“God Desires All to Be Saved” (1 Timothy 2:4)

prodigalson[July 7, 2015]

Here is an immensely helpful essay by Met. Kallistos Ware, in which he traces the careful path between assuming that all will be saved (universal salvation) and praying that all will be saved—praying with yearning and tears, for “God desires that all may be saved and come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). He does this by examining the thought of St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), a Russian monk with little education who became a very wise elder. St. Sophrony (1896-1993), also mentioned in this essay, was a spiritual child of St. Silouan and wrote his story.

There’s a distinction that is often missed between praying that all will be saved and assuming that all will be saved. That’s especially the case in our time, when the more challenging aspects of faith are routinely played down, and God’s mercy is emphasized to the near exclusion of any other characteristic. Of course he is great in mercy, and what we say of that is true; yet in emphasizing it we can lose our balance, tipping too far toward one side. In a comfortable age such as ours, we assume God wants us to be comfortable, and we skip over the Scriptures that tell the tougher things Jesus said.

What’s more, the secular world puts enormous pressure on us to espouse universalism. For that reason, we must give careful consideration to the other side of the argument. A non-universalist view characterized Christian faith from the beginning, and we should not assume that we are wiser than all the other Christians in history.

Social pressure can sure obscure our ability to think clearly, though. I recommend what I call “the New York Times test:” when considering a viewpoint, ask yourself which side the New York Times would approve. Which side would the secular elite smile upon and reward? Then put a little extra weight on the other side of the scale. Challenge yourself to think a little harder, a little longer, about whichever point of view would make you less popular with the powers-that-be.

Of course in Orthodoxy the view of salvation is different than it has been in the Western Christian tradition. We don’t think God “sends” people to hell, but that in the next life we will all experience the unveiled presence of God, who is ultimate Light and Love. To those who “love darkness rather than light” (John 3:19), that inescapable light will be searing torment.

How we experience God in the next life depends on how we nurture and shape ourselves in this life. People choose day by day, one choice at a time, what kind of person they are turning themselves into. In the end, Judgment Day will be a simple matter of identifying whether we have turned ourselves into sheep or goats. It doesn’t require a lot of careful scrutiny to make that distinction. It sounds like the Last Judgement is going to be less like judging a criminal case, and more like judging a livestock show.

The question, then, is whether one who dies in hostility to God can gradually, over the course of eons, be healed and enabled to love God. If “all” are to be saved, then self-made goats who are wooed by God’s love for eternity will surely, gradually, turn into sheep.

I don’t think we can assert with any confidence that that is the case. (To touch briefly on a side point, the emphasis that is placed on having a lot of time for this to happen is surely irrelevant, for it is a state or realm of timelessness. If it is essential to the thesis that there be lots and lots of time for the change to take place, there’s a flaw in there somewhere.)

So we should not assert with any confidence that all will be saved. Might things actually turn out that way? We have no way of knowing. But it seems clear that we are not supposed to assume it. We are nowhere even invited to hope it. I think that is because, if we dwell hopefully on the likelihood that all will be saved, it greatly undermines our motivation to preach Christ to unbelievers. It’s an awkward thing to speak of faith to unbelievers, and the thought that it wouldn’t make any difference in the long run anyway takes off the pressure. No, our operating instructions are founded on the opposite assumption, that some will endure hideous torment unless we bring them the Good News.

This is an assumption designed to make us take the stakes seriously, so seriously that we will be get out there and evangelize. It’s designed to make us care about the lost. To pray for them with weeping, as St. Silouan says, as Our Lord wept over Jerusalem.

And if God has a secret back-up plan to bring everyone ultimately into to full joyous communion with himself, should we fail to do our job, he hasn’t tod us about it. It shouldn’t be surprising if he has told us only part of the story. He has told us only as much as he thinks servants need to know.

It seems Our Lord intended us to operate under an assumption that salvation can truly be lost, and lost to great torment. And so, picturing the horrors that come from rejecting Christ, we should do our part to call the world to salvation, seeking God’s will “that all may be saved.” Met Kallistos’s essay traces that distinction by examining the thought of St. Silouan the Athonite and other saints, ancient and modern.  

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Christian ApologeticsChristian LifeOrthodoxy


  1. Very interesting article. So then – if the premise of the article is indeed correct, how does the Orthodox evangelize since (as a Lutheran) I see no obvious evidence of their evangelization (nor of the Lutherans for that matter). I see foreign missions activity among many protestant organizations and Roman Catholics. It seems as though too many Christian organizations keep their activity too much in-house – preaching to the choir. Am I not looking in the right places? And the tv preachers are too busy fleecing their flocks.

  2. Francene, you can look up the work of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, which sponsors missionaries and indigenous clergy around the world. (There is also the International Orthodox Christian Charities which focuses more on aid.) The pattern since the early centuries is for Orthodox to go into new countries and bring the gospel, and to translate the bible and the liturgy into the local language. In the US, that meant missionaries from Western Russia in 1794 traveling 7000 miles to cross the Bering Strait and bring the gospel to native Alaskans. It is strange to read their letters and see "The American are responding very well to the gospel."

  3. The author bases part of his argument on the fact that Christians are commanded to spread the Good News. And then he makes a leap to say that the motivation to spread the gospel is to help people avoid experiencing hideous torment. He says that if everyone will be saved then there is no motivation to evangelize.

    The gospel is by definition good news. And the message, "You will experience hideous torment unless you believe" is not good news for anyone. That message is an inseparable counterpoint to the message, "Believe and you will be saved." The two go hand it hand. It certainly is not good news for the unbeliever. And it is not good news for the believer either, because it follows that some of the believer's loved ones will experience hideous torment. That is why, as the author states, it is awkward to speak of these things to the unbeliever. He's speaking the wrong message!

    The Good News of the gospel is that God loves mankind and will save us. That is good news regardless of whether you believe it or not. It's is in fact good news even for those who don't like it right now, because it means good things are in store for them even if they don't understand them right now. If you believe it, it has more of an impact, though. It gives you hope to carry on in the face of trials. It is the message that God, who is love, truly never fails. That God will accomplish his intention to care for you. He will reconcile all things to himself, and achieve his goal that everyone will be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

    So, if we don't have to worry about people going to hell, is there still a reason to spread this message? Yes. Because we love one another. And it is better to have hope than to not have hope. While God has secured the eternal destiny of mankind, we care about the state of a person's body and soul in the here and now. If someone is poor right now, we give them money to meet their material needs, even if we know they will experiences the riches of heaven in the future. And if someone is fearful or despondent about their eternal fate, we share with them the good news now, so they can have hope now rather than suffer under that heavy weight until the day they die.

    Good news is not an ultimatum. It is a message of hope. Eternal salvation is that message. The motivation to spread it is not fear that those we love will be eternally lost. It is the loving the desire to see them experience the joy that truth brings sooner as opposed to later.

  4. Please pardon my misuse of pronouns when referring to the author. I did not look closely at her name until reading and responding to the article.

  5. Thank you for this carefully voiced piece. My Evangelical family has been torn apart by Universalism , and while I believe both that God desires all to be saved and is able to save all, it makes me shiver to hear the arrogant presumption that God MUST do such and such. it is such a reductive view of God and pompous, to think that because we are not wise enough to see another, better and more harmonious option, GOD therefore also must be likewise incapacitated in His reasoning. I trust Him and know that the judge of all the earth will do right. By mem you, and His whole creation. By what means I am content to watch and see and be amazed!

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