The following is an amalgam of actual discussions I’ve had with real people, both in person and online:
I didn’t intend to stop, but the street preacher’s words caught my ear and I couldn’t help myself.
“As Jesus died on the cross, He cried out, ‘It is finished.’ He died for all of our sins, those past, present, and future. He didn’t say, ‘I did my part, the 99%, which was the only part I could do, but now you must go do your part, the last 1%, which is necessary to complete salvation for yourself.’ No, He didn’t say that, because that would be salvation by works rather than by grace.”
I stopped abruptly, turned around, and congratulated him for being the only street preacher I’d ever heard who actually seemed to understand the Gospel. “I’m impressed. I’ve never heard a street evangelist actually tell the truth about what the Gospel means before. Unfortunately, most Christians believe they have their own role to play in their salvation, believing that Christ did 99% of the work to save them, but that they still have to do their 1% by choosing to put their trust in the finished work of Christ, and believing that if they don’t do their part then it turns out Christ didn’t save them through His death for our sins, entombment, and resurrection after all.”
The evangelist looked at me as though I’d grown a second head. “Well, no, that’s not what I believe,” he corrected me. “You still have to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved. If you don’t do your part, you can’t be saved. I was talking about having to get baptized or take communion or go to confession or do some other form of works in order to complete salvation.”
Disappointed to find out that he was just yet another traditional street preacher who said one thing but meant another, I thought of returning to my walk, but decided I should at least give him a chance to understand the Gospel before I left. Odds are he’d never heard it explained to him before, and besides, you never know who might be among the elect. “So, are you saying that what Jesus did on the cross wasn’t sufficient to save us, then? We have to do our part after all, contrary to what you first said, in order to contribute to our salvation. In other words, we have to become our own at least partial saviours in order to be saved?”
“No. Christ did all the work,” he tried to clarify. “Now He’s offering the free gift of salvation He paid for to us. But we do have to choose to accept the gift in order to receive it.”
“If we have to choose to ‘accept the gift’ in order to be saved, though,” I countered, “it’s we who ultimately save ourselves, because that would mean His death for our sins and subsequent resurrection didn’t do anything at all to save us on its own, since we were unsaved prior to His death for our sins, entombment, and resurrection, and we remain unsaved after His death for our sins, entombment, and resurrection, at least if we don’t choose to ‘accept it,’ whatever that actually means. So without choosing to ‘accept the gift,’ the gift of His death for our sins and resurrection actually accomplished nothing.”
He looked at me as one looks at a child who has somehow managed to fail kindergarten. “Don’t be ridiculous. His death and resurrection are a gift that saved everyone. But if someone doesn’t accept that gift, they can’t be saved.”
“So you’re saying His death and resurrection saved everyone, yet everyone is not actually saved?”
“Exactly. Otherwise we’d have to believe in Universalism, and we know that isn’t true.”
“Why do we know that isn’t true?” I asked.
“Well, because if Universalism were true, everyone would get the same reward.” He replied.
“A reward is something we earn,” I said. “I thought you believed salvation was a gift, not something we earn.”
“It is,” he quickly backtracked, “but we can’t all get the rewa… er, um, gift. That wouldn’t be fair, now, would it?”
“Who said anything about fair?” I asked. “Salvation is something none of us deserve, right?”
“Exactly,” he answered, far too quickly and confidently.
“So salvation isn’t fair to begin with, then, even for those who do choose to ‘accept the gift.’ And if none of us actually deserve salvation, what makes you deserving of it but some sinner who didn’t choose to ‘accept the gift’ not deserving of it?”
“That person didn’t choose to accept the gift,” he tried to clarify, “so he doesn’t deserve salvation.”
“But you do?”
“Well, nobody does, but I chose to accept the gift.”
I shook my head, wondering if he’d ever notice what he was saying. “So you do deserve it because you chose to accept the gift?”
He seemed a little uneasy now, but stood his ground. “Well, no, I don’t deserve it, per se, but I get to have it, because I chose to accept it.”
“So choosing to accept the gift doesn’t make you deserving of it, but not choosing to accept the gift makes someone else not deserving of it?”
“Right,” he said, not quite as confidently as he sounded moments ago.
“So, bottom line, neither of you deserve the gift of salvation.” I concluded.
“Right,” he repeated. “Neither of us deserve the gift of salvation.”
“So if God chose to make salvation 100% dependent on what Christ did, and simply gave it to everyone who didn’t deserve it, whether they ‘accepted it’ or not, would that be acceptable?”
“Of course not,” he said, regaining his composure. “If He gave it to people who didn’t choose to accept it, that means that Hitler will end up in the same place as me.”
“And what’s the problem with that?” I asked.
“Well, do you think he deserves to go to heaven after everything he did?” he asked, thinking that was somehow a good trap.
“We just ascertained that nobody deserves to go to heaven, not even you, so what makes you so special that you should get to go there and he doesn’t?”
