There are a couple of verses commonly quoted to me by people who find it hard to believe that God intends many people be destined to an eternity in Hell:
- (2 Peter 3:9) The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing (boulomai) that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
- (1 Timothy 2:3-4) This is good, and it is pleasing (apodektos) in the sight of God our Savior, who desires (thelo) all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
How can we reconcile verses like these with other passages like Romans 9:22-24,
What if God, desiring (thelo) to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? [italics mine]
The problem is, in the above verses, that Paul poses the question, “What if God…” adding the word “desiring”, to mean, “What if God, all the while desiring to show his wrath…”. This means, since it is a rhetorical question, that God has always desired to show his wrath–it is something that God wants. The problem gets worse for many of us when we add the next words which show whom are the objects of God’s wrath: “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”. Ouch. This means that God created some people in order that they be destroyed, because He desired to show His wrath. This is a huge and difficult teaching, I know.
Why on earth would God want this? The answer can be illustrated in asking “Why would a loving father let a doctor stick a syringe in the arm of his toddler son, inflicting pain for no reason comprehensible to the child?” Because it is a means to something he wants more. That answer, I believe, is because the display of God’s wrath on objects created for wrath is a necessary means to something God wants much more than that: namely, “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…”. (For those willing to put in the effort to really think through what the Bible has to say about this whole topic, I highly recommend John Piper’s commentary and edited version of the monumental work of Jonathan Edwards, The End For Which God Created the World, available in Piper’s excellent book, God’s Passion for His Glory.)
The objection comes, “But there are verses that specifically state that God does not want anyone to perish.” But clearly the Scriptures show that many people do in fact perish. So is God unwilling, but incapable of preventing some from perishing? Or is the Bible untrustworthy because Romans 9 states that God was desiring to show His wrath and that some were prepared for destruction, but 1 Timothy 2 and 2 Peter 3 specifically state otherwise? My goal in this post is not to answer the question of what possible higher goal could God have that justifies the destruction of many people, but to simply show that there is no necessary contradiction in the Bible between passages like 1 Timothy 2, 2 Peter 3 and Romans 9. If you want to grapple with the loftier question of God’s ultimate purposes in what He does, order a copy of Piper’s book linked in the paragraph above. If you want to strengthen your faith in the trustworthiness of the Bible, keep reading.
I have usually pointed out that in the 2 Pe 3 passage, Peter says that God is patient toward “you“–suggesting that when he adds “not wishing that any should perish”, he means “any of you“. Also, in the 1 Tim 2 passage, Paul had just instructed that all kinds of prayer be offered for “all people” (verse 1) and clarifies in verse 2, “for kings and all who are in high positions”. So when he carries on, God “desires all people to be saved”, he means people of “all” classes–“kings and all who are in high positions” as well as the lower classes and slaves who were very common in the early churches of the Roman Empire.
I saw on Twitter this evening that Resurgence posted an old video interview of R. C. Sproul answering a question very relevant to this topic, so I decided to post it here on Keruxai in the hopes that any of you who have asked me a similar question in the past, and heard an answer similar to the above, might be able to follow Dr. Sproul a step farther and consider a better, more well rounded approach to these sorts of verses.