Saturday, August 17, 2019

Did John reveal the truth of the salvation of all mankind in his writings? (Part One)


The truth of the salvation of all humanity is, I believe, one of the most important and beautiful doctrinal truths revealed in scripture. And elsewhere on my blog (such as my three-part series on Christ’s ransoming work as well as the very first blog article I posted), I’ve demonstrated where, in scripture, I believe this truth has been revealed to us (as well as why I believe the verses to which I’ve appealed in support of this truth do, in fact, support it). Among those who’ve read my articles on this doctrinal subject, some may wonder why I haven’t appealed to verses outside of Paul’s letters in defense of this truth. The reason for this is simple: I’m not convinced that the truth of the salvation of all humanity can be found outside of Paul’s letters.

Now, I hope the reader will not misunderstand me here. I firmly believe that the rest of Scripture is perfectly consistent with the truth of the salvation of all. There’s not a single verse or passage in scripture that I believe contradicts this doctrine. I also believe that there are many verses throughout the scriptures that can be understood as “pointing toward” this truth (to a greater or lesser degree), without actually revealing or affirming it. And there are some great articles and books out there which I believe convincingly show that, in light of other clearly-affirmed truths of scripture – such as the love, wisdom and absolute sovereignty of God – the doctrine of the salvation of all humanity is far more reasonable to believe than any of the alternative positions affirmed by Christians (and could even be considered a necessary inference, as I argued in one of my earlier blog articles). But as for an actual revelation of the truth of the salvation of the entire human race (as well as the reconciliation of all creation to God), I think this priceless doctrinal gem can be found in Paul’s letters alone.

I realize that there are a number of verses and passages outside of Paul’s letters to the body of Christ that some believe support this doctrinal truth (such as, for example, Genesis 12:3, Lamentations 3:31, Ecclesiastes 12:7, Acts 3:21, 2 Peter 3:9 and Revelation 21:3-5). However, I believe that these and other verses have been misunderstood, and are being misapplied, by those who appeal to them in support of the truth of universal salvation. And insofar as this is the case, I can’t help but believe that those who appeal to them have, unfortunately, failed to fully appreciate what’s actually being revealed and communicated in the verse or passage in view. For example, Lamentations 3:31 is about God’s faithfulness to his covenant people, Israel, and not to all humanity without exception (see, for example, Lam. 4:22; 5:18-22).[1] Similarly, the “restoration of all” referred to by Peter in Acts 3:21 is not a reference to the salvation of all humanity, but rather has to do with the fulfillment of all of the promises God made concerning the future destiny and expectation of Israel (compare the terminology used here with that found earlier in Acts 1:6, where we find the disciples asking Christ if he was about to be “restoring the kingdom to Israel”).[2] And Peter’s words in 2 Pet. 3:9 apply to those whom God has chosen for “entrance into the eonian kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11), and to whom God will be mercifully granting repentance before the coming indignation of the “day of the Lord” commences. Rather than being a promise to save all humanity, this verse implies that many people will, in fact, “perish” (and thus fail to enter into the “eonian kingdom” referred to earlier).

Some believers – in their understandable zeal for the truth of the salvation of all – assume that such a beautiful and glorious truth as this must be present (or at least heavily implied) throughout the scriptures. I myself once believed this to be the case, and read books by authors who believed and defended it. However, I’ve since come to understand that scripture is primarily concerned with events taking place during the eons. That is, its main focus is on that which has occurred, and will be occurring, during these long spans of time (the last two of which will be the eons for which Christ shall be reigning).[3] And insofar as scripture’s main focus is on that which has occurred (and will be occurring) during the eons, I don’t believe it has much to say concerning that which will be occurring when/after Christ’s eonian reign ends, and he delivers up the kingdom to God (in fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy in 1 Cor. 15:24-28). And insofar as the salvation of all humanity (and the reconciliation of all to God) is going to take place at the very end of Christ’s eonian reign (and thus after the last and greatest eon has run its course), this event is among the most distant future events revealed in scripture. Even if Christ were to return to establish the kingdom of God on the earth within the next ten years (as I think is possible), the salvation of all could still be considered a relatively distant future event. As long as Christ’s reign over the kingdom of God continues – and, according to scripture, its duration will be “for the eons of the eons” (Revelation 11:15) – the salvation of all will remain a future reality.

