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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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That these two subjects should be linked together
for consideration here is justified both by religious tradi-
tion and a natural association of ideas. Each subject,
however, connotes, on analysis, distinctive evaluations
of man's situation in the universe which do not neces-
sarily involve mutual relationship. Thus, while sin de-
notes human offenses against divine law and the evil
consequences that stem from them, salvation may con-
cern divine deliverance from forms of evil, such as
volcanic eruption or flood, quite unconnected with
man's sin. The Litany of the Anglican Church, in the
Book of Common Prayer (1662), provides a convenient
example of this difference in the following petitions:

From fornication, and all other deadly sin... Good Lord,
deliver us: From lightning and tempest; from plague,
pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from
sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.

That the ideas of sin and salvation are traditionally
associated derives from a very ancient and widespread
belief in deities who govern the universe, and decree
laws designed to maintain a proper relationship be-
tween themselves and mankind, in order to preserve
both the cosmic order and the harmony of human
society. The forms in which this belief has found
expression in the course of history have been many
and various. They will be described here in chrono-
logical order (except Islam); and with comparative
reference so that their similarities and differences may
be appreciated. (Islamic ideas of sin and salvation are
treated after the section on Christianity, in order to
complete the survey of religions of Near Eastern origin
in this connection.) For, in a very true sense, the history
of man's conception of sin, and the ways in which he
has sought for salvation, reflect his interpretations of
the significance of human life and destiny.


1. Egypt. The earliest evidence for our subject is
found in Egypt. There, already by about 2400 B.C. as
the Pyramid Texts (Pyr.) attest, the Egyptians believed
that a person's post-mortem well-being could be jeop-
ardized by accusations of wrongdoing brought against
him after death. Since these Texts are an amorphous
collection of prayers, incantations, hymns, and myths
of diverse origin, which the priests of Heliopolis put
together in the belief that they would assist a dead
pharaoh to secure eternal felicity, the various refer-
ences in them to a post-mortem judgment are difficult
to interpret. The following passage, for example, seems
to be designed to refute all kinds of accusations, even
those that might be brought by animals:

There is no accuser (representing) a living person against
N (the deceased king); there is no accuser (representing)
a dead person against N; there is no accuser (representing)
a goose against N; there is no accuser (representing) a bull
against N

(Pyr. 386 a-b).

The situation implied here is significant; for a tribunal
is envisaged before which the deceased may be ac-
cused, if he had in some way abused a human being
or an animal. Who presided over this post-mortem
tribunal, how its transactions were ordered, and what
penalties might be imposed, are not indicated. The
implication that there was a divine law or order, which
the deceased might have transgressed, is suggested by
another Text (Pyr. 319): “N comes forth to justice
(maat); he brings it, that it may be with him.”

This reference to maat is of basic importance, be-
cause its appearance in the Pyramid Texts constitutes
the earliest evidence of the idea of a transcendental
moral order that recurs, under various names, in many
later cultural traditions, as will be noted. For the
Egyptians maat had several facets of meaning. It could
signify justice, truth, and good order in both a social
and cosmic context. In mythological imagery, maat was
portrayed as a goddess, whose distinguishing symbol
was a feather; she was regarded as the daughter of the
sun-god Rē, and, by a curious transformation of
imagery, as the food upon which Rē lived. Thus, Rē,
who was the chief god of the Egyptian state, was
regarded as embodying maat as the principle of order
in the universe and in human society.

How these intimations in the Pyramid Texts of belief
in a moral order, of which the sun-god Rē was the


guardian, affected the lives of individuals is revealed
in certain tomb inscriptions of about the same period.
A notable example is that on the tomb of a noble
named Herkhuf. He claims that he “gave bread to the
hungry, clothing to the naked, and ferried him who
had no boat.” He further declares that he never said
anything evil “to a powerful one against any people,”
for he desired “that it might be well with me in the
Great God's presence.” Despite its rather complacent
assertion of virtue, in the history of ethics and religion
this inscription is the earliest evidence of belief that
positive “good-neighborly” conduct would win divine
approval, particularly after death. The “Great God”
of the inscription was undoubtedly Rē, and Herkhuf's
statement implies that the deity was concerned with
a man's moral behavior, and would punish or reward
accordingly after death.

The inscription on Herkhuf's tomb reveals no con-
sciousness of sin; but the assertion of his virtues surely
implies that contrary behavior would transgress the
code of conduct that the Great God required of men.
Greater moral sensitivity is shown in a somewhat later
(ca. 2000 B.C.) writing known as the Instruction for
King Meri-ka-rē.
Here it is stated that “more accept-
able is the character of one upright of heart than the
ox of the evil doer,” and warning is given that each
man must face judgment after death, with his deeds,
good or bad, set in heaps before him.

Despite this evidence of what James Breasted and
others have aptly called the “dawn of conscience,” it
is significant that the early Egyptian documents reveal
primary concern for a form of salvation that is quite
unconnected with moral issues. This salvation, which
was fervently sought, was from death and its conse-
quences. The means employed was a combination of
ritual magic and practical action. A technique of ritual
embalmment was developed, which was patterned on
that which was believed to have been employed to
revivify the divine hero Osiris after his murder by his
evil brother, Set. The efficacy of this mortuary ritual
depended on the careful enactment, on behalf of a
deceased person, of what had once been done for
Osiris; but no question was asked of the moral fitness
of the deceased to enjoy this resurrection. By the New
Kingdom period (from 1580 B.C.), however, belief in
a post-mortem judgment was incorporated into these
Osirian funerary rites. The so-called Book of the Dead,
which was composed at this time to assist the dead
to attain eternal beatitude, impressively attests to this
development. Two of its chapters (XXX and CXXV)
are especially concerned with the judgment which the
dead had to face. In many of the manuscripts, these
chapters are illustrated with vignettes which graphi-
cally present the Egyptian conception of the awful
ordeal. The importance of this conception for both the
history of soteriology and ethics is such that it requires
a measure of detailed analysis here.

