Lord’s Library editors compare different Christian doctrines on sin and forgiveness to have salvation defined clearly according to each.
Salvation is a topic of paramount importance for those of the Christian faith. Christian theology centers around the redemptive work of Jesus Christ which brings eternal life to anyone who calls upon His name (Acts 2:21). This leads many to key questions like “how to get forgiveness from God?” or “how to be saved by Jesus?” Still others, especially those who are already committed to a specific denomination may ask a question like “how to be saved as a Catholic?”
Many continued to wonder about salvation in Christianity. But how does one receive this salvation, and how have the different denominations of Christianity over time understood, expressed, and lived out the scriptures on how to be saved? These are all key questions that need to be considered when having salvation defined through the lens of different Christian doctrines.
Most traditions within the body of Christ share common salvation scriptures. That is, there are several distinct salvation Bible verses that provide easy-to-comprehend directions for how to be saved by God. We recommend using a dedicated Bible software program to sort through the scriptures on your own, but in case you are short on time – we listed 7 examples (in addition to Acts 2:21) of how to be saved according to the Bible (we sifted the New Testament for the words ‘saved’ and ‘salvation’ using the KJV on e-Sword):
- Mark 16:16: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
- Acts 15:11: But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
- Acts 16:31: And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
- Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
- Romans 10:9: That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
- Romans 10:13: For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
- 2 Timothy 1:9: Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,
From these examples we can begin to uncover the meaning of salvation in the Bible. These Bible versions on how to get saved from hell offer a look into what it means to get saved by grace to go to heaven.
But before we dive into how to be saved as a Christian in one of the major denominations, and look into salvation in the past and present, it’s essential to define a few terms that are vital to the conversation. They are atonement, justification, and sanctification.
Atonement: Atonement is the reparation or expiation for sin. Humanity is inherently sinful, and God is perfectly holy and just. There is a barrier there that must be bridged before a meaningful relationship can be made possible. Acts of atonement are things that bridge that gap and pay the price necessary for the sin committed. In modern Christian understanding, atonement comes only through the reconciliation of God and humanity through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. His act of redemption was so great that it brings atonement to all of humanity for all of time, so long as one follows Him.
Justification: Justification is the action of declaring or making one righteous in the sight of God. In modern Christian understanding, this happens as Christ advocates for us in front of the Father. He has paid the penalty for our sins, enabling one to become justified before God, so long as one follows Him.
Sanctification: Sanctification is the action of being freed from sin or purified. This is not something that can be achieved on one’s own, but only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. All that one must do is accept Him as Lord and Savior to become free of sin. The process of sanctification continues throughout one’s life as one battles the forces of sin in the world and conforms more to the example of Christ.
Christian Salvation Defined
Salvation History (Old Testament)
To understand what salvation means today, we must trace back the history of how salvation was understood by God’s people in the Old Testament. Though things were quite different before Christ, their understanding of salvation points us to our current understanding of what salvation entails.
The Jewish faith of the Israelites of the Old Testament was comprised of many rituals, rites, and ceremonies. Strictly adhering to God’s Law was of paramount importance to the Israelites; it was the way of living as God’s people prior to Christ’s appearance on Earth.
Interestingly though, the Jews didn’t see the law as a path to salvation. Just like today, salvation was found through faith and belief in the God of Israel. We see this as early as the story of Abraham. In Genesis 15:6, the Bible reads: “And he believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness. To them, salvation was a future event that would transpire upon the arrival of the Messiah.
As they awaited the Messiah, the Jews engaged in many practices that pointed towards atonement, redemption, and sanctification. Jewish religious life centered around temple worship, unlike today where one’s faith walk centers around God’s Word, the Holy Bible. Physical books were hard to produce because there was no printing press, and on had to go through the process of cultivating, drying, and preparing papyrus for paper, while ink and writing materials were expensive. Many were also illiterate. The way that most came to hear the Word of God was through worship at the temple or their local synagogue.
