The Presuppositions of the “Deserted Island Scenario”
I have posted multiple times regarding the “free grace wars” that I stepped into the middle of a few years ago. The Free Grace movement began as a reaction to the Lordship Salvation movement and the two sides have been battling under those labels since the 1970s. I have blogged about aspects of my experience with this and I will probably continue to do so in the future. This is a critical topic to me and I think about it a lot. I would certainly count myself as believing in “free grace” and it saddens me to see so many believers who should be making common cause with each other actually separating from each other. This is very sad indeed.
One of the prominent voices in the Free Grace movement is the late Zane Hodges who founded the Grace Evangelical Society (GES). Dr. Hodges published a two part article in 2000-2001 titled “How to Lead a Person to Christ” (link for Part I, link for Part II) which is still used by many members of the GES as the blueprint for providing the way of salvation to the unbeliever. What I am going to concern myself with in this post is the “Deserted Island Scenario” which Dr Hodges gets into at the very beginning of Part I of his seminal article.
When I first encountered the Deserted Island Scenario I incorrectly understood it to be a “thought experiment” which Dr. Hodges used to extrapolate and apply his version of “free grace” theology in real life situations. That is actually incorrect. I now realize the Deserted Island Scenario is nothing more than a concise summary of all the conclusions Dr. Hodges had come to in his years of study. He had developed the application of his theology long before he came up with the scenario.
Why Are Presuppositions Important?
In 2007 I found the Bible Framework series taught by Charles Clough which I thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread (I have listened to all 224 lessons). I still consider it to be a great series even though it is more Calvinistic in approach than I am comfortable with. Charles Clough emphasizes over and over again the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til which in many ways has been a great benefit to me.
The presuppositional approach teaches that any statement of truth contains presuppositions whether the person making the statement realizes it or not. As I have mulled over the Deserted Island Scenario I have realized though it is a very short scenario all of its presuppositions could fill a book. If you are comfortable with the presuppositions I am going to point out then by all means follow Dr. Hodges lead on this. What I am concerned with is a lot of people take off and run with this approach without thinking it through.
A Caveat Before I Start
Since I have developed a real aversion to Christians going after each other in very unChrist-like ways on the internet, and any other public venue, I want to make it clear what I am about to write should not be taken as a personal attack on Dr. Hodges. The consistent testimony of Zane Hodges’ students, even those who disagree with him, is that he sought to honor Christ. My goal in this post is to bring some of the presuppositions of Zane Hodges to light and not to attack the man. I do not want to have disputes over persons distract from my real purpose.
I regularly listen to bible lessons taught by Robert Dean of the West Houston Bible Church who was a student of Zane Hodges but also holds to a Gospel presentation Dr. Hodges would probably reject (more on that in a moment). Dr. Dean has written a two part series on “the Gospel Wars” available on his website in which he writes very highly of his old teacher (link to Part I, link to Part II). If Dr. Dean believes Zane Hodges is deserving of respect that is good enough for me.
A Hidden But Important Presupposition
There is a major presupposition behind the Desert Island Scenario that does not show up in either Parts I or II of Dr. Hodges article which is his view of repentance. There are at least two ways to define what repentance is and Dr. Hodges used the “repentance is to turn away from sin” definition (please read “Two Little Words Can Make a Big Difference” for more details). Because Hodges believed repentance always involved our turning from sin he rejected the idea that repentance was part of salvation. To turn from sin (his definition of repent) is works, salvation is not by works, so salvation cannot involve repentance. QED.
This rejection of repentance as part of our salvation led to some interesting turns in Hodges theology. Did you know the Gospel of John is the only Gospel that does not use the word repent? Zane Hodges certainly did and it caused him to rely exclusively on the Gospel of John for the Gospel presentation. You will notice when I actually quote from the Deserted Island Scenario the only scripture used is from the Gospel of John and that is no accident. By using passages from the Gospel of John he preemptively cut off any discussion of repentance in the Gospel presentation.
The Gospel: I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think it Means
When I first stumbled into the “free grace wars” I wondered why these theologians didn’t do a word study, correlate the results, and come to a conclusion as to what the Gospel message is. That was a long time ago when I was still quite naïve. The detailed work on defining the Gospel message had been done centuries ago but the arguments have continued to this day. What makes this situation so interesting is that the GES does not define the Gospel in the same way most evangelicals do. In fact they do not believe the word “gospel” necessarily means what needs to be believed in order to be saved.
