How Many will be Saved? Luke 13:23-25

The Last Judgement.Fra Angelico.1429.Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.Kat.Nr. 60A

Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ (Luke 13:23-25 NABRE)

Some Catholics have speculated about the rough proportions or percentages of people that will be saved and damned. Among these Catholics there are those who have a more sober attitude, and think that smaller numbers of people will be saved. Others have a more hopeful attitude, and think that larger numbers of people will be saved. The truth is that in Catholic theology there are many reasons for both attitudes, but pitfalls when these attitudes are exaggerated. Whatever our predominant attitude may be, both sets of reasons (concerned and hopeful) should motivate us to evangelize, intercede for others, and pursue holiness. As to the actual proportion of those who will be saved in the end, opinions may vary. However, it is arguably best just to claim ignorance on the matter. Let’s consider these ideas in more depth.

Reasons for Concern

A more sober or concerned attitude about the final numbers of the saved seems less common in the Church today than the alternative; but it is an attitude that should not be frowned upon. It is well grounded in the tradition of the Church, and, in a certain sense, it should be considered the “default position.” Why? Primarily, because the Sacred Scriptures and the Catholic Faith teach that it is a high and narrow road that leads to eternal life; that we must “strive” in it. Faith, repentance, and perseverance in good are required for salvation. And how many of us, can we say with confidence, firmly walk in this way?

Let’s look at some of the relevant Scriptures. “He who believes in [Jesus] is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). Yet how many people do not have faith in Christ, or have fallen away from Him? How many of us, who profess to believe, are in fact hypocrites? Likewise, the Scriptures provide many (non-exhaustive) lists of sins that, unless removed by repentance, exclude people from salvation — and many of them are very common: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21 NABRE; see also 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:3-6; Rv 22:12-16; Mt 25:41-46).

Although the Church teaches that it is possible for those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Lord and His way, to be saved through the grace of God (cf. Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, sec. 16), we may reasonably ask ourselves, how common is it really? Even many of us who know the Lord, must strive with great effort to remain in grace, and too often fail to do so. Many of us may be in the throes of self-deception. What then, of others who do not have the same means of grace as do we? As Saint Peter wrote, “It is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, how will it end for those who fail to obey the gospel of God? ‘And if the righteous one is barely saved, where will the godless and the sinner appear?’” (1 Pt 4:17-18 NABRE). The Bishops at Vatican II hit a similar chord when they stated, “Often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair” (Lumen Gentium, sec. 16).

The narrowness of the way of salvation, the difficulty it imposes upon us, and the great spiritual need of humanity is nowhere better expressed than in the Sermon on the Mount: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14 NABRE). Many saints and doctors of the Church interpreted this passage to mean that a majority of the human race would not be saved. In fact, it was the dominant theological opinion for centuries. For them, this was the obvious conclusion, given what the Lord has said here about the wide and narrow gates/roads.

Where does all this lead us? At the very least, we should embrace that biblical and traditional wisdom that leads us to walk in this world with humble fear — for ourselves and for others. We should be striving to enter the narrow door (Lk 13:24), working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Like Our Divine Lord, furthermore, we should be lamenting the sad state of those who are far from God or do not know Him (see Lk 19:41-44) as we do the works of intercession and evangelization. When so many saints of the Church held a sober view of the prospects for salvation, we should be cautious of being overly optimistic in our attitude. And our caution, like theirs, should lead us to greater zeal in participating in the Lord’s work of redemption by pursuing holiness, evangelizing, and praying for souls.

Reasons for Hope

A greater hope of salvation seems more common in the Church today. While the primary reason for concern is that the road to salvation is high and narrow, the primary reason for hope is that salvation is not so much a work of man, but of God. Furthermore, the teaching authority of the Church in recent decades has (rightly) put great emphasis on what she has always taught: that God desires the salvation of all and gives every human being sufficient grace to be saved. At Vatican II (and in fact earlier), the Church clarified that this includes even those who in this life (apparently) never come to know the Gospel of Jesus Christ (see Lumen Gentium, sec. 16). Although such people do not have the great means of salvation available in the Church, they do have much good and truth from God, to serve as “preparation for the Gospel” (Ibid.).