Temple worship was a bloody affair. Animals such as lambs or doves were sacrificed upon the altar, their blood spilled for the sins of the people. It was a very physical, real, and upsetting expression of atonement, but one that had great meaning and impact on the people. An animal died in their place as the result of their sin. That’s not something that can easily be taken out of one’s mind.
This temple worship, as well as the keeping of the law in one’s personal life, were expressions of atonement, redemption, and justification for the Hebrew people. But they were acts that were to be continually performed until the arrival of the Messiah when the final act of redemption would come and a new way of salvation would be ushered in.
Salvation Today (Early Church and New Testament)
From the beginning of the New Testament Church, salvation was always achieved by faith in Christ alone. But how was this expressed through church practice?
Christianity began roughly 2,000 years ago, shortly after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Acts 11:26, the Bible reads: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” “Christians” means “Christ’s people.” Early Christianity consisted of a group of loosely connected local bodies of believers who gathered together on a regular basis, usually in each other’s homes to fellowship and worship together (Acts 16:15, 18:7; 21:8; Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15). These churches generally had the organization of pastors, elders, and deacons within each individual congregation.
This early New Testament church lived communally and often shared resources such as food and money (Acts 4:32-36). Their services consisted mainly of preaching (during which time they might also read letters from missionaries such as Paul) and the singing of songs. They took offerings to support the journeys of their missionaries, and they performed baptisms. The early Christians also celebrated the Lord’s Supper each time they gathered together.
Early Christianity were soon challenged by Roman persecution. The majority of the persecution began with the great fire in Rome that destroyed much of the city and devastated the economy. In an attempt to absolve himself, Roman Emperor Nero claimed it was the Christians who tried to destroy Rome and its pagan gods. From that point on, the Christians were blamed for many of the misfortunes befalling the Empire. Persecution and martyrdom were quick to follow.
Because of this persecution, the early Christians were forced to meet in the catacombs, which were long, dark galleries under the city. There they continued their meetings, baptisms, and even burials for their dead. As a result of the persecution, many of the early Christians were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, expediting the cause of evangelism and fulfilling the Lord’s commands to make disciples of all nations (Acts 8:1, 4-40, 11:19-26, Matthew 28:18-20).
The early Christians had a pure, simplistic approach. The people were able to concentrate on the study of God’s Word, service and dedication to one another, hospitality, benevolence, and missions (Romans 1:8; 15:19, 1 Thessalonians 1:7-8, Acts 13:1-26:32). This simplicity of practice left the church without a master list of rules, regulations, or practices, but these would would later be developed.
While practices varied over time and from place to place in ways that are very difficult to trace, Christian belief from the very beginning was always that salvation was given through faith in Christ alone. People new to the faith were taught this and the church expressed it through practice. But, that didn’t mean that there weren’t standards for new initiates to adhere to in response to their newfound faith. New members of the church went through different levels of instruction in the church, sometimes lasting up to three years, before they were baptized into the church. They took the faith very seriously because it cost them so much, and they held everyone to those same standards.
While the time of instruction was necessary to bring people into the church, their eternal salvation was secured simply by believing in Christ and walking the example set by Him, just as it is today.
Though salvation today is as simple as it has always been, different Christian traditions express it in different ways. Here is a summary of those viewpoints, broken down by each different denomination:
Like most mainstream Christiane doctrines, the Catholic Church believes that all humans are sinful but can be reconciled to God and are offered salvation and the promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
The catechism of the Catholic Church states “Outside the church, there is no salvation.” While Catholics do believe that salvation comes from Christ, they also teach that alongside repentance comes baptism, catechism, receiving Christ in communion, confirmation, reconciliation, going to Mass, and the elimination of sin are all necessary aspects to salvation as well. Therefore, their teaching shows that they believe the sacraments are a necessary part of salvation.
While Catholicism teaches that salvation comes through faith alone, they also teach that charity and good works are the natural results and evidence of genuine faith. This leads many to believe that Catholics believe in works as being necessary for salvation.
The Orthodox Christian Church has an interesting term for salvation: theosis. Theosis is the infinite process of becoming like God. Theosis can be understood as deification or divinization, meaning that the Christian can embody more and more of God’s divine life, becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.
