Ted Grimsrud—January 1, 2012
I keep thinking about salvation and related issues—aided considerably by various thoughtful questions and comments. My post this week will be kind of a grab bag of responses to various recent comments that relate to my three-part discussion of Jesus’ death and salvation (“Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” “Jesus’ death and my salvation,” and “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”).
Life after death
My old friend David Myers in Washington, DC, asked about (I think) salvation in relation to life after death. He wrote: I’m stuck on the word ‘saved’—its forthright, non-theological meaning, especially related to the resurrection. I get that loving God and neighbor saves us into a richer, more meaningful life than we would have if we worshiped the idols, etc. Yet that very life of salvation may well lead to getting killed. So, now we’re dead as a rock, which is a condition I’d like to be saved from. Why then doesn’t the resurrection save us, in the simple, non-theological meaning of the word?
I don’t think my points about the relationship between resurrection and salvation were meant to speak to the issue of life after death one way or another. I believe there is strong continuity between life and in the present and whatever happens after we die. By the nature of the case, we cannot say anything definitive about life after death. And the Bible as a whole is much more circumspect in speaking about that theme than much of later theology. Whatever salvation means, though, I think it should be seen to apply to both life in the here and now and life after we’re “dead as a rock.”
That is, if we enter the “life of salvation” in this life (which is clearly the concern of the vast majority of biblical talk about salvation) there is no reason not to expect continuity in the afterlife. Whatever it is that saves us in the former state surely will save us in the latter state. The problem with much Christian talk of the afterlife is that it seems to assume some kind of discontinuity—we are “saved” for the afterlife by a kind of belief that does not necessarily lead to a “life of salvation” in the present. When Jesus responds to the question about “eternal life” with his call to love God and neighbor, he clearly has in mind life in its fullness in the present—we know we are living in such love when we imitate the Good Samaritan in his risky and costly compassion. But there is no reason not to think this “eternal life” does not extent to after we “get killed” for practicing such compassion.
But it’s not “the resurrection” that saves us. It is God’s mercy and all-powerful love that death cannot defeat. This was always the case. My point, thus, is not to minimize the scope of salvation by implying that Jesus’ resurrection did not expand it in the way traditional Christian theology claims. To the contrary, my point is to say that salvation was always expansive. The story of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of our resurrection simply clarifies what was already there.
So, to say “the resurrection doesn’t save us” is not in any way meant to imply a smaller view of salvation as David’s question seems to assume. Rather, it’s to say the resurrection could never be more than a sign, a pointer to what already was and is. To say that the resurrection isn’t necessary for salvation is not to minimalize our notion of salvation but rather to expand it.
In personal correspondence (from Vietnam!), I was asked the following questions (they were not raised in response to my blog posts on salvation, but they seem to fit in this discussion so I will respond to them here): I have a question for you: my roommate is a Christian and she says that Jesus is the only prophet that rose from the dead, and that is why she believes in him and not the others, such as Buddha. She says Jesus is the only one who said he was one and the same as God. What do you think? Do you think his resurrection is myth or fact?
Personally, I don’t find the emphasis on Jesus’ uniqueness helpful (or hopeful). I am not interested in a religious faith because it is supposedly different from all others. That seems like a recipe for feelings of superiority and exclusiveness—the kinds of things that potentially lead to lots of violence. I think it would be great if other “prophets” did and said what Jesus did! The more the better.
Jesus is special not because he was unique nearly so much as because what he said and did was truthful and helps those who pay serious attention to him to become more truthful. If people may become more truthful by following other “prophets,” I don’t see that as a big problem. The point is truthfulness not Jesus-ness.
I don’t really think Jesus himself said that “he was one and the same as God.” This is actually a complicated issue in New Testament interpretation. I think, though, the point of the close identification between Jesus and God in the New Testament is more about God’s humanness than about Jesus’ other-than-humanness. Jesus helps us see God as present and “with us.” The message in this for us is that we also can follow Jesus’ way and become more godlike—not that Jesus is, in essence, different from us.
