The Narrow Door
Another passage that is cited as alleged proof for endless hell is Luke 13:23-25:
“Lord,” someone asked Him, “are there few being saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and won’t be able once the homeowner gets up and shuts the door. Then you will stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up for us!’ He will answer you, ‘I don’t know you or where you’re from.’
This passage bears some similarity to the previous passage on the narrow gate, but seems significantly different enough to represent a different teaching of Jesus. The question about whether there are few being saved, the use of the word "door" (θύρας/thyras) instead of "gate" (πύλης/pylēs), and the surrounding context all seem to suggest that this is describing Jesus' words at a different instance.
On the surface, it may seem that Jesus is saying that only a few are being saved and that there is a point of no return beyond which salvation becomes impossible. This is especially true in some translations that translate the Greek verb for being saved (σῳζόμενοι/sōzomenoi) as if it is in the future tense. For example, there are versions that translate the question as, "Lord, will only a few be saved?", "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?", "Sir, will just a few people be saved?" and so on. In all of these versions, a future tense is being used, suggesting that salvation is a one-time future event and that a person either will be saved or will not be saved then.
The problem with these translations is that they are inaccurate and misleading. The Greek word used in the question is sōzomenoi and it is a present participle, which you can verify for yourself here. A present participle indicates continuous action and ends in -ing, as in "thinking" "running" or "being." This is why I used the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Other versions that do a good job accurately representing this verb as "being saved" include the NASB and the Berean Literal Bible.
The reason why this is significant is that Jesus is speaking once again of a present ongoing state rather than a future destination. Those who are presently undergoing the process of being saved are those who are following His commands. As Jesus says, He is the door (θύρα/thyra) and His sheep hear his voice and obey (John 10). I think in this sense that the parables of the narrow door and the narrow gate connect. To truly be undergoing the process of being saved from sin, we must actually follow Jesus' commands by doing unto others as we would have them do to us, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves, even if they are our enemies. He is teaching that following Him is entering through a narrow door of selfless love that few are willing to go through. For if we love Him, we will obey His commands (John 14:15).
So, we see that salvation is an ongoing process of sanctification in these verses, not a future destination. Nevertheless, there are still some unanswered questions, such as the apparent finality of the door closing, that we still must address. But before we do so, let's examine some more of the context.
Luke 13:22-30 (HCSB)
He went through one town and village after another, teaching and making His way to Jerusalem. “Lord,” someone asked Him, “are there few being saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and won’t be able once the homeowner gets up and shuts the door. Then you will stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up for us!’ He will answer you, ‘I don’t know you or where you’re from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets!’ But He will say, ‘I tell you, I don’t know you or where you’re from. Get away from Me, all you workers of unrighteousness!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown out. They will come from east and west, from north and south, and recline at the table in the kingdom of God. Note this: Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Significantly, it is clear that this parable is addressed specifically to Jesus' Jewish audience in the first century. Notice that they will say "We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets!" This could only be true of those who were present during Jesus' earthly ministry. Notice also the regret and sadness that they will experience when all of their heroes ("Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God") and Gentiles enter in, but they are excluded because they were "workers of unrighteousness."
What Jesus seems to be teaching here is that there will be a day of reckoning for those who refuse to follow his way of love and instead persist in wickedness. This will sting particularly for those who are shut out who assumed all along that they were the good ones who deserved to get in. I think that this is certainly why they weep and gnash their teeth. Perhaps this is a mix of sadness and anger: sadness at having missed the time of their visitation by the Messiah (Luke 19:44), and anger that their enemies enter God's kingdom before them. There seems to be a time when the door is shut and consequences are felt. But are these consequences permanent?
It is noteworthy that this parable says nothing about the duration of the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Instead, the fact that those who enter will recline at the table in the kingdom of God seems to allude to other biblical passages that are speaking of the blessings inherited by the faithful who attain the right to attend the wedding feast. For example, Revelation 19:9 says, "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And in the parable of the ten virgins of Matthew 25, we read that while the foolish ones were going to buy oil, "the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut." In both of these instances we see an event being described as a wedding feast that appears to happen when Jesus returns. Those who are excluded do not appear to be excluded because of a lack of belief; the foolish virgins were eagerly waiting for the bridegroom. Instead, they are shut out because they are not prepared and have not been about their Lord's business (as the parable of the wicked servant from Matthew 24 also illustrates).
