“God is Love,” writes John (1 John 4:8). Out of this love, God loved us even while we were yet enemies (Rom 5:10; cf. 5:8). And this love accords with the divine desire that none “should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Hence, God takes no “pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek 18:23).
Given all of this, shall all be saved in the end? Do God’s love and power mean that God has both the motive (love) and means (power) to save all? Of course. He truly has made salvation available for all by his death and resurrection. But this perfect sacrifice does not entail that all will, in fact, be saved since not all do, in fact, believe in Jesus Christ for their salvation.
Here are 3 reasons why I believe that not all shall be saved.
First, our hope for all to be saved does not mean that all shall be saved
Paul said, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1). He spoke of his kinsman according to the flesh (Jewish people). We must grant that Paul hoped such because there was a cause of concern—namely, that all would not be saved.
Yet be careful not to make this prior conclusion alone and thereby miss the point of the passage: Paul’s ardent desire was for the salvation of the lost. He desired and prayed for the salvation of all.
Paul knows that the full number of Jewish people will eventually attain salvation in the future (Rom 11:12). But in the meantime, he desires to “save some of them” (Rom 11:14). Paul mixes ardent hope with a zeal to save as many as he can in the present age. We should share that ethos by having a sort of unstoppable hope matched with an untractable zeal.
Second, the next age, though partly present now, will be the final age—and no other age will follow from it. Hence, it is an unending age. Put simply, hell is an eternal reality.
The Greek word often translated eternal (aion) can mean eternal (especially as an adjective) but more often means “age.” And so we can agree partly with David Bentley Hart’s critique of eternal punishment on the basis of the Greek word (aion). But only part of the way. The last age in a sequence of ages by definition has no terminus, no end. It is, in fact, eternal; or perhaps more accurately, it is everlasting.
But even at the lexical level, the adjectival form of the word “age” (aionios) often works as a title for God to indicate his permanence and, well, eternity (Gen 21:33; Rom 16:26; Heb 9:14; Isa 26:4; 40:28). Isaiah 40:28 connects the “age” or “eternity” of God with his creation: “God is the eternal (aionios) God who founded the farthest reaches of the earth, not thirsting or hungering; nor does his understanding seek things out” (LXX).
If God created all things, then his “age” must extend from before creation unto Isaiah’s present. And of course, biblical authors affirm the endless life of God. So “age” here as a description of God must mean something like the notion of eternality.
Jesus uses the adjectival form of “age” in Matthew 25:41 when he speaks of “eternal (aionios) fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” It seems at least reasonable to assume that “eternal” makes sense here due to the word itself.
And even if not, we know that the current age will end and the end of ages will pervade all (Matt 24:3; 25:46; Luke 18:30; 1 Cor 10:11; Heb 9:26). In the end, the unmerciful will “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). This corresponds to the truth that: “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27).
So eternal punishment will be unending, and some will go into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Third, our capacity to understand divine justice and love is limited by the difference between us and God—creatures and the Creator.
Sometimes we try to make sense of the doctrine of eternal hell by affirming the justice of it. Well, God is just in all his ways. So hell must be just. But I am not sure we often make arguments that can illustrate God’s justice with persuasive force.
For example, we might say that a sin against an infinite being requires infinite punishment. I am not sure why that must be true. Hell apparently has different levels of suffering. So that already entails the non-infinite punishment of sin in an infinite manner since infinity cannot accept infinite stages (or it would not be infinite!).
Second, we might say that an infinite offence requires an infinite duration of punishment to satisfy justice. But Christ’s cross occurred in one day. It was his humanity (through which God suffered) at the cross—a human, finite body that bore the wrath of the curse. Yet that satisfaction occurred over a short period of time. So offending an infinite God does not require an infinite duration of punishment.
On top of this, we end up struggling to articulate how love and justice meet. For example, the majority of contemporary Baptists (and others) affirm that babies, children, and the mentally disabled will die and go to heaven since they cannot be held accountable for their choices. But such a proposition becomes tricky to maintain with consistency.
Consider the following example. Let us imagine a horrible and nearly unspeakable situation. An eleven-year-old girl is kidnapped by a terrorist group. She becomes a child bride, lives a horrid life, and dies at fourteen giving childbirth to one of her captors.
At eleven, she may have entered into heaven due to her age, as some maintain, but at fourteen? Yet did she have any chance to choose the Gospel? What sort of justice does she receive?
The more we attempt to unravel these mysteries the more we, I think, misrepresent God. Here is what we must believe according to revelation and which can give some comfort to those who experience extreme evil.
God is good, loving, and merciful. Somehow God remains these things even during times of great evil. We can and must with confidence, therefore, tell this girl’s family that she has entered into the presence of God who will act according to his nature of love and mercy. And besides, God can use any means possible to bring saving knowledge to anyone. So we cannot discount the possibility that the Gospel can invade even the darkest corners of extremist terrorist groups.
In the end, we must trust God because our ability to understand God’s justice and love are limited by our humanness. We don’t know all like God does. We cannot see the whole picture. We do not truly understand what sin is except that it privates what it is good.
We must affirm that God is good, loving, and merciful. And beyond that, we must honour God with silence.