Who Will Win More Souls: Heaven or Hell?

John C. Rankin (September 25, 2007)

This past Friday night I had opportunity to speak to a packed hall of some 300 students and faculty at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. I was in Charlottesville the prior two days, with various meetings and a Mars Hill Forum at the University of Virginia with a Muslim scholar.

At Liberty, I was addressing “Christianity and the New Atheism” in view of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, et al., in their recent challenges to the biblical worldview.

I defined how atheism is negative by definition (in the Greek, “a” for “without” and “theos” for “God”). Our calling is not to react to a negative with a negative, but to proactively set the table with the sheer goodness of the biblical order of creation.

The engagement with the audience was wonderful, and the question and answer segment went well over the scheduled time. In one question, a student made a passing assumption, widely shared, that most people in history will go to hell, with only a minority being saved. This assumption is found in many corners of the church, and within evangelical Protestantism, from five-point Calvinists on the one hand, to dispensational Baptists on the other.

But is this truly the case? How powerful is God’s love, working through the completed work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection? The apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:3-4, speaks of “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”

The student referred to the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:13-14, where Jesus speaks of the few who find life through the narrow gate, and the many who go through the wide gate on the road to destruction.

I spoke of Jesus’s power of understatement (especially with reference to himself), and his power of hyperbole (e.g., Matthew 5:27-30, cf. Matthew 15:1-20, in terms of what causes us to sin). Moreover, in Matthew 7:1-29, Jesus takes repeated aim at religious hypocrites who judge others but did not judge themselves, and defines how a tree is judged by the fruit it produces. Many such hypocrites will claim to have served the Lord, to whom Jesus will say on the last day, “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!” Thus, I see Jesus using hyperbole in Matthew 7:13-14, with direct purpose to challenge the hypocrites — letting them know that few of them are likely to choose the road to life, a theme Jesus repeats often in the Gospels, in direct confrontation with them, and in parables. Jesus is not giving an overall statement on the response of humanity at large.

Now for the tough question. In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus delivers woes to the cities of Korazin and Bethsaida for not believing in him, saying that had the ancient pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon seen such miracles, they would have repented. And in delivering judgment to Capernaum, Jesus said that had Sodom and Gomorrah seen such miracles, they would have remained to this day, that is, they would have averted judgment. Wow.

So why did Jesus not come sooner for the sake of Tyre, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah? From his very lips he declares that many in their midst would have received him. What is the nature of God’s justice, and the nature of his mercy upon those who have not heard the Gospel if indeed they would have believed?

The answer requires us to start in Genesis 1-3 and trace salvation history forward.

One main reason why atheists accuse the Gospel is their perception that God unjustly condemns people to hell. Yet all the way through the Bible no one is ever judged by God apart from deeds they chose to do in rebellion against him.

Thus, we have some good theological work in front of us. [I have written in detail on this question in Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions].

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