The theological understanding for this is that the original humans, Adam and Eve, were much more like God than we are today. They were “little gods,” so to speak. But after they disobeyed God and were banished from the Garden of Eden, they lost that divine spark as sin took a grasp on their hearts, leading to the current condition of the world.
The understanding of theosis teaches that leading the Christian life and engaging in a personal relationship with God helps to restore that divine spark that was lost, as one slowly conforms to the image of Christ. Since Jesus took on human form, lived a perfect life, defied death, and ascended back into heaven, humanity is purified and restored. When one walks in the way of Christ, they too walk a path of purification and sanctification themselves. That’s why living a holy life and living out the ways of Christ are especially important to the Orthodox; they believe it is leading them back to their full potential as human beings.
For the Orthodox, salvation is a process that encompasses not only the whole earthly life of the Christian but also the eternal life of the age to come. It is often described in terms of three stages—purification (katharsis), illumination (theoria), and divinization (theosis). Salvation is therefore not only becoming sinless (purification), but it is also progress in being filled with the divine light (illumination). And it is becoming so filled with God in union with Him that one shines with the likeness of God. In some cases that means even literally becoming a bearer of the Uncreated Light, which is a physically visible light from God that is His presence, such as at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-6, Mark 9:1-8, Luke 9:28-36) or when Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35). Though this terminology of three stages is sometimes used, there is overlap between them, and the whole process itself is also called theosis.
The Orthodox believe it is only in and through Christ that one can be saved. Salvation cannot be earned: rather, it’s a free gift from God. But they also teach that being saved requires cooperation with God, because God will not violate one’s free will. A life of repentance is needed, including turning away from sin and toward God. Along with repentance, participation in the sacraments, like baptism and holy communion, is how one cooperates with God. God’s grace not only forgives sins through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, but also makes one more like Christ. This cooperation is called synergy (synergeia), making one a co-worker with God.
The Church also speaks of salvation as adoption, as atonement, as healing, as substitution by Christ, as sacrifice, as having a debt paid as having crimes pardoned, etc., but theosis is the primary model through which salvation is understood in the Orthodox faith.
In general, Protestantism disregards any Catholic or Orthodox teachings that can be misconstrued as blasphemous, like theosis, or that are perceived as overly mystical, such as the Catholic belief of transubstantiation (the bread and wine literally becoming the body and blood of Christ). Protestant belief tends to be more simple, emphasizing salvation through the redemptive work of Christ alone (grace through faith).
Most modern, protestant churches (like the Baptists) interpret the process of conversion as a simple one. Much of their belief is centered around Romans 10:9, a verse featured above, and others like it that are stated plainly with clear directives. Christian salvation usually consists of a person confessing their belief in Jesus through prayer and genuine belief, then joining a church. The joining of a church typically comes with a public expression of faith done through baptism, though some churches emphasize this step more or less than others.
There are however, some differing doctrines among Protestant denominations regarding salvation. The following section explores these differences. Note that most protestant denominations share very similar beliefs about salvation, so only the ones with significant differences are mentioned.
Martin Luther, like most traditional Christians, believed that this life was simply a journey toward a final destination. That destination was an eternity spent either in heaven or in hell. According to Luther, there was nothing one could do to earn a spot in heaven as God freely forgave the sins of some. Heaven is understood as a state of blessedness where you exist in the presence of God, something humans have not been able to do since the fall in the Garden of Eden. Hell is understood as a place of torment, as just punishment for sin.
Luther disagreed strongly with the Roman Catholic teaching that there is also a place called purgatory because purgatory is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. The belief in purgatory developed over the course of the Middle Ages, driven by the logic of the Catholic system of sanctification. Those who were baptized and thus cleansed of the stain of original sin still had to pay the debt for the offense of sin to a perfect God. (In addition, any additional sins must be paid for). The belief was that one would earn merits toward their debt by performing works, especially the sacraments.
