When I was growing up in the 1950s in the fold of the Seventh-day Adventist church, salvation was a really big deal. We were taught that our current lives represented merely a testing ground for whether we would qualify for the golden ticket of salvation. This was portrayed as essentially a binary choice. There was no middle ground, no purgatory where we might have a second chance or perform a penance to gain entry into heaven. Either we would be saved and go to heaven or we would be damned.
But the dichotomy was actually more dramatic than that. If we were saved, we would effectively be awarded flawless bodies and flawless minds, since God would eliminate any diseases or defects we might have been burdened with in this life. Moreover, everyone else would be just like us—friendly, thoughtful, kind, curious, happy, etc. And heaven itself would be, well, heavenly—no natural disasters, not too hot, not too cold. It would only rain or snow if that’s what we wanted. You get the picture. And this would go on for eternity, which, as we know, is a very long time. But for all of eternity we would never grow old; we would never get sick or bored, or angry or upset, even for a minute. [As an adult, I have concluded that I would have no interest in going to heaven. See http://skepticreflections.blogspot.com/2013/09/i-dont-want-to-go-to-heaven.html. But when I was a kid, I hadn’t thought through these things.]
On the other hand, if we were not one of the saved, things were going to be really bad. First, at Christ’s Second Coming, which would trigger this sorting out, God would strike dead all of those living who were not among the saved. It wouldn’t be so bad if that were to be the end of the matter. After all, people die all the time, and, whatever might have happened during lifetime, no one who dies continues to suffer or to be disappointed; they just cease to be. But, no, God was not done with the damned. According to the eschatology I was taught, a thousand years after Christ’s Second Coming and the resurrection of the righteous, God would conduct a second resurrection, raising all the damned from the dead. Zombies at this point. This was not to give them a second chance. Rather, it was just so God could point out to them what losers they were and to kill them a second time, this time using fire so that they might undergo some torture before a final death. A benevolent God? Really?
Actually, matters were even worse than this because qualifying for salvation was no easy thing. In fact, it seemed very unlikely that most people—even SDAs—would be saved. That was because we could qualify for salvation only if we had no blemishes on our personal record at the time of our death or at the Second Coming, whichever came first. Of course, everyone sins. However, as sinners we could still qualify for that golden ticket, provided we had asked God for forgiveness for all of our sins and our slate was clean at the moment of judgment. Since I was sinning a lot more frequently than I was praying for forgiveness, I concluded that, as a matter of probability, my chances for salvation were slim.
When I was a pre-teen, I recall an incident that involved an older girl from the church who was out with friends having “fun” and who was killed when the car she was riding in crashed. My parents, as well as others in the church, were expressing the hope that, somehow, at the moment just before impact the girl had sent up a prayer asking for forgiveness. Seemed highly unlikely.
Much has changed during the past 60 years. Although I have lost direct contact with the SDA church, it appears that the idea of Christ’s soon Second Coming remains, on a formal basis, one of the denomination’s fundamental beliefs, as do the notions of a perfect, eternal heaven for the righteous and the death, temporary resurrection, and then ultimate destruction of the wicked. However, I think that on an informal basis SDAs have placed the details of their eschatology on a back burner, substituting a kinder, gentler, more mainstream message focused on personal beliefs and one’s relationship with God. From my vantage point that’s probably a good thing and may be a critical move in the denomination’s effort to remain relevant, despite the irrationality of its formal doctrines.
Having said that, there is a related issue that has gained importance in the Christian, particularly Protestant, community—the debate over faith vs. works. This debate poses the question: Which is required for salvation—“works,” meaning a clean slate at the time of judgment, or “faith,” meaning simply belief in God, Christ, and the salvation narrative? Not surprisingly, each side can cite scriptural support for its position. Then there are those who would argue that if one has faith in God, he or she will naturally do what is righteous, at least most of the time.
But that misses an important point. One can be a moral atheist. One can live a life of good works but without belief in any deity. See, for example, Good Without God, by Greg Epstein, or The Plague, by Albert Camus. So would such a nonbeliever be entitled to salvation?
I have posed the question of my own salvation to Christian friends who know of my atheism and who, nevertheless, believe me to be a person of high moral standards. Some have told me that they thought God would somehow find room for me in heaven. (Or maybe they were just trying to be nice.) Others have said, “John, we’re really going to miss you.”
© 2017 John M. Phillips