In discussing the doctrines of the afterlife, we find difficult verses, one of them being John 12.32. I will try not to draw a conclusion, but simply present information on this verse:
And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.
Growing up, this verse was preached as a stand along – like many verses – to proclaim that if we preach Christ, then He will draw people to Him. That’s fine, I believe, but that is not John’s interpretation of what Christ meant:
“Father, bring glory to your name.” Then a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.”
When the crowd heard the voice, some thought it was thunder, while others declared an angel had spoken to him.
Then Jesus told them, “The voice was for your benefit, not mine. The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
He said this to indicate how he was going to die. (John 12:28-33 NLT)
In context, Christ was not speaking about being proclaimed, but about being crucified. If we were to take this verse as literally as many take Genesis, what then does this say to you?
To Irenaeus, it meant that Christ would enliven the dead by drawing all things to Himself
is lifted up from the earth upon the tree of martyrdom, and draws all things to Himself,8 and vivifies the dead. (Irenaeus: Against Heresies: Book IV)
Ignatius before him wrote:
The Word raised up again His own temple on the third day, when it had been destroyed by the Jews fighting against Christ. The Word, when His flesh was lifted up, after the manner of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, drew all men to Himself for their eternal salvation. – Letter to the Smyrneans
Athanasius writing much later, pens,
Again, if the Lord’s death is the ransom of all, and by His death “the middle4 wall of partition” is broken down, and the calling of the nations is brought about, how would He have called us to Him, had He not been crucified? For it is only on the cross that a man dies with his hands spread out. Whence it was fitting for the Lord to bear this also and to spread out His hands, that with the one He might draw the ancient people, and with the other those from the Gentiles, and unite both in Himself. 4. For this is what He Himself has said, signifying by what manner of death He was to ransom all: “I, when1 I am lifted up,” He saith, “shall draw all men unto Me.” – (Athanasius: The Incarnation of the Word: On the Incarnation of the Word)
John Cassian, saint of the East, writes:
But concerning the evening sacrifices what is to be said, since even in the Old Testament these are ordered to be offered continually by the law of Moses? For that the morning whole-burnt offerings and evening sacrifices were offered every day continually in the temple, although with figurative offerings, we can show from that which is sung by David: “Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice,”6 in which place we can understand it in a still higher sense of that true evening sacrifice which was given by the Lord our Saviour in the evening to the Apostles at the Supper, when He instituted the holy mysteries of the Church, and of that evening sacrifice which He Himself, on the following day, in the end of the ages, offered up to the Father by the lifting up of His hands for the salvation of the whole world; which spreading forth of His hands on the Cross is quite correctly called a “lifting up.” For when we were all lying in hades He raised us to heaven, according to the word of His own promise when He says: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto Me.”7 But concerning Mattins, that also teaches us which it is customary every day to sing at it: “O God, my God, to Thee do I watch at break of day;” and “I will meditate on Thee in the morning;” and “I prevented the dawning of the day and cried;” and again, “Mine eyes to Thee have prevented the morning, that I might meditate on Thy words.”8 At these hours too that householder in the Gospel hired labourers into his vineyard. For thus also is he described as having hired them in the early morning, which time denotes the Mattin office; then at the third hour; then at the sixth; after this, at the ninth; and last of all, at the eleventh,9 by which the hour of the lamps10 is denoted. (The Works of John Cassian: The Twelve Books on the Institutes of the Cnobia, and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Faults )
Jerome writing in the midst of the Arian controversy, states:
If Christ then for our sakes was made a curse that He might deliver us from the curse of the law, are you surprised that He is also for our sakes subject to the Father to make us too subject to Him as He says in the gospel: “No man cometh unto the Father but by me,”10 and “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”11 Christ then is subject to the Father in the faithful; for all believers, nay the whole human race, are accounted members of His body.
But in unbelievers, that is in Jews, heathens, and heretics, He is said to be not subject; for these members of His body are not subject to the faith.
But in the end of the world when all His members shall see Christ, that is their own body, reigning, they also shall be made subject to Christ, that is to their own body, that the whole of Christ’s body may be subject unto God and the Father, and that God may be all in all.
Arriving finally to Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century, we find an addition to John 12.32:
Considering, therefore, all these things, hold ye nothing but what the true faith teaches through the Catholic Church: namely, that the Lord in descending into hell rescued from infernal durance those only whom while living in the flesh He preserved through His grace in faith and good conduct. For in that which He says in the Gospel, When I shall be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself , He means all that are elect. For one could not be drawn to God after death who had separated himself from God by evil living. May Almighty God keep you under His protection, that, wherever ye are, ye may feel in soul and body the aid of His grace.