“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
This question posed to Jesus is crucial as it touches profoundly God’s eternal plan for man’s salvation. Today, this question is also posed to us because we are often bothered by some of our Christian brothers and sisters in other sects or denominations who claim that, for instance, only 144,000 will be saved (the Jehovah’s Witnesses said, although there is a correction to this: the Jehovah’s witnesses hold that the 144k will rule in heaven, while there will be a great multitude of others saved as well). But we have to emphasize that this assumption is totally false. Why?
First, it is because the number 144,000 in the Book of Revelation is simply the product of 12 multiplied by 12,000. Now, 12 is a very significant number in the Biblical tradition as it refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, the chosen people of God in the Old Testament, and to the 12 Apostles who are considered the pillars of the new people of God, the Church, that Jesus established. Besides, multiplying 12 by 12,000 signifies “vastness” or “multitude” so that the number 144,000 means two things: that salvation is through the Church, the people of God, and that a “vast multitude” will be saved as described in the Book of Revelation as worshipping the Lamb (Cfr. Rev. 7: 9). Besides, St. Thomas Aquinas warned against this type of speculations saying that it is better not to speculate about the number of those who are to be saved, for such is known to God alone.
Second, the assumption is false because it presupposes a wrong notion of the doctrine of predestination. By asking whether only a few will be saved, we imply that there are those who are predestined to heaven (hence, no evil deed or sin that they committed could bring them down to hell) and also those who are bound to hell (hence, no good deed could save them). But this concept of predestination is wrong because it abolishes or nullifies human freedom. Men and women go to heaven or hell depending on how they use their freedom. Sin is the abuse or wrong use of freedom. God will not throw you to hell. If you go there, it is because you wanted to: because you reject God and His grace, and you chose to live in sin. If you go to heaven, it is not because you are forced by God’s will or grace alone: it is because you love to and you fought for it. St. Augustine once said: “God who created you without your consent, will not save you without your consent”.
Now, I said, if you could enter heaven, it is because you fight for it. Notice how Jesus answered the question of the Jews: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough”. First, He means that salvation is for everybody. All men are called to a life of holiness, to be in communion with God. The First Reading testifies to this: “The Lord says, ‘I come to gather nations of every language;” It adds: “They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord”. For this reason, we pray in the Psalm: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News”. Why would Jesus command His disciples to go to the ends of the earth if He didn’t mean that salvation is universal? This is the correct understanding of the doctrine of predestination: God, in his eternal plan of salvation, predestined (willed) that everybody should be saved. This notion of predestination does not violate human freedom because God leaves it to man’s free decision whether to accept or to reject His invitation. Remember St. Augustine’s words: “God who created you without your consent, will not save you without your consent”.
Secondly, by saying “Strive to enter through the narrow gate”, Jesus tells us that the only way to win our salvation is to wage war against our defects and sins. In this context, we understand our Lord’s words in the Gospel according to St. Matthew 11: 12: “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force”. Only those who will struggle to enter through the narrow gate will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Today, the gate of heaven is becoming narrower. If you want to uphold the truth about God’s design for human family, sexuality and marriage, the world will make it hard for you. A Catholic senator or congressman, for instance, who may want to be coherent with his faith will find a narrower road ahead of him, either because of his own weaknesses or because of a corrupt system. The same is true in the case of a Catholic government doctor or health worker who will have to choose between the dictates of her conscience and her obedience to the State that promotes a law that is contrary to her morals and faith.
Each of us will have to confront our “narrow gates” in life if we really want to win heaven. Some will have to be very patient in facing their trials and difficulties. The Lord allows them because He can get something good out of them. The Second Reading assures us that our trials are God’s ways of treating us, His children. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “Do not lose heart when (you are) reproved by (God); whom the Lord loves, He disciplines. He scourges every son He acknowledges. Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons (and daughters)”. When your doctor tells you that you have to be operated in order to take away the cause of your illness, you will have to endure the initial pain knowing that what comes after is healing. The same is true with the Lord. In one of her mystical experiences, St. Teresa of Avila heard Jesus telling her, “This is how I treat my friends”. She answered, “No wonder you have very few friends”.
Even for those who feel they are already very close to Jesus will have to struggle and suffer a lot. A small frame that contains a very beautiful prayer hangs on the wall of my room. It says, “I asked God to spare me pain. And God said, No! He said, ‘Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to Me”. Then, it continues, “I asked God to make my spirit grow. And God said, No! He said I must grow on my own. But He will prune me to make me fruitful”. Pain and suffering can make or unmake us. But if we know how to unite them with the cross of Jesus, they can draw us closer to Him. How we deal with our daily crosses can be a litmus test of how well we know our Lord and identify ourselves with Him. Haven’t you heard in the Gospel that those who were knocking at the door cried out, “Lord, open the door for us… We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets”? They did not say, “We suffered with you as you taught us to carry our cross”. Jesus answered them, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” They were not able to enter because they did not share in the Cross of Jesus. These are the Christians who wanted only to follow Jesus in His resurrection, but would abandon Him in His passion.
Do you still want to know if “only a few people will be saved”? The answer is this: Everybody is invited to enter heaven. But only those who are strong enough to struggle and to fight against sin and their defects will enter it. We may be the last to enter through the “narrow gate”. Yet, it is never too late. Let us just ask the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary to help us so that we may be counted among those who are last but who will be first. Amen.