Evangelical Christians believe that there is a literal heaven and a literal hell, and that one of our primary focuses on this earth should be ensuring that as many people go to heaven as possible. Given the belief in a literal heaven and a literal hell, this makes sense. Evangelicals believe that because we do bad things (aka “sin”), we deserve to go to hell, but that Jesus died on the cross to make a way for us to go to heaven. If. And there’s the stipulation. If. If what? While evangelicals generally offer a very simply answer – if we “believe in Jesus” or “pray the sinner’s prayer” – my experience has been that, when you dig into it, it’s not so simple as all that. In this post, I’m going to give several examples of the different ways salvation anxiety manifests itself within the beliefs of evangelical Christianity.
I’m currently reading Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words. In it he talks about growing up evangelical, and about his fears about his salvation:
I have to admit from the start that, for most of my childhood, I was anything but a model Christian. As a child, I was plagued by doubts about Christianity. It all started with a children’s song, from which I learned how to be saved: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead – you will be saved!” The requirement for salvation set forth in the song was one I could never seem to meet. My eternal salvation hinged on whether or not I believed that Jesus died for my sins and was raised form the dead – whether or not, in other words, I had enough confidence that a rather improbably event occurred in ancient history. Thus, every night before bed, I would inform God in prayer that I was 100 percent sure Jesus died and was raised from the dead, and quite grateful for it as well (I made sure to conceal my doubts, thinking that if I didn’t let on, God would never know). In reality, however, I was not sure that Jesus was raised from the dead, any more than I was sure about any other contested aspect of ancient history. Racked with guilt and always fretting over my eternal destiny, I recall asking Jesus into my heart several dozen times throughout childhood – just to be safe. (pp. 15-16)
So simple – and yet so complicated.
As a teen, I was “on fire for Jesus.” I read the Bible daily, I prayed constantly, and I had close “personal relationship” with Jesus. I studied Greek so that I could read the New Testament in its original language, and I read every apologetics book I could get my hands on. I memorized scads of scripture and seriously contemplated becoming a missionary. Unlike Dudley, I never for a minute doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Given my devotion, how was it that I suffered from salvation anxiety? Well, to put it simply, I believed that I could only be saved if I trusted in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and that alone for my salvation. There was something more, too: In order to truly accept Jesus’ gift of salvation, I was taught, I had to view myself as a completely worthless and wretched sinner. If I thought I was worth anything apart from Jesus, I was not truly trusting him for my salvation.
The trouble was, I didn’t have a testimony like some of those I had heard, of being a drug addict or fornicator or embezzler before finally coming to salvation. Dudley talks about this as well:
The church youth group would frequently host speakers I could relate to, people like me, who could never seem to get the Christian thing right: shooting heroin, having unprotected sex with everyone in sight, and generally making the worst possible decision in every situation. But at the end of each story – each of which utterly captivated me – while lying in a jail cell or a pool of vomit or standing on the edge of a bridge getting ready to jump, it would happen. The narrator would give his life to Jesus and enter a personal relationship with God. These former drug users, school dropouts, and sex addicts were the heroes of our culture, the main speakers at our most important events. Having this rout of spiritual satisfaction inscribed in my subconscious, and very much wanting to achieve herohood among my peers, I set out in high school to destroy my life as utterly and comprehensively as possible. (p. 17)
Like Dudley, I coveted a testimony like this. If God had saved me from a life of prostitution or drug addiction, I felt, then I would never have to worry about feeling like maybe I wasn’t really completely worthless apart from Jesus. There were moments when, like Dudley, I actually wondered if it might maybe be best to throw myself into a life of hedonistic sin, a life of sex, drugs, and crime, so that I would then have something significant to repent for. But unlike Dudley, I never followed up on those thoughts. And so, without a life of past sin to be forgiven for (praying the sinner’s prayer is actually one of my very earliest memories, meaning that I couldn’t remember not being a Christian), I had to continually go over every fault I could find and convince myself that I was a terrible horrible person apart from Jesus – or I risked going to hell.
In case you think this was all just the product of my over-reactive teenage mind, let me quote from evangelical theologian and author John Piper on how to avoid the sin of pride:
I remember that I am by nature a depraved sinner and that, in all my sinning, I have treated God with contempt, preferring other things to his glory. I take stock that I have never done a good deed for which I don’t need to repent. Each one is flawed because perfection is commanded. Therefore I realize that God owes me nothing but pain in this life and the next.
^ That, quite simply, is what I’m talking about.
So we’ve seen Dudley’s problem – that he could never seem to really truly believe without a doubt that Jesus was resurrected – and my problem – that I could never seem to completely convince myself that I was utterly and totally worthless. Let’s look at another.
I had a friend growing up who was a bit of a rebel. She wanted to wear trendy jeans and listen to Christian pop music. She wanted to have sleepovers with her friends and to go to the movies. She resented the lack of privacy she had growing up in a large family, and she resented the amount of time she was expected to put in helping with her siblings. While none of this sounds all that bad, in the context of her upbringing it was treated as rebellion and sin.
Given my friend’s “rebellious nature,” she didn’t suffer from the same fears I did. She also didn’t suffer from the doubt that Dudley suffered from. She had prayed the sinner’s prayer and believed it all and very much to do what was right and be a good Christian, and unlike me she had a testimony – that of a sinful rebel redeemed by grace. But even with this, there was one Bible verse that really really bothered her and made her fear she was heading to hell:
Revelation 3:16 – I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
You see, while my friend really did want to be a good Christian, she was never felt “on fire for Jesus” like I did. She wanted to be, and she tried to be, but it just never came. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe. She just didn’t feel what she could tell those around her felt. Given her lack of zeal, she concluded that she must be “lukewarm” and was petrified by the fear that Jesus would spit her out of his mouth – i.e., send her to hell.
Honestly, given that evangelicalism combines the threat of eternal hellfire after death with a road to salvation founded on the recitation of magic words combined with very specific inner feelings, it’s not surprising that there would be those who would worry about whether or not they were “truly” saved.
It’s funny, I actually found becoming a Catholic as a young adult very relieving, because salvation in Catholicism is founded on obtaining grace through the sacraments and “working out” your salvation rather than on a specific moment or feeling or prayer. I found this relieving, and as a Catholic I actually stopped worrying so obsessively about whether I was saved. Of course, I’ve since met plenty of people who grew up Catholic and also feared for their salvation. But instead of fearing that they didn’t actually believe what the Bible said or that they perhaps thought too much of themselves or that they were lukewarm and not zealous enough, most Catholics I’ve spoken to on this subject talk about fears of “falling out of a state of grace.”
I suppose the conclusion is that in any religion that includes the threat of hell, there will be adherents who suffer from anxiety about whether they are truly “saved” or actually “damned.”