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?