How does one obtain “salvation” and avoid eternal hell? The Bible supplies more than one answer, yet each answer raises its own moral dilemma as we shall see after first reviewing the obligatory Bible verses below. (We will also be examining a variety of Christian responses from the “freewill defense” all the way to “Calvinism.”)
Are We Saved By Belief Alone?
“Whosoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)
“… whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of Godʼs one and only Son.” (John 3:18)
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:36)
“He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.” (John 5:24)
Jesus answered and said to them, “The only work God requires is to believe in the one he sent.” (John 6:29)
[The jailer] “brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” (Acts 16:30-31)
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
“… by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” (Romans 3:20)
“We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
“So that the law has become our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:24-25)
Or Are We Saved By Works Alone?
Take for instance the deed or act of forgiving others. According to the Gospel of Matthew it assures us Godʼs forgiveness for ourselves: “Forgive us our trespasses [Father God], as we forgive those who trespass against us… For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:12,14)
[Jesus said] “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:17-22)
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets… Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and DOETH them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.”(Matthew 7:12,16-24)
The “sheep and the goats” are separated on the day of final judgment and the goats get eternally punished while the sheep are granted eternal life, based on their works/actions/deeds: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Matthew 25:31-46
“And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “…if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:16-19)
An official asked him this question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “… You know the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother.’” And he replied, “All of these I have observed from my youth.” When Jesus heard this he said to him, “There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:18-22)
“God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” (Romans 2:6-7)
“…you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.” (Psalm 62:12)
Or Are We Saved By Belief And Works (With The Emphasis Being On Works, Since Belief Often Comes Way Too Easy, And Even Devils Believe)?
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:14-24)
Discussion Of The Above Means Of Salvation And The Moral Dilemmas They Provoke
If salvation were important you would think that the Bible would speak about it with greater clarity and consistently. But lurking behind the question that such apparently conflicting verses raise are other problems, deeper ones, for each alterative brings with it its own moral dilemma.
If faith/belief alone is sufficient, mass murderers like Oliver Cromwell, Torquemada or Hitler (all Christian believers) are in heaven, while compassionate non-Christians such as Anne Frank, Ghandi or Albert Einstein burn in hell. This hardly seems merciful or just.
On the other hand, if good deeds or works alone are sufficient, the practical distinction between ethical humanism and Christianity turns to vapor. Christian doctrine might well be true, but no more essential to salvation than chemistry or the binomial theorem. Instead of teaching about Jesus, Christian missionaries should try to convince people simply to be decent human beings, to love and care for each other. How many souls have they lost over the last two thousand years while pushing the wrong message? (Why do they still push it?)
If salvation requires both correct faith and good works, then Hitler and Torquemada may well be damned, but we still face the moral madness of basically good people burning in hell—Thomas Jefferson, Anne Frank, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Albert Einstein, Luther Burbank or Buckminster Fuller, none of whom were orthodox Christian believers, as well as billions of others who were so unlucky as to be born into non-Christian cultures, down to the smallest, sweetest child. Forever. (And that means a lot of people, since the Bible seems to imply only a fraction of humankind will escape hell. See: Matt 7:13-14, Matt 22:14, Luke 13:23-24.)
Can such questions be resolved successfully and all such difficulties made to vanish? One attempt to do so involves linking faith with good works, as if sincere faith and moral behavior necessarily reflect each other. The argument, subtle and not unclever, goes something like this:
Correct & sincere faith inspires good works; good works indicate sincere & correct faith. A true believer naturally does good in order to honor and respect God. Any who claim to believe but who do evil are not truly committed in their hearts, or their faith is flawed. Moral midgets like Hitler and Torquemada did not really have faith, despite what they may have told themselves. Outstanding moral giants such as Spinoza, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein and Christopher Reeve did indeed have faith on a subconscious level, even if they were unaware. The same for innocent children and the righteous pagans. They were “Christian in their hearts.” They simply did not know it.