The depictions of the judgment scene invariably
show a large pair of balances standing in the middle
of the Hall of the Two Truths (Maati). In one scale-pan
the feather symbol of maat is set, and in the other
the hieroglyph sign (ib) of the heart of the deceased.
The mortuary-god Anubis supervises the weighing, and
the assessment is recorded by the scribe-god Thoth.
The transaction generally takes place in the presence
of Osiris, the lord of the dead, and it is watched
apprehensively by the deceased. Close by a fantastic
monster, with a crocodile's head awaits an adverse
verdict: it is Am-mut, the Eater of the Dead.

The judgment scene usually accompanies the text
of Chapter XXX of the Book of the Dead, which is
a prayer addressed by the deceased to his heart not
to witness against him at this critical juncture. The
hypostatization of the heart implied here is a unique
feature of ancient Egyptian thought. In texts, the heart
is sometimes referred to as the “God in man,” and it
was evidently regarded as a conscious censor of the
individual's behavior throughout life and ready to tes-
tify against him in the judgment after death.

The weighing of the heart was evidently related to
another transaction with which Chapter CXXV is
concerned. This Chapter is prefaced by a descriptive
rubric: “Words spoken when one enters the Hall of the
Two Truths. To separate N (the deceased) from his sins
(ḫww), and to see the face of all the gods.” Then follow
two Declarations of Innocence, sometimes misleadingly
called Negative Confessions. The first Declaration is
addressed to Osiris; the second to forty-two demonic
beings. Each Declaration consists of a number of
asseverations of innocence of certain specified crimes.
The following are representative examples from both
lists, and include both moral and ritual offenses:

I have not killed... caused pain to anyone... diminished
the food offerings in the temples... had sexual relations
with a boy... stolen the loaves of the glorified (dead)...
diminished the corn-measure.

How these Declarations of Innocence were related
to the weighing of the heart is not formally stated in
the relevant texts: but a logical nexus can be reasonably
made out. It would seem that the Declarations were
first made by the deceased on arrival at the Hall of
the Two Truths. But these solemn protestations of
innocence were not deemed enough until the moral
integrity of the person making them had been proved.
This was done by weighing his heart against maat. If
the assessment was favorable, he was significantly
proclaimed maa kheru (“true of voice”) and thus justi-
fied in his protestations of innocence.


Considerable attention has been given here to this
ancient Egyptian evidence because it is not only the
earliest we have of the “dawn of conscience,” but it
also concerns the most elaborate conception of a post-
mortem judgment until the evolution of Christian
eschatology. The Declarations of Innocence also pro-
vide our earliest known categories of what was con-
sidered to be sin, in that the act concerned a trans-
gressed divine law. It is significant, too, that the ancient
Egyptians, while they sought salvation from death by
ritual means, believed that the individual's eternal
destiny was finally determined by his own character.

2. Mesopotamia. In the sister-civilization of Meso-
potamia ideas of sin and salvation differed profoundly
from the Egyptian concepts, because the Mesopo-
tamian peoples did not believe that a happy lot after
death could be achieved. For them, death irreparably
shattered the psychophysical organism that constituted
an individual person. What survived the awful change
was terribly transformed and descended into kur-
the Land of No-return, which was conceived
as an immense pit, deep down below the foundations
of the world, where the dead dwelt in dust and gloom.
All went there, great and small, good and bad; for the
gods had withheld the gift of immortality from man.

Salvation, consequently, could not be hoped for from
death and its consequences. There was, also, no expec-
tation of judgment after death, since a common fate
awaited all. The logic of this view of man's life and
destiny meant that salvation and sin were ideas that
related only to this present life. Salvation, accordingly,
was security from what threatened to harm or destroy
the enjoyment of life in this world. For such security
men turned to the gods in prayer and service, believing
that they had the power to grant long life and prosper-
ity. They believed, too, that the gods had created
mankind to serve them by building temples and offer-
ing sacrifice to them. Neglect of this service constituted
sin, and it had dire consequences. The gods would
withdraw their protection from those who so trans-
gressed, thus leaving them open to demonic attack. A
Babylonian text known as the Ludlul bel nemequi
significantly reveals the doubt and anxiety that might
beset a man, afflicted by evil, who was not conscious
of having neglected his religious duties: “I looked
backwards: persecution, woe! Like one who did not
offer libation to a god... who did not bow his face
and did not know reverence, in whose mouth prayer
and supplication ceased.” The texts of many so-called
“penitential psalms” which have been found, appear
to express a sense of contrition for sin felt towards a
particular patron-god; but their purpose was essentially
expiatory. They were doubtless recited during rituals
of atonement prompted by misfortune, or, were of an
apotropaic kind. It is improbable that they constituted
evidence of an established doctrine of sin.

That the gods were believed to have delivered laws
for mankind to keep finds graphic expression in the
famous Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon (ca.
1792-1750 B.C.). Carved at the top of the black basalt
stele on which the laws are inscribed, is a scene of
Hammurabi adoring the sun-god Shamash, from whom
he had received the laws. The laws that follow, and
penalties for their infringement, are concerned, how-
ever, only with the well-being of the state and the
maintenance of social order. In an epilogue, Ham-
murabi claims that Shamash had committed these
laws to him, and he threatens with divine punishment
any successor who might disregard them. But through-
out the Code the terms of reference relate significantly,
to life in this world; and transgression of its provisions
is to be punished by the civil authorities. Similarly
confined to this life are the forms of salvation for which
much concern is shown in Mesopotamian texts. But
when acts of saving intervention are ascribed to such
deities as Marduk or Ishtar, it is salvation from some
kind of mundane misfortune, usually sickness; for there
could be no saving from the post-mortem destiny de-
creed for mankind.

