views updated


SOTERIOLOGY The term soteriology means "doctrine of salvation" or, more concretely, the "way of salvation," and derives from the Greek sōtēria, which in turn is built on sōtēr, or "savior." The term is usually used to refer to the salvation of individuals, but it can also relate to the salvation of a group. The implication of the idea is that human beings are in some kind of unfortunate condition and may achieve an ultimately good state either by their own efforts or through the intervention of some divine power. Very commonly, there is belief in a savior God, that is, a God whose special concern is with the welfare of the human race. Examples of this idea are, in the ancient world, Isis, Mithra, and Christ; in the Far East, Amida Buddha in Japan and Guanyin in China; and Ka and Rāma in the Hindu tradition.

The notion that people need to be saved implies that a defective condition is normally prevalent, and the major religions have differing views as to the root of this problem. Thus many Indian systems ascribe a humanity's ultimate troubles to ignorance (avidyā ). By contrast there is the Christian doctrine of original sin in which the human race is implicated through the primordial acts of Adam and Eve. Additionally, there are varying conceptions of how human life works: For instance, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in indigenous Chinese religion and in various others, life stretches essentially from birth or conception to death, and then the question arises about the status of postmortem existence, if any. But in the South Asian framework, the condition of living beings is sasāra, which implies a potentially endless round of rebirth or reincarnation from which one escapes only through ultimate liberation, or moka. In Western monotheisms the question is often whether there is an afterlife; in the Indian tradition the afterlife is a given, and the question is whether one can get out of it.

The conception of salvation relates most clearly to the idea of some ultimate value or being, nirvāa, God, brahman, and so on. It may be thought of as an identity with such an ultimate state or being, or more frequently as a kind of communion with a personal Lord in a heavenly place, that is, "the place of God." Various means may be used to gain liberation or final communion. Where God is a personal object of worship typically salvation has to be effected by the deity, and this is where doctrines of grace and their analogues come in. Even here it is assumed in some way that the human being cooperates even if only by calling on the divine name for help. Where there is no such personal God, the individual must prepare himself, often through rigorous methods, in order to be in a position to gain eternal freedom. Consequently there are typically "self-help" and "other-help" kinds of religion. There are also different emphases as to whether salvation is something that ultimately occurs after death, for instance, by one's being transferred to a heavenly state, or is something attainable in this life. Thus in a number of Indian systems there is the ideal of the jīvanmukta, that is, one who has gained liberation (mukti ) while still living (jīvan ). It is typical of "self-help" systems to postulate this kind of liberation, but even in "other-help" systems there is a prefiguring of final salvation, as indicated typically by the question asked by some Christians, Are you saved? (not, Will you be saved?).

The usual scheme of the major religions that take the idea of individual salvation seriously is to pose the question in terms of a finite series of alternatives: One either attains heaven or one doesn't. At death one is either simply destroyed, or one goes to a state that is the opposite of salvation, namely damnation, in hell. There may also be an intermediate state, such as purgatory. In the Indian scheme of things, with the doctrine of reincarnation, many variations become possible. Usually (though not in the Dvaita school of Madhva) hells are in effect purgatories, for ultimately the individual rises out of them and resumes wandering through other regions and states of the cosmos. Again, the rewards for meritorious conduct in this life are varied, because there are many levels of superior social or ontological status. Thus, there is in some systems of belief, notably in Buddhism, a system of gradations of heavens, which correspond to differing levels of moral and spiritual attainment. Generally, though there may be places of punishment, the choice is between being liberated from rebirth or not being so liberated and carrying on. The choice in Western religions tends to be starker, so that the alternative to heaven is often seen as hopeless: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" was written above the entrance to Dante's Hell.

In addition to the major religious traditions, there are secular ideologies that have analogues to religious doctrines of salvation. This is partly because some religions hold out hopes of a renewed blessed state that is community-oriented and located on this earth: the notion, for instance, of the millennium when humans will live in harmony and glory on the earth. Such a concept is easily secularized into utopian ideals considered as practical goals, such as the truly communist society in the Marxist picture, which is thought of as a social and economic system in which class contradictions and alienation have been overcome. What is lacking from the Marxist view, however, is a precise analogue of individual salvation that has been such a prominent idea in the religious systems. Hitler's thousand-year Reich was also modeled after millenarian expectations but was essentially tribal in orientation. Democratic capitalism has had a vaguer notion of progress without any clear idea of an ultimate state of human satisfaction. On the individual level, there is no real soteriology in scientific humanism, except that a person may find satisfaction retrospectively in thinking that he or she has done his or her duty in this life and has made a contribution to the welfare of the human race. More analogous to religious ideas are those of existentialism: In Heidegger's thought individuals can live authentically in the face of, and conscious of, their own deaths and thus in a sense overcome death from within a finite existence.

