"The departed spirit of a believer in Christ goes immediately into the
presence of the Lord...When an unbeliever dies, his or her departed spirit
goes immediately into Hades to experience conscious, unrelenting torment.
There is no in-between place. There is no third choice." Mark Hitchcock
"The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those who have
been washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has
become anathema and even dangerous in our shrinking world." Episcopal
Bishop John S. Spong. 2
"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. 3
History of the Presbyterian Church:
The "The Presbyterian Church (USA) was
founded by the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
and the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. This healed a major split
in the denomination which occurred at the start of the Civil War. In 1861 the denomination
had split on north/south lines over the issue of the abolition and preservation of
In the mid 1920s, the church weathered a second serious crisis: the
Fundamentalist - Modernist controversy. The denomination was divided whether to
retain traditional, historical beliefs, or to accept modern beliefs
concerning biblical inerrancy, inspiration of the
authors of the Bible, the search for the historical Jesus,
the existence and nature of Hell, etc. A commission,
organized in 1925, successfully avoided a denominational schism. Some liberal
ideas were accepted by the denomination at that time.
In 1996, the Church reported 2.7 million members and 11,416 congregations, divided among 171
presbyteries. Like essentially all mainline Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church
has been losing members for the past 40 years -- about 50,000 a year:
Some conservative members believe that the loss is related to the
church's continuing, multi-decade discussion of equal rights for gays and lesbians, including
both ordination of sexually active persons with a homosexual
orientation, and recognition of holy unions for
committed same-sex couples.
Many believe that the drop is caused by the denomination's inability to attract younger
members. Youth may well be discouraged, in part, by the denomination's rejection
of gays and lesbians as equal members with full rights. Today's
high school seniors have far more liberal
views on homosexuality than their
Currently, the denomination is seriously split in three ways:
Within each congregation, between religious liberals and
Between generally liberal urban congregations, and generally
conservative rural churches.
Between "liberal" areas of the country, like the northeast, and
"conservative" areas, like the southern states.
Current conservative-liberal debates on within the church:
During the late 1990's and continuing to the present time, a new crisis has
developed within the church over beliefs and practices. The main sticking points
seem to be salvation and equal rights for persons with a homosexual orientation
Whether a path exists for personal salvation
that does not involve belief in Jesus.
There appear to be only three possible future scenarios:
Conservatives and liberals will continue disputing church beliefs
and practices. The denomination might survive as it has for past decades, with
continuing debates causing dissention in the church for many years into
Conservatives and liberals might find it impossible to coexist in
the same denomination. The church might split into two denominations as it did in the past
over slavery -- perhaps to reunite later when beliefs become more
On the matter of equal rights for gays and lesbians, the church might develop some form of local option in which
individual presbyteries would decide matters of procedure for
themselves. No similar compromise seems possible on salvation.
Church's current statement of faith:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s
statement of faith, regards salvation as a process. It states:
"Through Jesus' death and resurrection God triumphed over sin.
Presbyterians believe it is through the action of God working in us that
we become aware of our sinfulness and our need for God's mercy and
forgiveness. Just as a parent is quick to welcome a wayward child who has
repented of rebellion, God is willing to forgive our sins if we but
confess them and ask for forgiveness in the name of Christ."4
This statement of faith is in accord with the historical Protestant belief
on salvation. Sometimes called "Lordship in Christ," this belief
holds that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will gain salvation.
After death, they will avoid Hell, and attain
The implication is that forgiveness of sins -- and thus a person's salvation
-- is only possible through belief in
Jesus Christ and prayer to the Christian God. There is no alternative path to
salvation within this statement for the four billion humans (two out of every three
people on earth), who:
Follow a non-Christian religions
like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, etc.
Have heard the Gospel but have not accepted it.
The implication is that most people, being unsaved, will
automatically go to Hell when they die. Such
beliefs were one of the prime motivating forces that promoted missionary
work in non-Christian countries for over a century.
