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Soteriology (//; Greek: σωτηρία sōtēria "salvation" from σωτήρ sōtēr "savior, preserver" and λόγος logos "study" or "word") is the study of religious doctrines of salvation. Salvation theory occupies a place of special significance in many religions.
In the academic field of religious studies, soteriology is understood by scholars as representing a key theme in a number of different religions and is often studied in a comparative context; that is, comparing various ideas about what salvation is and how it is obtained. Broadly speaking, religious traditions have either fallen into the category of advocating universal salvation, in which believers hold a generally optimistic view that humanity as whole will eventually receive a positive afterlife free of suffering (this is commonly held by Buddhists and Jews, for example), or advocating special salvation, in which believers hold a generally pessimistic view that the vast majority of humanity will either be destroyed forever or will be condemned to eternal torment with only a small few finding eternal peace (this is traditionally held in Christianity).
Buddhism is devoted primarily to liberation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth. The purpose of one's life is to break free from the Wheel of Life to be able to achieve moksha (release) from the cycle of birth-and-pain-and-death and achieve nirvana. All types of Buddhism, Hinayana or Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana or Tantric, tend to emphasize an individual's meditation and liberation, which is to become enlightened.
In Theravada Buddhism the apparent 'individual' takes this spiritual journey alone. Along this journey, they discover in experience that they are empty of being an individual, they are selfless. Mahayana Buddhism is the spiritual journey of helping others. People who make the pledge to help others before they help themselves are called Bodhisattva. Vajrayana Buddhism is the spiritual journey of transformation, where awareness is transformed into a deity. In all of the three forms of Buddhism, one gradually moves towards liberation, and away from suffering, and as a result the natural state of Enlightenment becomes the dominant experience in that individual's life.
Buddhist philosophies vary on the subject of the afterlife, but they tend to emphasize an individual's meditation and appeal to the Buddha's teachings, often through an intermediary monk, priest, or teacher who is seen as a "link" (through the direct contacting of an enlightened being) or "helper" in their attaining of 'nirvana'. Amongst other things, Nirvana is an ultimate realization that the afterlife is not important, and because of this all fear ends.
All schools of Buddhism teach dependent origination, which points out that the individual is not a separate and isolated entity. This can be directly found using a process of meditation which is the focusing of one's awareness on an object of concentration (samma samadhi). All the different forms of Buddhism have different ways to realize that the individual is part of a false set of truth-clouding constructs, obscuring 'what is'. The truth of 'what is', is beyond language and must therefore be experienced directly.
"Thus, the fundamental reason that the precise identification of these two kinds of clinging to an identity – personal and phenomenal – is considered so important is again soteriological. Through first uncovering our clinging and then working on it, we become able to finally let go of this sole cause for all our afflictions and suffering."
In Buddhist thinking, individuals should seek to spread truth and knowledge among all of humanity and strive for the creation of a collective salvation of goodness for all. This is shown in how the bodhisattvas, human beings who have become enlightened through the experience of understanding deep truths, vow:
“Never will I seek nor receive private individual salvation– never enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the universal redemption of every creature throughout all worlds. Until all are delivered, never will I leave the world of sin, sorrow and struggle, but will remain where I am."
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Jewish religious thinking has traditionally held that the concepts of what is good and just versus what is evil and sinful extend to all races, all creeds, and all nations, since each human being is ultimately descended from Adam and Eve, whom God created in his image. Furthermore, since Adam, the first person, was created from the dust of the earth, all people come from the earth. This part of the creation story is interpreted literally in Judaism, as evidenced by Jewish burial rites. Burial of the dead occurs promptly, and ideally without adulteration of the corpse, the dead are returned to the common ground. Among different schools ranging from Jewish Orthodox teachings to Reform Jewish thinking to Conservative Jewish thinking and more, Jewish theology has generally been seen as holding that "The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World-To-Come", in the words of the Talmud, with humanity as a whole being 'saved'. Thus, rabbinical scholars have broadly held the inclusive view that the vast majority of people in existence, both Jewish and gentile, will be reconciled with God in the afterlife given the power of his grace and the fundamental goodness of mankind.
Some sections of Jewish religious texts appear to argue that no afterlife exists even for the good and just, with the Book of Ecclesiastes telling the faithful: "The dead know nothing. They have no reward and even the memory of them are lost." Rabbis and Jewish laypeople have often wrestled with such passages for many centuries.
Mainstream Christian soteriology is the study of how God reconciles the separation between man and God due to sin. As one bishop and professor of philosophy has put it, "In the final analysis, the question of salvation is always an inquiry into the balancing of human free will with God's mercy and forgiveness." Many Christians believe they receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation obtained by Jesus through his incarnation, life, innocent suffering, death, resurrection from the dead, and ascension. Christian soteriology examines how an individual is miraculously saved by divine grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and reconciled to God.
