Christian concepts of salvation:
An introduction to ancient & modern beliefs.
Salvation in the Bible:
The Bible appears to teach clearly that most people -- the unsaved --
will go to Hell for eternal punishment after
death. A minority will be saved and go to Heaven.
Whether one is saved or unsaved is obviously of paramount important to all
those who accept the existence of heaven and hell. Unfortunately, although
various Christian faith groups define a specific path to salvation, the Bible
appears ambiguous on the matter:
||Various of its passages indicate that a person will be saved and go
to Heaven if they:|
||repent of their sins,
||trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior,
||do good works,
||follow church rituals, and/or
||avoid certain specific behaviors -- activities that are often
not clearly defined.
But there is no consensus on what precise minimum combination of these six factors are required
to guarantee a person's salvation.
||Teachings vary throughout the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):
||The synoptic gospels seem to teach that salvation is dependent upon
||The Gospel of John mostly teaches that only those who accept
that Jesus is the Son of God will be saved.
||John 3:16, perhaps the most popular verse in the Bible says that one must trust Jesus as Lord and Savior to be saved.
||Paul teaches that only
those who believe in Jesus' resurrection will be saved.
Other passages, like Mark 16:15–16 and John 3:5 seem to require that the Christian must be baptized in order to be
Various faith groups
have attempted to make sense out of these inconsistencies by
their own selection of passages, while largely ignoring conflicting passages.
Concerning those who have never learned of Christianity: There are continuing debates about the
after-death destination of those who have never had a chance to hear the Gospel.
Each side supports their beliefs by quoting their selection of
Is salvation permanent? Some teach: "Once saved,
always saved." Other believe that one's salvation can be lost through future sinful action. Again, each
side "proves" that their beliefs are true by quoting
favorite biblical verses.|
Exclusion from Heaven due to specific acts: Various passages in some English translations of the Christian scriptures indicate that certain
behaviors will keep people out of heaven: e.g. gossiping, murdering,
stealing, sexually abusing children, engaging in same-gender sexual behavior, etc. But the Bible is unclear
whether these behaviors cancel the salvation of a person who has
already been saved. Also, English translations vary in their description of what the sins are.
How did the early Christians resolve this ambiguity? What did they believe?
Since the primitive Christian movement was only decades away from the
direct teachings of Jesus, some theologians believe that the early
Churches' beliefs more accurately reflect Christ's message. However, Christianity has been hopelessly divided about salvation
even from its earliest years.
The early Christian movement was mainly composed of three
separate movements. They had three diametrically opposed paths to
Christians: This was the group founded and led by Jesus' disciples and led by his brother James. 2 Being a reform movement within Judaism,
they believed that salvation was achieved by performing temple sacrifices
and by following the dietary and behavioral rules of the Torah -- the
first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The Jewish Christians were almost wiped out in 70 CE when the Roman Army attacked Jerusalem.|
Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus was sent by God to
impart special knowledge to save humanity. With this knowledge, one can
attain heaven; without it, one is lost. Although they formed a very prominent part of early Christianity, they were almost completely wiped out by the Catholic Church. A small group of Gnostics survived persecution to the present day; their group is now rapidly expanding.|
||Pauline Christians formed the movement that
later became the Roman Catholic church. In the first and second
centuries CE, the movement emphasized the
necessity of good works and baptism to attain salvation,
forgiveness of sins, and heaven. For example:|
Justin Martyr (110 - 165) was a Christian philosopher who
lived from 110 to 165 CE. He wrote that "if men by their
works show themselves worthy of His design, they are deemed worthy
of reigning in company with Him."
The Nicene Creed was written and approved by 318
leaders of the early Catholic church at the First
Ecumenical Council at Nicea, in 325 CE. It linked
salvation to baptism: "We acknowledge one baptism for
the forgiveness of sins."
What do the Christian churches believe now?
In recent centuries, the conservative wings of Christianity have generally taught that the
vast majority of individuals are "unsaved". Such people are isolated
from God, and lost in their sins. Although everyone has eternal life after
death, only those who are "saved" eventually go to
Heaven, where they receive rewards beyond our
imagination. The vast majority of humans end up in Hell where they are
tortured endlessly without hope of mercy or relief from their pain. The
losers would presumably include all Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists,
Hindus, Muslims, Neopagans, and followers of other non-Christian
religions. To this list of the "lost" are added many Christians
who had not met certain specific criteria for salvation. During the
20th century, there has been considerable softening about the teachings on hell
and salvation within many denominations.
As with the early
Church, today's denominations are currently divided about how one is saved:
|Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christian
denominations generally teach that only that small minority of individuals
who trust Jesus as Lord and savior will be saved. They are justified
through faith. (i.e. they are "brought into right standing and
into a right relationship with" God.
1 Thus, a person's actions, works and deeds have no
impact on their salvation. However, once they are saved, they will exhibit
their new status in the good deeds that they do, because they have become
a "new creation in Christ." Salvation forms a major
part of their faith -- it motivates many believers to save as many other
people as possible from the horrors of Hell. A group of leading
Fundamentalist / Evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell, D. James
Kennedy, Pat Robertson, and Charles Stanley, signed a joint statement
in 1999-JUN which confirmed their beliefs that:
Jesus Christ "is the only way of salvation."
"The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshipers of other
religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ."
The Bible is inerrant and infallible --
without error. 3
The Southern Baptist Convention altered their internal statement of
faith, called the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000-JUN to read
that "there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus
Christ as Lord."
Roman Catholicism teaches that infants are "justified"
when they are baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Later, when they mature to the point where they are accountable
for their actions, they lose their justification whenever they commit a mortal sin.
Church sacraments can restore their status so that they are once more justified. Thus,
a person's actions and regular presence during the sacraments are of paramount
importance in determining whether they will make it to heaven.|
the Church had taught that everyone who is not a Roman Catholic cannot be saved; all will
go to Hell when they die. A series of Church
documents during and since the Vatican Council II in the
mid 1960's were written to revise this position. They now teach that
people who are Eastern Orthodox have the same opportunity for salvation
as do Roman Catholics. Christians from other denominations, or are followers of other
religions have a chance to be saved. However, they are generally at a severe disadvantage
compared to Roman Catholics. More details.
Liberal Christians mostly reject the idea of Hell as a place
of eternal punishment. They feel that it is incompatible with a loving, caring,
tolerant, rational, understanding, and just God. Some interpret Hell symbolically. Thus,
they consider the topic of salvation to be relatively unimportant. Those liberals
who believe in the existence of heaven generally expect that everyone will eventually go there after death.|
Mainline Christian denominations teach beliefs that correspond with
those of Evangelical Christianity, or liberal Christianity, or which lie
somewhere between these
two extremes. Individual members do not necessarily agree with the
stated position of their denomination.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Page 171
- Recognizing James as a brother of Jesus conflicts with some faith groups' belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. These groups generally believe that James was a step brother of Jesus who had Joseph as his father, or a cousin of Jesus, or a friend of Jesus.
Associated Press, "Evangelicals Unite on View of Salvation," 1999-JUN-12.
Copyright © 1997 to 2018 by
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-DEC-06
Author: B.A. Robinson