Will More People Be Saved Than Not? image

Will More People Be Saved Than Not?

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I’ve had a sneaking suspicion, for some years, that the number of people who are saved will be smaller than the number of people who aren’t. That’s not what I would like to believe, obviously, but it is what I’ve often thought. That has had a lot to do with Matthew 7:13-14:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Seems pretty straightforward to me. When Jesus says that “many” will blunder into destruction, and “few” will find life, then he clearly means that more people will be condemned than saved – so no amount of postmillennial optimism, historical analysis or charismatic triumphalism will persuade me otherwise.

Or does he? This is where synoptic criticism has a vital part to play. Here’s the version in Luke 13:22-30:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying towards Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us’, then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Interesting. The question is as direct as it could be – “will those who are saved be few?” – and the response starts off on a fairly negative note (“many will seek to enter and will not be able”). But by the time the pericope is finished, Jesus has affirmed not just the exclusion of many we’d expect to be in, but the inclusion of many we’d expect to be out: people from east and west, and north and south, reclining at table in the kingdom. This sounds very different to the apparently stark prediction of a small remnant in Matthew 7.

There may be two reasons for this. Firstly, in Luke, Jesus’ answer to the question serves as a challenge to his immediate hearers, much like his response to the question about the tower of Siloam earlier in the chapter: don’t speculate about what happens to everyone else, just make sure that you don’t miss it. As such, Jesus is not making a blanket statement about the number of the saved, but using “narrow door” imagery to urge a response from his hearers. Secondly, Matthew’s interest (at least for most of his Gospel) is almost entirely bound up with Israel, whereas Luke is of course more interested in the Gentiles, on whom he will focus so much attention in Acts. It is therefore quite understandable that Matthew would have Jesus, talking to Jews, bringing the challenge (many will fail to find life through the narrow gate), whereas Luke would have him mentioning the ingathering of the nations as well. In a nutshell: many Jews in Jesus’ own generation will miss out on what God is doing, but their absence will be more than compensated for by the inclusion of the Gentiles. Matthew’s telling of the wicked tenants parable (especially 21:43), and Luke’s telling of the great banquet story (14:12-25), certainly point this way too.

In other words, when Jesus talks about wide and narrow gates or doors, he is operating with the same framework as Isaiah when he talks about small remnants and international highways, and as Paul when he talks about lopped off natural branches and ingrafted wild ones. In the mysterious plan of God, many in Israel – at least in this generation – will miss out on what God is doing and end up in destruction. But at the same time, and in fact through their rejection of Jesus, God will save great multitudes from among the Gentiles – and, ultimately, from among Israel herself as well (Rom 11:25-32).

So: is the gate wide or narrow? Maybe, although it was narrow for first century Jews, it is unthinkably wide for everyone else. Praise God!

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