The different soteriologies found within the Christian tradition can be grouped into distinct schools:
- Orthodox and Catholic Christianity:
- Calvinism's predestination, and
- Lutheran doctrine
Traditional Christian thinking has generally held that humanity, having sinned, is destined to eternal death in hell, and that only a small proportion of humanity shall receive eternal life in heaven - those who accept the testament of Jesus Christ as forgiveness for their sin. As stated by Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham, "almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell" through history up until "the nineteenth century".
Related scriptural references include John 3:36 (NIV), "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them." Also, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 (NIV) declares, "Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might."
In terms of theological study, this has led to long running debates over what is known as "the problem of hell". Many Christians have expressed reservations that God would condemn almost all of humanity to hell even if this is explicitly stated in the Bible multiple times because it seems to contradict the concept of a good, benevolent God. Verses that seem to contradict the larger tradition of complete damnation come up in arguments, such as Lamentations 3:31-33 (NIV), "For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love", and 1 Timothy 4:10 (NIV), "We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe." Discussions have caused several alternative hypothesizes to be created.
A minority of Christian thinkers (although including some highly respected, highly cited, and highly influential people) have held the view that God will eventually gather all or almost all human beings to him (a viewpoint known as "universal reconciliation"). Prominent examples include Kallistos Ware, a Greek Orthodox bishop and retired University of Oxford theologian who states that many of the 'Fathers of Church' postulated the idea of salvation for all, and Saint Silouan of Mt. Athos, who argued that the compassion and love of those in heaven and on earth will extend to eliminating suffering even in hell. In terms of Biblical citations, Father David A. Fisher, Pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Maronite Church and professor of philosophy at Ohio Central State University, has argued that total reconciliation seems arise from the First Epistle to the Corinthians such as 1 Corinthians 15:22, "As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ", and 1 Corinthians 15:28, "God will be all in all." University of Oxford historian and writer C.S. Lewis, while not supporting the idea of total reconciliation completely, hypothesized in books such as The Great Divorce that souls that enter an unhappy state after death can, even then, recognize the lessons of their past life and choose to ascend to heaven.
All of the aforementioned viewpoints are generally rejected by traditional Christianity as held by Christian organized religion and have been opposed by mainstream Christian scholars throughout history, except perhaps more recently since the 1800s.
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In Falun Dafa, salvation refers to cultivation practice, or xiu lian, a process of giving up human attachments and assimilating to the Buddha Fa (佛 Fǒ, 法 Fǎ), or the fundamental characteristic of the universe, Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance (真 zhen, 善 shan, 忍 ren).
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In Vedic religion (Hinduism), individual salvation is not, as is often incorrectly alleged, pursued to the neglect of collective well-being. "The principle on which the Vedic religion is founded," observes the Sage of Kanchi, "is that a man must not live for himself alone but serve all mankind." Varna dharma in its true form is a system according to which the collective welfare of society is ensured. Hinduism, which teaches that we are caught in a cycle of death and rebirth called saṃsāra, contains a slightly different sort of soteriology, as noted above, devoted to the attainment of transcendent moksha (liberation). For some, this liberation is also seen as a state of closeness to Brahman.
Westerners coined the name "Hinduism" itself as a convenience to encompass a constellation of different paths to moksha, based upon the Vedas, India's original religious texts. “In India,” wrote Mircea Eliade, “metaphysical knowledge always has a soteriological purpose.” 
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Islamic soteriology focuses on how humans can repent of and atone for their sins so as not to occupy a state of loss. In Islam, it is believed that everyone is responsible for his own action. So even though Muslims believe that their father of humanity, Adam, committed a sin by eating from the forbidden tree and thus disobeying his Lord, they believe that humankind is not responsible for such an action. They believe that God is fair and just and thus they should not be held responsible or punished for a sin that they did not commit. In Az-Zumar (The Groups) chapter, in verse 7, in the Quran, God said "No bearer of Burdens shall bear the burden of another" [39:7]. So repentance in Islam is to be forgiven from the sins that were committed by one's own hand. In Islam, for one to repent, s/he has to admit to their Lord that they have sinned, feel regret for the sin, be willing not to do the same sin again and finally to ask for repentance. S/he does not need to go to speak to someone to deserve the repentance, simply during the prayer or anytime, s/he speaks to her/his God (prays) asking his forgiveness. God said in the Quran "O you who believe! Turn to Allah (God) with sincere repentance! It may be that your Lord will expiate from you your sins, and admit you into Gardens under which rivers flow (Paradise)" [al-Tahreem 66:8]. Muslims believe that God is merciful and thus believers are expected to continuously repent so that their sins may be forgiven. "Say: O my slaves who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah (God), verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful”al-Zumar 39:53 and also "And whoever does evil or wrongs himself but afterwards seeks Allaah’s forgiveness, he will find Allaah Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful" al-Nisaa 4:110.