In teaching in this way, the Church today seems to have picked up on some of the more hopeful threads that we find in the Catholic tradition. The teaching of Saint Francis De Sales, Doctor of the Church, exemplifies some of these threads. For example, he teaches that God desires the salvation of all very strongly and does not give to each person grace that is simply “sufficient” for salvation, but grace that is “rich, ample, and magnificent” for salvation.[1]

This fits well with the teaching of another Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena, who shows how the punishments that God sends upon the wicked are intended to bring them to conversion and salvation.[2] Indeed, as she says, “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”[3] In addition, God tells her, “The eye cannot see, nor the tongue tell, nor can the heart imagine how many paths and methods I have, solely for love and to lead them back to grace so that my truth may be realized in them!”[4]

These reasons for hope (and others), found in the writings of the Saints, are grounded in the Sacred Scriptures. It is from the Scriptures that we learn that God desires that all would be saved (1 Tm 2:4), and that the salvation of all is the goal of God’s providence in the world (See Col 1:20; Jn 3:17; Rom 11:32). Christ Himself said that when He is crucified, He would “draw everyone to [himself]” (Jn 12:32). The Scriptures also suggest that the abundance of grace which God pours out for all, does not simply dry up when sinners resist it: “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rom 5:20); and that the wicked are objects of God’s “priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience … to lead [them] to repentance” (Rom 2:4); and that the saved will be “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rv 7:9).

At the very least, these truths should lead us to the firm conviction that many who are currently far from God will not remain so until the end of their lives. Christ says that He has sheep that are not yet part of the one flock, but who later will be (Jn 10:16). The parable of the workers in the vineyard also illustrates this well. In it, we learn that people are called to salvation at different times of their lives, even in the ‘last hour of the workday’ (Mt 20:6-7).[5] Likewise the account of the “good thief” crucified next to Jesus shows that great sinners are sometimes called to salvation shortly before their deaths (see Lk 23:39-43). This is the teaching of Saint Faustina, too, who bears witness from God that “deathbed conversions” happen even in ways that are hidden from our eyes.[6]

These truths are strengthened by the teaching of Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans.[7] In speaking about God’s plans for the Jews who rejected Christ, Saint Paul suggests that God orders His providence in such a way that many people who reject Him now, will later on embrace Him: “[Unbelieving Jews] have now disobeyed in order that, by virtue of the mercy shown to you, they too may receive mercy. For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:31-32).[8] After saying these words, Saint Paul praises the incomprehensible mystery of God’s saving providence. This seems to suggest that the way that God’s salvation works itself out in the world is a great mystery. What things look like now in the world (where the lines are drawn, so to speak) will not be exactly the same as things look when the final judgment occurs. We are likely to be surprised in the end when we learn the identities of many who ultimately repent and find salvation.[9] This gives us great reason for hope.

The Pitfalls of Pessimism and Optimism

There are solid biblical and traditional reasons, then, for both attitudes. We can reasonably be sober and concerned about the prospects for final salvation, and we can reasonably be hopeful. However, there are pitfalls to avoid in both directions.

A more hopeful attitude, when exaggerated, can become what we might call “optimism.” This leads to a form of the vice of presumption. Presumption expects salvation without striving for it through acts of faith and sincere repentance. It can lead to laziness in the work of evangelization and the pursuit of holiness. Many are inclined to think (even unconsciously) that if we are all so likely to be saved anyway, why should we bother putting much effort into it? But the Sacred Scriptures frequently warn us of the danger of sin, of faithlessness, and of falling away from grace. They exhort us to “strive,” lest we end up experiencing the punishments of hell.

Likewise, a more concerned attitude, when exaggerated, can become what we might call “pessimism.” This leads to a form of the vice of despair. Despair gives up hope of salvation or of the means to salvation, and “is a grave crime against God’s goodness.” [10] As such, it can lead to hatred of God. Like “optimism,” it also leads to laziness in the work of evangelization and the pursuit of holiness. Some are inclined to think (even unconsciously) that if so very many will be damned anyway, why bother putting much effort into it?

