The Salvation of Israel
In Romans 9-11, St. Paul discusses Israel’s past, present, and future with regard to salvation. He concludes by saying, “All Israel will be saved” (11:25-26). This has caused a lot of confusion.
Some have taken this to mean that all Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus when he returns. Others think that Jewish people can be saved by following the Old Covenant. Many have taught that the Church replaced Israel under the New Covenant, and St. Paul is really just talking about Christians here.
Recent scholars, however, have given more consideration to the wider scriptural context as well as history, and are now suggesting a startling, yet eminently reasonable, possibility.*
First, St. Paul makes it clear that salvation requires faith in Jesus Christ (e.g., Rom. 4-5; 10:5-13). Following Old Covenant law cannot save the Jewish people any more than it can non-Jewish Gentiles (Rom. 9:1-5 cf. Heb. 10). So the idea that the Jewish people are judged under a separate covenant is ruled out.
Second, not everyone with Jewish genealogy counts as “Israel” here (Rom. 9:6-8 cf. 2:28-29, 10:16). Only a faithful “remnant” will be saved (Rom. 9:27). Scripture shows that God judges those who reject him, even if they are part of a covenant group. St. Paul makes this point himself in Romans (e.g.,11:1-10). So the idea that every single person of Jewish descent will be saved at any point in history is not warranted by St. Paul’s assertion.
Who, then, is this “Israel” that does get saved? This is where history becomes important.
Identifying “All Israel”
One of God’s judgments of His covenant people occurred in 722 BC when the northern tribes of Israel were invaded by Assyria. Unlike the Babylonian deportation of the southern kingdom some years later, these tribes never returned to the land. Instead, they were dispersed and disintegrated into the surrounding nations. (This is why they are often referred to as the “Lost Tribes of Israel”.)
In a very real sense, then, these Israelites became Gentiles (which is the same word as “nations” in Greek). They are now part of the nations.
Now, throughout Romans 1-8, St. Paul speaks of the “Jews” (a term which indicates the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom) several times when referring to non-Gentiles. But in chapters 9-11, he uses the more general term “Israel” (which typically refers to all 12 tribes) exclusively. It is fascinating, then, that St. Paul’s pronouncement that “all Israel will be saved” is preceded by this:
“A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in.”
God’s irrevocable promise to Israel included the northern tribes, so if it is kept, it must still include them. Thus, God’s New Covenant (made with Israel – Jer. 31:31) includes physical Gentiles – not only because they are “spiritual Israelites” (Rom. 11:29 cf. 2:28-29), but because many of the physical Israelites are now Gentiles!
*See Romans (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) by Scott W. Hahn.