What does “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 mean? Does it mean that one day every single Jew will be saved?

This question is a highly debated one and, throughout the history of the Church, there have been at least four different views.

The first view is that “all Israel” means “every single ethnic Israelite” who ever lived. This view, which can only be held by liberal universalists, runs contrary to the whole thesis of the epistle to the Romans that Jews and Gentiles alike are “all under sin” (Rom 3:9), and so will face condemnation unless justified by Christ through personal union.  

The second view is that “all Israel” refers to “all if not the majority of the mass of ethnic Jews living on earth at the end time after all the elect Gentiles have been converted.” Dispensationalists speak of all the Jews being converted en-mass during the 7-year tribulation period after the Church has been raptured. This view is based on a dispensational distinction between Church and Israel, which can hardly be defended without reading into the Scriptures. Having said thus, however, it must be noted that a very large number of evangelical and Reformed scholars hold to this view without the dispensational embellishments of the 7-year tribulation period. These include the Early Church Fathers such as Jerome, Chrysostom, Ambrose, most of the English Puritans, Martin Luther, Charles Hodge, John Murray, Robert Haldane, etc. The New Geneva Study Bible states that this view seems most likely to be correct for the following reasons:

First, hints of it seem to appear already in vv. 11, 12, 15, 16, 24. Second, v. 25 suggests that an end to the partial hardening of Israel is in view. Third, “Israel” in v. 26 is not naturally interpreted as signifying a different entity from the Israel in view in vv. 1–24 and vv. 28–31, where national Israel (not spiritual Israel) is in view. Fourth, “mystery” in v. 25 would seem inappropriate and exaggerated if Paul’s teaching were simply that all elect Jews will be saved. Finally, this view accords well with the quotations in vv. 26–27 from Isa 59:20, 21; 27:9; Jer 31:33, 34, which appear to speak of a comprehensive banishment of that sin that has been the cause of Israel’s alienation from God.

Despite the apparent strength of the arguments, my difficulty with this view is that the words beginning v. 26 and translated “and so” (Greek:  kai outôs) cannot possibly be taken to mean “and then” as would be required in this view. The word outôs does not carry any connotation of chronology. It means “thus” or “in this manner.” With this in mind, it would be illogical if “all Israel” in verse 26 means “all the Jews alive” because verse 25 is talking about the salvation of the Gentiles! It would be like saying: “the Gentiles are being brought into the kingdom while the Jews are partially blinded in order that every Jews alive will be saved” (which is, of course, illogical). Moreover, it seems to me to be very strange that an intended demonstration of grace to the whole Jewish nation must wait until all the Gentiles have come in, while in the meantime, the immense majority of what would indeed be all Israel would face damnation. Furthermore, the ‘quotation’ from Isaiah 59:20–21, etc: “There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11:26b) is surely about the first coming rather than the second coming of Christ.

The third view is that “all Israel” means “the total number of elect Jews, or the sum of Israel’s remnant.” This view is held with some variations by William Hendriksen, O. Palmer Robertson, Louis Berkhof, Anthony Hoekema, Herman Hoeksema, etc. This view does not suffer from the weaknesses of the second view. The objection raised in the fourth point of the quotation from The New Geneva Study Bible (above) is also quite adequately answered by Hendriksen who contends that “the mystery of which Paul speaks has reference to the marvellous chain of events that result in Israel’s salvation” (p. 382). The chain of events may be enumerated: “[a] Carnal Israel stumbles and is rejected because of its unbelief. Result: [b] The gospel is proclaimed to the Gentiles. The elect Gentiles are saved. Result: [c] God uses this salvation of Gentiles in order to arouse the envy of the Jews. Result: [d] The Jewish remnant accepts Christ, in accordance with God’s eternal plan” (p. 377).

I have little objection to this third view, but prefer the fourth view, which is held by Calvin that “all Israel” refers to all the elect, including Jews and Gentiles. The reason for this is that verse 25 is actually about the conversion of the Gentiles and the blindness of the Jews. It appears rather strange to me that verse 26 should speak abruptly about the salvation of the sum total of the elect Jews. Would it not be more reasonable for Paul to be referring to the whole number of the elect? It may be objected that the word “Israel” is used no less than 11 times prior to Romans 11:26, to refer to the Jews apart from Gentiles (see 9:4, 6 [twice], 27 [twice], 31; 10:19, 21; 11:1, 2, 7 & 25), and so there is no compelling reasons why “Israel” in verse 26 should have a different meaning. We reply by saying that the adjective ‘all’ does make a difference. Moreover, what compelling reason is there to see “Israel” in verse 26 as elect Jews when, before, it is always ethnic Jews that is referred to. Furthermore, it makes perfectly good sense for Paul to speak about the salvation of all the elect since he had just proven, with the olive tree metaphor, that the Gentiles are included in Israel too. It also fits in very well, for Paul would be saying: “by way of the partial blindness of the Jews, the Gentiles are being brought in (which would provoke the Jews to seek too). In this way, all the elect of God: Jews and Gentiles, will be saved.”