“Let me in,” says Jesus, knocking on a door, in a meme that’s been circulating in my Facebook feed lately.
“Why?” replies the unseen person on the other side.
“So I can save you.”
“From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in!”
A Proposal Likely to Be Refused
It’s an absurd proposition on its face, but it’s funny because it captures the logical conclusion of a common assumption among Christian believers today: “Jesus saves” means going to heaven instead of hell when we die. If hell is punishment meted out by God, then the meme stings. Some—including me—would answer that hell isn’t God’s work but humans’ self-chosen separation from God, and maybe even a null set, which would be one way to dismiss the meme as a strawman argument. But if hell is self-inflicted and rarely so, why do we need Jesus to save us from it? Is this really all that salvation means?
The Fall holidays of Columbus Day and Thanksgiving had me thinking about the meaning of salvation as well. “Bringing salvation to the savages” was the rationale I was taught for why we white Christians of European descent should celebrate our takeover of Native American lands. While I don’t see any justification there for taking Native lands anymore, what about the nonviolent missionaries who came too? If I don’t believe that God was systematically sending Natives to hell before the white men came, could there be any “saving grace” to the arrival of Christianity on the shores of our hemisphere, from the perspective of the people who were already here?
“Salvation” in the Bible – It’s Not What You Think!
When I’m trying to understand the meaning and significance of my Christian faith untainted by its colonialist/imperialist bitter fruits, I look to the ancient sources, especially the Scriptures and other information about how Christianity and Judaism were practiced around the time they were written. One of my fellow Patheos bloggers focuses on the “Context School” of biblical scholarship, and wrote a series of articles in November making a compelling argument that the very concepts of “going to heaven” as eternally being in God’s presence after death, and “hell” as eternal punishment or separation from God, are anachronistic to the New Testament. He explained that “heaven” in the Bible doesn’t refer to a blissful afterlife (Beatific Vision) as we usually use it today, but to the dwelling place of God. Since God is everywhere, the “kingdom of heaven” is not a future or distant state of existence, but everywhere that God’s presence is welcomed and justice reigns. I did a word search on “save” and “salvation” and could find no passage in the Bible directly linking the concept of salvation with reward or punishment after death!
I did find just one instance in the New Testament—out of about one hundred references to salvation—in which the English translation referred to being saved “from God’s wrath.” Was this hell’s smoking gun? The verse is Romans 5:9: “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” EXCEPT this verse is footnoted, stating that the Greek only says “wrath,” not actually “wrath of God”! (I confirmed this by looking up the verse in a Greek interlinear Bible. While I was at it, I looked up I Thessalonians 2:16, the only other New Testament verse containing both the terms “save” and “God’s wrath,” but again the Greek shows no trace of attributing the “wrath” mentioned here to God. Moreover, the English translation of the latter verse places the words “save” and “wrath” in two separate sentences, so it’s not clear that the Gentiles are being saved from anyone’s wrath in this verse.) Holy Moly, the only verse in the New Testament that suggests that we might be saved from God’s wrath or punishment only does so because of a translator’s assumption!
Unlike typical English usage, the verb “save” is typically given intransitive form in the Bible, leaving unsaid in most cases what Christ saves us from. It also is frequently used in some form of present tense in the New Testament, more frequently than it is used in a future tense, suggesting that “getting to heaven” after we die is not the primary meaning of the term, even if it may be one valid meaning. The root word in the Greek, sos, means “safe” or “well,” and indeed, many times after performing a healing miracle, Jesus says “your faith has saved you.” In other words, the New Testament usage of “save” is less about a promise to rescue than it is about healing and establishing a present state of well-being.
This is a contrast with the Old Testament usage of “save,” which shares the same Hebrew root as Yeshua (Jesus) and is also translated as deliver. In the Old Testament, salvation is almost always sought from “enemies.” These enemies, moreover, are typically foreign armies or political powers. Less frequently they are painful natural phenomena like famine or illness, though in the culture of the authors these too were attributed to oppressive spirits—either devilish ones or God’s wrath.
The expectation of many Jewish people at the time of Jesus Christ was that the Messiah would save them from their present political oppressors, the Romans. Jesus did and promised no such thing, but he healed a lot of people, and established a new way of belonging to God’s family, “born of water and the Spirit,” in which members could experience the safety of love and forgiveness. When the Gospels use the term “will be saved” in the future tense, it is usually in response to predicted persecution from their family members and neighbors. It wasn’t the Romans that the disciples needed to be saved from, it was their natural family and fellow members of the Jewish community who were full of “wrath” at them for abandoning the ancient sacrifices and purity laws to become a part of Jesus’s family and follow his law of love!
