One of the most popular passages stating God’s universal salvific will (i.e that God desires every human individual to be saved) is 2 Peter 3:9. 2 Peter 3:9 states that God “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. Indeed, The Society Of Evangelical Arminians even has “Not willing that any should perish” on their logo. A plain reading of this verse would suggest that God doesn’t desire for Hell to contain a single human being, but for every human being to come into a saving relationship with Him. Nevertheless, a theological system known as Calvinism denies what this verse appears to be saying. Calvinists deny that God really does want all to be saved. John Calvin wrote that “[God] arranges all things by his sovereign council, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction.”1 God predestined some to eternal life and others to eternal judgment because He did not want all saved. Because He didn’t want all saved, he, in the words of John Owen “did not die for all”.2 Because he did not die for all, he “gives grace to some and withholds it from others”3
But how do Calvinists make sense of 2 Peter 3:9 which says that God wants all saved? Below is a list of how different Calvinists deal with this text.
John Samson’s Take
First, I want to address the response given by Pastor John Samson of ReformedTheology.com in his article “Understanding 2 Peter 3:9”. In this article, Samson writes that Arminians and Molinists rip this verse out of its context when making the point that it teaches that God wants all of mankind saved. He quotes 2 Peter 3:9 in its context. “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:1-9
Does the context of this verse change the meaning of how we interpret verse 9? Samson certainly thinks so. Is he right? If he is, we cannot use it as a scriptural proof of God’s universal love. Let’s take a look at Pastor Samson’s commentary to see if it holds up under scrutiny. Samson writes “The first thing we notice is that the subject of the passage is not salvation but the second coming of Christ. Peter is explaining the reason for the delay in Christ’s second coming. He is still coming, and will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (v. 10).
The second thing to notice is the clear identity of the people he is addressing. He speaks of the mockers as ‘they’, but everywhere else he speaks to his audience as ‘you’ and the ‘beloved.’ This is very important because the assumption that is usually made is that the ‘you’ the ‘any’ and the ‘all’ of 2 Peter 3:9 refers to everyone on the planet.”
So far, I don’t disagree. This passage is indeed about the second coming of Christ, and Peter is writing to a church of believers who are wondering at why Christ is delaying. This is evident, as Samson said, in the verse first verse of this chapter where Peter addresses his readers as “You, beloved”. Samson goes on to point out that “all” doesn’t always mean all. Calvinist readers might be shocked that I don’t disagree with Samson on this point. I think that universal language should be taken as universal as long as there’s nothing in the text or in common sense to restrict its usage. This is why I take Romans 3:23 to be saying literally every human being has sinned against God, and why I take 2 Timothy 3:16 as saying every verse in scripture (from Genesis to Revelation) is breathed out by God. Not just 2 out of 4 gospels, some of the Proverbs, some of the Psalms, etc. Sometimes universal language is used hyperbolically, and looking at the text in its context can reveal whether or not “All” or “the world” should be taken as all-encompassing.
My point of contention would be that the context of 2 Peter 3:9 really does restrict “any” and “all” to less than mankind.
Samson goes on to write “So, the question in 2 Peter 3:9 is whether “all” refers to all human beings without distinction, or whether it refers to everyone within a certain group. The context indicates that Peter is writing to a specific group and not to all of mankind to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours 2 Peter 1:1. The audience is confirmed when Peter writes, This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. (2 Peter 3:1)”
“This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved…. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (v. 1, 8, 9 – emphasis Samson’s)
So what is his point? Summarized: Given that Peter is clearly writing to Christians (i.e “the beloved”). Peter “is writing to a specific group and not to all of mankind to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours”. So what does the apostle mean when he says “God is not willing that any should perish, but for all to come to repentance”? Pastor Samson’s conclusion is that the “any” and “all” are referring to “any” and “all” of God’s elect; those God chose to save prior to the creation of the world.
I appreciate that Pastor Samson actually tried to justify the “all of the elect” interpretation. In most of my interactions with Calvinists, they simply assert that 2 Peter 3:9 is referring to all of the elect without any argument to back up that assertion. However, I don’t find Samson’s response to be all that compelling.
