Salvation part I

Right, enough about hell. Let’s get cheery again with – salvation!

So, salvation is about believing in Jesus so that we can be rescued from our sins and from God’s wrath, and go to heaven when we die – right?

Well, yes and no. Probably more no than yes.

The English word ‘salvation’ obviously means being ‘saved’. But even assuming for the moment this is the right word to use, what does it actually mean to be ‘saved’? Saved in what sense, from what, to what, for what?

In English, we often think of ‘save’ meaning to rescue from death, disaster or other dreadful peril. We talk about being ‘saved’ from drowning or from a burning building or a deadly disease. So when Christians talk of being ‘saved’, it often carries these dramatic life-or-death undertones. It makes salvation sound scary, as though it was all about rescue from hell’s flames and God’s terrifying wrath.

But ‘save’ really just means ‘to make safe’ or ‘to deliver into safety’, and the word has a number of more mundane common uses. In football, the goalie ‘saves’ a goal by stopping the ball entering the net (some would say this is a life-and-death issue; I’d say they need to get out more). We talk of ‘saving’ money, meaning storing it up against future need rather than spending it now; or of ‘saving the best till last’, keeping something back in order to enjoy it more fully later.

You might also save things like boxes or bottle-tops for a project or fundraising exercise, or save stamps for a collection. This links in with the related word ‘salvaging’ – reclaiming or restoring items from rubbish or wreckage; keeping things which might otherwise have been lost or thrown away.

In a similar way you also ‘save’ information on computers (I hit Ctrl + S while preparing this and was presented with the enigmatic message ‘Word is saving Salvation’). ‘Saved’ in this sense means retaining information and maintaining integrity, guarding against data loss or corruption. This strikes me as being close to one of the biblical meanings of salvation. One metaphor for resurrection is God uploading the saved, cleaned data of our personalities to the new hardware platform of our imperishable bodies.

I’m not denying that we and the world need saving in some sense. If you look at all the mess and pain, the darkness and chaos in the world and in your own heart and life, it’s fairly clear we need some kind of salvation or redemption. But I think there’s so much more to the salvation we need, and that Christ brings, than just our souls being saved from hell, or even our being saved from our sins (though that may be an important part of it).

Saved from what, to what?

So what are we saved from by Christ? If you like, we could still say saved from hell, if by hell we mean all the things I’ve been blah-ing on about in the last few posts (rather than eternal fiery punishment) – i.e. saved from unreality and unrelationship, from isolation and internal disintegration.

We could also say saved from the mess we’ve made of our lives and the world. But it’s not a ‘beam me up’ salvation where we leave the pain and mess of the world and our lives behind. Rather it’s salvation through incarnation, the redeeming of our pain and mess by God’s saving presence being brought into every part of it (and of us). It’s the healing of harms and setting right of wrongs here and now rather than an escape to a ‘better’ place.

We might also think of being saved from our worst fears and problems, but again God doesn’t always seem to work like this. Often we’re saved not by fleeing from our fears, our weaknesses, our temptations and issues, but by facing and overcoming them in Christ’s strength.

Whatever we’re saved from, what we’re saved into is the Kingdom – the realm and community where God’s salvation is made manifest. This kingdom is not separated from the rest of the world in some shining bubble, but is within and alongside it at all points. And we’re saved in order to participate in (and be included as a part of) the redeeming, restoring and renewing of this world and its people. Our salvation is part of the salvation of the whole cosmos, bringing it into God’s kingdom; healing, making whole, bringing all back into right relationship with God. Our salvation is to become Christlike, to have God’s image fully formed and incarnated in us, that it may ultimately be incarnated in the whole world – the new heavens and earth where love and goodness reign.

And what are we saved by? I’ll, er,  save that question for another post.

Sozo, shalom and yesha

I’m still not convinced that ‘salvation’ is really the best English rendering of the relevant biblical terms – certainly not the only one. Biblical or Christian salvation is about a whole lot of things, some of which are probably more meaningful to us than the idea of being ‘saved’.

