Eternal salvation


My post on Tim Tebow got me thinking a bit about the talk of “eternal salvation.” It is repeated quite often—”the only way to eternal salvation is through Jesus” and “one day, because so-and-so has Jesus in his heart, he will walk with the lord.” Believe me, I wish I felt for certain that one day I’d be walking with the lord, because it sounds a heckuva lot better than rotting in my casket (or, if my wishes are followed, being turned into ashes, then dumped over Lake Mahopac for thousands of local swimmers to drink).

Maybe someone can explain this to me: Why reference “eternal salvation” at all? Doesn’t it muddy the motivational waters in a major way? In other words, how do we know whether a religious person is doing something because it’s the right thing to do, or whether he/she merely wants to one day float on a cloud with James Dean, Tupac, the second drummer from Kiss and Great-Great-Great Grandma Bessie? And shouldn’t eternal salvation be, if anything, a reward—not a dangling carrot?

I know people will say, “Eternal salvation isn’t used that way” or “It barely comes up, if you read the Scriptures,” but, well, that’s not true. And while I’m far from a page-by-page Biblical scholar, I am a student of AM Christian radio, and have heard heaven used as a bargaining chip, literally, hundreds upon hundreds of times.

We agnostic reformed Jews have flaws (the food sucks), but we never, ever, ever talk about heaven. If an agnostic reformed Jew is giving a homeless guy a hamburger, it’s because the man looks hungry.

14 thoughts on “Eternal salvation”

  1. Here’s what your missing in this whole conversation – being a Christian is NOT about being a good person, being charitable, or giving a homeless person a sandwich.

    Christianity, in one sentence, is boiled down to this belief: God made mankind in order to personally know them, and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, man can do just that. In other words, the ENTIRE POINT of Christianity is salvation. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that one of the basic tenants of the faith is to share this belief/salvation with other people.

    That’s why you hear about it – it’s not a carrot, and it’s not an afterthought. It’s the entire point.

  2. I’m sorry, Drew, with all due respect, I simply can not unravel your post to something understandable.

    God made man to know them?
    Through the life, death and resurrection, man can do “just that”? Just what? Know God? So, God created mankind solely to see if they would acknowledge Him?
    In order to offer salvation?

    Seems kind of frivolous for an omniscient and all-powerful Deity.

  3. Yeah you right, Jeff.

    Atheists tend to care about humanity and things like freedom, equality, reducing suffering and improving the quality of life for all people.

    Christians are basically people who are afraid to die and don’t have the moral strength to behave themselves without the threat of hell.

  4. Michael,

    Hey, I didn’t say I’m trying to sell you on it. Clearly, a one sentence version of any religion is going to have quite a bit of religious jargon that takes a whole lot more explaining. You’ll find this whether you’re discussing Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or anything else. You don’t have to buy into or feel that it isn’t ‘frivolous’ if you don’t choose.

    The point is, though, that offering salvation is not simply a ‘part’ of Christianity. It’s the entire purpose – without people having a personal relationship with God (which, in turn, leads to salvation), there would be no reason to follow the religion. That’s all I’m trying to say.

    So, Tim Tebow’s evangelism is right in line with Christianity; and the idea that Christianity’s purpose is charitable is not.

  5. It strikes me that the particular flavor of Christianity that Jeff is referencing, and the one that Drew is defending, is standard American evangelicalism — which, it should be pointed out, only became a major movement in Christianity during the past 100 years or so, and which has little institutional memory of historical Christianity as practiced during the previous 1,900 years or so, largely because evangelicalism itself is not monolithic; there is (purposely) no central structure, and even among evangelicals, there is quite a diversity of theological beliefs — particularly when you get beyond the basic confession of faith.

    Bear in mind, however, that worldwide, evangelicals make up only a minority of Christians. Some numbers from the World Christian Encyclopedia (2001): In the year 2000, there were just under 2 billion affiliated and unaffiliated Christians. More than half were Roman Catholic, and there were more Orthodox (~215,000) than Evangelicals (~211,000).