3. Israel. Until the emergence of belief in a resur-
rection and judgment of the dead in the second century
B.C., the ancient Hebrew conception of man limited
personal significance to this life. Moreover, since
Hebrew religion was essentially ethnic in origin and
character, the individual was significant only insofar
as he affected, by his behavior, the relation between
Yahweh, the god of Israel, and the holy nation, Israel.
A notable instance of this situation occurs in the Book
of Joshua (7: 1ff.). The Israelites had suffered a severe
defeat by the people of Ai. When Joshua, the Israelite
leader, inquired the reason of Yahweh, he was told that
Israel had sinned because some of the spoils, dedicated
to Yahweh in a previous victory, had been withheld
from him. Investigation revealed that an Israelite
named Achan had secretly retained certain articles.
After he and his family and animals had been stoned
to death by the other Israelites, Yahweh was appeased
and gave Israel victory over Ai. This barbaric act
graphically attests to the prevalence of a primitive
sense of communal guilt for the transgression of an
individual, and the need to make corporate expiation
to the offended deity.

The traditional Hebrew disposition to evaluate sin
primarily in terms of the relation of Yahweh and Israel
demands many other illustrations. Thus, the kings of
Israel are each appraised in a kind of set formula
relating to their attitude towards idolatry: “he clung
to the sin [i.e., idolatry] of Jeroboam the son of Nebat,


which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from
it” (II Kings, 3:3; cf. 10:29; 13:2; etc.). This emphasis
upon the corporate aspect of sin, especially in the
matter of idolatry, has its classic expression in the
second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17).
After forbidding the making and worshipping of graven
images, Yahweh is represented as declaring that he is
“a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon
the children to the third and the fourth generation of
those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to
thousands of those who love me and keep my
commandments” (R.S.V.).

The Ten Commandments, just as the Egyptian
Declarations of Innocence and some expiatory Meso-
potamian texts, concern both religious and ethical
actions. Priority of order is given to the religious:
worship no other gods; do not commit idolatry; do not
take the name of Yahweh “in vain”; and, positively,
observe the sabbath. The reward promised for the
faithful keeping of these injunctions is confined to this
life, namely, divine beneficence and a long life “in the
land which the Lord your God gives you.”

Apart from these basic requirements for the mainte-
nance of a proper relationship between Yahweh and
Israel, Hebrew literature reveals a variety of ideas
about the cause and nature of sin. The story of the
Fall of Adam, in Genesis (Chs. 2-3), is the most notable
attempt to explain the origin and consequence of sin.
Since it is set in the Primeval History section of the
Yahwist philosophy of history, the story has a uni-
versalistic meaning, and it does not pertain specifically
to the destiny of Israel. Its theme, briefly, is that the
progenitors of mankind incurred the doom of mortality
for themselves and their descendants by disobedience
to their Maker's command. The part played by the
serpent in the fateful drama is enigmatical: it is repre-
sented as the suggesting to Eve of the advantages to
be gained from disobedience; but the decision to
disobey is distinctly taken by Adam and Eve. However,
shortly after the account of the Fall, the Yahwist writer
in describing the first murder (Genesis 4:2-7), makes
a curious reference to sin as a demonic being (rōbhēs),
“crouching at the door.” But the idea that sin is a
demon, which seizes the unwary, is not developed, and
the consequent suggestion that an evil power seeks to
win man from God does not appear in Hebrew thought
until the post-Exilic period (after 538 B.C.).

Psalm 51, though of unknown date, affords valuable
evidence of the currency of three distinct conceptions
of sin. In verses 1 and 2 the penitent beseeches God
to “... blot out my transgressions. Wash me thor-
oughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”
In Hebrew, “transgressions” (pesha') meant “rebel-
lion”; “iniquity” ('āwōn) denoted a deliberate turning
aside from the right way; and “sin” (ḥaṭṭâth) signified
missing the mark or losing one's way through ignorance
or lack of skill. The Psalms, which generally show a
great sensitivity about offending God, raise many un-
solved questions as to whether they should be inter-
preted as personal confessions or as expressions of
corporate contrition, with the speaker representing
Israel in a ritual of atonement.

Salvation in ancient Hebrew literature could have
two connotations, namely, God's deliverance of Israel
from its enemies, the classic example of which was the
deliverance from the pursuing Egyptians and their
destruction in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:13ff.), and the
deliverance of individuals by God from misfortune
(e.g., Psalms 34:6). The ethnic or nationalist idea of
salvation steadily became the major theme of Jewish
religion as Israel's position worsened in the interplay
of power politics of the ancient Near East. The desire
and hope for divine deliverance found fervent expres-
sion in an apocalyptic literature that began to pro-
liferate from the second century B.C. The emphasis,
which the prophets had earlier placed on Israel's iniq-
uity as the cause of its political disasters, was now
shifted to that of the wickedness of their Gentile
oppressors. Belief in ultimate divine succor became
concentrated in the idea of Yahweh's Messiah, who
would come with supernatural power to overthrow and
judge the Gentiles and vindicate Israel as the Elect
People of God. It was this hope, that Yahweh would
mightily intervene in world affairs to save Israel, that
inspired the Zealots, who led the Jewish resistance to
the government of Rome, and that eventually caused
the fatal revolt of A.D. 66, which ended in the over-
throw of the nation and the destruction of Jerusalem
and its great Temple four years later.

