My picture of Heaven and the New Earth is one where there are many people and everybody who I ever knew in life. I don’t like funerals where there is any degree of doubt about a person’s destiny. Even if there is, we tend to put the best face on it.
Reality and desire rarely match. And even if the Gospel is literally the “good message”, there is some bad news mixed with the good news. The good news is that Jesus successfully fulfilled the Law for every person. A promise of forgiveness of sins and consequently eternal life with God is on the table. God has made good on long standing promises and His mission to save mankind, even potentially all mankind, has been enacted. The bad news is that in practice “few” get saved.
Where do I get this grim news. From my least favorite passages in the Scriptures:
“14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”Matthew 22:14 (ESV)
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)
Both are out of the mouth of Jesus, who I have to consider an authority on the matter. There are other passages that corroborate this, so the fact that these are both from Matthew is of little consequence.
What does this mean? And why is it true? We have the universal desire of God to save all. We have the complete and sufficient life and death of Jesus to fulfill the legal requirements.
The Matthew 22 passage comes at the end of the Parable of the Wedding Feast. In the story a general invitation has been given to the populace to come to the wedding. One dude shows up without “wedding garments”, which would be provided. The King reacts strongly and the parable dissolves to bare truth, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The implied rejection of the wedding garment does in this man’s salvation.
The other quote is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus adds this information in the midst of a series of commands on how to live. Without the context of the whole Bible, one might conclude that the “narrow way” is a strict observation of the laws Jesus had just laid down.
The Sermon on the Mount is an example of how God uses the Law in different ways, even at the same time. The rigor of the Sermon on the Mount is meant to convict and to break any attempt to save yourself by your own actions. It is unachievable and already lost for a person with a sinful nature (that’s all of us). Martin Luther referred to this as using the Law as a mirror. We see ourselves, and the image isn’t good. Jesus’ statement of the narrow way is meant to create worry and to drive a person to another answer–God’s grace.
Jesus’ statement doesn’t appear to be an exaggeration for the sake of impact, however. The narrow way and the wedding garment are the same thing–the one thing that can save us.
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”John 14:6 (ESV)
Being connected to Jesus is the one thing necessary. There are not other options that work, so it is “narrow”. It makes sense that this is true. If there were other options, Jesus wouldn’t have gone through what He did.
So how “few” is it? Many people lived and died and never heard the Gospel. I don’t believe that God would allow this to be a limiting factor. The function of Jesus’ “descent into Hell” seems to suggest, especially in 1 Peter 4:6, that Jesus can be evangelical even in Sheol. The limiting factors seem to be that many are hardened to the Gospel (Matthew 13:19) and Satan works to keep them that way. Others believe but find reasons to abandon the Gospel (persecution and difficulty, other worries of life). Some undermine the Gospel by changing the terms of God’s promise (the book of Galatians). Many become unrepentant sinners (John 3:19-20).
So what percentage can we expect? Is “few” relative to the whole population? Is “few” relative to the whole number that could have been saved? I hope it is the latter, but I wouldn’t be surprised that it turns out to be 10% or even less. Jesus seems to brace us for a low yield by some of His stories. But whatever the yield it will still be many people –a great multitude that no one could number (Rev. 7:9). We are blessed if we are counted among them.