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Christian concepts of salvation:

An introduction to ancient & modern beliefs.

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Salvation in the Bible:

The Bible appears to teach clearly that most people -- the unsaved -- will go to Hell for eternal punishment after death. A minority will be saved and go to Heaven. Whether one is saved or unsaved is obviously of paramount important to all those who accept the existence of heaven and hell. Unfortunately, although various Christian faith groups define a specific path to salvation, the Bible appears ambiguous on the matter:

bulletVarious of its passages indicate that a person will be saved and go to Heaven if they:
bulletare baptized, 
bulletrepent of their sins,
bullettrust Jesus as their Lord and Savior,
bulletdo good works,
bulletfollow church rituals, and/or
bulletavoid certain specific behaviors -- activities that are often not clearly defined.

But there is no consensus on what precise minimum combination of these six factors are required to guarantee a person's salvation. 

bulletTeachings vary throughout the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):
bulletThe synoptic gospels seem to teach that salvation is dependent upon one's works. 
bulletThe Gospel of John teaches that only those who accept that Jesus is the Son of God will be saved. 
bulletPaul teaches that only those who believe in Jesus' resurrection will be saved. 
bulletOther passages seem to require that the Christian must be baptized in order to be saved.

Various faith groups have attempted to make sense out of these inconsistencies by emphasizing their own selection of passages, while largely ignoring conflicting passages.

bullet Concerning those who have never learned of Christianity: There are continuing debates about the after-death destination of those who have never had a chance to hear the Gospel. Each side supports their beliefs by quoting their selection of biblical verses.

bullet Is salvation permanent? Some teach: "Once saved, always saved." Other believe that one's salvation can be lost through future sinful action. Again, each side "proves" that their beliefs are true by quoting favorite biblical verses.

bullet Exclusion from Heaven due to specific acts: Various passages in the Christian scriptures indicate that certain behaviors will keep people out of heaven: e.g. gossiping, murdering, stealing, sexually abusing children, etc. But the Bible is unclear whether these behaviors cancel the salvation of a person who has already been saved. 

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How did the early Christians resolve this ambiguity? What did they believe?

Since the primitive Christian movement was only decades away from the direct teachings of Jesus, some theologians believe that the early Churches' beliefs accurately reflect Christ's message. However, Christianity has been hopelessly divided about salvation even from its earliest years.

The early Christian movement was mainly composed of three separate movements. They had three diametrically opposed paths to salvation:

bullet Jewish Christians: This was the group founded and led by Jesus' disciples and led by his brother James. 2 Being a reform movement within Judaism, they believed that salvation was achieved by performing temple sacrifices and by following the dietary and behavioral rules of the Torah -- the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The Jewish Christians were almost wiped out in 70 CE when the Roman Army attacked Jerusalem.

bullet Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus was sent by God to impart special knowledge to save humanity. With this knowledge, one can attain heaven; without it, one is lost. Athough they formed a very prominent part of early Christianity, they were almost completely wiped out by the Catholic Church.

bulletPauline Christians formed the movement that later became the Roman Catholic church. In the first and second centuries CE, the movement emphasized the necessity of good works and baptism to attain salvation, forgiveness of sins, and heaven. For example:

bulletJustin Martyr (110 - 165) was a Christian philosopher who lived from 110 to 165 CE. He wrote that "if men by their works show themselves worthy of His design, they are deemed worthy of reigning in company with Him."

bulletThe Nicene Creed was written and approved by 318 leaders of the early Catholic church at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea, in 325 CE. It linked salvation to baptism: "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

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What do the Christian churches believe now?

In recent centuries, the conservative wings of Christianity have generally taught that the vast majority of individuals are "unsaved". They are isolated from God, and lost in their sins. Although everyone has eternal life after death, only those who are "saved" eventually go to Heaven, where they receive rewards beyond our imagination. The vast majority of humans end up in Hell where they are tortured endlessly without hope of mercy or relief from their pain. The losers would presumably include all Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Neopagans, and followers of other non-Christian religions. To this list of the "lost" are added many Christians who had not met certain specific criteria for salvation. During the 20th century, there has been considerable softening about the teachings on hell and salvation within many denominations.

As with the early Church, today's denominations are currently divided about how one is saved:

bulletFundamentalist and other Evangelical Christian denominations generally teach that only that small minority of individuals who trust Jesus as Lord and savior will be saved. They are justified through faith. (i.e. they are "brought into right standing and into a right relationship with" God. 1 Thus, a person's actions, works and deeds have no impact on their salvation. However, once they are saved, the will exhibit their new status in the good deeds that they do, because they have become a "new creation in Christ." Salvation forms a major part of their faith -- it motivates many believers to save as many other people as possible from the horrors of Hell. A group of leading Fundamentalist / Evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, and Charles Stanley, signed a joint statement in 1999-JUN which confirmed their beliefs that:
bulletJesus Christ "is the only way of salvation."

bullet"The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshipers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ."

bullet The Bible is inerrant and infallible -- without error. 3

The Southern Baptist Convention altered their internal statement of faith, called the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000-JUN to read that "there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord."

bulletRoman Catholicism teaches that infants are "justified" when they are baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Later, when they mature to the point where they are accountable for their actions, they lose their justification whenever they commit a mortal sin. Church sacraments can restore their status so that they are once more justified. Thus, a person's actions and regular presence during the sacraments are of paramount importance in determining whether they will make it to heaven.

Historically, the Church had taught that everyone who is not a Roman Catholic cannot be saved; all will go to Hell when they die. A series of Church documents during and since the Vatican Council II in the mid 1960's were written to revise this position. They now teach that people who are Eastern Orthodox have the same opportunity for salvation as do Roman Catholics. Christians from other denominations, or are followers of other religions have a chance to be saved. However, they are generally at a severe disadvantage compared to Roman Catholics. More details.

bullet Liberal Christians generally reject the idea of Hell as a place of eternal punishment. They feel that it is incompatible with a loving, caring, tolerant, rational, understanding, and just God. Some interpret Hell symbolically. Thus, they consider the topic of salvation to be relatively unimportant. Those liberals who believe in the existence of heaven generally expect that everyone will eventually go there after death.

bulletMainline Christian denominations teach beliefs that correspond with those of Evangelical Christianity, or liberal Christianity, or which lie somewhere between these two extremes. Individual members do not necessarily agree with the stated position of their denomination.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Page 171
  2. Recognizing James as a brother of Jesus conflicts with some faith groups' belief in the perpetural virginity of Mary. These groups generally believe that James was a step brother of Jesus who had Joseph as his father, or a cousin of Jesus, or a friend of Jesus.
  3. Associated Press, "Evangelicals Unite on View of Salvation," 1999-JUN-12.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-DEC-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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