The concept of "living liberation" introduces a more general way of looking at soteriology, namely seeing it as concerned with the ultimate goal of the religious or spiritual life. In addition to the achievement of certain states, such as liberation from rebirth or life in heaven, there are central experiences, such as enlightenment and gnosis, that have ultimate significance. Sometimes it is the attainment of such experiences that gives people a sense of having attained living liberation. It is possible to have such experiences (e.g., Zen satori ) without thinking that they guarantee anything about life after death. Such a soteriology is analogous to the secular existentialist type.

A religious act that has some relation to soteriology is the act of healing. Indeed, the etymology of the word salvation suggests "making whole," and there are indications of the close connection between physical and spiritual health in the New Testament (e.g., the emphasis on Jesus' healing miracles), and in many small-scale societies (e.g., in African classical religions, and in the new religious movements in Africa and elsewhere). Often disease is seen as arising from some deep alienation from society as a whole, or as the result of harmful religious practices (e.g., witchcraft). Healing is thus simultaneously the restoration of the individual's right relationship with the group.

The various dimensions of religion serve to illustrate differing means of salvation. Here it is perhaps a little misleading to use the word means, in that according to a number of religions, salvation arises from God's act rather than from human acts, and therefore there is no way of interpreting religion as itself an instrument causing salvation. Still one can look to a number of themes. Note first of all that the nature of the salvation envisaged will depend on the way the religious ultimate is viewed. In classical China the emphasis on both Heaven and the dao as underlying cosmic and social harmony suggests that the elimination of disharmony is important; the Mahayana Buddhist emphasis on "emptiness" suggests the importance of a kind of intellectual vision, paralleling the Buddha's own enlightenment; theism of various kinds suggests the centrality of the right relationship to a personal creator, and so forth. Given the differing goals, what are the various means?

Beginning with the ritual dimension of religion, one may note that the right performance of ritual may be central to soteriology. Thus the early Christian view of the sacrament of baptism implied that the neophyte, on entering the Christian community, dies like Christ and is resurrected with Christ. Provided there are no problems in the rest of the person's life, he or she is assured of ultimate salvation because of the ritual or sacramental union with Christ as victor over sin and death. This is repeated and reinforced by the eucharistic sacrament wherein Christ's eternal life is imparted to the faithful person in the bread and wine. There are similar motifs in the old mystery religions, for example the direct participation in the ritual reenactment of the myth of Persephone at Eleusis, and in the rites of Isis.

Ritual of a rather different sort is found in ancestral cults. Here the members of the deceased's family employ ritual means (e.g., proper feeding of the deceased, the right performance of funeral rites, etc.) to ensure that the departed are sent on their way serenely, or at least treated with propriety so that their afterlives are not scenes of misery and displacement.

The most important soteriological function of ritual is to open up lines of communication with the god. These allow those who participate in the rite to tap into the living substance of the divine and so to gain some kind of blessed or eternal life. Christian sacraments, for instance, allow the faithful to participate in Christ's resurrection. Such participation remains the main motif of Christian soteriology, although many other themes are also important. These include the ideas of Christ's victory over death and Satan, his expiatory sacrifice on behalf of humanity and in recognition of human sin, and his moral example.

As well as the use of ritual means of gaining salvation, there is the importance of the mythic "score" that the ritual plays out. Christians, for instance, see their own lives as possibly reflecting the life of Christ, and more generally the life of Israel. Understanding the mythic narrative means sharing the power of the mythic dimension of the faith. This lends a special importance to scriptures and other works, both literary and oral, that expound the stories of religious founders, gods, and heroes. So the adīth and the Qurʾān itself throw light on the life of the Prophet Muammad and become exemplars of the kind of actions and attitudes expected of the Muslim if he is to please God. But apart from making possible the imitation of great heroes, mythic narratives also provide assurance of the divine being's care and concern for those who worship him. The revelation to Muammad provides the matrix for Islamic life and so gives assurance that from within this life the faithful will gain salvation. Similarly the story of the people of Israel and of the Jewish people since biblical times gives the Jew a sense of his election by God as part of an ongoing drama of history in which both God and the Jewish people will be vindicated. The Bhagavadgītā gives a special view of Viu's salvific power and assures his devotees of his desire to save those who turn to him in love and bhakti. The Lotus Sūtra tells the story of the loving guardianship of Avalokiteśvara, who acts to save those Buddhists who turn to him (or her, in China) in faith and imitation.

