There appears to be five major categories regarding how to get to heaven in the world’s religions. Most believe that hard work and wisdom will lead to ultimate fulfillment, whether that is unity with god (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Baha’i) or freedom and independence (Scientology, Jainism). Others, like Unitarianism and Wicca, teach the afterlife is whatever you want it to be, and salvation is a non-issue because the sin nature doesn’t exist. A few believe either the afterlife doesn’t exist, or it’s too unknowable to consider.
Derivatives of the worship of the Christian-Judeo God generally hold that faith in God and/or Jesus and the accomplishment of various deeds, including baptism or door-to-door evangelism, will ensure the worshiper will go to heaven. Only Christianity teaches that salvation is a free gift of God through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9), and no amount of work or effort is necessary or possible to get to heaven.
Atheism: Some atheists believe there is no heaven—no afterlife at all. Upon death, people simply cease to exist. Others attempt to define the afterlife using quantum mechanics and other scientific methods.
Baha’i: Like many other religions, Baha’i doesn’t teach that man was born with a sin nature or that man needs saving from evil. Man simply needs saving from his erroneous beliefs of how the world works and how he is to interact with the world. God sent messengers to explain to people how to come to this knowledge: Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah. These prophets progressively revealed the nature of God to the world. Upon death, a person’s soul continues its spiritual journey, perhaps through the states known as heaven and hell, until it comes to a final resting point, united with god.
Buddhism: Buddhism also believes that heaven, or “Nirvana,” is to be rejoined in spirit with god. Reaching Nirvana, a transcendental, blissful, spiritual state, requires following the Eightfold Path. This includes understanding the universe, and acting, speaking, and living in the right manner and with the right intentions. Mastering these and the other eight paths will return a worshipper’s spirit to god.
Chinese Religion: Chinese Religion is not an organized church, but an amalgamation of different religions and beliefs including Taoism and Buddhism. Upon death, worshipers are judged. The good are sent either to a Buddhist paradise or a Tao dwelling place. The bad are sent to hell for a period of time and then reincarnated.
Christianity: Christianity is the only religion that teaches man can do nothing to earn or pay his way into heaven. Man, a slave to the sin nature he was born with, must completely rely on the grace of God in applying Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to the sins of the believer. Upon death, the spirits of Christians go to a temporary paradise, while the spirits of unbelievers go to another temporary holding place. At the final judgment, Christians are given a new body and spend eternity with God in paradise, while unbelievers are separated from God for eternity in hell.
Confucianism: Confucianism concentrates on appropriate behavior in life, not a future heaven. The afterlife is unknowable, so all effort should be made to make this life the best it can be, to honor ancestors, and to respect elders.
Eastern Orthodox: Orthodoxy is a Christian-Judeo derivative that reinterprets key Scripture verses in such a way that works become essential to reach heaven. They believe faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation, but where Christianity teaches that becoming more Christ-like is the result of Christ’s influence in a believer’s life. Orthodoxy teaches that it is a part of the salvation process. As a result, they believe if that process (called theosis) is not performed appropriately, a worshiper can lose his/her salvation. After death, the devout live in an intermediate state where this theosis can be completed. Those who have belief but did not accomplish sufficient progress in theosis are sent to a temporary “direful condition” and will go to hell unless the living devout pray and complete acts of mercy on their behalf. After final judgment, the devout are sent to heaven and the others to hell. Heaven and hell are not locations, but reactions to being in the presence of God, as there is nowhere that He is not present. For Christ-followers, God’s presence is paradise, but for the unsaved, being with God is eternal torment.
Hinduiism: Hinduism is similar to Buddhism. Salvation (or Moksha) is reached when the worshiper is freed from the cycle of reincarnation, and his spirit becomes one with god. One becomes free by ridding oneself of bad karma—the effect of evil action or evil intent. This can be done in three different ways: through selfless devotion to and service of a particular god, through understanding the nature of the universe, or by mastering the actions needed to fully appease the gods.
In a religion with over a million different gods, there are differences of opinion regarding the nature of salvation. The advaita believe salvation occurs when one can strip away the false self and make the soul indistinguishable from that of god. The dualist insists that one’s soul always retains its own identity even as it is joined with god.
Islam: Islam is a take-off on the Christian/Judeo God. Muslims believe salvation comes to those who obey Allah sufficiently that good deeds outweigh the bad. Muslims hope that repeating what Muhammad did and said will be enough to get to heaven, but they also recite extra prayers, fast, go on pilgrimages, and perform good works in hope of tipping the scales. Martyrdom in service to Allah is the only work guaranteed to send a worshiper to paradise.
Jainism: Jainism came to be in India about the same time as Hinduism and is very similar. One must hold the right belief, have the right knowledge, and act in the right manner. Only then can a soul be cleansed of karma. But in Jainism, there is no creator. There is no higher god to reach or lend aid. Salvation is man as master of his own destiny, liberated and perfect, filled with infinite perception, knowledge, bliss, and power.