Conservatives within the church want to retain this statement of faith.
There are many organizations within the conservative wing of the Presbyterian
which promote these beliefs, including:the National Korean Presbyterian Council,
Presbyterian Coalition, Presbyterians for Renewal, Presbyterian Forum, The Presbyterian Layman
and the Presbyterian Renewal Leaders
Network. They reject religious pluralism
-- the concept that the main religions of the world are all legitimate,
valid, and true when each is viewed from within their own culture.
Religious liberals tend to reject the traditional concept of
Hell and salvation
for a number of reasons:
Current religious and secular moral codes in the West absolutely reject
the torture of prisoners. Those countries which do so are considered pariah
nations. It is irrational to believe that a God of love is capable of
creating a Hell as described in the Bible -- a place of punishment far more
painful and degrading than any on earth; a place fare worse than any minimum
acceptable international or national standard.
Contemporary moral codes also forbid imprisonment for thought crimes.
Amnesty International and other similar groups concentrate on the
release of persons who they call "prisoners of conscience." These are
individuals who have committed no criminal act, but who have been prosecuted
solely for their beliefs. Again, they believe that a loving God would not
punish humans for thought crimes -- for following the religion that they
were taught as children and accepted as adults.
The concept of everlasting punishment in Hell without hope of mercy or
relief is immoral because it assigns an infinite penalty for a finite
transgression -- that of believing the wrong thing for a few years or
Many liberals believe in religious pluralism
-- the concept that all religions of the world are legitimate, valid, and
true when viewed from within each religion's own culture. If there is a
judgment day, then people will be judged in accordance with how closely they
followed the tenets of their religion -- in particular how they followed
their religion's Ethic of Reciprocity, which
governs how they are to behave towards their fellow humans.
2000-JUL: A liberal challenge to the statement of faith:
Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference was held in Orange, CA. It was
titled "Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World."
Rev. Dirk Ficca of Chicago, the director of the Parliament of the World's Religions, delivered a paper.
Ficca, a Presbyterian minister, discussed criteria for salvation. According to PCUSA NEWS, Rev. Ficca,
"suggested that an omnipotent and merciful God might provide other
avenues to salvation for Jews and Muslims and other non-believers in Christ."
That is, there may be a path by which non-Christians might avoid being
tortured for eternity in Hell without any hope of relief or mercy.
This suggestion ignited a firestorm of protest from conservative elements
within the Presbyterian Church. They regard the suggestion that people other
than Christians can be saved and get to heaven to be a vile heresy.
Twenty-one church sessions
and one presbytery called for the church's General Assembly Council (GAC)
to either discipline Ficca or disavow the heretical views he expressed.
Peter Pizor, chairperson of the GAC said that the council lacks authority to
take judicial action against Ficca or to "make theological statements on
behalf of the church." To follow the demands of the sessions and
presbytery would violate the church's Book of Confession and Book of Order.
Pizor had surveyed opinion of many Presbyterians and
had determined that "women and men of good faith disagree on this matter."
Neal Presa of the San Francisco Presbytery asked council members to
refrain from "divisive assertions and vitriol" and to "rise above
the fray" which currently exists between conservative and liberal
Presbyterians. In a victory for freedom of
thought and speech in the church, the GAC approved a document that affirms "the propriety of open
dialogue at GAC-sponsored conferences to explore emerging perspectives."
They also restated
"the Lordship of Jesus Christ and our salvation through Christ." However, the GAC
did not specifically comment on the salvation status of non-Christians.
2001-JUN: Action by the 213th
The Assembly was held in Louisville, KY, starting on 2001-JUN-9.
The Assembly Committee on
Theological Issues, Educational Institutions reviewed three Overtures
(01-43, 01-51 & 01-52) from the Presbyteries of San Joaquin, San
Diego and Beaver-Butler. They wanted to emphasize that salvation
comes through Jesus Christ alone. They reject
religious pluralism. They viewed all religions other
than Christianity as false and deceptive spiritual paths, whose members
are forever lost and destined for Hell after death.