Rather than go into all of the gory details I will provide a short quote and a link which lays out the GES definition of gospel so any reader can study it for themselves:
The multiple gospel view holds that there are different gospels for different NT authors. There is “The Gospel According to Paul,” “The Gospel According to Peter,” “The Gospel According to Jesus,” “The Gospel According to Luke,” etc. Each gospel is different from, but not in conflict with, the others. Initially, the “Four Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John seem to steer us in this direction. However, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are a well-known genre of literature in Greek and Roman culture called “gospel” and so we shouldn’t read too much into the designation of these four accounts as “gospels.”
THE GOSPEL IS MORE THAN “FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE” by Jeremy Meyers
Since the Gospel of John self identifies as being written for evangelistic purposes (John 20:30-31), and it doesn’t contain the word repent, it is “The Gospel According to John” the GES uses exclusively when formulating the “message of salvation.” To be honest it has never been clear to me that John 20:30-31 was speaking about the entire Gospel of John rather than Christ’s resurrection which Chapter 20 just spent 29 verses discussing.
What truly bothers me about this is by using this logic the proponents of this multiple gospel view can claim that many “gospel” passages have nothing to do with the “message of salvation.” I understand that words can have a range of meaning but this particular application paves the way for so much flexibility in understanding what the word “gospel” means that it almost makes it meaningless.
The Core of the Disagreement in Two Words
If any readers have made it this far but are starting to run out of gas I will provide you with the very core disagreement between the free grace camps. Quoting from Robert Dean’s Doctrine of faith, here is what he defines the object of saving faith as:
The Object of Faith at salvation is the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I added the red highlight for emphasis. From my reading of GES literature they would leave out the words “and work” from the gospel presentation claiming it to be “theological legalism.”
Robert Dean uses 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 to justify that statement. In part two of his paper Zane Hodges makes it clear he is “uncomfortable” telling unbelievers they must believe that Jesus died on the cross. Here Dr. Dean certainly disagrees with his old professor on this issue.
Finally, The Deserted Island Scenario
So, with all of that under our belt let’s begin looking at the Deserted Island Scenario:
Let me begin with a strange scenario. Try to imagine an unsaved person marooned on a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He has never heard about Christianity in his life. One day a wave washes a fragment of paper up onto the beach. It is wet but still partly readable.
On that paper are the words of John 6:43-47. But the only readable portions are: “Jesus therefore answered and said to them” (v 43) and “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (v 47).
Now suppose that our unsaved man somehow becomes convinced that this person called Jesus can guarantee his eternal future, since He promises everlasting life. In other words, he believes Jesus’ words in John 6:47. Is he saved?
That is the Deserted Island Scenario and it seems deceptively simple but it isn’t. That first paragraph, short as it is, is actually packed full of presuppositions which perhaps even the author was not aware of. It is my goal to help the reader find and understand them.
Notice we have an “unsaved person” who has “never heard of Christianity.” This seems simple enough but Dr. Hodges chose his words very carefully. Notice Hodges did not say that this generic man knew nothing of God because he knew this cannot be true. Why do I say that? Here are the reasons:
- All of us are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). While the number of opinions on exactly what the “image of God” means are like the grains of sand on the beach, can we really be expected to believe we are made in God’s image yet have no inkling that God exists?
- God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) so we all know there is something more after this life. Without the revelation of scripture we cannot know what that something is but we do know it’s there.
- God’s divine nature has been seen by all of mankind (Romans 1:18-23) and that is why the unbeliever will be without excuse at the last judgment. This verse is consistent and, I believe, is a logical conclusion from the other two I have quoted.
So, let’s return to our friend on the deserted island. Maybe you’re like me and you have difficulty sometimes when evaluating abstract concepts to discover their implications. So in order to get “some meat on them bones” I am going to make our friend a little more human and a bit less generic. I know he has never heard of Christianity but he has an innate knowledge that God exists. I truly have a large number of possibilities to choose from but I think I will draw my inspiration from this movement.