Most Christians see the last book of the Bible – i.e., the Book of Revelation or “Unveiling of Jesus Christ” – as the pinnacle of revelation and prophecy, and believe that its author (the apostle John) saw further into the future than any other inspired writer. However, rather than revealing what is to occur at the consummation (as Paul does in 1 Cor. 15:22-28 and elsewhere), the furthest point to which I believe John brings his readers is the final eon of Christ’s reign. In accord with this fact, all of the blessings of which we read in Rev. 21:3-4 (for example) have to do with conditions on the new earth during Christ’s reign, and do not refer to a state of affairs beyond the last eon. Similarly, the fulfillment of the inspiring promise found in v. 5 (“Lo! New am I making all!”) will, I believe, be occurring when this future eon begins, and should be understood as referring to all that will be in existence during this time period (e.g., the new heavens and new earth, and everything that will be populating these realms).[4] Thus, as important and valuable as the truth found in John’s prophetic work is, I believe it still falls short of the highest and most glorious truth that we find revealed in Paul’s letters to the saints in the body of Christ.

Outside of Paul’s writings to the saints in the body of Christ, it would seem that John’s Gospel account and first letter are the most commonly appealed to in support of the doctrine of universal salvation. However, as is the case with the verses on which I provided some brief remarks above, I believe that every verse or passage from these writings that’s thought by some to affirm the salvation of all humanity is actually affirming a truth that pertains to events that will be taking place during the eons of Christ’s reign (and thus prior to the consummation). I realize this position is not affirmed by some (perhaps many) within the body of Christ, and will be considered somewhat controversial among my fellow believers in the salvation of all. Thus, the bulk of this study will consist in a defense of the view to which I hold concerning what John revealed (and didn’t reveal) in his writings.

As I provide reasons for why I don’t think the truth of the salvation of all is revealed in John’s writings, some may think that I’m trying to undermine the truth of the salvation of all. But that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do here. My goal is not to weaken the case for this doctrinal position, but rather to strengthen it. Some seem to believe that the case for the salvation of all is only as strong as the number of verses we can put forth in support of it. According to this understanding, the more “proof-texts” we have, the stronger the case we can make for the doctrine. Given this mindset, it’s not at all surprising that some have attempted to use verses which, although consistent with (and perhaps “pointing toward”) the truth of universal salvation, are really not directly related to this truth. However, when it comes to defending this important doctrine, a single verse or passage that clearly proves the truth of the salvation of all humanity (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:10) is far more valuable and powerful than a hundred misapplied verses, no matter how positive or inspiring the truth being affirmed in these verses may be. And the clear evidence for the salvation of all that we find in Paul’s letters is, I believe, entirely adequate to support this doctrine, and should be the focus of every believer in their defense of it.

In relation to the last point, I also believe that, when we come to the realization that the apostle Paul was the only inspired writer to reveal the truth of the salvation of all humanity and the reconciliation of all creation to God, this realization can only lead to a greater appreciation for his unique calling and apostolic ministry, and for the thirteen epistles he wrote for the edification of those within the body of Christ. Thus, my hope for those reading is that, rather than feeling like they’ve lost a few “proof-texts” for the doctrine of universal salvation from John’s writings, they will have gained a deeper appreciation and gratitude for Paul, the apostle of the nations.

The meaning of the term “world” in John’s Account

Before we examine the first verse from John’s Account that is considered by some to be an affirmation of the truth that all humanity will be saved, we need to consider the meaning of the Greek word translated “world” (kosmos). The term literally means, “an ordered system,” and can denote different things in different contexts. In the three “Synoptic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the word seems to be used most often to denote the realm of human society (Matt. 4:8; 5:14; 13:22, 38; 24:14; Mark 16:15; Luke 12:30). This is also how I believe the word is most often used in John’s writings.

