Afterlife and Salvation

John Wesley sometimes said he was passing through this life "as an arrow through the air." This life was a precursor to the next, and the most significant question for a person was whether this life's trajectory ended in heaven or hell. Wesley believed in a traditional view of heaven and hell. Because God was just and humans were sinners, unless they availed themselves of the forgiveness made possible by Jesus Christ, they would face an angry God when they died. He encouraged his listeners to "flee the wrath to come." Hell, according to Wesley, was a real place of real torment that lasted through eternity. Heaven, in contrast, was a place of pleasure, not sensual, but the blessedness of being in the presence of God. What salvation means is to be free of sin and thus able to live in the presence of God. This presence is available to believers in this life, but is available fully and directly in the life to come.

Salvation is the result of a process of conversion, away from sin and toward God. Methodists believe that all humans are born sinners, thus all require conversion to be saved. Conversion may be sudden and dramatic or gradual. It consists of responding positively to God's prevenient grace, and to accepting the offer of justifying grace (the forgiveness of sins). With justifying grace comes also God's sanctifying grace, the supernatural assistance we need to make possible a life of increasing success in turning away from temptation, not allowing ourselves to sin, and performing works of piety and mercy. Methodists have historically differed from Presbyterians in believing that you can approach sinless perfection, and in believing that if you do not make progress toward perfection, you can lose your salvation.

While in the past these differences about your ability to accept salvation, and to live sinlessly or lose salvation, have distinguished Methodists from other Protestants, in more recent years the deeper significant split has been between the more conservative and more liberal wings of each Protestant denomination. Conservative Methodists and conservative Presbyterians resemble each other more than conservative and liberal Methodists do, and the same is true for the liberal wings.

The conservative wing of the Methodist Church maintains its belief in an afterlife spent in a literal place, either heaven or hell. More liberal Methodists tend to downplay hell, often because the image of God torturing people for eternity, even if they are sinners, is not easy to square with their idea of a loving God. Nor is it easy for them to square the idea of a just God with one who casts people into hell because, as the result of fortune for which they are not responsible, they have not lived in a place where the Gospel of Jesus was preached.

In recent surveys, far more Americans say that they believe in heaven than say they believe in hell. Since the mid-20th century there have been Methodists (this is true of all Protestant denominations) who hold that neither heaven nor hell are literal places. 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.     What possibilities did Wesley believe existed for the afterlife?
     2.     What is salvation? How can a Methodist achieve it?
     3.     How is Methodism split with conservative and liberal beliefs about salvation?

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