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…