Jehovha’s Wittnesses: The teaching of the Watchtower Society is the epitome of the saying “a cult of Christianity is a religion that misinterprets the book of Revelation.” Similar to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach different levels of heaven. The anointed are 144,000 who receive salvation by the blood of Christ and will rule with Him in paradise. They are the bride of Christ. To all others, Jesus’ sacrifice only freed them from Adam’s curse of original sin, and “faith” is merely the opportunity to earn their way to heaven. They must learn about Kingdom history, keep the laws of Jehovah, and be loyal to “God’s government”—the 144,000 leaders, 9000 of whom are currently on the Earth. They must also spread the news about the Kingdom, including door-to-door proselytizing. Upon death, they will be resurrected during the millennial kingdom where they must continue a devout life. Only afterwards are they given the opportunity to formally accept Christ and live for eternity under the rule of the 144,000.
Judaism: Jews believe that as individuals and as a nation, they begin reconciled to God. Through sin (individually or collectively) they can lose their salvation, but they can also earn it back through repentance, good deeds, and a life of devotion.
Mormonism: Mormons believe their religion to be a derivative of Judeo/Christianity, but their reliance on extra-grace works belies this. They also have a different view of heaven. To reach the second heaven under “general salvation,” one must accept Christ (either in this life or the next), and be baptized or be baptized by proxy through a living relative. To reach the highest heaven, one must believe in God and Jesus, repent of sins, be baptized in the church, be a member of the LDS church, receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, obey the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” and all God’s commandments, and complete certain temple rituals including marriage. This “individual salvation” leads to the worshiper and his/her spouse becoming gods and giving birth to spirit children who return to Earth as the souls of the living.
Roman Catholicsim: Roman Catholics originally believed only those in the Roman Catholic Church could be saved. Joining the church was a long process of classes, rituals, and baptism. People who had already been baptized but were not members of the Roman Catholic Church had different requirements and may even already be considered Christians. Baptism is “normatively” required for salvation, but this can include “baptism of blood” (i.e.: martyrdom) or “baptism of desire” (wanting to be baptized really badly). From the catechism: “Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, are saved even if they have not been baptized.” Despite the changes through the years, baptism (or the desire for baptism) is still required for salvation.
Upon death, the souls of those who rejected Christ are sent to hell. The souls of those who accepted Christ and performed sufficient acts to be purified of sin go to heaven. Those who died in faith but did not complete the steps to be purified are sent to purgatory where they undergo temporary, painful punishment until their souls are cleansed. Purification by torment may be lessened by suffering during life and the offerings and prayers of others on the sinner’s behalf. Once purification is complete, the soul may go to heaven.
Scientology: Scientology is similar to Eastern religions in that salvation is achieved through knowledge of self and the universe. The “Thetan” (Scientology’s answer to the soul) travels through several different lifetimes, attempting to expel painful and traumatic images that cause a person to act fearfully and irrationally. Once a Scientologist is “cleared” of these harmful images and becomes an “operating thetan,” he/she is able to control thought, life, matter, energy, space, and time.
Sikhism: Sikhism was created in reaction to the conflict between Hinduism and Islam, and carries on many of Hinduism’s influences—although Sikhs are monotheistic. “Evil” is merely human selfishness. Salvation is attained by living an honest life and meditating on god. If performed sufficiently, the worshipper is released from the cycle of reincarnation and becomes one with god.
Shinto: The afterlife in Shinto was originally a dire, Hades-like realm. Matters of the afterlife have now been transferred to Buddhism. This salvation is dependent on penance and avoiding impurity or pollution of the soul. Then one’s soul can join those of its ancestors.
Taoism: Like several other Eastern religions (Shinto, Chinese folk religions, Sikhism), Taoism adopted many of its afterlife principles from Buddhism. Initially, Taoists didn’t concern themselves with worries of the afterlife and, instead, concentrated on creating a utopian society. Salvation was reached by aligning with the cosmos and receiving aid from supernatural immortals who resided on mountains, islands, and other places on Earth. The result was immortality. Eventually, Taoists abandoned the quest for immortality and took on the afterlife teachings of Buddhism.
Unitarians – Universalism: Unitarians are allowed to and encouraged to believe anything they like about the afterlife and how to get there. Although in general, they believe people should seek enlightenment in this life and not worry too much about the afterlife.
Wicca: Wiccans believe many different things about the afterlife, but most seem to agree that there is no need for salvation. People either live in harmony with the Goddess by caring for her physical manifestation—the Earth—or they don’t, and their bad karma is returned to them three-fold. Some believe souls are reincarnated until they learn all their life lessons and become one with the Goddess. Some are so committed to following one’s individual path that they believe individuals determine what will happen when they die; if worshippers think they’re going to be reincarnated or sent to hell or joined with the goddess, they will be. Others refuse to contemplate the afterlife at all. Either way, they don’t believe in sin or anything they need saving from.
Zoroastrianism: Zoroastrianism may be the first religion that stated that the afterlife was dependent one’s actions in life. There is no reincarnation, just a simple judgment four days after death. After a sufficient amount of time in hell, however, even the condemned can go to heaven. To be judged righteous, one can use knowledge or devotion, but the most effective way is through action.