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Comparing the strengths & weaknesses of belief
systems about salvation. Do any make sense?

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As noted in a separate essay, Christianity teaches that there is some form of life after death. However, they disagree on how many destinations -- like Heaven, Hell, Limbo, Purgatory -- there are, and what the criteria are for deciding who goes where.

There is essentially no agreement among conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics and liberal/progressive Christians on these matters. They approach the Bible with different assumptions, interpret the Bible differently, and derive very different beliefs from it.

The main beliefs are:

  • Repent and trust: The default destination is punishment in Hell. However, if one repents of their sins and trusts Jesus as Lord and Savior, they automatically go to Heaven.

  • Confession and Sacraments: One's final destination depends upon whether one has been baptised, and whether one's latest mortal sin was committed before or after their most recent confession.

  • Do good works: One's destination depends upon the balance of good and bad deeds while on Earth.

  • Universalism: Everyone eventually attains Heaven, since Hell does not exist or is only temporary.

This essay compares the strengths and weaknesses of each of the above salvation belief systems. 

"Repent and trust Jesus" belief:

Salvation by repenting of sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior is central among evangelical Protestants. They do not believe that people are saved by performing good deeds. Another central belief is that Heaven and Hell are distinct and permanent destinations.

This concept has strong arguments in its favor:

bullet The Protestant movement has traditionally taught the principle of "Sola Fide" (justification by faith alone) ever since the early days of the Reformation. Martin Luther went so far as demoting the status of the Biblical book of James because he felt that it taught that good deeds influenced a person's salvation. He called the book "an epistle of straw."
bullet The Gospel of John and the various writings of Paul teach that salvation and reception into Heaven can only be achieved through faith and not through actions. John 3:16 is perhaps the most commonly recited passage that supports this belief: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

There are also strong arguments that weigh against this theory:

bullet Only 39% of Americans believe that "All who do not accept Christ as savior will go to hell." (However, it is important to realize that the reality of the afterlife is hardly dependent on a majority vote of humans on Earth.)
bullet The Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) teach that the final judgment is based on a person's actions and good works, not on beliefs about Jesus. 
bullet The theory seems fundamentally unjust. Consider the following:
bullet A profoundly evil person person like Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc. can cause the deaths of millions of innocent humans. But if one of these dictators genuinely repented and trusted Jesus even as short as 1 minute before they died, they would go to heaven, according to this concept. 
bullet Some of the greatest of humanitarians like Albert Schweitzer and Ghandi apparently were not saved during their lifetime, and so would go to Hell for an eternity of torture.
bullet Mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer raped, tortured, killed, committed necrophilia, dismembered, and ate the flesh of 17 men and boys. While in prison, he repented of his sins and trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. He was later beaten by a fellow inmate and died in the ambulance on his way to a hospital. By this theory, he would be in Heaven now. However, many of his victims were sexually active gays. Many conservative Protestants believe that because of their sexual activity, they would be in Hell being further tortured.
bullet A significant percentage of the human race has never heard the gospel. According to traditional conservative Christian belief, since they had not trusted in Jesus, they would be destined for Hell. Under this belief system, the vast majority of the population of India would be Hell-bound; only in Christian countries would a significant percentage of people attain Heaven. It seems fundamentally unfair and perhaps racist that one's destination after death is largely determined by one's place of birth.

"Confession" belief:

The Catholic church teaches that certain serious sins, if they are freely performed by a responsible person who is aware of the seriousness of the sin, are called mortal sins. They have the power to separate a person from God and cause a person to be transferred immediately to Hell at death. However, certain Church sacraments have the power to absolve the sin.  

This concept has strong arguments in its favor:

bullet The New Testament consistently teaches that sin will cause a person to go to Hell. The gospel of Matthew is particularly clear on this.

bullet The Church has traditionally taught that sin has the power to cause eternal damnation, and that church sacraments have the power to absolve sin. 

But there are strong arguments that weigh against this theory:

bullet There are New Testament passages that say that if a Christian confesses their sin that they will be healed and forgiven. (e.g. James 5:16 & 1 John 1:8-9). But the former refers verse to believers confessing to each other; the latter passage implies that Christians are to confess to God. We have been unable to find a New Testament reference to forgiveness of sin through a formal church sacrament with a priest. That is to be expected, because priests and performance of sacraments only appeared within Christianity after the last book in the Bible was written circa 130 CE.
bullet The theory seems unjust. Consider a man who commits a moral sin one morning. Perhaps he intentionally and with advance planning, murders a bank teller. Then he went to confession. Still later in the day, he died of a heart attack. His initial destination would be Purgatory, but he would eventually attain Heaven. A second person might to go confession, then commit a similar moral sin, and die of a heart attack later that day. He would go immediately to Hell for eternal torture. It seems to violate elementary principles of justice for two people who engaged in the same three events on the same day to receive such massively different treatment because of the order in which they were performed.