Since no work of a finite fallen being on its own would count for much, only works performed within the structure of God’s grace mediated by the church counted. Very few people led a life sufficiently sinless and with enough good works to be out of debt when they died. Those who did were saints. Those who had made sufficient but not complete progress on the path of sanctification were sent at death to purgatory, which was exactly like hell (full of torment) to burn away or purge the remaining sin. The difference between purgatory and hell is that there is an endpoint to purgatory: when your sins are purged you may enter heaven. Luther argued instead that all were sinners, always. Saints were all Christians whose sins had been forgiven and who had received that forgiveness, and had therefor been justified, through faith. At death, they slept peacefully until the final resurrection of the dead when they entered heaven.
A significant split within Lutheranism on salvation has been between the conservative and more liberal wings of each Protestant denomination.
The conservative wing of the Lutheran Church maintains its belief in an afterlife spent in a literal place, either heaven or hell. Liberal Lutherans tend to downplay hell, often because the image of God torturing people for eternity, even as sinners, is not congruent with their idea of a loving God. Nor is it easy to accept the idea of a just God casting people to hell for a reason with which they are not responsible; by living in a place where the gospel was not preached.
In Calvinist theology, there is an idea called progressive salvation. This idea revolves around what is known as the “Order of Salvation.” It looks like the following:
- Gospel call
- Inward call
- Conversion (faith and repentance)
While it can be argued that this “Order of Salvation” is merely an elaborate drawing out of the simple process of salvation through faith, there are a few interesting differences to note here.
The first is election/predestination. One of the key doctrines of Calvinism is that God has chosen beforehand who will come to salvation and who will not. This is a very controversial doctrine and not one held by most other mainstream Christians because it strongly challenges the cherished belief in free will.
Glorification is also something emphasized more by Calvinism than most other denominations. Glorification refers to the ultimate sanctification we will receive as believers during the final judgment. The belief states that we will be purified to the state of righteousness necessary in order to enter God’s eternal Kingdom.
Arminians take the side of what is known as conditional election. To better understand conditional election, we can use the example of political elections. Political elections are conditional elections as the voter’s decision is conditioned by something that the candidate is or has assured. The Arminian way of thinking of election/predetermination is to think of election as being based on the foreknowledge of God.
God foresees who will believe in Christ, and then on the basis of that foreknowledge, God decides to elect those believers to heaven. Also, unregenerate people have enough goodness in him so that if the Holy Spirit assists him, he will want to choose Jesus. A person chooses God and then God chooses that person. God’s choice is conditioned upon that person’s choice.
Arminius, a 16-17th century Pastor and Theologian of the Dutch Reformed Church, presented his developing views on human free will and predestination in a series of sermons on Romans 7 and 9. He argued that Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, are not represented as individual persons by Paul in Romans 9, but as typological characters. God does not predestine individuals, but rather classes of persons, moreover, those who will believe the gospel and those who will not. It is easy to reconcile the Arminian view of God with a number of important biblical themes, including affirmation of God’s desire to save all people (see 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), numerous calls to repentance (see Ezekiel 33:11; Matthew 3:2; Acts 2:38; 17:30), warning about falling away (see 1 Corinthians 10:12; Hebrews 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2:20-21), and the general emphasis on human responsibility.
The Methodist Church has often been accused of preaching Universalism: the belief that everyone is guaranteed salvation. Methodists affirm that through Jesus Christ God has made salvation available to all persons. That does not mean they believe that all persons will be saved.
In Article XII of The Confession of Faith, the United Methodist Church affirms that at the general resurrection of the dead and Christ’s judgment of all people (living and dead), there will be some whom Christ will judge “wicked,” and they will experience “endless condemnation.”
In John Wesley’s day, there would have been some who would have called what Wesley taught “universalism.” Certainly, Wesley’s view is more universal than that of some of his 18th-century critics. Some of those critics believed that Christ’s death had value only for those God had predestined to receive salvation. The United Methodist Church teaches that Christ’s death creates the possibility that all may be saved. The Methodist Church believes salvation is God’s response and offer of love, and that love does not compel people to accept it. The Methodist Church does not believe that God predestines some to salvation and others to condemnation.
