in his commentary that the term aiónion does not inherently involve the idea of endless duration. Commenting on Matt. 25:46, Ellicott wrote the following:

“...the Greek word which is rendered “eternal” does not, in itself, involve endlessness, but rather, duration, whether through an age or succession of ages, and that it is therefore applied in the N.T. to periods of time that have had both a beginning and an ending (Rom. 16:25), where the Greek is “from aeonian times;” our version giving “since the world began.” (Comp. 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:3)--strictly speaking, therefore, the word, as such, apart from its association with any qualifying substantive, implies a vast undefined duration, rather than one in the full sense of the word “infinite.””

Ellicott continues his remarks on 1 Timothy 4:10 as follows: ”Here the gracious words seem to affix a seal to the statement immediately preceding, which speaks of “the hope in the living God” as the source of all the labour and brave patience of the Lord’s true servants. The living God is also a loving God, the Saviour of all, if they would receive Him, and, undoubtedly, the Redeemer of those who accept His love and are faithful to His holy cause.”

According to Ellicott, God is “the Saviour of all, IF they would receive Him…” But those who “receive” God are believers. Thus, Ellicott is essentially saying that God is the Savior of believers only. But this neither explains nor brings any clarification to what Paul wrote in 1 Tim. 4:10. Instead, it flat-out contradicts what Paul wrote in this verse. Since God is “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers,” it logically follows that all mankind is, in fact, going to be saved by God. If God was unable or unwilling to save those who died in unbelief, then he would not be “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” He would instead be the Savior of believers exclusively (in which case v. 10 would have to read, “…Who is not the Savior of all mankind, but only of believers”). But this would contradict the first part of verse 10, above. Since God is “the Savior of all mankind” (and not of believers only), it follows that all mankind – including all who die in unbelief – will, in fact, be saved. 

Ellicott’s last argument seems to be that, by the words “the Savior of all mankind,” Paul simply meant that God was not the Savior of Israelites only:

“It must be borne in mind that there were many Hebrews still in every Christian congregation, many in every church, who still clung with passionate zeal to the old loved Hebrew thought, that Messiah’s work of salvation was limited to the chosen race. This and similar sayings were specially meant to set aside for ever these narrow and selfish conceptions of the Redeemer’s will; were intended to show these exclusive children of Israel that Christ’s work would stretch over a greater and a grander platform than ever Israel could fill…”

The problem with this view is that, if Paul’s intent in 1 Tim. 4:10 was simply to deny that God is the Savior of only a certain kind of men (i.e., Israelites), then the expression “all mankind” does not actually mean “all mankind.” It would mean “all kinds of men.” However, the literal meaning of “all” necessarily refers to every member of whatever category of people or things that are in view – i.e., the entire number or quantity of people or things.[1] To believe that the “all” referred to in 1 Tim. 4:10 should be understood as referring to less than the total number of people constituting “mankind,” one must believe that Paul was not using the word “all” literally here. For, again, the literal meaning of the word “all” necessarily refers to every member of whatever category of people or things that are in view – i.e., the entire number or quantity of people or things. So if the word “all” in this verse doesn’t actually include the entire number of people in view (which, in this case, would be every member of that category of people that is “all mankind”), then it can only be because Paul was using a figure of speech (hyperbole) when he used the word “all” here. Although the word “all” is, on some occasions, used hyperbolically in scripture, there is no good reason – that is, no non-question-begging reason – to understand it in a non-literal sense here.

Moreover, since Paul specifically distinguished “believers” from the rest of mankind in 1 Tim. 4:10, then it would mean that believers are one “kind” of men of which God is the Savior. And this, in turn, would mean that the other kind of men of which God is the Savior (and of which the rest of mankind is comprised) are unbelievers. But if the only two “kinds of men” that Paul had in view in this verse are believers and unbelievers, it “proves too much” for those who want the expression “all mankind” to mean “all kinds of men” (rather than “all men without exception”). For a human being is either a believer or an unbeliever.

Let’s now see how 19th century Presbyterian theologian, Albert Barnes, attempted to get around the truth affirmed by Paul in 1 Tim. 4:10. In his commentary on this verse, Barnes wrote:

This must be understood as denoting that he is the Saviour of all people in some sense which differs from what is immediately affirmed - "especially of those that believe." There is something pertaining to "them" in regard to salvation which does not pertain to "all men." It cannot mean that he brings all people to heaven, "especially" those who believe - for this would be nonsense. And if he brings all people actually to heaven, how can it be "especially" true that he does this in regard to those who believe? Does it mean that he saves others "without" believing? But this would be contrary to the uniform doctrine of the Scriptures; see Mark 16:16.

