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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Afterlife and Salvation

Written by: Ted Vial

Calvin and Luther disagreed on the state between the time of death and this resurrection and judgment.  Luther believed that souls slept until judgment day.  Calvin insisted that the dead souls of the saved rested in a blessed state until they were resurrected.

In the past, the major split in Christianity on the afterlife was between Lutherans and Calvinists on the one hand, who argued that humans played no role in their own salvation, and Catholics and Methodists who argued that free will and works played a role.  In more recent years, the more significant split has been between the more conservative and more liberal wings of each Protestant denomination. 

The conservative wing of the Reformed churches maintains its belief in an afterlife spent in a literal place, either heaven or hell.  More liberal Reformed Christians tend to downplay hell, often because the image of God allowing people to suffer eternally, even if they are sinners, is not easy to match up with their idea of a loving God.  Some contemporary scholars have reinterpreted the doctrine of predestination in new ways that allow a broader understanding of the work of God's grace.

In recent surveys, far more Americans say that they believe in heaven than say they believe in hell.  There are also Reformed Christians who, since the mid- 20th century (this is true of all Protestant denominations), hold that neither heaven nor hell is a literal place.  If the core of salvation as described above is to live in the presence of God, heaven is then a metaphor for blessedness or a divine relationship in this life.  Hell is a metaphor for living in the absence of God in this life. 

Study Questions:
     1.    Why is human existence seen as a journey to a final destination? Are human efforts futile toward the outcome of the destination? Explain.
     2.    What is purgatory? How does it differ from Hell, and why is it rejected by Calvin and Zwingli?
     3.    Describe Calvin and Luther’s understanding of judgment day.
     4.    How have conservative/liberal thoughts split the Reformed understanding of afterlife?
     5.    How is Hell often understood in contemporary society?


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