Will All Be Saved? The Question Which Will Not Go Away

Will All Be Saved? The Question Which Will Not Go Away September 24, 2019

Matt Brown: Julian of Norwich / flickr

How many people will be saved? Will it be a few? Many? Most of humanity? All of humanity? All of creation? While many Christians assume the answer is, “A few,” throughout Christian history, this has not been the only answer which has been given to this question. Some key thinkers from Origen to St. Gregory of Nyssa to Julian of Norwich have given hope that the answer might really be “all.” Hans Urs von Balthasar  said that we cannot really know the answer until we reach the eschaton and see how the eschaton plays out, but he also believed that we can hope that all will be saved. Others dare to say more; George MacDonald suggested that all would be saved because it is God’s will and God’s will would be done; likewise, then, we have David Bentley Hart who, in his newest book,  That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation, gives his reasoning for why he believes the only answer will be a universal reconciliation of all things with God (and so all will indeed be saved).[1]

Outside of the way people interpret Scripture (which is more ambiguous in the way it answers the question of how many will be saved than most are led to believe), the philosophical question which normally lies behind the question of whether or not all will be saved is examined under the domain of free will. It is asked whether or not if all will be saved that free will turns out to be an illusion because it would seem that God would override the freedom of his creatures to deny his saving grace. Those who hope that all will be saved, as well as those who believe all will be saved, offer different interpretations of free will, so that both can say that such freedom remains even if all end up being saved. Obviously, the questions which could be asked to those who think freedom means some must end up suffering eternal perdition is why anyone would choose it (hell) for themselves, and if someone really choose hell, how could it really be hell (because if would seem contrary to the point of hell if someone got what they desired). Those who think free will is preserved with universal salvation will point to the way the will naturally seeks after that which is good, and when ignorance and the deliberation which is required due to such ignorance is overcome, then everyone will choose what is good, which is God, and so will attain what the salvation which they will desire. On the other hand, those who only hope all will be saved think that this might be an over-simplification on the issue of the will, indeed, on the issue of evil and how and why evil is chosen, so that they do not want to presume an answer (and in this way, preserving what they believe is purposefully ambiguous in Scripture).

Now, if everyone ends up being saved, this does not mean salvation is an easy process, that one will die and immediately find themselves experiencing beatitude. Instead, justice will still demand purification for sins, the more sins, the greater the sin, the longer and harder the process will be for their salvation. Likewise, there is the further question, what happens after salvation. If everyone will be saved, does that mean everyone will share and experience the same joy, the same level of beatitude in eternity? The answer does not have to be yes; for this reason, how one lives out their life in history can be said to be reflected in eternity, with the holier the person’s life was while on earth, the greater the joy will be in eternity. Or, one could say, the more one joins themselves with grace during their lifetime, the greater they will become, so the greater the potential or being they will possess to be actualized in eternity. What all of this means is that if everyone is saved, this does not mean history was insignificant and without ramification in eternity; it only means we might not know all the ways those ramifications will be experienced or manifested in eternal life.

What might surprise many people is that the question of universal salvation is not limited to Christianity (or Abrahamic religions which talk about the Last Judgment and the possibility of eternal perdition). Even religions which seem to be more universalistic in their foundation, like Buddhism, find the question raised; Buddhism, especially Mahāyāna Buddhism, is thought to be universalistic: would-be bodhisattvas vow to save everyone before attaining final nirvana for themselves. And yet, in the midst of Mahāyāna thought, there is the category known as the icchantika or the agotra, those who have no capacity for nirvana. “While espousing this ultimate goal of enlightenment for all, however, some Buddhist scriptures make the apparently conflicting claim that certain persons can be forever barred from salvation.”[2] Asaṅga, in his classifications, explains the status of the icchantikas as being someone who has acted out of such unwholesome desires they have entirely defiled themselves, cutting off all potential for goodness (wholesome deeds) within:

He whose good roots (kuśalamūla) are completely severed (samucchinna) can be considered as accompanied and unaccompanied by the accompaniment of the seeds of favorable things (kuśalanā dharmāṇābījasamanvāgamena). As for the extremist (ātyantikaḥ punaḥ), that is [a case of] the accompaniment of the defilements (kleśamanvāgama), and should be classed (lit. considered) among the extreme-wishers (icchantika), who have renounced Parinirvāṇa. The extremist, by reason of his lack of cause of deliverance (mokṣahetu-vaikalya), is [a case of] the unaccompaniment by a cause of those things [procuring deliverance].[3]

