What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]

Ted Grimsrud—December 15, 2022

“Salvation” is one of those Christian words that we use a great deal but aren’t always clear about what we mean by it. In my recent posts, I have focused on how we might find salvation without really addressing what it is. One way to work at understanding what salvation is is to reflect on what we are saved from. Other words in the Bible that seem to be rough synonyms with salvation include “liberation,” “redemption,” and “ransom.” All of these seem to have in mind being delivered or freed from something. What are we saved from?

The old story

My first encounter with Christianity came when I joined a Baptist church when I was 17 years old. The main message about salvation I heard was that, in reality, we are saved from God. More specifically, we are saved from God’s judgment, God’s punitive justice, God’s wrath. Or, we could say, we are saved from hell, from eternal torment in separation from God. The means to gain this salvation was very narrow and particular. We must accept Jesus as our personal savior, which means to believe in the efficacy of his sacrificial crucifixion on my behalf, a death he took upon himself in order to receive, as our substitute, the punishment that we deserve.

Because I did not grow up with this theology and had a much more positive sense of my place in the world, that salvation story did not scare me in the way that it has so many other people. I didn’t have the deep-seated anxiety about whether I was okay or not that many lifelong Christians seem to have. Despite not feeling that anxiety, I did try to believe that story—though I was always uneasy about it—until a few years into my journey when I began to learn of another way to read and apply the story.

I won’t go into all the problems here with the kind of atonement theology I was taught. I’ll just note that from the beginning I sensed that the story of Jesus and his love was not fully compatible with belief in an angry and punitive God. Though I don’t remember thinking of the issue in these terms, I would say now that part of my problem with what I was taught was that my sense of the human problem was not that God was displeased with us so much as that too many human beings gave allegiance to oppressive and hurtful ideologies and institutions.

In retrospect, I think it is important to remember that the period in my life that I became a Christian, left home for college, and initially worked out my theology coincided with the final years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office. I became much more interested in social issues during this time and discovered and embraced Christian pacifism. I was eager for a theology that would help me make sense of the world I was living in and that would empower peaceable social ethics. I realized the salvation story I had been told wasn’t doing that. The key for me came when I realized that Jesus himself talked about his cross as a model for his followers, not as a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s punitive justice. How do we best understand salvation in light of Jesus’s cross as a model?

Thinking about salvation in an unjust world

Jesus’s name comes from the Old Testament character Joshua, and the name means “Yahweh saves.” So, salvation seems to be central to Jesus’s identity. The Joshua story is complicated, as its legacy. At its heart, though, is the reality of God delivering the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt—an act of pure mercy from God. This deliverance included God’s gift of Torah, the commands that provide the blueprint for the people to live a counter-testimony to the injustices of the Egyptian empire. The community under Torah was intended to be a collective of free people with a special emphasis on justice for the vulnerable (the counterparts to the Hebrew people in Egypt) and was given the promised land as a place to show the nations the ways of God. The community, though, struggled with this vocation.

As it turned out, the big problem for the community was the tendency to put their trust in idols rather than in the delivering and just God who established them. Due to their idolatry and accompanying injustice, the people lived in the land in ways that all too much echoed the ways of the Egyptian empire. Just as they needed deliverance from slavery in Egypt at the beginning, as the years passed, they continually needed deliverance from their idols—which included trusting in unjust kings, a religiosity that masked and empowered exploitation of vulnerable people, and relying on weapons of war for their security. In time, the corruption of the community led to the failure of the territorial kingdom. Torah did remain, though, and it provided the core that allowed the peoplehood to continue without possession of the land.

During Jesus’s life, the reality of idolatry remained present and potent for the people of the promise. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus witnessed to the power of God’s saving love as the power of deliverance from those idols. The story told by the gospels contrasts Jesus as the presence of God’s enlivening love with the violence of the political and religious leaders. When Jesus offered forgiveness and exorcised demons and taught with authority and called into being a community of disciples, he presented a way of life that did not require granting power and authority to the empire, to the temple, or to the exclusivism of the Pharisees.

The powers that be reacted with hostility and violence to Jesus’s liberating message. They collaborated to put him to death, the final vicious act being the quintessential dehumanizing execution of the empire, crucifixion. The story continues, though, with the vindication of Jesus. We are told that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus called his disciples back together. They continued his witness, rebuking the idolatrous Powers and embodying the way of Jesus, the way of mercy, compassion, resistance, and liberation. [I develop this understanding of Jesus’s message about salvation in detail in my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness.]

