Who and Why Does Jesus Save?

I said something recently on Twitter about how it seems that there is no one unified Christianity but many Christianities, almost as many as there are Christians. This was hardly an original thought or an attempt at profundity. It was a passing observation of the sort that Twitter is well suited for sharing.

The following response quickly appeared in my timeline:

Jesus Saves
Not a bad point. Christians do seem to have the Jesus belief in common. Of course, that does not mean that Christians agree on what sort of person Jesus was, what he wants from them, and the like. And as I suggested in my response to the tweet above, there is still great variability in who and why Christians think Jesus "saves."

I have known many liberal Christians during my life who insist that salvation is unconditional. We are all "saved" no matter what we believe. For these Christians, Jesus' "sacrifice" was for the benefit of all humanity and is the most potent example of unconditional love the world has ever known. They tell me that Jesus loves me no matter what I believe and that even atheists are headed for heaven when we die.

Some of these Christians struggle mightily with the concept of hell, and a few deny it altogether. What about bad acts, I ask? Will I find Hitler in heaven? Dick Cheney? Some of these Christians say yes; others attempt to draw an ambiguous and frequently shifting line where only the most extreme examples of evil are denied heaven. As expected, there is little agreement on where this line is and which acts place one on the wrong side of it.

For other more conservative Christians, salvation is conditional and quite exclusive. The entrance to heaven they imagine is extremely narrow and difficult to pass. I have known many evangelical fundamentalist Christians who insist that believing what they believe is the only way one enters heaven. It does not matter how one has lived one's life; all that matters is that one believes exactly what they do. Some claim that belief even absolves one of any bad acts. The serial killer who has a sincere deathbed confession will be found in heaven; the compassionate person who was kind to all but remained an atheist will not.

These Christians tell me that I will not enter heaven unless I come to share their beliefs and that there will be no non-Christians in heaven. It does not matter how nice a person the Jew down the street might be; he has not accepted Jesus as his personal savior and will be found in hell. The same is usually true for Catholics, Mormons, and so on.

Looking at only these two dimensions (i.e., the inclusivity-exclusivity of heaven and the importance of belief vs. acts in gaining access), one finds great variation among Christians. They use different portions of their bible to support their arguments, and they are equally certain that they have it right while everyone else is wrong. Even the potentially unifying belief in Jesus does not seem particularly unifying.