So, a big part of the point then, should we pay close attention to the story of Jesus, would be to effect a revolution in our understanding of God. According to this story, God is most of all characterized by the kinds of things Jesus embodied: compassion, care for the vulnerable and excluded, love for the rich and the poor, direct challenges to people in power and people with wealth, and the like. Any prophet who helps us see these things about God, hence, is a truthful prophet.
Jesus’ resurrection and his claims to be closely identified with God are important, then, not because they make Jesus unique, but because they reveal what God is like—compassionate, hostile toward domination and oppression, courageous in the face of oppression, welcoming to marginalized and vulnerable people, et al. Now I do think that Jesus reveals these things about God with more clarity and forcefulness than any other prophet I know about—that is why I am a Christian. But, like I said, I welcome all prophets who embody the same truths.
As to whether Jesus’ resurrection “is myth or fact,” I probably lean in the direction of “fact” (if we are saying that “myth” here means it didn’t really happen and “fact” means it did). But I am uneasy about that. For one thing, the emphasis in the Christian tradition of the fact-ness of Jesus’ resurrection has generally been coupled with a theology that minimizes the centrality of his life and teaching and sees his resurrection as important because it was a “miracle” rather than because it vindicated Jesus’ radical way of life. For a second thing, it is impossible for me as a modern person to understand precisely what might have happened since people who truly are dead simply don’t physically come back to life in the world as we know it.
On the other hand, the story the New Testament tells does not make sense if Jesus was not resurrected. His followers fled in terror when he was arrested and executed. Somehow, they came back together and then began to risk (and lose) their own lives to spread his message. How could this have happened apart from his return to then, as they claimed? And I don’t mind saying there are things I can’t understand that may nonetheless be true. I don’t make a habit of doing that! But I do admit at the end of the day that my understanding is limited.
I might actually use “myth” a bit differently, though. I think there are “true myths” and “false myths.” A “true myth” is a way of talking about elements of reality that cannot simply be reduced to facts and data and falsifiable scientific statements. When I talk about Jesus’ resurrection I am usually thinking in terms of it being a “true myth”—something I do believe is real and true, but which I can’t explain or understand in scientific terms. I think a lot of reality is this kind of thing—love, intuition, relationships, ideals, et al.
Summarizing thoughts of Jesus and salvation
Another old friend, Geoff Hazel, from Tacoma, Washington, stated his question this way, in response to my third blog on Paul and Jesus: After reading this and the preceding two articles, a couple of points stuck out to me. Let me know if I understood you correctly. (1) Jesus did not have to die on the cross for anyone to be saved. His death was a violent, unnecessary act, not part of God’s plan (although God can use anything for his Glory). (2) Jesus did not need to be resurrected after his death for anyone to be saved. His resurrection was simply God’s affirmation of his faithful life. (3) Salvation is realizing God’s love and mercy for us, and then acting toward our fellow man with love and mercy in response to God’s love.
I think this is an okay summary, but I would want to nuance the points a bit. I will do that and then write my own summary in three points that uses no more words than Geoff’s.
(1) Jesus’ death was not “necessary” for salvation because salvation in its fullness was already present—as portrayed in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ own words and actions. The basis for salvation was, from the start to the finish in the Bible, God’s mercy and love that initiated healing in creation. So Jesus’ death was “unnecessary” as an event that would make salvation possible in a way it wasn’t before.
However, it might be possible to say that Jesus’ death was extremely important in the processes through which God has revealed to the world the depth and perseverance of God’s saving mercy. We could say that God’s “plan” has always been that God would give these revelations in face of human violence and cruelty (such as, say, the slavery in Egypt followed by the exodus and, as well, the violence the Babylonians visited upon Israel in destroying their nation and temple followed by God’s sustenance of the people and their faith in exile).