Salvation is the result of a process of conversion, away from sin and toward God. Methodists believe that all humans are born sinners, thus all require conversion to be saved. Conversion may be sudden and dramatic or gradual. It consists of responding positively to God’s prevenient grace, and to accepting the offer of justifying grace (the forgiveness of sins). With justifying grace comes also God’s sanctifying grace, the supernatural assistance we need to make possible a life of increasing success in turning away from temptation, not allowing ourselves to sin, and performing works of piety and mercy. Methodists have historically differed from Presbyterians in believing that you can approach sinless perfection, and in believing that if you do not make progress toward perfection, you can lose your salvation.
While in the past these differences about your ability to accept salvation, and to live sinlessly or lose salvation, have distinguished Methodists from other Protestants, in more recent years the deeper significant split has been between the more conservative and more liberal wings of each Protestant denomination. Conservative Methodists and conservative Presbyterians resemble each other more than conservative and liberal Methodists do, and the same is true for the liberal wings.
The conservative wing of the Methodist Church maintains its belief in an afterlife spent in a literal place, either heaven or hell. More liberal Methodists tend to downplay hell, often because the image of God torturing people for eternity, even if they are sinners, is not easy to square with their idea of a loving God. It isn’t easy for them to square the idea of a just God with one who casts people into hell.
Pentecostals believe in an afterlife and have traditionally believed that one can reach the afterlife in heaven only through belief in Jesus. There will be an afterlife for everyone, but not everyone will be redeemed. Pentecostals have articulated a complex understanding of the afterlife and salvation, which includes the existence of a literal hell and an elaborate system that attempts to discern how the world will end. In heaven, the soul joins God in heaven and remains there in perpetual worship with angels around the throne of God. There is little discussion in Pentecostalism about what happens after this initial entry into heaven, or what happens to the soul as it waits in heaven for the culmination of time when Jesus comes back.
Most Pentecostals are eschatologically-oriented, meaning that they are awaiting the second coming of Jesus, which will be precipitated by a series of cataclysmic events. Many Pentecostals, like other conservative Christians, await the Rapture when they will be literally taken up in the air by Jesus and spared a time of great trial for those who remain on earth. Others believe that they will remain on earth to endure this interim time, the Tribulation. This refers to a period when Christians will rebel against the rule of the Antichrist and see fierce persecution before the second coming of Jesus. After the Tribulation concludes, Jesus will return to judge those who remain. There will then be a 1000-year reign of Jesus on earth before Jesus and Satan engage in the final battle, after which Satan will be banished forever. The world will then be destroyed and a “new heavens and new earth” created according to Revelation 21:1.
Great diversity exists in Pentecostalism over the minutia of the end times. There are full-fledged ministries dedicated to deciphering when the end times will begin. These ministries spend much time examining current events to see if they correspond to their reading of particular biblical passages. Many disagree over when the Tribulation begins and when it ends. There are many interpretations of key biblical references, such as “man of lawlessness” (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3), which is taken to mean the Antichrist. The Antichrist is also a matter of great debate-not the idea, but the identity of the person who will usher in the end times. Since many Pentecostals believe they will be spared the Tribulation and be taken up into heaven as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, they expect to be spared the worst of the end times, the floods, fires, earthquakes, disease, and unspeakable violence, that will occur before the second appearance of Jesus.
There are at least two different ideas about what occurs to a person upon receiving salvation after conversion. In keeping with the Wesleyan Holiness roots of the faith, some Pentecostal groups-most prominently the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee, and the Church of God in Christ-adhere to the theological significance of sanctification as the second blessing after salvation, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as the third blessing. Other groups, notably the Assemblies of God and Church of the Foursquare Gospel, adhere to William Durham’s early theological innovations-namely that salvation and sanctification occur at the same time. What adherents should be preparing for after salvation is Spirit baptism.
