You Only Think You’re Saved

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.”

On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
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On Indiana
Red Town, Blue Town
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Jason Dick

    Oh, yes. I remember the salvation anxiety that I had when I was a Christian. In my case, it was all about a frequent statement made in church, which I can paraphrase as, “Many people seem to fall away from God, but those who truly believe never do. If you truly believe, you will always be saved.”

    This sort of sounds like it was meant to be reassuring. But it also meant that there are lots of people who act like they are saved, who even think they are saved, but actually are not. And so I wondered, “Do I truly believe? Am I really one of God’s chosen?” And I didn’t know, I couldn’t be sure. So I feared hell very much. I remember a couple of nightmares about it (fortunately not frequent nightmares).

    This is, to me, one of the primary reasons why I am exceedingly happy I am no longer Christian. I just don’t need to worry about an imaginary hell any longer.

  • Jaimie

    You know, I always say that the belief in Hell was the first to go in my journey out of Christianity. But after reading this, I remembered there was something preceding it. It was that “sinner’s prayer” thing. It bugged me. I tried not to let it, since I totally believed that you needed to believe in Jesus death and resurrection to get to Heaven, but something about it just seemed, well, off to me.

    They did the altar call at every sermon, and one day a stray thought came unbidden to my mind. “Say the magic words….” I felt guilty and sinful for even thinking that. Funny how looking back, it was actually reason trying to rear its ugly (sensible) head into my insulated world.

  • Carys Birch

    Bingo, nail on the head yet again.

    I also was ashamed of never being able to remember a time when I was not “saved” (praying the sinner’s prayer at 4 is one of my earliest memories too) and shied away from any activity that would have required “sharing my testimony” because it was boring, not impressive, and certainly not a story that would inspire any unrepentant sinners. I also feared being lukewarm, which is funny, because looking back at myself I was… not lukewarm at all.

    And sometimes, just to be contradictory, I was afraid that I didn’t have enough salvation anxiety! Among my friends, I was the only one who didn’t have quaking, crying fits of fear of hell, and I wondered frequently if my confidence in my salvation was a symptom of my lukewarmness, I mean, if I really cared about my salvation, I would worry about it more right?

    This stuff is just so crazy. It’s odd to look back on myself, on the things I used to think were perfectly normal, logical, obvious even, and see how very MESSED UP they were.

  • smrnda

    It seems that a big problem with this is making whether you are ‘saved’ or not dependent on some internal emotional or mental state. You see other people who tell you “I’m 100% sure that Jesus rose from the dead” and, for all you really know, they’re just saying it since they’re supposed to, and there’s just as much doubt or indifference in them than yourself, but you assume that they really are 100% sure and then you figure you can’t be ‘saved’ since you don’t feel the same way.

    Another problem is, nothing can really convince me that people are so totally vile as Christianity tells me they are. It makes mountains out of molehills, equates harmless actions with harmful ones, or has to supposed that all decent people must be secretly harboring some evil desires despite all evidence to the contrary. I couldn’t believe that nonsense if I tried – Christians impose emotional legalism on everyone and make everything sinful, but life can’t really exist without people with their own wills and opinions. I can’t credibly believe Jesus rose from the dead since I just don’t see the evidence. People aren’t in control of their beliefs – you can’t choose to believe in Bigfoot if you don’t.

    Perhaps this is the goal – make salvation hinge on things the person cannot control so they will have anxiety and need the church.

    • Katty

      “Emotional legalism” – love that wording! You couldn’t have expressed it more succinctly.

      • smrnda

        Since I am not a Christian, I am always surprised by Christians who say they are against ‘legalism.’ They’ve basically decided that emotions themselves can be sinful, and once you really look deeply, there’s pretty much nothing you can even feel that isn’t a sin. They have mountains of rules about what you’re supposed to feel – if you aren’t happy, it’s a sin. If you’re happy about the wrong thing, it’s a sin. If you feel bad, it’s a sin since you aren’t allowed to feel bad about anything since it’s doubting god’s goodness. You can’t really want anything since it’s considered selfish.

      • Basketcase

        I’ve seen this – people being effectively bullied out of church for being depressed and on medication for it, rather than trusting their salvation to bring them out of it.
        “Happy Clappy” churches are the worst. If you aren’t ecstatically happy all.the.time, you aren’t wanted. Gah. Glad I escaped!