People do not usually despair universally, about everyone. Most of the time despair is for oneself alone, or it comes in a kind of “elitist” form. In the case of an elitist despair, a person has presumption and pride regarding oneself (and others like oneself), and despair regarding others, who are considered to be more wicked and less deserving of mercy than oneself. Those who do not have the same means of salvation as “us” are despised and rejected as hopeless. The Sacred Scriptures, on the other hand, assure us that God desires and works towards the salvation of all; and that God loves all, and is merciful to all, even as He punishes sin. Saint Faustina taught that the greater the sinner, the greater right he has to the mercy of God.[11]

Why Not Both?

Since there are reasons both for concern and for hope; and both, when exaggerated, lead to destructive vice, it seems wise that faithful Catholics should embrace a kind of hybrid of these attitudes. Even so, we might emphasize one over the other somewhat, depending on our life experiences and personal disposition. Nevertheless, we should embrace both. Most faithful, well-catechized Catholics, in fact, do this. They have great concern and great hope — firstly about their own salvation, and secondly that of others.

We ought to pray with both concern and hope, for the salvation of ourselves and others.

Only in this way will we strike the right balance. We need to be concerned about sin and the prospect of judgment and damnation. This can motivate us to be zealous in the works of evangelization, intercession, and the pursuit of holiness. Responding to the warnings of Sacred Scripture, we will “strive to enter through the narrow door” (Lk 13:24) lest we one day hear the Lord say, “I do not know where you are from” (Lk 13:26). The danger, for ourselves and others, motivates us to action.

We also need to be hopeful, knowing that the Lord loves all of us so much that, even while we were undeserving sinners, Christ died for us (see Rom 5:8); and knowing that “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy. The Lord is good to all, compassionate toward all [his] works” (Ps 145:8-9). And this, too, motivates us in the works of evangelization, intercession, and holiness. For if something is hopeless, there is no point in working for it; but if we have much hope, then we have much reason to work for the fulfillment of that hope.

Should We Even Have an Opinion?

In the light of the many reasons for both hope and concern, should we bother having an opinion on the relative proportions, in the end, of the saved and damned? Probably not. A few observations are relevant here:

A first observation: Although the Sacred Scriptures give us reasons for both concern and hope, they don’t actually say very much, if anything, about the final proportions of the saved and damned. The closest they seem to get to saying anything concrete is the Lord’s words on the narrow gates/roads in Matthew 7. As we mentioned above, many have interpreted it to mean that a majority would be lost, but that is not the only possible interpretation. But even if that were the correct interpretation, more important is the truth that for the time being “our knowledge is imperfect” (1 Cor 13:9 RSVCE). While we are on this earthly pilgrimage, it is not the time for clear and detailed knowledge into the final judgments of God. Now is the time for faith, hope, and love (see 1 Cor 13:13), for fulfilling our call in obedience to the Lord (see Jn 21:22). God has set a time to know His judgments, and it is not now. That time is at the Second Coming of Christ.

That brings us to the second observation: It does us no real good to know the comparative numbers of the damned and the saved. Yes, for some people, having a predominantly hopeful attitude helps them avoid despair. And for others, having a predominantly concerned attitude helps them avoid presumption. But arguably, it does us no real good to get into specifics. Whatever good we imagine we have gained by speculating or predicting the final proportions of the saved and lost, we could have gained without doing so. The various reasons for concern and hope, which the faith itself provides, are all that are needed to avoid presumption and despair.

A third observation: Although it may sometimes be difficult to see how this is the case, we know that if people lose their salvation and are counted among the wicked allies of the devil and his fallen angels — if they are damned — it is just and right that this happens. Likewise, it is not contrary to God’s infinite mercy, but is the result of the reprobate’s firm refusal to accept that mercy (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1033). In damning the wicked, furthermore, God is standing up for the innocent whom the wicked oppress, giving them a Kingdom where there will be no more crying, “no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away” (Rv 21:4). And though the justice of hell may be a mystery to us, it is a mystery of faith; therefore, we can be content and trust God. We can believe in God’s goodness, justice, and love even without fully understanding how they will be manifest in His final judgments. Whatever those judgments will be, when the time comes the faithful and loving disciple of Jesus will be able to accept them peacefully.