Parallel with the development of the national hope
for divine salvation, went a quest for individual salva-
tion by divine grace. The ancient Yahwist doctrine of
man had limited the enjoyment of significant personal
life to this world. Yahweh, it was taught, blessed the
pious with long life and material prosperity, and
punished the impious by misfortune and early death.
But, as a sense of individuality emerged in Israel, the
speciousness of this doctrine became painfully evident.
It caused the questioning of Yahweh's justice that finds
such poignant expression in the Book of Job. Job is
the type-case of the innocent sufferer overwhelmed by
unmerited misfortune. His plight is the more tragic
because he accepts the traditional teaching that death
was the virtual end of personal life: beyond it lay only
the misery of Sheol. Job's problem was that his piety
had been unrewarded in this life, and he could expect
no divine salvation after death. Within the context of
the then contemporary Yahwist doctrine of man, Job's


problem, though faced courageously, could find no
satisfying answer. A viable answer did eventually be-
come possible in the second century B.C., when the
belief was established that God would finally resurrect
and judge the dead. Then the just would be rewarded
by a blessed post-mortem existence, while the unjust
were punished in Sheol, which was reconceived as the
place of eternal torment for the damned.

4. The Greco-Roman World. Christianity, which is
the salvation-religion par excellence, stemmed from
Judaism; but its soteriology was profoundly influenced
by ideas current in the Greco-Roman world, in which
it spread during the formative centuries of its growth.
Consequently, these ideas, which are intrinsically sig-
nificant, are also of basic importance for the study of
Christian soteriology.

The Olympian religion of classical Greece, of which
the earliest literary evidence is found in the Homeric
poems, afforded no hope of a happy afterlife. A com-
mon fate awaited all. Their shades descended, at death,
into the gloom and misery of Hades, and from this fate
there could be no salvation (Odyssey Xl.204-22). This
view of man's ultimate destiny formed the pattern,
with certain variations, of the official religion of
Greece; it finds expression in its literature and philoso-
phy (except that of Plato), and its influence can be
traced in the sad dignity of the farewell scenes sculp-
tured on many tombs. The Olympian gods were served
to maintain the prosperity of the state, and failure to
serve them aright or observe the taboos of their cults
constituted sin, which involved dire punishment. Thus,
the Iliad begins by describing how the god Apollo
afflicted the Greek army, which was besieging Troy,
with a deadly plague because the Greek leader
Agamemnon had insulted his priest. Oedipus provides
the classic instance, in Greek literature, of the pitiless
exactment of divine punishment for unintentional sin.
The unfortunate hero commits parricide and incest
unwittingly, and thus through his pollution brings dis-
aster to Thebes, his native city, and an awful doom
upon himself. It is accordingly significant that, in
Greek thought, hubris was distinguished as the capital
sin; for it meant that the gods were relentless in striking
down a man who, confident in his own achievement
or good fortune, tended to forget his human status.

The Olympian religion was essentially the religion
of the polis, the city-state; it did not cater to personal
needs. For those who sought the comforting assurance
of a happy afterlife, instead of Hades' grim prospect,
there were the mystery-religions of Eleusis and
Orphism. The designation “mystery-religion” connotes
a cult into which a person had to be specially initiated,
in order to participate in its secret rites and be in-
structed in its esoteric doctrine. To the initiate of the
Eleusinian Mysteries, the rationale of which was pro-
vided by the myth of the goddess Demeter's search
for her lost daughter Persephone, a blessed afterlife
was promised. This salvation from the common lot of
mankind after death depended primarily upon the
magical efficacy of the initiatory rites performed at
Eleusis, though certain minimal ethical qualifications
were required for initiation. Unfortunately, owing
doubtless to the fact that the initiates (mystae) kept
their vows of silence, we are inadequately informed
about both the doctrine and ritual of the Eleusinian
Mysteries. The same cause probably accounts also for
our lack of detailed knowledge about Orphism. This
cult, which traditionally derived from Orpheus and was
essentially connected with the myth of Dionysos-
Zagreus, was concerned with the emancipation of the
soul from its fatal involvement with physical matter.
It taught that each soul (psychē) was of celestial origin
and immortal; but, due to some primordial fault or
error, it was doomed to a process of reincarnation in
bodies of various kinds, human, animal, and vegetable.
Unlike the Eleusinian Mysteries, Orphism had no
specific cult-center; it was organized in small local
communities. Initiation involved purificatory rites and
the imparting of secret knowledge; a discipline of life
was required, including vegetarianism. From texts
inscribed on gold leaves (laminae), found in tombs
thought to be those of Orphic initiates, it would appear
that advice was given to enable the deceased to estab-
lish their heavenly origin and so escape from the “sor-
rowful, weary wheel” of unceasing reincarnation.

In process of time, other mystery-religions became
established in the world of Greco-Roman culture. Chief
among them were the cults of Isis and Osiris from
Egypt, Attis and Adonis from Asia Minor, and Mithra
from Iran. The popularity of these cults attests to the
widespread need then felt for the assurance of a blessed
afterlife, which was not met by the official religions
of Greece and Rome. The cults of Attis and Adonis
derived from primitive rituals connected with the
“dying-rising” god of vegetation, whose myth com-
memorated the annual death and resurrection of vege-
tation. Certain aspects of the myth were incorporated
also into the mortuary cult of Osiris. Such cults were
based on ancient man's hope that a similar cycle of
death and resurrection might, with divine help, be
reproduced in himself. In the Mithraic mysteries, ele-
ments of solar and vegetation mythologies can be
discerned; but the role of Mithra seems to have been
that of saving his initiates from the dominion of
Ahriman, the principle of death and evil, who was
identified with the destructive process of Time under
the guise of Zurvān dareghō-chvadhāta (“Time of the
Long Dominion,” i.e., Finite Time).


