Sin and Salvation in the World Religions: A Short Introduction

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The term soteriology denotes beliefs and doctrines concerning salvation in any specific religion, as well as the study of the subject. The idea of saving or delivering from some dire situation logically implies that humankind, as a whole or in part, is in such a situation. This premise , in turn, involves a series of related assumptions about human nature and destiny.

The creation myths of many religions express the beliefs that have been held concerning the original state of humankind in the divine ordering of the universe. Many of these myths envisage a kind of golden age at the beginning of the world, when the first human beings lived, serene and happy, untouched by disease, aging, or death and in harmony with a divine Creator. Myths of this kind usually involve the shattering of the ideal state by some mischance, with wickedness, disease, and death entering into the world as the result.

In ancient Iran a different cosmic situation was contemplated, one in which the world was seen as a battleground of two opposing forces: good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. In this cosmic struggle, humanity was inevitably involved, and the quality of human life was conditioned by this involvement.

This salvation involved the restoration of all that had been corrupted or injured by Ahriman at the time of his final defeat and destruction. Thus, the Zoroastrian concept of salvation was really a return to a golden age of the primordial perfection of all things, including humans. Some ancient Christian theologians e. In those religions that regard humans as essentially psychophysical organisms e.

Such religions therefore teach doctrines of a resurrection of the dead body and its reunion with the soul, preparatory to ultimate salvation or damnation. In contrast, some religions have taught that the body is a corrupting substance in which the soul is imprisoned e. In this dualistic view of human nature, salvation has meant essentially the emancipation of the soul from its physical prison or tomb and its return to its ethereal home.

Harold Coward Sin And Salvation In The World Religions A Short Introduction

Such religions generally explain the incarceration of the soul in the body in terms that imply the intrinsic evil of physical matter. Where such views of human nature were held, salvation therefore meant the eternal beatitude of the disembodied soul. Christian soteriology contains a very complex eschatological regarding a doctrine of last things program, which includes the fate of both individual persons and the existing cosmic order.

The return of Christ will be heralded by the destruction of heaven and earth and the resurrection of the dead. The Last Judgment , which will then take place, will result in the eternal beatitude of the just, whose souls have been purified in purgatory , and the everlasting damnation of the wicked. The saved, reconstituted by the reunion of soul and body, will forever enjoy the beatific vision; the damned, similarly reconstituted, will suffer forever in hell , together with the Devil and the fallen angels.

For if there are no true counterfactuals of freedom, it is not true that certain persons would receive Christ if they were to hear the gospel, nor can God be held responsible for the number of the lost if He lacks middle knowledge, for without such knowledge He could only guess in the moment logically prior to His decree to create the world how many and, indeed, whether any persons would freely receive Christ or whether He would even send Christ! Let us assume, then, that some such counterfactuals are true and that God has middle knowledge.

For those who are unfamiliar with this species of knowledge and as considerable confusion exists concerning it, a few words about the concept of middle knowledge and its implications for providence and predestination might be helpful. Largely the product of the creative genius of the Spanish Jesuit of the Counter-Reformation Luis Molina , the doctrine of middle knowledge proposes to furnish an analysis of divine knowledge in terms of three logical moments.

That is to say, God's knowledge of a particular set of propositions depends asymmetrically on His knowledge of a certain other set of propositions and is in this sense posterior to it. In the first, unconditioned moment God knows all possibilia, not only all individual essences, but also all possible worlds. Molina calls such knowledge "natural knowledge" because the content of such knowledge is essential to God and in no way depends on the free decisions of His will. By means of His natural knowledge, then, God has knowledge of every contingent state of affairs which could possibly obtain and of what the exemplification of the individual essence of any free creature could freely choose to do in any such state of affairs that should be actual.

In the second moment, God possesses knowledge of all true counterfactual propositions, including counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. That is to say, He knows what contingent states of affairs would obtain if certain antecedent states of affairs were to obtain; whereas by His natural knowledge God knew what any free creature could do in any set of circumstances, now in this second moment God knows what any free creature would do in any set of circumstances. This is not because the circumstances causally determine the creature's choice, but simply because this is how the creature would freely choose.

God thus knows that were He to actualize certain states of affairs, then certain other contingent states of affairs would obtain.


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Molina calls this counterfactual knowledge "middle knowledge" because it stands in between the first and third moment in divine knowledge. Middle knowledge is like natural knowledge in that such knowledge does not depend on any decision of the divine will; God does not determine which counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are true or false. Thus, if it is true that. If some agent S were placed in circumstances C , then he would freely perform action a ,. On the other hand, middle knowledge is unlike natural knowledge in that the content of His middle knowledge is not essential to God.

