Created By: RaustBD on August 28, 2012 Last Edited By: 69BookWorM69 on August 26, 2013

Grace Through Works

Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, regardless of what, if any, religion they follow

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Many religious traditions in Real Life teach that what religion you follow plays a large role in whether you go to heaven or hell when you die. Among the groups that ascribe to this idea, the impact can range, depending on who you ask, from having faith counted among your good works on one end, to faith being the sole criterion of salvation on the other end. This is among the contentious issues that split Christianity into different sects: many Protestant denominations are Sola Fide (salvation solely through faith), while others (as well as Catholics) invoke "faith without works is dead".

At the same time, the real world experience of many people, particularly those in culturally-diverse societies, includes frequent contacts with people of other religions (or none at all) who nonetheless prove to be good people. Social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell (authors of the book American Grace) refer to such good people as "Aunt Susans". They suggest that because most Americans are "intimately acquainted" with such people, they are less likely to engage in acts of religious intolerance. Of course, the families of these "Aunt Susans" would find it unfair that they should be condemned in the afterlife because they didn't happen to follow the correct religion. After all, God is supposed to be just and merciful and infinitely better than any human being,

This is generally a touchy and awkward subject, so it's particularly problematic for the creators of fiction. If creators imply that their characters must follow a particular religion to make it to heaven, it becomes difficult to avoid the question of which religion is correct, and choosing one faith (or a few of them) over others risks alienating portions of the potential audience. Thus it is frequently the case in fiction that the topic is completely removed from the equation, even in works that depict a heaven clearly based on a religion likely to ascribe to grace through faith.

The solution is Grace Through Works, the policy of the vast majority of fictional depictions of the afterlife. Good, honest, noble and decent people are admitted into Heaven, while villainous people go to Hell, and are generally punished in a manner proportionate to their misdeeds, with people like Hitler inhabiting the most severe circles of Hell. People who don't clearly belong to either are often sent to a neutral afterlife, or given some sort of tie-breaking test that will determine which one they belong in, or sometimes just admitted into heaven by default.

Exceptions to this, ones that take what religion you ascribe to into account, are generally played for laughs (and it's almost never the most common religious belief that's deemed the "correct faith" in such cases), are catered to a specific religious demographic, or a Rage Against the Heavens plot.

Examples:

Film

Literature
  • In the late 15th-century English morality play The Somonyng of Everyman (The Summoning of Everyman, usually referred to simply as Everyman), the eponymous Everyman is called to Heaven to defend himself before God but since he's called upon unexpectedly he's allowed one friend to go with him. His friends Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Knowledge, Confession, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits all abandon him, but one friend, Good Deeds, is willing to go with him.
  • Thoroughly refuted in John Bunyan's 1678 book The Pilgrim's Progress. The protagonist Christian and his companion Hopeful meet a lad named Ignorance who believes that he will be allowed into the Celestial City through his own good deeds rather than as a gift of God's grace. Despite the efforts of Christian and Hopeful to persuade him otherwise, Ignorance persists in his belief and ends up being cast into hell.
  • In The Last Battle, one of the Calormenes is admitted into Heaven because he sincerely believed that Tash was the greatest good. All his worship of Tash is counted as worship of Aslan.
  • This comes up in Aunt Dimity Down Under. Ruth and Louise Pym were devout churchgoers, and their great-grand niece Bree isn't, yet they all seem to subscribe to this idea. Part of Bree's funeral oration runs:
    Auntie Ruth and Auntie Louise weren't bothered by my looks or my accent, and they didn't care where I came from. I didn't know them for much more than a day, but sometimes that's all it takes to see into a person's heart. Their hearts were pure gold. I don't know whether I believe in God and I don't have much use for religion--sorry, Vicar--but if heaven exists, I know they're up there. And if there's such a thing as a guardian angel, then I have two of the best.
Come the following spring, Lori, the narrator, goes on to tell us the Bible verse on the sisters' shared headstone "reflected their greathearted view of the cosmos." It reads "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love, dwellleth in God, and God in him. --John IV:16"

Myth & Folklore:
  • An ancient Indian parable is intended to highlight this point. One of the paths to heaven is to constantly chant the name of God. There was an atheist who spent his entire life muttering "there is no God!" under his breath. When he died, he was instantly transported to heaven.

Religion
  • Possible Scriptural support for this idea may be found in the quote "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2 in the KJV)
  • The Zoroastrian faith has the three-part mantra "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds."

Tabletop Games
  • This is how the afterlife works in the Forgotten Realms for the vast majority of people who worshiped the gods faithfully but didn't take any particular one as their patron. Those who took a patron deity are scooped up by them directly, those who betrayed their commitments to their deity (the False) are punished by the god of the dead according to the severity of their crimes[[note]]could be anything from having to be a tour guide in the City of Judgment on up to eternal torture[[/note]], and atheists (the Faithless) get stuffed into the Wall surrounding the City of Judgment to be slowly and painfully consumed.

