Monday, March 14, 2022

The few, the faithful, the saved

Nowadays, outside of some Protestant fundamentalist holdouts, I'm not sure our faith in Christ has any real bearing on our eternal destinies.  In fact, I'm not sure how much our eternal destinies play in our religious thinking in this old twenty first century.  

For those who think about it, an implicit universalism seems to be common.  Sometimes it's an explicit universalism.  This isn't something new or 21st Century.  There have always been some who failed to square a loving God with some eternal separation from that same loving God.  But in recent generations, visions of hellfire and damnation have clearly diminished as more and more Christians, consciously or otherwise, accept a somewhat secular understanding of religion and a worldly understanding of creation. 

In this setting it appears quite common to assume, without much thought, that most everyone is guaranteed to pass through the light after we shuffle off our mortal coils.  Much discussion, when it comes up, is around how many are saved - everyone or just mostly everyone?  I've seen that discussion on Catholics sties and outlets many times, and it's almost always around the assumption that it's a matter of how few, if any, will fail to be joined with God in the New Jerusalem.  

Here's what I've noticed, for what it's worth.  Last year for Holy Week I did a quick series on the seven churches of Revelation.  No particular reason, it just came to my mind.  One thing that hit me was that out of the seven churches, only two were given high praise and a pass.  The other five were given warnings.  Get with the program or else.  Yes, we all know the churches at Sardis and Laodicea were the pits and got stern warnings to shape up or pay the piper.  

The fact is, however, three of the others got the same.  Even if they had elements that were praiseworthy, including suffering for the Faith, they still ended getting the same stern warnings.  No amount of praiseworthy works in those churches made them immune from the same warnings that everyone's favorite loser churches got.  

In other words, our walk with God and God's appraisal of us is not based on trade and barter.  We don't get to stand in front of God and say, "Sure, I didn't do this or that, but I was awesome over here."  We're expected to follow God and do what we're supposed to do.  If we don't, see the warnings. Even if we go so far as being willing to suffer for the Faith, that doesn't balance out ignoring the teachings of Christ over here or over there.  It's sort of an all or nothing package. 

And that got me to thinking, as I am wont to do.  I reflect on the modern obsession with 'does everyone but Hitler get saved or is it everyone saved?'  Much of the scriptural basis for this comes from two key passages in the New Testament, beyond some philosophical wrangling over love and punishment and eternal fates.  The main verses appealed to are 2 Peter 3.9 and 1 Timothy 2.4.  Some have also appealed to Ezekiel 18.23.   The gist is that God wants everyone to be saved and come to repentance. 

If God wants it, how can it not happen, correct?  I mean, if God wants the universe, God gets the universe.  Why not everyone being saved?  At best we can imagine everyone but Hitler is saved.  Or maybe everyone, since that's what God wants. 

Here's something I noticed when I reflect on my former colleagues who tended to cleave unto the liberal side of theology, who often embraced this implicit/explicit universalism. I noticed that in most cases with most modern topics, the Bible, even the New Testament, is usually confined to Jesus and His teachings (in recent years, mostly Matthew 25).  That's where we learn God is our good buddy, it's all about love, no condemning of sinners, no condemning of the world, because Jesus says so. Be a swell person and that's all we need for righteousness. 

And yet when it comes to scriptural references to buttress universalism, it's almost always the above passages in the New Testament.  Almost never is it Jesus, unless you want to parse something like Matthew 23.37.  Why is that?  Why do they almost always appeal to Jesus as the great lover of love and forgiveness and mercy and nothing else where our sex lives or other religions are concerned?  It's all tolerance and inclusion when you read Jesus.  But when it comes to universalism, we rush over to the rest of the New Testament as our go to reference? 

I can't help but guess it's for one simple reason.  If you look at the Gospels, you'll notice when Jesus does talk about things like paths to life or final judgments, if numbers or amounts are mentioned, those not cast into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth, or those not going along the path leading to destruction, tend to be described as 'few.'  You want bad results of standing before our eternal judge?  That's where you get terms like 'many', 'most' and similar 

In fact, one of the sometimes glossed over parts of Jesus' appearance at the synagogue in Luke 4 is  how he invokes instances in the lives of Elisha and Elijah when discussing His return to His own home.  He notes that out of everyone, those OT prophets reached out to only two individuals, the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, during times of great famine and suffering.  Which, if you think on it, is often the proportions given in the entire Old Testament.

Like it or not, my Old Testament professor in seminary had it right.  The Bible, for want of a better phrase, is usually a minority witness.  That is, those who cling to God and stay faithful are almost always portrayed as the minority.  Sometimes, as in Noah, it's literally one family in the whole world who stays faithful and escapes destruction.

Or in the Wilderness, it's only two spies who keep the faith.  Or there may have been seven thousand who did not bow to Baal, but there were only seven thousand, not the majority.  And on it goes.  You get the point.  The 'story' of the Bible is often of the majority falling away and bowing before the Golden Calf when only a 'few' remain faithful and escape God's judgment and, yes, punishment. 

Jesus invokes this proportion when He chastises the synagogue in Nazareth.  It also underpins His continual teaching that many may be called, but few are chosen.  That the path to destruction is where many go, versus the few who find and traverse the narrow path that leads to life.  In fact, I might say if you're looking for evidence that everyone gets to heaven, the last place you want to go is Jesus.  Which might be why those who make that argument, in this case at least, prefer the rest of the NT to what Jesus has to say on the matter.