Now that I have my inspiration I am going to name our not-as-generic castaway “Benny.” In Benny’s home town they worship the god Prosperitus. Prosperitus is a wise and benevolent god who promises his followers that:
- Giving to Properitus results in guaranteed financial gain for the giver – you “give to get”
- Financial generosity toward a cult ministry will unlock Prosperitus’ blessing on relationships, material gain, debt reduction, and healing
- Any follower of Prosperitus is a son or daughter of Prosperitus and therefore a god
What does Benny think when he reads: “Jesus therefore answered and said to them” (v 43) and “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (v 47)? I will tell you exactly what I believe he will think: “I know this man Jesus! He is Prosperitus the wise and beneficent. I will have happiness and prosperity forever because I am a god like him.” He will then leave the tiny fragment of paper on the beach where he found it and go about life as he always had and being none the wiser.
Since Benny is human he knows God exists. Benny has presuppositions about God but since he is not a believer those presuppositions are guaranteed to be wrong! Charles Clough’s teaching correctly emphasizes that every time the unbeliever hears truth he will try and twist it to conform to his fallen view of the world. This is a consistent pattern throughout scripture and Benny would not be an exception.
Let’s go back to Dr. Hodges rhetorical question: “Is he saved?” In ancient Egypt the Pharaohs were entombed with possessions for their use in the afterlife. Men commit atrocities in the belief that they will receive 72 virgins when they arrive in heaven. The false messiah of the prosperity gospel promises health and wealth both here and in heaven. Promises of everlasting life are a dime a dozen. What makes the offer by Jesus Christ different is that he paid the price for mankind’s sins on the cross. Our generic man has no way of knowing about Christ’s work on the cross and no reason to think that the promise made by this Jesus fellow is any different from the rest. At best he could randomly choose Jesus from among the many contenders but is that really faith? So, I suppose my answer has to be: “How can he be saved?”
Does Context Matter?
The Deserted Island Scenario fascinates me because of the way it is crafted. Hodges mentions John 6:43-47 but he quotes a fragment of verse 43 and then verse 47. These pieces were cobbled together in order to formulate the Deserted Island Scenario but in so doing all context was surgically removed. What if we were to expand the passage used for the scenario to also include verses 41 and 42?
41 Therefore the Jews started complaining about Him because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
42 They were saying, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
The audience was composed of religious Jews and they knew Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God. The partial quote used in the Deserted Island Scenario does great injustice to this passage and strips much meaning out of it. It changes the message.
What would our friend Benny make of this? Since he has no context it wouldn’t mean a thing. Remember that Benny has never heard of Christianity so it is probably safe to conclude he knows nothing about either the New or Old Testaments.
The proponents of the GES gospel at this point will raise the charge of “theological legalism.” Am I claiming that the unbeliever has to assent to a large number of propositions before he can be saved? No, I am not claiming that. I am not placing such a burden on the hearer of the Gospel but on the presenter of the Gospel. The believer who presents the Gospel to the unsaved is under the obligation of presenting a Gospel message that cuts through the unbeliever’s presuppositions and makes “the person and work of Jesus Christ” crystal clear. To do anything less would be “theological malfeasance.”
The Apostle Paul varied his Gospel presentation, but not the Gospel itself, depending on who his audience was. What he said when speaking to an audience in Jerusalem was different than what he said before the Areopagus. I believe that this is consistent with 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. This truth is completely lost in the Deserted Island Scenario.
Not Enough Knowledge?
Following his rhetorical question of “is he saved,” Dr. Hodges goes on to say:
I suspect that there are some grace people who would say that this man is not saved because he doesn’t know enough. For example, he doesn’t know that Jesus died for his sins on the cross and rose again the third day. Needless to say, there is a lot more he doesn’t know either, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the eternal Sonship of Jesus or the doctrine of the virgin birth.
If this man is not saved it is not because he doesn’t know enough but because he hasn’t heard and believed the Gospel. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. I suspect that there are some free grace people who would say that this scrap of paper may be the only chance that our generic man will ever have to be saved. To that my reply is balderdash! I have covered some of this ground in my post “What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?” which I recommend to any readers. The short answer is that as long as God rules the Gospel will always be available to those who are interested in hearing it. If that requires a missionary washing up on the beach of the deserted island then so it shall be.