True counterfactuals of freedom are contingently true; S could freely decide to refrain from a in C , so that different counterfactuals could be true and be known by God than those that are. Hence, although it is essential to God that He have middle knowledge, it is not essential to Him to have middle knowledge of those particular propositions which He does in fact know.

Intervening between the second and third moments of divine knowledge stands God's free decree to actualize a world known by Him to be realizable on the basis of His middle knowledge. By His natural knowledge, God knows what is the entire range of logically possible worlds; by His middle knowledge He knows, in effect, what is the proper subset of those worlds which it is feasible for Him to actualize.

By a free decision, God decrees to actualize one of those worlds known to Him through His middle knowledge. According to Molina, this decision is the result of a complete and unlimited deliberation by means of which God considers and weighs every possible circumstance and its ramifications and decides to settle on the particular world He desires.

Hence, logically prior, if not chronologically prior, to God's creation of the world is the divine deliberation concerning which world to actualize. Given God's free decision to actualize a world, in the third and final moment God possesses knowledge of all remaining propositions that are in fact true in the actual world. Such knowledge is denominated "free knowledge" by Molina because it is logically posterior to the decision of the divine will to actualize a world.

The content of such knowledge is clearly not essential to God, since He could have decreed to actualize a different world. Had He done so, the content of His free knowledge would be different. Molina saw clearly the profound implications a doctrine of middle knowledge could have for the notions of providence and predestination.

God's providence is His ordering of things to their ends, either directly or mediately through secondary agents. Molina distinguishes between God's absolute and conditional intentions for creatures. It is, for example, God's absolute intention that no creature should sin and that all should reach beatitude. But it is not within the scope of God's power to control what free creatures would do if placed in any set of circumstances.

In certain circumstances, then, creatures would freely sin, despite the fact that God does not will this. Should God then choose to actualize precisely those circumstances, He has no choice but to allow the creature to sin. God's absolute intentions can thus be frustrated by free creatures. But God's conditional intentions, which are based on His middle knowledge and thus take account of what free creatures would do, cannot be so frustrated.

It is God's conditional intention to permit many actions on the part of free creatures which He does not absolutely will; but in His infinite wisdom God so orders which states of affairs obtain that His purposes are achieved despite and even through the sinful, free choices of creatures. God thus providentially arranges for everything that does happen by either willing or permitting it, and He causes everything to happen insofar as He concurs with the decisions of free creatures in producing their effects, yet He does so in such a way as to preserve freedom and contingency.

Middle knowledge also serves to reconcile predestination and human freedom. On Molina's view predestination is merely that aspect of providence pertaining to eternal salvation; it is the order and means by which God ensures that some free creature attains eternal life. Prior to the divine decree, God knows via His middle knowledge how any possible free creature would respond in any possible circumstances, which include the offer of certain gifts of prevenient grace which God might provide. In choosing a certain possible world, God commits Himself, out of His goodness, to offering various gifts of grace to every person which are sufficient for his salvation.

Such grace is not intrinsically efficacious in that it of itself produces its effect; rather it is extrinsically efficacious in accomplishing its end in those who freely cooperate with it. God knows that many will freely reject His sufficient grace and be lost; but He knows that many others will assent to it, thereby rendering it efficacious in effecting their salvation.

Given God's immutable decree to actualize a certain world, those whom God knew would respond to His grace are predestined to do so in the sense that it is absolutely certain that they will respond to and persevere in God's grace.

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There is no risk of their being lost; indeed, in sensu composito it is impossible for them to fall away. But in sensu diviso they are entirely free to reject God's grace; but were they to do so, God would have had different middle knowledge and they would not have been predestined. It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined, but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves. Years ago when I first read Alvin Plantinga's basically Molinist formulation of the Free Will Defense against the problem of evil, it occurred to me that his reasoning might also help to resolve the problem of the exclusivity of salvation through Christ, and my own subsequent study of the notion of middle knowledge has convinced me that this is in fact so.

The orthodox Christian will point out, however, that 1 and 2 are not explicitly contradictory, since one is not the negation of the other, nor are they logically contradictory, since a contradiction cannot be derived from them using first order logic. The objector, then, must mean that 1 and 2 are inconsistent in the broadly logical sense , that is, that there is no possible world in which both are true. Now in order to show this, the objector must supply some further premise s which meets the following conditions: it its conjunction with 1 and 2 formally entails a contradiction, ii it is either necessarily true, essential to theism, or a logical consequence of propositions that are, and iii its meeting conditions i and ii could not he rationally denied by a right-thinking person.