“Well, I chose to accepted the gift and he didn’t,” he said weakly, realizing he’d backed himself into a corner, already knowing what I was about to say next.
As he expected, I asked, “So if he did choose to accept the gift before he died, would he be saved and get to go to heaven?”
“Well, yes,” he said, not wanting to admit it.
“So it’s not about fairness after all, is it?”
He looked forlorn at first, but his face suddenly brightened. “But he wouldn’t ever do that, because he was too big of a sinner to ever do so.”
“Ah, so you’re saved because you sinned less than Hitler? Or because your sins weren’t quite as sinful as his were?” I asked. “You’re more righteous than him, so you could choose to ‘accept the gift,’ but he was just so unrighteous that he could never do so.”
“I guess so,” he said. “What else could it be?”
“Well, I don’t see that in Scripture,” I said, “but let’s forget about Hitler for now. Let’s take my sister as an example instead. She hasn’t chosen to ‘accept the gift’ — in fact, she’s not convinced the ‘gift’ even exists — but she hasn’t done anything anywhere near as bad as Hitler did. In fact, she’s probably a better person than most Christians out there. Would it be okay if God saved her without her first choosing to ‘accept the gift’?”
“No, because she doesn’t deserve to be saved if she doesn’t choose to accept the gift.”
“We already agreed that salvation isn’t something anyone can ever deserve,” I reminded him, “even if they do choose to ‘accept the gift,’ didn’t we?”
“But if God can save people without them choosing to accept the gift, what’s the point in Jesus’ death in the first place? It would mean He died for nothing,” He tried to counter, thinking he’d come up with an original argument.
“Christ’s death for our sins, and subsequent entombment and resurrection on the third day, is why we’re saved. If He hadn’t done that, nobody would be saved,” I explained. “His death for our sins, entombment, and resurrection on the third day is the Gospel Paul preached. Whether we believe it or not, that’s why we’re all going to eventually experience salvation.”
“But people still have to choose to accept it,” he decided to continue insisting.
“And if they don’t choose to ‘accept it,’ meaning they don’t have faith that what Christ did on the cross saved them, does that mean that what Christ did for our salvation failed to save them?” I asked, trying to get us back to my original point.
“That’s right,” he answered.
“So, to make sure I’m absolutely clear, if Christ saved us on the cross, how do you know you are saved and someone else isn’t?”
”Because I had faith that Christ saved me on the cross,” he said, “and other people don’t have that faith.”
“So the reason you believe you’re saved is because you had faith that what Christ did saved you, but the reason my sister isn’t saved is because she doesn’t have faith that what Christ did saved her?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure she isn’t saved,” he said, giving the usual response Christians normally do at this point, “since I’m not God and don’t know her heart. But if she doesn’t have faith that Christ saved her on the cross then that means she probably hasn’t been saved.”
“But if we’re supposed to believe that Christ saved us through what He did on the cross, then the fact of our salvation through what He did on the cross must remain a fact whether we have that faith or not,” I pointed out, “which means it sounds like you have faith in your faith for salvation, rather than faith in what Christ did on the cross for salvation.”
“No, I have faith that Christ saved me on the cross,” he repeated himself, not seeming to be aware that he was going in circles, “not faith in my own faith.”
Realizing he had no idea what I was getting at, and that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by repeating myself, I decided to move on to another tack. “Well, if someone can’t be saved without having faith or choosing to ‘accept the gift,’ that brings up another question, which is why you decided to ‘accept the gift’ while others don’t. Is it that those other people who don’t choose to accept the gift weren’t born as smart or wise or righteous or humble or lucky as you were? If so, was it your intelligence, your wisdom, your righteousness, or your humility, that saved you, or was it simply pure, dumb, random luck that you happened to make the right decision, while others weren’t fortunate enough to do so?”
He stood there for a minute, unsure of what to say, then finally simply said, “it’s simply because ‘they would not,’ as Jesus once put it.”
“That’s all well and good,” I answered, “but why ‘would you’ while ‘they would not’? If it’s because you were smart enough to do so, it’s the intelligence you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re saved by intelligence. If it’s because you were wise enough to do so, it’s the wisdom you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means we’re saved by our wisdom. If it’s because you were humble enough to do so, it’s the humility you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re saved by naturally having the right amount of humility. If it’s because you were righteous enough to do so, it’s the righteousness you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re saved by our own righteousness. And if it’s because you were simply lucky enough to happen to do so, it’s the good luck you have — which the unsaved don’t have — that saved you, which means that we’re saved by good luck, or simply by random chance. So, I ask again, which one is it that they don’t have that saved you?”
“It’s simply because they would not,” he repeated, not really sure what else to say that wouldn’t make him look like he’d saved himself, not realizing it was far too late for that.
“Oh, so it’s willpower we’re saved by, then,” I said in jest. “You were born with the right amount of will power to choose to ‘accept the gift,’ whereas they don’t have that willpower which is necessary to make the right decision.”