Barnes’ puzzlement is itself puzzling, for there’s nothing nonsensical about the idea that God is going to save all mankind, especially believers. As argued earlier, the way in which God is the Savior “especially of believers” is simply that God is saving believers first, and giving them “life eonian” (i.e., life during the future eons of Christ’s reign). That is, believers are saved by God before the rest of mankind is saved. However, believers are only a small fraction of that category of people that Paul referred to above as “all mankind,” and of whom God is said to be “the Savior.” And it would not be true to say that God is the Savior of believers “especially” if he was the Savior of believers exclusively. Moreover, the fact that believers are simply a small part of the “all mankind” of which God is the Savior means that God is the Savior of unbelievers as well. And this means that one does not have to be a believer in this lifetime in order to ultimately benefit from what Christ accomplished on the cross on behalf of sinners. In other words, faith is not a necessary condition for the salvation from sins that Christ, through his death, accomplished for all mankind.

It’s actually not that difficult to get most Christians to agree with the last statement. Although they may not initially realize they agree with it, this will change as soon as they’re asked whether they believe that those who die in infancy and early childhood (or adults who die without having had the mental capacity to believe the gospel) will be saved. If God were the Savior of believers only (i.e., if only those who die as believers in Christ will be saved by God), then all who die as infants/young children (as well as many mentally handicapped people) will be lost forever. But I’ve never heard any Christian affirm or defend this view. Even those Christians who claim that they can’t be “dogmatic” on the subject (because of a supposed lack of scriptural clarity) seem entirely open to the possibility, and inclined to believe, that those who die in infancy, early childhood and in a mentally handicapped condition will be saved.

Consider, for example, the following excerpts from an article on infants and salvation from the popular Christian Q&A website, “GotQuestions.org”:

“The Bible tells us that even if an infant or child has not committed personal sin, all people, including infants and children, are guilty before God because of inherited and imputed sin…Infants are just as guilty as adults are before the righteous God of the universe…The only way God can be just and at the same time declare a person righteous is for that person to have received forgiveness by faith in Christ…Salvation is an individual choice.”

In accord with the above, we’re told elsewhere on the same website (in an article titled, “What is the Christian Doctrine of Salvation?”) that salvation ”is only available through faith in Jesus Christ.” Since those who die in infancy and early childhood die without faith in Jesus Christ (and thus without receiving the forgiveness that is by faith in Christ), we would expect the article to deny that this category of human beings will be saved. After all, we’re assured that those who die in infancy and early childhood die in a state of “inherited and imputed sin.” However, that’s not the position we find affirmed on this website. The article goes on to affirm, in no uncertain terms, that all who die in infancy and early childhood are saved: “We believe that all infants and young children who die before the age of moral accountability go straight to heaven.”

So, on the one hand, we’re assured by most Christians that “salvation is an individual choice” and that salvation is “only available through faith in Jesus Christ” (and by “salvation” they clearly mean going to heaven rather than to “hell” for “all eternity”). On the other hand, it’s commonly believed by Christians that a vast number of human beings who die without having had faith in Jesus Christ will, in fact, be saved and “go straight to heaven.” However, for Christians to make any category of human beings an exception to the requirement that one must believe in Christ before one dies in order to be eternally saved is to completely undermine the position that faith is absolutely necessary to being eternally saved.

This important concession opens up the door to the “radical notion” that, when it comes to human salvation, the sovereign God of the universe is not limited by the condition in which humans die. Rather, God – being God – is perfectly free to apply the redemptive benefits of what Christ accomplished on the cross to whoever he wants, whenever he wants. And since – according to Paul in 1 Tim. 4:10 – God is “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers,” we can conclude that all who die in unbelief (children as well as adults) will ultimately be saved. Thus, unless Barnes believed that Mark 16:16 disproved the very possibility that those who die in infancy and early childhood (as well as in a mentally handicapped condition) could be saved, then Barnes’ argument completely collapses.

The fact is that neither the salvation nor the condemnation referred to in Mark 16:16 have anything to do with the “final destiny” of all mankind. The salvation Christ had in view here is life eonian – i.e., life in the kingdom of God during the future eons of Christ’s reign. In contrast with this salvation (which is “especially” for believers), the condemnation that Christ had in view will involve not being able to live in the kingdom of God during one or both of the eons of Christ’s future reign.

Barnes went on to write:

When, therefore, it is said that he "is the Saviour of 'all' people, 'especially' of those who believe," it must mean that there is a sense in which it is true that he may be called the Saviour of all people, while, at the same time, it is "actually" true that those only are saved who believe.

Here we find Barnes making the same big mistake as Ellicott. If it’s “actually” true that only believers are saved by God, then it’s “actually” true that God is the Savior of believers only. And if it’s not “actually” true that God is the Savior of all mankind, then God would not be the “Savior of all mankind, especially of believers.” Instead, God would be the Savior of believers exclusively (and not “especially,” as we actually read in 1 Tim. 4:10).

Barnes continued:

“This may be true in two respects:

(1) As he is the "Preserver" of people (Job 7:20), for in this sense he may be said to "save" them from famine, and war, and peril - keeping them from day to day; compare Psalm 107:28;

(2) as he has "provided" salvation for all people. He is thus their Saviour - and may be called the common Saviour of all; that is, he has confined the offer of salvation to no one class of people; he has not limited the atonement to one division of the human race; and he actually saves all who are willing to be saved by him.”

The first sense in which Barnes believed that God could be called “the Savior of all mankind” (while “actually” saving only believers) involves equating the salvation that Paul had in mind in 1 Tim. 4:10 with God saving people “from famine, and war, and peril,” etc. But this won’t do; multitudes of people throughout human history have not been saved by God from “famine, and war, and peril.” Billions of people throughout history have either perished or suffered great loss as a direct result of both natural and human-caused disasters. So there is simply no meaningful sense in which God can be referred to as “the Savior of all mankind” if the salvation Paul had in view refers to a salvation that multitudes of people throughout human history have failed to receive from God. Barnes referenced Job 7:20 and Psalm 107:28 to support this view, but neither of these verses say anything about God’s saving “all mankind” (or even most people) from “famine, and war, and peril.”

The second sense in which Barnes believed that God could be called “the Savior of all mankind” (while “actually” saving only believers) involves the idea that God merely “provided” salvation for all people. But if the provision that Barnes had in mind is not a provision that necessarily results in all mankind being actually saved (and it’s clearly not), then such a provision merely makes God a potential Savior of all mankind, and not an actual Savior of all mankind. According to Barnes’ second suggested “sense” in which God can be called the Savior of all mankind, then, God is the actual Savior of believers only. However, this interpretation simply does not do justice to what Paul actually wrote. “Savior of” does not mean “potential Savor of,” and “especially of believers” does not mean “actually of believers.”

The last attempt to get around the plain meaning of 1 Tim. 4:10 that we’ll be considering is by Matt Slick (the President and Founder of the “Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry,” or “CARM”). After asserting that God can be called the Savior of all mankind without actually saving all mankind, Slick attempts to defend his assertion as follows:

“Why does God not simply destroy [unbelievers] as is His right?  Because of the Christians! Because God is being patient with the unbeliever, allowing them to enjoy the blessings of life in this world without the rightful condemnation of God falling upon them. This is what the Bible states:

"What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory" (Rom. 9:22-23, NASB).

As you can see, God is patient with the unregenerate. They receive a delayed judgment because of God's love for the believer. In this sense, Jesus is the Savior of the world because He holds back His judging hand from all who rightly and immediately deserve it. Judgment is delayed. This is a blessing received from God upon the unbeliever.”

One problem with the first part of Slick’s response is that God’s merely allowing unbelievers to “enjoy the blessings of life in this world” is not at all equivalent to God’s saving them. Nowhere in his letters does Paul refer to God’s allowing unbelievers to “enjoy the blessings of life in this world” as their “salvation,” or as their being “saved” by God. Slick quotes Romans 9:22-23, but there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” with whom God was “enduring with much patience” were, in Paul’s day, “saved.” They shall be saved (just as we’re told that all mankind “shall be constituted just” in Romans 5:18-19), but as long as they remain “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” there is no meaningful sense in which these people could be considered as having been “saved” by God in the sense that Paul used the term throughout his letters.

Believing that one of Christ’s parables helps strengthen his case, Slick goes on to say:

“Consider also Matt. 13:24-30 and the parable of the wheat and the tares. In it, Jesus compares the world to a field.  He later interprets it by stating that "the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one," (Matt. 13:38).  But in Matt. 13:29-30 Jesus states that the tares are not dealt with right away because the wheat is there among them.  "But he said, ‘No; lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may root up the wheat with them. ‘Allow both to grow together until the harvest," (NASB).

“So, can it be said that the tares were saved from judgment?  Yes...temporarily.  The unbeliever enjoys a delayed judgment. But with the Christian, Jesus is especially their Savior and judgment is permanently removed from them.”

As was the case with Slick’s first example, there is no good, scripturally-informed reason to equate God’s allowing those represented by the “tares” to continue living on the earth until their appointed judgment arrives with God’s “saving” them. Those represented by the “tares” in Christ’s parable are good examples of what Paul referred to as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” and – as such – are appointed for God’s indignation. Unlike those represented by the “wheat” (i.e., faithful Israelites), these people will not be allowed to enter the kingdom of God after it’s been established on the earth at Christ’s return (at best, those represented by the “tares” will be excluded from the geopolitical territory of the kingdom and forced to live among the nations during the eon to come; at worst, they’ll perish in the calamities that will bring this present eon to a close).

