Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2022
Quite a few Christians, it seems, assume that there is a clear demarcation between those who are Christians and those who are not. They might differ on how they describe the line of demarcation, but for many it has to do with whether a person trusts in Jesus as one’s savior or not. That is certainly what I was taught when I started going to church. I don’t find that a helpful notion anymore.
What I was taught about salvation
It took a while after my age 17 conversion for me to figure out what I was actually being taught about Jesus as savior. As I look back now all these years later, I find it remarkable that something that was such a pillar of faith would be so little explained. But this is how I would now reconstruct my first church’s understanding of Jesus as savior.
The key first step would be to assert that human beings are inherently sinful—each one of us. We are born that way. And because we are sinful, we exist in alienation from God. Ultimately, if something does not happen, we will be condemned to spend eternity in hell. So, making “something happen” is extremely important. We can be assured that God wants this “something” to happen, that God has provided a way for this alienation to be overcome.
This way (and it is the only way) is for us to accept Jesus as our personal savior, to recognize that we are sinful and deserve condemnation, and to recognize that Jesus’s death on our behalf has made is possible for us to find reconciliation with our holy God and thus to escape our certain condemnation. What is rarely explained, though, is how this works. How does Jesus’s death make our salvation possible?
Basically, it seems to work like this: God may love us and want us to be saved, but so long as we appear before God as sinners, God cannot offer us forgiveness and accept us as part of God’s eternal community. God can’t do this because along with being loving, God is also just and holy. As a just and holy God, God can’t help but condemn unrepentant sinners. We deserve punishment for being sinners, and we as unclean creatures cannot be present with a holy God. Jesus’s death is so important because in it, the demands of justice and holiness are satisfied in relation to those who repent and trust in Jesus as their savior (that is, the one who pays the price needed to satisfy God’s justice and holiness).
So, at the heart of Christianity’s confession of Jesus as savior (at least in many versions of Christianity) is the belief that Jesus’s death was sacrificial. He was a sinless human being who, albeit an innocent person, was killed in our stead. His sinless life and sacrificial death did meet the demands of God holiness and justice. He becomes our savior when we recognize that his sacrifice was on our behalf, and we trust in him. Then, our sins will be forgiven, and we will enter into the circle of Christian faith—and may plan to spend eternity with God.
Why the traditional understanding of Jesus as Savior is a problem
I have come to see this account of Jesus as Savior to be deeply problematic. Why?
1. It is incoherent. There is a hole in the center of the logic of this account. It says, in effect, that God is love and wants people to be saved but that God is prevented by God’s own character from simply saving people. God is limited by a kind of impersonal, retributive justice. That is, God is not actually very powerful or very loving. And then, even if we can accept that strange understanding of God, we still don’t know how it actually works that Jesus’s death can satisfy God’s holiness and justice. The traditional view simply asserts that it does so but is remarkably inarticulate in saying how that works. (see my critiques of two important expressions of the traditional view, Fleming Rutledge and N.T. Wright)
Somehow, we are expected to accept that God wants us saved, that God can’t simply offer us forgiveness, that God has to have Jesus be executed as a means of satisfying God’s justice, and only then can God do what God has wanted to do all along. And accept on faith that even if we can’t explain how it is that Jesus’s murder actually satisfies God it still mysteriously does. Now, I would be more inclined to be open to an incoherent view of salvation if somehow that would serve human wellbeing. However, the opposite seems to be the case.
2. It does not reflect the Bible’s picture of salvation. A significant point that rarely seems to be noticed is that beginning in Genesis the Bible has a lot to say about salvation. And very little of it has anything to do with Jesus’s death (or any other death) as the one necessary prerequisite for making salvation possible. The key moment in the salvation story of the Old Testament is the intervention of God to liberate the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The exodus becomes the central metaphor for salvation in the rest of the Bible—including the New Testament. The exodus is portrayed as an act of straight-ahead mercy by God. The story makes it clear that it’s God’s initiative, God acts on the Hebrews’ behalf, and that they do nothing to earn it or to satisfy God’s demands as a prerequisite for God to act.
Then, when God follows up the exodus with the law, the Hebrews were directly told that following Torah was to be understood as a response to God’s mercy—not as the way to gain that mercy. The story that follows recounts many missteps along the way for the chosen people. Time after time, though, we read of God’s renewed merciful actions to sustain the community.
The gospels, importantly, simply take for granted the salvation dynamics that characterize the Old Testament. Jesus offers forgiveness far and wide, to a broad spectrum of people—and explicitly with the emphasis on salvation as a gift. He makes demands on his followers, but always as a response to God’s saving mercy, never as a prerequisite for it.
