Emi sent me an email a while back, and because I have been slow to reply, she posted the whole thing as a comment. She notes that I argue in What must a person believe in order to be saved? i) that the mission of the church is not to save as many people as possible; and ii) that when ‘people today become part of God’s new creation people, they are “saved”… from the final judgment of death on human sin’. Isn’t that a bit perverse? If you accept that people who become part of the church are saved from the final judgment of death, why would we not go all out to save as many as possible? This is how she makes the point:
I don’t see how the falsity of the concept that our mission is to save people from hell means it is not our (ideal) mission to assimilate all cultures and peoples into God’s new creation, if still, non-Christians are at risk of the wrath of death come the final judgment.
In order to answer Emi’s astute question, I will try to set out in a more or less methodical fashion how I understand the biblical argument about salvation—my soteriology, in effect.
1. The existential premise for our understanding of salvation—part of the stage-setting in my version of the Five Act Play hermeneutic—is that people suffer and die. This basic “fact of life” is framed at one end by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, which leads to expulsion from the garden, physical hardship, and death (Gen. 2:17; 3:16-19; cf. Rom. 5:12), and at the other end by a final judgment on all humanity according to what they have done (Rev. 20:11-15).
2. There is, I would argue, no salvation story at this existential or creational level: the Bible does not tell us how God saves humanity or creation from the original sin that was introduced by Adam and Eve and propagated throughout the species. Sin and death remain an ineradicable part of this world until it is finally replaced by a completely new heaven and earth.
3. To understand “salvation” in scripture we have to put the historical existence of Israel as a community at the centre of the argument. It is not, in the first place, individuals who need to be saved, whether non-Jews or Jews, at any moment in human history. It is the people of Israel—as family, tribal confederacy, or nation—that needs to be saved, at particular moments in its history.
4. Israel needed to be saved from slavery in Egypt, from starvation in the wilderness, from the Philistines, from attack by Assyria, from exile in Babylon, and from Antiochus Epiphanes’ efforts to suppress Jewish religious practice, and so on.
5. This is not just an Old Testament story. It carries over into the New Testament: in fact, it creates the problem that the New Testament solves. Israel needed to be saved from annihilation by Rome. So, for example, John the Baptist asked the Pharisees and Sadducees who turned up for baptism, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7).
6. Gentile nations and kings may be saved from judgment by the one true living creator God, in the course of history, by repenting of their idolatry and unrighteousness and by acknowledging his glory and power (cf. Jon. 3:10; Is. 45:22-25; Dan. 4:34-35).
7. The salvation of ordinary individuals from whatever threatens their well-being and existence—illness, enemies, natural or man-made disasters—is of secondary concern in scripture. Only occasionally does the Bible speak of the physical salvation of non-Jews in this respect (e.g., Rahab).
8. Sometimes the salvation of out-of-the-ordinary individuals plays a critical role in Israel’s story: the salvation of Isaac from being sacrificed, the salvation of Joseph from the pit, the salvation of Moses from the Nile, the salvation of David from his enemies on numerous occasions.
9. Sometimes the salvation of a faithful part of Israel, such as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 or the community represented by the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7, plays a critical role in Israel’s story.
10. This narrowing of salvation to a representative individual or community becomes of great importance in the New Testament. The salvation of Israel from final and complete destruction is entailed in the “salvation” of Jesus from death at the hand of his enemies. Jesus suffers and dies on behalf of, or for the sake of, the many—that is, the “many” of Israel, not of humanity (cf. Mk. 10:45).
11. But the salvation of Israel is also entailed in the salvation of the faithful community of Jesus’ followers from their persecutors. The churches, by being “in Christ”, by sharing in his suffering and vindication, are the historical means by which i) the people of God attains a new future and ii) Jesus gains the sovereignty over the nations that formerly belonged to Caesar.
12. In the New Testament Gentiles will be “saved” from the wrath that is coming on the Greek-Roman world by virtue of their belief that God raised his Son from the dead and gave him authority and power to judge and rule over the nations (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). They will find themselves publicly justified by this faith.
13. A person today who believes the story about Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father, who receives the Holy Spirit, becomes part of that redeemed people. The qualification for membership is the same as in the New Testament: faith lived out in communal-missional life, not any community-defining works.
14. We may say that a person is “saved” today if we think of him or her as having been delivered from a society or culture or way-of-life that faces divine judgment—destruction, obsolescence. That preserves the eschatological perspective of the New Testament: people are saved from a “wrath” to come.
15. Otherwise, I suggest that the emphasis should not be on salvation but on election: we become active members of God’s chosen people. We can only do so because Jesus’ death i) atoned for the sins of Israel and ii) removed the dividing wall of the Law. We repent and are forgiven by the grace of God for our previous lives of God-denial. We leave behind our old ways of being and learn to live as part of God’s new creation, empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit. We may choose to call all of this “salvation” in a general, personal sense, out of respect for evangelical tradition. But the main point is that we thereby become part of a community chosen to serve the interests of the one true living creator God.
16. Does this mean that we have been saved from death? My view is that in the New Testament it is the martyr church that is raised as Christ was raised, to reign in heaven with him throughout the coming ages. A new creation people must surely experience something of the new heaven and new earth that is described in Revelation 21:1-8, but as far as I can tell, Christians should not expect to go to heaven when they die. We should expect to be dead for a while, and to be raised from the dead at the final judgment. If my name is found written in the book of life, I will not be consigned to “the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14-15).
So here is my answer to Emi’s question. Sure, we should enthusiastically recommend “salvation” in the sense considered here to all people. But some qualifications or caveats need to be added:
1. This “salvation” does not get us to heaven. It gets us into the people of God. Faith in Jesus makes us members of the has-been-saved covenant community.
2. This salvation also carries with it the assurance that we have become members of a people that will survive all future crises and setbacks—a community which will have an eternal viability and relevance, which I think is a matter of considerable importance for the church today.
3. This is salvation for a purpose: we are saved in order to serve the interests of the one true living God as a priestly-prophetic people. In other words, this is salvation with strings attached.
4. It is a natural corollary of the previous point that we will face a final judgment according to what we have done. God’s servants will be held accountable. That needs to be reckoned with before we get too excited about life after death.