If/Then Salvation Quandry

Today’s sermon (or what I heard of it before I had to prematurely leave) reminded me of a question I’ve asked several times, in different ways, and which has never been satisfactorily answered. So I’m going to try it again today, not so much in the hopes that it will be any better received now than before, but simply out of a need to  try once more to find a phrasing which suits the nature of the conflict in my heart, and to remind people that this is in fact a problematic aspect of our faith whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

I’m not interested in the how, the specifics. I am interested simply in the if, then; the incontrovertible. The necessary implications of certain factual statements.

Statement: Either becoming a Christian prior to human death is the only means of achieving salvation (and avoiding an eternity in Hell), or it is not.

If it is not, then
1. Most of us are lying/quite misinformed.
2. We may be precluding salvation by evangelizing. If God makes a way for people who never hear the gospel, then by making them hear the gospel we actually give them a greater chance of damnation than they would otherwise have had.
3. While the best route is to become born again and to have a relationship with God during this life — and thus while there is a “reward” for salvation — the potential risk seems to outweigh that. In the cost/benefit analysis it seems difficult to argue that the potential cost is worth the potential benefit.

If it is, then
God has created billions of people who never had a chance of salvation. By virtue of circumstances beyond their control (being human) they are sinners, and by virtue of circumstances beyond their control (geographical, temporal, and/or communicative isolation) they are damned for not accepting a savior they were never offered. They are as culpable for their crime as a wind-up doll which walks off the edge of a table: set in motion by an outside force and lacking the capacity to change their trajectory prior to catastrophe. Nevertheless we, and he, place the blame on the toy rather than the hand that wound the key.

These are the two possibilities I see. Neither sits well with me. Neither is a thing I would want someone to whom I am witnessing to bring up — for in the face of the former, I am wrong, and in the face of the latter, the notion that I am serving a God of love, compassion, and mercy becomes somewhat absurd; at best I must concede that the pre-existing notions of those terms are irrelevant to the entity I’m describing.

Like I said, this is not new for me. And many have tried to respond and will likely find themselves wasting time repeating arguments which have not previously proven helpful to me, so I quite understand if no one responds at all. But there it is, should anyone wish to try. I’m really not trying for a “gotcha” conundrum here. This genuinely bothers me and I genuinely don’t like that.

Meanwhile, have a nice Sunday. I don’t know about where you are, but here, the weather is beautiful.

9 thoughts on “If/Then Salvation Quandry

  1. You should read “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis. It might prove helpful to you, I know it was to me.

  2. I’ve thought about this too.

    I think that you’re missing a few of the important beliefs associated with Christianity. First off, there is free will (you can deny if you’d like, but the majority of evidence in the Bible seems to indicate that God gave us freedom). People choose (or don’t choose) to accept Christianity. I think that the argument that we could increase someone’s chances of going to Hell is a little silly in that we are called to evangelize. We’re not increasing their chances of Hell, but increasing their chances of Heaven. To not evangelize is to not show God’s love. Remember that Paul said that faith without works is dead (this doesn’t mean that faith is received through works). I don’t think it’s fair to really look at Christ’s salvation is terms of cost/benefits. Because Christ didn’t look at it that way on Calvary. That’s not some sort of Jesus juke. It’s just me saying that God has given everyone the chance. 1st Timothy 2:4 states, “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

    Yes, the Bible indicates that all will hear the Gospel. What does this mean? I’m not sure. Does it mean that if they die without hearing the Gospel, God will have mercy on them? Perhaps? Does it mean that they will get some sort of purgatory to choose God’s grace? Perhaps. Read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce to better get an understanding of the latter’s argument. Basically, if you witness to someone here on Earth and they deny Him, what’s to say that if God gives them the chance later on, they would not deny Him then? Either way, we must let Him be known because we are called to that.

    I think the thing that sucks but that you and I have to realize is that God is God and we are not. He’s loving. He’s fair. But more importantly, he’s just. Will everyone be saved? No. But according to the Bible, everyone will have a chance. That should be enough for us. Though we can’t explain what that means, we can stand confident in the knowledge that God is just and loving and has mercy. Those that are shown the Gospel and accept it will live. Those that are shown the Gospel and deny it will die. We have to believe that God will make a way for this to happen no matter what.

