Underlying many of our theological and ecclesiogical debates is the inescapable uncertainty of knowing the state of another person’s soul.
Elsewhere, I have discussed what I’ll call the consciousness gap. That’s the fundamental tragedy of the human condition whereby it’s impossible to ever truly know and freely communicate with another human being. We employ a myriad of communication techniques (language, visual cues, subconscious pheremone sensing, etc.), but Peter will never know exactly what Paula is thinking, feeling, believing, sensing, wanting, fearing, etc. The closest we get is the ideal of union between two souls that occurs if Peter and Paula are married. But even that is only a marginal improvement.
In Christian discussions, this manifests in our reliance on works and testimony and fruits of the Spirit to know if someone is saved.* These tools, though, are ultimately faulty. Up to exactly what level can someone ‘fake it’ if they so desire? What’s the comparative baseline for measuruing weather someone is doing more good works than they otherwise would have without the Spirit?
Athiest Gina Welch faked a conversion and lived as a Christian for years, attending Thomas Road Baptist Church, all so she could write a book that explains evangelicalism from the inside. When she ‘outed’ herself as an investigative author and not a real Christian, she shocked and hurt many people who would have been considered among her closest friends. This demonstrates how hard it is for one believer to know the state of another’s soul. This has implications for many of our most contentious theological debates:
- When we talk about whether you can lose your salvation, much of what we’re considering comes down to whether that guy you know that fell away or that apostate leader you heard about was either ever really saved in the first place or has really fallen away.
- When we argue about how young is too young for credobaptism, we’re really wondering whether this six- or eight-year-old is really saved or not.
- When we read James on the imporance of works, it always seems to end up coming down to a question of determining whether someone who professes faith is really saved.
- When we have arguments and discussions on church membership and what level of doctrinal heterodoxy is permissable, we’re really trying to understand who is in and who is out.
This isn’t anything profound, I know. I think that as we read passages like Heb 3:12-19 and talk about apostasy and falling away, it helps to understand the core difficulties that explain why these question remain unanswered.
* I’m leaving aside the related, but different (though still fundamental and worthwhile) discussion of how we can know about our own souls and whether we’re really saved or not. I’ll cross that bridge if I ever get to it.