None of this is to say hellfire awaits almost everyone but 140,000.  I'm not even haggling over what Jesus means by path to destruction or weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Does it mean some middle ground where people get purged ala purgatory before being saved for eternity? Does it mean burning in Hell for eternity?  Is it oblivion and eternal destruction, but no real eternal suffering?  Is it the least versus most in the Kingdom of Heaven, where the unhappy 'many' who take the wide path end up with a room next to a noisy ice machine for all eternity? 

That's not what I'm focused on.  In fact, I think when we approach it that way - just how are we really all saved despite how we live or what we have to say about God - we're already missing the point.  Sort of like my dad asking me to do chores and then wondering what will happen if I don't.  The point isn't wondering if I'll be grounded, spanked or just have the car keys taken away for the weekend.  The point is to do the chores because my dad told me to.  Since I love and respect my dad, that should be my response, not 'how little might I be punished if I ignore him?'. 

The point isn't to really parse what is meant by destruction or outer darkness, as much as it should be something we don't want no matter what they mean.  Not because it might be really bad, but because it means we've fallen from what God wanted in the first place.  

But such warnings are omnipresent enough to warrant our attention.  The tendency of Jesus to describe those taking the path to life as the minority, when added to the Scriptural story of most people rebelling or falling away to their punishment and regret, suggests asking how many are saved might mean an answer we don't want.  It also might mean we need to rethink how we've packaged the Faith in recent generations.  

The tendency of  modern churches to quickly modify, adapt, change and even surrender before the world is at least partially grounded in a diminished belief that there are any real consequences to getting it wrong.  A focus on just how everyone will get a blue ribbon when we die has made it easy to shrug off any concern about missing the mark. 

Yet that is something the churches in Revelation learned.  It's important not to get it wrong, because warnings of dire consequences are given us all, no matter how much we get right.  And if Jesus is to be believed, it won't be the majority who end up in the path to life, skipping along no matter what since everyone gets the prize at the end. 

In fact, it might be some sad self fulfilling prophecy that our efforts to accommodate and adjust and modify the historical revelation might just end up leading to that very vision set out in the scriptures.  That is, no matter what God does, the majority will find ways to ignore Him and walk the other way.  Instead of repenting, the majority will instead curse God when the time comes.  Which would then suggest a reading of the Bible as minority witness might be the most accurate way to read the numerical witness in the many mansions of the Kingdom. 

Again, I'm not saying the majority are going to burn in hell!  Or heaven is an exclusive club reserved for everyone name Dave only (and those he loves).  Nor am I quibbling over what many or few means.  After all, 51% of the human race could technically be many or most, and still let 49% of humanity be saved.  I think all of that is going the wrong direction with the topic. 

I think both the history of Christian doctrine and the scriptural revelations themselves show that whatever the case, when God says X, the majority of the world will nonetheless reject X.  And of those who God entrusts to deliver the message of X, the majority will choose to abandon X when the going gets tough.  And sometimes that doesn't mean failing to suffer for the faith, as several churches in Revelation were willing to do.  Rather it can just be giving in to the old temptations and sins of immorality and false teachings.  Which, if we try to twist it all to say nothing matters since everyone ends up on the path to life in the first place, might be the worst teaching of all to allow.  


  1. I think sometimes it goes back to that meme I've seen floating around. It's usually a picture of a native american with words along the lines of: "If I didn't know about Jesus, would I be condemned to Hell?" "No." "Then why did you tell me?"

    Even if they don't quite realize it, I think this has caused some people to grasp the logic: If we want people to go to Heaven, and you are not damned if you are ignorant of Christ, therefore the best way to save everyone is to not say anything about Jesus!

    (Which has been my issue with some... let's just say religions. If logic involving it leads to an absurd conclusion, then it must follow that you've made an error somewhere in the logic - not that you need to have more faith.)

    1. I think not a few Church leaders have come out and all but lamented the fact that Indians were converted to the Faith. I know there have been statues of missionaries that have been removed from Catholic institutions. As if it's not enough to lament any violence, but to lump it all together and regret we even pestered them with the whole Gospel thing in the first place.

      That goes along with that other strange development, where it appears you're better off being a godless Satan loving sinner than a Christian who falls short of the mark. While I certainly understand the whole 'to those who have been given much', and as I said about about the churches it isn't a case of picking and choosing right, I'm shocked at this development.

      It reminds me of growing up and hearing hypocrisy defined as 'when someone says one thing and does another.' It almost suggested you're better off saying nothing, or having no particular values, than having high standards and falling short. All of this, including the Church's approach to these things, might explain some of what we see today.

  2. The vast majority of non-evangelical Christians have lost sight of what the Gospel really means, what Christ's bloddy atonement really means, why that atonement was necessary, how that atonement turns those who embrace it into a holy, righteous God's adopted sons and daughters, and heirs unto salvation, to paraphrase St. Paul. Too much of Christianity (including Catholicism) has place more of an emphasis on intellectual fashion and political activism. Just look at Francis. He is the first Pope I can remember -- if not the first in history -- who places greater emphasis on secular matters (environmental sustainability, economic redistribution) than on the Gospel.

    1. That's a beef I have with Pope Francis. I've asked before if he would rather I had stayed Protestant and support the Global Warming narrative or the latest Covid measures or not. I seriously can't tell. But he's hardly alone, and I think many use him as a sacrificial lamb to cover the sins of where so many believers have been long before he arrived on the scene. Though in recent yeras, it's also happening in Eveanglical cirlces. My old classmate Russ Moore has been one to embrace the 'we've been so wrong for so long, it's time to get with the latest' paradigm. That often includes a sort of post-ecumenical ecumenism. Where it's not that we believers set aside differences to come together over the important parts of the Faith, but where we set aside our different Faiths to come together over important secular matters, as you point out.


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