    Despite this, we are called to proselytize regardless. As Christians, we should want to do this. Overall, I don’t think there is a “Gotcha” conundrum, because I don’t think God has or would ever provide that.

    Sometimes we just have to let go and let God.

    That’s my response for what it’s worth.

    1. First off, as ever, thanks for taking the time to respond (and so lengthily at that).

      The reason I phrased my question as I did is because it renders a lot of the other stuff somewhat irrelevant. No matter how much free will you have, if you live in a time and place where the gospel never reaches you, you never have the chance to freely choose salvation. Your freedom doesn’t help you at all when it comes to, arguably, the most important “decision” of your life. I realize that people have talked about this a lot, suggested that there may be some near-death experience moment where there’s a supernatural intercession that gives them a final chance, or maybe even in death they get preached to. Like I said, the “how” is irrelevant to me. But if any of that is true, then actually becoming a Christian before dying is not necessary for salvation. And the part about increasing chances of hell, then, isn’t silly — it’s the logical implication. Because if a person was going to get a supernatural intervention opportunity for having never heard about Christ, then we just took that opportunity away from them by witnessing.

      Throughout much of the New Testament that word “all” is used a lot. And I guess that’s what bothers me. Because Christ didn’t save all the world. He didn’t even save most of it. Not if only the confessed Christians are saved. He didn’t even POTENTIALLY save the whole world because plenty of people never had the POTENTIAL to become Christians and be saved.

      Now to be clear, Christ said that no man gets to the father except through Him. I am not questioning that. I am questioning whether the only way the unsaved and unreached have to Christ is through evangelism.

      For what it’s worth, I’d agree that the notion of evangelism being harmful is ridiculous. I mostly put it there to emphasize why the second possibility is the right one. The one in which God creates billions for eternal damnation.

      You’re new to this discussion (I’d recommend reading Puppets and Their Masters for a more thorough exploration of my thoughts on that), but suffice to say one of the things I’m always told and of which I’ve tired is the argument that “God is loving and compassionate.” It always seems to me quite like someone pointing to a red apple and saying “that apple is blue” and when I point out that by every meaningful measure of color and language, that apple is not blue, I’m simply told “but it’s blue.”

      Nevermind the theologians for a moment; I’m dealing with a person I am trying to win over to Christ. When they say “God creates billions of people, provides a way out of Hell, and only offers it to a handful of those people — that’s not loving or compassionate to the majority of the people he created,” I want to know what I’m supposed to say. Because by every meaningful measure of emotion and human language, that isn’t the concept we know as “love.”

      Does the Bible say everyone will have a chance?

      If everyone will have a chance, then that answers my initial question, because it says that no, becoming a Christian prior to human death is not the only way to salvation.

      If that really is what the Bible says, I’d like to see it; because last I checked, God creates some vessels as objects of his wrath, and if that sees fit to please him, far be it from the vessel to question the potter. Last I checked when Job demanded an explanation for his misery, God didn’t give one; he simply said that no one can question him. No, in neither case is it suggested that no answer exists. But whenever this subject is brought up, it is roundly dismissed with non-arguments which say the question is invalid. And I guess that’s why I haven’t gotten any answers yet.

      Anyhow, as you and Carl both recommended The Great Divorce, I guess I’ll have to read it. Lewis has definitely proven useful in the past.

      1. Hey! Thanks for the reply. You asked for a verse referring to all being saved.

        I gave you one verse and I’ll give you another, John 3:16.

        The problem with that is that you aren’t necessarily sure what “all” means. I take the Bible literally, so when Paul says that God wants all to be saved, I believe that the Bible, being divinely inspired, specifically means all.

        Let me clarify, as well. I don’t think all will be saved. But I do absolutely believed that Christ died for all, not just a portion. He died so everyone could have the chance at salvation. Again, this is where free will comes in. There is quite a difference between free will and predestination. God knows who will be saved, but he gives them the chance to choose. God sent his son for all. Everyone just doesn’t accept.

