One of the great promises made by many religions is that evil is not unopposed. Sins can be atoned for; damnation and suffering can be escaped.
Since I’ve been tossing out technical terms along the way, the study of doctrines of salvation is called soteriology. For the purposes of this essay, I’m looking at both the remission of sin in the short term, and the long-term salvation of the soul itself.
Like the circumstances that define whether something is sin or not, its removal or righting depends on what you think sin is. If it’s pollution, then the answer is purification — a topic that will get its own essay eventually, but for now we’ll just note that there are ways to cleanse yourself of impurity, often involving water. The Christian rite of baptism falls partially under this header: while the general purpose of baptism is to admit the person undergoing the rite into the Christian community (making it a form of initiation), some theologies hold that baptism is a necessary precursor to salvation.
Meanwhile, if sin is an act that imbalances the cosmos, the way to deal with it is by restoring that balance somehow. This isn’t necessarily all that different from the response to sin as a transgression of divine law; they both echo our possible reactions to ordinary crime. Do you imprison the offender, punish them, force them to make restitution . . . ? The playbook is much the same, just within a religious framework.
Unlike secular wrongdoing, though, there may be consequences regardless of whether the sin is known. We have a widespread tendency to attribute suffering and disaster to our moral failings as individuals or communities (while also asking why those things happen to good people; we can hold both thoughts at once). This might be the directed vengeance of a divine figure, or just the ripple effects of our misdeeds. In English we often speak of that latter with the borrowed term karma, applying it to the fallout of our actions within this life, regardless of whether we believe in reincarnation (and therefore in karma carried from one life to the next).
Getting out from under these consequences requires some way of gaining remission for our sins. Many doctrines agree that the first real step in doing this is to actually repent of our wrongdoing; if you go through the motions without that, nothing happens. Of course, just because that’s the theological party line doesn’t mean people adhere to it: they may well figure that there’s no harm in at least trying, or even sincerely believe that the rites are sufficient all on their own.
In a strongly hierarchical religion, it’s also very likely that remission of sin requires the assistance of an authorized representative of the faith. They’re the one who decrees what actions you must perform to make yourself right again, or they may simply absolve you by the power vested in them. Naturally, this raises the possibility of corruption, with those figures extorting high fees or abject servitude in exchange for redemption. It’s not inevitable — such people can be honest — but humans being what we are, it’s a common problem. Meanwhile, Judaism teaches that while God forgives sins against God, sins against your fellow human require you to atone to that person, not to God.
Atonement may require acts of penance. This can take many forms, from set prayers to fasting to charitable giving to physical punishment; as I mentioned above, it parallels the methods by which we respond to mundane crimes. (Though imprisonment is less common here, except insofar as Hell is a kind of prison.) Unlike mundane crimes, though, this process is — at least in theory — not subject to ambiguity. Whatever we may think, the divine power overseeing it all knows whether the repentance is sincere, whether the atonement is sufficient. In religions where sin is a central concern, God’s grace is also a central tenet: there will be no lasting grudge, no doubt regarding intent. Not on the part of the divine, anyway, though people may still be a different matter.
This in turn leads us to the idea of ultimate salvation. In a framework like the one found in the Abrahamic religions, where we live a single life and face judgment after death, past sins — if properly atoned for in life — do not count against us. That’s the whole point of atonement. The devout will therefore make sure to keep up with their metaphysical bills, so to speak, lest they die with some unpaid. If they know they’re going into a risky situation like a battle, they’ll undergo rites beforehand, just to be safe. Other people, banking on the odds that they’ll die of illness with plenty of warning, rely on a deathbed atonement, intending to settle their tab in one fell swoop.
Can you atone after death? The answer to that depends on how much love and mercy you attribute to the divine. Calvinist theology actually holds that we are all, every one of us, already saved or damned; God decided that ahead of time, and we can’t affect it. Other theological schools of thought say that realms like Purgatory or even Hell are meant to bring the souls of the dead to proper repentance, after which they can return to God’s side. Only those who refuse to repent will be damned forever.
But this also raises the question of what is necessary for ultimate salvation. Does it depend on doing more good deeds than bad ones (and/or atoning for the bad), or is faith alone sufficient? This is the kind of question that causes philosophical slapfights. Salvation by works, i.e. by doing good deeds, implies you can “buy” your way into God’s grace, as if it’s some kind of bargaining process. On the other hand, salvation by faith alone implies that it doesn’t much matter how you act in life. The counter-argument to the latter is that if you’re doing bad things, then you don’t actually have real faith . . . but to that way of thinking, even someone who behaves in a saintly manner, without doing it the name of the correct faith, could still be damned.
Climbing out of that increasingly Christianity-specific rabbit hole, we should take a look at another way of thinking. In the dharmic religions, where there’s a belief in reincarnation, salvation takes on a different form. Instead of making sure you pass muster at the end of your life, it’s about freeing yourself from the cycle entirely. Salvation is liberation: you escape the suffering inherent to material existence and attain a more desirable state. (This escape is sometimes called moksha, and the state you achieve is sometimes called nirvana, but the specific terms and their usages vary from faith to faith.)
In this framework, good deeds matter because of the aforementioned karma, which affects what your next life might look like. But those won’t free you from the wheel of rebirth; that process is instead about enlightenment, about reaching a true understanding of the self (or non-self) and the nature of the world. Only by comprehending that reality can you let go of your own attachments, which bind you to life and to suffering.
These mentalities aren’t perfectly separated from one another. One of the most common categories of East Asian Buddhist traditions, Pure Land, teaches its followers to seek rebirth in the realm of a particular Buddha (akin to reaching heaven), from which they can more easily achieve true enlightenment. And remember: not all religions are focused on this question in the first place! Greek polytheism encompassed multiple views of the afterlife, but the general view of realms like Elysium or the Asphodel Meadows — once they stopped being seen as the destination only of chosen heroes — seems to have been that as long as you were a good or at least mediocre person (and got the correct funerary rites), you would go there after death. When it comes to Norse polytheism, we know very little about the fates of ordinary souls; some sources claim those all go to the dreary realm of Hel or Niflheim, while others mention a more pleasant holy mountain, and there are also indications of belief in reincarnation. The only “salvation” we’ve got much record of is that brought by dying in battle, which sends a soul either to Valhalla or to Fólkvangr — and there are tales of warriors dying in bed cutting themselves with blades, so they would go to the hoped-for afterlife.
Depending on the setting (and the focus of the narrative), this might or might not be a concept that weighs very heavily on the minds of characters in a story. Giving it a bit of thought outside the story, though, could be very useful!