  • Angelia Sparrow

    I believed it all, just like I believed history books, but I never felt “saved.” I didn’t like church., The Bible wasn’t my favorite book. (I called it “uneven at best” to a friend whose favorite it was) I couldn’t spend hours praying. And I wondered if people who claimed they did were lying as much as I was when I recited along “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord.” I wondered if everyone, from the preacher on down felt the same way: just going through the motions.

    I have a friend who recently converted to Christianity. I warned her to be careful of sharing her testimony, because many people will never see her as anything but a druggie lesbian witch, and many more will only love her for what her story says about their god. She lost her temper with me.

    • Basketcase

      “I wondered if people who claimed they did were lying as much as I was”
      So glad I’m not the only person who had those kinds of thoughts!

  • Anne — Quicksilver Queen

    Ugh, I had salvation anxiety BIGTIME. I expected god to be like my dad — moody, unpredictable, anything could set him off and you were in trouble. After leaving patriarchy, I really did try to stay a Xtian, but I just couldn’t do it.

  • TheSeravy

    The smartest part about religion is that you can never be sure if you are going to be saved or not; you may do all the right things, think all the right things, but it’s still unknown until the moment you die. And it’s this relentless cycle of self policing that is so handy (and scary) in keeping people afraid and devoted.

  • Becky Johnson

    Salvation anxiety-just one of the many negative effects of these belief systems…I was first brought up protestant evangelical, and then at 14 my Mom became catholic and by default so did I-so I would say I experienced both the “I don’t feel the right way, so maybe I’m not really saved” and the “my behavior is separating me from god” sort of anxiety. Indeed, I remember one of the reasons my mother thought she had found the true path to salvation in the catholic church is because their teachings being more behavior based than feeling based made more logical sense to her. However the catholic belief system really leads to the same or very similar problem-because while as a protestant you have to constantly remind yourself that even your best moments are worth shit because you are a sinner not capable of true, uncorrupted goodness and should just be constantly ecstatically grateful that god deigns to save you anyway, as a catholic you are expected to maintain a state of grace and always work on increasing your holiness-like the levels in a video game-to hopefully decrease your time in purgatory and reach that ultimate state of saintliness. In order to do this, at first it’s easy-I mean I remember my first few confessions-it was a cinch to go down the checklist and find ways that I had fallen short. But it gets harder-I mean, if you’re a good catholic you go to confession regularly-but you can’t go and say to the priest that you haven’t sinned(although supposedly saints never did you can’t claim that condition for yourself-it would be prideful). So you have to constantly dissect your every action and thought, in order to identify a flash of anger here, a moment of selfishness there, a self indulgence that must have been sinful because it was fun…this is how you work toward holiness-and eventually it results in self-delusion because you have to find something or you’re not trying hard enough!

    • Steve

      >”because while as a protestant you have to constantly remind yourself that even your best moments are worth shit because you are a sinner not capable of true, uncorrupted goodness”

      That sounds more like Calvinism and it’s fucked up “total depravity” doctrine than Protestantism in general

      • Becky Johnson

        Yes, you’re correct Steve-I wasn’t sure how to label myself exactly since as I was growing up my family attended quite a variety of churches-some with Calvinist leanings, and overall whatever religious instruction I got at home was always more severe and extreme. So I guess it’s the overall feeling of never being good enough and being afraid of what happens when you die that I was getting at…that you get from any of those belief systems. Sorry if this is a repeat-first time I replied it said there was an error, so re-posting.

      • Ken L.

        Actually I’d say most Protestants would agree with Total Depravity to a certain degree, at least the general idea that at our best we’re all worth shit. You will see disagreement over the idea that we have absolutely no impact on our salvation at all and that we’re completely unable to seek out God unless we are “elect”, but that’s getting much deeper than most people have thought about it.

    • Steve

      Btw, I was never a hardcore Catholic like you seem to have been. I never bought any of it and didn’t feel bad about anything. But the one or two times I went to confession (read: was more or less told to go) I just made up some stuff. Like saying I told a lie or didn’t do what my parents told me. Just so I had to say something.