Additionally, it seems clear that a wedding feast represents a new beginning. Weddings do not last forever, but instead are the beginning of a marriage. For this reason, I think it is an exegetical mistake to assume that the wedding feast is an eternal party where Christians gorge themselves forever, ignoring the plight of those outside. It is quite unnecessary to assume that missing the wedding feast due to wickedness or unpreparedness means that God ceases to love those individuals who missed it. They experience the consequence of missing out on a major blessing and a celebration for the faithful friends of the bridegroom. This alone, it seems, is punishment enough.
It appears that the wedding feast is a special blessing for those who follow Jesus' commands and put their trust in Him. For this reason, it seems to be closely related to the blessing of the first resurrection, as described in Revelation 20:5-6.
The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
It is to be noted that those who are blessed by the first resurrection are martyrs and those who did not worship the beast. These believers are rewarded for their faithfulness by having the privilege of reigning with Christ for a thousand years. This thousand year reign is certainly a blessing but it is, like a wedding feast, a temporary one (it lasts only one thousand years). Presumably, there will be regret for those who miss out on this blessing, perhaps even weeping and gnashing of teeth in Sheol (Hades in Greek), but there is no indication that this necessarily continues forever. Rather, it is obvious that it does not, since the thousand years end and then the resurrection of the "rest of the dead" occurs. The wedding feast and the thousand year reign both illustrate that it is an interpretive error (but a very common one) to assume that all rewards and punishments described in the Bible are neverending.
It seems that we are seeing that all people receive righteous judgment, "so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). There are appropriate rewards and punishments based on how we live and what we do, and in that sense, our actions in life are very significant. How we love God and people matters deeply, not just now, but also to future judgment.
This variation in rewards and punishment, however, in no way negates that Jesus is still the Savior of all people. We are not saving ourselves through our actions, but we are rewarded for seeking God (Hebrews 11:6). Conversely, we do not negate His saving work through our wickedness (He is still the atoning sacrifice for the whole world), though we do experience the miserable consequences of our negative actions and beliefs. If we ignore Jesus' words and live viciously, the door to the reward of the wedding feast is shut, and we miss out, but there is no reason to then believe that God's love for the world fails and turns to hatred. Though the prodigal son was "dead," the Father continued to search the horizon for him daily, ran to meet him, and rejoiced that he was made alive again (Luke 15:11-32). God can and does bring the dead to life, and there is no good reason to assume that He loses his ability or desire to do so.
This being said we must now return once again to consider the audience toward whom the parable of the narrow door is directed. It must be recalled that it was directed at a Jewish audience, in one of the towns that Jesus encountered on his way to Jerusalem. One reason why this is significant is that Paul teaches that all Israel (the Jewish people) will be saved, which makes the interpretation that most of them will be damned forever an impossible stretch. Consider Paul's words:
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Is it even possible to claim that most of Israel is damned forever but that all Israel will be saved? Of course not! So, we either have a blatant contradiction in Scripture or we can recognize that the rewards of entering the narrow door, and the punishments of failing to do so, are temporary. Even the end of the parable suggests this, stating that "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last." The Israelites assumed that they would be the first to enter the kingdom, but Jesus seems to be saying instead that many of them would be last. Notice he does not say that they will never enter, but rather that some of them would be last. This reminds me of Matthew 21:31, in which Jesus says to the self-righteous religious leaders of his day that "the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you." Notice once again that He is stating that those considered to be the worst of sinners were entering God's kingdom before the religious, not instead of them. This naturally implies that they too, though being the ones who had Jesus crucified, will enter the kingdom, albeit perhaps last.
Additionally, it is important to be aware of the fact that some of Jesus' statements about judgment pertained specifically to the generation of Israelites contemporary to his ministry. This oft-ignored fact tends to result in over-interpreting Jesus' statements to refer to hell when he is actually referring to a national judgment that would be experienced by that generation who rejected Him. Given that the people knocking on the closed door protest that they "ate and drank in [Jesus'] presence" and that He "taught in [their] streets," it seems likely that this is one such instance. Some of Jesus' statements were prophetic statements for that generation, indicating that Rome would crush them militarily as was fulfilled in A.D. 70. The door of earthly life was closing fast, and with it the ability to experience salvation from sins (and consequent rewards) before death. And since it seems that the reward of the wedding feast is contingent upon our decisions while alive, Jesus' warning was apt.
Since this understanding of national judgment is often ignored, we will devote our next chapter to examining it a bit more.
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