Foundational Christian beliefs:
Part 1 of two parts:
An overview of salvation in Christianity.
The Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament), and thus modern-day Christians, speak frequently about annihilation or about being sent to
Heaven or Hell as the only three alternatives for people after
their death. From the beginning of the Christian movement, its followers have debated about what criteria will be used to determine to which of the three alternatives will be selected.
Since the first century CE, Christians have believed that people's default
destination will be the torture rooms of Hell with its unending agony due to flesh-eating worms,
flogging, darkness, isolation, excruciating heat, unbearable thirst, etc. However, there has been a softening of this belief in recent years. Many denomination teach a less horrendous view of Hell. To them, being in Hell simply means to be isolated from God. Presumably Agnostics and Atheists world be quite comfortable there, because they have no belief in a god while living on Earth.
All faith groups teach that some humans --
ranging from only a small minority to everyone -- will be "saved" and go to Heaven to be in the presence of God and Christ. Heaven is viewed as a
glorious destination, wonderful beyond description or comprehension to people on Earth.
Many Christians believe that Heaven is reserved for a select few people, sometimes only only members of their own denomination. That is because many -- perhaps most -- Christians feel that her or his denomination has the "fullness of truth." They feel that all other denominations in their religion -- and members of all other religions -- hold beliefs that are in serious error.
There are small Christian groups in the United States whose members sincerely believe that only they are going to Heaven, while the remaining 99.999% of the people alive on the Earth today will all end up in Hell or annihilation.
So we are faced with a strange situation in which members of "Church A" in a given city can believe that they are OK, but that most of the membership in "Church B" down the street are probably going to Hell. Meanwhile, the folks in "Church B" think that they are mostly destined for Heaven, but that most of the members in "Church A" will reside permanently in Hell after they die.
Meanwhile, members of Church A and B may both think that most of the Christians in other denominations are destined for Hell, along with most or all of the memberships of:
Meanwhile many --perhaps most -- members of those non-Christian religions are certain that everyone other than themselves, including most or all Christians, are going to experience extreme unpleasantness after death.
This, of course, is a ridiculous situation. It causes some Agnostics and Atheists to conclude that if God really exists and cares about humans, that God would inform all humanity which is the "correct" religion. Since God doesn't do this, some Agnostics and Atheists use this as a proof to support their lack of a solid belief in God.
What does the Bible say about the criterion or criteria for salvation?
The Christian Scriptures appear to be ambiguous about the criteria for
salvation. Unfortunately, for an people who believe in the existence of Hell,
salvation is perhaps the most important topic affecting the rest of their life. Such believers urgently need certainty concerning their personal fate and those of their family and friends. And that certainty begins with confidence in knowing the criteria for salvation.
Faith groups teach diverse beliefs about salvation. Down through
history, Christian churches have taught a range of beliefs about four main topics:
How should one handle ambiguities in the Bible about salvation?
- Are there sins that cannot be forgiven and remain with the person forever? A further complication is a misbehavior that the Bible calls "the unforgivable sin." A literal reading of the Bible seems to indicate that if a person commits this sin, they can never be forgiven. Thus, they will spend eternity in the torture chambers of Hell. Unfortunately, there are literally dozens of conflicting interpretations being circulating of what this sin exactly involves. Not knowing its precise definition has generated real terror among many devout Christians.
- Is a person is saved solely through faith only, or by good works only, or through some other consideration like church rituals, or some combination
of these three?
- Will a person, once saved, always remain saved -- OR -- can they be saved while living on Earth and later lose their salvation?
1. Bible ambiguities:
Consider, as one example, same-gender sexual behavior. In I Corinthians 6:9, Paul, writing in Greek, said "arsenokoitai" will not attain the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, this Greek word was created by Paul himself. Its precise meaning is ambiguous. Various English translations of the Bible have rendered this passage as:
- Referring to residents of Sodom who attempted to rape angels,
- Boy prostitutes,
- Sexual perverts,
- Men who sexually abuse boys,
- Men with a homosexual orientation,
- Men who misuse sex, and
- Men who engage in sex with other men.
So a reader of the Bible who has engaged in one of these behaviors can never be certain whether this passage implies that they will go to Hell. Of course, most English translations of the Bible will select one, and only one, of these meanings, and place it it in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Also, within a given Christian denomination, often only one of these meanings will be considered accurate.
2. The unforgivable sin:
The New International Version translates Paul's original Greek in Mark 3:28-29 as:
"Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin."
Having committed a sin that is eternal and can never be forgiven seems to imply a very hot reception after they die.
Unfortunately, when the author did an Internet search to find out exactly what the unforgivable sin is, he came up with 38 interpretations -- all different. That was a decade ago. Many more have probably accumulated since that original search. These multiple definitions would probably be a source of deep concern to Christians who would fear that it would be impossible to go through a lifetime without committing at least one of them. Fortunately, most Christians probably accept the one definition used by their pastor and ignore the other 37. But, still, some fear and uncertainty is probably going to remain.
Copyright © 1997 to 2019 by
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2019-MAY-08.
Author: B.A. Robinson