So, what is soteriology, exactly?
Soteriology is one of those 50 cent words you learn in seminary that some denominations get all bent out of shape over. I have seen screaming arguments over the topic before, both in real life and certainly in the online world. (Twitter, I am looking at you, you human sewer!)
If you want to get technical, soteriology literally comes from the Greek words of σωτηρία sōtēria "salvation" from σωτήρ sōtēr "savior, preserver" and λόγος logos "study" or "word." In a brief, digestible nutshell, soteriology is a churchy word for the branch of theology that studies or tries to understand how we are saved, or how God saves us, if you like.
In other words, how does salvation work?
It is interesting though that in the heart of most all religions though (apart from atheism which is a religion in itself, but that's a discussion for another day) feel that something about humanity is wrong. Something is just now what it should be. There is more to this thing called existence than apparently meets the material eye.
In Hinduism and to an extent Buddhism, soteriology takes the form of a belief that we must somehow end the cycle of death and rebirth. They have the notion of reincarnation, of course, and that literally is their idea of hell, to just be condemned for all eternity to go through an endless cycle of drudgery and toil in material form without reaching Nirvana or Enlightenment or what have you.
Of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam focuses on how humans can repent of and atone for their sins so not to occupy a state of loss. They believe Adam sinned, but that sin was Adam's alone. We are all as responsible for our own actions, and as such, we need to ask God to forgive us, and if we do, then God will usher us into Paradise one day, and if not, then God will send us to a fiery grave for all eternity. The Qu'ran says, "If you avoid the great sins you have been forbidden, We shall wipe out your minor misdeeds and let you through the entrance of Paradise.” As I read Islam, it's basically a theology of works righteousness: that we save ourselves through our own agency of prayer and asking forgiveness and giving alms and all that. If we do right, Allah will forgive us and reward. If we do wrong, then basically hellfire. It's not God's prevenient grace or election or what have you. It appears to be straight up Pelagianism.
Judaism is a hard read on the issue, depending on what strand of Judaism you are looking at, particularly modern vs. pre-modern. Judaism (at least the Modern forms) seems to have no real definitive belief in personal or individual salvation. It seems much more corporate, that God saves His People, Israel. That somehow salvation comes through the life-giving Law, the Torah. If we are his people, God will be our God. This is where Judaism gets murky because some Jews (some don't) do not believe in an afterlife or soul. Once you die and the breath of God goes out of you, that's it, you cease to exist on any level: here, heaven, hell, or otherwise. So, by that line of thought, you are only saved by virtue of living a good and righteous life. Whether individual souls exist and what happens to them after death if they even exist is by no means a settled question in Judaism.
With the idea of the Resurrection of the Body and the adoption from early on of Greek notions of body vs. soul duality, Christianity has a whole different take on soteriology than virtually any other religion. Even within Christianity, there is a wide range of ideas of how we are saved.
Certainly, our Evangelical brothers and sisters tend to focus a lot on the idea of the eternal soul. You may have had some well meaning person come up to you in the grocery store or in some public place and ask you straight up, "Brother (or Sister), are you saved?"
This is, naturally, a very loaded question. They usually have a very individualized idea of our relationship with God. That is to say that all our relationships with God are on the individual level. That is to say that Jesus die for you, personally, and you should have a personal relationship with him. At best, I am thinking here of the theology of personages like the late Rev. Billy Graham, who articulated ideas like that in a boldly radical way in Big Tent revivals and all that. At worst, I am thinking of the hellfire and brimstone sermons I heard from time to time in my youth in the Bible Belt that if I didn't walk down the aisle and give my heart to Jesus and recite the sinner's prayer and all that, then it's surely hellfire and brimstone for me come one second after I die. Regardless, Jesus died for me the individual, not for the Church or for the greater Body of Christ. This is a very rugged individualist American way of doing religion: that all I need is Jesus, and all Jesus needs is me, and, praise Jesus, it's me and God, and things like the Church and Baptism and Sacraments all that are at best tangential and at worst are meaningless rituals because being "Born Again" is what it's all about in that vein of soteriology.
Of course, that's only one, small branch of Christianity. I pick on it perhaps because it's such a colorful target that I think most Americans can either relate to or have had some other bad experience of in some way or form, even if you never believed that way. At the end of the day, it is a good example, right or wrong, of one way of doing soteriology, by asking the question, "Brother, are you saved?" That is basically what soteriology means: the study of how God saves us.
In a subsequent post, I will start looking at how Christianity came to produce such interesting if misguided ways of doing soteriology, but this is just an introduction to the concept. And it is something that I think we do need to think about? I mean, how does God work in our life for our redemption? Is it individual or corporate? Is it some combination thereof? Or, is it like some of the Ancient Stoic philosophy where the meaning of it all is is to lead a life of Public Virtue? I will leave you with that thought, until we meet again on this blog.