Moreover, it wouldn’t even be correct to say that those represented by the “tares” are “temporarily saved” (or will be “temporarily saved”) by God until the appointed judgment takes place. According to Christ’s explanation of this parable, the “harvest” represents “the conclusion of the eon” (Matt. 13:39). Since the judgment to which those represented by the “tares” are appointed will not be occurring until the conclusion of the eon arrives, it would make no sense to speak of them as being “temporarily saved” by God from an appointed judgment that God has not intended to occur until a certain fixed time arrives. It’s not as if God was going to judge them sooner and then “changed his mind.” No; the day of judgment for the inhabited earth has been fixed by God (Acts 17:30-31), and those represented by the tares in Christ’s parable are appointed for it. To speak of those appointed to the divine indignation of this day as being “temporarily saved” until the day arrives is simply not consistent with the way in which the term “saved” is used in Scripture, and empties the term of meaning.

We know that only eight people were saved when God judged the earth in Noah’s day by means of a worldwide flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), and that God did not “spare the ancient world” at this time (2 Peter 2:5). Would it make any sense to refer to the rest of mankind as having been “temporarily saved” by God from the flood before the time appointed by God for the flood to begin actually began? No. The only people of whom God could be referred to as the Savior from the worldwide flood was Noah and his family, and their salvation from the flood did not occur until they boarded the ark (which, in Heb. 11:7, we’re told that Noah constructed “for the salvation of his house”). For it was shortly after they boarded the ark that the deluge began.

Slick’s last attempt at explaining how God can be the Savior of all mankind without actually saving all mankind is essentially the same as Albert Barnes’ “potential Savior” view:

Another way in which Jesus is the savior of all men is that He has made all people saveable. Without Jesus' sacrifice, none could ever be saved. Since Jesus, who is the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14), atoned for sin, all people are now redeemable. He is the Savior of all, but especially of believers. That is, all are now redeemable due to the sacrifice of Christ, but redemption is specifically applied to those who trust in Christ.

While I would agree with Slick that, apart from Jesus’ sacrifice, none could ever be saved, the mere fact that someone is able to be saved doesn’t make them actually saved. And the fact that someone is able to save someone else doesn’t make them their savior. If Jesus is able to save someone but chooses not to save them, then he would no more be that person’s savior than I am. For Jesus to be the Savior of sinners requires that he actually save them (as we’re told by Paul in 1 Tim. 1:15 that he came into the world to do).

Slick goes on to state:

It is obvious that the term [Savior] refers to God in the generic sense of being the Savior of all men since He brings salvation to all though it is not accepted by all. This is why it says that God (not Jesus) is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. How is it especially to believers? Simple. It is especially and specifically realized only by those who are believers.

If salvation is “specifically realized only by those who are believers,” then it would mean that God saves believers only (making God the Savior of believers only). Thus, Slick’s last suggested interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:10 – like the interpretations presented by Charles Ellicott and Albert Barnes before him – simply reduces God to being the Savior of believers only, and thus ends up contradicting what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4:10.



[1] For example, when Paul wrote “…for kings and all those being in a superior station” (1 Tim. 2:2), the word “all” necessarily includes every person “in a superior station.” This group of people (on whom Paul placed a special emphasis because of the degree of influence that they have over the lives of believers) is simply a subcategory of the “all mankind” referred to in verse 1.

1 Timothy 4:10 vs. the Christian Doctrine of Salvation (Part One)

Introduction

For most of “church history,” the majority of Christians have believed that most people will never be saved by God. However, if there are some people who will never be saved by God, then logic dictates that it was because God was either unable or unwilling to save them. That is, God’s failure to save certain people could only be due to his inability or his unwillingness to save them. There are no other possible options.

Now, Christian thinkers have, over the centuries, debated which of these two options should be understood as providing the best and ultimate explanation for why most people will never be saved. But regardless of which side of the fence a Christian lands on in this ongoing debate (or whether they choose a side at all), the fact remains that a “God” who is either unable or unwilling to save certain people cannot be legitimately described as the “Savior” of those whom he was either unable or unwilling to save. If I fail to rescue someone from imminent, mortal danger, I cannot be legitimately referred to as that person’s “savior” (and this would be the case irrespective of whether my failure to save them was due to my inability or my unwillingness to save them).

