“What if?” questions are handy for testing the consistency of a plan or theory.
Philosophers love hypothetical scenarios. For example, the trolley problem helps test the consistency of your moral intuitions (see here). And the brain-in-a-vat problem tests theories about what you can and cannot know (see here). If a hypothetical reveals a self-contradiction within a system, that is proof the system is false and needs to be corrected.
Hypotheticals help test theological theories, too. Listeners to our podcast send in hypothetical situations all the time. They hear us say that salvation really is by faith apart from works, and the life Jesus gives really is everlasting, and they want to test the consistency of that claim. “What about this…?”
However, as philosopher Mike Huemer explains, there is a simple logical mistake you can make when it comes to hypotheticals, i.e., you can forget what the word “if” means:
The proposition, “If A then B” does not assert A. To say, “If you lose your mittens, you will get no pie,” is not to assert that you will lose your mittens. Likewise, to assert, “If I were a brain in a vat, I would have no knowledge of the external world,” is not to assert that I am a brain in a vat; it is not even to suggest that I might be. This is obvious to anyone who understands the English word “if” (see here).
Sadly, in my discussions over the content of saving faith, many people seem to forget the meaning of the word “if.” They think that saying what is hypothetically true is the same as saying that is what actually happens. That is a mistake:
In general, to say, “If A were true, then . . .” does not imply that A is true, it does not imply that A is likely to be true, and it does not even imply that A might be true (if anything, with the use of the subjunctive mood, it implies that A is false).
I was reminded of that point by a recent discussion about Free Grace theology, where someone wrote this challenge:
The problem with the extreme Free Grace position is that they believe you can trust/believe/have faith for 1 second and then are eternally saved. This means that a person could then go on and rape, pillage, and murder children for 50 years, die in unbelief and still go to Heaven.…
This statement is really a hypothetical question, i.e., “Would someone still be saved if he believed in Jesus for eternal life, and then went on to rape, pillage, and murder for the next 50 years?” And the answer to that hypothetical is that, “Yes.” Once saved, always saved holds true no matter what horrible things you do after you believe.
However, saying what is hypothetically possible is not the same as saying what is likely to be true.
So let me ask a different question: “According to Free Grace Theology, is it likely that God would allow a born-again person to rape, pillage, and murder for the next fifty years?”
The answer I would give to that question is “No.” There are strong Biblical reasons to think that God would never allow that to happen.
Why do I say that?
In Free Grace thought, we believe in divine discipline and temporal judgment. For example, Romans speaks about God’s present wrath upon sin (Rom 1:18). Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines those He loves (Heb 12:6). And we know that discipline can range from verbal warnings to the final stage of committing the “sin unto death” (1 John 5:16). The “dying stage” of discipline is demonstrated by what happened to Ananias and Sapphira after they lied about their giving (Acts 5:1-11) and to the Corinthians when they abused the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:29-31). In sum, if you persist in rebellion against God, He can take your life.
Now, re-consider that hypothetical about the man who believed and spent the next 50 years in criminal rebellion. In Free Grace thought, is that likely to ever happen? Not at all. On the contrary, Free Grace would expect God to discipline that man to death before he could do that much harm.