The thing is: I accept all of his premises, but I think the conclusion he draws from them is a non-sequitur. Yes, Peter is not writing a letter to the whole world. Yes, Peter is writing to “the beloved”, to elect individuals in a specific church. Yes, Peter contrasts non-elect “scoffers” with “they” and refers to his readers as “you”. But how does this show that verse 9 refers to all of the elect rather than all mankind? I’ve always been aware of the context that verse 9 was situated in, but I’ve never come to the conclusion that it invalidated the universal interpretation of verse 9. Why couldn’t Peter be saying the following?
“This is the second time I’m writing a letter to you, my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t want you to forget this crucial fact: God’s time is not like our time. With God, a thousand years seems like a single day to Him, and vice versa. Time is nothing to him. So, he might seem to be taking a long time to come back from your human perspective, but it’s only been a blink of the eye since He ascended from His own divine perspective. Now, you may be wondering why God is even waiting so long to come back anyway? The reason is that He’s patient with you. He doesn’t want any human being to perish in their sins. He wants all of humanity to come to repentance. If there’s a person who will get saved tomorrow, God will keep the world spinning for the sake of that one person. If anyone among you is a false convert but will be a true convert tomorrow, God will wait for the sake of that person. If any of you has apostatized since I last saw you, but will come back tomorrow, God will keep the world spinning for the sake of that apostate. God wants all humanity saved, and will patiently endure with any of you until you are.”
This is the way I’ve always taken Peter to be saying, and Pastor Samson has given me no reason to abandon this interpretation. There’s no reason to think that just because Peter is writing to the elect, that, therefore, he’s talking only about the elect.
I might also point out that Peter compares the second coming with the days of Noah. Noah’s era is used analogously to Peter’s era. The theme of using the Noah’s Ark narrative was to demonstrate the longsuffering of God. Are we to think that God was only waiting in Noah’s day solely for the purpose of saving his family? Noah and his family were right with God loooong before the ark was built. God was demonstrating well-meant patience toward all sinners at that time, but they sinned against that patience and incurred His divine wrath.
Given that God demonstrated longsuffering to those who never repented (Noah and his family were saved long before the ark was built so the longsuffering couldn’t be towards them), why think the longsuffering in Peter’s Day and in ours is only for the sake of the elect?
Moreover,”all” is in the immediate context of “they.” Further, the warning of the passage is clearly intended for the “yous” – in other words, in this context, you cannot, as this author attempts to do, separate the warnings from the Lord’s patience or the “us” from the “thems.”
Jim Boucher’s Take
Jim Boucher of ThereforeGodExists.com writes “Peter did not make that statement in a vacuum. If he did, it might be more compelling. Instead, he said it in the middle of his discourse about the Second Coming. He said that when the “last days” come, many people will mock Christians. Where is this so-called Second Coming? (verse 4). What is taking so long? Just give up. He’s not coming, you fool. Peter writes this to encourage them. There is a reason that God is taking so long. It is not long to him, because a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (2 Peter 3:8). God is patient. He had his reasons for taking so long.
What are those reasons? Peter provides one. He says that you do not have to worry. God is not being slow about keeping his promise (verse 9a). Instead, he is being patient toward you, because he is “…not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” If this is referring to every single individual, then that makes no sense in the context.
No matter how long God waits, there will always be more people who could possibly come into repentance. God could always look forward to the next generation of potential believers and want to wait for them. You could truly say, ‘What is God waiting for?’ That is why it makes more sense to say that God is waiting for the full number of his elect to come into repentance. They are scattered throughout the ages and the nations. He is patiently waiting for all of his people to repent, not willing that a single one of them would perish.”4
This response is a lot more compelling than Pastor Samson’s which essentially just says in a nutshell “Given that he’s talking to Christian/Elect-peoples, he must have Christians/elect-peoples in mind when he says he’s not willing that any should perish”. Boucher’s argument is that if God is holding off the end of the world on the basis that He knows that if He kept the world spinning a little while longer, someone would freely choose to come to Christ, then what follows is that the world will never end! Christ is never coming back! Why? Because there most likely will always be at least some individuals who would still repent if they were simply given a little more time. By contrast, if God has a definite list of individuals He wants in the Kingdom (i.e the elect), then once the full number of those people are regenerated, Jesus will be like “Welp, that’s all of ’em. Guess it’s time to come back now”. So, Boucher concludes, the most reasonable inference is that 2 Peter 3:9 is saying that God is not willing that any of the elect should perish.