  • Generally Speaking

    I recall doubting christian stories and the existence of heaven and hell in Sunday school when I was six and seven years old, and, like Dudley, found myself riddled with guilt over my doubts and constantly repeating the sinner’s prayer. It wasn’t until much later that I forcefully started questioning, and simply not being okay with answers I received. I was in my mid-twenties and working as a juvenile probation officer when I heard news that a 15 year old boy was killed by the girlfriend of his father (a widower) at their temple in my city. She then killed herself. As a christian, I was so conflicted about this. I spoke with christian friends and asked, “So, did he go to hell?” The answer was yes. He was jewish and did not believe in christ as his savior, so, sadly, the boy went to hell. Me – “But he was so young? And had no real exposure to christianity because he was raised as a jew. How could he have accepted christ as his savior?” It was explained to me, “God would have presented Himself to the boy, and placed His message upon his heart. The boy was old enough to make the decision from there.” Umm…seriously? So, I asked, “And that’s what you would tell his father? Who first lost his wife, and now his 15 year old son – you would tell him his son went to hell? Oh, and likely his wife, too, since she was also jewish.” As gently as they tried to present it to me, the answer remained, yes. I found this simply incomprehensible and revolting.
    It wasn’t until a few years later that I met, for the first time, an atheist (who absolutely changed my life). As ridiculous as it may sound, at nearly thirty years old, I really didn’t know anything about atheism – other than what I was told by christian leaders, mentors, relatives and friends. I am clean from the taint of religion for three years now. And I have to tell you, as a christian I never felt as ‘saved’ as I do as an atheist.

    • Christine

      This was one of the things that always bothered me about salvation. I didn’t encounter evangelical christians until my first boss, who was constantly trying to save me (I enjoy fantasy roleplaying games… oh the horror). I could never understand how people who’d lived before Jesus or in cultures that never encountered Jesus were supposed to do to get saved. His response: a select number of really decent people from those civilisations would be saved. My response: so what about really decent people who who aren’t christians today? His response: they are going to hell because they have opportunity to learn about Jesus and they don’t take it. Urk.

  • The_L

    I was raised Catholic, and went to a private evangelical school. I got both forms of salvation anxiety all the time. I kept worrying that I didn’t believe strongly enough, or I wasn’t doing enough, or that I’d accidentally committed a serious sin without realizing it. It was like living in the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, all the time, and since I was never in a totally-secular setting long enough to hear things that weren’t Jesus-talk, it took until I deconverted in college to finally stop being afraid.

  • Sheena

    I was baptized three times. Yes, three. The first time, I was six; the second, in my young teens and going through a serious “very religious” phase; the third, I was 18, had decided to become a member of a church, and was leaving for boot camp within a month. Through my teens (and until a few years ago, when I was about 25) I would “re-dedicate” myself on at least a monthly basis. As a child and very young teen, I never felt like I was enough of a “father pleaser” or otherwise good enough. I never felt like I was a strong enough Christian, because I still had doubts and couldn’t always “let go” and just *worship* and I often (silently) disagreed with pastors and Sunday school teachers and couldn’t stick to daily prayer/Bible-reading/devotional schedule. Also, I was never part of the “inner circle” in my age group; even in the young adult group, I felt out-of-place because I hadn’t (yet) been to college, didn’t have a Perfect Christian Boyfriend, and didn’t wear the same clothing style or sing in the worship band or bake the perfect pound cake or LOVE babysitting. Even in a “grace-focused” group, there was still that expectation that people would act a certain way, and I never felt like I measured up.

    I’m less concerned now, but I’m a much-mellowed Episcopalian these days.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      When I see churches praise themselves and others based on the number of baptisms, I have to wonder how many of those are repeats.

  • A Reader

    This article, right here, so much. There was a period where I prayed every night that I’d be saved, because I didn’t feel any different from the night before. It was terrifying.

  • Cylon

    I used to be Mormon, so “being saved” was never anything I could even expect to happen in this life. Mormons believe in being saved by grace, but only “after all you can do.” “Endure to the end” is the phrase we had to fall back on (and anyone who has sat through the three hour block of mind-numbing church meetings each Sunday knows that enduring is absolutely what you have to do). So I had a mindset much closer to the Catholic “work out your salvation.” If you get baptized and receive the priesthood and get married in the temple and pay your tithing all the time (that’s a big one, of course), and do everything you’re supposed to then maybe Jesus will accept you when you die and save you. The problem in Mormonism is that there are so damn many rules you have to follow that nobody can possibly comply with them all. So yeah, salvation anxiety was definitely there. The only consolation I had was that Mormons don’t believe in a traditional hell, even the lowest “kingdom of glory” is supposed to be a pretty okay place.

