Salvation is a central theme in Christianity. You can’t really think of Jesus without also thinking of salvation: the angels announce him as the “Savior” born in Bethlehem; John the Baptist identifies him as the “Lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world; St. John proclaims him to be God’s only Son given for our eternal life; St. Paul calls him the “Mediator” between God and humanity, and so on.
And of course, Jesus himself identifies as the single pathway to God, unleashing the Kingdom of God on Earth all the while proclaiming to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:16).
Salvation has been talked about in many ways from the Bible to now, like justification, or being made right with God; sanctification, or becoming holy; regeneration, receiving new life in Christ; theosis or divinization, or sharing in the divine nature. Ultimately, being Christian has to do with all of this: How we enter into relationship with God and find our fulfillment in Him through Christ. Salvation.
But both many non-Christians and Christians hold several misunderstandings regarding salvation — about what it means and how it happens. Because salvation is central to the Christian Faith, it’s crucial we get it right. Here are 5 common misunderstandings I hear:
Myth 1. Worship God or go to Hell
Some people mistake Christianity to be about appeasing an angry, narcissistic god. Isn’t that why God demands we worship him, after all? I once saw a meme that compared “Dog” to “God” by saying that the former is unconditionally loving while the latter demands worship with the threat of hellfire. These kinds of thoughts get the Christian understanding of both God and salvation very wrong, though.
For starters, there is no competition between humanity and God, because God is not some “thing” vying with various alternative creatures. God is not some bigger version of us. He’s not somewhere “out there,” like an alien or the so-called “flying spaghetti monster,” because God is not just another being in the Universe. Rather, according to classical Christianity, God is being — the act of existence itself. God is the foundation of all reality, which of course includes human existence.
Therefore, human purpose flows from God as much as human existence does. Some people talk about Christianity as if the existence of humanity and God’s demands of humanity are two separate things — at fundamental odds, as it were. You have the self-determining, free human agent on the one hand and God’s moral commands on the other. But God’s commandments are not arbitrary rules. Instead, they flow from His very nature and are reflected in His creation. How a human ought to behave follows from what a human even is, in the first place. As a rational creature, capable of knowledge and love, we won’t be truly satisfied until we have the fullness of Truth and Love itself: God Himself.
So it’s not “worship me, or else.” It’s more like “since you’re human, follow God, since He is the source of your existence and your happiness.”
Myth 2. Only Christians go to Heaven
Some misconstrue salvation to mean that believing a set of propositions (“Jesus died for my sins”) is necessary in order to go to Heaven. Granted, some Christians may express it this way. But that’s misleading, at best. What matters most is not the contents of our intellectual belief but the extent of our love — or better, a transformed heart, wrought by God’s grace, in supernatural love of God and neighbor. Now faith is certainly important, for it is the gateway to this inner, supernatural transformation. And having the right beliefs is also important, for they guide us in our love.
But God doesn’t give us a theology exam at Heaven’s gates. According to every judgment scene in the New Testament, entrance to Heaven is based on our state of love (Matt. 31-46). For this reason, it’s incorrect to say only those who have explicit faith can be saved. It’s not as if someone who has never heard of Christ is automatically lost. We know that God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Even more, it is official Catholic teaching that God grants sufficient grace — an opportunity — for every person to be saved. And since not everyone is a “card-carrying” Christian, it naturally follows that non-Christians at least get the invitation to salvation, no matter how implicit it may be.
What is the logical to this? That salvation, relationship with God, can only be through selfless love, since God is Selfless Love itself. (Cue Jesus on the cross.)
Again, faith is important. Faith is normative. Because at its core, faith is an acceptance of God and all He has revealed. God may certainly use bits of truth in other religions as opportunities of grace. But religions aren’t all equal paths to the same destination. Ultimately, no matter how someone is saved, it is because of Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). But how everyone gets there is often mysterious, since God is in relationship to every human being — not just those who have certain bits of facts about Christ and his teachings.
Myth 3. Salvation is about “going to Heaven”
That’s certainly part of it. But what many people conceive of salvation goes something like this: We walk through life as sinners until we accept Christ in faith and are saved, only to wait for death to become bodiless spirits in an ethereal heaven. But according to historic Christianity, salvation does not only begin at death. Moreover, salvation is not only “spiritual” but involves the whole person, body and soul, and indeed, all of creation.