Together with these specifically religious cults,
which offered salvation of varying kinds to their initi-
ates, there existed in the Greco-Roman world mystical
philosophies that claimed to possess esoteric (gnōsis)
knowledge about the human situation which would
gain eternal beatitude for those who possessed it. These
faiths may be conveniently grouped as Gnosticism,
Hermeticism, and Neo-Platonism. The first two were
concerned to account for the misery of human life in
a way similar to that of Orphism, except that they
embodied belief in the baleful dominion of the stars
over mankind. The duality of human nature, namely,
of an ethereal soul's incarceration in a physical body,
was explained as due to the primordial fall or descent
of an archetypal Anthropos (“Man”), from his abode
with the Father of Light, through the celestial spheres,
into the lower material world, where he cohabited with
Phusis (“Nature”). From this union mankind was born,
thus partaking of the nature of each of its parents, and
subject to the planetary powers that ruled the world.
Salvation, consequently, consisted in the freeing of the
ethereal soul of man from its involvement in corruptible
matter, so that it might ascend to its true home with
the Father of Light. The various Gnostic sects and the
Hermeticists offered to achieve such salvation for their
devotees through specially revealed knowledge (gnōsis)
of various kinds, and disciplines and mystic techniques.
Neo-Platonism, on the other hand, sought spiritual
salvation through an electic philosophy and mystical
experience, including particularly ecstasy, a psychic
state of being outside of, or transcending, one's body.

It is important to note that in these mystery-religions
and mystical philosophies, although certain moral
offences such as murder constituted a bar to initiation,
little concern was shown about moral qualifications or
sin. Instead, emphasis was laid upon the virtue of
initiation as the means to salvation; it was the un-
initiated who were damned to a miserable post-mortem
existence. The distinction is succinctly drawn in some
lines of Sophocles: “How thrice-blessed are they of
mortals who, having beheld these [Eleusinian]
mysteries, depart to the house of Death. For to such
alone is life bestowed there: to the others fall all ills”
(frag. 753, Turchi, p. 152).

5. Christianity. The message of Jesus of Nazareth
is summarized in Mark 1:14 as: “The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent.” This
summary is significant, for it shows how thoroughly
the mission of Jesus was set in the context of contem-
porary Jewish eschatological belief. Jesus called upon
his fellow Jews to prepare themselves, by repenting
of their sins, for God's intervention in the existing
world order, to save His people and punish their
oppressors. According to the Gospels, Jesus was con
cerned with the deeper causes of sin, and was impatient
with preoccupation about ritual offences. Thus he
taught that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds
from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the
heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication,
theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19;
R.S.V.). But, by exhorting his hearers to repent, Jesus
evidently believed that the individual could by his own
volition, rectify his evil disposition and merit member-
ship of God's kingdom. It would appear also that Jesus
and his original Jewish disciples accepted the contem-
porary demonology, and believed that the Devil, as
the Adversary of God, tempted men and women to
commit evil (e.g., Luke 22:3, 53).

It was Saint Paul, an Hellenistic Jew, who trans-
formed the original Jewish movement centered on Jesus
as the Messiah of Israel into a universalist savior-god
religion. Paul believed that God had specially commis-
sioned him to present Jesus to the Gentiles in a manner
suited to their needs (Epistle to Galatians 1:15-16,
2:7-8). Consequently, drawing unconsciously on his
knowledge of Greco-Roman culture, Paul developed
a soteriology of a very esoteric kind. It had two themes,
each of which envisaged mankind as being in a fatal
condition and needing a divine savior to deliver them.
One theme is briefly outlined in the First Epistle to
the Corinthians, 2:6ff., which presupposes a form of
astralism similar to that in Gnosticism and Hermeti-
cism, namely, that mankind is in a state of hopeless
subjection to the daemonic powers (archontes) that
inhabit the planets. Paul explains how God planned,
before the eons, to save mankind by sending into this
sublunary world a preexistent divine being, called the
Lord of Glory. Incarcerated in the person of Jesus, the
archontes did not recognize him and crucified him
(verse 8). Their error cost them their control over
mankind; for they could not hold in death the divine
Lord of Glory who had assumed human nature (Epistle
to Colossians 2:15, 20).

Paul's other soteriological theme was based on a
summary philosophy of history. He views mankind as
divided between Gentiles and Jews. The former, he
maintains, had failed to live according to the natural
law, which God had given, and so had fallen into deep
moral corruption (Epistle to Romans 1:18ff.). The Jews,
to whom God had given a special Law (Torah), had
also failed to keep its precepts, and thus stood even
more condemned (Romans 2:17ff.). And, so Paul con-
cluded, “there is no distinction; since all have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified
by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which
is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expia-
tion by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans,
3:22-25; R.S.V.). In this context, Paul uses the imagery


of the Jewish sacrificial system, regarding Christ as
“our paschal lamb,” that has been sacrificed (I Corin-
thians 5:7). Through Christ's vicarious sacrifice man-
kind is reconciled to God, being “saved by his life”
(Romans 5:10). Paul also reinterpreted the purifica-
tory rite of baptism as a ritual death and rebirth. The
neophyte is ritually identified in baptism with Christ
in his death, so that he might be raised to a new life
in Christo, as Christ was raised by God from death (Ro-
mans 6:3ff.).

