I am not a universalist. I do not think that the New Testament teaches that everybody will be “saved”, though it appears that the political landscape of the new creation will be more complex than we may have thought. The framing soteriological argument in the New Testament is not that humanity needs to be saved (in a universal present) but that Israel needed to be saved (in a particular past). Individuals, whether Jews or Gentiles, were “saved” insofar as they participated in a community that would survive the wrath of God both against Israel and against the pagan world. Jesus clearly thought that few Jews would be saved. Paul presumably believed that most Gentiles were “perishing” (cf. 2 Cor. 2:15).
The nations would come and acknowledge the sovereignty and glory of YHWH’s beloved King, but the thought is never entertained that the whole of humanity would join the church in the course of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament. Salvation is what happens to that limited community that God has called apart to be a kingdom of priests and prophets in the midst of the nations.
Strictly speaking, then, I’m not sure that it makes biblical sense to say that people are saved today. I would say rather that people are called by God to participate in his new creation, for the sake of his glory, and so must be “born again” into a new cosmos. We must leave behind the old world, with its idolatrous, corrupting ways and practices, and assume the ways and practices of God’s new world, under Jesus as King, in the power of the Spirit, subject to grace. What we misleadingly call “Christianity” is not a religion of salvation. It is a religion of enactment or embodiment—God’s people enact or embody the full potential of a loyal, obedient, faithful humanity before the eyes of the world. It is, in current parlance, “missional”. Such a people exists at all today only because Jesus gave his life for the sins of Israel out of obedience to his Father.
So when people insist on the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus and cite as evidence, among other texts (eg. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”), Peter’s words to the rulers of the people and the elders of Israel, they have got it both right and wrong:
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Taken out of context, of course, this statement can easily be given a universal frame of reference, and if we think that scripture is merely a collection of “divine logia” (I got that phrase from Luke Timothy Johnson), a compendium of discrete truths to be picked like sweets from a jar, that’s fine. But if we think that scripture tells a story, especially a historical story, then it is a different matter….
The disciples of the crucified Jesus have emerged as a dynamic charismatic community prophesying, exactly as Jesus did, calamitous judgment on Israel (Acts 2:1-21) and calling Jews in the city to save themselves from this “corrupt generation” (2:40). The transformation has come about because God raised Jesus from the dead, who then poured out the Spirit on his followers, empowering and emboldening them (2:24-33). The proper response is for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to repent and be baptized into this movement of renewal and survival, in the belief that God will soon “send” Jesus to overthrow the unrighteous rulers and re-establish the kingdom (2:38; 3:19-21). Those who oppose this divine coup will be destroyed (3:23).
This is the context for Peter’s words to the leaders of the people: they have rejected God’s prophet, but he will become the cornerstone of a renewed “Israel”. God has provided no other saviour for his people. It’s an exclusive message, and many will be excluded from this “salvation”. But it misses the point of the narrative if we then uncritically reformulate this as a universal soteriology. Certainly, individuals today still have to work out what their response should be to the God who dealt with his people in this way. Are we for him or against him? But we do not do justice to scripture and we greatly diminish the scope of the church’s mission if we absolutize the “message” as one of personal salvation through faith in Jesus alone.