We Desire That All Be Saved — But Only in the Way God Desires It

‘In hope, the Church prays for all men to be saved. She longs to be united with Christ, her Bridegroom, in the glory of heaven’ (CCC 1821).

Giotto di Bondone, “Judas Receiving Payment for His Betrayal,” 1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy
Giotto di Bondone, “Judas Receiving Payment for His Betrayal,” 1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy (photo: Public Domain)

Pope St. Peter wrote that “The Lord ... is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, RSV).

Paul referred to “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). In this sense, we can say that God “desires” that hell would be empty while knowing in fact that it will not be. He “wishes” and “desires” that none would have to go there. That would be his perfect will. But in theology, we also refer to his permissive will, which incorporates human free will choices that entail many rejecting him.

Reprobates do end up in hell because they have free will and have rejected God’s grace. So does it make any sense to say that God shouldn’t desire that all are saved (or that we shouldn’t mirror his own will)? The case many try to make against such desire or wishing or prayers that all would be saved thus collapses by reductio ad absurdum.

We pray for individuals to be saved. In the same context of one of the passages about God above, St. Paul states, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men” (1 Timothy 2:1). Theoretically, if we take “all” literally, this could include every person on the entire earth, and in fact, every person who ever lived (retroactive prayer). Christians ought to love all people, too. Therefore, in such prayers, we are wishing and desiring that every individual would be saved while knowing (if we read the New Testament) that not all will be. We still pray for that because, in our limited knowledge, we know no one’s eternal destiny (save for Judas and saints).

One could pray, for example, that the Hamas terrorists who committed all the atrocities last October in Israel and were later killed by Israeli armed forces repented before death and were saved — while knowing that most likely were not, and went to hell with those grave sins and rejection of God in their souls. We pray for anyone and everyone, that God has mercy on their souls. And so he does. But if they ultimately reject God, they will wind up in hell.

I’ve devoted my life to the goal of trying to help get as many people saved and out of hell as I can, by God’s grace and enabling power and knowledge. In any event, this thinking is not universalism. It’s a completely biblical sentiment, per the above. We can know that universalism is false, just as God knows it. What we can’t know are the particulars of who is a sheep and who is a goat.

I agree that we can’t hope that hell will be empty because divine Revelation rules that out, and the Bible doesn’t use the word “hope” when referring to God wishing for or desiring the salvation of all. My case doesn’t stand or fall on the word “hope” but rather on the above Scriptures.

See also:

  • “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).
  • “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men” (Titus 2:11).

Since we don’t know the eternal fate of individuals, save for the saints and Judas, we can pray that any and many of them will be saved, and we can (like God) wish and desire that all of them were, knowing (like God does) that they won’t be in fact. Here’s another way to frame the issue:

  1. The Bible says that God “wishes” and “desires” that none perish, even though he knows many will.
  2. A scenario in which none perish is logically identical to an empty hell.
  3. Following God’s model, we can have the same wish and desire that none perish — all the more so, since, unlike God, we don’t know the eternal destiny of almost all people (minus saints and the devil).
  4. Therefore, we can “wish” and “desire” that hell is empty, even though we know from inspired revelation that it won’t be. We’re simply doing what God already does.
  5. The difference in this discussion is that we are talking about wishing for a thing (all being saved) that we know will not be true in fact, from God’s Revelation. We know the future in this instance. So the argument is that we can’t hope for such a thing that simply will not be, and that we know will not be. But then it would seem that we can’t wish or desire it, either, on the same basis (knowing it won’t come to pass). But God in fact does that; so we can, too! In this sense, saying that we hope for this is not all that different than saying we wish or desire it; though there is clearly a sense in which it is different, too.
  6. It all goes back to God wishing and desiring that all be saved. God desires that which he knows will not be, out of his infinite love and mercy. We are also expressing love and mercy when we desire and pray for any and every individual to be saved, while knowing all the while that not all will be. It’s the language and will and emotion of love.
  7. In other words, none of the above is a denial that hell exists or a proclamation of universalism. Some who actually believe in either false thing will seek to exploit this reasoning for the purpose of promulgating false doctrine. There are always theological liberals who will warp any and every true doctrine in the Bible. But a distortion of a thing is not the same as the thing itself, and we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.