What Are We Being Saved From? Ourselves [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week’s question came from long-time commenter Charles, who posed it during last week’s discussion. It’s a great one, just when many of us are entering the season of Lent:

Tony, what are we being saved from?

There were many great responses, as always, on the original question. Now it’s my turn.

This week, millions (billions?) of Christians around the world walked up to someone and had ashes placed on their foreheads. As this happened, they heard the words spoken to them: “From dust you came, and to dust your shall return. Repent and believe the good news.”

When I was a pastor, Ash Wednesday was, hands down, the most poignant liturgy of the year for me. Think about it: when was the last time that you touched a non-family member’s face? I can’t think of the last time. We don’t do it, almost ever. And yet there I was, every year, touching the faces of friends and strangers, intoning somber words about their own deaths. Many people had tears in their eyes when they came forward.

I’ve made it clear in this space and in an ebook that I reject the doctrine of Original Sin. I think it’s based on both philosophical and physiological fictions. But the doctrine of Original Sin is not the same as “sin.” The former is a theological invention, an interpretation of biblical sources; the latter is heavily attested throughout both Testaments.

When I look at my own life and the lives of others, it is very clear to me that a primary characteristic of human existence is frailty. Every day, it’s a dozen more stories of bullets tearing through the frail flesh of innocent victims. Every day, I see in my Facebook feed, updates of frail human cells being overrun by aggressive cancer cells. Bacteria and viruses, smaller than the eye can see, can kill us in days.

The human characteristic of frailty leaves us feeling alone. Every one of us has felt alone, separate from God and others. Every one of us has felt forsaken by the Divine Other.

That, I believe, it what drives a lot — if not most, or all — of our malicious human behavior. That, and mental illness. We lash out at others because we feel desperately alone. We become both destructive and self-destructive.

So we feel frail, temporary, alone, and sometimes desperate.

When I was in Malaysia last month, I visited Batu Caves, a Hindu holy site, on the eve of the festival of Thaipusam. There, in the pouring rain, pilgrims were climbing the 272 steps carrying pots of milk to present at the altar in the cave. One man was crawling, step by step. He crawled up a step, stopped to pray, and crawled up another step. In the pouring rain. I passed him when I was going up, and he’d gone about ten steps when I passed him as I was going down.

Every religion is replete with similar rites and rituals, in which humans attempt to stave off the feeling of godforsakeness and feel a connection, albeit temporary, with the Divine. Christianity alone testifies to a move in the other direction — God united with us, briefly, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In so doing, God experienced the one thing that ti would seem impossible for God to experience: the lack of God.

If there is a God, I have to think that compassion is the Divine characteristic that is the converse of our feeling of loneliness.

Charles, you ask what we’re being saved from in Jesus’ death. I think we’re being saved from a desperate loneliness that threatens to swallow us every day.

  • Kien

    Hi Tony. I think the category of things we are being saved from is much broader than what u seem to have identified unless I misunderstand. A cursory reading of the Old and New Testaments points to many things which God saves his people from. They include political repression, invasion from hostile neighbours, social injustice, famine, slavery, illness, imprisonment, etc. I might summarise this by saying that we are saved from all suffering, and (we hope) even death! Even that description could be broadened out. The “promised land” is not just a world free of suffering, but a world where each of us can fully realise and achieve our full potential as human beings; we are free to love, to be kind, to play, to rejoice, etc.

  • Kien

    With regards to what Jesus’ death specifically saves us from, I will leave it to the theologians to spell this out from a theological perspective. Just from an empirical perspective, at first blush Jesus’ death does little to deal with the real suffering that we experience. It seems to me however, that by dying instead of fighting, Jesus sets a powerful example on how to deal with injustice. Arguably his example inspires peaceful ways of fighting injustice in the world such as Gandhi, South Africa, Martin Luther King, vs the orthodox way of going to war as in the Balkans, Caucus, etc. So by dying, Jesus saves us from an unending cycle of violence between rival communities. This is just a specific example of how Jesus’ death saves us from suffering.

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      I think it is the theological question that begs an answer. Sure, Jesus may well have be a great pacifist, up there with Gandi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela. But being a pacifist does not qualify a person as the basis for a religion. Christians do not believe that Jesus is another great example of the answer. Christians believe Jesus is the answer.

      Which begs the question: What is the question? And what is Jesus’ answer?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jake.litteral Jake Litteral

    How does his death, his act of solidarity with humanity as whole, save ‘me’ from loneliness; how does the death of a Jewish Mediterranean peasant, who lived over 2000 years ago, relate to me personally? And is that it, are we saved just from loneliness?

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      Jesus’ crucifixion was more than an act of solidarity. It was an act of changing God and bringing God down to a level equal with humans. (Philippians 2) It is because of Jesus that equality with God is something available to humans. This is how it relates to you personally. God’s power and love is now directly available to you, because through Jesus, God was changed and brought to your level. Or, you were elevated to God’s level, if that is how you would rather look at it.

      The sin of Adam was humans trying to reach up and become God. This was resolved by Jesus changing the nature of God, to put people and God on the same level.

      We may not always know or feel God’s love, but because of Jesus, it is present for us directly.

  • Brian P.

    Nah, we’re being saved from believing God exists and is mean. Oh wait, maybe that’s just a way of repackaging your ending paragraph. Sheesh, it never ceases to amazing the craziness people believe.

