A Different Understanding of ChristianityIn his “Questions that Haunt Christianity Series,” Tony Jones is tackling the question, “What are we being saved from?” Rather than post a long comment on his blog, I figured I’d write a post about this myself. This is a topic that I think about quite a bit, because it seems that the answer to this question in large part determines how we frame and understand Christianity. And since, as I’ve recently noted, Presbyterians (and most progressive mainline Protestants) don’t talk about salvation very much, we need to have a better answer to this question—or any answer at all instead of silence.

American pop Christianity has a pretty straightforward answer: we’re being saved from hell. The narrative of this common understanding of Christianity is simple. Every human being will one day be judged by God, with the righteous going to heaven and the wicked going to hell. But as sinners, we are all by nature worthy of eternal punishment in hell. This is where Jesus steps in, through his bloody death (and maybe something about his resurrection), to somehow save us from the wrathful hands of our angry God.

Like a growing number of people, I just don’t find this story very compelling anymore. For one, it presupposes a characterization of God that doesn’t correspond with the God of love I have found through experience, biblical study, and theological reflection. It also situates Jesus’ death within a metaphysical narrative that I do not feel compelled to consider absolute.

So for the past several years I have been working on ways to tell a different Christian story than the old heaven-and-hell version. I’m not saying that the traditional story is necessarily wrong, it just doesn’t ring very true to me. And the plurality of theologies in the Bible and church history suggests that there is more than one way to tell the Christian story. If you are like me, you long for a different story to tell.

There are two approaches that I have found most helpful. Like the heaven-and-hell version, the first also begins with individual sinners, but instead of jumping to judgment and personal salvation from hell, it recognizes that we are all part of a bigger global picture. The world we live in is full of sin and suffering from things like hatred, violence, greed, disease, poverty, and hunger. Jesus comes into this picture to present a different way of being, a way grounded in love for God and love for neighbor. Jesus teaches us this way, which has the potential to radically transform the world we live in by radically transforming each of us as individuals. You could say, then, that Jesus came to save us from this world of sin and suffering. (Jesus still dies a bloody death, of course, but the most important part of that story is the resurrection.)

The other way I’ve talked about this is to focus on the notion of the kingdom of God. I’ve found Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark to be a stunningly clear statement of his core message: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!” When Jesus spoke these words, his people were subjects of the Roman Empire. The creed of the land was “Caesar is Lord.” Jesus provided a radical alternative. Instead of the kingdoms of the world, we are invited to participate in the emergence of God’s kingdom. Instead of proclaiming that “Caesar is Lord”—in which we can substitute “Caesar” with any exercise of power through oppression, violence, and fear—we proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” In this understanding, Jesus is saving us from “Caesar”—in all of its ugly manifestations—by inviting us to trust him and change our hearts and lives.

Both of these approaches are ultimately ways of saying that Jesus is saving us from ourselves. Humanity has thoroughly corrupted God’s good world, the reality of which we are reminded in countless ways every day. Jesus is saving us from our own self destructive ways—individually and collectively—and guiding us toward the redemption and recreation of the world, what Jesus boldly called God’s kingdom.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. John: I was JUST writing about this for Sunday’s sermon and also came to the conclusion that we are saved from ourselves. Plus other stuff too. Have you read Borg’s Heart of Christianity? I love what he says about salvation there. If you’re interested in the sermon, it’ll be on the website next Monday or so. Blessings to you and the fam!

    • Awesome. Yes, I love that Borg book…along with pretty much everything else he’s done. I’ll definitely check out the sermon next week!