“We can’t know why we choose to accept the gift but others don’t,” he finally decided to believe as he stated it, “but we know that not everyone is saved, because of all the warnings Jesus gave about hell.”
“Switching gears, are we? Okay.” I decided to let my train of reasoning go since he obviously wasn’t going to be able to come up with an answer. “Jesus literally never spoke about hell.”
“What?” He looked at me astounded. “It’s all over the Gospels. He even spoke more about hell than He did about heaven.”
“Jesus actually almost never spoke about heaven either,” I clarified. “He spoke about the kingdom of heaven, which refers to the kingdom when it begins on earth, specifically in Israel, in the future. But He wasn’t talking about people going to heaven since that’s not a place His Jewish audience was looking to go to. What they wanted was to live in the kingdom when it begins on earth.
“Likewise,” I continued, “He never literally spoke of hell at all. The word ‘hell’ is an English word, translated from three different Greek words that all refer to different concepts and/or places, none of which resemble the torture chamber that comes to mind when we hear the word, and Jesus didn’t speak English. Sometimes He used a Greek word that refers to the grave, as well as sometimes refers figuratively to the simple state of being dead, and He also sometimes used a word that referred to a location outside Jerusalem in which Isaiah prophesied that living people on the earth would see the corpses of people, meaning dead bodies, at some point in the future. But He never spoke of a place in which people suffer without end. Now, to be fair, less literal Bible versions use the word ’hell,’ but it has to be interpreted figuratively in those versions since the ’hell’ most people think of when they hear the word isn’t what Jesus meant by the words He actually spoke.”
“What about the rich man and Lazarus?” He asked, as though I’d never heard the question before. “Do you think he’ll get to go to heaven some day?”
“No, I actually don’t, but that’s because heaven is a location only the body of Christ goes to. Everyone else will get to live on the new earth instead. But I realize that isn’t what you’re actually asking. I assume you’re asking whether I believe he’ll be in ‘hell’ for eternity or not. Am I correct?”
“Yes, that’s right. There’s a gulf between him and Abraham, so he can’t ever leave,” he said, proud of his winning argument.
“So you believe he can never leave the hell that less literal Bible versions said he was in, correct?” I asked again, just to make my next point absolutely clear.
Once again, he didn’t look quite as confident as he had a moment ago, but he couldn’t figure out what my angle was, so he answered the only way he knew how: “Yes, that’s correct.”
“Okay. And if I can show you that Scripture tells us he will in fact eventually leave that particular ’hell,’ so that he won’t be in there forever with no chance of escape, will you consider that you might be wrong about some of the other things we’ve discussed?”
He knew he was walking into a trap, but what choice did he have at this point? “Sure.”
“Well, the word that is translated as ‘hell’ in Luke 16 is the Greek word hades. Now, if we take a look at Revelation 20:13-14, we see that ‘hell,’ which is also translated from the same Greek word hades here, will be emptied of its inhabitants so that they can be judged at the Great White Throne, and is then cast into the lake of fire, and something can’t be cast into itself, so we know this particular ‘hell’ isn’t the same thing as the lake of fire. So, even if this isn’t simply a parable meant to teach Jesus’ audience something completely unrelated to the afterlife, as I believe it likely was, that means the rich man would eventually leave the place you said he’d be trapped in forever with no chance to ever leave.”
He just stood there, stunned, then meekly asked his last possible question, “but won’t he still go into the lake of fire to suffer forever after that?”
“If he ever even existed in the first place,” I answered, “and there’s a good chance he didn’t, since Jesus spoke primarily in parables to those who weren’t His disciples, and He was talking to the Pharisees at this point, there’s no way to know whether he’d end up in the lake of fire or not. There’s good reason to believe Revelation actually teaches that relatively few people will actually end up in the lake of fire when interpreted properly, which I’d be happy to discuss with you at another time, but for now, the same words that are used to say that ‘hell’ is ’everlasting’ are also used to talk about being in the lake of fire forever, so if the ‘forever’ spent in ‘hell’ actually comes to an end, it stands to reason that the ‘forever’ spent in the lake of fire probably would as well. Especially when we consider everything we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, that salvation is a gift which is based 100% on what Christ did and 0% on what we do. I do have to go now, however,” I said, looking at my watch, “but if you want to learn more, I did write about everything we’ve discussed today in a book, which is available for free on my website. You can find it at https://concordantgospel.com/ebook/ if you’d like to learn more about what salvation is actually all about, as well as what all the threatening sounding warnings Jesus gave were actually talking about.”
“I doubt I’ll read it,” he said, already forgetting everything I’d said to him, as almost always seems to happen, “since you’re obviously a Universalist, which means you can’t be saved, so you can’t have anything to teach me. I’ll pray for you, though, and ask that God shows you the truth.”
“Sounds good,” I said, shaking my head and returning on the path to my previous destination.