    In my own denomination, the Catholic Church, you won’t find any sort of teaching like the one Jeff describes — that we ought to do good deeds simply to get to heaven. (You’ll find some individual Catholics who mistakenly believe that, but they are in error.) Indeed, this November 2009 article by Eve Tushnet (a Jewish lesbian turned orthodox lesbian Catholic) soundly refutes that very idea:

    And while I applaud your agnostic morality if it means a hungry homeless guy gets a hamburger … I’m wondering just how far the moral imperative extends. Does it require a person to, as Mother Teresa said, “give until it hurts”? Would it ever motivate a person to do as St. Maximilian Kolbe did and offer to serve another man’s death sentence (in a Nazi concentration camp)? Or to minister to a colony of lepers, as St. Damien of Molokai did in the late 1800s, knowing that he would almost certainly contract the disease himself?

    Perhaps I’m projecting my own moral weakness, but are there not painful or otherwise unpleasant things that we might not be willing to do for goodness’ sake, but that we might be willing to do out of love for someone else — a spouse, a child? Christianity has a long history of people who have made radical self-sacrifices to serve others, out of love for God and their fellow man, in whom we are directed to always see Christ, no matter how much of a jerk he might be. Agnosticism? Well, maybe I’m simply unfamiliar with the heroic tales of radically self-sacrificing agnostics … but at least the homeless guy gets his hamburger.

  6. Drew: you’re only referring to some sub sects of Christianity.

    Having been raised Catholic and gone to a Catholic high school, I can state that what you say does *not* apply to Catholics. Works are *very* important in Catholicism.

    As for salvation, let’s face it: it’s a lot easier. Do I wish I believed that I’d see my brother (who died at 39 of cancer) in some next life? Sure I do. It’d be easier. But I don’t. (Neither did he.)

    One of the problems I have with *any* religion (not just Christianity) is that it presupposes humanity being Special, instead of the apes with overgrown brains we actually are :). Which, of course, is one of the reasons the uber religious plotz at the notion of evolution: once you realize that you’re an overdeveloped ape, the God jig is truly up.

  7. Shaun: every Catholic priest I had in my childhood preached exactly that: do good things and get to heaven. I’ve always compared God, or at least the Catholic God, to Santa Claus: he’s making a list, and checking it twice…:)

  8. Remember when this blog was about sports?

    I guess the way I see it is that Tim Tebow is a football player and I’ve loved watching him play football over the last few years. Thus, I’d like him to continue to succeed because I enjoy watching him play.

    Jeff’s post seemed very much like the Stephen King book where the guy saw the future with the evil president and had to kill him before he got to be president. You can hope Tebow fails now so his message won’t ring loudly later, but isn’t that just fear?

    Tebow’s a football player who spouts religious words like Jeff is a writer who spouts liberalism. It’s true. There’s sort of a direct comparison to be made, as both have audiences and they share their views with those audiences. I like Tebow’s game and Jeff’s writing, but I consume both with a filter. I think I can continue to enjoy both without wishing them to fail because others might not have such a filter.

  9. Frank D: I’m not sure where you got the idea that there’s any conflict between belief in God/Christianity and evolution. Despite what some evangelicals (who as someone pointed out, hardly reflect mainstream Christianity) believe, there is absolutely no conflict. One can be a devout Christian AND a scientist/believer in evolution. I refer you to the works of Tim Keller, Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project and a Christian), and many others.

  10. Perry: that’s why I said the uber religious, not just the religious. (Evolution was happily taught in Bio class in my Catholic high school, so I do know what you mean).

    Honestly, whether or not you see a conflict pretty much depends on whether you take the Bible literally or not. If you do, there *is* a conflict. If you don’t, there isn’t.

  11. Here’s the thing: for those people who believe in God, it doesn’t matter what any person thinks another person’s motivation is for doing anything; God knows, and that’s all that matters. No person’s opinion has any bearing on any other person’s standing with God.

  12. I’m not theologian, but it seems to me that if you’re worried about doing good deals to improve your “score” in the getting-into-heaven game, you’re not doing it out of the goodness of your heart. The hungry man-sandwich anecdote is a good one. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect to be rewarded somewhere down the line.

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