Owing to the disappearance of the original Jewish
Christian community of Jerusalem in the Roman de-
struction of that city in A.D. 70, Paul's interpretation,
which that community had rejected, survived to be-
come the basis of Catholic Christianity. In the subse-
quent elaboration of his soteriology, another of Paul's
ideas was effectively utilized, particularly by Saint
Augustine of Hippo. In his Epistle to the Romans
(5:12-13), Paul had written with reference to Adam,
“sin came into the world through one man and death
through sin, and so death spread to all men because
all men sinned” (R.S.V.). From this idea developed the
doctrine of Original Sin, according to which every
child through seminal identity with Adam, inherits the
guilt of Adam's original act of disobedience and also
a disposition to sin. From the stain of this inherited
sin the newborn infant is deemed to be purged by
baptism. An essential emphasis was thus placed upon
baptism, and the Church did not hesitate to declare
that the unbaptized, even if they had committed no
actual sin, were doomed to perdition.

The Church has never formally defined the manner
in which the death of Christ operates to save mankind
from the consequences of sin, both original and actual.
Three main lines of interpretation have been developed
by theologians: that Christ's death was the price paid
to the Devil to redeem mankind; that his dying, as
the sinless representative of mankind, propitiated the
just anger of God the Father towards his sinful
brethren; that the exemplary effect of Christ's willing-
ness to die on behalf of mankind is calculated to move
sinners to contrition, and open the way to their recon-
ciliation with God.

Despite this lack of formal definition, the pres-
entation of Christ as the divine savior of mankind,
who saves through his sacrificial death, constitutes the
basic doctrine of Christianity, in both its Catholic and
Protestant forms. It led, in the Middle Ages, to the
formulation of an elaborate eschatology, which en-
visaged two forms of post-mortem judgment. After
death, the individual soul was to be judged by God;
unless its character was such that it deserved either
the immediate award of Heaven or immediate con-
signment to Hell, it was sent to Purgatory, where it
expiated the guilt of its actual sin. When Christ even
tually returned for the Last Judgment (an idea inherited
from Judaism), all the dead would be resurrected with
their physical bodies. To them, in this resurrected form
of being, their eternal destinies would then be decreed.
If their faith in Christ so merited, they would pass to
the eternal beatitude of the Vision of God; if they were
condemned, they were doomed to eternal torment in
Hell. This belief in ultimate salvation or damnation
was taught also by the Protestant Reformers, although
they rejected the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.

6. Islam. Muhammad declared himself to the Arab
people as “a warner clear” (Koran 51:50ff.), claiming
that Allāh had sent him to warn them of impending
judgment on their sins. The most heinous sin was that
of worshipping other gods besides Allāh. Condem-
nation at the judgment would mean consignment to
Hell, the torments of which Muhammad vividly de-
scribes. Those adjudged faithful would be rewarded by
the joys of Paradise (al-janna, “the garden”), which
are presented in equally realistic terms. The logic of
Muhammad's mission implied that men were able to
repent of their sins and be forgiven, and thus be saved.
The very word that Muhammad chose to describe his
faith, namely, “Islām,” denoted the idea of personal
submission to a supreme will, thus signifying freedom
of will on the part of the “Muslim,” who has thus
submitted himself to Allāh. The implication that the
individual could chose salvation or damnation for him-
self is, however, contradicted by other passages in the
Koran that represent human destiny as predetermined
by Allāh. Thus, for example, it is stated: “Allāh leadeth
astray whom He willeth and guideth whom He willeth”
(25:9). But Muhammad's theological immaturity was
doubtless responsible for his doctrine of predestination.
Faced with the refusal of many of his countrymen to
accept his message, and convinced of the omniscience
and omnipotence of Allāh, Muhammad concluded that
Allāh had predetermined who would be saved and who

It is significant that the word for “salvation”(najāh)
occurs only once in the Koran: “O my people, why
is it? I call you to salvation, but you call me to the
Fire” (40:44). The fact indicates that Muhammad did
not regard mankind as being in a state of perdition
owing to some original defect or sin, as in Christianity,
from which they needed to be redeemed and regener-
ated. Voluntary submission to Allāh ensured the ulti-
mate bliss of Heaven. Such submission necessarily
involved the observance of prescriptions concerning
faith and practice. These prescriptions constitute the
five duties of the Muslim, known as the Pillars of
Practical Religion (Arkān al-Islām). They are: profes-
sion of faith (Shahāda), epitomized as “There is no
deity but God; Muhammad is God's messenger”; the
recitation of five stated daily prayers; fasting (especially


in the month of Ramadān); payment of legal alms;
pilgrimage to Mecca.

Although the Koran (2:45) pronounces that at the
Last Judgment the intercession of no one will avail
the guilty, nor can they be redeemed in any way from
their fate, Muhammad has acquired something of the
role of a mediator or intercessor in the popular faith
of Muslims. It is believed that God will accept his
intercession on behalf of believers guilty of grave sin
(except the unforgivable sin of polytheism), and allow
him to deliver them from Hell. In the Shi'a form of
Islam, it is held that the imams, i.e., 'Ali, the son-in-law
of Muhammad, and his descendants, also have this
intercessory privilege which they will exercise for the
benefit of their followers.

