The Father William Most Collection
The Number of Those Saved
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
Mt. 7:13-14: If we compare this passage with the parallel in Luke 13:22-27, Luke's version is much fuller, and includes a setting which makes clear the question is about final salvation. In Matthew that seems to be the case, but some have taken it to refer to entering the Church - speaking of the difficulties in involved. Because Luke's version is fuller, we will use it for our discussion. A person asks Jesus point-blank whether many or few are saved. (Here the word saved means reaching final salvation - often it means entering the Church)
It is important to knew that that very question was much discussed among the Jews at that time. We gather this clearly from some of their intertestamental writings, that is, works that are not part of Scripture. The Fourth Book of Ezra, according to the opinion of the editor of that section, B. M. Metzger (In James H. Charlesworth, general editor, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday, 1983) comes from late first century A.D. In 8. 1-3: "The Most High made the world for the sake of the many, but the world to come for the sake of the few." In 8. 14-16: "There are more who perish than those who will be saved." This is the background of the thought in 7:46: "It would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam." The same thought occurs also in 2 Baruch 48. 42 (dated between 1st and 2nd decades of second century, A.D. ) and elsewhere. These texts of course do not mean all rabbis held such ideas - there was no central teaching authority in Judaism. But their glomy remarks applied to our race in general. As to the Jwws, nearly all would be saved. So Talmud, Sanhedrin 1. 10 saws :"Al lIsrael has a part in the age to come." It does list a few exceptions to that for the very worst kinds of sinners.
It is against this background that we must look at the passages in Luke and probably also Matthew. First, is it inherently likely Jesus would reveal the truth on the matter? Hardly. To say most are saved could lead to laxity. To say most are lost could easily bring despair.
So, what He seems to mean is this: You people think you have it made because Abrahamis your Father. But you do not. Do not rest on that, get going and work out your salvation.
Further, there were two Scriptural passages whose seeeming sense led so many Fathers to take pessimistic view. One is our present passsge about the narrow way, the other is that of the banquet in Mt 22:1-14 and Luke 14:15-24. The version in Matthew ends with "Many are called but few are chosen." Jesus seems to have in mind at last primarily the Jews, and not all persons. - The word "many" almost certainly reflects Hebrew rabbim, which means the all who are many. So it means all Jews were invited to the messianic kingdom - few were entering. So the path is narrow.
The Fathers of the Church generally took that parable to refer to both God's call to be part of the chosen People, and to refer to final salvaiton. That was unfortunate, for the two are quite different. One can be saved without formally entering the Church, and some who do formally enter will not be saved.
Are we obliged to accept the Patristic interpretation? No, for there is no sign they are passing on a teaching from the beginning. Rather, they are on their own, and telescope two things that greatly need to be kept distinct, as we said.
The old Congregation of the Index in more recent times condemned two writings. One by P. Gravina, which held that by far the greater number are saved, was condemned on May 22, 1772. However, some of his arguments were foolish and he used apocryphal revelations. The general idea of the greater number of persons saved was also held earlier by Venerable Joseph of St. Benedict. As part of the process of canonization, 40 theologians were appointed to examine his writings along with other doctors elsewhere. None objected to his thesis. On the othrs hand, on July 30, 1708 a work under the pen name of Amelincourt - actually it was written by Abbé Olivier Debors-Desdoires - which held that most persons are lost, was condemned.
From these opposite condemnations and the approval of Venerable Joseph we gather that the Church simply does not profess to know whether the saved are few or many. This also confirms our judgment that even though so many Fathers are pessimistic, their views do not derive from a tradition handed down from the beginning, but from a misinterpretation especially of the parable of the banquet.