First, if you agree with Dr. William Lane Craig (which I do) that “God has created a world that has an optimal balance between saved and lost…” then even though Jim may be right that there will always be people who would freely choose to repent if God allowed the world to keep spinning, nevertheless it’s probably that by allowing the world to go forever, God would have a vastly disproportionate amount redeemed Christians VS. those who spurn God’s grace and are lost. Thus, if God’s goal is to keep the number of people who freely damn themselves at a minimum, then God very well could bring about the Perusia even if say, Sam would repent next Friday. Dr Craig (as a Molinist) emphasize’s that God has a perfect balance of lost VS saved. Obviously, that balance requires more time, but the time will come when things get so bad that God calls the elect for good. Stopping the world at a precise moment would be crucial to making sure the saved to lost ratio doesn’t become too disproportionate.
Of course, all of this presupposes that God desires people to repent of their own free will. While I think an overall scriptural and philosophical case can be made that (1) God desires all people to be saved, and (2) for people to come to Him through a free response to His resistible grace, I don’t think the validity of my response depends on proving those 2 things in this article. This is because Boucher is making a reductio ad absurdum case against the Arminian understanding of 2 Peter 3:9 and is using disjunctive syllogistic reasoning to argue that, given the all-humanity-interpretation entails an absurd conclusion, then the all-of-the-elect interpretation must be correct. If I can show that there is a plausible explanation within the Arminian-Molinist framework that would avert the absurdity of taking 2 Peter 3:9 as referring to all of mankind, then it would seem the reductio ad absurdum argument is defused, and therefore to show that 2 Peter 3:9 is referring only to the elect, Boucher would need to make a different argument.
Secondly, it may very well be the case that God is waiting for the world to become overwhelmingly corrupt and despicable before He makes the curtain call. God waited until humanity became so bad in Noah’s day that He could say that “their thoughts were only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). That’s likely hyperbole, but nevertheless, humanity must have been pretty bad to say that every thought they had was wicked! God told Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family. Only Noah and his family were worthy of escaping judgment (see Genesis 6-9). When Abraham was bargaining with God, God told Abraham that if there were even 10 righteous people in the city of Sodom, he would not destroy it (see Genesis 18). God told Abraham, regarding Canaan,““Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. . . . And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites [one of the Canaanite clans] is not yet complete” (Gen. 15. 13, 16). God stays His judgment of the Canaanite clans 400 years because their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability! This is the longsuffering of God! God waits until a group of peoples’ iniquity is at a critical breaking point before He unleashes wrath upon them.
Given this, could perhaps the global population be so wicked by the time Christ returns that the planet is like Sodom or Canaan? Could it be that everyone is so hardened against God that no one would choose to come to Him if He decided to keep the world spinning a little longer? I think this is a very plausible possibility. This may be why Jesus said, “When The Son Of Man comes, will he find faith on Earth?” (Luke 18:8). The Christ may have expected an overall godless, heathen planet upon his return.
The “Conflicting Desires” Response
Oddly enough, some Calvinists, like John Piper agree that 2 Peter 3:9 says that God wants all people saved. He harmonizes that with the 5 points of Calvinism by arguing that, while God would like to save all people, he can’t because doing so would detract from His glory. Since God must have some sinners to unleash His wrath on to maximize His glory, God can either (1) give irresistible grace to all people and therefore bring about universal salvation, or (2) Maximize His glory. However, Piper would argue that God can’t have both. 6
Jim Boucher of ThereforeGodExists.com explains this view as follows: “it may be the case that God has more than one set of desires. Perhaps he wants all people to be saved, but he has a greater desire in mind. This would resemble human psyche quite a bit as well. Just as a man might want to lose weight and get in shape, he also wants to spend more time with his family, and there are just not enough hours in the day. People often have conflicting desires. It is logically possible for God to want everybody to be saved, but have a greater desire that his justice and his wrath are put on display for the sake of his glorification.”7
Now, Jim is probably just putting this forth as a bare possibility, given his argument above that 2 Peter 3:9 isn’t saying that God wants all humanity saved. In other words, it’s an “even if” proposal for Boucher. “Even if” God wants all saved, it wouldn’t necessarily imply that God would take steps towards that end.