        Lastly, I want to reply to your thing about love and compassion. An atheist that replies to what you said as showing that God’s not loving or compassionate is absolutely dead-wrong. By dying, Christ showed his love and compassion. It is absolutely fair that Christ will only bring salvation to those who accept him. Why should God allow someone into Heaven who has and will always deny him? God absolutely loves that person, but does that person deserve Heaven? No. It’s hard to accept that, but we can’t look at God’s love as some sort of Rob Bell theology. Because it’s not. It’s loving AND it’s just. And when, pathetic and sinful human beings start to say that God is not compassionate nor loving because He won’t allow those who deny him into Glory, then our depravity is shown. Grace is a gift that must be accepted. If I deny a gift you give me, do you keep giving it to me and force me to take it?

        Anyway, that’s my Liberty University theology coming out. But I believe it’s absolutely right.

        God is just and fair. And he is loving and compassionate. Those go hand in hand.

      2. I did indeed ask for a verse referring to all having a chance at salvation.

        But John 3:16 says that “whosoever believes” will be saved; it says nothing about those who never hear of Christ, and thus never have a chance to believe in him.

        What use is the loving sacrifice to a person who never receives even a chance at benefiting from it? I could starve myself to death with the thought that the food I didn’t eat could instead feed children in Africa, but if those kids still die, you can’t very well say my sacrifice did them any good. It did those who were saved good — the elect, if you will — but not the others. What sign of love do they have? Their “loving” god never made himself known to them, and damned them for not accepting him through a channel he never introduced them to.

        Again I’ll point you to Paul, who speaks of Jacob and Esau, and God deciding before they were even born which he loves and which he hates. Paul proceeds to actually say that God may create some “vessels” for no other purpose than to be cast into the fire, and that he can do so if he pleases. Likewise he creates objects of mercy.

        You point out the need to accept the gift, but you have not addressed my actual question: what of all the people who never had the gift held out to them? How can you say it was a gift for them? Is it “the thought that counts?”

        Show me where in the life of the unsaved, unreached sinner the ability to not sin, or to be forgiven of the unavoidable sin, enters? Until you can show to me that he had the freedom not to sin, and the freedom to be saved, then I refuse to accept what happens to him is “just.”

        Again. Forget the atheist. I am an English major. The words love and just and compassion need to be held to certain standards or they are irrelevant. Saying that God may do what he wishes is not the same as saying that that behavior conforms to the concepts that we use to describe him. To say that what he does is “real love” is fine, but it misuses the word we already have. Where is the mercy for the person I have brought up? I have been looking for it for five years, and I’ve yet to find it.

  3. I’ve recently been exposed to the idea of God’s middle knowledge or Molinism. I’m not sure what I think about it yet but it tries to tackle your question regarding how God will judge people. If you’ve heard of it, what do you think of this idea?

  4. The problem is that no one knows what will happen to those outside of accepting salvation here on Earth. Again, 1st Timothy says that God wants all men saved. If that is the case, God will provide a way for all men to be saved. In relation to being saved outside of life on Earth, I’ve already told you that C.S. Lewis explains it much better than me. The wikipedia page on The Great Divorce might provide a little insight for you there. But it is plausible.

    I think that we need to be careful when we relate Christ’s loving sacrifice to earthly things. I know you don’t intend to, but I hold his sacrifice in high esteem. When we say things like “what use is his sacrifice to…” I believe that it is irreverent and seems to place everything He has done and will do very low. Again, I know you don’t mean it this way and for the safe of argument, I will again tell you that God WILL make himself known to everyone. The verse I gave you makes that clear. Whether He does that in life or death, we know not. But we can know that all will hear the message of salvation. That much is certain.

    Okay, I’ve heard the argument about God hating Esau before. That is taken entirely out of context. God did not hate Esau. This passage simply meant that God chose Jacob over Esau. The meaning of the word is in contrast, not in hate. When people claim that God hated Esau, they are inadvertently agreeing that the Bible has errors in continuity, something which is not true. It was common among the Hebrews to use the words “love” and “hate” in the sense of comparison back then. In Luke 14:26, Jesus says that to come to him, one must hate his father and mother. This just means that they must choose one or the other. Exactly like how God chose Jacob or Esau.