With these considerations in mind, let’s now consider the following words that Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy:

“Faithful is the saying and worthy of all welcome (for for this are we toiling and being reproached), that we rely on the living God, Who is the Saviour of all mankind, especially of believers. These things be charging and teaching.” I Timothy 4:9-11

By virtue of what was Paul able to refer to God as “the Saviour of all mankind, especially of believers?” Well, we know why God can be called the Savior of believers. It’s because believers will be saved by God. Paul would not (and could not) have referred to God as the “Saviour” of believers if he didn’t think that believers either had been, or would be, saved by God. Neither God nor Christ can be considered the “Saviour” of anyone whom they will never, in fact, save. Thus, the fact that God is “the Saviour of all mankind” means that all mankind shall be saved by God.

This outcome is in accord with the fact that, in 1 Tim. 2:4-6, we read that God “wills that all mankind be saved and come into a realization of the truth,” and that Christ “gave himself a correspondent ransom for all.” The word translated “wills” in verse 4 (thelo) means just that – i.e., to form a decision, choice or purpose. Since nothing can prevent God from accomplishing what he wills (Job 42:2; Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 46:10; 55:11; Dan. 4:35; Rom. 9:15-20; Eph. 1:11), it logically follows that God will accomplish the salvation of all mankind. The will of the Creator will always prevail over, and could never be thwarted by, the will of the creature. 1 Timothy 2:4 thus implies that dying in unbelief is no obstacle whatsoever to anyone’s being ultimately saved by God.

Moreover, since everyone for whom Christ gave himself a “correspondent ransom” will be ransomed as a result, it follows that God’s will that all mankind be saved will be accomplished. Consider the following logical argument:

1. Anyone for whom Christ gave himself “a correspondent Ransom” will be ransomed as a result.
2. Anyone ransomed as a result of Christ’s death will be saved.
3. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6 will be saved.
4. The “all” for whom we’re told Christ gave himself a ransom includes all mankind (1 Tim. 2:4-5).
5. All mankind will be saved.

[Note: For a fuller defense of this argument, see my three-part series on Christ’s ransoming work (click here for the study)]

In accord with the fact that Christ gave himself “a correspondent ransom for all,” Paul previously wrote in his first letter to Timothy that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Since all mankind are sinful (Rom. 3:23; 5:18-19), this verse implies that Christ came into the world to save all mankind. And we know that Christ will accomplish what we’re told he came into the world to do, for we’re told elsewhere that Christ not only came to do the will of God (John 6:38; Heb. 10:7), but that God’s will “shall prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:10). Christ is the chosen agent through whom God will accomplish the salvation of all mankind.

Contrary to what most Christians believe, God is not giving those for whom Christ died the mere opportunity (or “chance”) to be saved. Nor did Christ’s death merely make everyone’s salvation a possibility. God is not merely the “possible” Savior of all mankind, or the “potential” Savior of all mankind. Rather, because of Christ’s death for all, the sins of everyone for whom he died will ultimately be taken away, and will ultimately cease to be a source of condemnation for them. For when Christ “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3-4), he died as a “sin offering” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Eph. 5:1-2) – i.e., a sacrifice offered to God which has, as its purpose, the taking away (or elimination) of the sins of those for whom it is offered (in fact, the very expression “Christ died for our sins” communicates this truth). And insofar as a sin offering is a sacrifice offered to God that results in God’s ceasing to reckon the sins of those for whom the sacrifice is offered to them, it follows that the sins of everyone for whom Christ died will eventually be taken away and no longer reckoned to them by God. Everyone for whom Christ died shall, therefore, be saved (which, again, is the very outcome that we’re told God “wills” in 1 Tim. 2:4).

Eonian life: How God is the Savior “especially of believers”

It should come as no surprise that most Christians have tried to make 1 Tim. 4:10 mean anything but what the most natural and straightforward reading of Paul’s words communicate. “Surely,” some Christians will argue, “Paul didn’t really mean that God is actually the Savior of all mankind.” And yet, that’s exactly what Paul wrote. And not only that, but this fundamental truth is among the things that Paul told Timothy to be “charging and teaching.” Paul considered this truth to be that important.

But if God is “the Savior of all mankind” (and, according to Paul, he is), then what did Paul mean when he called him the Savior “especially of believers?” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the English adverb “especially” is “used to emphasize the importance of one thing among others of its type or to point to one thing among others,” and can be defined as meaning “very” or “particularly” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/especially). The Greek term Paul used is “mal’ista.” To better understand what Paul had in mind by his use of this term in 1 Tim. 4:10, it would be helpful to consider other examples in which Paul used this term in his letters.