    Can anyone with an evangelical background tell me what exactly is involved with having a “personal relationship with Jesus?” That wasn’t really a big focus for us, it got brought up once in a while but was never actually explained.

    • luckyducky

      Please forgive me for my uni-dimensional view of the “personal relationship” because it was not a big focus of my own faith tradition but it is prevalent in the Bible Belt where I grew up. I ended up understanding it as an church-sanctioned imaginary friend. The people who were most vocal about having a personal relationship also seemed to promote God-as-genie theology in which if you just prayed hard enough and professed your faith (loudly) enough, God will bless you with what you wanted or at least what was good for you. The same people talking about their personal relationship also tend to attribute things like selling their house quickly or their team winning to evidence of the good things that happen to the faithful.

      So, for me it became a pretty good (not without false positives) indicator of a pretty infantile theology that is really susceptible to confirmation bias and shades into the Gospel of Wealth.

      • Cylon

        Ah, ok. That actually is something I’ve seen. The prosperity gospel pops up everywhere these days, and given that Mormons are 80% Republican, it certainly is popular there. They just call it the blessings of the spirit.

    • The_L

      Adding to what luckyducky said, as I grew up in that area as well:

      A “personal relationship with Jesus,” in the minds of the folks who harp on it the most, should ideally make you into a carbon-copy of them with the same views on everything. If you’re Catholic, Mormon, or JW, you’re Not A Real Christian by their standards, and thus don’t actually have a relationship with Jesus. If you disagree with them about anything political, or even something as stupid as how many nails were used in the crucifixion of Jesus, then you’re a liar and were never actually saved at all–you’re just trying to pull real Christians into a life of sin and debauchery and secular music.

      I’ve also heard the B.S. claim that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus!” Well in that case, my Paganism isn’t a religion either, guys, it’s just a personal relationship with Thor.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        The atheist answer to that (if you want to piss them of) is that then atheism is a personal relationship with reality.

      • smrnda

        I think the ‘personal relationship’ is ridiculous. I have some personal relationships with people I see daily, who provide me with personalized, explicit, unambiguous communication and whose existence is easy to confirm, and who I know relatively precise information about. When you spill coffee on Jesus when you’re out having breakfast with him then I’ll believe you have a personal relationship with Jesus.

      • Cylon

        “Personal relationship with reality.” I like that. :)

    • Rosie

      My take on the “personal relationship” was that, after the whole sinner’s prayer thing he was rather an imaginary friend. I didn’t have much for actual friends for several years growing up, so I thought Jesus was supposed to fill in my emotional needs for me. “The God-shaped hole” and all that.

  • M

    I think I’m very glad I was raised Conservative/Reconstructionist* Jewish. While there’s quite a lot wrong with modern Judaism, the idea that people are inherently worthless definitely isn’t part of it. Given that I’m prone to bouts of self-loathing anyways, I can only imagine how having that be your cultural background would magnify that and turn depressive tendencies into full-blown depressive episodes.

    *Reconstructionism is an odd offshoot of Judaism that started about 90 years ago. It finds its roots in Rabbi Kaplan, who was the first to offer a Bat Mitzvah ceremony to girls (his daughter).

    • Hilary

      I’m with you there. I love being a Reform Jew, and for all the places we can get fairly meshugenah about things at least Original Sin isn’t an issue, and I don’t have to worry about other people’s souls going to hell.

  • “Rebecca”

    The lack of testimony was a problem for me in the Bible-centric Christian church I was brought up in. There were the adults in my church who had these amazing born-again testimonies, and my peers who went to public school and faced all sorts of temptations… but I was homeschooled and Christian all my childhood, so how could I relate to any of that? Nobody at church knew what to do with me and I really resented it. I felt like I had nothing to offer God.

  • Tracey

    As a Catholic, my understanding was that each new sin needed a new confession before you died in order to grant one entrance to heaven. So if I hit my sister and then fell over dead, I’d be in hell. My mother did at least tell us it was ok to confess inside your head- God could still hear and forgive you. I would have been afraid much more often if I thought a priest was required.