    Going to your next part. You assume that they have not had the gift held out to them. Again, I believe that they have or that they will. It’s as simple as that. Whether in life or in death, they will be given the option for salvation.

    Finally, the most important thing of all. You refuse to accept God’s judgment of sin as “just?” I hope that you were simply phrasing that the wrong way or I took that the wrong way. It is not up to us as Christians to decide what is just or what is not. God has always been and always will be just. If, for some reason, he decided to kill everyone on this planet it would absolutely be just. We are sinners saved by grace and that is it. We are not God and never will be. We are sinful. Justice would be killing every single one of us for going against him. That’s what justice is, I hate to say. Mercy is giving everyone the opportunity to accept His free gift of salvation. Again, everyone has the opportunity.

    Where is the mercy for the person who will not hear about Christ on this planet? Do you really expect a human being to able to understand and answer that effectively? You will not find that answer among humankind or anywhere on this Earth. You need to trust that God’s love and grace will be shown to all as the Bible says. He has given and will give everyone the option for salvation.

  5. Just some short(I thought it would be short when I started writing.lol) personal thoughts on how I currently see it. Just a note, this is more an explanation of certain “pillars” I hold to… I don’t have all the bridges connecting them thought out yet.
    1. First, I hold that Christ’s death on the cross is the only means by which any human can be saved. I believe this strictly in the sense that his death and shedding of blood serves some type of supernatural bridge or cleansing for lack of better metaphor.
    2. The question I have (and I think you are addressing) is the necessity of mentally knowing and believing in Christ’s death and resurrection. I’ll admit I worry sometimes about questioning this idea, but there are three groups of people that make me feel that I have some basis for questioning this.
    3. Before I go on, I think the Bible is very clear that those who do repent and believe in Jesus name (in a literal, knowing the Romans Road sort of way) will be saved. Ok… now on to the three groups.
    4. The first group I’ve always wondered about is how Abraham, Moses, David,the prophets, and other biblical heroes who we are expecting to see in heaven could be saved before Christ’s death on the cross. Assuming they will be saved, this would be a clear example of people who had an idea of God, had a relationship with God, but never actually knew about Christ’s death on the Cross and could not know the exact details. It seems to me that this would be a case where Christ’s blood covers them in a timeless manner.
    5. The second group are those outside of Israel who you would expect to be saved… Noah, Melchizedek, Enoch… etc. In case you are arguing that the first group is saved because of there covenant as Israel, it seems these guys should be included… but they aren’t part of Israel (unless there is some theological argument that I haven’t heard of… maybe Melchizedek?).
    5b. Also, even the covenant with Israel regarding physical matters seems to be more symbolic (some Israelites you would expect to go to hell) for a spiritual covenant that Jesus fulfills (where gentiles are brought in… baptism of the spirit as a circumcision of the soul).
    6. The last group are those who could never actively sin (infants, miscarriages) or could hardly understand their actions (insane, mentally retarded). Don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone is born in a spirit of rebellion against God with at least a debilitating tendancy towards sin (I don’t believe anyone could live the perfect life). However, even though God has every right as a creator to destroy his creation, to require an active knowledge of Christ’s death would condemn every infant to hell. I find this impossible to beleive, if nothing else, it would seem that Israelite or Christian family infants would have some recourse (I don’t actually believe it would be different for Christian family infant vs. non-Christian infant).
    7. Those three groups make me think 1. Christ’s blood has a universal effect of allowing people to come to God(i.e. without Christ’s sacrifice no good deed, no “righteousness” or surrender would save us), and 2. God will judge people on how they surrender their lives to Him… that being said, I have no idea how God’s judgment will necessarily look, or how narrow or broad surrendering your life to Him would look like, or how much general revelation communicates.
    8. I think true evangelism is always a good thing (not to mention commanded by Christ). As far as condemning people, I think we shouldn’t assume how God is judging those who hear the gospel as preached by humans.At the least we should be bringing God’s love into the world, shining as lights in the darkness.Whether we succeed at that is a focus of the Christian life.
    9. As far as free will goes, I see that as primarily an explanation for how there can be evil in the world.(for the sake of time… I’m going to leave it at that and save free-will debate for another time).

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