Salvation: A Common Theme Across All Religions
Sunday, August 8 is Ashura, the Islamic holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It is also remembered as the day when God saved Moses and his people from Pharaoh in Egypt by parting the Red Sea.
At some point, everyone thinks about their own salvation. If there is a God or some higher power out there, what happens once our time as living flesh is over? Is there such a thing as heaven and hell? Or laws of causality and karma? Do our actions on earth really have far-reaching consequences concerning our standing with God or the universe?
Psychologist and anthropologist Pascal Boyer describes these musings about salvation as “a specific ideology that combines a particular notion of a ‘soul’ with personal characteristics, a special ‘destiny’ attached to that soul, a system whereby moral worth affects that destiny, and a complicated description of what may happen to the soul as a result of past actions.”
Different religions answer these questions in different ways. But for us to fully respect and love each other, it would be pointless to clutch on to exclusivist ideas of salvation. There is no such thing as the one true religious path. All religions contribute pieces of truth to the greater puzzle. And as we all come from the same source of creation, there must be salvation for all. It depends more on intention, attitude and behavior than on a belief system.
In the Abrahamic religions, salvation refers to the deliverance of the soul upon death to Heaven, the Kingdom of God, and is generally achieved according to God’s judgment of the strength of that individual’s faith as well as morality – those who do good will qualify for a good state in the next world and vice versa.
In Baha’i, this concept of judgment is dispensed with in favor of a view of personal responsibility—that the journey of spiritual cultivation and the process of perfecting oneself occurs during the individual’s life and continues on in the next world after death. This is echoed in Hindu and Buddhist ideologies, in which each rebirth of an individual is an opportunity to progress a little further toward the final salvation which is moksha or nirvana, the escape from the eternal cycle of birth and death. The moral laws of cause and effect turn heaven and hell into internal conditions. Therefore the road to salvation begins and ends with the individual. And it aligns with what is right for the world at large.
There is no other-worldly salvation in Taoism or Confucianism; both acknowledge the existence of some afterlife though both are relatively agnostic about describing it or its conditions of attainment.
There are no guarantees when it comes to doctrines of salvation. Nobody knows what happens when we die and nobody knows the full extent of whatever divine laws may or may not govern our world. We can’t depend on being rewarded by some outside force for our good deeds, but we can rest assured that the joy we are capable of bringing into people’s lives through our actions is intrinsically rewarding.
“The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginnings of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them — that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us.”
—C.S. Lewis, writer and Christian theologian
“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
—The New Testament (Romans 10:9), Christian text
“Truly those who do evil and are surrounded by their sins will be the inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain, while those who believe and do good deeds will be the inhabitants of the Garden, there to remain.”
—The Qur’an (2:81-82), Muslim text
“It is taught in the name of R. Meir: Everyone who dwells permanently in the Land of lsrael, recites the Shema morning and evening, and speaks the sacred tongue is assured that he will dwell in the world-to-come.”
—Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings
“To confront the undivided mystery undivided, that is the primal condition of salvation.”
—Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher
“Heaven and hell are conditions within our own beings.”
—Shogi Effendi, Baha’i leader
“We all know that the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh is the world's only salvation, and that our duty is to actively teach receptive souls, and to do our utmost to help in the consolidation of the institutions of the Faith. Only in this way can we contribute our share of servitude at His Threshold, and we should then leave the rest to Him.”
—Universal House of Justice, Baha’i governing body
“Arjuna, my son, such a person will not be destroyed. No one who does good work will ever come to a bad end, either here or in the world to come. When such people die, they go to other realms where the righteous live. They dwell there for countless years and then are reborn into a home which is pure and prosperous.”
—The Bhagavad Gita (6:40-42), Hindu text
“When your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.”
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher
“He has not lived in vain who dies the day he is told about the Way.”
--The Analects (4:8), Confucian text
“Enlightenment is a very normal experience, attainable by everyone. Therefore, there is nothing mysterious or secretive about it. There is nothing unnatural about it, either, because it follows the natural way of things.”
—Lieh-tzu, Daoist text
Modern Philosophy and Theology
“Put bluntly, doctrines of the soul and salvation may be so widespread and so consistent across human cultures because they reflect something fundamentally accurate about human nature.”
—Jeffrey J. Kripal, Historian of Religion
“Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.”
— Robert Wright, journalist and writer