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bullet"The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation...God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism..."  ( New Catholic Catechism, #1257)
bullet"If you are a [born-again] Christian, you will go to heaven; If you're following another religion, then by default you will go to Hell." Susie Shellenberger, Life on the Edge radio program, sponsored by Focus on the Family, 2001-MAY-5.

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Religious groups have a wide range of beliefs concerning salvation:

Within Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, salvation is attained through close adherence to the Law as delivered by God to Moses. Although Judaism is based on the same Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) as Christianity, they have no concept of original sin or of general condemnation of the human race to eternal torture in Hell. They interpret the Hebrew Scriptures differently and of course do not recognize the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) as inspired by God.

In early Jewish writing, Sheol (translated as "Hell" in English versions of the Bible) was believed to be the Underworld to which all people went after death, and led a shadowy existence. Later Jewish writers made references to Gehenna (also translated as "Hell") which is a place of fire where evil, wicked people are cast for punishment when they die. Literally, Gehenna was a valley located south and west of Jerusalem; a garbage pit where fires continuously burned.

bulletFundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant Beliefs: See a related essay.
bulletGnostic beliefs:
Christian Gnoscism started as an an unorthodox movement within early Christianity. Their beliefs deviated from the teachings of Paul; they were  considered heretical by the rest of the church. 2 John 7, and other Biblical passages which warn of deceivers and the antichrist, probably refer to Gnostics. Although they were persecuted, and exterminated by the mainline church by the 6th century, some of their writings survived. Gnosticism is now a rapidly growing new faith movement within Christianity. One reason why they were condemned by the early Church as heretics was their belief in salvation. They believed that humans are profoundly flawed and could not be saved through any action of their own. Our So God sent Jesus to impart knowledge to individuals so that they may be saved. Those who learn of the gospel are saved, "purely by the grace of the Father." Early Christians believed that salvation was both dependent upon a person's deeds and beliefs. Gnostic beliefs are very close to those of modern-day conservative Christians.
bulletPentecostal Beliefs:
Pentecostal denominations form one branch of conservative Christianity. They believe that salvation involves the "baptism of the Holy Spirit". One sign of this is the ability to speak in tongues: speaking in a language that is unknown to them. There are recorded instances of persons speaking foreign tongues that they have never learned or heard. At other times, they speak in what is believed to be an angelic language. Those who have been saved are expected to display additional gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the ability to heal others, to prophecy the future, to display wisdom that is not attainable by ordinary means, and to discern spirits - to see angels and demons. 
bulletRoman Catholic and Orthodox Church Beliefs:
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches teach the concept of original sin; i.e. that an infant inherits a sinful nature because of the transgression of Adam and Eve some 6,000 or more years ago in the Garden of Eden. The Church teaches that an individual, usually as an infant, is saved and thus will attain heaven at death through the sacrament of baptism. The New [Roman] Catholic Catechism states:

"The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation... The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude... God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism..."  (1257)

Entries 1258 thru 1261 indicates that persons who are not baptized as Catholics can also attain salvation by various methods of which the Church is not fully knowledgeable.

The status of a newborn who dies before being baptized is less clear. Many Roman Catholics believe that they stay in a special place called "Limbo." This is not an official teaching of the Church.

At death, unsaved persons who have reached the age of accountability, go to Hell. Most saved persons enter Purgatory. Current church teaching is that Purgatory is both a place and a condition. However, many Roman Catholics believe that it is a specific location where people are punished. Those in Purgatory undergo a painful process of purification, until they become acceptable for transfer to heaven. Although there is no absolutely clear reference to Purgatory in the Bible, Catholic theologians have determined its existence through logic. Popular belief is that one's stay in Purgatory may be lengthy, perhaps measured in centuries or millennia. However, there is no official teaching on this point.

One can, in effect, lose their salvation whenever they commit a mortal (serious) sin:

"...To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'." (1033)

"The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.' The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (1035)

However, by confessing their sin to a priest in a ritual called the Sacrament of Penance, if one is genuinely committed to never repeat the sin, one's salvation is restored. The New Catholic Catechism states:

"The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. . . . The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Saviour." (1129)

Although these are the long-standing teachings of the church, many members have stopped attending confession regularly in recent years.

bulletLiberal Christian beliefs:

The most liberal Christian faith groups reject the both the necessity of salvation and the concept of eternal punishment in Hell for a number of reasons. Many would argue that:

bulletWhatever Hell exists is a state of mind in our present life on earth, rather than a destination of eternal torment after death.
bulletAdam and Eve could hardly be held responsible for eating the fruit because they were originally created with no knowledge of good and evil. They were a type of proto-human; they had no ethical sense. Genesis implies this because they only developed a moral sense after they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 
bulletEven if Adam and Eve were guilty of a sin, they could hardly pass their sin onto their children, their children's children, and down to the present generation. It is a fundamental belief in essentially all of the world's systems of morality (other than conservative Christianity) that an individual cannot be held responsible for activities of their parents, or other ancestors, particularly if the acts happend before their birth. We do not place an individual on trial because their parent robbed a bank. And we certainly should not hold a person responsible today for some act performed 6000 years previous to their birth, done by an ancestor 240 generations back.
bulletSt. Augustine's 5th century CE concept of substitutionary atonement (and subsequent theories) are invalid. This is the belief that God the Father intentionally sent his Son to die on the cross as the only means by which he could forgive sin, and overcome the gulf between God and Man. They view this as an ultimate form of father/son abuse. A God who planned the ritual murder of his innocent son in order to attain a beneficial result has allowed ends to justify the means. A God who must resort to having an innocent person tortured to death is a God who is lacking in compassion, flexibility, and the ability to forgive.  It offends their moral sense that God would require a person, innocent of any crime or sin, to be tortured and killed in order to obtain salvation for others. Human sacrifice of an innocent person cannot be justified for any reason.
bulletTheologians traditionally believed that, at his death, Jesus took upon himself all of the responsibility of all of the sins of believers, past present and future. But again, moral systems worldwide and throughout time hold people responsible for their individual crimes and sins. If a person murders someone in the year 1997, the fact that some Roman soldiers tortured an innocent person to death two millennia ago will not cancel out the first person's crime.
bulletIt is irrational to believe that an all-loving God would create a Hell for the eternal torture of essentially every human being who ever lived without any chance of parole. If Hell exists, then it would mean that its inhabitants are punished for all eternity for as few as one minor transgression. The punishment is totally out of balance with the "crime." Even human societies in their imperfection have sufficient forgiveness and compassion to allow most prisoners to leave jail eventually. Most societies have banned human torture. Most countries do not jail or punish people because of thought crimes. Liberals would argue that God is more sympathetic, loving, and empathic than are humans, and so he could never create a Hell.
bulletObserve that overwhelming religious conversions and changes in personality and behavior is not unique to conservative Christians. It is seen throughout all of Christendom and is common in other religions as well.

As a result of these beliefs, the concept of personal salvation is not a prominent belief among most liberal Christians.

bulletMainline Protestant beliefs:
These range from beliefs similar to Evangelical Christians, to those of very liberal Christians. Often, there is a wide range of beliefs in a given denomination, with the headquarters staff being very liberal, the clergy being moderately liberal, and the individual members being relatively conservative.
bulletAgnostics, Atheists, Humanists
They typically reject the concepts of salvation, heaven and hell as ridiculous. What makes an individual a unique person is their personality, memories, creativity and other functions of the mind. When the human body dies, the electrical and chemical functions of the brain cease to function and the entire body rots. Most see no possibility for a soul, or spirit or for an afterlife in any form. Thus, there is no need for salvation.

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Popular Beliefs about Salvation

American adults have the following beliefs, according to surveys conducted by the Barna Research Group:
bullet57% believe that a person who does good can earn a place in heaven.
bullet39% believe that all who do not accept Christ as savior will go to Hell
bullet45% believe that a person's religious belief will not matter 1

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The Bible does not give a clear message about the criteria needed for salvation. Jesus' teachings about salvation, as expressed in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, seem to form a reasonably consistent pattern. The Gospel of John and the writings of the Apostles differ markedly from each other and from the synoptic gospels.

Taking the New Testament as a whole, various passages require various combinations of belief and action, including:

  1. believing and trusting in Jesus,
  2. receiving a baptism,
  3. being repentant of past sins, and/or
  4. doing good works.

Many denominations handle this ambiguity by emphasizing their favorite Biblical verses and ignoring other passages.

For a conservative Christian to be absolutely certain of salvation, they would have to meet all four criteria, and then avoid committing the unpardonable sin, whatever that might be. And they must avoid a whole shopping list of forbidden behaviors throughout their life. This is impossible for all but a very small minority of humans.

Liberal Christians have no problems in this area; they tend to trust in the kindness, love, understanding, tolerance and compassion of God. Most would reject the idea of eternal punishment in Hell or of permanent separation from God. No human, with the exception of psychotic individuals or a profoundly evil person like Adolf Hitler, would assign a person to be tortured forever in Hell. Liberals would think it most unlikely that God could be that vicious and cruel.

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Copyright 1997 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-MAR-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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