One skeptic challenged:
- If your God is all-powerful and all-loving – He wants everyone to come to salvation [2 Peter 3:9] - He would save everyone. None would go to hell.
I had to admit that I didn’t have a complete answer to this challenge. While it is true that God calls everyone and that those who refuse his invitation deserve His harsh justice, I know that I also deserved that harsh justice. Nevertheless, He saved me, changing my heart in the process. It would seem that He could likewise be merciful to everyone else.
The Prophet Isaiah struggled with the same question. He acknowledged to God that Israel had a long list of damnable sins:
- All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. (Isaiah 64:6-7)
However, Isaiah then issued the same challenge as the skeptic:
- Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)
Although Isaiah was not blaming God for Israel’s sins, he did remind God, as the Master Potter, that He could change Israel, the clay, at will! In light of God’s overwhelming omnipotence, it seemed to Isaiah that God was being needlessly harsh:
- Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people… After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure? (Isaiah 64:9,12)
Isaiah’s struggle is a typical of not only the Hebrew Prophets but also the Christians. We share with Isaiah the feeling that God is not being true to His own character and promises. His answer to Isaiah doesn’t help us:
- All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations-- a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick [to false gods]… I will destine you for the sword, and you will all bend down for the slaughter; for I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me." (Isaiah 65:2-3,12)
I would guess that Isaiah wasn’t satisfied with his Master’s answer. He merely reiterated that Israel would receive the justice they deserved. However, He did not address the mercy part – that He is the Potter who could change Israel into anything He so desired. However, He then revealed that there was coming a time when He would play the gracious Master Potter:
- "The Redeemer [the promised Messiah] will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins," declares the LORD. "As for me, this is my covenant with them," says the LORD. "My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever," says the LORD. (Isaiah 59:20-21)
- "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more… (Isaiah 65:17-19)
Consequently, all Israel will be saved – the very concern of Isaiah. However, it seems that Israel’s God will also save all of the Gentiles who remain after the great battle:
- From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me," says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:23)
This is an indication that, in the end, our Lord will open the floodgates of heaven:
- "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other… Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, 'In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.'" All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the LORD all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult. (Isaiah 45:22-25; 60:14)
When our Savior returns, there will be a great outpouring of mercy (Romans 11:12-27), more than has ever been seen. Why then is God not merciful this way now? Well, when Jesus returns, mercy will triumph over justice (James 2:13).
Does this answer Isaiah’s challenge? Not completely! What about those who died prior to Christ’s return or who had died in the great battle? We cannot speak so confidently about them unless they were already God’s saved children.
We aren’t going to get all of our questions answered here. Scripture warns us repeatedly about this:
- Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
There will come a time, however, when our questions will be answered in full. Meanwhile, I think that it is important to realize that we are not in a position to profit from any knowledge. In fact, some knowledge might prove highly destructive if we are not ready for it. For example, are babies who are aborted or who die early going to heaven? Perhaps? However, if we had with such certainty, a loving mother might understandably abort her baby to ensure that she will go to heaven. Therefore, perhaps this is a certainty that our Lord would not want us to have.
There is also another consideration. The skeptic’s challenge contains a hidden assumption – that we are entitled to heaven. However, there is no such entitlement in God’s program. Instead, God’s justice entitles us to only one thing – death as the sinners we are (Romans 6:23). Consequently, it is by His mercy alone that we receive blessings.
Created in the “image of God,” we do have certain human rights, like the right to justice, which is indiscriminate. However, we cannot claim a human right to mercy and heaven. As opposed to justice, God’s mercy or love can discriminate, as we can also discriminate in inviting whomever we want to our party. No one can charge that they are entitled to such an invitation.
Therefore, no one can demand that God should save everyone. He is free to give to whomever He chooses. No one can coherently charge God with violating their human rights, since their rights come from Him and mercy is simply not one of them.
Nevertheless, God does love His creation and will be merciful in ways that He has not fully disclosed, but no one can demand mercy of Him.