I am not aware of anyone who has tried to supply the missing premise which meets these conditions, but let us try to find some such proposition. Perhaps it might be claimed that the following two propositions will suffice:. God prefers a world in which no persons fail to receive Christ and are damned to a world in which some do. It might be claimed that anyone who accepts 1 must also accept 3 and 4 , since 3 is true in virtue of God's omniscience which includes middle knowledge and His omnipotence, and 4 is true in virtue of His omnibenevolence.

But is 3 necessarily true or incumbent upon the theist who is a Molinist? This is far from clear.

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For although it is logically possible that God actualize any possible world assuming that God exists in every possible world , it does not follow therefrom that it is feasible for God to actualize any possible world. In a world containing free creatures, God can strongly actualize only certain segments or states of affairs in that world, and the remainder He must weakly actualize, using His middle knowledge of what free creatures would do under any circumstances.

Hence, there will be an infinite number of possible worlds known to God by His natural knowledge which are not realizable by Him because the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which must be true in order for Him to weakly actualize such worlds are in fact false. This might be thought to impugn divine omnipotence, but in fact such a restriction poses no non-logical limit to God's power.

So the question is whether it is necessarily true or incumbent upon the Molinist to hold that within the range of possible worlds which are feasible to God there is at least one world in which everyone freely receives Christ and is saved. Now within Molinism there is a school known as Congruism which would appear to agree that such a position is mandatory for the theist.

No grace is intrinsically efficacious, but congruent grace is always in fact efficacious because God knows via His middle knowledge that the creature would freely and affirmatively respond to it, were He to offer it. Accordingly, the Congruist might claim. God knows for any individual S under what circumstances S would freely receive Christ. But why is it incumbent upon us to accept 5?

Given that persons are free, might there not be persons who would not receive Christ in any actual world in which they existed? Suarez himself seemed to vacillate at this point. When asked whether there is a congruent grace for every person God could create or whether some persons are so incorrigible that regardless of the grace accorded them by God, they would not repent, Suarez wants to say that God can win the free response of any creature He could create. But when pressed that it is logically possible that some person should resist every grace, Suarez concedes that this is true, but adds that God could still save such a person by over- powering his will.

On the contrary, the theist might hold that. For some individual S , there are no circumstances under which S would freely receive Christ. In such a case, the theist could consistently maintain that there are no worlds feasible for God in which S exists and is saved. The Congruist could, however, accept 6 and still insist that there are congruent graces for many other individuals and that God could actualize a world containing only such individuals, so that every one would receive Christ and be saved.

But the Congruist must show more than that for certain or even every individual there are circumstances under which that person would freely receive Christ. He must show that the circumstances under which various individuals would freely receive Christ are compossible, so that all persons in some possible world would freely receive Christ and be saved. It is not even enough to show that the various circumstances are compossible; if he is to avoid the counterfactual fallacy of strengthening the antecedent, he must show that in the combined circumstances the consequent still follows.

It might be that in circumstances C 1 , individual S 1 would do action a and that in circumstances C 2 individual S 2 would do b and that C 1 and C 2 are compossible, but it does not follow that in C 1 - C 2 , S 1 would do a or that in C 1 - C 2 , S 2 would do b. Hence, even if it were the case that for any individual He might create, God could actualize a world in which that person is freely saved, it does not follow that there are worlds which are feasible for God in which all individuals are saved.

Contrary to 3 the theist might hold that. Unless we have good reason to think that 7 is impossible or essentially incompatible with Christian theism, the objector has failed to show 1 and 2 to be inconsistent.

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That leads to 4 , which, it is said, is incumbent upon anyone who accepts God's omnibenevolence. Now I think that it is obvious that, all things being equal, an omnibenevolent God prefers a world in which all persons are saved to a world containing those same persons some of whom are lost. But 4 is stronger than this. It claims that God prefers any world in which all persons are saved to any world in which some persons are damned. But again, this is far from obvious.

Theories of Religious Diversity

Suppose that the only worlds feasible for God in which all persons receive Christ and are saved are worlds containing only a handful of persons. Is it not at least possible that such a world is less preferable to God than a world in which great multitudes come to experience His salvation and a few are damned because they freely reject Christ? Not only does this seem to me possibly true, but I think that it probably is true.

Why should the joy and blessedness of those who would receive God's grace and love be prevented on account of those who would freely spurn it? An omnibenevolent God might want as many creatures as possible to share salvation; but given certain true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, God, in order to have a multitude in heaven, might have to accept a number in hell. Hence, contrary to 4 the theist might well hold that. God prefers certain worlds in which some persons fail to receive Christ and are damned to certain worlds in which all receive Christ and are saved.

So unless we have good reason to think that 8 is impossible or essentially incompatible with Christian theism, the objector has again failed to show 1 and 2 to be inconsistent. Since we have no good grounds for believing 3 and 4 to be necessary or essential to theism, or for that matter even contingently true, the opponent of the traditional Christian view has not succeeded in demonstrating that there is no possible world in which God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent and yet in which some persons do not receive Christ and are damned.