This latter mischaracterization is epitomized by the Hallmark angel playing a harp in the wispy clouds of heaven. But the error is quite ancient. 1st and 2nd-century Gnosticism spun Christianity as a purely spiritual endeavor, spurning the matter and disregarding the body along with it. But the Christian belief is not that we become body-less angels in Heaven: Instead, our human nature will be retained in a resurrected, glorified body. The body itself will be transformed. According to Christianity, we are body-spirit unities — not souls trapped inside bodies. In Christ, the entire person is redeemed. Christ’s own resurrection is the model. In fact, all of creation will be redeemed. The Scriptures speak of a new created order — a “New Heavens and New Earth.”
Even if the blessedness of Heaven starts after death, culminating in the resurrection of the body, salvation starts in the here and now. We are not merely “sealed” or “covered” by Christ’s righteousness, drifting through a meaningless life until death. Even now, we are transformed by grace. This transformation is a process that starts in this life and is completed in the next. Through our inner transformation, Christ transforms the entire world. Any familiarity with the saints is enough to show this. Christ ushered in the Kingdom of God, and he continues to expand its reign through his people on Earth.
So rather than picturing Heaven as something lighter, and “less real” than life now — like fluffy clouds and baby angel (albeit “spiritual”) butts, it would be better to think of it as something more real: a transformed, uplifted creation full of humans (i.e., bodies) in relationship with God, each other, and all of creation.
Myth 4. God punished Jesus for our sins
To be fair, some Christians do make this a cornerstone of their theology. But then again, today nearly every belief can be found within Christianity. But what I’m talking about is the consistent Christian Faith that has been maintained by the great historic traditions since the early Church. Surely that’s best to consult, no?
Anyway, the myth goes like this: Humans are so bad that their sins could only be paid by someone innocent. God sent his son to pay humanity’s debt and thereby satisfy his wrath. God punishes Christ, the innocent, so that He man acquit the guilty.
Besides making God out to be some an unjust monster, this thinking anthropomorphizes God with human emotions like wrath and anger. This is seriously flawed, because God cannot change emotional states — if it even makes sense to talk about God having emotion, in the first place (besides metaphorically). But beyond that, this teaching isn’t biblical or historical.
While there is a sense in which Christ paid the debt that no mere man could, the model is one of sacrifice. God did not put Christ to death; humans did. But in the process, Jesus freely entered into the suffering and made it the focal point of his self-giving love. The passion of Christ reveals the love of God, not his wrath. Many of the early theologians preferred to speak of Christ’s entire life — the Incarnation itself — as redemptive. In this way, Christ’s entire ministry and activity ushered in the Kingdom of God and the renewal of the world. Still, Christ’s crucifixion is the focal point, as there is “no greater love” than dying for one’s friends (John 15:13).
This self-giving love of Christ on the cross made satisfaction for humankind’s sins not because it appeased an angry God, but because the act of love was greater than all of the world’s sins combined — past, present, and future.
Myth 5. Salvation is not related to my moral life
So long as I have been “saved,” I’m free to proceed living any way I want. I think most people know better. Still, there’s this misunderstanding floating around that right relationship with God doesn’t really have a connection to how I treat others, what I do in private, or anything I do, for that matter. The myth isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s even been official theology in some Christian quarters.
Now, some Christians do suggest this kind of view when they say all that really matters is faith: that all you need to do is accept Jesus, and your subsequent moral life doesn’t affect your salvation. But this is exactly opposite of Christ’s teaching, who said:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” -Matthew 7:21
Whoever claims to have faith “but does not obey his commandments is a liar” (1 John 2:4). Indeed, as James says, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). In fact, the only time “faith alone” is used in the New Testament, it is condemned as the basis for our relationship with God:
You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” -James 2:24
What we do matters. We don’t earn salvation — it’s a gift from God. But we must cooperate with his grace and seek to follow Christ. As talked about in Myth #2 above, what ultimately matters is how we respond to God in love. And the fact is, there are many things we can do that are at odds with a life of genuine love of God and neighbor. See Galatians 5:19-21, for example. People who do such things will “not inherit the Kingdom of God,” as St. Paul says.
Salvation is a process that only begins when we first enter relationship with Christ. From there onward, we seek to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
[ “Disclaimer” ~ How can I profess to know what is and is not a myth regarding salvation? Well I can’t — not on my own. But what I’ve said above represents the vast consensus of apostolic, historic Christianity and the general trajectory of Christian thought today. There will always be a few outliers. But even if these fringe traditions and churches profess the myths, their lack of connection to ancient, historic Christianity is very telling.]