Muslims believe that they, as well as everyone else, are vulnerable to making mistakes and thus they need to seek repentance repeatedly at all times. Muhammad said "By Allah (God), I seek the forgiveness of Allaah and I turn to Him in repentance more than seventy times each day." (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, no. 6307)
Not only that God wants His servants to repent and forgives them, he rejoices over it, as Muhammad said "When a person repents, Allaah rejoices more than one of you who found his camel after he lost it in the desert." (Agreed upon. Narrated by al-Bukhaari, no. 6309)
Islamic tradition has generally held that the vast majority of humanity shall receive punishment in hell upon death and that only a small few will enter paradise. For example, the Hadith, as recounted in the Sahih al-Bukhari, decrees that out of every one thousand people entering into the afterlife that nine hundred and ninety-nine of them will end up in the fire of despair.
Mokṣa in Jainism means liberation, salvation or emancipation of soul. It is a blissful state of existence of a soul, completely free from the karmic bondage, free from saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death. A liberated soul is said to have attained its true and pristine nature of infinite bliss, infinite knowledge and infinite perception. Such a soul is called siddha or paramatman and considered as supreme soul or God. In Jainism, it is the highest and the noblest objective that a soul should strive to achieve. In fact, it is the only objective that a person should have; other objectives are contrary to the true nature of soul.
In the mystery religions, salvation was less worldly and communal, and more a mystical belief concerned with the continued survival of the individual soul after death. Some savior gods associated with this theme are dying and regenerating gods, often associated with the seasonal cycle, such as Osiris, Tammus, Adonis, and Dionysos. A complex of soteriological beliefs was also a feature of the cult of Cybele and Attis.
The similarity of themes and archetypes to religions found in antiquity to later Christianity has been pointed out by many authors, including the fathers of the early Christian church. One view is that early Christianity borrowed these myths and motifs from contemporary Hellenistic mystery religions, which possessed ideas such as life-death-rebirth deities and sexual relations between gods and human beings. While Christ myth theory is not accepted by mainstream historians, proponents attempt to establish causal connections to the cults of Mithras, Dionysus, and Osiris among others. (see also Zeitgeist: The Movie)
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Sikhism advocates the pursuit of salvation through disciplined, personal meditation on the name and message of God, meant to bring one into union with God. But a person's state of mind has to be detached from this world, with the understanding that this world is a temporary abode and their soul has to remain untouched by pain, pleasure, greed, emotional attachment, praise, slander and above all, egotistical pride. Thus their thoughts and deeds become "Nirmal" or pure and they merge with God or attain "Union with God", just as a drop of water falling from the skies merges with the ocean.
Shinto and Tenrikyo similarly emphasize working for a good life by cultivating virtue or virtuous behavior. The major Jewish denominations emphasize prayer and morality in this life over concern with the afterlife.
- "soteriology", definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary which erroneously gives neuter nominative of the corresponding adjective, σωτήριον, as the base.
- Karl Brunnholzl page 131 of his book "The Center of the Sunlet Sky, Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition"
- "The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis". Patheos.com - Daylight Atheism. Retrieved July 2, 2014.
- Jitendra Dhoj Khand. Supreme God: Body, Will, Wisdom, and Work. Dorrance Publishing. p. 18. ISBN 9781434946140.
- Ecclesiastes 9:5
- Rom. 5:10-11
- Fisher, David A. (December 2011). "The Question of Universal Salvation: Will All Be Saved?". The Maronite Voice, Volume VII, Issue No. XI. Retrieved July 2, 2014.
- I John 1:9 and Acts 2:38
- Rom. 8:11 and Gal. 2:20
- Rom. 5:9-10 and 1 Thess. 5:9
- Romans 6:3-5
- Eph. 2:8-10
- Richard Bauckham, "Universalism: a historical survey", Themelios 4.2 (September 1978): 47–54.
- David S. Noss. A History of the World's Religions.
- Mircea Eliade. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom.
- Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book 55, Hadith number 567.
- Pagan Theologies: Soteriology
- Giulia Sfameni Gasparro. Soteriology and mystic aspects in the cult of Cybele and Attis.
- Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth
- John McIntyre, Shape of Soteriology: Studies in the Doctrine of the Death of Christ (T&T Clark, 1992)