Are There Only a Few Who Will Be Saved?
It is often wondered whether a few or many will be saved:
There are some questions about matters that we find in Scripture which cannot be answered with fool-proof finality. Sometimes we can only speculate, based on whatever biblical evidence is available to us. One such question has to do with the issue of how many people will ultimately be saved. Even here, we must just break things down into broad categories: will most folks be saved, or will only some folks be saved?
We of course cannot put down any percentages, let alone figures. God alone knows how many people will spend eternity with him, and how many will not. And Scripture itself seems to give us various sorts of answers. For example, some specific texts from the gospels seem to make the case that few will be saved. I refer to these passages.
Matthew 7:13-14 Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.
Matthew 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
Luke 13:23-24 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.”
Then again we have some New Testament passages that seem to speak differently, such as:
Matthew 13:31–32 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Revelation 7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”
So which is it? Other texts could be appealed to here. And some general biblical principles must be considered as well. One is the doctrine of the remnant that is found throughout Scripture. Consider one famous story: Noah and the flood. Only a small remnant – eight people – survived while the rest were drowned.
Passages such as Isaiah 1:9 could also be mentioned: “Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” And in texts such as Romans 9-11 we read about how only a remnant of Israel will be saved. Thus this idea of a remnant has to be considered in this discussion.
But so too do biblical truths such as God’s great mercy. A well-known passage like Exodus 20:4-6 can be cited: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
There are many other texts like this, such as Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” That is wonderful news indeed, but we must appeal to the whole counsel of God here.
Thus we have a divergence of biblical data to draw from. If you look at commentators and theologians you will find a corresponding diversity of opinions on the matter. Before looking at a few of them, some general remarks should be made. In the first passage I featured, we know that the words of Jesus were addressed to fellow Jews.
They had the idea that they were such a unique and privileged people that of course they would all be saved. Jesus is warning against this smugness, complacency and presumption. If they are indeed God’s special people, then they should be the first to respond to the message of Jesus. But most of them did not.
And what precedes Matthew 22:14 is the parable of the wedding feast. God invites all sorts of people to join the kingdom, but many refuse the offer. Our response to the gospel invitation also plays a major role here. We are responsible for the choices that we make.
But getting back to the key question, let me offer two differing views. Both men I run with here are in the Reformed camp, but they come to quite different conclusions on this matter. R. C. Sproul in his expository commentary on Luke takes a pessimistic view. He writes:
Did you ever wonder what proportion of fallen humanity will make it to heaven? Is it the majority of humankind that God saves, or is it but a remnant? What percentage of your friends and neighbors will go to heaven and what percentage will spend eternity in hell? Have you ever asked that question seriously? I believe very few people think about that in any degree because we live in a pluralistic culture. The assumption is that most, if not all, people who die will go to heaven. Perhaps God is so kind, so tenderhearted, so merciful that His eternal plan is to save the vast majority of mankind. I hope that’s the case, but I have little reason to believe it.
It seems to me that the Scripture is overwhelming in its teaching to the contrary, and that the vast majority of people who have ever lived are either now or will soon be in hell forever. Can you even begin to bear such a thought?
But B. B. Warfield in his rather famous 1915 article, “Are They Few That Be Saved?” takes a much more optimistic stance. You can find it in the 1968 volume of essay, Biblical and Theological Studies (P&R, pp. 334-350). His closing paragraph reads as follows:
These theologians include—to go no further afield—such honored names among prophets of our own as Charles Hodge, Robert L. Dabney and William G. T. Shedd. “We have reason to believe,” writes Charles Hodge, “… that the number finally lost in comparison with the whole number of the saved will be very inconsiderable. Our blessed Lord, when surrounded by the innumerable company of the redeemed, will be hailed as the ‘Salvator Hominum,’ the Saviour of men, as the Lamb that bore the sins of the world.” Robert L. Dabney, expressing regret that the fact has been “too little pressed” “that ultimately the vast majority of the whole mass of humanity, including all generations, will be actually redeemed by Christ,” adds: “There is to be a time, blessed be God, when literally all the then world will be saved by Christ, when the world will be finally, completely and wholly lifted by Christ out of the gulf, to sink no more. So that there is a sense, most legitimate, in which Christ is the prospective Saviour of the world.” “Two errors, therefore,” remarks W. G. T. Shedd, “are to be avoided: First, that all men are saved; secondly, that only a few men are saved…. Some … have represented the number of the reprobated as greater than that of the elect, or equal to it. They found this upon the word of Christ, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ But this describes the situation at the time when our Lord spake, and not the final result of His redemptive work. But when Christ shall have ‘seen of the travail of His soul’ and been ‘satisfied’ with what he has seen; when the whole course of the Gospel shall be complete, and shall be surveyed from beginning to end, it will be found that God’s elect, or church, is ‘a great multitude which no man can number, out of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues,’ and that their voice is as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.’ Rev. 7:9; 19:6”
Of course many other believers have weighed in on this topic. Just one more quote: someone also taking a more pessimistic view is Leonard Ravenhill: “I doubt that more than two percent of professing Christians in the United States are truly born again.”
