In 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.
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