What's Next?

Beliefnet's faith-by-faith guide to how major world religions view heaven, hell, and the concept of salvation.

 


Catholicism
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
Either Heaven, which is union with God, life forever in Christ; Purgatory, a temporary period of purification; or Hell, a state of self-chosen exclusion from God. Moral, loving, faithful Catholics who believe in Jesus and adhere to the teachings of the Church. The Church also teaches that through the mystery of God's grace, non-Catholics "who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation." Ultraconservative Catholics cite Pope Leo XII's words that "there is no salvation outside the Church" as meaning that only Catholics can be saved. But even before Vatican II, the Catholic Church endorsed the idea of "baptism by desire." This assumes that non-Catholics who live good lives would have wanted baptism (wanted to accept Jesus) had they known about it--and so can be saved.
Conservative Protestantism
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
Either everlasting communion and fellowship with God (Heaven) or absolute and utter separation from God (Hell). Heaven is first a spiritual existence of the soul in communion with God and then--following Christ's return--a bodily one where our perfected bodies will live on a New Earth in complete joy, happiness, and fellowship. For those who have rejected Jesus, eternal separation from God, the source of all goodness, follows. Views vary on what punishments Hell may hold beyond isolation from God. Those who have received God's limitless love (grace) as shown through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus receive eternal life. Though true faith leads to good works, what is necessary for salvation is not actions, but the receipt of God's love through Jesus. What does it mean to follow Jesus and accept him as Lord and Savior? Are good works only evidence of faith in Jesus, or do they play some role in salvation? When and how do those who have not been given the opportunity to hear about Jesus' love for them get the chance to accept or reject him? If Jesus' life, death, and resurrection show God's limitless and unmerited grace, can that grace save even non-believers?
Liberal Protestantism
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
In general, liberal Protestants believe that people go to either Heaven (union with God; life forever in Christ) or to Hell (separation from God). But liberal Protestants hold a range of non-traditional views, including the belief that there is no heaven or hell. Those who believe in Jesus and live good lives. Most liberal Protestants also believe that non-Christians can be saved, as in this excerpt from the Presbyterian Church USA catechism: "No one will be lost who can be saved. The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. ...No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." In general, among liberal Protestants what might be termed "right action" takes precedence over "right belief": integrity and love are regarded as more important than belief in a particular dogma. Liberal Protestants generally believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. But many also believe that people in other religious traditions have access to God's grace and to salvation. Liberal Protestants also differ about the existence of heaven and hell. Some believe both exist, others believe that neither exist, and still others believe there is only heaven but no hell.
Judaism
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
The highest good in Judaism is living a moral life; that is its own reward. The concept of an afterlife is emphasized in Orthodox Judaism, where it is usually referred to as Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. The Jewish idea of heaven is generally known as Gan Eden, or as the Garden of Eden, and hell is called Gehinnom. All righteous people, not just Jews, get a place in the world to come, but not all places are equal. A person's status in Olam Ha-Ba depends on actions in this life. Before going to Gan Eden, many people first have to spend time in Gehinnom, which is described by some as a fiery place of harsh punishment and by others as a place where the soul contemplates its past life and repents misdeeds. Except for the worst human beings, the maximum stay in Gehinnom is one year, after which the soul ascends to Gan Eden. There is debate about virtually every aspect of Jewish views on the afterlife, including the question of whether Judaism has a concept of an afterlife at all. For those who believe in Olam Ha-Ba, there is debate about whether the term refers to heaven and hell (Gan Eden/Gehinnom) or whether it refers to this world as it will be in the messianic era after the resurrection of the dead (tehiyat ha-metim)--or whether it is something entirely different.
Islam
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
Paradise (which Muslims believe has seven levels) or Hell. Those who observe the Five Pillars of Islam: Belief in only one God and His Messenger Muhammad, Hajj, Fasting, Prayer, and Charity. Most Muslims believe that Christians and Jews, as "people of the book," will be accepted into Paradise. But some Muslims do not, considering all non-Muslims unworthy.

Buddhism
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
After death, one is reborn in successive incarnations until he/she awakens (as the Buddha did) and becomes liberated from the cycle of life and death (samsara), thus reaching nirvana. Nirvana is not exactly a "state"--it's an awakening to truth. In this "place" one is free from suffering, attachments, and delusions. Although there is a concept of "hell(s)" in Buddhist cosmology, it is not considered a place of permanent damnation. It is understood more as state of mind that anyone can experience in his/her lifetime. The emphasis in Buddhism is on spiritual practice rather than adherence to a particular belief system or the development of a relationship with God. Practitioners can improve their karma and advance toward enlightenment through moral conduct, meditation practice, compassionate acts, the development of wisdom, and other guidelines prescribed by the Buddha's Eightfold Path. Can anyone become enlightened or achieve nirvana? Some Buddhists believe enlightenment is not restricted to those who practice Buddhism, that there are many paths to the truth. Others believe that rigorous dharma study and meditation are absolutely essential. Lines are often drawn between "Eastern" (the more conservative) and "Western" (the more liberal) Buddhists, but divisions splinter out in many directions beyond this.
Hinduism
What's Next? Who Gets to Go? Controversies
The ultimate goal for Hindus is Moksha, self-realization and release from the cycle of death and rebirth. There is no real parallel to the Christian notion of heaven and hell. When Moksha is achieved, the soul will become one with God. It usually takes many lifetimes to achieve Moksha, during which a person is reborn in more or less desirable forms depending on his or her behavior in the previous lifetime. Generally speaking, there are four paths to Moksha, each a different form of yoga: the path of meditation (raja yoga); the path of knowledge (jnana yoga); the path of good works (karma yoga); and the path of devotion (bhakti yoga). Hindus believe in the sacredness of other religions and that any expression of the divine is an expression of the Absolute, the universal spirit (Brahman), and so non-Hindus can achieve Moksha.
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