There are several biblical terms we could look at, but here are a few of the key ones:

Sozo – the New Testament Greek word usually translated as ‘save’ (soter: saviour and soterios: salvation). But sozo can also mean ‘heal’ – to make well or whole. My understanding is that both meanings are used interchangeably (biblical scholars please correct me). So when Jesus says in (say) Luke 18:42 ‘your faith has healed you’, it’s the same word as ‘saved’ or ‘delivered’.

Christian salvation is deeply intertwined with the idea of healing, of making whole – physically, spiritually, emotionally and relationally. That doesn’t mean that being ‘saved’ necessarily means having all one’s physical ailments or psychological problems instantly cured, or all one’s broken relationships restored. Instead it’s becoming part of the long-term process which leads to greater and greater wholeness, integrity, fulfilment and reality. It’s becoming part of the saving relationship and the whole community of salvation in which these good things can be brought to reality and fruition.

Shalom (Hebrew) – usually translated ‘peace’, it again means a lot more than that word conveys in English. Shalom carries the sense of wholeness, completeness, harmony, restored relationships, as well as deliverance from harm. It is the essence of God’s kingdom, of his full presence and reign. It’s arguably what the concept of Sabbath rest is about, and also the concept of Jubilee – the freeing of slaves, the restoring of the land, the bringing of justice and mercy. Shalom is about things as God means them to be; God’s kingdom come and his will done. If sozo (healing) is the process, shalom (wholeness) is the result. It’s what salvation is about; what it’s for and what it leads to.

Yesha – Old Testament word for salvation, deliverance, rescue and things like that. It’s the Hebrew word from which Jesus’s name Yeshua comes (‘he saves’ or possibly ‘The Lord saves’; Joshua, Hosea, Isaiah and Elisha all have similar meanings). I don’t know if the ‘sha’ in yesha is related in meaning to the ‘sha’ in shalom – Hebrew scholars, please let me know.

There’s also a bunch of lovely English words I’d like to look at, conveniently all beginning with the letter R. But this post’s getting long again (why does that always happen?), so I’ll spare you and save them for next time…

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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15 Responses to Salvation part I

  1. Jenny Rayner says:

    Echoing my thoughts again, Harvey. I am totally convinced that I have been “saved”. Not quite so sure about what I have been saved from.


  2. Eric says:

    So part of the problem in dealing with Hebrew is that only the consonants matter, However, some consonants make no sounds and some can turn into vowels under the right conditions. The verb for to save/to deliver is ישׁע while the verb that shalom (שׁלום) is derived from is שׁלם. So the “shua” part of Yeshua is not related to shalom. In fact, Yeshua would be a shortened version of Yehoshua, Yeho being a Northern prefix meaning “Yawheh” and “shua” (really “oshua” since the “o” of “yeho” and the “y” of “yshua” blend) meaning “saves”. Hoshea, (Hosea) just means “salvation”, the prefixed H turning the Y into a vowel, and Elisha is eli (my god) saves.

    I might also be a bit careful about shalom. Shalom can mean peace, tranquility, completeness, health, and prosperity but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a case where it means all of those. So, for instance, in Genesis 43:27-28 it means “health”. Joseph (disguised) asks his brothers about the shalom of his and their father. It’s clear from the surrounding dialog that he’s asking if Isaac is alive and healthy. However, in 2 Kings 9 Jehu’s band of men prompts the kings of Israel and Judah to send his horsemen asking “Is it shalom?” Here, obviously, shalom means peace as opposed to war. In 1 Kings 22:27-28 we see shalom being used to mean “safety”. Anyway, while shalom can mean all of these things I don’t think it normally means all of them at once, just as the thing that locks your front door and a foundational concept may both be keys but are not each other.


    • Thanks Eric – it’s great to have a proper Hebrew scholar on board! I was using but I don’t have the underlying knowledge of the original languages to understand how the languages actually work and the finer relations between words and parts of words. How/where did you learn Hebrew?