Jesus’ death, then, makes a very important (if not fully “necessary”) contribution to human salvation by revealing God’s commitment to mercy and the paths of peace even in face of great violence—and also, not coincidentally, God’s rejection of the ways of political authoritarianism and religious exclusivism (probably the two main arenas of human idolatry that separate people from God).
(2) Since salvation in its fullness existed before Jesus’ death, it also, of course, existed before Jesus’ resurrection. So it is accurate to say, “Jesus did not need to be resurrected for anyone to be saved.” Salvation is due to God’s mercy that requires no other event to make it possible.
However, it seems inaccurate to say “his resurrection was simply God’s affirmation of his faithful life.” Since Jesus’ resurrection was, as far as we know, a unique occurrence in human history up to this point, it was more than simply God’s affirmation of his faithful life. It was God’s affirmation of this particular life as revealing God to the world as no other life has. And, since this particular life was viciously ended by the combined forces of humanity’s central institutions that make claims on our loyalty, Jesus’ resurrection also serves as a decisive repudiation of those institutions’ claims to be acting on God’s behalf when they demand such loyalty, especially when they support the taking of human life. And since this particular life was centered on confronting those institutions and affirming compassion and welcome as a way of life, Jesus’ resurrection also serves as a vindication of his way of life and a call for all human beings of good will to share in that way of life.
So, though, Jesus did not “need” to be resurrected for salvation to exist, this resurrection plays an extraordinarily crucial role in our understanding and appropriation of this already existing salvation. I might even go so far as to say that we would not be likely to know nearly as much about true salvation (or even may not know about it at all) had not God raised Jesus from the dead.
(3) The third point as Geoff articulates it is almost exactly the way I would want to say it. His words seem like a nice paraphrase of Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question about how to inherit eternal life in Luke 10. Of course, I would say “our fellow human beings” rather than “our fellow man”!
Here is my attempt to restate Geoff’s summary: (1) Since salvation is a gift from God, Jesus’ death was not “necessary” to make it possible. His death does reveal the character of the idolatrous Powers that seek to separate us from salvation. (2) Jesus’ resurrection vindicates his life of freedom from the Powers and thereby establishes that he profoundly witnesses to God’s eternally present saving love. (3) Salvation is realizing God’s love and mercy for us, and then acting toward our fellow human beings with love and mercy in response to God’s love.
Salvation and spirituality
4. In another personal correspondence, a friend here in Harrisonburg very kindly affirmed the content of what I have written about salvation, and raised this further question: What does this mean for us spiritually? With this shift in understanding (intellectually) what does it mean for how we relate to God? How do we shift/change our images and language about being faithful and this different understanding of Jesus’ willingness to die for this Love and the response on God and Jesus’ friends part (the Resurrection)?
In a nutshell, I think the approach to salvation that I am trying to articulate (which is what I believe is the approach the Bible as a whole takes, not a new “postmodern” innovation) should lead us to a kind of spirituality that affirms God’s healing presence with us always and everywhere.
It is a kind of creation spirituality that affirms the picture in Genesis two that portrays God’s Spirit (Hebrew, ruach, “breath”) being breathed into the human creature from the point of creation. The only thing that hinders our experience of the Spirit is our own hesitation to embrace it—there is no hesitation on God the Spirit’s part.
Becoming spiritually whole, then, is about overcoming the elements of our lives that cause us to hesitate. We need to do nothing to change God’s disposition toward us. Various “spiritual disciplines” seem to have at their root efforts to make us acceptable to God, to make us more pure, to (in actuality) achieve wholeness.
A spirituality grounded in a salvation theology that sees God’s mercy as already fully present in the world from the time of creation will not be about striving and satisfying and purifying. It will echo the movement of prodigal son—simply turn back and accept God’s embrace. And then recognize that love of God also entails love of neighbor, not in order to earn or keep God’s love, but simply because love is one. When we truly love God we will love neighbor because, to quote Lefty Frizzell, “that’s the way love goes, it’s the music God made.”
