Repent of Bad Religion! Part 3: Rescuing Salvation

The premise behind this series of posts is that true “repentance” is not about feeling sorry for your misdeeds and trying to do better. (You should do that, but it’s not repentance.) Nor is it a display of shame and contrition that wins you favor with God or your religious overlords. Real repentance is both a forceful rejection of bad ideas and an embracing of better ones. I’m applying this definition to some of the central tenets of Christian religion and suggesting that some radical repentance is in order.

Please note that I’m not simply exploring arbitrary new ways of conceptualizing Christianity as some kind of thought experiment or act of contrarianism. I honestly believe that we can and should get closer to the true biblical and historical essence of these ideas and farther away from the often poisonous mutations of them to which the modern church clings. We started the series with a clarifying look at repentance itself, and then we tackled the all-too-often bad news of “the gospel.” Today I hope we can rescue the idea of salvation.

What is “Salvation”?

Traditional American Christianity really wants everyone to get saved. After all, the bible itself enthusiastically announces that “salvation” comes through the name of Jesus Christ alone, and so job one for believing Christians has been to pound the pavement and make with the savin’. Problem is, it’s not always clear what exactly this “salvation” is, on a technical or practical level. Questions abound: Is it literal? Is it a metaphor? What are we saved from? What are we saved for? Who decides who’s saved and who’s “lost”? How do I know when I’m saved enough? Can salvation be lost once it’s unlocked? Do we have to dress and think and act and vote alike once we’re all saved? And, while we’re at it, will you save me some pie?

Traditional answer to these questions are problematic to say the least, and betray a host of muddled assumptions. Let’s briefly examine two bad models from the Greatest Hits collection. (They’re ultimately two versions of the same bad model, but please indulge me…)

Bad Model #1: “Saving Souls”

The classical European and American model is all about “saving souls.” Even though the bible only uses the words “save” and “soul” once in the same sentence (James 5:20), this has been the official way of talking about salvation for centuries. It goes something like this: Your body is mortal, but inside of it resides an immortal spiritual object or essence called a “soul.” When your body expires, your soul will live on for eternity. Because of original sin, all souls are doomed by default, and getting saved is the only way to guarantee a pleasant journey on the other side. This model boils down to a toggle switch inside of you that must be switched from the factory setting “lost” to “saved” before it’s too late. This is typically achieved by praying a prayer, professing to believe certain things about Jesus, getting baptized, and/or joining the right kind of church.

In addition to a less-than-compelling view of humanity and spirituality, this model has a much bigger problem for Christians: it’s not at all biblical. The notion of an immortal, immaterial “soul” that will exist forever in a state of either compromise or perfection is Greek philosophy, not bible theology. It’s Plato, not Jesus. To be fair, it’s easy to see how these Greek ideas might have been imported into early Christianity, as the word “soul” is indeed pervasive in both testaments. But in the (very diverse) world of biblical thought – that is, in the worlds of Ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, and First Century Christianity – “soul” meant something very different.  In both Hebrew and Greek, with a great deal of range and nuance, “soul” means something like “life” or “breath,” and is a poetic way of referring to an individual mortal person, a “self.” I had a seminary professor who summarized the biblical soul as “the whole you as only God knows you, body, heart and mind.”

When we strip away foreign and anachronistic ideas from our understanding of biblical salvation, we move away from the first “bad model” but perhaps closer still to the second:

Bad Model #2: “Saved From Hell”

OK, so the “immortal soul with a toggle switch” model isn’t plausible nor is it biblical. But the bible does say that unsaved sinners are going to burn in hell (right? probably?), and so for many Christians this is the primary motivation for “sealing the deal” of salvation. Despite its popularity, however, this model has numerous serious problems. For a start, the word “unsaved,” ubiquitous in conservative Christianity, is completely unknown in the bible. It’s a silly non-word that betrays a wrongheaded adherence to the “salvation as status” model. (Not to mention how arrogantly dismissive it is of billions of human beings.) Meanwhile, setting aside the huge question of how the hell language in the bible actually works (something I had a lot to say about elsewhere), it turns out that the link between “salvation” and a “ticket out of hell” is not as clear as we assume it to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the bible never explicitly links salvation to the avoision of eternal punishment.

In the gospel texts, salvation is always a positive promise of rescue for Israel and the world through Jesus, never a threat. Jesus came to “save his people [Israel] from sin” (Matthew 1:21), to “save the world” (John 12:47), and to “save” countless individuals by healing and liberating them (eg. Luke 7:50). Nothing is ever said about salvation from hell or punishment. The Book of Acts is an account of the earliest Christian evangelists and their mission to bring the gospel of Jesus to all corners of the Roman Empire. The salvation they preach is the same positive, rescuing, life-renewing salvation that Jesus preached. It’s never “become a Christian or you’re going to hell!” Not once. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul in his letters does use language of life and death when arguing about the power of salvation, but he never once invokes the threat of hell. If the bible never makes this connection, we should probably stop making it ourselves.

There’s a lot more to be said about this model and its problems, but I’m eager to move on and very briefly unpack just what I believe the bible is really getting at when it talks about “salvation.”

Salvation In The (Whole) Bible

First, a surprising fact: forms of the words “save” and “salvation” appear exponentially more often in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament. To be sure, the HB is a much much bigger collection than the NT, but the point is still important. “Salvation” isn’t a Christian innovation, it’s an ancient, biblical, Jewish idea. And like so many ancient biblical Jewish ideas, it is rooted in a specific historical reality, the event we know as the Exodus. Salvation was what happened when Israel’s God showed up and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. This salvation became a metaphor for the rescue of individuals from dangers both temporal and spiritual (Psalm 35:3; Psalm 42:5), and the template for anticipated national rescue during times of exile, invasion, and occupation (Psalm 14:7; Isaiah 62). And by the time of Jesus, Roman oppression and internal division were so devastating that hopes were high for a “New Exodus,” for a new act of salvation from above. Jesus’ message was that the long-awaited salvation had finally come in the form of the kingdom of God.

Meanwhile, the Roman Imperial cult had its own ideas about salvation. The package of benefits promised to compliant subjects of the empire was rhetorically said to bring “peace” and “salvation,” available exclusively through submission to Caesar. This brings many New Testament statements about Jesus and salvation into sharper focus (eg. Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”). Rome promised to “rescue” you even as their noose tightened around your neck. Jesus and his followers proclaimed a salvation of true peace, of real rescue from the violence and sin embodied by Rome.

In light of these examples, a few observations about biblical salvation: 1) it is something everybody was already waiting and hoping for, 2) it affects individuals, nations, and the entire world, and 3) it involves physical and temporal rescue as well as spiritual liberation. In the bible, salvation is the too-good-to-be-true news in answer to the hopes and dreams of people who desperately needed to be rescued. It was never a mechanism for soul preservation or belonging to the correct religious group, it was always rescue and renewal and new creation and happy feelings and kittens and powerful God stuff, and it was all unleashed in the words, deeds, life, martyrdom, and resurrection of Jesus.

And there’s nothing we can do about it. The dam has broken and the unstoppable force of God Rescue™ is oozing through the cracks in our world. The bible invites us to embrace this new reality. The first step to embracing salvation is to accept the impossibly ridiculous notion that a kingdom of peace and love and joy could actually be a real thing, and that it could actually take over this world. That’s the Jesus way, the way of salvation. Only religious people could turn this amazing proclamation of unbridled hope into a burden, or worse, a weapon. God save us.


  • Laura Cunningham

    Amen to the impossibly ridiculous notion!

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    This is excellent! I have just added your blog to my favorites list (of five) that shows on every page of my blog.