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"Do good works" belief:

Many North Americans visualize judgment being performed by a kind of cosmic weigh scale: one's good deeds are placed on one side and one's evil deeds are placed on the other. If the good outweighs the bad, then the person is sent to Heaven; otherwise they go to Hell.

This concept has many strong arguments in its favor:

bullet Most Americans (53%) believe that "A person who does good can earn a place in heaven." However, the reality of Heaven does not necessarily depend upon a majority vote of humans.
bullet This concept is one of the belief systems taught throughout the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke).
bullet The legal systems in North America are designed to punish people for their bad deeds. People are not arrested or tried on the basis of their beliefs. Only in pariah nations are people imprisoned for thought crimes. It seems reasonable to many people that individuals would be sent to Hell solely because of an excess of evil actions; their belief systems should not matter.

But there are strong arguments that weigh against this theory:

bullet The Gospel of John teaches that one goes to Hell unless they believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Bad and good deeds are not mentioned.
bullet Paul wrote that one goes to Hell if they do not believe that Jesus was resurrected. This implies that bad and good deeds do not determine one's destination.
bullet This belief It is based on the assumption that at death, an individual's  good and bad deeds are weighed and compared against a passing grade. Those with a high enough grade go to heaven and those under that grade go to hell. This concept is morally indefensible. Imagine two fairly typical people. They have done some good and some bad during their lives. One gets a barely passing rating, say, of 50.00% and gets to enjoy the infinite glories of Heaven. The other was almost as good. But she/he was missing one good deed or had one bad deed too many. Their rating is 49.999%, which earns them a ticket to Hell. This concept is untenable for two reasons:  
  1. The overall difference between the two individual's lifetime accomplishments is miniscule. Yet one goes to a permanent reward in heaven and the other is eternally tortured in Hell without any hope of mercy or relief.

    The latter person is being punished severely, for all time, because of one little sin too many, or one minor good deed too few. If that sinful act had not been committed, or if they had done one additional good deed, the person would have gone to heaven. The punishment does not match the crime: a sentence of infinitely long torture because of a single, minor sin.
  2. If the second individual had the opportunity to live a few minutes longer, they might have performed an additional good deed, received a rating of 50.00% or more, and go to heaven. Thus, in essence, he/she is being punished for dying too early, something that may have been out of their personal control.

Universalism or "Hell doesn't exist" belief:

Many liberal and progressive Christians do not believe that Hell exists. They feel that a loving God is incapable of creating a place of eternal punishment. God is viewed as a loving father. What evil could a child commit that is so serious that their father would choose to have them tortured forever?

This concept has some strong arguments in its favor:

bullet Many nations of the world subscribe to United Nations declarations on human rights, treatment of prisoners, treatment of prisoners of war, etc. None allow torture. None allow unending punishment. None allow punishment for thought crimes. Our attempts at fundamental justice are limited. Since God is all knowing, and loving and forgiving, it is inconceivable to many that God would create a Hell.
bullet Hell is clearly described in the Bible as being under the earth. However, in spite of numerous deep drilling projects, it has never been located.

But there are strong arguments that weigh against this theory. The Bible is abundantly clear about God's anger and wrath, and the existence of Hell:

bullet The New Testament is filled with references to Hell as a place where punishment occurs. People are thrown into a fiery pit. Passages mention wailing and gnashing of teeth, of worms, of flogging, unbearable thirst, intolerable heat, darkness, fire, etc. In particular, the Gospel of Matthew has many such references.
bullet The Bible talks extensively about God as both a loving and a just deity. God pursues humans with both his love and his wrath. Many Christians believe that because of his love for humanity, God longs for every person to attain heaven. But the justice component of his nature requires eternal hideous punishment for anyone who dies with unforgiven sin on her/his record.


Within Christianity there are many criteria taught for salvation. A person might follow the criteria taught by one wing of Christianity in order to attain Heaven. But if one of the other wings is correct, then the person might end up in Hell. If one considers the criteria taught by other religions, then matters become even more confusing.

A lot of folks view the diversity of teaching of various Christian and non-Christian groups and conclude that no faith group really knows where the truth lies. Many of them remain agnostic and simply trust God to be kind, loving, forgiving, reasonable, and just.

Copyright 2001 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-APR-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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