Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Dangers of the Free Grace "Deserted Island Scenarios," Part 1


Many people in the Free Grace community are probably familiar with the strange “Deserted Island Scenario” first proposed by "crossless gospel" advocate Zane Hodges.1 It's the method of interpretation that non-traditional Free Grace advocates have used to speculate about "the barest minimum of information" by which a person who is stranded on a deserted island and who has never heard about Christianity in his life can get saved when a few scraps of paper from the Gospel of John wash ashore.2 But many Free Grace people and others in the evangelical community may be surprised to hear that another deserted island scenario has been proposed more recently. This second strange scenario has been labeled “The Galatians-Only Scenario” because it isolates the book of Galatians apart from all other books of the Bible. As surprising as this may seem, the person who is advocating the "Galatians-Only Scenario"  is none other than groundless gospel advocate Tom Stegall.3
Although Stegall has written strongly against many of the teachings of Zane Hodges, he speaks rather approvingly of Hodges’ "Deserted Island Scenario". Stegall actually describes it as “a helpful illustration that raises some extremely important spiritual questions."4 But others in the Free Grace movement don’t exactly share Stegall’s sentiments. For example, Bob Nyberg states: “Some times hypotheticals are not helpful."5 John Malone declares: “Zane Hodges proposes a theoretical circumstance that is preposterous on its face, and invalid in its details."6 Lou Martuneac proclaims: "I thought it was the most egregious form of reductionist stereological heresy I had ever read."7 Fred Lybrand echoes these voices when he calls Hodges’ scenario “a mistake”.8 Maybe Stegall’s admiration for the Deserted Island Scenario explains why he is now proposing one of his own. Amazingly, Stegall is isolating a portion of God’s Word in a "strange scenario"9 similar to the one imagined by Zane Hodges! While Hodges uses a few verses from the Gospel of John, Stegall uses the book of Galatians. Let’s take a closer look at each scenario. 


In an article titled “How to Lead People to Christ: Part 1, The Content of Our Message,” Hodges states: "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? 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."10


Stegall presents his strange scenario in subtler terms than Hodges and in the form of a rhetorical question. Notice what he says: "There are a few extreme Free Grace advocates [supposedly like Donald Campbell, Warren Wiersbe, George Meisinger, Keith Krell, Andy Stanley, etc.] who...say that it is not enough that lost sinners believe that Jesus Christ is God-incarnate who died for all their sins and rose from the dead [but no bodily resurrection mentioned] and that salvation is by grace through faith alone. According to them, one can still believe all of these truths and go straight to hell [a straw-man argument]. Yet, to this imbalanced position, we must ask, does Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians contain the saving gospel or doesn’t it? Are we honestly to believe that a lost soul could actually read and believe every word of Galatians and yet slip into hell for lack of knowledge about Christ's burial and post-resurrection appearances to Peter and the twelve [1 Corinthians 15:3-5]?!"11


It should be a huge warning sign to Stegall that Hodges’ "Deserted Island Scenario" led the Grace Evangelical Society into heresy, shipwrecking the faith of some (1 Tim. 1:19). Another troubling aspect of Hodges' strange scenario is that it seems to have more in common with Homer's Odyssey (i.e. Greek mythology) than with the Holy Bible!12 Nevertheless, instead of rejecting the premise of Hodges’ thinking Stegall affirms the idea by saying: "At first, this may seem like such an uncommon scenario that it is completely impractical and irrelevant for us to even speculate upon any correct answer. However, it is actually a helpful illustration that raises some extremely important spiritual questions. [It sure does raise a lot of questions!] It gets right to the heart of the question of what it means to 'believe in Christ.' In this sense, it cannot be compared to the fruitless theological speculations of scholastics in the Middle Ages who debated about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin."13 Maybe Stegall's Roman Catholic background has dulled his senses to the dangers of speculative theology. In 1 Timothy 1:3-4 the apostle Paul warns against teaching "strange doctrines" and says not to pay attention to "mere speculation" because these things do not advance God's work. The writer of Hebrews makes a similar point when he instructs his readers: "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings" (Heb. 13:9, NIV). In light of these scriptural admonitions, it surely spells trouble that Stegall views Hodges' strange speculation about a deserted island as a “helpful” model through which to understand the gospel!14
It’s really no wonder that Stegall has proposed a strange scenario of his own. The Galatians-Only Scenario is simply Stegall’s version of what he calls “a helpful illustration” that “raises a legitimate question”.15 Whether intentional or not, Stegall has merely repackaged Hodges’ doctrinal error into a subtler and therefore more dangerous form.16  

