A few posts back I said there were many classic Christian terms that I was no longer sure about – words that had accrued meanings and interpretations I no longer felt entirely comfortable with. These include sin and hell, heaven, atonement, born-again, scripture, holiness, evil, the devil. Most of these I now see prefer to see as mysteries whose meanings we can only approach through metaphor, and then only ‘through a glass darkly’.
And ‘salvation’ (or ‘saved’) is another such term. In many ways it’s the other side of the coin of ‘sin’ and ‘hell’ which I’ve already looked at.
Though a more positive concept than sin or hell, the idea of being ‘saved’ can still be pretty contentious. It’s often used in an excluding way – ‘I’m saved, are you?’, or ‘only those who believe in Jesus (and in the same way as I do) are saved’. The implied opposite pair-word that then goes with it is ‘lost’ or ‘damned’. If you’re not saved, you’re lost. If you’re not one of us, you’re eternally excluded. Bad luck.
But I don’t think it needs to be seen in those terms. There are lots of other ways of understanding the term ‘saved’, and I’ve looked at some of them before. I don’t want to re-cover old ground so do read those old posts alongside this one if you’re interested (I’ll put the links at the end).
In short though, I think that salvation is a multi-faceted mystery that encompasses aspects of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing, transformation, liberation, restoration, renewal and reconciliation. I believe it’s above all about becoming part of a community of mutual love, all and each filled with the love, life and light of Christ. And I believe that the primary means of salvation is incarnation – Christ being formed in each of us.
So I suppose there are elements of inclusion and therefore perhaps exclusion, but that’s not the main emphasis. And crucially I don’t believe anyone is ever excluded except by their own choice, as I looked at last time.
A computing metaphor
But there’s a specific alternative metaphor for salvation I’d like to look at more closely now. It comes from the world of computing – the idea of ‘saving’ a document or data.
It just sounds like a daft bit of wordplay – how can saving computer files bear any relation to the Christian concept of salvation? But it’s recently gained some theological credence through the writing of (among others) well-respected physicist and Anglican cleric John Polkinghorne. I’ve heard Polkinghorne speak and my impression was of the highest scientific intellect, coupled with a deep Christian faith.
Polkinghorne’s idea is that our physical bodies and brains are, in computer terminology, our hardware, and our souls, minds or spirits the software, or perhaps more accurately the data files in the computer’s memory.
When we die, the hardware fails and (after a while) corrupts, but the software or data – the essence of us – doesn’t have to. Just as when our old computer ceases to work we can copy all the files over to a new computer – so long as we’d already ‘saved’ them, backed them up. Otherwise they may be ‘lost’ and simply cease to be readable or usable (though we might possibly be able to recover some limited version if we know what we’re doing, or else they may continue to exist in a kind of data limbo).
Similarly with people then, our minds and spirits are linked with the physical hardware of our brains and bodies, but they can potentially survive beyond our physical death. But perhaps this can only happen if they have already been ‘saved’, backed up so that they can be transferred to a new system or platform.
Could this then be another angle on what Christians mean by salvation, being ‘saved’? That those who are ‘saved’ by Christ are not condemned to cease to exist mentally and spiritually when their physical bodies die, but are now able to be uploaded to new resurrection bodies in a new realm, the Kingdom of heaven?
In computer language we might speak of being ‘uploaded to the Cloud’ (which could maybe breathe new life into the old imagery of sitting about on clouds with harps). It certainly offers another way to understand the New Testament ideas that we are even now ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms’ and that our ‘lives are now hidden with Christ’ (Eph 2:6, Col 3:3).
And we could also posit that those who are not ‘saved’ in this sense might simply cease to exist on death when there is no hardware to ‘run’ them – an entirely painless annihilation, like being simply switched off. Some would certainly see this as the most merciful option.
However, there’s also scope within the metaphor for those who favour a more classical view of Hades – the idea that ‘unsaved’ souls might remain in some kind of shadowy part-existence like unrecovered computer files. And in which case, I see no reason why such souls could not still be ‘saved’ at any point after death, should they desire it. This is certainly my own preferred belief, though I have little evidence for it beyond God’s inexhaustible hope to redeem as many as possible in the end.
But these are matters where we need to speak sensitively and tread carefully. Real people will have real loved ones who have died and I have no wish to speak casually or unfeelingly of their destiny. Please remember that this is all just an extended metaphor; it may bear no relation to experiential reality. And I pass no comment on who is and isn’t ‘saved’; I believe and hope that all may be saved, if not before death then at least after it.
As an aside, we can if we wish extend the computing analogy further, perhaps viewing evil as malware, or sin as a virus that corrupts our system and data, and sanctification as a process of cleaning up and restoring that which has become corrupted.
Souls good, bodies bad?
Now, all metaphors have limits. I’m aware that the hardware/software metaphor can easily sound dualist, as though our bodies and souls are entirely separate and our bodies are relatively trivial or meaningless, eternally speaking. That’s not the point at all – none of this is to say that our physical ‘hardware’ is unimportant or that what we do with and to it doesn’t matter.
While our minds are housed in our bodies, what we do to and in our physical bodies both involves and affects our minds, leaving its imprint. We can’t separate the two and imagine that our bodily and mental or spiritual life are unrelated; they are intertwined at all points. I’ve said before that our physical life is our spiritual life, in many ways.
And in addition, our future ‘resurrection’ bodies will surely be based at least partly on our current ones, though I’m hoping they’ll represent an upgrade. Jesus’s still apparently had scars, even though he was now able to walk through walls. To return to the metaphor, the data of our minds/spirits can’t be uploaded to a completely unrelated platform – just as you wouldn’t be able to use Windows files and software on a Mac.
But all this is only a metaphor of course, and if you don’t find it helpful, don’t worry about it. And it’s only one among many ways of trying to picture the complex mystery of salvation, which in the end defies definite definition.