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      If you’ve never felt the need for re-connection, then you’ve never been separated from the love of God. It is okay if you don’t recognize the love of God for what it is. God doesn’t mind if you don’t give God the credit.

  • http://gravatar.com/rollieb RollieB aka “Charles”

    Thank you, Tony, for including my question in the QTH Series. It’s a great series that prompts terrific discussion, it’s very stimulating and gives us all a lot to think about. It also helps form my personal theology.

    When I first read Tony’s response I was disappointed. I thought the response was “shallow.” But after sleeping on it and reading it for the 3rd time, I like it. Kinda.

    I think it was Curtis who offered this in his response to this QTH: “The Greek word that we translate into ‘salvation’ in the New Testament is ‘soteria,’ which means ‘to restore to health’ or ‘to make whole’.” I really like this. Having zero formal theological education this is very helpful.

    Having been in the church my whole life (68+ years), and having always thought to be “saved” was all about personal salvation – the fundamentalists/evangelical understanding. I jettisoned this definition 15 years ago. Now my theology is much more contemplative. Fellow congregants call me a Buddhist Christian, a Mystic Christian, a Suffie, a Kabbalah Jew, you get the idea. I now think in terms of some kind of Quantum Theology – we’re all connected by The Source.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Rollie/Charles,

      My answer is disappointing to me as well. Yesterday was a difficult day — I got some bad news. But I wanted to attempt an answer anyway. I thought it would be good for me. So, while it’s not my most theologically sophisticated answer, it was honest.

      I think your question deserves a more thorough response, though. So I’ll take another crack at it soon.

      T

      • Kelly Lamon

        Commenting a bit late on this post, but reading the original blog post and then this comment reminds me of something I had to come to terms with in myself: Theology that “works” for us when we are in the midst of our human crud is the best theology we have. It certainly might not be the most “worked out” or sophisticated, but it provides comfort when it’s called upon.

  • Craig

    Every one of us has felt forsaken by the Divine Other. That, I believe, it what drives a lot — if not most, or all — of our malicious human behavior.

    Tony, out of respect, this sounds like bullshit. On the one hand, people who think that God is on their side do plenty of malicious things. On the other hand, I, as an atheist, can be just as tempted to act maliciously–and yet I never feel forsaken by God. Maybe sometimes the feeling of divine forsakenness motivates a person to act poorly, but usually bad behavior has a better explanation.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Yes, you have a point. I’ll reconsider my answer.

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      I do not think it is possible to do malicious things without being disconnected in some way. Maybe you can give an example of malicious behavior that does not involve disconnectedness?

  • Kien

    Hi, my suggestion that Jesus saves us from suffering seems to echo the Buddha’s insight that suffering (not sin) is the key question to be addressed. However, whereas the Buddhust solution is to stop desiring and view suffering as an illusion, the Christian response is to tackle suffering head on in tangible and concrete ways. Also, I don’t think the goal is simply to end suffering. The goal is to enable every person and community to live rich and abundant lives, in this world (not in heaven).

    The sociologist Rodney Stark has written about the impact of Christianity on the Roman empire and later on the world generally. (See below for details of one of his books.) This is a claim that ought to be tested empirically and not just asserted. My own view is that while Jesus’ work was unique, it was built in the work of Jewish prophets and the Jewish people, and Christians should be cautious about excluding the contribution of other religious traditions to making the world a better place. Jesus himself predicted that his followers would do greater work than he.

    The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Paperback)
    Rodney Stark

    • smrnda

      I’d be interesting in a book like that since, as a non-Christian, it seems to me that many Christians basically throw up their hands or shake their heads at the prospect of progress happening in this world in the here and now, because they believe that humans cannot improve things given the issue of sin. I’ve seen some be dismissive of the idea that government programs can solve social problems, or that people might become happier and better adjusted if they got some tangible, concrete improvements in life and that happiness is not simply a matter of attitude of spiritual perspective.

      So it seems to me that Christianity has gone from not a utopian vision but at least a vision of real change being desirable and possible, to be more a program of stoic resignation and cynicism about any sort of improvement. Could this have something to do with Calvinism perhaps? Or that if things improve too much, the message of Jesus isn’t going to resonate with people who feel that life is pretty much okay as is?

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      The primary assertion of Christianity is not that Christianity leads to prosperity.

      For a Christian, progress is not measured in GDP or literacy rates. Christian “progress” has to do with relationships and connectedness.

      I have not yet seen any way to empirically, directly measure the kind of progress that Christians are concerned with.

  • Kien

    Hi Curtis. I think “social inclusion” may be the label for the progress u have in mind. While not an expert, I think there is considerable literature on measuring social inclusion. You might try Googling “social inclusion metric”.

    BTW, “prosperity” per se Is not the goal. As Aristotle observed, “wealth is evidently not the good we seek; it is merely useful and for the sake of something else”. What that something else is not quite clear but I would suggest that “well-being” or “freedom from suffering” or “freedom to live an abundant life” are good candidates.

    The author of John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying that he came so we might have abundant lives.

    • http://gravatar.com/cwgmpls Curtis

      Jesus came that we may have “life abundantly”, not “abundant lives”. An important distinction.

      Abundant lives can be measured. Life abundantly may be impossible to measure.


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