7. Zoroastrianism. The teaching of Zarathustra (in
Greek, Zoroaster) conceives of mankind as decisively
implicated in a cosmic struggle between the principles
of Good and Evil. Zarathustra regarded himself as
commissioned by Ahura Mazdā (the Wise Lord) to
set before his contemporaries the fateful choice that
confronts each: “Hear with your ears the best things;
look upon them with clear-seeing thought, for decision
between two beliefs, each man for himself before the
Great Consummation, bethinking you that it be ac-
complished to our pleasure” (Yasna 30:2; trans. J. H.
Moulton). Each individual had thus personally to de-
cide on which side of the contending forces to align
himself; and upon his choice his destiny depended. In
the extant teaching of Zarathustra only cryptic refer-
ences are made to the consequences of this choice.
Thus there was to be an awful ordeal of crossing the
Bridge of the Separator (Činvat); but the devotees
of Ahura Mazdā are assured that they would be led
safely across by Zarathustra himself (Yasna 46:10).
Mention is also made of molten metal and fire as forms
of Ahura Mazdā's retribution (Yasna 30:7; 51:9). The
just are promised that they will abide with Ahura
Mazdā in the House of Song (Yasna 45:8, 48:7), while
the unjust are doomed to the House of the Lie
(Drūjō·nmāna 46:11). There is reason for thinking that
the Bridge of the Separator was an ancient Iranian
concept, concerned with proving the ritual fitness of
the dead to enter the next world, and that Zarathustra
readapted it as a post-mortem test of allegiance to
Ahura Mazdā.

The dualism of Zarathustra's teaching had a strong
moral character. For though the cosmic struggle was
basically that of Life against Death and Light against
Darkness, Zarathustra designated the Angra Mainyu,
the Enemy Spirit, as the Drūj or Lie. Moreover, the
emphases which he laid upon the momentous character
of the individual's choice assumed a decisive measure
of human free will that is truly unique in the history
of religions. However, Zarathustra seems to have
ignored the consequent problem of accounting for the
variation of human choice, particularly, why some
should decide to align themselves with the Drūj. No
notice, also, appears to be taken of the inherited dispo-
sition to sin, with which the Christian doctrine of
Original Sin attempts to deal. The logic of Zarathustra's
teaching implies that the individual could, and was
expected to, work out his own salvation. Zarathustra's
own role was primarily that of a prophet or interpreter
of Ahura Mazdā's will. Although he would lead the
faithful in safety across the Bridge of the Separator,
he does not appear to claim that he would or could
save them from the Angra Mainyu.

In the later eschatology of Zoroastrianism the post-
mortem destiny of the individual is described in great
detail. According to the Dâtistân-i Mēnōk-i-Krat, a
Pahlavi writing of about the ninth century A.D., the
deeds of the deceased were weighed by Rashnu at the
Bridge of the Separator. After that ordeal, the soul
meets a personification of its past conduct: to the just
the personification appears as a beautiful maiden, but
to the unjust as an awful hag in whose baleful company
it goes to hell. Zoroastrian dualism was not, however,
an eternal conflict between good and evil, and it was
believed that ultimately Ohrmazd (i.e., Ahura Mazdā)
would overcome Ahriman (i.e., the Angra Mainyu of
Zarathustra). An eschatology was accordingly elabo-
rated which looked forward to the coming of the
Saoshyans or Savior, who would resurrect the dead for
judgment. The righteous would then pass to heaven,
and the wicked to hell where they suffer physically
for their sins. But their punishment is not eternal; for
the victory of Ohrmazd and the destruction of Ahriman
led finally to the Fraškart, the ultimate “making excel-
lent” or rehabilitation of those who had allied them-
selves with Ahriman.

8. Hinduism. Mokṩa is the word most generally used
in Hinduism to denote an idea equivalent to salvation.
But the word literally means liberation, and the some-
what different action or process thereby implied from
that of salvation reflects the distinctive Hindu view
of human nature and destiny. This view first found
expression in what is known as the early Upanishadic
period of Indian culture (ca. eighth century B.C.), and
was based upon the twin doctrines of samsāra and
karma. Samsāra means the stream of existence in the
empirical world, involving the individual in a ceaseless
cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The form of each
period of incarnate life is believed to be determined
by the nature of one's actions in previous lives. By this
law or process (karma, literally “deed” or “act”), the
soul of self (ātman) may even be reborn in nonhuman
forms, if the entail of its past lives so requires.

The operation of karma can be regarded as the
working-out of a person's sins or misdeeds; but al-


though an ethical factor is thus involved, in Indian
thought the process of samsāra and karma is primarily
seen as resulting from the disposition of the ātman to
cling to existence in the empirical world, which it
identifies with reality. This disposition stems from a
primordial avidyā or ignorance, and it prevents the
ātman from perceiving that Brahman is the true Real-
ity and the source and ground of its own being.

How this avidyā originated is not explained. The
great Hindu teacher Řankara (ca. 788-820 A.D.) main-
tained that to seek for a causal explanation of it is itself
an expression of avidyā, for the attempt assumes the
reality of the empirical world. Accordingly, the un-
ending misery of human existence is accepted as due
to some primordial ignorance on the part of the ātman,
not to some original sin which it had committed. To
emphasize the infinite extent of this misery, Indian
thinkers invented an elaborate chronology of world-
ages of immense duration and repetitive pattern, since
Time was conceived as cyclic in its process, not linear.
Through these unending cycles of Time the individual
ātman is doomed to drag out its miserable existence,
suffering the pain and degradation of innumerable
births and deaths, and burdened by the ever-increasing
entail of its own karma.

It is from this fate that liberation (mokṣa) is sought.
Hinduism teaches that such liberation is possible, and
offers various ways by which it may be attained. Of
these ways the three most notable are the Advaita
Vedānta, the bhaktimārga, and Samkhya-Yoga. Advaita
Vedānta, or Non-Dualistic Vedānta, is a philosophical
discipline based upon the principle tat tuam asi (“That
art thou”), enunciated in the Chāndogya Upanishad
VI, 8.7. The aim of the discipline is to bring the indi-
vidual ātman to an effective realization of its essential
identity with Brahman. The achievement of such real-
ization liberates the ātman from its fatal illusion about
the empirical world and its own individuality, and so
delivers it from involvement in samsāra and karma.
(“the way of bhakti”) promises release
through divine help, won by an intense personal devo-
tion to the Hindu gods Vishnu or Shiva. In the great
classic of bhaktimārga, the Bhagavadgītā (“Song of the
Lord”), the ultimate goal is union with God, and the
promise is made to the devotee Arjuna: “Set thy mind
on me, place thy intellect in me; in me verily shalt
thou dwell hereafter” (Xll.8). Samkhya-Yoga aims to
achieve liberation by enabling the individual to make
an existential distinction between himself and the
empirical world. This insight is attained by the rigorous
practice of yogic techniques calculated to gain a
proper state of psychophysical detachment.