    • The_L

      We had a copy of the old Baltimore Catechism, which specifically says that if you’re at confession and fail to mention any of your sins–even if you’ve already prayed directly to God for forgiveness, or just forgot or something–then you were being dishonest, your confession was invalid, and you had the additional sin of lying on top of the ones you had to confess before. So you’d have to go back to Confession, do the whole thing again, AND mention that you forgot a sin before and here’s what it is.

      That terrified me, because I could never quite remember any specific sins when it was time for Confession. I knew I should be nicer to my brother (I was kind of a brat as a kid), but I couldn’t think of anything specific I’d done to him all year, just “I’ve been a real meanie and need to stop being a meanie.”

      • Christine

        When I did my preparation for first Reconciliation (which we did after first Communion for some unknown reason), we were specifically taught that as long as you intended to confess all your sins, and tried to do so (i.e. you did your due diligence) it counted – even for ones that you’d forgotten. That’s the complete opposite of what you were told. Interesting.

      • The_L

        Christine: We weren’t told in CCD what would happen if you forgot to mention a sin at all. However, I would like to point out that the Baltimore Catechism is a children’s version–revised in 1941. This appears to be an abridged version of the text, without any of the cartoons or any of the stuff that changed because of Vatican II.

        It was already obsolete when I was a child, by several decades.

      • The_L

        Btw, this appears to be the copy we had around the house:

        Cover image, front and back

        A Google Image Search for “Baltimore catechism” brings up lots of the illustrations in all their mid-20th-century red-and-black glory.

        #214, 216, and 217 explain the Church’s position on accidental or deliberate omission of sins, but I was always made to feel guilty for saying I couldn’t remember any sins, implying that I was deliberately holding back or somehow trying to forget.

  • Hilary

    Does anybody know – does this happen to more liberal Christians? Is it the same intense focus?

    I have a theory about why Cristianity focuses so much on sin. If anybody disagrees with me, please call me out, this is just an idea I’m sharing.

    Christianity started as a Jewish sect, but was by and large unable to convince most Jews to convert. Some did, but for the most part Jews rejected him as a Messiah. Quite simply the Jews then, throught time, and still even now hope for a Messiah that will bring world peace for everybody, and specifically peace in a safe homeland for the Jews. “Nation shall not raise sword against nation, nor shall they study war.” Jesus didn’t do any of this. None of his immediate followers did this. Within a century of his death, at the times the gospels where being written, the Temple had been destroyed and the final war with the Romans had cumulated in the total destruction of the Israelite nation. So as far as “Nation shall not raise sword against nation” Jesus as a Messiah was a total and epic fail by Jewish standards.

    So there had to be something else, some other reason for the stories and beliefs that were developing around the narative of his life and teachings. In the historical swirl of events that became the early church, that something else became sin. Sin that was an innate part of being, instead of doing or not doing as per the case with Judaism. To claim that Jesus had redeemed you from sin as the Messiah is a statement of belief, unverifiable by critical observation. To claim that the Messiah will bring an end to all war, grief, and suffering is to hope for a better future in the midst of a violent and dangerous present, and something that can be easily verified by checking to see if war and oppression has really stopped.

    Does this make any sense or am I just seeing things? I’ve been studying this for a while now and so far this is the best I can make sense of how the original Jewish belief in a messiah bringing peace became the Christian belief of the messiah saving people from sin.


    • luckyducky

      I wouldn’t say I grew up “liberal Christian” but I was raised V-II Catholic. I have been a bit surprised by the Catholic response here. Here is the understanding I have:
      - People are essentially good (it was Martin Luther who said that we are but dung piles covered in snow) but have the stain of original sin — which manifest itself as weakness.
      - Because of this weakness we can never “deserve” (in that sense we are never going to be good enough) salvation, salvation instead is a gift.
      - We do not *earn* our salvation through good works but show our love of God through good works.
      - We do good works and strengthen our relationship with Him through reconciliation (asking forgiveness of sins) throughout our lives out of love — not in an attempt to earn salvation.
      - We do not know who gets into heaven and who gets goes to hell (even Hilter, conceivably, could have repented) because we cannot know the state of their hearts at death nor can we comprehend the extent of God’s mercy. However, we can be reasonably sure that saints have gotten into heaven because of the way that God has chosen to work through them (documented miracles).
      - Purgatory, though questionable theologically, is most often presented as a state of being during which one is prepared to enter heaven. It may be momentary or it may consist of a great deal of time (the pre-V-II bookkeeping regarding achieves a high degree of absurdity) but it doesn’t really matter as we cannot comprehend the significance of time (if any) after this life.
      - Short hand I was given for responding to my evangelical friends: I am saved (I’ve been baptized), I am being saved (I am working on my relationship with God), and I hope to be saved (I do not know what God’s judgement will be in the end).

