Exegetical Note: The Narrow Gate (Matthew 7:13-14)—Will More Be Saved or Damned?

Revelation 20:11-15 describes the final judgment. There is a great white throne, with one seated on it. All the dead are there, “small and great,” those in the sea, those being held in Hades/Sheol (v. 12-13). Books are opened, including the book of life. All these dead are judged according to what they had done (v. 13). Some are written in the book of life and so pass into the eternal life described in Revelation 21:1-7. Anyone not written in the book of life is cast into the “lake of fire” (20:15; 21:8). 

The judgment scene in Revelation says nothing about relative numbers. Yet for some reason, it has become the common assumption in the conservative protestant church in America (I do not know if this is the case in other traditions) that those cast into the lake of fire will vastly outnumber those who pass into life.

The main reasons are I suppose, first, that in Christian history so far, Christians have been a minority of the world’s population. Second, there are the words of Christ in the gospels about the gate to life being narrow “and those who find it are few.”

I am going to suggest in this article that there is actually very good reason to think that ultimately there will be a greater number who find life in Christ than who are cast away. That is, there will be more saved than lost. In covering this topic, I am going to keep this article short.

The Narrow Gate?

First, it is true that Jesus says that the way to life is narrow and few find it, while the road to destruction is broad and many go down it. A statement to this effect appears twice, first in Matthew 7:13-14 as part of the Sermon on the Mount, and then in Luke 13:24 in a quite different context. In the passage in Matthew, Jesus is giving an exhortation: 

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those entering by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those finding it are few (Matthew 7:13-14).

The Sermon on the Mount is the teaching of Jesus, and its precepts are for anyone wanting to be his disciple. But the warning about who is on which road is given in the present tense: “Those finding” the narrow gate “are” few and those “entering” the broad road “are” many. This was perfectly true when Jesus said it, and it was perfectly true when the Gospel of Matthew was composed—and it has continued to be perfectly true in many places and at many times. But there is no reason to assume that the crowd sizes will always be like this, or that what Jesus said about the condition of his own contemporary generation is some kind of eternal and unchanging principal. In the Gospel of Matthew in particular, Jesus has a lot to say about the condition of his own generation.[1]

It is interesting to look at the parallel passage in Luke in this light, because there Jesus is actually responding directly to the question, “Will those who are saved be few?” Jesus does not say yes. He actually says nothing about crowd size. What he says instead is this: 

Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able (Luke 13:24).

Jesus in effect directs attention away from head-counting and tells the questioner to take heed to himself, because many will not enter life. Whether that number ends up being higher or lower, make sure you are not one of them. As the passage continues though, Jesus does imply that there will be lots of people finding life as well—“And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

So what we have from Jesus is a statement spoken to his contemporaries about themselves, that without further evidence cannot be assumed to be always and everywhere true, and a statement that our chief concern should be our own lives. But is there reason to think that those finding the road to life is always going to be limited to a small minority, as it was during Jesus’ ministry?

Romans 5:15-21—Christ and Adam

In the interest of keeping this short, I would just point to one passage that would seem to imply that we should be optimistic with regard to this question. Romans 5:15-21 says this:

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here Paul compares the impact of Adam’s sin to the impact of the obedience of Christ. Nothing is said explicitly about how many will be saved and how many will be lost, but we are told in v. 15 that even though “many died through one man’s trespass” (the judgment on humanity resulting from Adam’s sin), the grace of God and the gift of his grace have abounded “much more.” Think about it. If when all is said and done the lake of fire consumes the vast majority of humanity with only a small band of survivors having ever found the path of life, it is hard to see how Paul’s assertion here could make much sense.  

The qualitative comparison is primary, granted. The contrast is condemnation vs. justification (vs. 16, 18), the reign of death and the reign of the saints (v. 17), and many being made sinners vs. many being made righteous (v. 19). Still, it is difficult to read this passage, the first and last verse particularly, without having the distinct impression that Paul believes that the impact of the work of Christ—in both quality and quantity—will ultimately far exceed the impact of Adam’s sin. How could it be otherwise? Christ is greater than Adam. How could Adam’s fall claim a greater victory than Christ’s faithfulness? When we consider this in light of the passage with which we began (Revelation 20:11-21:8), it is perhaps significant that while those entering life have an entire new heaven and earth, all that is required for the wicked is a lake.


I suggested earlier that one reason a lot of Christians seem to think there will be more lost than saved is based on experience: Christians globally have always been a minority. But in light of the Christ and Adam comparison, why would we think that this will always be so? The work of Adam has had multiple millennia of a head start, but Christ came only two thousand years ago. Perhaps instead of thinking that those in Christ will always be a small minority, we should instead remember that “the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

[1] “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates” (Matthew 11:16).

“But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39; cf. 16:4).

“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:41-42).

“Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation” (Matthew 12:45).

“And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me” (Matthew 17:17).

“Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:36).

“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34).