< Title Page                         Part 2 >


1 Zane Hodges, "How to Lead People to Christ: Part 1, The Content of Our Message," The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 13 (Spring 2000): p. 4.

2 Ibid., p. 5.

3 Tom Stegall is the former pastor of Word of Grace Bible Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After being exposed as a false teacher (Eph. 5:11), Stegall left the pastorate to become the new publications director and now associate pastor at Duluth Bible Church in Duluth, Minnesota. Stegall is the author of The Gospel Of The Christ (Milwaukee: Grace Gospel Press, 2009). For a detailed expose please read the article "The Strange Beliefs of Stegall's System".
     While Zane Hodges preaches a so-called "crossless gospel," Tom Stegall preaches a groundless gospel and says that, among other things, the burial of Christ isn't really part of the gospel.

4 Tom Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, p. 83.

5 Bob Nyberg, comment on “THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL,” (accessed October 23, 2010).

6 John Malone, “Zane Hodges goes too far,” (accessed October 22, 2010).

7 Lou Martuneac,  "Open Break from the Grace Evangelical Society and its 'Crossless' Gospel," Sharper Iron forum, comment #12, April 14th, 2009, 4:37 PM, (accessed May 7, 2012). The full statement by Lou is as follows: "Actually, it was my friend Ps. Mike Harding who preceded the non-GES FG men contacting me with concerns over Hodges’s theology. Mike sent me excerpts of the late Zane Hodges’s Deserted Island scenario (see an upcoming comment for related articles) and asked what I thought of it. I was eager to tell Mike I thought it was the most egregious form of reductionist stereological heresy I had ever read. He was relieved, I’m sure."

8 Fred Lybrand, “GES Gospel: Lybrand Open Letter,” p. 20.

9 Hodges, "How to Lead People to Christ: Part 1, The Content of Our Message," The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 13 (Spring 2000): p. 4.

10 Ibid.

11 Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, p. 375; cf. Stegall, “THE TRAGEDY OF THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL Pt. 9,” The Grace Family Journal (Special Edition 2008): p. 21.

12 Sadly, Hodges seems to have allowed pagan mythology to impact his understanding of the gospel. One statement in the Wheaton College archives is particularly revealing in this regard. It is said of Hodges that: "In addition to exegesis, theology and textual criticism, he continued his expansive reading with particular fondness for mysteries, biography, ancient history and science fiction." (Keith Call, "Zane C. Hodges," Recollections, Wheaton College archives,, italics added.) Whether it's the Homeric strange scenario of the uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that Hodges "invented" almost 15 years ago, or the Hydra of ancient Greek mythology in his most recent article (Hodges, "The Hydra's Other Head: Theological Legalism," Grace in Focus [Sept-Oct 2008]: p. 3), one wonders what has influenced Hodges more: mythology or theology?

13 Stegall, "The TRAGEDY OF THE CROSSLESS GOSPEL Pt. 4," The Grace Family Journal (Special Edition 2007): p. 3, underlining added; cf. Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ, p. 83.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 John E. Ashbrook has said: “The most dangerous deviation is the one closest to your own position.” (Ashbrook, Axioms of Separation [Mentor: Here I Stand Books, 1989], p. 27.)

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