One memory of high school freshman English class is this: Miss Harrison spent the first two weeks dictating the rules of the class, and she endured many questions from her students. But there was one she came to despise: “What if….?” Expressing her disapproval, she would reply, “Tsk, what if?” She was in essence replying “SO WHAT about your ‘what if?’ How does that change what I’ve just instructed you?” She had a point. While it is true that we may ask “what if’s” out of legitimate concern about what to do in a specific situation, I suspect she could see through many of the “what if’s” and their real intention, which was to attempt to prove her rule faulty or illegitimate.
Likewise, as we study the word of God, it would be natural to have a “what if?” question in our attempt to apply the truth. We may honestly be exploring what we should do in a specific situation; that is, how does this divine instruction apply in such and such situation? But we ought to never be asking “what if?” with the attempt to pull at the emotions, to disprove the meaning of the divine command, or to prove it too difficult to attain. Such demonstrates skepticism which is rooted in unbelief.
In an exchange with the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus was asked a “what if” pertaining to the resurrection. The Sadducees wrongly denied the resurrection even though Jesus said they should have believed in it (v.32). Jesus said they didn’t know the Scriptures nor the power of God (v.29). Their “what if?” had to do with a woman married seven times; whose wife will she be in the resurrection if there really is a resurrection? It turns out that their “what if,” which they thought would be difficult or impossible to answer if there was a resurrection, was solved by the truth that there is no marriage in heaven. It may well be that they believed they had a “what if?” that would stump Jesus, a question which in their mind disproved the resurrection or at least gave additional reason to deny it. They were “what if?ers,” and Jesus took them right back to the truth.
Let’s consider two common “what if” questions of our day.
“What if a believing, penitent man dies on the way to being baptized?” This “what if?” may be legitimately asked, or it may be asked to try to disprove the necessity of baptism in order to be saved, because, after all, according to human reason and emotion, “would it really be fair for that man to be lost eternally when he intended to be baptized?” But what does the Bible say? “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; he who does not believe shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Clearly, one who believes and is baptized is the one who will be saved. Neither you nor I have the right to add any exceptions to that divine truth when none are revealed in the Bible. “Wow, that’s serious, then.” Yes, you’re right.
“What if a Christian dies immediately after he sins, before he repents and prays for forgiveness?” This “what if?” may be legitimately asked to ascertain the truth. But it may be proposed to try to prove the false doctrine of continuous cleansing, a teaching that says as long as a Christian is not living in sin, the blood of Jesus Christ automatically cleanses his sin, before and without repentance and confession of sin to God. The question tugs at our emotions. But what does the Bible say? “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9). The cleansing of verse 7 that Jesus’ blood provides for our sin is the forgiveness of verse 9 that comes upon our confession to God, and that of course is predicated upon repentance – a change of mind. That truth about repentance is demonstrated in the case of Simon the Samaritan who sinned and was instructed by an apostle to “repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). How does the “what if” question change the truth from God’s word about when forgiveness of sin is granted by God? It does not.
I’m not at all suggesting that “what if” questions are automatically bad or unworthy of answer. But we need to ask ourselves about some “what if’s?” that we may be tempted to ask. Are they asked out of skepticism? Are they asked because revealed truth is difficult to swallow or because it seems too narrow to us? The test of discipleship is not whether we will learn from and follow Jesus when His words meet our tests or expectations but whether we will simply accept Him at His word. Saving faith accepts God at His word.