      Based on this understanding, I did not have a lot of Catholic-related salvation anxiety. In fact, I would say, I came away with a kind of big shrug — I am not in charge of it, I don’t really know what the metrics are, and it seems as if there is little I can do aside from try to be kind to reliably affect the outcome — and left it at that. I admit, I could be an outlier with regard to this. The only salvation anxiety I did have was when I was challenged by the worthless-sinners variety of Christians — as in, they are so confident, maybe I’ve got it wrong. But it didn’t last long because I was really turned off by the insistence that we were such awful beings.

      I would say that this played a roll in both my sister’s and my departure from the Church. I think I had a reasonably healthy relationship in my faith life to good works and salvation — I did approach the “good works” I undertook in a desire to show love, I didn’t really think of it as earning a spot in heaven. However, the understanding lead to a sort of universalism. As with most people, the idea of Hitler being there was repugnant, I was committed to the idea of not knowing the bounds of God’s mercy, so I had to accept the possibility that he could be there. This in turn, led to consideration of all the people who are condemned by some because of choices they’ve made but in possibly extreme conditions, then not so extreme conditions, and people who are condemned by some because of who they are (i.e., LGBT people) and it all kind of came apart for me because the God I was taught about — the God of Love — wasn’t consistent with the idea of hell because there is something redeemable about (almost) everyone, right? This in turn led me to question why hell was such a cornerstone for much of religion that is supposedly about love and this in turn led me to the conclusion that it is a means of controlling people and that there was far too much about my Church that was about control and repression instead of love and empowerment.

      • The_L

        I grew up in a diocese with a relatively-liberal bishop (Oscar Lipscomb, Mobile Diocese) but my parents were extremely conservative and refused to go to any church that had a liberal priest, because “they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

        This meant that, despite being born well after V2, I got a very pre-Vatican-II sense of “You’re a horrible sinner and nothing you do will ever be good enough.”

        Combine that with clinical depression, and you’ve got a very toxic cocktail of self-loathing and picking at every tiny mistake you make, per mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I was the sort of person who had to leave the Church altogether just to maintain some small shreds of sanity.

      • Jayn

        “But it didn’t last long because I was really turned off by the insistence that we were such awful beings.”

        The idea that we’re all inherently worthless and need God to lift us up is the one thing that drives me nuts when I attend Lutheran mass (I was raised Catholic, if somewhat loosely). Largely this is because I’ve long fought with self-esteem issues, and to me this doctrine represents a deep, dark hole that I’ve spent years trying to climb out of, and they’re encouraging me to jump back in.

      • luckyducky

        Lutheranism made a lot more sense (it has never appealed to me) when I learned that Martin Luther had intestinal problems and spent a great deal of time and probably wrote a great deal of his work in the privy.

      • chicka dee

        Ahh, Martin Luther. I never thought much about him, growing up Baptist, and I was never his biggest fan, but recently I’ve been reading a book with quotes of some of his writings pertaining to women. It just sounds like he was a big misogynist jerk. For example, he said that women are only good for procreating, and if a woman dies in childbirth, oh well. (not exact quotes.) I still don’t quite understand how he spawned an entire movement by nailing complaints on a church door. (And yes, I am kind of ignorant about church history, I’m just going on some basic things I’ve heard or read.)