At the very least such remarks should give us all cause for concern. But Philip Graham Ryken offers some fitting and wise closing words for us. Commenting on the Luke 13 passage he says this:
Instead of speculating about the relative numbers of the lost and the saved, Jesus made the issue personal and practical. Addressing the entire crowd, he said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). Cyril of Alexandria comments that Jesus is “Purposely silent to the useless question,” but “proceeds to speak of what was essential.” What was and is essential is the destiny of one’s own eternal soul. Rather than trying to figure out what God will do with somebody else, the most important question for me to address is my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ: Am I certain that I have walked through the door that leads to eternal life? Do I know for sure that I will be saved? Whether God saves many people or only a few, the important thing for me is to make sure that I have eternal life.
Quite so. That is something I hope and pray all my readers will deal with most earnestly.
9 Replies to “Are There Only a Few Who Will Be Saved?”
Perhaps it is both in a way. The percentage of those claiming to be Christian who actually are might be low (I’m thinking closer to 10% not 2% in the US. Not sure about the world as a whole but maybe 37.5%) but given the size of the population the numbers will be high. So in comparison to the population as a whole yes FEW will be saved. But because of the size of the population MANY will be saved. Same goes for historical numbers sizewise the number of saved will be FEW but numberswise the saved will be many.
An example in a way remember the possessed man whose demons said ‘we are called legion for we are many’?? In the Roman Army a legion was about 5,000 soldiers which is many people but compared to the whole Roman Army it was few people.
The question applies not just to the currently living but to the past dead. I’ve seen estimates that the total number of humans that have ever lived is about 100 billion.
What happened to those who lived before Christ?
What happens to Jews, Muslims, Hindus etc.?
At what point in human evolution did humans acquire souls that survived death? What of other “near humans” in our distant ancestry?
I don’t know if Christian theology has sound arguments on these tricky questions.
Thanks Harry. Several responses can be made. First, yes my article did have in mind all people past, present and future. Second, many Christians would not run with the assumptions you are bringing to bear here (evolution, near humans, etc). But leaving that issue aside, the truth is, third, that Christian theologians for 2000 years most certainly have thought and written about the matters you raise. This is not some new objection or novel query. Entire libraries exist with the works of those who have dealt with such issues.
Very briefly summarised, we have certain givens, such as passages like these:
-John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
-Acts 4:12 “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
As to those living before Christ, the same general rule of thumb applies to them as to people today: How we respond to God’s revelation to us determines our fate. Do we reject it or receive it in faith and obedience? So justification by faith spans the two Testaments. As Paul could put it in Romans 4:1-3, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Abraham had far less special revelation from God than we do today, but his faith saved him just as it does us – all based on the death of Christ for all who believe.
Lastly, it always seems to me that those who ask questions about this are being really serious only when they take Scripture to heart and do something about it. That is, they take texts like Matthew 28:19-20 real seriously and they share the gospel message far and wide. Otherwise it seems that folks might be just asking rhetorical questions.
And I have written before on this in more detail if you care to take it further. See this piece for starters, including especially the closing paragraph: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/01/24/what-about-those-who-have-not-heard/
But thanks for your comment.
Some sects claiming to be “true” Christians (the ones that go door-knocking) quote Revelation to claim that only 144,000 are saved. Oddly, these unwelcome visitors don’t claim to be amongst that number. I usually ask them why they bother.
Yes Rosie, we do not run with the spin the JWs put on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/10/17/jehovahs-witnesses-when-cultists-come-to-town/
Well, if Sproul and Ravenhill are giving dire warnings, I think it might be wise to err on the side of caution. Pretty lame arguments here against the obvious camparision Jesus gave with “many” vs “few”. If the ratio was 62.5% to 37.5% then it would be “more” and “less”, but if we compare “many” with “few” I doubt you could come up with a 2:1 ratio.
Whenever I find a matter for interpretation I take the cautious option. For example, few people ever have a car accident that requires a seat belt – yet we all put our seatbelts on. Likewise, whether it ends up being “many” or “few” in heaven (ignoring the words of Jesus here), then the logical thing to do is to assume “few”, and continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, Phil 2:12
I suggest the total of all scriptures on this matter make it very clear that getting to heaven is not something to take for granted. The last thing we need is a reason to be even more lax.
And that is the problem with claiming most people are going to heaven – we will end up living like “most people”!
Thanks Tim. Yes I am with you.
Revelation 12 is a genius prophetic picture of the entire period of time from the birth of Jesus to the last generation. In just 17 verses God reveals the history of the Christian church, from it’s beginnings in Christ, to it’s period of persecution and survival in the wilderness during the dark ages, the description of it’s prime enemy’s beginnings in heaven and his ultimate purpose in destroying the Son of God, and with Him out of reach, resorts to destroy His people. It concludes with these words…
KJV Revelation 12:17
17 And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
A similar description of God’s final generation of faithful servants is…
KJV Revelation 14:12
12 Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.