In these, and the many other ways by which mokṣa
is sought in Hinduism, the underlying assumption is
that the individual must achieve the goal by his own
efforts, even though he may be assisted by divine grace.
And the process is essentially that of his correcting,
or recovering from, a primordial error or illusion, into
which he inexplicably fell; it is not one of repenting
and obtaining forgiveness of sins he has committed.

9. Buddhism. Buddhism originated in India in the
sixth century B.C., i.e., during the Upanishadic period
of Indian culture. The Buddha appears to have
accepted without question the twin doctrines of
samsāra and karma; but he made one important quali-
fication. According to Hindu teaching, it is the ātman,
the individual soul or self, that is subject to the process
of samsāra: through infinite incarnations, it bears the
burden of its karma. The Buddha maintained that the
idea of permanent soul or self was a basic illusion.
Instead, he taught the doctrine of anatta (an = not;
atta = self), according to which the so-called individ-
ual self is the illusory product of the temporary
collocation of five khandhas, which are various
psychical and physical elements that make up a human
being. Consequently, there is no real self that trans-
migrates from body to body. However, by a piece of
subtle metaphysics, it is explained that, at the end of
an incarnation, the disembodied karma-energy causes
the formation of a new set of khandhas, thus producing
a new individual form of being.

The Buddha is reported to have laid supreme em-
phasis upon the pain and misery of human existence,
and claimed to reveal how release could be obtained.
As in Hinduism, the cause of suffering is found not in
moral failing but in a primordial ignorance (avijjā), or
failure to perceive the true nature of things. According
to the formula paticca-samuppāda (“dependent origi-
nation”), aging, and death (jarāmarana), which in-
evitably follow each occasion of rebirth, result from
a chain of psychophysical causation, beginning with
the primal avijjā that starts the karmic process of
involvement in the empirical world.

The means of release from this fatal situation is
summarized in the Buddhist “Eightfold Path,” or
atthangika-magga. The scheme defines eight require-
ments that have to be fulfilled: right understanding;
right thought; right speech; right bodily-action; right
livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right con-
centration. The eight “steps” or requirements of the
Path are very fully elaborated in Buddhist teaching.

The goal of Buddhist endeavor is Nirvāna (Sanskrit)
or Nibbāna (Pali). The concept denoted is inherently
subtle, and it has been variously interpreted. It was
understood by earlier Western students of Buddhism
as signifying personal extinction. There was some justi-
fication for this view, since Buddhist texts often seem
to give the term Nirvāna a negative connotation.


However, what is primarily certain is that the concept
represented, and still represents, a profoundly hoped-
for release or liberation from the suffering of recurrent
rebirth in the empirical world. The Buddha is repre-
sented in a Pali writing entitled Udāna as saying with
reference to Nirvāna: “There, monks, I say there is
neither coming nor going, nor staying nor passing
away, nor arising; without support or going on or basis
is it. This is the end of pain” (viii, 1-3). But positive
epithets can also be found for Nirvāna in other
Buddhist writings. The problem here lies ultimately
in the inherent obscurity that invests the Buddhist
conception of human nature. The anatta doctrine
certainly precludes the idea of an inner essential soul
or self that might attain Nirvāna; on the other hand,
the Buddha is represented as having rejected the
uccheda-vāda, i.e., the doctrine of personal annihila-
tion. It would seem likely that early Buddhist thinkers
did conceive of some kind of transcendental self, as
distinct from the empirical self; but they refused to
define it either positively or negatively, on the princi-
ple that all definition is limitation by means of em-
pirical categories.

In its original form, Buddhism was essentially a way,
revealed by the Buddha Gotama, whereby men could
work out their own salvation or liberation. In process
of time other forms of the faith developed, which were
adapted to meet the need of ordinary people for divine
help and the expectation of reward or punishment after
a period of incarnate life. Consequently, popular
Buddhism knows of many divine helpers, called
bodhisattvas, who assist men and women to enjoy
heavenly bliss and avoid post-mortem torment, before
they ultimately work out their karma and attain


Ideas of sin as transgression of divine law, incurring
divine wrath and causing ritual pollution, are to be
found in most religions. Similarly prevalent has been
the quest for divine salvation from evils, natural and
supernatural. The conceptions of sin and salvation
surveyed in this article are the most significant and
representative. Each has evolved in a major religion,
and characterizes its faith and practice. Each, also, has
had great cultural influence, affecting art and literature
and the social behavior of many generations.


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Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. Th. Klauser
(Stuttgart, 1959), entries under “Erlösung.” Religion in
Geschichte und Gegenwart,
ed. K. Galling, 3rd ed.
(Tübingen, 1957-62), Vol. II, entries under “Erlöser” and
“Erlösung,” Vol. VI, entries under “Erlösung.”

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idem, The Judgment of the Dead (New York, 1967), all with
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of Conscience
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im Rahmen der antiken Religionen
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Early Islam (London, 1948). M. Wensinck, The Muslim
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Hinduism (Oxford, 1962).


[See also Buddhism; Christianity in History; Dualism;
Gnosticism; Hermeticism; Islamic Conception; Prophecy in
Hebrew Scripture; 4">Religion, Ritual in.]