There two major problems with this proposal. First of all, even if God did need to display His wrath against sin for the sake of His glorification, why would He need the damned to accomplish that? Wasn’t Jesus on the cross a display of God’s wrath against sin? Didn’t the naked bloody Christ show the world just how much God despises sin and inequity? If so, why would it be necessary to irresistibly damn people to Hell? And if God takes displeasure at the death of the wicked and doesn’t care about libertarian free will, why doesn’t he irresistibly save everyone? Perhaps God wants everyone saved but wants people to come to Him freely? But then, that’s a view more closely resembling Arminianism than Calvinism. To this response, Protestant Cafe admin Kevin Courter says “All there is in these questions is the implied assumption that Christ’s crucifixion and the damnation of sinners glorify God in the same way. This is far from obvious.”8 but this is merely the fallacy of personal incredulity. Notice that Courter didn’t give any reason to think the cross wouldn’t display God’s wrath in the same way as sending some people to Hell. Courter’s response to this point is basically folding his arms and saying “Meh. I don’t buy that”.
Secondly, this proposal entails that God has a desire for something sinful. Apologist and philosopher Tim Stratton explain that “If God’s glory and universal salvation are logically contradictory, why would God desire anything at all – even a little bit – that would logically negate His glory altogether? This does not seem like the kind of thing an omniscient or perfectly good God would have a desire for.” 9
If it is sinful to desire something that detracts from God’s glory, and God desire’s something that would detract from His glory (i.e the salvation of all mankind), then it follows that either God desires something sinful, universal salvation would not detract from God’s glory, or that God does not desire universal salvation. If 2 Peter 3:9, and other texts like 1 Timothy 2:4 and John 3:16, say what they appear to say, that last option is untenable. If one wants to hold that God is a pure being, that “God is light and in Him, there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), then one must reject that first alternative. The only remaining option is that universal salvation and God’s maximal glory are not mutually exclusive.
There are other problems with the Conflicting Desires argument. For example, if God can’t be fully glorified unless He sends people to Hell, then that would make creation necessary. God had no choice of whether to create a universe or to refrain from creating anything. If God needed the damned, then he had to first create them, have them sin, and then condemn them. Wouldn’t this imply that God was lacking something prior to creation? Doesn’t it entail that God was not a Maximally Great Being prior to getting sinners into Hell? No, God doesn’t need anything from His human creatures. As the apostle Paul preached “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:25, emphasis mine).
I see no reason not to take 2 Peter 3:9 as saying that God is not willing that any member of the human race end up in Hell, but that all human beings come to repentance. God does not take pleasure in the deaths of wicked sinners, but prefers that they turn from their wicked ways and live (see Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 33:11), this is why Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6), why Christ died for “as an atoning sacrifice….for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
1: John Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.6
2: John Owen in “The Death Of Christ”.
3: Yo! Yo! Yo!
4: Jim Boucher, “Does God Want Every Individual Saved?”, July 1 2016, https://thereforegodexists.com/god-want-every-individual-saved/
5: Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (pp. 279-280). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.
6: John Piper: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god
7: Jim Boucher, “A Brief Critique Of Prevenient Grace & Response To Cerebral Faith”, March 22nd 2016, http://thereforegodexists.com/brief-critique-prevenient-grace-response-cerebralfaith/
8: From Kevin Courter’s response to my article “5 Biblical Passages That Calvinists Can’t Wiggle Out Of”. See here –> https://docs.google.com/document/d/13xfZkdci6bfLhzXmTJc0l6WjXYZdikfJkbLq2m7zcOE/edit
9: Tim Stratton, “The Petals Drop: Piper’s Problems”, FreeThinking Ministries, May 3rd 2015, http://freethinkingministries.com/the-petals-drop-problems-with-the-competing-desires-objection-2/