    • Kodie

      I’m no scholar, but it seems like another retrofit in the narrative. Noah, I’m led to believe, was supposed to be a reboot on Adam and Eve that didn’t actually do anything. The fall “explains” why we are the way we are, which isn’t perfect. God got pretty disgusted with everyone and spared Noah from global genocide. People still didn’t know how to be perfect. I suppose the messiah was supposed to herald another new era but that obviously didn’t work, and people didn’t change, so they made it so Jesus was sacrificed to absolve sinners from having to be perfect, which is one way of admitting we’re not perfect, but inventing a place where we may go that is this ideal perfection that we lost when Eve listened to a talking snake and ate the fruit. If you want to go there, you just have to admit you’re a sinner and worship Jesus for dying for you.

      I gather most of my information from topics like this where people who have read the bible (believers and ex-believers usually) examine the New Testament. It seems like a lot of Christians claim prophesy in the OT, and fulfillment in the NT, fairly conveniently, with plenty of wiggle room. If they were expecting a messiah, they pretty much could make someone up to fill that role, fictionally or semi-fictionally, embellish his traits, and if he was supposed to bring a golden era of peace, which he obviously did not do, they could interpret that as heaven. I mean if you’re telling me this guy died to bring peace, I’m going to call you on it – like the Jews tend to do. If you’re able to interpret his accomplishments as meaning some … I want to call it metaphorical.. place else, after you die, you don’t get so picky about life not being perfect. It’s not supposed to be, and you’re not supposed to be. Someone let you off the hook, and let god off the hook, and everything’s fine, right? I mean, after you die, if you’re saved, then it’s perfect. If you’re not saved, well you don’t know and there’s nothing you can do about it, but apparently there are a lot of things you can try to impose on yourself to prove that you should be chosen.

      It’s funny to me, since I was pretty sure most people who believe in heaven also believe they’re going to it. Most Christians try to win souls – if they can convert you then you’re not going to hell, and they threaten us atheists as choosing to go to hell, and that when we meet god, we’re going to beg him and lie that we believed in him, but it will be too late. They seem pretty darn sure they’re getting in! To me, it seems the main motivation they’re given is fearing for everyone else’s souls, that’s why they’re so pushy about sin in our culture, but maybe they’re convinced that the number of people they convert will help their accounts also – in reality, it’s about getting people to come to church and pay tithes.

    • Christine

      Also coming from a RC perspective (we aren’t progressive, but a lot of very conservative mainstream theology gets called such by Evangelicals). I would add that you have a fair bit of sense there. Early Christians didn’t so much think that there was going to be peace here in this world, but they expected the “second coming” to happen at any instant – to the point where some people stopped working and otherwise started to screw over their future because they knew it didn’t matter. Interestingly enough this sort of view still continues, although most Christian scholarship is somewhat skeptical that we would just happen to be living in the time when those particular words (about the “second coming” happening in the lifetime of the readers) would be true.

      The one thing I would add to luckyducky’s explanation is the importance of the letter of James in this viewpoint: faith without works is dead (paraphrase of James 2:14). Good works (and receiving sacraments) are ways of living out faith.

      I entirely second the idea that salvation anxiety isn’t as big a deal. Not only is the doctrine that one can know with absolute certainty if someone is “saved” or not, but the reason for doing good works (and receiving sacraments) is not to gain salvation, but to gain grace (and yes, being in a state of grace is a good thing for getting into heaven, but there are plenty of loopholes, and having even one remove makes a big difference).

    • Nebuladance

      Excellent. I went to a conservative bible college where OT History was a requirement, and your explanation cuts through all the gobbled-gook.

      • Hilary


    • Ken L.

      “more liberal Christians” covers a rather huge territory and includes some who don’t believe in a literal hell anyway, but in general it’s not going to be nearly as big a deal. Universalism (everyone will be saved) or something very close to it is getting very common.

      Salvation Anxiety isn’t even guaranteed in a generally fundagelical environment either. My upbringing was pretty much that of course I didn’t mean the sinner’s prayer with my “whole heart”. Nobody ever does and God knows that, but he accepts it anyway – that’s essentially what God’s grace is. In general the only thing that might possibly lead to “losing my salvation” was blasphemy against the Holy Spirity, and that’s so rare that nobody’s even sure what it is. I guess I got the lite version of Fundagelicalism.

    • Elizabeth

      Liberal Lutheran perspective here.