Clever as this is, it conflicts with what we see. In general, crime and immorality are not less in regions of deep religious belief, indeed are often higher. The American “Bible Belt” states, and religious nations such as Mexico or Brazil, have exceptionally high rates of violent crime, far higher than secular regions such as Japan or the Netherlands. This is a worldwide pattern. Among prison inmates in the United States, the measured incidence of atheism is about 1%, but in free society about 7% - 11%, suggesting religious skeptics are less likely to commit serious crimes. The sins and moral gaffes of evangelical leaders here are almost legendary. Even Billy Graham, supposedly the best of the lot, wrote a letter to Richard Nixon in 1969, demanding the bombing of farm dikes in North Vietnam – something that would have devastated the economy, constituted a war crime under international law, and killed over one million people.
As the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend, “… we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse… no worse than an animal, something like a devil.”
In any case, it is difficult to swallow the claim that someone can be a religious believer without being aware of it.
The next popular rationalization comes in four flavors at least. The common thread is that God sets different conditions for different groups.
- God judges the ancient Jews and pagans (those who never heard of Jesus) by good works, the rest of us by faith. Innocents (those who died before they were old enough to make a decent decision) get a free ticket into heaven.
- God “looks into the hearts” of pagans and innocents, judging them by a general unspoken spiritual potential, an unconscious acceptance of God-seen-in-nature.
- God gives pagans and innocents a second chance. Immediately after death He reveals himself, then they may decide to accept or reject Him.
- Itʼs a mystery. God has a Secret Plan for the salvation of pagans and innocents. It is not our business to know.
These take the edge off the original dilemma, but open another can of worms: double standards. In #1 & #2, pagans clearly get the better deal, since to be saved they need only be good in a normal, everyday, human sense, or at least have a decent benevolent attitude, something most of us are inclined to anyway. Dying innocents get the best deal of all, an almost automatic ticket into heaven. It is enough to make you envious of crib-death babies; or wonder if abortion is really such a bad thing.
Likewise concerning #3 above; for in that case we struggle in a world of obscurity and doubt, stumbling in the dark, half-guessing, guided only by flawed human teachers and muddy texts two thousand years old with a hundred faiths shouting contrary interpretations in our ears. Meanwhile the pagan will get to meet God face-to-face before having to make his decision.
Such replies also make God into a “respecter of persons” (contrary to Acts 10:34-35), and to some extent salvation becomes a gamble, a matter of drawing the right straw, being born in the right time and place, or dying under just the right circumstances. Even worse, they subvert the motive for missionary work. Telling a pagan about Jesus erases the saving value of all his good works, or removes the “second chance” he is due for after death, putting him at immediate, profound risk of everlasting pain. So why tell?
Reply #4 is the most honest, and rather refreshing in its way. Yet Christians have mocked secularists for having no ready answer to highly technical questions about things like the evolution of bacterial flagellums. Now here we find a battleship-sized hole right in the heart of Christianity, a mystery concerning the salvation of 98% of all humanity—making Christianity a less certain worldview.
Beyond these, the arguments grow more surreal. One common stand is simply to shrug off the idea that God condemns people to hell. God condemns no one—rather, the damned damn themselves, they “choose” hell. Alas, this contradicts both the Bible and common sense. The Bible makes it clear that the torments of hell occur because God causes or ordains them in a very deliberate way. See Matt 7:13-14, Matt 13:41-42, Matt 25:41, Mark 9:44, Mark 9:47-48, Mark 16:16, Rev 20:10-15, Rev 21:8. Jesus “casts” souls into hell, commands them to “depart” into fire which was “prepared,” the smoke of the burning rises up “forever,” and so on and so on.
If you believe the Bible, damnation is a positive action of God, not something God is helpless to prevent. God is less like a fireman desperately running from house to house trying to put out fires— more like an arsonist throwing lit matches into the basements.
The next common plea is that eternal hell is unfortunate but necessary. Why? Because God is a God of justice as well as mercy. We canʼt have evil people in heaven. The reward of heaven would be meaningless without the alternative of hellʼs punishment. Assuming “salvation by works,” such a plea might make some sense. Even then it seems strained.