In the past I wrote that this statement of Hodges’ is a red herring meant to distract from the real issue of proper Gospel presentation. I had a commenter who felt that I was reading more into Hodges’ statement than I should and was being too harsh. That may very well be the case but at the very least I believe it presents a false dilemma. The issue we are dealing with here is not what “some grace people” say but what the scripture says. He uses this paragraph to push aside the objections of others in the free grace camp and then move on (I am not sure that some of the objections have even been made by persons in the free grace movement). It could be argued that the purpose of Hodges paper is not to deal with all of these objections and that may be true. However, if he didn’t want to deal with these objections then why write that paragraph in the first place?
What About Christ’s Substitutionary Atonement?
There is one more assertion by Dr. Hodges that I feel I must deal with before I conclude:
Let me put it to you this way. The Gospel of John is the only book in our New Testament canon that explicitly declares its purpose to be evangelistic. Of course, I am thinking of the famous theme statement found in John 20:30-31, where we read: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
This statement does not affirm the necessity of believing in our Lord’s substitutionary atonement. If by the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, it was actually necessary to believe this, then it would have been not only simple, but essential, to say so.
In verse 31 does John not say that we are to believe that ” Jesus is the Christ?” The word “Christ” may be the most theologically loaded word in the entire Bible. I don’t have space to go into details here but suffice it to say that the substitutionary atonement is only part of what the Messiah (Christ) was prophesied to do (please order a copy of Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s “Messianic Christology” for all of the details). So, Dr. Hodges assertion that what we have to believe “Jesus is the Christ” but we don’t have to believe in the substitutionary atonement seems contradictory.
Dr. Hodges also recognizes that Christ (Messiah) is a loaded word but he doesn’t seem to believe this is an issue:
In Jewish prophecy and theology the promised Christ was also the Son of God—that is, He was to be a divine person. Recall the words of Isaiah: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6-7). But in Samaritan theology, the Messiah was thought of as a prophet and the woman at the well is led to faith through our Lord’s prophetic ability to know her life. Her words, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (4:19) are a first step in the direction of recognizing Him as the Christ. There is no evidence that she or the other Samaritans understood the deity of our Lord.
A prophet is a person who represents God before man and not merely someone who knows events in a miraculous way (even though that may be part of the prophetic office). Jesus Christ holds the offices of prophet, priest, and king and the fact that the woman recognized Jesus as a prophet does not undermine the possibility she recognized Jesus as the Christ in the “Jewish” sense. In fact it may very well strengthen that possibility.
There is nothing here that convinces me that when the Apostle John wrote John 20:30-31 that he had diluted the meanings of the terms “Christ” or “Son of God.”
I believe that there are three major flaws in the Deserted Island Scenario any one of which should make any Christian very leery. First, the man on the deserted island may very well be interested in hearing the Gospel but that doesn’t mean that just any fragment of the true Gospel will do. I don’t see how a real man, with no knowledge of Christianity, could do anything other than misinterpret what is written on that scrap of paper. The scriptures are full of examples of real people coming to faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, why not base the Gospel presentation on them?
Second, the scripture fragment that washes ashore on the deserted island has had all context removed from it. The full passage had Jesus speaking to a group of religious Jews. Zane Hodges removed the context because he couldn’t include it and still make his point. I don’t believe that this is “playing fair” with the scripture.
Third, one of the bedrock principles of sound biblical interpretation is that scripture interprets scripture (please see “Principles of Biblical Interpretation” for more detail). The “multiple Gospels” theory has been used by GES advocates to effectively remove any scripture outside of John’s Gospel from the debate about what constitutes the “saving message.” Only the “Gospel of John” is allowed to interpret the “Gospel of John.” One of the prime examples of this is I Corinthians 15:1-4:
1 Now brothers, I want to clarify for you the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it.
2 You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you—unless you believed for no purpose
3 For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
I have read GES advocates who claim the gospel spoken of here is not the same as the “saving message.” Groucho Marx once said: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” In this case I am going to have to believe my lying eyes and say that the Apostle Paul was indeed speaking of the “saving message” here.
We all have an innate need for God in our lives. If that need is not filled by the one true God then we will invent one to fill the need. The Deserted Island Scenario does not provide the unsaved with the scripturally mandated information for our generic man to make the most important decision any of us will ever make. Fortunately there is a God in heaven and if “Benny” is interested he will get what he needs.
I would like to thank Kevin Lane who runs the “On My Walk” blog for his helpful suggestions and critique of this article.Explore posts in the same categories: Salvation