Web Animation
  • Unintentionally enforced in The Saga of Biorn. In the climax, the eponymous hero finally dies in his fight with a giant after killing it, saving a church full of nuns. However, while he's on his way to entering Valhalla like he wanted, the nuns bury him with a cross, instantly changing the afterlife like a lottery wheel to the Judeo-Christian Heaven. Cue Biorn screaming at the pearly gates.

Webcomic
  • In Order Of The Stick, Roy Greenhilt tells the angel judging his soul that he's never been particularly religious and has spent his life trying not to actively offend any gods in the hope they'd leave him alone. The angel reassures him that one's place in the afterlife is decided solely by one's deeds and alignment and piety isn't an issue, and allows him to enter Heaven.

Western Animation
  • Averted in South Park: the only people to go to Heaven are the Mormons, everyone else goes to Hell regardless of good deeds. God himself is a Buddhist.

Indexes on Launch: Afterlife Tropes, Death Tropes, Morality Tropes, Philosophy Tropes, Religion Tropes
Community Feedback Replies: 25
  • August 28, 2012
    LancelotG
    In The Last Battle, one of the Calormenes is admitted into Heaven because he sincerely believed that Tash was the greatest good. All his worship of Tash is counted as worship of Aslan.
  • August 28, 2012
    Medinoc
    If I've understood D&D correctly, it partially subverts it: All Evil people got to a quite sucky afterlife, but if they were acting on behalf of an evil deity it sucks a lot less (recruited by said deity instead of being turned into a mindless shambling monster).
  • August 28, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In the Medivel play Everyman the eponymous Everyman is called to Heaven to defend himself before God but since he's called upon unexpectedly he's allowed one friend to go with him. His friends Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, Goods, Knowledge, Confession, Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits all abandon him, but one friend, Good Deeds, is willing to go with him.
  • August 29, 2012
    ArkadyDarell
    D&D is kind of an odd and complicated example where you get sent to whatever plane best matches your alignment (and which alignment you are is typically based on your actions), and said planes are run according to the core matching principles of said alignment. So how rewarding or punishing your afterlife is more based on how much you actually like the new principles you have to live by.

    Thus, while good planes are more "heavenly" and evil planes are more "hellish", a good person could be dissatisfied on a good plane if it doesn't really match their tastes, while an evil person could be quite pleased on an evil plane if they can work the plane's system to their advantage.
  • August 31, 2012
    Antigone3
    I'm not sure I'm following this correctly, but this may be a specific case of Christianity Is Catholic. One of the major splits between Catholicism and the assorted Protestant denominations is that Protestants are Sola Fide (salvation solely through faith) and Catholics invoke "faith without works is dead". An afterlife that sorts souls by what they did in life would be closer to the Catholic approach.
  • August 31, 2012
    NimmerStill
    Not all Protestants; that's a major dispute within Protestantism between Arminians and Calvinists. But yeah, the Christianity Is Catholic trope, and also the Rule Of Aesop I suppose.
  • September 4, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    This reminds me of The Aunt Susan Theory: The book American Grace (written by Professors Robert Putnam and David Campbell) covers social science research on this area. Putnam and Campbell suggest that because most Americans are "intimately acquainted" with people from other religions, we have more positive feelings towards other religions and are less likely to engage in acts of religious intolerance. The theory is that we all have an "Aunt Susan" in our extended families who is from another religion and/or have "Aunt Susans" in our lives who are not related to us but are friends or co-workers. We know these people to be good and find it unfair that they should be condemned in the afterlife because they didn't happen to follow the correct religion. Since we find this to be unfair, we don't condemn them, and by extension, fiction depicting the afterlife allows for merit to trump faith. After all, God is supposed to be just and merciful and infinitely better than any human being, so if we think something is unfair, God must agree and act accordingly.

    I won't say this is unique to America, because I think it may also be applicable to secular societies generally. If religion generally isn't important, than following the right one isn't important either. If you need or want it, possible Scriptural support for this idea may be found in the quote "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2 in the KJV)

    It must also be said that there's a practical reason for this solution to the problem of the afterlife: most creators want their works to appeal to the widest possible audience, and saying that one faith is superior to another (even implicitly) risks alienating some portion of the potential audience. Hence, if a particular faith is said to have "gotten it right," chances are it will be an unlikely choice and it will be played as a joke (thereby putting the majority in the same boat, salvation-wise), unless the audience is sectarian or the plot involves Rage Against The Heavens (as the OP noted). See also Secular Hero.

