Why doesn’t God just save everyone? (or does he?)

I talked last time about why I’d stopped trying so hard to ‘save’ everyone, or to impart to them a particular version of the gospel message about Jesus saving them from their sins.

These next 2 posts follow on from this, but from a less personal, more theoretical and theological angle. The question I’m trying to answer is, Why does God leave other people’s eternal fate in our hands – or indeed does he?

I was listening to a friend give their ‘testimony’ the other day, the story of how they came to faith in Christ from having been a drop-out; of how he felt God calling him in his darkest hour. It struck me for two reasons – one, because it bore parallels to my own story. Two, because if God chose to or managed to get to both of us in our similar places, why not all the many others like us? And why not everyone? Why us at all?

Or to put it another way – why doesn’t God just save everyone?

What is salvation, who gets it – and why?

Firstly though, what does it even mean to be saved, and is it the same as being Christian? My rough working definition of both (which many will disagree with!) is:

Being drawn into a redemptive relationship with God in which one is gradually inwardly transformed into Christlikeness, and in which one participates in the redemption of humanity and the world.

But I’m not sure one has to be ‘Christian’ in the usual sense for that to happen, though again many would disagree.

Still, ‘Why doesn’t God save everyone?’ has long been a puzzling question for Christians. Different believers have attempted different answers over the ages, starting with the very first apostles. The views seem to fall broadly into three camps:

  1. God could save everyone because he is utterly sovereign, but for his own mysterious reasons only chooses to save some (Calvinism)
  2. God wants – and tries – to save everyone, but he respects our choices and he will (or can) only save those who are willing (Arminianism)
  3. God does ultimately save everyone (Universalism); and he doesn’t require people to make a Christian commitment in this life in order for them to be redeemed finally (Inclusivism).

Option 1 – God could save everyone, but chooses not to

This is the classic Calvinist position, based on a view of God as utterly sovereign and in control of everything that happens. I don’t like it and don’t think it’s true. Still, I acknowledge that it seems to have fairly strong backing from some of the New Testament writings – and even apparently from the words of Jesus himself.

So in John’s gospel Jesus makes two statements, ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6) and ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me’ (John 6:44). Accepting for now that Jesus actually said these things, and taking it at face value, it sounds unequivocal – only those whom God directly calls can come to Jesus and receive his eternal life.

Paul of course appears to reinforce this in several passages: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Eph 2:8-9); ‘What if God… bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction’ (Romans 9:22).

For me, there have to be alternative ways of reading these passages – or else (in the last resort) I may simply have to reject them as mistaken. Because the view of God they present seems to me so utterly abhorrent, and so unlike the God I think I know a little.

A monstrous God?

If it’s true that God simply chooses some to be saved and others not to be, then to my mind it makes him controlling, unlovable and almost monstrous. Indeed the extreme version holds that God not only actively chooses those to be saved but also actively chooses those who are to be lost or damned – which ends up in the same place but makes God seem even nastier.

How can you unconditionally and freely love someone – indeed how can you love them at all – knowing that it’s only the luck of the heavenly lottery that God has chosen to love you, and that you could equally well have been chosen for eternal destruction? How can you love someone who is actively and deliberately choosing to consign billions of your fellows – perhaps your family and friends – to hell, purely on the basis of his sovereign right to choose?

And how can God simply choose to love some and not others anyway – surely love doesn’t work that way? Unless they’re massively psychologically scarred, a parent has no choice about loving their children – they just do, like it or not. (Though Calvinists argue we only become God’s children by his sovereign choice.)

God’s will and God’s glory?

And what is the mysterious reason that Calvinists put forward as the basis for God’s choice to save some and condemn others? For some it’s simply pure will, the divine right of choice – which amounts to a meaningless tautology to my mind.

For others it’s ‘for God’s glory’. It glorifies God to show mercy to some who don’t deserve it (which could be any of us), and equally glorifies him to punish others who do (which again could be any of us). Maybe so, in a legal or even mathematical kind of way – but I find it hard to see how it would be possible to love such a God.

Indeed, the Calvinist view has understandably been responsible for causing many to hate and reject the Christian God, even to oppose him. And if such a view were true, I might be tempted to join them.

Scriptural error?

