“Will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:22)
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that question. In many ways, it gets to the heart of my doubts about hell–namely, my sense of dread that only a few will be saved while masses and masses of people go away into eternal fire.
I struggle to reconcile that bleak picture of judgment with God’s goodness and sovereign power to save. I find myself asking, “Lord, if you are good, how can you punish so many? God, if you are sovereign, how can you let so many perish? Father, this all feels overwhelming and impossible to bear.”
Dwelling on hell can crowd out my wonder for God’s grace. The Gospel becomes less about my love for Christ and more about desperately wanting to rescue people from the fires of hell, which, in turn, results in despair at how little impact I have.
I become gripped by a kind of paranoia. I fear for the strangers I see on the street who will one day stand before a Holy God. I even start fearing for the believers in church. Do they know enough about the Gospel? Are they bearing enough fruit to escape the wrath to come? Heaven or hell becomes the all-consuming question, casting a shadow over everything else.
The Mystery of Hell
There is a place for hell to give urgency in evangelism, a place for examining others to see if they are truly in the faith, and a place for bringing our questions about hell honestly to God. At the same time, if we focus too much on hell, it can become unhealthy and unhelpful.
I don’t believe God calls us to constantly dwell on the number of nonbelievers who will perish in hell or imagine the details of their punishment. That burden is too heavy for us to bear as finite creatures. Ultimately, only God is wise, strong, and just enough to fully understand and carry out eternal justice.
Rather, I think God allows us to hold aspects of hell as a mystery. Will the majority of humanity be saved? Only a select few? Somewhere in the middle? The Bible tells us that both many and few will be saved. John reports “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9). While Jesus reminds us that way of salvation “is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14 ESV)
We don’t know how many will be saved. We can judge by the statistics, but we must also leave room for God’s surprising sovereign work in drawing the poor and broken. Beyond that, we don’t know many others things about hell. And that’s okay. We can leave our uncertainties in God’s hands. He knows how to justly punish sin in hell. He knows the exact number of people who will be saved and damned. He sees the full picture of each person’s life, death, and eternal destiny. We can be content to live with mystery and trust that the Lord of all the earth will do what is right.
I used to struggle to reconcile God sovereignty with man’s responsibility. No matter how hard I pondered, I couldn’t fit the two together. How could both be true simultaneously?
Over the years, however, I learned to make peace with these truths by embracing mystery. Instead of fixating on perfectly working out the logic, I found it helpful to focus on what the Bible emphasizes when it talks about our sovereign election–namely, the security and peace we have in God’s love. God wants his sovereign grace to comfort me, not lead to endless speculation and philosophizing.
I suspect that it is similar with the weighty truth of hell. Instead of dwelling on what we cannot know and becoming overwhelmed by our fears and questions, let us focus on what the Bible emphasizes when it talks about hell.
What is that emphasis? I think God primarily means for hell to humble us. Hell makes us tremble before the Holy Judge who can destroy both body and soul. Hell reminds us of the seriousness with which we must fight sin. Hell shows us of the terror of the wrath which Jesus bore in our place.
Humbled by Hell
“Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Luke 13:24)
That is how Jesus begins his response to the question from the crowd. Instead of directly answering, Jesus places the focus back on the questioner and each person listening.
What’s more important, Jesus says, is whether you yourself will enter through the narrow door. Do not take for granted that you will make it in. Salvation is free but the way is hard. It will take everything you have so trust God like your life depends on it.
That, I think, is the common pattern of Jesus’ teaching on hell. He challenges his listeners not to look at others, but to examine themselves. He rebukes arrogant Pharisees who assume they have God’s favor: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt 23:33) He warns his disciples and the eager crowds to fight sin with urgency “for it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Mt 5:30).
This is important for me to remember. In this series, I’ve focused primarily on God’s justice in hell towards other people. In doing so, it has been easy for me to forget to think of hell in relation to myself. Instead of allowing hell to humble me, I begin to take for granted that I’m already “in” as if salvation was cheap and easy. I turn to God and say, “You better have a really good reason for not letting these other people in!”
Thus, in my heart, I frame the question “will those who are saved be few” to emphasize the fewness of the people saved and the largeness of the people who are not. I tie the goodness and power of God to the number of people he saves and begin thinking God somehow owes us salvation. Unless you save this amount of people, I say to God, the outcome is unacceptable.
I think I am being compassionate in my doubts, and to an extent that might be true, but I must also realize how easily compassion for the lost can be contaminated by presumption and pride. The right way for me to think of salvation is not to protest those who do not receive it. It is to react with wonder and amazement that any sinner would be saved–especially a sinner like me.
Jesus concludes his answer to the crowds with these words: “And behold, some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Lk 13:30). The last day will be full of surprises. There will be many who enter in whom we never would have expected–the most shameful and very worst of sinners. While many of the best and brightest of the world will go away empty-handed because they trusted in their own goodness and strength. Grace turns worldly standards upside down.
But of all the surprises, the biggest one for each of us will be that we are able to enter in. That we are treated as first, though we deserve to be last. The weight of that will leave us trembling. It will humble us to the dust. We deserved hell. We were children of wrath. God had every right to send us away forever, but instead covered us with grace. On that day, there will be no smug certainty. No charge of injustice. Only gratitude and joyous disbelief that Jesus took our place, bore our hell, and with open arms, welcomes us home.
This is the fourth post in a series on hell. You can find the previous three below:
- In Wrestling with the Weight of Hell, I wrote about how God’s anger is mingled with sorrow and reluctance.
- In The Wide Road and the Sovereign God, I talked about resting in God’s sovereignty to witness to nonbelievers.
- In Judgment, Worth, and the Humans of New York, I reflected on how the Gospel maintains a balance between human worth and unworthiness.