Both ritual and the enactment or contemplation of myth help to nurture experience, and often it is a striking experience that gives people a sense of being saved. In Christianity, especially in the less sacramentally oriented forms of Protestantism, there is emphasis upon conversion-experiences, being "born again," and attaining an inner illumination concerning one's own salvation. In the Indian tradition there is much emphasis here also. In jñāna, or knowledge, one experiences an encounter with the ultimate, whether this be the discrimination (viveka ) of the eternal from the noneternal in Sākhya-Yoga, the attainment of the higher dhyāna s in Buddhism, or the realization of the identity of ātman and brahman in Advaita. While the doctrine of a personal God will suggest the spontaneity of such a being "born again," however, the more contemplative forms of Indian and East Asian religion, from Chan and Neo-Confucianism to Theravāda Buddhism and Hindu yoga, stress the greater importance of technique (methods of meditation, breathing exercises, etc.).

The institutional dimension of religion can have a double relevance to soteriology. On the one hand, organizations may claim some kind of privilege or monopoly in relation to salvation. In the Christian tradition this view has received the familiar tag, "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus" ("There is no salvation outside the church"), which stems from exclusivist interpretations of the sacred myth (echoing Jesus' "I am the Way"). In Islam membership in the sacred community is vital. In Buddhism one "takes refuge" in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sagha, the latter being the monastic community, with which the laity are closely connected. Such a doctrine of institutional exclusivity can be moderated by other doctrines, however, for instance the "baptism of desire" in Christianity, the initiation into the church in the wider sense of those non-Christians who, not having heard the gospel, yet lead a moral and holy life and so implicitly exhibit a "desire for Christ." One can compare this traditional idea with Karl Rahner's concept of the "anonymous Christian."

On the other hand, the conception of soteriology itself may be collective. Here the idea of God's saving work is applied primarily to the group as a wholefor instance, the people of Israel, who have a special destiny and a crucial role in the providential unfolding of history. In Judaism and its offshoot, Christianity, millenarian and eschatological thinking is important, though it may take on a very provisional and concrete character, for example, the coming of the Messiah in traditional Judaism, leading to the restoration of Israel. In Shīʿah Islam there is the analogous figure of the mahdi and the whole eschatology of the Hidden Imām. While such mythic themes help to maintain the communitarian aspect of future hope, they do not always blend well with other aspects of soteriology, such as the concept of the resurrection of the body and of the immortality of the soul. Sometimes resurrection is seen as supplying the disembodied soul with a "body," a kind of personal clothing that is in heavenly terms to what the physical body is in earthly terms. At other times it is seen as something earthly. Likewise the communal aspect of faith can be pictured in heavenly terms as in the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints, which is a kind of transcendent continuation of the church on earth.

The ethical dimension of soteriology is sometimes underplayed insofar as it is by the grace of God rather than through ethical (or ritual) efforts that one is saved. Morality may thus have an oblique relationship to soteriology: The good person in the Calvinist tradition, for example, may show some symptoms of being saved, but his or her salvation is not because of good works. Likewise in Pure Land Buddhism, especially in the teaching of Shinran, there is stress upon simple faith and calling on the name of Amida: If the virtuous person can be saved, how much more the sinner. By contrast religions of self-help give more importance to moral action as part of the means of gaining liberation or salvation. Thus virtue may at least be a precondition of study of the Ultimate, as in Advaita Vedanta or it may be integral to the Path, as in Buddhism.

Ethics may be combined with participation in the mythic career of one's exemplar. In general, the Mahayana Buddhists follow the path of the bodhisattva: They model their conduct on the self-sacrificial and compassionate life of the great Avalokiteśvara, or one of the other salvation-bringing bodhisattva s. It is not that following the path will bring salvation by itself, for it is rather by the transfer of merit from the limitless store of the bodhisattva that the otherwise unworthy person reaches ultimate liberation. But the mythic conception holds up an ethical and religious ideal that determines the follower's ethical perceptions. The path of the imitation of Christ in the Christian tradition has an analogous function. Similar motifs can be found elsewhere. In Hinduism, Rāma, Ka, and other avatars serve as alternative models of conduct. In Judaism, the reading of the Hebrew Bible provides the pious Jew with the model of Abraham or one of the other great figures of the past. In Islam there is the imitation of the Prophet Muammad, and so on. In the Jewish case there is also a very close integration between ritual and ethical rules through the written and oral Torah. Such an integration stresses the importance of obedience to the will of God, though ultimately it is God's action that ensures the final welfare of the individual Jew.