As psychologists and criminologists know, punishment is effective only if it is swift, and if it is manifested in this life and commensurate with the crime. That is why a civilized society will guarantee a speedy and public trial (our 6th Amendment) and prohibit cruel/unusual punishment (8th Amendment). But what of infinite punishment for finite crime? What of punishments meted out in an invisible, secret place, known only by rumor—punishment occurring at the end of life or the end of all time, when all decisions are made and done, and lessons and regrets are useless? That is more like what we see in societies policed by secret, terrorist death squads. Such punishment must fail as a deterrent, and can habilitate no one. The only reason for it can be revenge. And that is unworthy of a just God.
((Ironically, the concept of “hell” has been used throughout Christian history mainly to frighten some Christians away from the “heretical” beliefs of other Christians, and thus itʼs been used mainly to try and promote uniformity of belief, which however never worked, since the “heretical” Christians simply used the same “hell-laden” language to dissuade their followers from joining the other sect in return. Some big examples include the mutual excommunication of two halves of Christendom at the time of the Catholic split with the Eastern Orthodox, and later at the time of the Protestant split with Catholicism, the latter of which was followed by The Thirty Years War. Even much later, Christian denominations in America—which sprouted up interminably in this new land—competed for souls hungrily with one denomination and their seminary blaming the rest for their “heresies.” So for centuries “hell” did not prove much of an inspiration for people to avoid doing harm to one another in society in general, but provided plenty of reasons for Christians to distrust and fear each otherʼs theological differences of opinion.)
Alternatives to the “eternal hell” view of course exist. It doesnʼt seem totally unreasonable to suppose that a truly loving and resourceful God might be able to find a way to save everyone. It might involve erasing some of the memories of wicked or recalcitrant souls, continual reeducation and repeated incarnations. Eventually, by law of averages, all souls would find salvation. It may take time, but God has infinite time, and infinite resources. So no problem.
At the very least, God could simply put unsaved souls to a peaceful rest, erase them, uncreate them or suspend their consciousness. After all, human doctors can repress consciousness, perception and sensation with the simple use of general anesthesia. Does it make sense to say humans can do something that God cannot?
Some sects and denominations do, in fact, believe in universal salvation or at least the peaceful annihilation of the unsaved. These are the Universalists and the Annihilationists. Some Evangelical Christians agree with one or the other of those two viewpoints. (*See note at end of article.)
One final, desperate argument declares the whole moral issue void. God made us, so God may do with us as He wishes, save or damn on a whim. God works under no moral strictures. Indeed, His will and His actions define morality. Whatever He does is right by definition. He is the Boss.
Itʼs a very Calvinist view. And it has a certain irony. It is like a loosing chess player sweeping all the pieces off the board. After Christians work so hard to convince us that God is loving, just and good, what a letdown to learn that loving, just and good simply mean “whatever God is.” Then saying “God is good” is as empty as saying “A = A.”
Maybe it is. In that case, God may also lie and break promises with moral impunity. It would be odd to claim that eternal torture of innocents is OK for God, but lying and promise-breaking are beyond the pale. So under the God-may-do-as-he-wishes logic, the Christian automatically looses all assurances, all guarantees—including guarantees of Biblical veracity, salvation and eternal life. Anything goes. All bets are off.
In fact, if morality for God is truly arbitrary and unrestrained, He could decide, on caprice, to send all Christians to hell and all atheists to heaven. It would be the last word in moral relativism. And the richest irony of all.
Are you sure you want to go there?
* There are Annihilationists among Evangelical Christians. For instance see the book, Four Views on Hell, part of the Counterpoints Series by the Evangelical publishing house, Zondervan Press, in which four Evangelicals debate their views of hell, one of them being Annihilationism. John Stott, author of the Intervarsity Press book, Basic Christianity, and member of the Evangelical Theological Society—is also an annihilationist. There are other annihilationist members of the ETS as well.
There are also Evangelical Christians who are Universalists. There were quite a few of them a hundred years ago who wrote popular books and preached powerful pro-Universalist sermons. It was also a view not unpopular among the earliest church fathers. Even today you can read the writings of famous Christian Universalists throughout history here; not to mention a recent book in which Evangelicals debate the topic, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, Eds., Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge.
About the Author
Ken Nahigian is a former Christian whose story, “How I Walked Away”, appears on the Secular Web.
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