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Will Few or Many be Saved?

And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he (Jesus) said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able (Lk. 13:23-24).

Surely, everyone of goodwill desires that all mankind be saved, for even one lost soul is one too many. However, if heaven is only to be found by the “few,” then we need to think and live accordingly. 

Of course, someone might present other verses (then the one above) which paint a more optimistic picture; however, God does not contradict Himself. Thus, it stands when asked (and the only time He is explicitly asked) where on the Day of Judgement the “few” and “many” will be, it is not the “many” who find themselves within heaven’s gates.

Nevertheless, since Scripture is open to interpretation, if we want to know for sure what Jesus means, then let us bring forth additional testimony. This testimony will include the early Christians and Church, as well as the notion of holiness itself.

Church Doctors

So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace (Rom. 11:5).

It is without question that Jesus:

…desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). 

Yet, he does not coerce our love. Sufficient grace is given to all, yet “many” will not respond adequately to such grace, as stands the witness of the early and most highly regarded Christians:

What said the Lord to this? He did not say, “Not few, but many are they who are saved.” He did not say this. But what said He, when He had heard, “Are there few that be saved?” “Strive to enter by the strait gate.” When you hear then, “Are there few that be saved?” the Lord confirmed what He heard. Through the strait gate but “few” can enter…few then are saved in comparison to the many that shall perish (St. Augustine, 4th Cent., Sermons, LXI).

Attend to the words, for they have an especial force, “many walk” in the broad way—“few find” the narrow way. For the broad way needs no search, and is not found, but presents itself readily; it is the way of all who go astray. Whereas the narrow way neither do all find, nor when they have found, do they straightway walk therein. Many, after they have found the way of truth, caught by the pleasures of the world, desert midway (St. Jerome, 4th Cent., Catena Aurea, Matthew, Ch. VII, L. VII).

When He says, “Few there be that find it,” He points to the sluggishness of the many, and instructs His hearers not to look to the prosperity of the many, but to the toils of the few (St. John Chrysostom, 4th Cent., Catena Aurea, Ibid).

For many are called, but few are chosen, many come to the faith, and only a few are brought to the heavenly kingdom (St. Gregory the Great, 6th Cent., Forty Gospel Homilies, Ch. XI).

For by the floor is represented the present Church, in which many are called but few are chosen…(St. Bede, 7th Cent., Catena Aurea, Luke, Ch. III, L. V).

However, there’s always a dissenting opinion, the most famous of which comes from a man named Origen.

Church Declarations

Born in the second century, Origen will originate a salvific optimism which, on account of his overall popularity, will not go unnoticed.

Origen held that Gehenna (hell) was not a place of eternal punishment, but merely purification. He writes:

Now as we found that Gehenna was mentioned in the Gospel as a place of punishment…we find a certain confirmation of what is said regarding the place of punishment, intended for the purification of such souls as are to be purified by torments, agreeably to the saying: The Lord comes like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: and He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and of gold (Contra Celsus, Bk. VI, Ch. 25).

To see what the early Christians thought of Origen’s theory, we need only look at its official condemnation just a few hundred years later:

If anyone says or holds that the punishment of the demons and of impious men is temporary, and that it will have an end at some time, that is to say, there will be a complete restoration of the demons or of impious men, let him be anathema (or excommunicated)(Pope Vigilius, Cited in The Book against Origen of the Emperor Justinian, C. IX, circa 543 A.D.)

If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Origen, in company with their sinful works…and those of the above-mentioned heretics who have thought or think likewise, and have remained in their impiety until the end, let such a one be anathema (The Second Council of Constantinople, C. XI, circa 553 A.D.).

Moreover, it’s even unclear whether Origen himself believed his theory, since in the same breath, on his treatment on angels, he will explain that evil can make a creature unwilling to ever return to the Good. He explains:

…rational creatures, who have devoted themselves to wickedness in so headlong a course, that they are unwilling rather than unable to recall themselves; the thirst for evil being already a passion, and imparting to them pleasure (De Principiis, Bk. I, Ch. VIII)(emphasis added).

Plus, after articulating the (above-quoted) theory of universal salvation, he sternly commands Celsius not to share the theory with the masses:

But the remarks which might be made on this topic are neither to be made to all, nor to be uttered on the present occasion; for it is not unattended with danger to commit to writing the explanation of such subjects, seeing the multitude need no further instruction than that which relates to the punishment of sinners…(Ibid.).

It seems strange that a truth as foundational to the faith, as the ultimate destiny of man, ought to be kept from the faithful. If Origen’s theory is true, and “the truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:32) then why the strict silence concerning it?

Holiness

The final witness to Christ’s words on the “few” and “many” will come from the notion of holiness itself. St. Paul writes:

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness (ἁγιασμὸς) without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). 

If holiness is required to enter heaven, then the concept of holiness may provide us with a clue to where, on the Day of Judgement, the “few” and the “many” will be.

First, a look at the word itself.

The word holiness ἁγιασμὸς (hagiasmos), in New Testament Greek, comes from the root word ἅγιος (hagios), which means holy as well as set apart.

The connection between holy and set apart ought to be intuitive to us. Imagine bringing some “holy object” into your home; you can’t just set it anywhere. It has to be placed apart. Scripture confirms the connection between these two:

But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to him (Ps. 4:3).

Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work (2 Tim. 2:21).

The intrinsic connection between being holy and being set apart, allowed the apostles to use their opposites, impure and common, interchangeably. Here is a typical example from the Book of Revelations:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb…But nothing unclean (κοινὸν, koinon, “common”) shall enter it (Rev. 21:27).

Thus, the most basic notion of holiness suggests something that is possessed by a “few,” set apart, rather than something common possessed by the “many.”

Besides, what about the actual pursuit of holiness? If holiness consists (at the very least) in following the commandments (cf. Mt. 19:17), of which the first is:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment (Mt. 22:37-38).

Are the “many” even interested in holiness? Are we even interested in holiness?

Sound Judgement

The trouble is that an undue optimism, besides being questionable, may also be hazardous to one’s salvation.

If we assume that most get into heaven, instead of “striving to enter by the narrow door” (Lk. 13:24), we may imagine ourselves simply drifting in with the crowd.

However, if heaven is for those who devote their entire heart, mind, and soul to God, then we ought to question very seriously if we, ourselves, will enter into heaven.

The point is not to despair, but to ward off the presumption which inculcates indolence. Instead, let us realize the full weight of Jesus’ words concerning the “few” and the “many,” and trusting in God’s grace, labor with the fearful vigilance which Scripture demands:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13)(emphasis added).

For the way to salvation, see G.O.S.P.E.L and Infallible Prayer.


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