The means of salvation may be closely tied to the figure of the spiritual leader. Thus, even in self-help religious traditions or subtraditions it may be important for the individual to receive guidance from a specialist. Meditation and yoga, for example, must be guided by a guru. In Buddhism the Buddha himself is important as the one who brings the knowledge of the Way to humans, while the Sagha provides the institutional framework for leading the holy life. In small-scale societies the figure of the shaman is often important in serving as the expert who provides healing and reenacts the death and resurrection of the person who has suffered evil. In ancient Greek religion there were mystagogues and leaders, such as Pythagoras and Plotinus, who served as authorities and exemplars for their followers. Such figures, whether shaman or mystic, serve as a bridge to the mythic idea of the savior God who helps humans by himself taking on human form. Thus in Zoroastrianism can be seen the theme of the future savior Saoshyant, the figure of Christ in the Christian tradition, the various mediating figures in the Hindu tradition, and the saving bodhisattva s of the Mahāyāna. Since such conceptions may be held to infringe on the purity of monotheism (some, of course, do not arise from a theistic background in any case) this savior-god concept cannot strictly speaking play a part in Judaism and Islam. As mediators of salvation such figures can be surrounded by other personages who have a role in helping human beings towards their ultimate welfarefor instance, the saints of the Christian tradition, above all the Virgin Mary in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and the lesser deities of the Hindu tradition.

In addition to the other dimensions of religion, the doctrinal too can play a role in liberation, given that a faith may stress the philosophical aspect, so that thinking about the world along certain lines may be conducive to a kind of knowledge that saves. Thus in Mahāyāna Buddhism the analysis of causation and the impermanence of things may be instrumental in attaining a new way of seeing the world that recognizes its existential "emptiness." There is a certain analogue in ancient Greek conceptions of philosophy as culminating in a sort of vision, as, for instance, in Plato. Likewise in neo-Confucianism the investigation of things has a certain meditative role that yields vital, even salvific, knowledge. Doctrine and philosophy have of course, other non-soteriological functions. They may, for instance, help define the community. But they are also ways of depicting reality as it is, and the vision thereof can thus be facilitated by practicing philosophical argumentation. Sometimes philosophy is used in a dialectical and critical way, to uproot entrenched concepts and to subvert habitual ways of looking at the world through the screen of language. In this way it can prepare for satori or other direct experiences of the "way things are." On the whole, Indian philosophy has stressed (admittedly in a rather theoretical way) the importance of this practice of philosophy for moka, or liberation.

The belief in rebirth makes some difference to soteriology. It may involve a certain elitism. In Theravāda Buddhism or Jainism, for instance, there are only a few saints at any given time, but this does not preclude a much wider group from hoping for ultimate literation in a future life. It also raises issues about identity, especially since the concept of the person in some systems is tied to the concept of rebirth. That is to say, if liberation is defined as ultimate escape from the round of reincarnation, then a kind of negative theology (or more strictly negative anthropology) is applied to the liberated "self." Thus in Buddhism various ways of speaking of the enlightened or liberated person after death are denied. Similarly, in Advaita, realization of oneness with brahman implies no more rebirth, since in that identity beyond final death there is no longer any individuality as it is understood in the empirical world. Even in Sākhya-Yoga, where there is in theory a plurality of souls or purua s surviving in a state of isolated freedom, there is doubt as to whether one can speak of individuality in any meaningful sense. Moreover the ultimate state, which is one of absence of pain, does not seem to differ essentially from unconsciousness. By contrast the state of liberation according to Advaita is blissful, and such a positive evaluation of postmortem nirvāa is also made.

Where God is believed to govern the cosmos, rebirth becomes an expression of his will. So in Rāmānuja's theism, for instance, a person's destiny is worked out over many, many lives, but in accord with God's will. If he saves the individual it happens in one lifetime, but the fact that an individual has reached a state where he or she calls on God is itself a sign of previous deeds. Followers of Rāmānuja split over the question of whether salvation was solely by God's grace, or whether surrender (prapatti ) was necessary. In the latter case, a measure of human effort was necessary for salvation. Although Rāmānuja did not fully work out his doctrine of grace, he seems to have inclined more to the former view. Later, the dualist Madhva held to a doctrine akin to predestination, namely that God's sole task was to guide the cosmos in working out the results of the karman that already flowed from the inner nature of the individual.

