Saturday, June 10, 2017

Few, Many, Most?

For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14) 

This is hard.1 I really don’t like this verse. I have found no satisfying interpretation that is entirely based on the timeless prescription,2  “use scripture to interpret scripture.” There simply isn’t, it seems to me, enough relevant scripture to construct a critical mass for either of the common interpretations.

There is, however, enough for that favorite pastime of cherry-picking support for your bias. I know, because I’m, I'd hate to think, very good at that game. But honestly—it’s either that or throw up your hands, which may in fact be the better part of valor.

Jesus himself was somewhat coy about this—inasmuch as we can use coy to refer to whatever corresponding holy virtue he possessed that could at times resemble coyness to finite chowderheads (i.e., all mankind.) You see Jesus was asked specifically to give a numerical estimate, but instead he gave an answer with the same interpretive difficulties:
22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. (Luke 13:22-24)
What does many mean? Is it a majority? It’s impossible to say. In modern usage many often implies a minority. For example, in most presidential elections (but not the last dreadful one) you say that many people voted for the loser, but most people voted for the winner. In short, the answer is entirely unhelpful if we are attempting to quantify with any precision. Except we can agree that "many" does not mean "few."

So, to the two interpretations. The first is:

For all time, the number of people saved will be a small minority. 

People have even tried to estimate the ratio. William Fisher, elder of a Scottish parish in the late 18th century, and apparently a frozen-chosen type Calvinist, estimated only one in ten are saved. For this (and his perceived hypocrisy) he was mocked as “Holy Willy” by no less that Robert Burns:

O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell, 
[And] As it pleases best Thyself, 
Sends one to Heaven and ten to Hell
All for Thy glory, And not for any good or bad 
They've done during their lifetime! 
-- Robert Burns, Holy Willy, Stanza 1, translated.

Ouch. No fiver-pointer, Robert Burns.

The second interpretation:

Matthew 22:14 refers only to the time of Jesus’ ministry. 

Why? In part because, as we know, just after his ministry ended, the number added to the church exploded. And today there are about 2.2 billion people self-identifying as Christians. You’d have to be a cynic’s cynic to assume that enough of them are not True Christians™ to reduce that number down to something that is sensible to refer to as a “few.”

Oh, how embarassing, I didn’t realize my bias was showing. And it is not based on eschatology. (If anything, it’s the other way around, my eschatology is heavily influenced by the way I interpret this verse, i.e. via option 2.)

Sorry, no proof to be found. You see, I simply deem it unseemly when someone tells me they believe only a few are saved, and (it is typically implied but not stated) that they’re one of the elite. It’s a dark side of my beloved Calvinism that sometimes rears its ugly head. But it might be right. I would just rather think it wasn't.

Now for my cherry picking. First, Paul:
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Rom 5:15)  
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:19) 
Here Paul uses the many, and pits Adam's many against Jesus'. Yes, as I argued earlier, many doesn’t imply a majority. But, again, it is certainly not “few.”

Then there is John Calvin, commenting on Paul’s words:
If Adam's fall had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is much more efficacious in benefiting many, since admittedly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to ruin.
Now I don't want to read too much in Calvin's (or Paul's) argument, or put words in his mouth, but of course that's just a prelude to doing exactly that:

P1) Adam's fall resulted in the ruin of many (the reprobate)
P2) Jesus' work resulted in the the benefit of many (the saved)
P3) Jesus is more efficacious in saving than Adam is in ruining
C) Therefore Jesus' many exceeds Adam's many. A majority of mankind will be saved.

It makes sense to me. But I can't prove it. I can't demonstrate that heaven will be heavily populated. But I sure hope it is.

1 So hard, in fact, that for a more scholarly treatment, see See F. F. Bruce, Hard Sayings of Jesus

 The best possible algorithm, yet mathematically problematic, see Gödel's incompleteness theorems, vis-à-vis presuppositional-lite apologetics. (Only mostly kidding.)


  1. Interesting thoughts.

  2. You're in good company, in Spurgeon's sermon "Law and Grace" ( he said "It is my firm belief that the number of the saved will be far greater than the damned."