For some Oneness groups, who follow early leader G. T. Haywood’s theology, salvation is linked to being baptized in the name of Jesus. God works all of salvation through one act, which is means that one can be saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Spirit all at the same time. To be fully saved, in Haywood’s theology, one had to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, so that someone who confessed that Jesus was God and had not received Spirit Baptism was not completely saved until they had that experience. Not all Oneness groups adhere to this schema, but many would support variations of Haywood’s initial offerings on Oneness salvation, which, of course, is very different from Trinitarian perspectives.
For other Pentecostals, salvation includes more than eternal life; it includes healing. F.F. Bosworth, a Depression-era evangelist, was one of many in the healing ministry who believed that healing was the visible proof of what some have called “spiritual salvation.” Healing is the first step in the process of salvation. In other words, salvation is evident in the atoning work of Jesus, therefore, healing is a birthright for adherents. Most importantly then is the idea that some Pentecostals have made the exercise of spiritual gifts a key part of salvation, an idea that places them outside the traditional Protestant idea that salvation is a free gift that requires no action.
Universalism is a doctrine that teaches all people will be saved. Other names for this doctrine are universal restoration, universal reconciliation, universal restitution, and universal salvation.
The main argument for universalism is that a good and loving God would not condemn people to eternal torment in hell. Some universalists believe that after a certain cleansing period, God will free the inhabitants of hell and reconcile them to himself. Others say that after death, people will have another opportunity to choose God. For some who adhere to universalism, the doctrine also implies that there are many ways to get into heaven.
In the past several years, universalism has seen a resurgence. Many adherents prefer different names for it: inclusion, the greater faith, or the larger hope.
Universalism applies passages like Acts 3:21 and Colossians 1:20 to mean that God intends to restore all things to their original state of purity through Jesus Christ (see Romans 5:18; Hebrews 2:9), so that in the end everyone will be brought into a right relationship with God (see 1 Corinthians 15:24–28).
But such a view runs counter to the teaching of the Bible that “all who call upon the name of the Lord” will be united to Christ and eternally saved, not all people in general.
- Matthew 10:28
- Matthew 23:33
- Matthew 25:46
- Luke 16:23
- John 3:36
Universalism focuses exclusively on God’s love and mercy and ignores his holiness, justice, and wrath. It also assumes that God’s love depends on what he does for humanity, rather than being a self-existing attribute of God present from eternity, before man was created.
Universalism was taught by Origen (A.D. 185–254) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 543. It became popular again in the 19th century and is gaining traction in many Christian circles today.
As a doctrine, universalism does not describe one certain denomination or faith group. The universalist camp includes members of varying doctrinal categories with differing and sometimes contradictory beliefs.
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that salvation is possible only through Christ’s ransom sacrifice and that individuals cannot be saved until they repent of their sins and call on the name of Jehovah. Salvation is described as a free gift from God but is said to be unattainable without good works that are prompted by faith. The works prove faith is genuine. Preaching is said to be one of the works necessary for salvation, both of themselves and those to whom they preach. They believe that baptism as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses is “a vital step toward gaining salvation,” and that people can be “saved” by identifying God’s organization. They also believe that conforming to the moral requirements set out in the Bible is essential for salvation.
The Witnesses reject the doctrine of universal salvation, as well as that of predestination or fate. They believe that all intelligent creatures are endowed with free will. They regard salvation to be a result of a person’s own decisions, not of fate. They also reject the concept of “once saved, always saved” (or “eternal security”) instead believing that one must remain faithful until the end to be saved.
Regarding whether non-Witnesses will be “saved”, they believe that Jesus has the responsibility of judging such ones and that no human can judge for themselves who will be saved. Based on their interpretation of Acts 24:15, they believe there will be a resurrection of righteous and unrighteous people. They believe that non-Witnesses alive now may attain salvation if they “begin to serve God”.
One unique element of Mormonism is the concept of the fate of the soul after death. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, eventually developed a view of the afterlife that is much more complex than that held by most other Christian groups. The traditional language of heaven and hell and salvation and damnation do not work well in the Mormon context.