Obviously rejecting these difficult scriptural passages as erroneous does present us with some other difficulties, which for some will be insurmountable. But it seems to me that Paul was wrong about some things – most notably about the imminent return of Jesus within his lifetime – so he may have been mistaken about this as well. We don’t have to discard all of his writings just because they aren’t completely infallible or inerrant.

Another approach is to accept these ‘Calvinist’ passages, but to uncouple them from the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment that normally accompanies the Calvinist viewpoint. This softer version still holds that God chooses only some people for eternal life, but not that he consigns the rest to an eternity of punishment and suffering; rather, he merely lets them cease to exist (Annihilation not Damnation). I’m still not entirely happy with this idea, but I think it’s an improvement.

Of course, there are alternative ways of interpreting these difficult passages of Scripture (more on this next time). But even if we’re sure they mean what they seem to, and we accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word (which I’m no longer sure I do in a strictly evangelical sense), that’s not all the Bible says on the subject.

Which brings us on to options 2 and 3 – that God wants to save all but can’t, or that he does save all. Next time…

Advertisements

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Evangelicalism, Salvation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Why doesn’t God just save everyone? (or does he?)

  1. scraffiti says:

    So, to answer a question with a question: Can we rely on John’s gospel? The writer is unknown. The writing wasn’t completed until the end of the first century and was therefore unlikely to have known or heard Jesus speak. Did Jesus say these things – who knows! I have heard it taught that John’s gospel has mystical meaning – you take your choice. Paul believed a lot of things that we don’t believe now e.g. Adam and Eve etc. He wouldn’t have known Jesus either and I have never understand how he could have known what ‘salvation’ meant. ‘Faith’ is a word that I have come to hate! It brings grief to everything it touches! There you go Harvey!

    Like

    • Hi scraffiti, good questions! To answer properly would take a lot more space than a single comment, and a lot more understanding than I currently have… I agree that we can’t necessarily rely completely on the author of John’s gospel – which is likely to have written down been by a community over time rather than a single person. My understanding is that the origin or source of the gospel would have likely been the words of John the apostle (who of course did know Jesus), but it’s unlikely that he wrote it down in its finished form himself.

      And yes, you’re right that it’s probably better to understand it in more mystical and less literal terms!

      I don’t have a problem with ‘faith’ as such, but it depends what your faith is in, what it’s based on and (crucially) what you do with it. I think we all have faith in all sorts of things and people, sometimes justified by the evidence, other times less so.

      And if we hold our faith in ways that leads us to be generous and understanding towards others – even those who think differently! – I think that faith can be very positive. But there are of course toxic, fanatical forms of faith that do poison everything they touch. I’ve seen both kinds, and my endeavour in this blog and elsewhere is to follow the first kind not the second – though I often don’t succeed.

      I suppose the bottom line of my own faith is that God is – has to be – completely good and loving, or he cannot be God at all; and also that we see God in the person of Jesus. And that’s been my own experience, as much as anyone can claim experience of such things. That does mean that parts of the Bible don’t make sense to me, but it may be that I’m misreading them, or possibly that they aren’t meant to be God’s final word for all time.

      Anyway, thanks very much for commenting! 🙂

      Like

  2. The apostle John lived to a ripe old age and I believe that all this nonsense about him not writing the book is absurd. The early church fathers knew him well. If someone else had wrote the book, they would have rejected it.

    Like

    • For a basic overview on the authorship of John’s gospel, you could do worse than Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John.

      It’s certainly possible that the Apostle John authored the gospel as it stands, but it’s not thought to be that likely. However, if it’s important to you that he did, I’m certainly not going to argue – I’m agnostic over it, as we simply don’t have enough evidence to say for certain one way or the other. We also don’t really know how old John was when he died, though tradition certainly has him living to a ripe old age.

      But it’s quite likely that the gospel of John didn’t exist in its final written form at the time when the early church fathers were around to accept or reject it.

      Like

    • scraffiti says:

      No bible scholar that I’ve heard of believes that the apostle John wrote the gospel that bares the same name. He would have been an illiterate peasant from Galilee who would have spoke Aramaic. The gospel was written in Greek. Peter and John were regarded as unschooled in Acts 4:13. What do you mean by early church fathers?

      Like

      • I suspect there are evangelical Bible scholars who do believe that John wrote the gospel that bears his name – I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that someone like NT Wright might well argue a fair case for it, though not in a simplistic way. You’re right that it’s very unlikely that John actually wrote down the words himself, but he could of course have dictated them. The most likely view that I’ve heard is that the gospel arose from the community that followed John, and would have started as an oral work that only later got written down – quite possibly with a few additions and amendments along the way.