Within Buddhism, there is a debate about the icchantikas; who are they? Do they really exist? And if someone truly has no capacity for salvation, for nirvana, can that be rectified?  Different answers to these questions emerge. Some try to turn around the whole concept of icchantika and suggest that it really refers to those who have chosen to avoid nirvana in order to help everyone else attain salvation, that is, bodhisattvas are the true “icchantikas.” Others suggest that it a logical category of thought which has no content. Some, to be sure, will say they exist, that some people will have destroyed all good roots within that they will have become totally defiled and worthy of eternal suffering but a Buddha can come and place within them a seed which will be able to overcome their defilement and put them back on the path of salvation. Finally, a few will admit that the icchantikas are exactly what they seem to be, those who have totally cut themselves off from all wholesome roots that they have become entirely defiled by desire, and they will wander around in saṃsāra with that defilement, incapable of salvation. Sometimes, some texts will give a mix of these answers, indicating how uncertain Buddhist sources are as to the status of the icchantika.  In general, despite how they were understood, the term icchantika was used as an insult, similar to the way Christians use the word heretic, in order to deride people of other beliefs (Buddhist or otherwise), even to the point of excusing abuse of such people, but the term is seen as relative and temporary, so that someone can be bad within a particular “lifetime, ” incapable of following the Buddhist path, the hope remains that in another life, they will find themselves in a better situation where they can be and will be led to the path of salvation. This is how Karl Brunnhölzl viewed such persons within Tibetan Buddhism:

Virtually all Tibetan schools agree that there is only a single ultimate disposition and a single yāna common to all sentient beings. Thus, there are not beings who are absolutely or forever without disposition, which means, that the notion of lacking the disposition (or the “cut-off disposition”) is not to be taken literally. [4]

The key here is it recognize that “virtually” does not mean all, and other Buddhists who do not follow the Tibetan traditions might find themselves more in accord with those systems which teach that there can be some who are icchantikas and who will never attain nirvana.  What this means is that even systems which tend towards universalism end up being incapable of wiping out the possibility that such universalism will not be attained. Buddhism, like Christianity, opposes fatalism, and it seems that this is the reason why many end up questioning whether or not universal salvation will truly be attained. If it is preordained that all will be saved, it seems that something is lost to humanity. Even when it is presumed that God will inspire us to seek after him and be saved, so long as it is said that this will necessarily lead all to be saved and no one can reject him and his salvation, this seems to suggest that freedom is undermined by necessity and so something fundamental to our humanity is lost, or as Jacques Ellul wrote (in a different context but which applies here), “In my opinion, necessity establishes legitimacy; the world of necessity is a world of weakness, a world that denies man. To say that a phenomenon is necessary means, for me, that it denies man: its necessity is proof of its power, not proof of its excellence.” [5] But, of course, those who say all will be saved do not all deny freedom, they only assert that freedom will lead us to choose what is good for us, and eventually, we will be persuaded to will for our salvation and so will come to it (for God, who wills all to be saved, will never give up on anyone and will seek to save everyone).

The question of whether or not all will be saved is an important one for Christians to consider. They must come to grips what it means if they deny at least the possibility that all will be saved. What does it say about God if it is impossible? But, if we think it is at least possible all will be saved, then we will have to consider what someone like David Bentley Hart suggests, that not only will it be a possibility, but an actuality. In doing so, we must truly consider his own argument instead of the argument which is generally made against such a belief. Is it possible that universal salvation will be attained in such a way free will can be preserved? Is such a suggestion a mere paradox or a true contradiction? Or should we follow Balthasar who offers us hope, hope that Hart is right, but with perhaps a little more doubt about ourselves and our ability to use reason to determine what will happen in the eschaton once history has come to an end? Or, perhaps, is there some third possibility, somewhere between that of Hart and Balthasar for us to discover?[6] That, it seems, is the question which must be addressed in the future, and in doing so, more care and consideration should be given to other systems, like Mahāyāna Buddhism, where we find, despite the most universalistic intentions, there remains hold-outs who believe some might not end up being saved, because in exploring how and why such hold outs exist, we might then learn something of the way we can and should address the question from a Christian theological framework.

[1] A few of the reviews of his book available online include:

1:  Jon Carlson, “Against the Bad Place”
2.:J. P. Manoussakis, “Saving Nothing”
3: Aidan Kimel, “An Introductory Review”
4. Thomas Talbot, “Tom Talbott Reviews ‘That All Shall Be Saved'”
5: Shinji Akemi, “Universalism: The Only Theodicy?”

[2] Robert E. Buswell, Jr., “The Path to Perdition: The Wholesome Roots and Their Eradication” in Paths to Liberation: The Mārga and its Transformations in Buddhist Thought. Ed. Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Robert M. Gimello (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992), 108.

[3] Sara Boin-Webb, trans, Abhidharmasamuccaya: The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy) by Asaṅga (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 2001), 78.

[4] Karl Brunnhölzl, A Compendium of the Mahāyāna. Volume Three (Boulder: Snow Lion, 2018), 1560.

[5] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda. Trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Learner (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), xv.

[6] In my own engagement with the question, I think some answer likes in the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, with the fact that objectively, God will indeed reconcile all things as some Scriptures indicate, but the subjective experience of that reconciliation, the state of the person who is “saved” is where the question must be said to reside.


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