For example, in 1 John 5:19 we’re told that “the whole world is lying in the wicked one.” Although a vast number of people on the earth could be said to be, to some degree or another, living under the deceptive influence and control of Satan (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3-4; Eph. 2:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:26), this is not the case for every human being alive on the earth today (nor was it the case when John wrote). However, when understood as a reference to the whole realm of human society, John’s statement can be understood in a literal, straightforward way (since human society is constituted by an unbelieving majority). Consider also the last verse of John’s Gospel, where we read that, if everything Jesus did during his earthly ministry was written down, “not even the world itself could contain the written scrolls” (John 21:25). By the “whole world” here, John was apparently referring to the whole realm of human society – where scrolls and books are (or could be) kept – rather than human beings themselves (whether collectively or individually).

Moreover, anywhere that we find the expression “into the world” in John’s account, the realm of human society – and not human beings themselves – seems to be in view. We read, for example, of a human child being “born into the world” (John 16:21). And on several occasions Christ referred to himself (or is referred to) as having come “into the world” (e.g., John 6:14; 11:27; 12:46) and as having been dispatched “into the world” by God (John 10:36). We also read that, just as the Father dispatched his Son into the world, so Christ dispatched his twelve disciples into the world (John 17:18) – i.e., he dispatched them into the realm of human society, to conduct their public ministry as his apostles.

The first four occurrences of the word kosmos appear in John 1:9-10: “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” As is the case with the verses referenced earlier, the term kosmos or “world” seems to be denoting the realm of human society. It must be noted that, with the last instance of the word in v. 10 (“yet the world did not know him”), a figure of speech (i.e., association) is being used. Obviously, the realm of human society into which the “the true light” (i.e., God, who made himself known through his Son) entered cannot literally “know” God, or anything at all. Rather, it is people who are in the world (i.e., people within the realm of human society) who can be said to either know, or not know, God. That the term is being used figuratively in v. 10 to denote people in the world is further evident from the next verse: ”To his own he came, and those who are his own accepted him not.”

The last part of verse 10 indicates that the word kosmos can be used figuratively to denote people in the realm of human society. But when the word is used in a figurative sense to denote people, does it refer to every person without exception? Or, does it refer to only a certain category of people, depending on the context? I’m convinced that the latter is the case, and that the word kosmos rarely – if ever – refers to every person in the world without exception. Consider, for example, John 1:10-11. Based on these two verses alone, one might conclude that not a single person in the world accepted God. However, in the next verse, we’re provided with the exception to the statement that “the world did not know him”: “Yet whoever obtained him, to them he gives the right to become children of God…” The “whoever” of v. 12 is a subcategory of those referred to as “his own” in v. 11. Thus, from these verses, we find that there were some who did come to know the Father through Christ, and who were given “the right to become children of God.”

In John 1:7 and 15:8 Christ referred to “the world” as hating him. But now consider what Christ said concerning the people that he had in mind by the term “world”: “…they have hated Me as well as My Father, but it is that the word written in their law may be fulfilled, that they hate Me gratuitously” (John 15:25). In other words, the people in the world whom Christ had in mind when he declared that “the world” hated him were specifically unbelievers belonging to the Jewish nation, and not all people without exception (or even all unbelievers without exception). Consider also John 16:20, where Christ told his disciples that, after his death, they would weep and lament, but that “the world” would rejoice. Did everyone in the world (or even every unbeliever in the world) rejoice after Christ’s death? No; of course not. Relatively few people on the planet rejoiced after Christ was crucified. It was those in the world who hated Christ “gratuitously” (and who belonged primarily, if not exclusively, to the nation of Israel) who can be said to have “rejoiced” after he was crucified.

Another example of the term “world” being used figuratively to refer to a relatively small number of people in the world is John 7:4, where Christ was told to show himself “to the world.” Although Christ was being told to show himself to people (and not to trees, hills or empty space), it was clearly not every person in the world to whom Christ was being told to show himself. Similarly, in John 8:26 Christ said that he’d declared “to the world” what he’d heard from the Father. And in 18:20 Christ said that he’d “with boldness spoken to the world” (which Christ went on to explain as meaning that he’d always taught “in a synagogue and in the sanctuary where all the Jews are coming together…”). For more examples of where the term kosmos clearly refers to far less than the total human population on earth, see John 12:19, 14:19, 22, 15:19 and 17:14.