      I appreciate your caution about shalom having different meanings or usages, but I would still see them as fundamentally related. All non-referential language is based on metaphor and analogy, and in the example you give both uses of key have the same linguistic root – ‘key’ meaning a foundational concept is analogically or metaphorically related to ‘key’ as the object that unlocks a door. Only with homophones are alternative meanings completely unrelated, like ‘rose’ (flower) and ‘rose’ (past tense of ‘rise’). So I’d see health, peace and safety as complementary related meanings of shalom, all of which can help build a picture of the Kingdom and salvation.


      • Eric says:

        I’m actually self-taught. Being in academia I have access to excellent libraries and so I got out some Hebrew textbooks and worked my way through them. By the fourth one I felt like I had a decent grasp of the language (finding books with exercises is key) and so I moved on to reading the Hebrew of a parallel Hebrew-English Tanakh where I could check myself quite easily. Shortly after this I found out about the Hebrew Reader’s Bible (which footnotes all uncommon words) and have been keeping my skills up by reading from that.

        All of this to say that I’m still no Hebrew scholar. But your question wasn’t actually too difficult to answer once you know some basic grammar. On that note, feel free to email me Hebrew questions if that would be helpful to you.


        • Thanks Eric. What’s your role in academia – does it relate to biblical studies at all, or is that more of a personal interest?

          I’d be very interested to hear how your study of Hebrew has affected your relationship with the Old Testament, and also whether it’s afforded you any surprising or unexpected insights into particular passages or ideas.


  3. dsholland says:

    Hmmm, thought provoking. I don’t often think of what salvation means beyond peace(shalom – both healthy and not war) with God. Like, my salvation has brought me into a relationship with God that is not adversarial. We are “saved” from ourselves in some (hellish?) sense, and we are certainly reclaimed, found, healed.

    Nice post.


  4. Mr S says:

    Mr E

    Great post (and upon re-reading very well written)

    The evangelical wing of the church should definitely preach hell less and shout out the ‘Good News’ of heaven – the Kingdom of God present on Earth.

    Growing up, I always felt uncomfortable with brimstone preaching. Frightening someone into faith sounded like an oxymoron and counterproductive – in my opinion.

    Looking forward to part II

    Mr S


    • Thank you Mr S!

      Totally agree about brimstone preaching – I don’t see how it’s possible to base a sustainable lifelong faith on the fear of hell. It’s a bit like getting married in order to avoid deportation – it might provide a motive at the start, but it isn’t going to keep you going through the long winter nights.

      By the way and off the subject, not sure if you ever got my reply to your email about a BBQ in Woking? I’d be very up for that.

      All the best


  5. Eric says:

    So apparently I can’t reply to a reply nested that far into the stack…fun. Anyway, this is a reply nonetheless.

    My role in academia is that I’m a biology professor with a focus in ecology. Obviously Biblical Studies are a hobby and not a related field.

    I can give you the short version of how reading Hebrew changes how I see the Old Testament or you can wait a month or two and an article on that issue will appear on my blog. I just got back into reading in Hebrew and have been wanting to write on that. Anyway, I’m happy to give a short answer if you want it.


    • Hi Eric, yes, free WordPress does have its limitations!

      Would you agree with the view that there tend to be more Christians in physics and chemistry departments, and less in biology? My uncle-by-marriage is immunobiologist and author Denis Alexander of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge (reasonably well known in England but possibly not in the US!), so I’ve developed a layman’s interest in the field through talking to him and reading his books. He’s both a strong Christian (reformed theology) and an evolutionary biologist.

      I’d be interested in both your short and long answers to the Hebrew question, and I look forward to your blog article when it comes out!



      • Eric says:

        I haven’t surveyed the physics and chemistry departments but I could certainly believe it. Biologists, especially at my end of the field, have an ongoing fight with creationists and that’s never a good exposure to Christianity.

        My short answer to the Hebrew question is that it changes the tone of the Old Testament. English translation of Hebrew creates a sort of Bible-English that is sometimes a bit like a children’s story in terms of language. Bible Hebrew isn’t. There’s also a way in which the original language can highlight specific ideas. In this regard a friend’s comment probably says it best: reading the original languages is like watching a movie in color when before you had only seen it in black and white.


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