  2. If “the most important part of the story is the resurrection,” and I agree, then you’ve immediately got a problem, and it’s name is Marcus Borg, whom you laud in the comments. And it is related to a second problem, this one with YOUR “metaphysical narrative,” in which you fail to follow through on describing what is, in fact, important about the resurrection: namely, that it actually did happen, and not just that, but what happened when it happened. It’s not just a brilliant and watershed “idea” that transforms us, of which Borg, Crossan, Spong, and various other popular heretics have tried so hard to convince us in recent years. It is a mystery through which humankind vicariously participates in reunion with God only and precisely because there was a bodily resurrection of Jesus, in which that human body was transformed and through it, the body and therefore what is possible about the life lived in that body, of each believer. Without that bodily resurrection, being “radically transformed as individuals,” cannot be effected in the individual in a way that has any metaphysical or salvific impact. That is to say, the “sin and suffering from things like hatred, violence, greed, disease, poverty, and hunger” that you mention, as a condition in which the human finds itself, cannot be overcome by a good idea. The condition of this world–you call it sin and suffering, John called it darkness, etc.–cannot be overcome by a good idea. It must be metaphysically transformed. People of any belief system can do good things to try to overcome sin and suffering in the world, but in terms of the human condition in the world, and therefore our relationship from within this world with our sovereign creator, nothing is overcome. A bodily resurrection–and our vicarious participation in it by metaphysically living out in our lives the confession “Christ is Lord”–is the point precisely because it gives meaning and purpose to everything we’ve said about what it means to be Christian since. Now, you may in fact disagree with Borg and Co. on the bodily resurrection, but that’s just it…from your post, I can’t tell what YOU mean by saying the resurrection is the most important part of the story. In the end, I think that what you’re doing is just semantics, the kind that smack of much of what is happening in post modern theology, which is essentially, “It’s really all about fitting the world to my own personal vision and needs, and since I don’t like the way it has been in the Church and theology, I’m going to change it to fit my tastes.” I’m thinking that your notion of “sin and suffering from things like hatred, violence, greed, disease, poverty, and hunger” is different from “hell,” or for that matter, “eternal judgment”–because what better way to describe what happens to us here as a result of hatred, violence, greed, disease, poverty, and hunger–only by degree and by way of semantics. I actually appreciate, and use myself, the kind of language you use here. But I’m willing to say, hey, God is God and has a right to be “angry” about human participation in “hatred, violence, greed, disease, poverty, and hunger,” and therefore there’s nothing wrong with saying there’s a place for God’s wrath in the way God’s world plays itself out, and us in it. And Christ’s bodily resurrection is the watershed event that places us in a relationship with God that reconciles that wrath with the amazing love that underpins it. So though I share your language, I would hesitate to call it a “different Christian story than the old heaven-and-hell version” as a way to make it look like you’re doing something different, and gain the currency associated with that claim, though I know it pays well in the liberal wings of the Church.

  3. The problem (or one of their problems) with both your alternative views is that they give rise to Utopian thinking – that, despite man’s sinful nature, we can fix the world before He returns. This, in turn, leads to political Utopianism which tries to use government to fix all the ills of society, and ultimately fails because of man’s sinfulness. You see, it turns out that the governing and intellectual classes are just as sinful as the productive classes. Examples of Utopian thinking that have failed are fascism, communism, socialism, etc. An example of one that is failing now is our over-extended welfare state which is choking out the productive economy.

    The alternative, more realistic, view which focuses on man’s sinful nature leads, among other things, to better public policy. It was the view of the Founders, which is why they created checks and balances, separation of powers, limited government, negative constitutional rights and the rest – to protect us from government which otherwise takes away our liberty. Non-Utopian thinking distributes power broadly in civil society, restrains government, and promotes (by making room for) individual responsibility and liberty – and has led to broad prosperity benefiting everyone. It also tends to be self-correcting since stupid ideas that fail in the marketplace (such as electric cars, windmills, etc.) are abandoned in favor of those that actually work. When government takes over the marketplace, stupid ideas persist.

    While St. Paul wrote that the redeemed should behave differently from those who were not, they were still destined to sin, and to live in a sinful, and broken, world until He comes again. Our hope then, is not in government but in God.

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