What does Jesus save people from?

According to the gospels, Jesus most of all saves people from idolatry. In light of his life and teaching, his steadfastness on the path of peace in face of the hostility from the governing authorities, the leaders of the religious institutions, and the forces of cultural exclusivism, and God’s vindication of his way through resurrection, the core idols of his social world were exposed. Jesus created a movement meant to empower people to turn from those idols and to turn toward establishing communities of resistance that witness to the life-enhancing justice of Torah (as summed up by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount and other teachings).

Tragically, the church that descended from Jesus’s peaceable community found it difficult to sustain his kind of witness. In time, it embraced the very idolatrous dynamics that led to the rejection and execution of Jesus in his own day. The truths of the gospel remain in effect, though, and are just as relevant and applicable now as ever. We see in the past 2,000 years various embodiments of Jesus’s witness against idolatry, mostly at odds with established religion, political dominators, and cultural exclusivists.

One of the particularly problematic expressions of the hostility toward Jesus has been the corruption of the very idea of salvation. I’ll just briefly mention three corruptions of Jesus’s salvation story: (1) The idea that God, in some sense, is our enemy. What we need to be saved from, in this idea, is God’s character as “holy” or “just” that is disposed to condemn us. Salvation can be found, in this idea, but only by a kind of doubling down on God’s hostility with an appeasing violent sacrifice that allows God to give us salvation in spite of that hostility.

(2) The idea that salvation has to do with going to heaven and escaping the fallen, broken world where we find ourselves. What we need to be saved from, in this idea, is existence in history (along with God’s hostility). The purpose of salvation is not to bring healing into the world we live in but the opportunity to leave this world and spend eternity in “heaven” with God.

(3) The idea that salvation has to do with being within the circle of the blessed and separate from everyone else. What we need to be saved from, in this idea, is the stain or threat of the unclean Other. As members of the distinct and exclusive people of God we are saved from being corrupted by the brokenness that is on the wrong side of the boundary line of faith.

In contrast to these three corruptions of Jesus’s message, we could say that (1) salvation has to do with being saved from being terrified of God and instead embracing God’s unconditional love for all of creation; (2) salvation has to do with being saved from an anti-creation disposition that causes us to disdain the physical world and instead loving the world we live in as the good creation of God; and (3) salvation has to do with being saved from antipathy toward people we consider to be Other and instead sharing Jesus’s disposition of welcome and compassion toward all people.

Living as “saved” people

I believe that idolatry remains a core problem for human beings; hence Jesus’s liberation from idolatry remains profoundly relevant. Jesus is relevant for our salvation not so much in the traditional sense that we need to escape God’s wrath, go to heaven, or separate ourselves from unbelievers. Rather, Jesus is relevant in helping us to see how our society’s structures and traditions and ideologies all too often seek to separate us from God. To keep Jesus’s way of love of neighbor always in the center provides the means for us to identify the dynamics of idolatry (e.g., nationalism, racism, classism, warism, religiosity) for what they are, to turn from them (to “repent”), and to recognize the sufficiency of love as our basis for identity.

So, we do need to be saved—from the life stifling dynamics of idolatry that remain just as potent and deadly as they were in Jesus’s day. The idols certainly look different today. As always, they tend to take the form of things we find attractive and temporarily gratifying. The key, as it was in Jesus’s time, is to keep the call to love the neighbor as the unassailable core of our moral lives. When Jesus inextricably linked love of neighbor with eternal life, he was being quite practical. He was giving us the simple but powerful key to salvation. Salvation, that is, as an empowerment to live in meaningful, creative, and life-affirming ways. And, salvation from the spiral of death and brokenness that inevitably follows from putting something other than love of neighbor (which, by definition also includes love of God) at the center.

Questioning Faith blog series

3 thoughts on “What are Christians saved from? [Questioning faith #11]

  1. I really like your 3 aspects of salvation, Ted. Well stated.

    I think personality and exposure to people of differing theologies or religions over time has a lot to do with having anxiety or not as to salvation.

    Regardless, pastors hold great responsibility for what/how they preach on. Almost all make Presumptions, and damaging ones!

  2. For me, a helpful way to think of salvation (very much complementary to what you’ve set out here) is the setting right of all that is evil, unjust, corrupted, etc.

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