[My book, Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions, speaks in various ways to this theme of salvation and spirituality. Here are the original sermons the book was based on.]
“Restorative salvation” and human transformation
My cyber-friend Philip Bender wrote (from China!) some good affirmations and, as seems to be his wont, raised some more excellent questions. He asks: (1) Why has the mercy-restorative salvation/atonement perspective you set out has been overshadowed by satisfaction-theory atonement theology in its various forms throughout so much of Christian history, not least in conservative evangelical (including traditional Mennonite) expressions. Is it the long shadow of Augustine? Do some of us have a psychological need for a retributive God? And, how does a legalistic, sacrifice-requiring image of God reinforce the grip of the idolatrous Powers, including the exclusionary and sometimes violent religious legalism you talk about? (2) I would like to hear more about how Jesus’ revelation of an unconditionally loving God “breaks through idolatry’s blinding dynamics,” how “the truth that helps (or allows) sinners to see God’s welcoming mercy clearly” actually frees from bondage to the Powers. That revelation, and that freeing, it seems to me, rarely happens in a flash, but is a continuous and often arduous process (including backsliding), since the Powers can be so seductive and subtle. Maybe here we’re getting into “sanctification.” (3) I also would like to hear more about statements like this: “The desire and ability to follow this way of life come from having hearts transformed by God’s love.” How does this transformation of heart happen? Not a few believers, it seems to me, know the truth of God’s love in their heads, but, because of temperament, psychological damage, lack of loving Christian community, etc.—and no dramatic “conversion” experience—have trouble feeling it in their “hearts.” How does “heart truth” become known in one’s Christian experience, if it is possible to analyze such a thing?
These great questions obviously require much fuller responses than I can give here. But I will start with some brief, clearly inadequate thoughts.
(1) The question of why the “restorative salvation” view I find in the Bible was transformed into the “satisfaction salvation” view that came to dominate western Christianity is a huge one. I intend to focus on that question in the next phase of my lifelong research/writing project on salvation (after I finish my book on the Bible’s salvation story). I have to say right now that I don’t really know. Certainly, as Philip suggests, the “long shadow of Augustine” played a major role. However, the explicit articulation of the satisfaction atonement theology had to wait hundreds of years for Anselm’s Why Did God Become Human?
John Howard Yoder and J. Denny Weaver both seem to suggest that the transformation in Christian salvation theology parallels the transformation of Christianity from a pacifist faith to a pro-war faith. Certainly, the long shadow of Constantine plays a major role here alongside Augustine’s shadow.
I do think many of us do seem to feel a need for a “retributive God.” I tend to believe that this is something we are socialized into, not something that is innate in our born psyches. This “need” seems to me to be linked with social systems that damage us, break our sense of connection with others, and leave us fearful and insecure. The path away from such “needs” surely is difficult. A salvation theology that emphasizes our security with God due to God’s mercy would surely play a key role.
In my big salvation book, I discuss at length the role of the “idolatrous Powers” and their “exclusionary and sometimes violent religious legalism” in Jesus’ death (see the chapters here and here and here). Philip’s helpful question seems to suggest that it would be good to add to that discussion some reflections on how people acting on behalf of those Powers may actually have been motivated by their “legalistic, sacrifice-requiring image of God.” That would be a good place to begin reflecting on how these things always seem to go together.
(2) Briefly, I want to say that “Jesus’ revelation of an unconditionally loving God,” when received, also reveals that the claims by the various Powers to be ultimate cannot be true. So, this revelation should undermine nationalism, religious absolutism, consumerism, racism, sexism, and all the other various ’isms that become idols. I agree with Philip that such freeing “rarely happens in a flash.” In fact, we live in a world that violently and continuously opposes this freeing. This is an arena that requires a lot of thought and discernment—how do we reorient our lives around God’s love and love of neighbor when we are trained so effectively to be selfish, violent, suspicious, and fearful?