In Mormon teachings, the final judgment comes in stages. The first stage occurs immediately after death. The disembodied spirit is judged as to its general goodness and is assigned to one of two places: paradise or spirit prison. Those souls in paradise enjoy peace of conscience and a time of rest. Those in spirit prison, by contrast, are tormented by guilt and are denied rest. Both groups, however, suffer because they are separated from their physical bodies, something that, according to Mormon scripture, the spirits view as a form of “bondage.” At the time of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, the inhabitants of paradise were also resurrected. Those who entered the spirit world after Christ’s resurrection, however, must await resurrection until the time of Christ’s second coming on earth.
Eventually, after Christ returns to the earth, another stage in the judgment occurs. In order to understand this phase, it is first necessary to grasp the three-tiered hierarchy of heavens described by Joseph Smith. The highest heaven, called the Celestial Kingdom, is the destination of those persons who accepted all of the necessary rituals performed by the authority of the Mormon priesthood and who were valiant in their testimony of Jesus Christ.
Mormons believe that missionary work continues among the spirits waiting in prison, and those who accept the teachings of the Church in prison are eligible for the Celestial Kingdom. It is for this reason that Mormons perform temple rites on behalf of their dead ancestors. Irrespective of when souls receive the necessary teachings and rituals, the people who make it to the Celestial Kingdom live in the presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ and are “exalted.”
The Celestial Kingdom itself is divided into three parts. Mormon scripture says nothing about the lower two levels but specifies that only those persons who are married for time and eternity in Mormon temples are eligible for the highest Celestial tier. The next level is the Terrestrial Kingdom, a place inhabited by men and women who lived honorable lives and who accepted the atonement of Christ, but who were not valiant in their testimonies of Christ. Residents of this kingdom enjoy the presence of Jesus Christ, but not God the Father.
The third possible destination of the soul is the Telestial Kingdom. It is here that all those sinners who refused to repent will find themselves. In Mormon theology, Christ’s suffering and death make it possible for a sinner to be released from the punishment of misdeeds in the afterlife if the sinner repents and accepts Mormon baptism. Those who do not repent suffer during the afterlife, but even the darkest sinners eventually are redeemed through the atonement of Christ into a realm of glory. While they may enjoy the influence of the Holy Ghost, residents of the Telestial Kingdom are deprived of the presence of the Father and the Son.
At the time of Christ’s second coming, those persons who lived lives worthy of the Celestial and Terrestrial Kingdoms will be resurrected and will live on earth under the personal rule of Jesus Christ for a period of 1,000 years. Those destined for the Telestial Kingdom remain separated from their physical bodies until the 1,000-year period has ended. Mormonism thus lacks a traditional heaven/hell dichotomy and offers instead a variety of potential outcomes, based on the willingness of individuals to implement the teachings of the Church into his or her life. Mormons thus speak of those in the Celestial Kingdom as heirs of “exaltation” and those in the lower kingdoms as heirs of “salvation.”
In addition to the three “Kingdoms of Glory,” a fourth potential destination also awaits certain souls. “Outer Darkness” is a mysterious place that is the home of Satan and those spirits who followed him when he was cast out of heaven at the beginning of time. It is also the destiny of those persons who, while living on earth, had a perfect knowledge of the divinity of Christ but chose to reject him and sin against his teachings. In Outer Darkness, there is endless lamentation and no divine presence. It is the closest Mormon analogy to the concept of hell in most other Christian traditions.
Although the basic contours of Mormon doctrine on the fate of the soul after death have remained stable since the 1830s, the question of movement between kingdoms has been more difficult to settle. In the 19th century, some leading Mormon thinkers held that a soul might have the opportunity to move up from one kingdom to another over the course of the eternities. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, Mormons have taught that there is no movement from kingdom to kingdom after the final judgment is rendered.
Salvation is at the heart of the Christian faith. Thankfully, modern Christian understanding on what it takes to be saved is a lot closer to being unified than many other doctrines where there are sharper differences in belief. Many of the differences regarding salvation are not necessarily hard doctrinal differences, but rather different ways of thinking through the same idea. Thanks be to Jesus who gives us the gift of salvation so freely and generously!
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