Small group discussions were held before committee debate. Open hearings
were held, allowing 37 people could voice their opinion. The committee then
listened to statements from the presbyteries who offered the overtures. Finally, they heard a report by Joseph Small of the
Office of Theology and Worship. According to PCUSA News, rather
than passing the overtures to the General Assembly for a vote, the
committee suggested that the Assembly answer the overtures by asking "Office
of Theology and Worship to prepare and widely publicize materials for
study and worship that will help our congregations better understand the
theological richness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our Book of
Confessions and Book of Order; the imperfections in our daily responses to
God's calling; and ways in which congregational and individual witness can
be strengthened." 6
Ten conservative members of the Assembly Committee
prepared a minority report which stressed that salvation happens through
Christ alone. They wrote: "God has been revealed in
and through Jesus Christ to be the unique Trinity - Father, Son and Holy
Spirit; Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, is the singular saving
Lord as understood through Scripture, our confessions and Book of Order..."
They urge the General Assembly to "raise up the witness of Scripture to
Jesus Christ as the one to whom every knee shall bow and every tongue
confess as Lord (Phil 2:11) and as the way, the truth and the life (John
14:6)" and to proclaim "that the risen Christ is the Savior for all
The General Assembly subsequently approved the following
"We confess the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord. Every
other authority is finally subject to Christ."
"Jesus Christ is also uniquely Savior. It is 'his life, death,
resurrection, ascension and final return that restores creation,
providing salvation for all those whom God has chosen to redeem.' Although we do not know the limits of God's grace and pray for the
salvation of those who may never come to know Christ, for us the
assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting
Him alone. We are humbled in our witness to Christ by our realization
that our understanding of him and his way is limited and distorted by
our sin. Still the transforming power of Christ in our lives compels
us to make Christ known to others."
The statement was "extensively amended on the floor and later was
criticized by some as ambiguous and inadequate." 7
This statement reinforced the belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Only through knowing and trusting in him can one be certain of their own
salvation. But the statement held out a slight promise that God might decide
to save some non-Christians:
Some of those who have been exposed to the Christian message, and
Some of those who have never heard of Christ, the Gospel or
2001-SEP: Office of Theology and Worship issues salvation statement:
The church's Congregational Ministries Division unanimously
endorsed a statement from its Office of Theology, Worship and
Discipleship (OTWD). It attempts to define Presbyterian belief about the
nature of Jesus Christ and his role in salvation. It was titled: "Hope in
the Lord Jesus Christ," and was prepared in response to the request by
the 213th General Assembly. It was sent to the full General Assembly Council
on 2001-SEP-29. 7,8
The statement was unanimously passed by the OTWD. It says in part:
"Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere
are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by
virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living. ... No one is saved apart
from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to
limit the sovereign freedom of 'God our Savior, who desires everyone to be
saved and come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim. 2:4). Thus, we
neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in
Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith."
In this statement, the OTWD:
Affirms the supremacy of Christianity above all other religions.
Rejects the concept that a person can be saved through good works.
Rejects the concept of universalism -- that everyone regardless of
their religious faith will be saved.
Allows the possibility that at least some non-Christians may be saved.
On 2001-SEP-29, Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th
General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church presided over a two-day service
at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fruit Heights, UT. On the
issue of Lordship in Christ, Rogers echoed the OTWD statement. He
said the church believes that people will be saved through Jesus Christ.
However, he said it is not up to the church to determine who of God's
children will be saved. 9
"Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World: An
Inter-generational Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference Focusing on
Interfaith Relationships," 2000-JUL-26 to 29, at:
"Assembly to get answer with to [sic] three overtures on
salvation beliefs," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-11.
John Filiatreau, "Office of Theology and Worship issues statement
on Jesus Christ and salvation: 'No one is saved apart from God's gracious
redemption in Jesus Christ' " at: