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Diverse Christian beliefs in salvation:
Who gets to go to Heaven; who to Hell?

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Essentially all religions teach that there is some form of life after death. Generally speaking:

  • Western religions tend to teach that -- at death -- the default destination is Hell. In the past, clergy used to portray Hell as a location of eternal torture. The teachings of some denominations have recently evolved so that Hell is becoming merely a place where one is isolated from God. Meanwhile, people who meet certain criteria will go to Heaven.

  • Many Eastern religions teach that at death one is reborn into another body to live another lifetime. However, the conditions one experiences in the next life are a function of one's behavior in the previous life.

Within Christianity, many conflicting views of personal salvation exist. They are intimately linked to beliefs about life after death. 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.

With few exceptions, various groups agree on what the Bible says. However, they disagree about what it means. Meanwile, most Christians are certain that their denomination's interpretation is the only correct one.

Christianity has traditionally taught that a person is judged after death and assigned to either heaven or hell as their final destination. Most conservative Christian faith groups believe that Hell exists as a place of unending torment, and that Heaven is a place of unimaginable eternal rewards. Catholics teach that most people who are destined for Heaven after death must first spend time being tortured in Purgatory until they are sufficiently purified. Catholics now view Purgatory as both a place and a state of being.

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What are the criteria that decides one's fate after death?

Different Christian faith groups have diverse beliefs concerning  the criteria that are used during the final judgment. i.e. what one must do (or not do) during their life on earth in order to be sent to Hell. Among those Christians who believe in the existence of Hell, the main beliefs are:

bullet Repent and trust: Fundamentalist and other evangelical Protestants generally believe that the usual destination for most of the human race is Hell. However, a person may be "saved" by repenting of their sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior. If they are saved, they will go to Heaven. Various groups differ in their belief of whether:

bulletA person who is once saved is always saved, or

bullet A person can lose their salvation during their lifetime on Earth.
bullet Confession: Roman Catholics believe that baptism initially erases original sin -- the state of sin in which babies are borm that is due to the misbehavior of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If a responsible person subsequently commits a mortal (serious) sin, genuinely repents and sincerely expects to avoid committing the sin in the future, they can receive absolution by confession to a priest. If a mortal sin happens to have been committed between their last valid confession (if any) and their death, they will go to Hell directly. Otherwise they would eventually attain Heaven. Thus, timing of one's sin is of paramount importance.
bulletDo good works: Many Christians hold the simple belief that an individual avoids Hell if the sum of their good deeds outweigh the bad. This is also the official position of Islam.

Complicating the matter of salvation is what is referred to as the "unforgivable sin" (a.k.a. "eternal" or "unpardonable" sin). Unfortunately, the Bible appears to be ambiguous in its description of the exact nature of this sin. We have documented 33 interpretations of this sin by sincere, thoughtful Christians; all are different.

Some Christians do not believe that Hell is a place of punishment after death:

bulletHell doesn't exist: They look upon Hell as a concept, not a location. Some see Hell as a process that some people go through on earth because of their life decisions. Many deny that God would create a Hell and send people there. They note that the lowest dregs of society are dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Pot, Hussein, etc. who have:


Thrown people guilty of victimless thought crimes into jail,

bulletGiven them extremely long sentences that are far out of balance with the seriousness of the sin, and

bulletTortured them while in prison.

Many Christians cannot imagine a God that sinks so low as to emulate that type of behavior.

The strengths and weaknesses of each of the above salvation belief systems is explored in a separate essay

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

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