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#303 Brazilian Nightclub Fire and Salvation by Works

February 03, 2013

Doctor Craig, first of all I would like to thank you for your mental and spiritual leadership to my life. You have been of great help in my christian faith. I mean it. But I bring important issues to you in my question now. My name is Leander, I'm 20 years old and I do Law school at Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil.

I don't know if you are aware of the situation in Santa Maria, but here a fire in a nightclub called Kiss killed around 235 young people (all between 18 and 24 years old) and let around 143 hurt in the hospitals in serious condition. The city is passing through a dark moment. There is just sadness and tears everywhere. The parents of the victims are in despair and all the students, like myself, who knew some of the victims are all gloom.

I've been wondering. According to my evangelical christian faith, most of these people are now in hell. It seems to me extremely cruel. They were good people, young, with dreams and hearts full of love for their friends and life. Now let me set some things straight: I read the last chapter of your book "On Guard" and I've been following some of your work and I think I know what you will say. I know according to classical christian beliefs none is good enough to God, and those who live without Christ, without Christ will perish. But again, it seems extremely painful. I just can't look to the parents of the victims and think of that. So this context makes me really wonder about salvation in christianity. In theory is not that hard to accept it, but in reality is seems cruel and meaningless.

Before start going into an evangelical church I was raised in a catholic family. For that I bring some of the catholical doctrines like salvation through good works (but I'm not sure if they preach that). Like, the good go to heaven and the bad to hell. Isn't this compatible with christianity in some way? The priest around here said these people are now with God! But the pastor says they aren't! Who is right?

I think some passages in the Bible also teach salvation through good works: Matthew 5: 1- 12. Matthew 25: 31- 46. John 5: 28- 29.

Could it be that the priest is right? Could it be that the sacrifice of Christ is extended to everyone, leaving the choice of some going to heaven and some going to hell in God's hands, not in ours?

In this practical situation is really hard to accept evangelical doctrines of salvation.

Sorry about my english, and I did not search further into your works because is hard to understand perfectly english.

Thank you for everything,


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Photo of Dr. Craig.

Dr. craig’s response


Yes, Leander, here in the United States we have watched with horror and sadness the tragedy at the nightclub in Santa Maria.

In dealing with the problem of evil, I have often said that it is very important that we distinguish between the emotional problem of evil and the intellectual problem of evil. That applies particularly in a tragic case like this. Before you draw significant doctrinal conclusions on the basis of this event, it would probably be wise to put some emotional distance between you and the event, lest your thinking be guided or clouded by the intense emotional pain that you feel.

Your question is not about the usual problem posed by evil, namely, how to reconcile the existence of God with the terrible event in question. Rather you give the question an odd theological twist: you wonder whether the event is incompatible with the doctrine of salvation by grace alone and should not prompt us to adopt instead the doctrine of salvation by works.

I don’t think that it should. What you are feeling so keenly is the horrible tragedy that people who have suffered terribly in this lifetime should then go on to suffer forever in the afterlife. We should not try in any way to mitigate the enormity of this tragedy. It is, indeed, monstrous and perverse. But what we must insist upon, emphatically, is that God in no way wills this tragedy to happen. His will is that these persons be saved and that they go forever into an eternity of joy and consolation that will make their earthly suffering literally infinitesimal by comparison. God grieves even more than you do that these persons, who have suffered so in this life, should be separated from God forever. That’s why God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every person He creates. God wills and works for the salvation of every human being. But, tragically, people ignore God and spurn His grace and separate themselves irrevocably from Him. What makes this tragedy so perverse is that some of these people thereby compound the suffering that they have already experienced in this life. It is ugly, monstrous, and horrible; but it is not God’s fault.

In fact, I am inclined to think that God would not let any of these people perish in the nightclub fire and go into eternity separated from Him if He knew that by allowing them to live longer they would have come to a saving knowledge of Christ. If God has middle knowledge, as I think that He does, then He can providentially order the world so that people will not die if His allowing them to live longer would have resulted in their salvation.

As for your proposal, I don’t think you realize what a terrible curse salvation by works is. Wholly apart from the fact that none of us could manage to be good enough in order to earn our way to heaven, salvation by works puts us on the treadmill of trying to earn favor with God rather than gratefully receive His unmerited love and grace. In fact, ironically, salvation by works would probably lead to the condemnation of many of those who perished in this nightclub fire. For many of them might not have led particularly good lives up until the point of their deaths. Their only hope was salvation by grace alone. In the last minutes they could have turned to God in genuine repentance and faith and received His saving grace. Apart from God’s grace they would have no hope of escape, for there is no longer time to lead a life of good works sufficient to outweigh what has been done up to that point. When you look at the parents of those who died, what you should do is assure them that their loved ones may be in heaven today, for none us knows what may have transpired between them and God in their final moments. None of us—not the priest, not the pastor—can presume to pronounce on which or how many of these people are now with God. Such knowledge is God’s alone.

Neither is it helpful to suggest that “the sacrifice of Christ is extended to everyone, leaving the choice of some going to heaven and some going to hell in God's hands, not in ours.” That’s Calvinism: God will unilaterally choose whom to save and whom to damn. How does taking salvation out of our hands do anything to help the problem? Better to say that the sacrifice of Christ is extended to everyone and that everyone who freely receives it will be saved. We thereby have it within our grasp to utterly and forever reverse any tragedy that we have suffered in this life.

- William Lane Craig