Outside the church, the only thing most people think about when the hear the word "salvation" is going to heaven or hell. You've seen cartoons depicting someone standing on a cloud in front of a gate or entering a cavern with lava in the background and a horned, red-garbed greeter. These images are part of our culture's understanding of eternal life. But in our study of the Bible they are not helpful.
Our residence in the afterlife is indeed dependent on our relationship with God, but it is important to know that our condition now is also a result of that salvation. When Jesus talked about the afterlife, he talked in terms of feasting in the presence of God and being alone in a place of darkness, pain, and gnashing teeth. (Matthew 13:36-43 and Luke 13:22-30)
The image of a feast provided by God is an image that also shows up in the Psalms most notably in Psalm 23. But it is important to note that the metaphor of the feast is not limited to the afterlife. It is what Christians should be experiencing now. Not so much a literal feast as an ongoing celebration because of our being able to enjoy the peace with God and assurance for the future that salvation brings. It is important to remember that despite the problems we may face today, our eternal life has already begun. We are already children of God and heirs to the kingdom. Our task is to begin resting in and enjoying that inheritance.
How Does Sin Affect Eternal Life?
Many people with only a cultural understanding of salvation tend to associate specific acts with where one spends eternity. Our understanding of salvation is that eternal life or eternal suffering is not dependent on individual sins but on whether or not you are forgiven. Christians should avoid sin and strive to be like Jesus, but that is because we are God's children and we respect our family, not because we fear hell. When we have accepted the forgiveness God's love and Jesus' work provide for us, we are already heirs to salvation. Sins may cause shame, but the guilt and eternal punishment is already gone.
Some Christians, particularly Roman Catholic Christians, see in the words of the Apostle Paul an intermediate state which will burn away from Christians what was not worthy in their lives. (I Corinthians 3:10-15) In this refining furnace or "Purgatory" at the Last Judgment, Christians will be "purged" of all that should not be brought into heaven. As members of the Reformed Tradition, we believe that Christians will be purged at the Last Judgment, but we have not developed a complex theology from these verses. We trust all judgment to the grace of God.
Problems with Knowing You're God's Child
One of the nasty things that can happen to a person when she or he begins resting in the assurance of salvation is that it then becomes easy to look down on those who do not have that comfort or whose understanding of salvation is different from ours. Assurance of salvation can make persons proud, complacent, and unconcerned about the needs of others. This is one of the reasons that it is vitally important to understand our salvation as a gift of God and not something we have earned. An often neglected aspect of the Reformed tradition is the theology that teaches us to never think of ourselves as beyond sin or perfected beyond temptation. Even as we rest in our salvation, we are tempted to despise those different from us.
Because our salvation is not the result of superior theology or elegant reasoning that we have produced and because even as we sit in our assurance we are capable of sin, we need to be careful how we deal with persons of different religions. We can speak about the assurance we have, but we cannot speak about the limits of salvation or declare who or what God is blessing.
God's love is broader than we can understand; therefore, we need to maintain humility when asked questions that are only for God to answer. Even the Apostle Peter when he asked Jesus about the Apostle John's ministry was rebuked and told that it was not his business. (John 21:20-25) And Paul wrote in Romans that we should never replace God as another person's master. (Romans 14:3-5) Even when we repeat what we read as clear condemnations of others in Scripture we need to be humble and recognize that we could be wrong in how we're reading the text. It would be better for us to pray for another's salvation rather than to gloat over their future condemnation. The best answer as to the eternal fate of someone else is "God knows."