The following is a transcript of a talk I did on the topic of Salvation as part of Harbour Faith Community’s Generous Orthodoxies series.
So, I have ten minutes to sum up what I think about salvation. Ten minutes to talk about a topic the church has been debating for millenia.
From the offset I want to make it clear that I do not consider this to be preaching or teaching, rather, I’m just thinking out loud. If any of it resonates with you, great.
The idea of salvation covers many key topics: sin, atonement, heaven, hell, judgement and justice. Let’s start from the beginning: sin.
Most of you are probably familiar with the doctrine of original sin; the idea that because Adam and Eve messed up thousands of years ago, we inherit that sin and are inherently corrupt. The Calvinists call this total depravity.
There are numerous issues with this view, from both a theological and practical standpoint. It seems inherently unjust to say that an innocent baby is born worthy of damnation because of someone else’s sin. It also doesn’t fit in with what we now know about the development of the human race – there was no original state of perfection; rather, we evolved slowly, gradually improving over billions of years. At what point in the evolutionary chain does original sin creep in? Did a caveman bash another caveman on the head with a stick and introduce sin to the world?
I am being facetious, of course, but this is what happens when you literalise a symbolic story. To quote Richard Holloway, former bishop of Edinburgh, “historicising or literalising what were always meant to be metaphors robs us of a powerful and permanent way of using the biblical material”. Instead of taking the text literally, as if it was a history textbook, instead we should ask what deeper human reality is being expressed. The ancient people who wrote the Genesis story looked around them and saw that the world was imperfect, thus they came up with a story to explain it. All our talk of sin and salvation comes out of that basic truth that our world is imperfect, and something needs to be done about it.
How, then, does this metaphorical approach work when we get to the New Testament? Are we saved by the blood of Christ, shed for our sins? Did God need his own son to die for us to be forgiven? The theologian Steve Chalke famously called the penal substitutionary view of the atonement ‘cosmic child abuse’, as it portrays a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. The whole idea of sin needing bloodshed in order to be forgiven, whether it’s animal sacrifice or the sacrifice of God’s own son, does not bode well with our 21st century way of thinking.
I’m going to briefly explore a radically different way of looking at Christian salvation based on Jesus life rather than his death. One of my issues with the creeds we recite in church is that they go straight from “born of a virgin” to “crucified under Pontius Pilate” with nothing in-between. They miss out all the good practical stuff that Jesus taught.
Let’s look at the miracles of Jesus and consider what sins these people are being saved from. When Jesus heals the lepers in Mark chapter one, he is saving them not only from the disease, but from the sin of exclusion. One healed, they are restored to their communities. Likewise with the woman in Luke chapter 8 who had an unspecified bleeding issue; this is particularly significant, as women with menstrual issues were seen as super unclean and weren’t allowed anywhere near the temple. Again, the woman is saved from the sin of exclusion.
It was very common in ancient literature to ascribe miracles to significant people, not as literal fact, but as an expression of the very essence of their teaching. By looking at the sort of people Jesus performed miracles for, people who were rejected by the religious leaders of the day, we get a good sense of what he was all about. Perhaps the point is not to be saved from our individually sinful nature, but to be saved from the systemic sins that drive us apart. Atonement literally means to be at-one; sin is anything that drives a wedge between us and our fellow man, between us and god. The Kingdom of God is all about saving mankind by creating an inclusive community where love and justice are key.
What about the afterlife, heaven and hell? There are many many different views on this, and I think Andrew is probably better placed to talk about this than I am. To be blunt, I find it hard to speculate about the afterlife, because I’m not dead. I just don’t know. That is why I prefer to focus on the here and now.
I shall throw in a quote from another theologian I like, Don Cupitt, who said: ‘In short, we need a religion for people who live their brief lives in one world only, this world; a religion that will enable us to find eternal value in the midst of pure transience; a religion that will help us to say a great Yes to our life as we are living it out. Not a religion of deferred salvation and post-dated cheques, but a religion that delivers something that deserves to be called ‘eternal happiness’ and delivers it now.’
I admit this is something that causes me a lot of angst when I consider my future within the church. Does the church want someone who can tell them all about the afterlife with absolute certainty, or do they want someone who has the honesty to admit they just don’t know?
In conclusion, I am not offering an exact systematic theology. I’m simply offering some personal insight that may or may not be correct. I find that preferable to believing that millions of people are going to burn in hell for eternity.
I’ll finish with another quote from Richard Holloway who sums up my views on salvation, and theology in general: “you find yourself in a state of permanent, but relaxed and expectant uncertainty. You don’t make absolute claims for your present position, but you allow it to work for you as long as you can, until the next set of revisionary insights replaces it. Pragmatic faith is happy to live in this unsettled state, because it is not in search of any absolute and irrefutable version of the truth; its sole ambition is to assist people to live more humanely.”
Correction: It was Steve Chalke who said penal substitution was ‘cosmic child abuse’, not NT Wright