Evangelical Update

A resource for lefties who want to understand conservative Christians.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


We've discussed Condemnation at length in an earlier post here. But what about the reciprocal issue of Salvation? The topic of "who will be saved" or even what is meant by "saved" among fellow Christians generates a myriad of responses, even within people of the same denomination.

On one side of the issue, extreme conservatives and orthodox Christians assert Salvation is only through spiritual means (NOT BY WORKS), and is granted only to a relatively small number of people (and exactly who "gets into heaven" can be based on a wide variety of beliefs in the relative importance of certain behaviors, admissions of faith, baptism, and many other things).

Are we "saved" if we merely confess Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and yet go on sinning?
Are we "saved" if we do this, but make an earnest effort to change our wickedness, but periodically slip back into old habits?
Are we "saved" if and only if we sin no more? (in which case, heaven is emptier than a West Texas library)
Are we "saved" by faith alone? Or by works alone? Or a combination of the two?
Are we "saved" though baptism? What if we refuse baptism, but believe in Jesus -- does this matter?
Are we "saved" regardless of what we do?
Are there levels of salvation?
Are we rewarded for our works in heaven?
Are we allowed into heaven, but punished for our sins nonetheless (somehow)?

The belief that we are "saved" and can look forward to an after-life is one of the assurances that Christians hold in the highest regard. It's also a point of criticism from agnostics who claim that Christians design their faith to ease their fear of death, and nothing can be more compelling than joining a belief in something that alleviates the single greatest fear of all humanity: That we're here for a short time, and then gone forever. But for now, let us assume we are open-minded and not cynical to start with. We are seeking a truth and trying to "get there."

Here is a brief summary of some of the beliefs about Christian salvation that I have found:

bulletFundamentalist 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, the 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:
bulletJesus Christ "is the only way of salvation."
bullet"The Bible offers no hope that sincere worshipers of other religions will be saved without personal faith in Jesus Christ."
bulletThe Bible is inerrant and infallible -- without error. 2

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."

bulletRoman 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.

Historically, 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. They recognize 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.
bulletLiberal Christians generally 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 expect that everyone will eventually go there after death.
bulletMainline 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.

Now, rather than get into a discussion about who is going to Hell, can we discuss who is getting into Heaven, and why? This may seem like the same discussion, but I also think it brings another dimension to play, and one that needs more discussion. God wants for all to be saved, just as God loves all humanity. God "hates the sin but loves the sinner," and that's all of us.

Is there any reason to assume that salvation is not for all humankind? Is there any reason to say that Jesus' death on the cross did not save all humanity? This sometimes infuriates fundamentalist Christians, because they raise the issue, "then what did Jesus die for?" In answer to that, the preterist would say that Jesus had died for our sins, and for our salvation, but that He has already returned (around 70AD, coincident with the destruction of Jerusalem) during the lifetime of the disciples, which was clearly expected by the New Testament authors (MT 24).

Usually, the liberal Christian view that "all are saved" (same as "nobody goes to hell" or "hell does not exist and is symbolic") is practically considered heretical by conservative Christians. Though, there are biblical passages that do uphold this view.

Current beliefs among the American public about salvation:

The Princeton Religion Research Center (PRRC) 2 estimates that 6 in 10 Americans " completely agree that the only assurance of eternal life is a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Since the PRRC estimates that 8 out of 10 Americans regard themselves as Christians, then about 75% of Christian adults hold some doubt about inclusivism.

According to the Barna Research Group, among adult Americans:

bullet86% believe that "eventually all people will be judged by God."
bullet57% believe that good people will go to Heaven
bullet39% believe that those who do not accept Christ as savior will go to Hell
bullet46% agree and 47% disagree that all good people will go to Heaven. 3

There appears to be some shifting of opinion among conservative Christians. The 1996 Year in Review by the Zondervan News Service quoted Ron Nash, author of "Is Jesus the Only Savior?":

"1996 helped reveal serious theological differences among America's 50 million evangelicals...In the issue of salvation, a growing number of evangelicals are embracing a position known as inclusivism which teaches that while the redemptive work of Jesus may be necessary for salvation, it is not necessary for people to know about Jesus or the gospel to receive the benefits of that salvation. It seems clear that 1997 will see this dispute to become even more divisive."

Salvation is either for only a few, or for the many (or all) of humankind. If I consider myself an "inclusivist" it in no way undermines my faith in God, or my belief in the astounding sacrifice Jesus made on my behalf. But I do have a problem with fundamentalists telling me this view is non-biblical or flawed. It would seem to me that the Bible affords many different readings, but it cannot be taken wholly as literal, any more than it can be taken wholly symbolic.

And who are we to put God in a box anyway? Is it fair for Christians to condemn others as hell bound? Is there a need to convert Catholics to Protestants, or Budhists to Christians, or agnostics to fundamentalists? Or should the emphasis, rather than "getting into heaven" be on how we manage our relationships while we are here on Earth?

What kind of Christian are you? Do you consider yourself "saved"? Why? Based on your baptism? Based on a profession of faith? Based on keeping the commandments? Based on your acts of loving kindness toward others?

The wish to be "saved" is the engine that drives many churches. It is the fuel that propels many Christians to be both very good people, and sometimes very "bad" people, depending on your point of view.

What is your view of Salvation?