So, whatever Jesus’s death might have been about and might have meant, it could not have been something necessary to make salvation happen. As Jesus asserted at the beginning of Mark’s story of his ministry, in him the Kingdom of God was present and openly available right at the moment for all who would turn from their trust in idols and believe the good news.
3. It presents God as violent and actually unjust. If Jesus had to be unjustly executed in order to satisfy God, how can we avoid the sense that God is violent and unjust? This is especially clear if we recognize the essentially restorative character of God’s justice in the Bible, where God’s intent in face of human wrongdoing is not punitive but seeking reconciliation and healing. The God of the Bible, when we read it as a whole and in light of the message of the core plot of the Bible’s big story, does not demand violence as a necessary response to human sin but seeks to empower human beings to find healing and the restoration of broken relationships.
This emphasis on restorative justice does not begin with Jesus. We see it in many places earlier in the story—such as the account of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers, and in the prophecy of Hosea 11. Certainly, God in the Bible at times is presented as vengeful and retributive. It is a challenge for all interpreters to make sense of those images. But the central story line presents God as infinitely more merciful than vengeful. The entire story begins with a vision of a loving God creating what is for the purpose of creativity and wholeness. And it ends with Revelation’s vision of the healing of the nations and even the kings of the earth.
4. It underwrites human violence and injustice. Consideration of the history of Christendom in the West will show that the belief in “God’s just vengeance” that underlies the traditional salvation story has created the cultural sensibility that has justified extraordinarily violent criminal justice practices and even the potent militarism that has so devastated the modern world (see Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation). If God’s retributive justice, in effect (even if not always honestly stated as such), takes priority over God’s love, believers inevitably find themselves as the executioners of that kind of justice. It is no accident that Christians have tended to be the strongest advocates of punitive criminal justice practices and strong military responses to conflict—not to mention, on a more personal level, the strongest advocates of heavy use of corporal punishment in families and schools (see my article, “A Theological Critique of Corporal Punishment”).
How is Jesus our savior?
So, if we step away from the standard understanding of Jesus as savior, do we have alternative ways to affirm that designation (after all, the name “Jesus” itself means “God saves”)? I think this is easier to do than has typically been recognized. We may start with a basic point. The gospels present Jesus as clearly thinking of himself as being in strong continuity with the Old Testament prophets and with Torah. He intends to fulfill the Law, not abolish it.
A key aspect of this continuity is how Jesus actually approaches salvation in his ministry. The Christian tradition has tended to ignore Jesus’s own actions and words in constructing its understanding of salvation—partly, it seems likely, out of a strong inclination toward supersessionism, a desire to think of Jesus and Christianity as something new and ultimately different than the Judaism that preceded it. Without that inclination, though, we will be better able to recognize how Jesus basically affirmed the salvation story he inherited.
Turn from idolatry and accept the good news. Live lives of wholeness, generosity, and compassion. Resist unjust kings and empires. We find these exhortations in Jesus’s Bible and in Jesus’s life. Thus, we can say that salvation is present in the world before Jesus. Jesus’s death was not a necessary act that would make salvation possible, as if for the first time.
What, then, about Jesus? Can we affirm him as our savior in ways that do not center on his death? Indeed. Jesus lived his life and faced his death as the greatest of the biblical prophets. He more clearly, emphatically, and courageously embodied the core teaching of Torah in his practice of restorative justice and his resistance to idolatry and injustice. And he suffered tremendous consequences as a result. These consequences, including his crucifixion, are indeed central to his expression of the Bible’s message of salvation. But not as a necessary sacrifice that would satisfy God.
Instead, Jesus’s death reveals the hostility of the idolatrous Powers, the human structures that tried (and continue to try) to usurp God and separate people from God’s love. Who killed Jesus? The Powers of empire (Rome), of religious institutionalism (the Temple), and of cultural exclusivism (legalistic religiosity). In killing the person who had revealed himself to be God’s Son by his embodiment of the message of Torah and the prophets, these Powers in turn revealed themselves to be God’s enemies, not God’s agents as they claim.
To trust in Jesus as savior is to reject trusting in those Powers. It is to accept God’s mercy that is outside the control of the state, institutional religion, and cultural exclusivism. To trust in Jesus as savior is to follow his same path—welcome to the vulnerable, the politics of forgiveness, and resistance to the Domination System. To trust in Jesus as savior is to recognize his path as a path that points toward joy, healing, and love—while engaging the brokenness and injustices of this life as agents of wholeness (I actually have written an entire book describing this understanding of the Bible’s salvation story—Instead of Atonement).