Traditional cosmologies have assigned different "places" for salvation or damnation. Although heaven is conceived in theistic systems as the dwelling place of God (and vivid descriptions are given, such as in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament and in the Qurʾān), there are also heavens that are more fully devoted to the well-being and pleasure of the individual. Examples include the Buddhist and (to some extent) the Hindu heavens, which are attainable by the individual through rebirth but remain ultimately impermanent. The person goes thither as a reward for virtuous conduct, but however long he dwells, this is not final salvation. Some theistic forms of Hinduism postulate heavens that reflect the desires of the devotees in their longing for and adoration of God. A somewhat similar idea is found in Pure Land Buddhism. But such a heaven or paradise, though reflecting the joy of God's presence, may also incorporate many analogues to worldly pleasures. By contrast, hells reflect the deep pains of alienation from God and his love. Some systems postulate differing levels of salvation or heavenly existence in order to register the variety of possible human fates. The Bhagavadgītā, for instance, suggests that those who seek identity with brahman will attain it, but that it is a lower level than personal coexistence with Viu in Vaikunha Heaven.

Many religions conceive of release or salvation as the ultimate destiny of all humans (or of all living beings). In principle this is the case with Indian religious systems, with the exception of Madhva's dualism, which conceives of some souls as destined by their very nature for eternal punishment. But elsewhere in Buddhism and Hinduism hells are not everlasting places of punishment but in effect function as purgatories. A similar idea is found in Zoroastrianism, where the sins of the unsaved are finally burned away and all can rejoice in the victory of Ahura Mazda. But Christianity and the other Western theisms conceive of eternal punishment as the fate of some (though some Christians have believed in an empty hell and the ultimate salvation of everyone). The emphasis on divine judgment suggests the radical differentiation of the saved from the sinners. Much recent Christian theology, however, has emphasized a psychological or existential interpretation of the old pictures of heaven and hell, and stresses the sense of alienation from God or closeness to him in the events and vicissitudes of this life. There has been a corresponding decline in belief in hell, partly through the fading of the retributive view of justice. Modern cosmology has also weakened older ways of thinking of a succession of heavens above and purgatories or hells below, or of a Pure Land or other paradise "to the West." Hence there is greater emphasis upon salvation and its opposite as states of relationship to the Ultimate, or as states of mind. It has always been a characteristic of most Indian views of ultimate release, however, that such a condition is "beyond the heavens" and so not to be figured in a primarily spatial way (though there have also been disputes as to whether a soul is atomic or all-pervasive).

Finally it may be noted that some phases of traditions show a lack of interest in any radical notion of soteriology. Classical Confucianism has a picture of the ideal person or sage but not a doctrine of being saved from some pervasive evil or ignorance. In ancient Israel there was little concern with individual salvation until later on. Some modern secular worldviews such as scientific humanism do not possess the idea, and others such as Marxism do so only in an analogous sense. Classic small-scale religions, such as those in Africa, are typically more concerned with group welfare than with ultimate judgment about individuals. Nevertheless, the growth of modern individualism has highlighted the importance of thinking about how traditional patterns of soteriology might throw light on the symbols of judgment and ultimate meaning that remain vital in understanding the human condition.

See Also

Atonement; Enlightenment; Millenarianism; Moka; Redemption.


Brandon, S. G. F. Man and His Destiny in the Great Religions. Manchester, 1962.

Brandon, S. G. F., ed. The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation Presented to Edwin Oliver James (1963). Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1980.

Leeuw, Gerardus van der. Phänomenologie der Religion. Tübingen, 1933. Translated as Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology (1938; 2d ed., 2 vols., New York, 1963).

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley, Calif., 1980.

Toynbee, Arnold, et. al. Man's Concern with Death. London, 1968.

New Sources

Bianchi, Ugo, and Marten J. Vermaseren, ed. La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'Impero romano. Leiden, 1982. Proceedings of an epoch-making conference which has given impetus to the historical location of the notion of salvation. See the important review by Robert Turcan, Revue de l'histoire des religions 201, 2 (1984): 188191.

Doré, Josef. "Salut-Rédemption." In Dictionnaire des religions pp. 17991807. Paris, 1993. Theological.

Doré, Josef. "Salvifique (dans le christianisme)." In Dictionnaire des religions, pp.18091812. Paris, 1993. Christian (Catholic) conception vis-à-vis Buddhism.

Flasche, Rainer. "Heil." In Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, vol. 3, edited by H. Cancik, B. Gladigow, and K.-H. Kohl, pp. 6674. Stuttgart, 1993. Phenomenological.

Massein, Pierre. "Salvifique (dans le boudhisme)." In Dictionnaire des religions, pp.18081809. Paris, 1993.

Ninian Smart (1987)

Revised Bibliography