Afterlife and Salvation

For Protestants this life is a pilgrimage, a journey toward an eternal destination. That destination is an eternity spent either in heaven or in hell. Those saved enjoy some benefits here on earth during their pilgrimage. Salvation is not just an experience for the afterlife; it involves the "first fruits" of blessedness, that is, a proper relationship with God, a gradual transformation into the likeness of Christ, and the filling of the Holy Spirit. This process will not be complete, however, in this life.

Some Protestants hold that there is nothing one can do to earn a spot in heaven; God freely chooses to forgive the sins of some, and they can enter heaven.  Others hold that though forgiveness is only possible through God's grace, it is offered to all and anyone can freely accept this forgiveness.  These Protestants, who endow humans with some degree of free will and some responsibility for effecting their own salvation, tend also to believe that one's ultimate fate rests to some extent on one's works—both in actively choosing God through faith, and in a life of growing conformity to the teaching of Christ.

Because purgatory is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, nearly all Protestants reject the Roman Catholic teaching that there is also a transitional place or process of purification of the soul after death. That said, there is some diversity of thought about what happens immediately after death. While nearly all Protestants believe that the individual retains its unique identity after death (unlike Eastern religions), some believe that the soul goes immediately to be with Christ in heaven, awaiting the Day of Judgment and a resurrected body. Others suggest that there is an intermediate time of "soul sleep," an unconscious waiting for the resurrection. Some believe that the souls of the dead proceed immediately on death either to heaven or hell. Still others argue that the temporality of this life versus the eternality of the life to come makes intermediate periods of time meaningless altogether.

Traditionally Protestants believe in a judgment day at the end of history. On this day all the dead from throughout human history will be resurrected, and will possess some sort of physical body that will resemble but yet be different from the body possessed during their earthly existence. Jesus' resurrection, described in all four Gospels, is the basis for this belief, and the apostle Paul emphasizes the resurrection, linking Christ's resurrection to the experience believers will have at the end of time. Paul insists that without the resurrection, Christian faith is meaningless (1 Cor. 15:12-19). At the final resurrection of the dead, the saints (or, the elect) enter heaven, while the damned are sent to hell. Heaven is a state of blessedness in the presence of God, something humans have not been able to experience since the fall in the Garden of Eden. Hell is a place of torment, as just punishment for sin.

In recent times, a significant split has emerged  between the more conservative and more liberal wings of many Protestant denominations. Conservatives maintain their belief in an afterlife spent in a literal place, either heaven or hell. More liberal Protestants 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 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.

Far more Americans say that they believe in heaven in recent surveys, than say they believe in hell, and this view has been adopted by some within Protestantism. There are also now many Protestants who 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. For some of these people, hell is a metaphor for living in the absence of God in this life.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is the Protestant life seen as a journey to a destination? What are the options?
2.     Do Protestants believe in purgatory? Why or why not?
3.     What do Protestants believe will happen on the final judgment day?
4.     How do Conservative and Liberal branches of Protestantism understand heaven and hell differently?

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