Try this exercise: everywhere in Acts and the Epistles, substitute “welcome into the Christian family” for “save” (where the word is used in the salvific sense, not literal usages such as people being saved from shipwrecks). It makes logical sense every time! In fact it makes a lot more sense than substituting “promised an eternally blissful afterlife” in many cases, especially “problematic” verses such as I Cor 7:16 (“Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.”) and I Tim 2:15 (“Yet [despite women being discouraged from giving testimony to the word of the Holy Spirit in the assembly] she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”)
Saving Adam, Then and Now
It seems to me that what Jesus and the early disciples meant by “salvation” was being welcomed into God’s family, through the entrance rite of Baptism. This belonging would continue so long as the baptized person was faithful to this new “tribe,” the renewed Israel that would welcome people from all ethnic backgrounds into its spiritual sanctuary. In this new family they would find healing and safety, regardless of how their natural family members treated them. This was a redemptive affair for “the House of David,” which had violently split the tribes of Israel into opposing kingdoms due to intra-family competition and fratricide. Jesus symbolically brought the twelve tribes back into harmony in the selection of his Twelve Apostles, to whom he gave the commands to love one another and be the servants of all. The “salvation” Jesus offered to those who would join his tribe of disciples was a this-world transformation of life, here and now. Though present tense, this salvation is not to be confused with a promise of material prosperity or physical safety. I would describe this present, spiritual salvation as the knowledge and experience of belonging to God’s family, meeting the primordial need, so often broken by death or abandonment or turned to dysfunctional patterns of domination and fearful servitude: it is not good for humans to be alone.
The terms used in the New Testament for the life and the world to come in the future are distinct: “resurrection,” Christ’s “return,” and the appearance of the “new heavens and earth.” It tells us that on this future day, people will be judged and rewarded according to God’s perfect knowledge of our deeds and hearts. To the extent that any “saving” happens at the Day of Judgment according to the Bible, it is from the “Accuser” or other earthly oppressors, not from the just judgments of God. But this is not at all what I was told in my Calvinist-Evangelical upbringing! I was told that we all “deserved” eternal punishment, and that only those Jesus elected to “save” would avoid such torment. This was a fearful motivator for trying to make sure I and anyone I cared about got into the “salvation” club, but did nothing to cultivate a community of loving belonging, healing from the brokenness of our human condition, or spiritual peace.
If my soteriological summary here seems suspect, consider the words of Jesus in John 12:46-50:
I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.
Perhaps we have been taught to read into this idea of “another judge” an implicit threat of damnation for those who have ignored Jesus’s message, but no such thing is actually stated. The “judge” of “unbelievers” is Jesus’s word, and the word is commanded by the Father, and that “word” is “eternal life”!
A Different Proposition, A Different Responsibility
So let’s return to the questions I raised at the beginning and consider what a “here and now familial salvation” would suggest for answers.
“Let me in” says Jesus. “Why?” the world queries. Jesus replies: “Because you’re lonely and scared. Your parents are gone, or ignore you, or have tried to use and manipulate you. Your siblings are few, non-existent, or far away. This door is closed and locked because you know hunger or sickness or violence could arrive at your doorstep without a moment’s notice. I want to introduce you to a new Father and Mother who will never leave you or treat you unfairly. I want to introduce you to more supportive siblings than you can possibly imagine, spanning two millennia and the globe, and surely you will find some who can relate to your particular desires, joys, and struggles. I want to give you myself as a guaranteed source of spiritual nourishment. I can’t promise anything about the physical hunger or sickness or violence that still lurks around here, and it’s even possible that more of those kinds of threats slip in while you have the door open to me. But they might break through your door regardless. At least I can promise you that you won’t suffer alone if you open the door.”
The door cracks open, a chain across the two inch aperture. “Tell me more. I want to see a preview of this new family before I make a decision. I’m not sure it’s worth it, from what you’re telling me now. I’m not sure if I can trust what you’re saying. But it is true that I’m lonely and scared. I’d like the sound of what you’re saying, except that part about the risks…”
This is where the scene gets complicated. When the inquirer peeps through the crack to see what Jesus is talking about, what they see is the Church. Under this definition of salvation I have proposed here, the classic statement “there is no salvation outside the Church” is simply tautological. In this world, in this life, that’s all Jesus has offered. And he hasn’t made any promises or threats about what happens after death based on the door-opening decision either. What does the inquirer see, when they look at the Church? Do they see a diverse, joyful, generous, loving family reunion going on? Or do they see just as much, if not more, dysfunctional sniping between siblings as they have in their natural family? It depends on the quality of the Church before their eyes, as well as the quality of natural family at their back, doesn’t it? When a person makes that comparison, finds the Church too unattractive to accept the risks in Jesus’s offer, and closes the door, who do you think has most disappointed Jesus (if anyone) in that case?
And what does this mean for reconciling missionary efforts and genocidal effects in the history of the Americas? Well, it depends. If you were a person who feared being a possible victim of Aztec human sacrifice but your neighbors had turned from that to praying to Our Lady of Guadalupe, you’d probably have a very different answer from a Taino person living in a peaceful, matriarchal island village until a boatful of people arrived together, some in armor to kill and enslave, others in robes claiming to “save your soul,” and all calling on the name of the same god.
I say none of this to diminish the value of hope in a life to come, in which all tears may be wiped away and all wrongs righted. Even if believing in the Christian vision of Paradise is not a prerequisite for experiencing it, hoping in it gives us motive to earn its higher glories, and some salve to our suffering today.
I just want to exhort my fellow Christians: when we speak of “salvation” to those who do not already have such hope, we should never do so with threats of eternal damnation for “failure to believe.” Instead, we should seek to demonstrate, as best we can in our individual circumstances, the value of participating in the family of the Church today. We need to recognize if local church communities are dysfunctional and seek out alternative ways that we can participate or invite participation that will be truly salvific. If we seek first the salvation of manifesting God’s reign among us now, grace and hope may be added to us all. Alleluia!