      My understanding growing up was pretty much:
      - We are all sinners. We are all constantly sinning and can never hope to be perfect. (Pretty much straight Martin Luther, I believe.)
      - We are saved through grace alone. If you are baptized, you are going to heaven. You also have to keep believing in God and Jesus, though. And if you didn’t happen to get baptized, that’s probably okay, too.
      - We will never be worthy of this salvation
      - But since you believe in God and Jesus, you’re saved even though you’re not worthy, so don’t worry about the worthiness part too much.
      - Doubt is okay.
      - Heaven and Hell probably exist, but might be metaphorical. If they do exist, you’re going there, since you believe in God and Jesus.
      - Try not to sin. You’ll fail of course, but try not to, and talk to God about your failings.

      I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about salvation. I always thought that was pretty much in the bag, since I was both baptized and had also been saved. I did occasionally feel it would be better to have some kind of “Road to Damascus” experience (rather than being raised in and staying in the church), but I think that came in later, when I was exposed to some Baptist/evangelical theology.

  • Lana

    I agree. I would add, having lived in the eastern world, that other religions use karma for much the same way. There is always the fear of coming back as a low class (such as a starving kid in Africa who has nothing to eat but mud) or as an animal.

  • Rosie

    While I don’t recall ever having salvation anxiety, I did manage to convince myself that I was utterly and completely worthless (even though I was a very compliant kid in a Christian household, and saved at age 4). That has created its own problems in my life.

  • Ahab

    I was raised Catholic, and I suffered from SEVERE salvation anxiety in my early teens. The fear of hell was so overpowering, and all the countless arbitrary religious rules I had to follow were so difficult, that I could never draw any comfort from my religion. When I lost my faith (and with it, my belief in hell), the salvation anxiety vanished, and I felt like I could breathe for the first time in ages.

  • Gg

    I was raised Pentecostal and a relationship with Jesus is definitely a wishing genie and imaginary friend. It basically boiled down to “asking god for his plan” in all matters of your life and then looking for signs of his “answer” or even saying he “spoke” to you thru a verse u randomly flipped to. So in practice it is just praying and then claiming your decisions have Jesus’ stamp of approval so then you can force your opinions on all others.

    For instance, Mom always hated that i watched anime so she prayed about it and “learned” it like let in demons of violence so if I would continue to watch then I wouldn’t be living with Jesus in my heart for realz because the Jesus in my heart would keep me from desiring watching such a thing.

    In other words, you weren’t really ever a Christian if you like TV Mom says god no likey. Seriously! I went to church convinced I needed to follow the alter call everytime I’d watched Nauruto the day before or even found a place in my heart where I still liked Inuyasha. I thought I was going to hell because I couldn’t stop liking anime!?!?!

    • Ahab

      I wonder what your mom would think if she got to heaven and discovered that God was an otaku? Picture an old man with a white beard, lounging on a shimmering cosmic sofa, watching Sailor Moon reruns!

  • Rebecca

    The whole guilt culture of Christianity is so unhealthy and unnecessary! Up until I left home at 21 I was more certain of my parents’ salvation than I was of my own (funny, turns it out they’re not the best people, particularly my stepfather) and was quite bothered by this. I remember when I was nine or ten I felt so intensely guilty for not thirsting like a newborn for milk and not loving to read the Bible – we only used the King James Version! And then in my early teens I had a few scary years in which I wasn’t sure I was saved and said the Sinner’s Prayer a few more times lest it hadn’t stuck when I was three and first lisped it with my mother one night. I was paralyzed with fear to leave the house because I didn’t want to get into a car accident and die and go to hell. But I told no one. My younger sister tells me now that I was always the “good” Christian girl in her eyes. I don’t understand why parents would put their children through such horrible upbringings and yet SO many do!

  • Kristen

    That verse you quoted about being lukewarm always bugged me too, but i just ignored it. Until earlier this year my church did a series on Francis Chan’s Crazy Love which is centered around that verse and the whole book is basically about how we are all crappy people and we need to be crazy for jesus or we are going to hell. I tried to argue theologically with it, but eventually I felt like I was twisting myself into a pretzel to reassure myself that God wasn’t that mean. This was the beginning of my deconversion. I ran into this paradox; you can’t will yourself to be ‘on fire’, you have to fully surrender to God and let him take care of it, so this means it’s simultaneously out of your control and your fault if you fail. I ‘let go and let God’. and I still felt nothing.