Based on the above verses, it’s evident that, when the term “world” refers to people within the realm of human society, it is not necessarily referring to every person in the world without exception (or even most people in the world). Instead, it’s referring to some category of people within the world. And since different people can be in view depending on the context, we should always ask ourselves which people (or which category of people) may or may not be in view, and look to the context to help us answer this question.

“Taking away the sin of the world”

With these preliminary considerations concerning the term “world” out of the way, let’s now consider John 1:29: “On the morrow he [John the baptist] is observing Jesus coming toward him, and is saying, “Lo! the Lamb of God Which is taking away the sin of the world!”” What did John mean by the term “world” in this statement? Since it’s unlikely that John was referring to the realm of human society itself, we can understand him to have been affirming the fact that Christ would be taking away the sin of a category of people existing within the realm of human society. But which category of people did John have in mind? Those who think John the Baptist was affirming the truth of universal salvation here assume that he believed that every person in the world who had ever lived (or ever will live) will be saved by Christ. However, we can’t just assume that John believed this. And even if John did affirm the truth of universal salvation (or at least hoped that it might be true), we can’t just assume that it was John’s intention to express this belief at this time, when he saw Jesus coming toward him on that day. But if it wasn’t John’s intention to express the idea that every person in the world was going to be saved by Christ, then which category of people in the world did John have in mind here?

I think we’re given a clue as to which category of people within the realm of human society John had in mind in John 1:6-7 (where we’re told what John’s mission involved): There came to be a man, commissioned by God. His name is John. This one came for a testimony, that he should be testifying concerning the light, that all should be believing through it.” To whom did John testify about the light (i.e., Christ) during his preparatory ministry? Did John testify to every human being on the earth? Did God, through the ministry of John, give every person who had ever lived an opportunity to believe in Christ? No. John went on to specify which category of people his “all” referred to. In v. 31 we read, “But that [Christ] may be manifested to Israel, therefore I came, baptizing in water.”

John’s ministry was limited to the people of Israel. It was to the people of Israel that John testified about the coming Messiah, that “all [i.e., all the people of Israel] should be believing through it.” But did John believe that everyone in Israel would, in fact, believe in Christ? And did John believe that every Israelite in his day would be receiving the salvation that he had in view in John 1:29? To better understand which category of people in the world John the baptist believed would have their sin taken away by Christ, let’s consider Jesus’ words in John 6:33 and 51:

“…for the Bread of God is He Who is descending out of heaven and giving life to the world.

“If anyone should be eating of this Bread, he shall be living for the eon. Now the Bread also, which I shall be giving for the sake of the life of the world, is My flesh.”

In light of the words, “he shall be living for the eon,” the “life” which Christ had in view in these verses (i.e., the life which he would be giving “to the world”) should be understood as the future blessing which is elsewhere referred to as “life eonian.” This is clear not only from the immediate context in which these verses appear (see the references to eonian life in John 6:27, 40, 47, 54 and 68), but also from the broader context of John’s Account as well. Consider, for example, John 3:14-18:

And, according as Moses exalts the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Mankind be exalted, that everyone believing on Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian. For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian. For God does not dispatch His Son into the world that He should be judging the world, but that the world may be saved through Him. He who is believing in Him is not being judged; yet he who is not believing has been judged already, for he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.”

In this passage we see that God’s love for the world is expressed through the giving of his only-begotten Son, with the express purpose being ”that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life eonian.” It should be noted that, in this passage, God’s love for the world is not connected with his intent to save all mankind (even though this is his ultimate purpose, as we find revealed in Paul’s letters). Rather, in this passage, God’s love for the world is connected with his intent to save “everyone who is believing in [his Son].” These words presuppose that not everyone in the world would, in fact, believe in Christ and receive “life eonian.” Instead, the clear implication is that unbelievers will “be perishing.”

