21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 13:22-30
“Someone asked Jesus, ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’ He answered them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
Today, it is the common opinion of the affluent countries of the west, that all (or nearly all) people will be saved. This view is, however, contrary to the estimation of the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Moreover, Christ himself tells us that only a few will be saved.
Many will attempt to enter the gates of heaven, but will not. The way to heaven is narrow and few find it (cf. Mt 7:13-14). These words are difficult for the modern world to accept, precisely because the modern world refuses to admit the reality and gravity of sin. If there is no real sin (and no serious sin), then clearly there is no hell. But if sin is real and can be serious, then it can also be mortal, killing the soul by destroying charity, incurring the punishment of eternal damnation.
And so, we may begin our study of this Sunday’s gospel by looking for something of an answer to the question, “Will only a few be saved?” Or, “How many will be saved?” In a later post, we will consider what it is that makes hell to be eternal.
How many will be saved?
The number of the elect, those who are to be saved, is foreknown and brought about by God. He wills that these be saved not only for their own individual good, but also for the good of the whole universe. He knows and wills their salvation not merely in general (in the way that he wills all people to be saved), but with a particular effective will for each individual which brings that man to salvation.
Many have offered diverse opinions as to the number of the elect. Some (the Jehovah’s witnesses ) hold that it will be the 144,000 of Revelation 7:1ff and 14:1ff [correction: the Jehovah's witnesses hold that the 144k will rule in heaven, while there will be a great multitude of others saved as well]. Within the Catholic tradition, the number of those to be saved has often been connected with the angels. Some have held that as many men will be saved as the angels who fell – as though we take the place which the fallen angels lost. Others held that the number of the elect is equal to the number of angels who remained faithful. Finally, some held that as many men will be saved as there were angels created in total (both the good and wicked angels taken together). None of these opinions seems likely.
First, it is clear that the 144,000 of Revelation, according to the literal sense, means a vast multitude, not the particular number. As most know, 144 is 12 times 12; by multiplying this with 100, you get 144,000. Thus, salvation goes out from the 12 tribes of Israel, to all the world.
There are also good reasons to reject the opinions of some of the early Church writers who connected the number of those to be saved with the angels. St. Thomas argued that the number of angels incomparably exceeds the number of material beings – for they are far more perfect than creatures of the material world and are therefore not limited in their diversity by matter (cf. ST I, q.50, a.3). Consider how greatly matter limits those things which the imagination could create – as the ideas in the mind far exceed the creative potential of the material world, angels greatly exceed men in number!
This means that any numerical comparison between angels and men will be inaccurate. Hence, whether we compare the men who are saved with the fallen angels (1/3 of the total number of angels) or with the good angels (2/3 of the total number) or with all the angels, the elect are incomparably less in number than the angels.
For this reason, St. Thomas says, it is better not to speculate about the number of those who are to be saved, for such is known to God alone. From the words of Christ, however, we know that the elect who are saved are few in comparison with the majority who are damned, but this elect remnant will be raised up and united with the angels of God to make a vast and expansive multitude. (cf. Catena Aurea on Luke 13:22-30)