None is Saved While One Still Suffers

None is Saved While One Still Suffers January 10, 2012

For some, the central message of Christianity is about personal salvation. What it is exactly that we need saving from is debatable, depending on who you ask: from the fires of hell; from ourselves, from an apocalyptic end to the world as we know it. But I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately and I’m beginning to think that we’re going about the whole salvation thing the wrong way.

The idea first arose when I was going over the possible questions to be included in my next Banned Questions book, which is about Christians. The question reads:

When a baby is conceived, where do Christians believe that soul comes from? Is it created at that moment or has it been floating in existence in the universe from the beginning of time?

For starters, this assumes a relatively modern Western mindset that places the individual center stage. This has not always been the case. In fact, human beings were more community-minded for most of history before the fierce individualism of today’s world took hold. The ancient Jewish notion of sin wasn’t so much focused on individual deeds as it was referring to the collective well-being and orientation of an entire group.

Taking this difference in perspective and applying it to the concept of the human soul, I began to wonder if we’re beginning with a fundamental distortion of what it means to have a soul. While mulling this idea over in bed at 2 in the morning, a quote from Louis CK’s show, Louie, came to mind. In this particular scene, Louis CK is talking to a friend, Eddie (Doug Stanhope) who is contemplating suicide, and who is looking to CK for a reason not to follow through with his plan. Finally exasperated, CK hits him between the eyes with a profound truth:

“You know what,” he says to Eddie, “it’s not your life. It’s life. Life is bigger than you. If you can imagine that. Life isn’t something that you possess; it’s something that you take part in, and you witness.”


Somewhere along the way we got this idea that we were given this thing known as a life, which has a beginning and end as defined by our own personal human experience on Earth. But what if CK is right? What if life just is, and we’re jumping in mid-stream to participate in an ongoing conversation that was, is and will be much larger than us? How, then, does this change our perspective on our right to life, or our responsibility for it, be it occupied by us or someone else?

If we really begin so see no distinction between our own lives and the lives of others – at the deepest existential level – how profoundly might this affect the way we understand everything else?

Back to the idea of the human soul. I’ve always imagined souls like the question suggests. There’s some sort of warehouse somewhere that checks out souls as there are bodies to employ them. Perhaps they get re-used, or perhaps they’re as unique as fingerprints. But lately I’m beginning to think the very idea of the soul has fallen victim to the same sort of fierce individualism that our understanding of life, God and personal salvation suffer from.

What if we don’t each possess “a soul?” What if there is some greater Collective Soul (no, not the nineties garage band) in which we get to take part, but which we never own, so to speak?

And if we’re all participants in the same Collective Soul, what does this mean for the Christian message of salvation?

I grew up hearing that the crux of Christianity lay in the proclamation of faith that would then ensure your passage into an afterlife in communion with God. You effectively protected the fate of “your” eternal soul by doing so, and that your life’s mission beyond this proclamation was to go and get others do to likewise.

But the idea of a single, Collective Soul blows up this entire concept of personal salvation. There’s no longer a possibility of individual salvation while others still suffer. Now, for some this might mean that the entire world has to be converted to Christianity before we can be truly reconciled with God. But I tend to think, based on Jesus’ life and teaching, that it has more to do with lifting one another up and making ourselves collectively whole by working together toward the eradication of suffering, be it physical, emotional or spiritual.

This also re-frames the idea of the phrase “Thy Kingdom come” in the so-called Lord’s Prayer. Whereas some consider this a plea to God to bring some sort of yet-to-be experienced kingdom here to earth, what if it’s meant to be a pledge from us to God? What if it’s we who are responsible for invoking God’s kingdom, by living as if there truly is no man, woman, slave, free, Muslim, Jew, gay, straight, Republican or Democrat?’

The responsibility for “God’s Kingdom come” then is on us. Rather than waiting on God to act, we bear the burden for making real the perfectly complete love of which Jesus spoke. In doing so, it’s hard to imagine that I could sit back and consider my own personal salvation, however you interpret that, while others still suffer.

After all, their life is also my life.

Their soul is also my soul.

Their salvation is also my salvation.

To make any other distinction is to place “self” above “other” and thus take a step back from fully realizing the vision glimpsed in Jesus’ life and ministry. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about us.

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  • Veronicapenrod

    Wow. This is such an interesting perspective and closely aligns with my own thoughts and questions about salvation lately. Well done Christian, well done!

  • Many of these ideas I’ve heard before and thought myself.  As always, I appreciate your willingness to really THINK about things instead of just repeating the pablum that most religious leaders are teaching.

  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu often talks about the African concept of ubuntu, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself…” As a parent, I know that I could never, ever be free of suffering if one of my children was suffering, and if I truly understand my connection to all human beings, then there can be no heaven for me as long as even one is in hell. Which, perhaps, is what the parable of the 99 and the 1 sheep is about. The shepherd cannot rest as long as even one is still out there.  

  • Anonymous

    Hi Christian,
     The problem with Collective soul(not the band), is that it doesn’t fit anywhere with scripture, in fact God says quite the opposite, The man who does what is right, his soul shall live, and the man who does wickedly , his soul shall die. Jesus Himself refers to individual souls, in several places, and then this, “Behold I come quickly and my reward is with me to give unto every man according to his works”…
     Really this collectivism is akin to nationalism on a world scale, at best if we pick and chose scripture we could point to the fact that God requires a “holy people”, so if we have a collective accounting, then right away we would need to “purge” the evil from our collective soul, and we have a new “dark ages” style religious cleansing. Umm.. kind of like Islamic fundamentalism. I would suggest reading Foxes book of Martyrs, if You haven’t to see how far the “majority rule” in collective accountability has gone, doing evil in the name of God and Christ.
     If we read Revelation’s last chapters very carefully however, there is a very good case for more “salvation” than general “Christian doctrine”. We read there is a new earth and a new Jerusalem, the new earth outside the new Jerusalem has some questionable characters; whoremongers, murderers, liars, etc… all “saved from hell fire”, and able to drink from the waters of life, on a “new” earth that will arguably be like the “heaven(gardens with water flowing under)”of Islam, and resembling Biblical Eden. The “other group” that keeps the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus, get to enter “new Jerusalem” and be in the company of God, in His own personal city of “heaven on earth”.
     Since You like to imagine: Imagine life is like a long uncomfortable road trip to “Superdeeduper Disney world” and we are told to behave or else we won’t get our ticket to enter once we’re there….Imagine spending eternity in the parking lot, or the town nearby, never to enter in….

  • I loved this article, thank you.

    I too sense the outrageously individualistic nature of our understanding of our Christian faith.

    In the case of the soul, I wonder if it’s not an “either / or” scenario but instead a “both / and” situation? (that is the soul being individual or collective)

    • Christian Piatt

      I like this idea, and really, when it comes down to it I think it’s one of those things like Peter Rollins talks about. The whole I/thou, self/other distincti0n really seems to be more of a psychological construct anyway when it comes to matters like this.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Janel Clement

    You’re sounding more like a Buddhist, Christian. 🙂

  • Anonymous