In Galatians 6:10 we read, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (see also 1 Cor. 14:1; Phil 4:22; 1 Tim 5:8, 17; Titus 1:10 and Philemon 16). Is Paul saying that we are to “do good” to those who are of “the household of faith” to the exclusion of all others? Are we to do good to other believers only? No. Paul was saying that we are to do good to all people, but that those who are of “the household of faith” should come first. Although those who are of “the household of faith” ought to be our first priority, we should make the best of the opportunities God gives us to help everyone whom God places within the “sphere of our influence.”

With this understanding of the term “especially” in place, it’s evident that Paul was not saying that God is the Saviour of believers only, or exclusively. That’s not what the term “especially” means (whether in Greek or English). For God to be the Savior “especially of believers” simply means that saving believers is God’s first priority. But all mankind remain within the sphere of God’s influence (which is unlimited in scope, embracing all people and all events), and if God were to fail to save unbelievers (and save believers only), then he would not be their Savior. But how, exactly, is the salvation of believers to be understood as distinct from the salvation of unbelievers (such that God can be considered the Savior “especially of believers”)? In order to better understand this important subject, let’s consider what Paul wrote concerning the salvation of believers elsewhere in his first letter to Timothy.

In the Concordant Literal New Testament (CLNT) translation of I Timothy 1:15-16, we read the following:

“Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all welcome, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, foremost of whom am I. But therefore was I shown mercy, that in me, the foremost, Jesus Christ should be displaying all His patience, for a pattern of those who are about to be believing on Him for life eonian.

Similarly, in Titus 1:1-3 we read:

“Paul, a slave of God, yet an apostle of Jesus Christ, in accord with the faith of God's chosen, and a realization of the truth, which accords with devoutness, in expectation of life eonian, which God, Who does not lie, promises before times eonian, yet manifests His word in its own eras by heralding, with which I was entrusted, according to the injunction of God, our Saviour…”

The expression translated “life eonian” in these verses is translated “eternal life” in the majority of Bibles (which, in comparison with the CLNT and a few other versions, are less literal translations). To better understand what Paul meant by “life eonian” here (and why this is a more accurate translation than “eternal life”), let’s consider Christ’s words in Luke 18:24-30. In the CLNT translation of this passage, we read the following:

Now Jesus, perceiving him becoming sorrow-stricken, said, "How squeamishly shall those having money be entering into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to be entering through the eye of a bodkin than for a rich man to be entering into the kingdom of God." Now those hearing it said, "And who can be saved?" Yet He said, "What is impossible with men is possible with God." Now Peter said, "Lo! we, leaving our own, follow Thee." Now He said to them, "Verily, I am saying to you that there is no one who leaves house, or wife, or brothers, or parents, or children on account of the kingdom of God, who may not by all means be getting back manyfold in this era, and in the coming eon, life eonian."

The “kingdom of God” referred to in these verses is the kingdom which, according to Hebrew prophecy, God will set up on the earth, and over which the Messiah (as well as “the saints of the Most High”) shall be reigning. See, for example, the prophecies concerning this kingdom found in Dan. 2:34-35, 44; 7:13-14, 27. That the “kingdom of God” of which Christ so frequently spoke during his earthly ministry refers to the kingdom that will be given to him by God (and over which he will be reigning after he has returned to earth) is further evident from Matthew 16:28, 20:21 and 25:31 (cf. Luke 21:27-31). 

Now, the Greek word translated “eonian” in v. 30 is the adjective αἰώνιον (aiónion). It’s the same term that Paul used in I Timothy 1:16 and Titus 1:2. Although (as noted earlier) this term is typically translated “eternal” in most English Bibles, it is the adjectival form of the Greek noun αἰών (aión). The noun aión simply means “age” or “eon,” and denotes a relatively long but temporary measure of time of undefined/unspecified duration. We read, for example, of past eons (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 10:11; Ephesians 3:9; Col 1:26, Hebrews 9:26), of a present eon (Matthew 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8; Galatians 1:4), and of future eons that will follow the present eon (Mark 10:30; Matthew 12:32; 13:40; 24:3; Luke 18:30; Ephesians 1:21; 2:7; Jude 1:25). It’s also clear from what is said concerning the past eons that they are limited in number, for we read that there was a time before the eons began (1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). And given that we also read of the consummation of the eons (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26), it’s reasonable to conclude that the succession of eons revealed in Scripture has an end. Thus, just as time was not always measured by eons in the past, it’s evident that, at some point in the future, time will once again cease to be measured by eons.

