AIRLINE OFFICIAL: All the passengers survived the crash.
REPORTER: Do you mean that all of the passengers survived in the “all without exception” sense of ‘all’, or in the “a great many” or “all without distinction” sense?
A: All I meant was that all of them survived in one of those last two senses you mention. I didn’t mean they all survived in the “all without exception” sense of ‘all’. And unfortunately, several passengers did die.
RELATIVE: I was so excited when I heard on the news that “all the passengers had survived”! “Henry’s alive!” I called out. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the news report was using the “a great many” / “all without distinction” sense of ‘all’, and that in fact several passengers had died! Now I’m left wondering about poor Henry.
A: I wonder how the students in our town’s high school did on the big state test? How did the underclassmen do? How did the seniors do? I can’t wait to find out!
B: I was just at the high school and heard the news on that: All the students passed the test.
A: Really? Even that Johnny kid from down the block? I wouldn’t have thought he could possibly pass.
B: He did fail.
A: But didn’t you say that all the students passed?
B: I meant that all passed in the “a great many” / “‘all’ without distinction” sense of ‘all’. I didn’t mean that each and every one of them passed.
There are many ways by which non-universalists try to evade the universalist implications of the New Testament passages typically cited as teaching universalism (like those presented in section 2 of my on-line defense of universalism). Sadly, one of the most common is to claim that ‘all’ (and its Greek equivalent) does not always mean “all without exception”, but has some other, weaker sense, and to urge that the passages are only saying that all will be saved in one of these weaker senses of “all”…
(Other evasive maneuvers are (a) to point out (correctly) that phrases like “all Ns” or “all the Ns” are to be understood as being about a contextually limited domain of Ns, and so needn’t be about all the Ns in the universe, and then to urge (and here’s where I think these would-be evaders go wrong) that the seemingly universalist statements in the New Testament are to be understood as asserting only that all (without exception) of the people *in some contextually limited domain* that falls short of encompassing all humans on our planet will be saved, or (b) to claim that the statements in question are to be understood as hyperbolic. Neither of these is very promising, in my opinion, but I bring them up here just to say that both of them are to be distinguished from the evasive maneuver that I’m currently discussing.)
What are these alleged weaker senses of ‘all’? Sometimes it is alleged that ‘all’ can mean something like “a great many”. Even more often (at least in my experience), it’s claimed that ‘all’ has both an “all without exception” and an “all without distinction” sense, and that the universalist passages are to be read in the latter, weaker way. I’m not entirely clear about what that “all without distinction” sense is supposed to be – I think that varies a bit from evader to evader. But some seem to hold that when used in this way, ‘all’ means something like “some from each group” (and a common suggestion for the universalist passages is that they should be understood as saying that some from each nation will be saved, another suggestion is that the relevant groups here are just Jews vs. Gentiles). For others, it seems to mean something a bit more: Not just that some from each group will be saved, but also that every person, regardless of which group she’s in, has a chance. And there are other alleged weak senses of ‘all’ one will hear about in attempts to evade the universalist passages. While for me, these are mostly attempts I encounter in discussion (often on-line discussion), here’s one quick example from the published work of a very serious scholar (which, for all I know, may be the source of the comments I often hear in discussion): About Romans 11:32, the end of which he renders, “that he may have mercy upon all”, F.F. Bruce writes: “That is, on all without distinction rather than all without exception” (The Letter of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985; p. 211).
But ‘all’ doesn’t have any of these alleged weak senses! If it did, what would block the examples I give at the top of this post? I take it as fairly obvious that those are outrageous misuses of ‘all’, and we surely don’t want to plunk the universalist passages into the same category. (In addition to the above cases, consider my example of slippery political character, in the second paragraph of section 3 of my on-line defense of universalism.) We can construe the above situations such that it would be significant news that a great many passengers survived, and that a great many of the students passed, or that some passengers or students from each of the contextually relevant groups of passengers/students (domestic vs. international passengers, freshmen/sophomores/juniors/seniors, perhaps) survived/passed. Thus, the users of ‘all’ in the above would be presenting relevant and significant news if they were using ‘all’ in the alleged weak sense. But these uses are still clearly wrong. So if ‘all’ has these weaker senses, why can’t it seem to mean any of them in these examples, where they would allow the speaker to be presenting important and conversationally relevant information?
“It’s all about context!”, I’ll be told (as I know from a great deal of experience). I’m neglecting the importance of context to meaning, I’m often lectured. Well, look, nobody has to sell me on the importance of context to meaning. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any feature of the context of the New Testament passages in question that can come to the rescue of our would-be evaders here, at least that I can see. Sadly, most of those who appeal to context at this point don’t have anything specific in mind in terms of what features of the context of the universalist passages are relevant here and how they are operating on the meaning of claims being made. They seem surprised to be asked just how they think differences in context are operating here. Bare appeals to context seem to be mostly used as a generic, get-out-of-trouble-free card. But some have something to say at this point, and the best story I’ve been able to discern here is that the universalist passages occur in contexts where a division people into various groups is contextually very salient. It can then be claimed that the “all without distinction” sense of ‘all’ makes sense where there is such a salient division in place, and not where there is no such salient division of the Ns into relevant categories.
Now, one may wonder whether a division of people into groups really is so contextually salient in the universalist passages. But it really doesn’t matter. Because, look, you can make such a division of passengers or students into groups as contextually salient as you want in the above dialogues (and I started doing that a bit by putting some talk of underclassmen vs. seniors in the dialogue about the students) and it just doesn’t matter — at all: those are still outrageous misuses of ‘all’, as I trust all will still be able sense once we’ve made the relevant changes to the dialogues. That context-sensitive dog just won’t hunt.
Now, this has all been about ‘all’ in English. But my sources (and they’re very good!) tell me the Greek is like the English in the relevant ways, so far as they can see. And also those who have tried these evasive maneuvers have seemed to think they’re valid in English as well as in New Testament Greek. So, absent some reason to think these evaders are more discerning here about Greek than they are about English, I remain skeptical.