Clearly, we need training in the ways of peace—hence active involvement of peaceable communities is crucial. We need ways of seeing the world around us that are not shaped by the corporate media that feed on our insecurities and biases—hence alternative sources of news and information are crucial. We need to have our imaginations stimulated and hearts melted—hence the experience of soul-transforming worship and learning to envision healing and genuine justice instead of brokenness.
(3) I think Philip’s challenge to reflect on how hearts actually are transformed by God’s love is important. We need to tell stories of such transformations when they happen. There clearly is not a simple formula and, as Philip notes, for many of us our hearts are severely damaged. Such transformation is hard to come by.
I would say in my own experience that the best path toward what we could call “heart wholeness” is relational. Friendship, community, seeing others who move toward wholeness, having others help us in our journey—these are the building blocks for wholeness.
And, certainly, theology and the work of theologians do matter….
Salvation and the Gospel of John
6. Another cyber-friend, John Arthur (in Australia!) raises questions stemming from John’s Gospel in relation to the idea that Jesus’ “crucifixion does not save us but God’s love does.” These are good questions. I will be writing a series of short Bible study lessons based on John’s Gospel in a couple of months and look forward to gaining more perspective. I have not spent a lot of time with John up to now.
John mentions John 1:29 where John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, “Here is the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world!” He makes a good comment: Bulls, goats and sheep were used as sacrifices in the OT but I cannot seem to find any reference to lambs being used in such a manner. Could it refer to the servant’s willing submission and not to the idea that the lamb was subject to the “wrath of God” as is so often taught in evangelical circles? This makes sense to me. We simply do not know what the term “Lamb of God” precisely refers to. But clearly there is nothing here about Jesus’ death as a necessary sacrifice needed to satisfy God.
I would say that Jesus “takes away the sin of the world” (which seems like a parallel idea to the notion in the other gospels of Jesus as a “ransom” for sin) in the sense that he frees us from sin’s power in his revelation of the true nature of the Powers that enslave us. It’s not that Jesus “takes away” God’s anger against our sinfulness but that Jesus frees us from sin’s power so that we might follow his path of love. Jesus, when we let him, takes away sin’s power over us that separates us from God’s love.
The other text John mentions is John 3:16-19: Many evangelicals use John 3:16-19 to support the idea that Jesus died for the sin of the world and they seem to link God’s purpose to save or make the world whole, back to the word “gave” (3:16), implying that God’s giving was that of his Son in death. They link this back to verse 14. Again John’s own answer seems to get it about right: Could the fact that God “gave” his unique Son include Jesus’ whole life of compassion and healing mercy, and that it is God’s love that saves us rather than Jesus’ death as a sacrifice?
Exactly. It seems to me that the point that God “gave his own son” out of love for the world has to refer to “Jesus’ whole life of compassion and healing mercy”—that did indeed include his death and resurrection—to make clear the depth of God’s love. There is no hint here that I can see of the need for satisfaction. So, how does God “giving” Jesus provide eternal life? It seems clear that the answer to this question has to lie in Jesus’ revelation of God’s love—the same basis for salvation that has been present from the foundation of the world.
John adds: Would the reference to Jesus being “lifted up” like the “serpent” (3:14) simply refer to Jesus crucifixion and glorification without being linked to Jesus’ crucifixion or glorification as the means of salvation? Well, certainly there is no hint here of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice that satisfies God’s anger/holiness/honor/wrath. I think Jesus’ “crucifixion and glorification” may well have saving significance for John’s Gospel—but we must ask how so? It seems clear that whatever the Gospel of John’s Jesus has in mind (and I’m not sure what it is), it surely can’t be satisfaction atonement. Salvation here seems clearly to be a gift—just as it is throughout the rest of the Bible.