As the adjectival form of the noun aión, the term aiónios should be understood to mean “lasting for (or belonging to) an eon, or eons.” See, for example, the definition of aiónios provided on the Perseus Greek Word Study Tool (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=ai)w%2Fnios&la=greek). This being the case, the term aiónios would be better translated as “age-lasting” or “eonian” (as it is in the CLNT and other, more literal translations of scripture). And this means that the “life eonian” that Christ had in view in Luke 18:30 is life that will be enjoyed during the “coming eon” of Christ’s reign that is being referred to here (i.e., the age, or eon, that will commence when Christ returns to earth and begins to reign). Paul had this future eon in view in Eph. 1:21, when he wrote that God had seated Christ “…among the celestials, up over every sovereignty and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this eon, but also in that which is impending…”

Significantly, there are a number of contemporary, evangelical Christian scholars who’ve acknowledged that the expression translated as “life eonian” in Luke 18:30 and elsewhere (ζωὴν αἰώνιον, or zōēn aiónion) should be understood as denoting “the life of the age to come” (with the “age to come” being the age that will, at Christ’s return to earth, succeed the present age).[1] This is an important concession on the part of these Christian scholars. If they’re correct (or even close to being correct) concerning the meaning of the expression zōēn aiónion, then it would follow that the English words “eternal” and “everlasting” are not, in fact, accurate translations of the Greek adjective aiónios. The adjective “eternal” corresponds to the noun “eternity” rather than the nouns “age” or “eon” (and eternal or everlasting duration is not an idea that is inherent in the word “age” or “eon”).

Why, then, do so many Christian scholars still maintain that “eternal” is a valid translation of aiónios in Matthew 19:29 and elsewhere? Well, most Christians have simply assumed that the “coming eon” or “age to come” referred to by Christ in Luke 18:30 and elsewhere is a span of time that will be endless in duration. And because they assume that the coming eon will be “eternal” or “everlasting” in duration, they conclude that Christ was referring to a blessing that pertains to “eternity.” This assumption concerning the duration of the coming eon, however, is inconsistent with the facts. We know from other verses that there is more than one future eon that’s to come, and that Christ’s reign will not be limited to the coming eon that’s in view in Luke 18:30 and Eph. 1:21. Rather, Christ’s reign will continue beyond the next eon, and thus span more than one eon.

In support of this fact, let’s consider the words of the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:32-33. In the CLNT translation of these verses we read: “And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for the eons. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Most translations of this verse use the expression “forever” here. However, the Greek expression translated as “for the eons” in the above translation (“eis tous aiónas”) includes the plural form of the noun aión (aiónas) – hence the use of the plural “eons” in the CLNT. The plural form of the noun aión is also found in Ephesians 2:6-7, where Paul wrote that God “…rouses us together and seats us together among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Earlier we quoted Paul as referring the eon “which is impending” (Eph. 2:21). Here, however, we find Paul referring to “the oncoming eons.” It should also be noted that every other English translation that I’ve checked correctly translates the plural form of the noun aión as “ages” in Eph. 2:7. However, the majority of these translations inconsistently (and inaccurately) translate the plural form of aión as “forever” in Luke 1:33 and elsewhere. This inconsistency should raise a red flag for the reader. It suggests that, when it comes to certain terms that have far-reaching doctrinal implications, something other than a commitment to translational accuracy and consistency is guiding the translators of the more popular and “mainstream” Bibles.

Now, if another eon is going to succeed the eon that is to come (i.e., the eon which Christ referred to as “the coming eon” in Luke 18:30), then the commonly-held assumption among Christians that the “age to come” is going to be endless in duration is erroneous. An endless eon cannot be succeeded by yet another eon. Thus, the “coming eon” (or “age to come”) referred to by Christ in Luke 18:30 will – like the eons preceding it – have both a beginning and an end. And based on the fact that we read of the conclusion, or consummation, of the eons elsewhere (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26), we can reasonably infer that the final eon of Christ’s reign will also eventually end. This means that the “life eonian” referred to by Christ in Luke 18:30 does not refer to a state of affairs that will be occurring in “eternity.” Instead, the blessing that Christ had in view pertains specifically to the eon to come – i.e., the first eon of Christ’s reign over the kingdom of God.

“For he must be reigning until…”

In addition to being inferred from what we find revealed in Scripture concerning the eons, the truth that Christ’s reign will not continue endlessly is also clearly affirmed by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:22-28 (which, not coincidentally, is also a key passage in which we find the truth of universal salvation affirmed). In this remarkable prophecy, we read the following:

“For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation, whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power. For He must be reigning until He should be placing all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy is being abolished: death. For He subjects all under His feet. Now whenever He may be saying that all is subject, it is evident that it is outside of Him Who subjects all to Him. Now, whenever all may be subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also shall be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him, that God may be All in all.”