    Possible Literature example from Aunt Dimity Down Under:
    • Ruth and Louise Pym were devout churchgoers, and their great-grand niece Bree isn't, yet they all seem to subscribe to this idea. Part of Bree's funeral oration runs:
      Auntie Ruth and Auntie Louise weren't bothered by my looks or my accent, and they didn't care where I came from. I didn't know them for much more than a day, but sometimes that's all it takes to see into a person's heart. Their hearts were pure gold. I don't know whether I believe in God and I don't have much use for religion--sorry, Vicar--but if heaven exists, I know they're up there. And if there's such a thing as a guardian angel, then I have two of the best.
    Come the following spring, Lori, the narrator, goes on to tell us the Bible verse on the sisters' shared headstone "reflected their greathearted view of the cosmos." It reads "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love, dwellleth in God, and God in him. --John IV:16"

  • September 20, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    bump
  • September 20, 2012
    Xtifr
    This is not limited to Christianity; it's a common theme in Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, the notion that faith trumps works is almost exclusive to the Abrahamic religions.

    Myth & Folklore:
    • An ancient Indian parable is intended to highlight this point. One of the paths to heaven is to constantly chant the name of God. There was an atheist who spent his entire life muttering "there is no God!" under his breath. When he died, he was instantly transported to heaven.
  • September 20, 2012
    NimmerStill
    ^Just Christianity as far as I know, and just subsets of Christianity. Judaism and Islam do not work that way either, I'm pretty sure.
  • September 20, 2012
    TwentyTwoSevenths
    I may be wrong, but I think Dante mentions a couple pagans being in Heaven in Dante's Inferno.
  • September 21, 2012
    Andygal
    More or less true in In Nomine, people that achieve their greatest potential for good go to Heaven, people that achieve their greatest potential for evil go to Hell, most of the rest get re-incarnated.
  • July 22, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    ^^ Actually, no. Virtuous pagans are in Limbo, which is considered part of Hell.
  • July 22, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    I've revised the description and added in some examples. Hats, anyone?
  • July 22, 2013
    Astaroth
    In Order Of The Stick, Roy Greenhilt tells the angel judging his soul that he's never been particularly religious and has spent his life trying not to actively offend any gods in the hope they'd leave him alone. The angel reassures him that one's place in the afterlife is decided solely by one's deeds and alignment and piety isn't an issue, and allows him to enter Heaven.
  • July 22, 2013
    StarSword
    @Nimmer Still: It depends on the denomination, honestly. At least one of Martin Luther's 95 Theses had something about "salvation by faith alone". I'm no expert by any stretch but right now I think the general consensus at least among Protestants is that faith is the main thing, but you should still help your neighbor.

    Religion:
    • The Zoroastrian faith has the three-part mantra "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds."

    Tabletop Games:
    • This is how the afterlife works in the Forgotten Realms for the vast majority of people who worshiped the gods faithfully but didn't take any particular one as their patron. Those who took a patron deity are scooped up by them directly, those who betrayed their commitments to their deity (the False) are punished by the god of the dead according to the severity of their crimes[[note]]could be anything from having to be a tour guide in the City of Judgment on up to eternal torture[[/note]], and atheists (the Faithless) get stuffed into the Wall surrounding the City of Judgment to be slowly and painfully consumed.
  • July 22, 2013
    eowynjedi
    Literature:
    • In Carpe Jugulum, Mightily Oats says that this is an aspect of the new Omnian faith--good people are serving Om even if they've never heard of him. Granny Weatherwax thinks this is an obvious cheat.
  • July 24, 2013
    Alvin
    Is this an example? Film: At the end of Casino Royale, everyone goes to heaven except Big Bad Jimmy.
  • July 24, 2013
    Chabal2
    Aversion in South Park: the only people to go to Heaven are the Mormons, everyone else goes to Hell regardless of good deeds. God himself is a Buddhist.
  • July 28, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    ^^ How is that conveyed? Does someone say it, or what? That film doesn't strike me as the sort of material to deal with this trope much.
  • July 28, 2013
    randomsurfer
    ^^^That'd be Casino Royale 1967 right? Here's the scene in question.
  • July 28, 2013
    MrRuano
    Unintentionally enforced in The Saga of Biorn. In the climax, the eponymous hero finally dies in his fight with a giant after killing it, saving a church full of nuns. However, while he's on his way to entering Valhalla like he wanted, the nuns bury him with a cross, instantly changing the afterlife like a lottery wheel to the Judeo-Christian Heaven. Cue Biorn screaming at the pearly gates.
  • August 12, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    Examples added. Looking for hats.
  • August 18, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    Bump for hats.
  • August 26, 2013
    69BookWorM69
    Bump

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