But, on the pattern of the Free Will Defense, we can yet go further. For I believe that we can demonstrate not only that 1 and 2 have not been shown to be inconsistent, but also that they are, indeed, consistent. In order to show 1 and 2 to be consistent, the orthodox defender has to come up with a proposition which is consistent with 1 and which together with 1 entails 2. This proposition need not be plausible or even true; it need be only a possibly true proposition, even if it is contingently false.

Now we have seen that it is possible that God wants to maximize the number of the saved: He wants heaven to be as full as possible. Moreover, as a loving God, He wants to minimize the number of the lost: He wants hell to be as empty as possible. His goal, then, is to achieve an optimal balance between these, to create no more lost than is necessary to achieve a certain number of the saved. But it is possible that the balance between saved and lost in the actual world is such an optimal balance.

It is possible that in order to create the actual number of persons who will be saved, God had to create the actual number of persons who will be lost. It is possible that the terrible price of filling heavenis also filling hell and that in any other possible world which was feasible for God the balance between saved and lost was worse. It is possible that had God actualized a world in which there are less persons in hell, there would also have been less persons in heaven. It is possible that in order to achieve this much blessedness, God was forced to accept this much loss.

Even if we grant that God could have achieved a better ratio between saved and lost, it is possible that in order to achieve such a ratio God would have had to so drastically reduce the number of the saved as to leave heaven deficient in population say, by creating a world of only four people, three of whom go to heaven and one to hell.

It is possible that in order to achieve a multitude of saints, God had to accept an even greater multitude of sinners. It might be objected that necessarily a loving God would not create persons who He knew would be damned as a concomitant of His creating persons who He knew would be saved.

Given His middle knowledge of such a prospect, He should have refrained from creation altogether. But this objection does not strike me as true, much less necessarily so. It is possible that God loves all persons and desires their salvation and furnishes sufficient grace for the salvation of all; indeed, some of the lost may receive even greater gifts of prevenient grace than some of the saved.

It is of their own free will that people reject the grace of God and are damned. Their damnation is the result of their own choice and is contrary to God's perfect will, which is that all persons be saved, and their previsioned obduracy should not be allowed to preclude God's creating persons who would freely respond to His grace and be saved.

But it might be further objected that necessarily a loving God would not create persons who would be damned as a concomitant of His creating persons who would be saved if He knew that the former would under other circumstances have freely responded to His grace and been saved. Therefore, He should not have created at all. Now one might respond by denying the necessary truth of such a proposition; one could argue that so long as people receive sufficient grace for salvation in whatever circumstances they are, then they are responsible for their response in such circumstances and cannot complain that had they been in different circumstances, then their reaction would have been different.

But even if we concede that the objector's principle is necessarily true, how do we know that its antecedent is fulfilled? We have seen that it is possible that some persons would not freely receive Christ under any circumstances. Suppose, then, that God has so ordered the world that all persons who are actually lost are such persons. In such a case, anyone who actually is lost would have been lost in any world in which God had created him.

It is possible, then, that although God, in order to bring this many persons to salvation, had to pay the price of seeing this many persons lost, nevertheless He has providentially ordered the world such that those who are lost are persons who would not have been saved in any world feasible for God in which they exist.

Nature and significance

Therefore, we are now prepared to furnish a proposition which is consistent with 1 and entails 2 :. God has actualized a world containing an optimal balance between saved and unsaved, and those who are unsaved suffer from transworld damnation. On the basis of this analysis, we now seem to be equipped to provide possible answers to the three difficult questions which prompted our inquiry. There is no such world which is feasible for God.

He would have actualized such a world were this feasible, but in light of certain true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom every world realizable by God is a world in which some persons are lost. Given His will to create a world of free creatures, God must accept that some will be lost. God desired to incorporate as many persons as He could into the love and joy of divine fellowship while minimizing the number of persons whose final state is hell. He therefore chose a world having an optimal balance between the number of the saved and the number of the damned.

Given the truth of certain counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, it was not feasible for God to actualize a world having as many saved as but with no more damned than the actual world. The happiness of the saved should not be precluded by the admittedly tragic circumstance that their salvation has as its concomitant the damnation of many others, for the fate of the damned is the result of their own free choice.

There are no such persons. In each world in which they exist God loves and wills the salvation of persons who in the actual world have only general revelation, and He graciously and preveniently solicits their response by His Holy Spirit, but in every world feasible for God they freely reject His grace and are lost. If there were anyone who would have responded to the gospel if he had heard it, then God in His love would have brought the gospel to such a person.



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