Luke 13:23-25

We began this reflection with the text of Luke 13:23-25. That passage is the only place in the scriptures where Jesus is asked about the relative numbers of the saved and damned. And if we read His response attentively, we’ll find that He does not actually answer the question, but instead exhorts the questioners themselves to strive to enter the narrow door, lest they be lost.

image of St. Cyril by Erud

In the light of the above observations, and Our Lord’s non-answer to the question in the Gospel, perhaps we ought to not form an opinion, but just say, “I don’t know.” In doing so, we have the support of at least one saint, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, who commented on Luke 13:23-25 in this way:

Now our Lord does not seem to satisfy him who asked whether there are few that be saved, when He declares the way by which man may become righteous. But it must be observed, that it was our Savior’s custom to answer those who asked Him, not according as they might judge right, as often as they put to Him useless questions, but with regard to what might be profitable to His hearers. And what advantage would it have been to His hearers to know whether there should be many or few who would be saved[?] But it was more necessary to know the way by which man may come to salvation. Purposely then He says nothing in answer to the idle question, but turns His discourse to a more important subject.[12]

In the view of Saint Cyril, Our Lord’s words in Luke 13 imply that “How many will be saved?” is a “useless” and “idle” question. And in fact, if St. Cyril is correct in that assessment, then the common interpretation of the parallel passage in Matthew 7 becomes unlikely, and we are left without firm ground on which to speculate.

However, if anyone disagrees and insists on answering the question for themselves, whether in a more hopeful or more sober form, they should be sure to put it forward simply as an opinion. For the Lord will judge, and the Lord will save. Our opinions on proportions or numbers are comparatively irrelevant. Regardless of what we think, He will do these things according to His own counsel. Whether or not we have an opinion, all that matters is that we do, in fact, fight the fight, run the race, and keep the faith (see 2 Tm 4:7), with hope and holy fear (see Phil 2:12) in our hearts. In doing so, we will further the salvation of ourselves and many others by participating in the saving work that God is carrying out in the world, as He ‘draws all men to Himself’ (see Jn 12:32).

[1] See Francis De Sales, The Treatise on the Love of God, Book 2, Chapter 8.

[2] See Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 174-176 (sec. 94).

[3] See Ibid., 284 (sec. 138). Translation from Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 313.

[4] Ibid., 31 (sec. 4).

[5] This is a common interpretation among the fathers of the Church. For example, see St. Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, sec. 19. The primary meaning of the parable, however, seems to be that God called the Jews first, and He called the Gentiles later, revealing God’s generosity in the dispensation of grace and salvation, and how “the last will be first, and the first last.”

[6] “God’s mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way. Outwardly, it seems as if everything were lost, but it is not so. The soul, illumined by a ray of God’s powerful final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God forgiveness of sin and punishment, while outwardly it shows no sign either of repentance or of contrition, because souls [at that stage] no longer react to external things. Oh, how beyond comprehension is God’s mercy! But – horror! – there are also souls who voluntarily and consciously reject and scorn this grace!” Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2016), sec. 1698. See also sec. 1507.

[7] Interestingly, the Letter to the Romans is also a classic text for more sober views of salvation.

[8] Here, it is suggested that God’s saving providence works for the salvation of all.

[9] Many people, to use the phrase of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, repeated by Evelyn Waugh’s book Brideshead Revisited, may in extremis be recalled to God by “a twitch upon the thread.”

[10] John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary (Bardstown, KY: Eternal Life, 2008), “Despair.”

[11] Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2016), sec. 723.

[12] Thomas Aquinas, ed., Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, vol 5, trans. John Henry Newman (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1874), 492-493. See also Cyril of Alexandria, Sermon XCIX, from A Commentary Upon the Gospel According to S. Luke, Part II (Oxford: University Press, 1859), 461.

Photo of the Last Judgment painting by DSVTP1176

Author: Mr. Mark J Hornbacher, OP

Mark is the Vice President of Programs and Director of Theology at St. Paul Street Evangelization. He has a MA in Theology and a B.Phil from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and a BA in Theology from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. With Steve Dawson, he is the co-author of Ordinary Christians, Extraordinary Signs: Healing in Evangelization. He is a lay Dominican, and resides in Sterling Heights, MI with his wife Gayle, and their two sons.

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