Concerning the nature of this “perishing,” Christ declared in John 8:51: “Verily, verily, I am saying to you, If anyone should be keeping My word, he should under no circumstances be beholding death for the eon.” And in John 10:27-28 we read, “My sheep are hearing My voice, and I know them, and they are following Me. And I am giving them life eonian, and they should by no means be perishing for the eon…”  
The “perishing” that Christ had in view in John 3:16 should, therefore, be understood as being concurrent with the “life eonian” he had in view. Moreover, it’s also clear that the salvation that is in view in the words “that the world may be saved through Him” is the receiving of “life eonian” (and the avoidance of “perishing for the eon”). That is, the meaning of these words can be expressed as follows: “…that the world may be having life eonian through Him.”

In light of the fact that the “life” which Christ declared he would be “giving to the world” is life eonian, let’s now compare Christ’s words in John 6:33 with the words of John the Baptist in John 1:29:

“…for the Bread of God is He Who is descending out of heaven and giving life to the world.

“Lo! the Lamb of God Which is taking away the sin of the world!

Since the words “giving life to the world” refer to Christ’s giving life eonian to those in the world who are believing in him, we can reasonably conclude that the words “taking away the sin of the world” refer to Christ’s taking away the sin of those in the world who are believing in him. John the Baptist was not, in other words, referring to the salvation of every person on the planet without exception, or to everyone who will ever live. The “sin of the world” that John believed would be taken away by Christ is the sin of everyone in the world (particularly those in Israel, on whom John’s ministry was focused) who believe in Christ. It is these who, because of their faith in Christ, will “be having life eonian” (as opposed to “perishing for the eon”).  

This understanding of John’s words in 1:29 is further confirmed by what John the Baptist declared elsewhere. From what we read in Matthew 3:1-12, it’s clear that the focus of John’s preparatory ministry was on the eon-terminating events that will usher in the kingdom of God on earth (and the eonian state of affairs resulting from these events). It was with a view toward the coming kingdom that John admonished the Israelites of his day to repent, in order that they might make themselves ready for it. This future eschatological event will involve the “weeding out” of unrighteous Israelites from the land, and the salvation of the righteous. According to John, the righteous among God’s covenant people were to be baptized by Christ “in the holy spirit” and gathered like grain “into his barn.” It is these whom John understood would be saved by Christ, the Lamb of God. The rest, however, are to be baptized “in fire,” and – like chaff – are to be burned up by Christ “with unextinguishable fire.” Given the repentance-based focus of John the Baptist’s preparatory ministry, I submit that it’s far more likely that John believed that “the sin of the world” that Christ would be taking away was the sin of those in the world who, through faith in Christ, were being given “the right to become children of God.”

[1] Although most translations of this verse read, “the Lord will not cast off forever,” a more accurate translation would be, For Yahweh is not casting off for the eon” (as found in the Concordant Version of the Old Testament). When we try to apply this verse to every person who has ever lived or will live, it becomes a false statement (for not all humans – or even all Israelites – will be enjoying God’s favor and blessings during the eon to come).

[2] The only way Acts 3:21 could be understood as supporting the doctrine of the salvation of all is if the “holy prophets” referred to by Peter actually prophesied concerning this truth. But that’s the very thing that needs to be proved by those appealing to Acts 3:21 in support of the doctrine of universal salvation.

[3] For those not familiar with the scriptural subject of the eons, the following summary may be helpful: The eons are relatively long spans of time (past, present and future) which have a beginning and an end. 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 to follow this 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). We also read of the consummation of the eons (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26), which indicates that the succession of eons revealed in scripture has an end as well as a beginning. This is further confirmed from the fact that the future eons referred to (e.g., in Ephesians 2:7) are the eons for which Christ will be reigning. And – as argued elsewhere (see, for example, my article on the expression “forever and ever” and the follow-up article) – we know that Christ’s reign is not going to continue endlessly, but will terminate when he has accomplished all that his God and Father has appointed and empowered him to do.

[4] Although what’s being promised in Rev. 21:5 is certainly consistent with the truth of the reconciliation of all to God (and could even be understood as “pointing toward” this truth), it’s not necessary to believe that John – or the original recipients of his prophetic work – understood the “all” to include anything that won’t be in existence when the last eon of Christ’s reign begins.

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