According to what we read in this passage, there is coming a time (which Paul referred to as “the consummation” or “the end”) when the kingdom over which Christ shall be reigning “for the eons” is going to be given up to God. In other words, the kingdom that is in view in verse 24 will be under Christ’s authority only up to a certain point. When the kingdom is given up to the Father, it will cease to be Christ’s, and will belong solely to the One from whom Christ originally received it. It can also be reasonably inferred from this passage that, after the kingdom has been given up to God, the kingdom will then continue, without end, under the rule of God (hence we’re told in Luke 1:33 that “there shall be no end” of this kingdom). It’s further evident from verses 27-28 that, when the kingdom is finally given up to God, it will at this point be universal in scope. It will embrace not only the “all” which had previously been subjected to Christ, but also Christ himself (who, we’re told, will “be subjected to Him Who subjects all to Him”).  

That the kingdom will not always be under Christ’s reign is further confirmed from verse 25, where we read that Christ is going to reign “until” he places all of his enemies under his feet (with the last enemy being death). The word translated “until” here (ach’ri) means, “to a given limit.” Paul’s use of this word not only confirms that Christ’s reign is temporary (which verse 24 also makes clear), but it reveals that the placing of Christ’s enemies under his feet is the goal of his reign. When this goal is reached, there will no longer be any need for Christ to continue reigning, and his reign will, consequently, end (hence the use of the word “until”). Since, according to Paul, death is “the last enemy” to be abolished by Christ during his reign, it follows that the end of Christ’s reign – referred to in v. 24 – comes after death has been abolished (which is to occur through the vivification of every last member of humanity). After the destruction of death, Christ then “gives up the kingdom to his God and Father,” thereby subjecting himself to God so that “God may be All in all.”

In light of everything said above, consider the following argument:

1. In Luke 18:30, the Greek adjective aiónios (“eonian”) does not refer to a span of time that goes beyond the eons during which Christ shall be reigning over the kingdom of God.
2. According to what is revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, Christ is not going to be reigning over the kingdom for an endless duration of time (his reign is only “until” a certain point, at which time he will give up the kingdom to his God and Father so that God may be “All in all”).
3. Thus, the span of time expressed by the term aiónios in Luke 18:30 cannot be endless in duration.

It should be emphasized that the argument above is logically valid; if all the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true as well. Thus, in order to avoid the conclusion, it must be shown that one of the premises is faulty. However, if the argument is sound (and I’m convinced that it is), then it follows that any translation of the term aiónios that conveys the idea of endless duration is inaccurate, and should be rejected in favor of a translation that is consistent with the truth of the limited duration of Christ’s reign over the kingdom of God (i.e., “eonian,” “age-abiding” or “age-lasting”).

So how is God the Savior “especially of believers?” Answer: We who believe are going to be saved by God before everyone else. We’re going to be vivified in Christ to enjoy life (immortality) during the future ages, or eons, of Christ’s reign (i.e., “the oncoming eons” referred to in Eph. 2:7). It is this that Christ and Paul had in mind when they referred to the salvation of believers as “life eonian.” But this earlier, special salvation of believers does not in any way diminish or subtract from the salvation that the rest of mankind is certain to receive from God at a later time (i.e., at the consummation of Christ’s reign, when death is abolished, all are subjected to Christ, and God becomes “All in all”). For an examination of more passages in which the truth of universal salvation is clearly affirmed by Paul, see the very first article I posted on my blog.

Some have mistakenly believed that the expression “life eonian” places a limit on how long believers will be alive in the future. However, that’s not at all the case. In the expression ”life eonian,” the term “eonian” simply puts the emphasis and focus on the fact that believers will get to live during the coming eons of Christ’s reign. It doesn’t imply that believers will cease to live after these eons have ended (for when the eons of Christ’s reign have ended, death will have been abolished, and all people will be immortal). Since the adjective aiónios pertains to one or more of the eons, it follows that anything that continues to exist or occur after the eons have ended will simply cease to be “eonian.” When time is no longer measured by eons, the adjective “eonian” will cease to be an accurate way to describe anything. For example, we know that God will always exist. However, when the eons through which God is operating and over which he is ruling have ended, he will cease to be the “eonian God” (Rom. 16:26) and the “king of the eons” (1 Tim. 1:17). The same can be said for the “life eonian” that will be enjoyed by believers. Our life will cease to be an “eonian” blessing after the eons of Christ’s reign have ended, but it will in no way be limited to these eons. Rather, our life (as with the kingdom after it has been given up to God) will continue beyond the eons of Christ’s reign, without end.





[1] See, for example, C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the First Gospel, pp. 144-50; George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 290-292; J.I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux XXVI.3, September 1990, 23; "Evangelical Annihilationism in Review," Reformation & Revival, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997; John Painter, 1, 2 and 3 John (Sacra Pagina), p. 195; Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.73-74; John G. Stackhouse, Jr. "Jesus Christ," The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, p. 151; N.T. Wright, Romans, p. 530.