Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

Traditional claims for Jesus of Nazareth tend to be large, to say the least. Perhaps largest of all is that those who don't accept Jesus as "saviour" will be punished by God, both here and in the afterlife. This doctrine has seldom been questioned until recently. But today its grip on the human imagination is weakening. It may well be a notion in terminal decline.

The metaphor of salvation is probably the best known of all the Christian teachings about Jesus. At one level it appears quite simple. We all need saving from the bad or evil things in life and it is Jesus who does this for us.  

And that's all we really need to know, as preachers constantly state in one way or another. Their slogans are variations of, "Jesus saves" or "Jesus is your saviour".

At another level, the doctrine of salvation produces considerable problems. First, looking back in history it is clearly an idea which has undergone many changes. Second, when it is thought through, it turns out to be difficult to sustain except as a more or less useful metaphor. 

The study of salvation is generally known as soteriology (from the Greek soter, to save). Historically, the doctrine of salvation has taken on multiple meanings and nuances over time. I can deal here with only a few and even then mostly in terms of a Western outlook.

[1] The authentic letters of Paul are our earliest source of Christian teaching. It's clear from these that he regarded salvation as something which would come in the future (Romans 13.11). In his letter to the church at  Philippi (in the Roman province of Macedonia in northern Greece) he speaks of Jesus as saviour: " ... we eagerly wait for our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, to come from heaven" (Philippians 3.20). It has proved difficult to maintain this view of salvation in recent times. Even the early Church was forced to adapt its expectations when it became clear that Jesus was not about to return to earth and take things over.

[2] As the gospels and some of the later New Testament letters witness, this futuristic idea of salvation changed rapidly. The gospels contain references to both the future and the past salvation. The author of Mark takes gives it a future context in 10.23-26. There, Jesus asserts that it's hard for a rich person to live a godly life. The author then has disciples ask, "Who then will be saved?" But overall the gospels, written as they were towards the close of the first century, refer to the death and resurrection of Jesus as a definitive salvation event in the past. The same time-frame is to be found  in the later non-Pauline letters (such as Ephesians, 2 Peter and Jude).

From the second century onwards, salvation as a past event became more entrenched as a central Christian teaching. Perhaps in line with Paul's emphasis on the crucifixion, salvation was increasingly focused on the cross. Alister McGrath thinks that the death of Jesus has been interpreted in four general (but not mutually exclusive) ways [1].

  1. It has been seen as salvation by sacrifice. This draws on ancient ideas of placating God by giving up life - both human and animal. In parts of Africa, animals are still slaughtered in a sacrificial manner. There the image of sacrifice still resonates. But for the average person today, it has become more abstract.

    Augustine of Hippo (354-430) pushed the idea of sacrifice as a substitution. Jesus offered himself "... to the Father in our place, to redeem us through his offering and sacrifice". This teaching was taken up and developed until, in the 16th century, it was central to the Church's teaching. Protestant reformers saw the substitution as relating to sin. John Pearson in 1659 wrote that the sacrifice of Jesus "... consisteth in the freeing of the sinner from a state of sin and eternal death ..." [2]. Sacrifice remains an important metaphor in the Roman Catholic Church to this day, usually in relation to the Eucharist, which is thought to somehow re-enact the sacrifice of Jesus.

    This idea of sacrifice as an event which has, through some unknown mechanism, objectively changed history has for a long time been increasingly difficult to argue for.

  2. Salvation as victory covers a cluster of similar themes derived from the early Church - victory over sin and evil, over death and over Satan. The Christus Victor theme has often been given distinctly military overtones. Modern approaches have sometimes sought to equate salvation with victory over human failings. As such, salvation brings new possibilities for personal maturity and authenticity.

    Jesus may in some sense have been victorious despite defeat on the cross. But thinking people today don't easily accept that his life can usefully be defined in terms of warfare with, and victory over, unseen spiritual or demonic powers.

  3. Still alive and well is the doctrine that Jesus' sacrifice brings salvation through forgiveness of sin. Anselm (1033-1109) popularised the idea. It depends entirely on accepting that humanity was created perfect and subsequently degenerated into a state of sinfulness by breaking God's rues of life or laws. Only God can put this situation right, said Anselm. This was achieved through the death of the God/Man Jesus. It was a sort of  "satisfaction" for humanity's sinfulness by a divine person who, as a man himself, represented humanity to the Father.

    Deep at the roots of this rendering of salvation is the modern difficulty with the idea that Jesus was not entirely human.

  4. Finally, it is possible to regard salvation as illumination. That is, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus combine as a unique example to humans. Augustine thought Jesus was the "demonstration of the love of God" for humanity. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) developed this further. He thought that the purpose of Jesus was to "... teach us by word and example ..." to live righteously. Jesus as an example of loving sacrifice became an important theme in theology. Jesus was increasingly perceived as a heroic martyr, worthy of imitation.

    Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772-1829) took this further by proposing that because Jesus had an extraordinarily intimate relationship with God, he was able to communicate with those around him with great clarity and power. This accounts for the degree to which people are captivated by his life and words. 

    This way of regarding salvation is still usable today. 
    It has given birth to a number of modern approaches to Jesus and salvation. One such is the proposal that the Jesus is an example of true human authenticity. We should strive for the same authenticity in our lives. Those who perceive Jesus as a liberator, for instance, use his life to urge the political and economic liberation of oppressed peoples.

There is no reason why salvation should not survive as long as it is useful and meaningful. And there is no reason not to honour and respect doctrines from the past, even though there is nothing intrinsically authoritative about them.

A large group of Christians throughout history have held that everyone is saved by God from the effects of sin regardless of their behaviour and irrespective of whether they have responded positively to Jesus of Nazareth. Universalism, as this standpoint is known, was first given convincing form by Origen (185-254), a theologian from Alexandria in Egypt.

He rejected the idea that reality comprises the dual forces of good and evil, constantly and eternally at war with each other. He thought that God would finally destroy all evil and restore creation to its original perfect state. If this is true, then there is little point in making much of salvation as traditionally taught, since it is only part of a total process.

The problem with the universalist approach is that it is possible that at least one person will always resist God's saving love. In that case salvation proves incomplete and the world remains divided into the saved and the damned.

It turns out, then, that salvation is a notion without force unless some are saved and some are damned. Tolerant, inclusive societies make heavy weather of a loving God who saves some and damns others. Is an unforgiving, judgmental God worthy of respect? This God must above all be feared. There is no room for true human autonomy, since that might result in eternal damnation. Nobody wants to be roasted in hell for ever (to use an ancient metaphor).

The traditional teaching that Jesus saved the world is inextricably linked to the idea of sacrifice. When one puts aside all the theological verbiage about sacrifice, three main problems emerge:

  • It has to be asked how the sacrifice of either an animal or human can objectively make any difference to our world. Isn't the concept relevant only if we think that something we do somehow changes God's mind? If that's not what sacrifice achieves, then why bother with it?

    The truth is that many people, perhaps a majority, no longer think of the world in this way. We now understand that cause and effect operate in a totally different fashion. Even prayer, a supposed essential component of the Christian way of life, isn't perceived as an activity which can in any way change God.

    The death of Jesus viewed as a sacrifice might make a difference to the way you or I view life. But that is a subjective, not an objective difference. In contrast, an anti-malaria vaccine would result in an objective change to our world.

  • All sacrifice involves the idea of substitution. An animal is killed in place of the human sinner. According to traditional teaching, Jesus dies in our place. He takes on himself the punishment which should be ours.

    In previous eras the common understanding of the world was what we today call magical. That is, actions in the natural world were able to impact the supernatural world. Many millions still think that way.

    But for those that don't, the idea of salvation of the many through the substitution of the one doesn't make much sense. Not only doesn't it reflect their understanding of the way the world works, but it also negatively impacts their idea of God.

    How can it be, they ask, that a loving, caring, just God can demand that any person suffer and die merely so that God's anger or outrage at human sin can be appeased? That sort of God doesn't appear attractive to many.

    Some think that this image of God is an important element in the decline of Christianity in the West. Bishop John Spong thinks that this is in part because the doctrine has "... achieved the status of a sacred mantra" [3]. He continues: "I would choose to loathe rather than to worship a deity who required the sacrifice of his son ... we must free Jesus from his rescuer role ..."

  • Where does the iconic status of the salvation of humanity through sacrifice come from? It is reasonable to assume that Jesus would himself have been acutely aware of the cosmic importance of his impending death. After all, how just would it have been for God to have imposed this role upon him without his consent?

    If that is true, then we might expect to find multiple references by Jesus in the gospels to his universe-shaking sacrifice for our salvation, a sacrifice freely taken up and lovingly made.

    At first sight, such references do exist in the gospels. Paul certainly gave this interpretation to the death of Jesus (Romans 5.6-10). But references in the gospels to Jesus as saviour are few and far between. More importantly, none of the sayings of Jesus which survive examination for good history mention salvation through sacrifice.

    It is plain that the overwhelming weight of evidence points to the notion of salvation through sacrifice as an interpretation which Christians made after the death of Jesus. It is this interpretation which has been developed over nearly two millennia. Like all human creations, it is not intrinsically eternal.

None of the above is to say that salvation through human sacrifice is an invalid way of construing the life and death of Jesus. But it does raise significant difficulties. And it does imply that other metaphors used to help understand Jesus are not only potentially valid, but are also increasingly needed in today's world.
[1] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
[2] Exposition of the Creed, quoted by McGraw
[3] Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999

[Home] [Back]