Krishna is a practising Hindu whose “knowledge of the Bible/Gospels is basic at best,” but he asks a perceptive question—the sort of question that Christians don’t usually bother to ask, assuming that one size fits all—about the relevance of the death of Jesus for Gentiles:
Gentiles were not under any such Law, albeit they are troubled by their conscience for any wrongdoings. So even if they feel they deserve punishment, it would be either in a general sense of being troubled and wanting to be “in the right” again, or else in a specific sense of being put right with their God, whoever they believed in. Where is the question of someone having to die for their sins when no such thing is required or demanded explicitly by their conscience or their God? And if Jesus did die for the Jews’ sins, how can Gentiles benefit from that at all? How would the idea of “salvation” and “eternal life” apply to them? The entire array of benefits from belief in Jesus also seem to be rooted in the Jewish religion, hence it really confuses me.
I was just going to refer him to a list of previous posts dealing with the topic (see below), but then I thought a bit of a summary might be helpful. I should warn Krishna that this is not how the “church” views the matter for the most part, but it is consistent, I think, with a constructive and “faithful” narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.
- In my view, we understand Paul (and the New Testament generally) much better if we think in terms of the salvation of a people, Israel, at a moment in time rather than of the salvation of individuals anywhere, anytime. The premise of the New Testament is that the people of the living creator God, whose story is told in the Old Testament, were heading for the catastrophe of war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, on account of their persistent disobedience or sinfulness. Israel as a priestly temple-centred people needed to be “saved” from this dreadful or “hellish” outcome.
- Jesus’ death was the means of this salvation within the framework of the Jewish Law or Torah and could therefore be described as an “atonement” or “propitiation” for the sins of Israel. That needs explaining, of course, but it makes pretty good sense in the first century Jewish context. The pronouncement made by the high priest Caiaphas in a Council session gets us close to the “political” logic of salvation: “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50).
- Individual Jews shared in the salvation of Israel, as the people of God, by believing in the controversial story about Jesus from Nazareth, who had been crucified by Rome. Their “faith” was that Jesus had been right in his severe criticism of the leadership of the Jews and his warnings of a coming “judgment,” that God had raised him from the dead, seated him at his right hand in heaven, and had put the future of his people in his hands as judge and ruler.
- Jews who believed this were filled with the Spirit of God, which empowered them both to bear witness to their risen Lord and to act rightly—in effect, to fulfil the Law, as though its requirements were now written on their hearts.
- To be saved, therefore, was to be part of what God was doing to ensure the survival, reformation, re-animation, and future relevance of his people in the world in the age to come. I would argue that something similar is happening in the church now, certainly in the western context: salvation is a matter of getting to grips with history and with the God of history.
- When Gentiles—initially those who were sympathetic to Judaism—heard about these developments and saw what was happening, some of them also believed and experienced the Spirit of God in the same way. The leaders of the Jewish Jesus movement then decided, after much deliberation (e.g., Acts 15:6-21), that these non-Jewish believers could legitimately be included in the community without becoming Torah-observant—notably, without males being circumcised.
- It is in this sense that Gentiles were “saved” by the death of Jesus. For Jews, participation in the age to come was guaranteed not by keeping the Law, which could only condemn them to the destruction of the war against Rome and obsolescence, but by believing or having faith in a new future under the lordship of a crucified messiah. That is how they were reconciled to the God of history. What this meant, however, was that the Law no longer functioned as a barrier between Jews and Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22), between circumcised and uncircumcised. So if Gentiles were also coming to believe this story and walk in the Spirit, if they were abandoning their pagan worship and practices in order to serve the living God, they too could hope to participate in the future life of the redeemed people of God.