        Like

  3. Terry says:

    Have you read Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist. If not, do so.

    Like

  4. Noel says:

    It has troubled me recently the idea that God punishes some of us by allowing them to go to eternal damnation. I believed and justified it most of my life until a few years ago, when I allowed myself to question what today’s church teaches. If God is all powerful and graceful , why limit him with human characteristics , such as being a judge that punishes those who refuse to believe in Jesus ( no matter how much good they do because “salvation” is not based on deeds) . If grace can be given to the most evil person, wouldn’t that be more of a characteristic of an all powerful and mysterious God?

    Like

    • Hi Noel, I’m with you on this one. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I’m cautious about being overly certain on things I can’t give solid evidence for, but my gut feeling is that God redeems (or gives grace) to all. My only caveat is that I think he may allow us to refuse that grace and redemption if we really insist. But I think he always holds out the offer, till the end of eternity if need be.

      Like

  5. Paul says:

    Jesus story of the prodigal son is most significant for me as a universalist. The father is portrayed as constantly waiting for his son to return and welcomes him with open arms. There doesn’t appear to be any prerequisites for acceptance. No requirements to repent or repayment, just love and grace. The brother speaks to our human nature which wants some kind of justice which to my way of thinking is why so many conservative theologians are able to find scriptural proof texts for sending some ( most ) to everlasting torment. Of course the debate will continue over which scripture applies and how. The ‘ Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability ‘ continues to hold sway and allows everyone to prove their point.

    Like

    • Yes, I think you’re right – though you could interpret the Prodigal Son story as meaning that the only prerequisite for acceptance is that we go to God, or the Father. The Father in the story was always ready to welcome his son back with open arms, but the welcome didn’t happen until the son ‘came to his senses’ and decided to return (not with any particularly great motives of course). My feeling is that God doesn’t force us, but the welcome is always there – till the end of time and beyond if it takes us that long.

      Like

  6. scraffiti says:

    Hi Harvey, You might be interested in this youtube by Bart Ehrman on Johns’s gospel.

    Like

    • Thanks, I’ll have a look – sounds interesting! I know Ehrman has a slightly different take on John to the traditional evangelical understanding, and I’m interested to hear more.

      Like

      • scraffiti says:

        Sorry I just wanted to paste in the link. I didn’t realise youtube would put the whole thing on your page. Delete it off if you think inappropriate. It is good though!

        Like

        • Just listening to the Ehrman talk at the moment – I like it! Not sure I agree on everything, but he does makes some great points backed up with good argument.

          I think my position is a middle one. I don’t think that everything Jesus says and does in the gospel accounts is necessarily exactly what Jesus actually did say and do in every detail. But for me, that doesn’t massively undermine the gospels as historical or (more importantly) theological sources. If the gospels are at least partially based on eyewitness accounts, we know that eyewitness accounts do always differ from one another – different people notice different things, remember events differently and interpret them differently.

          So for me the discrepancies are signs of authenticity, but of course they do mean that the gospels aren’t ‘inerrant’ in the classic evangelical understanding. But they may still contain much that is broadly true and right, albeit somewhat filtered.

          Like

  7. Alfiethedog says:

    A very wise analysis, I think. I too have known some very good and spiritual Calvinists – but yes, it isn’t possible to believe in a God whose love is so conditional and in whose image, to be honest, one would have little desire to be made. I think their system does have the strength, though, of being based on the notion that salvation, and the criteria on which they’re based, are mysteries understood only by God. So they don’t fall into the very human-centred reasoning of the Armenians – at least not at first. Because it’s a strange logic, isn’t it, which begins with the notion of an all -sovereign, inscrutable God but then attributes to him judgements that make him seem vindictive and unfair even by fallen human standards?

    Like

    • Yes, I do think that’s right that we do better to keep salvation and its criteria (if there are any) as at least partly a mystery understood only by God. Though I think many Calvinists also fall down on that a little, by making assumptions about what God’s like and how he works based on the ultimate criteria of his ‘will’ and his ‘glory’. You’re doubtless right that Armininianism is too human-centred, and perhaps Universalism is too. In the end we don’t and can’t know – but we can trust that God is genuinely and thoroughly good.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s