Salvation from what?

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Holy Week and Easter is the most important time in the whole Christian year because it is when we celebrate God's gift of salvation through the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The question is often asked:  Saved from what?

I have meditated on this question often over the years.  God's salvation has a multivalent meaning.  Nevertheless, I have come to believe that the primary meaning of God's salvation is salvation from death.

Most of the Church Fathers of the first 500 years of Christian tradition assumed that salvation is salvation from death.  For example, Athanasius is representative of patristic thought when he says in On the Incarnation that the Word "put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out."

When I was growing up in the church I do not think that I was taught that salvation is primarily salvation from death.  What I was taught is that salvation is primarily salvation from sin.  Indeed, the emphasis of the whole Western Christian tradition, which includes Catholicism, Protestantism and Wesleyanism, is that salvation is deliverance from slavery to the power of sin.  The whole Western Christian tradition has been dominated by the influence of one of the Church Fathers, Augustine, and his teaching contributed to the focus upon salvation as salvation from sin.  In the Eastern Christian tradition, the main teaching of the Church Fathers has been maintained more than it has in the West.

Consider what it means to understand salvation as salvation from death.  It means that in his passion and resurrection Christ died our death and was raised from the dead so that we might live.  This has personal, social, and cosmic significance.

Personally, salvation as salvation from death brings hope that the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is greater than the power of death and that God has a future for our pychosomatic self.  It also means that the power of God which raised Jesus Christ from the dead is able to energize us for newness of life now.

Socially, salvation as salvation from death promises that the kingdom of God announced by Jesus will indeed "come on earth, as it is in heaven."    If death has not been overcome by Christ, then there can be no hope for the coming of the kingdom of God.   As Edward Schillebeeckx said in one of his sermons in God Among Us, " In the end we are brutally confronted with our utter defencelessness against one final event:  the sheerly inescapable fact that we shall die and that death is an attack on all our dreams of universal reconciliation and universal peace:  death is the opposite of life for and with others."  Because Christ has been raised, we possess the conviction that God's kingdom will come, and we are motivated to work and pray for the coming of the kingdom in history.

Cosmically, salvation as salvation from death is the promise of  "a new heaven and a new earth."  As the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne wrote in The God of Hope and the End of the World, "God must surely care for all creatures in ways that accord with their natures.  Therefore, we must expect that there will be a destiny for the whole universe beyond its death, just as there will be a post mortem destiny for humankind. ...Two remarkable New Testament passages (Romans 8:18-25; Colossians 1:15-20) do indeed speak of a cosmic redemption.  Just as we see Jesus' resurrection as the origin and guarantee of human hope, so we can also see it as the orgin and guarantee of a universal hope.  The significance of the empty tomb is that the Lord's risen and glorified body is the transmuted form of his dead body.  Thus matter itself participates in the resurrection transformation, enjoying thereby the foretaste of its own redemption from decay.  The resurrection of Jesus is the seminal event from which the whole of God's new creation has already begun to grow."   Because the new creation is the raising of the present creation, then what happens to the world now matters, and we are called to care for the earth with what Pavel Florensky, a Russian scientist and priest who perished in a prison camp in the 1930's, called "the wound of pity for all things."

To understand salvation as salvation from death does not minimize the power of sin nor deny that we are freed from the power of sin by the passion and resurrection of Christ.  After all, in the final analysis, what is sin but seeking life in ourselves rather than in God?  It is because we seek life in ourselves that we become slaves to our passions, and turn history-making into a depressing narrative of wars and injustice, and exploit the earth for our own selfish benefit.  By liberating us from the power of death Christ also releases us from the power of sin because through his victory we are turned toward God again and seek our life in God.  In the Great Thanksgiving of the sacrament of Holy Communion , we give thanks to God for the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ because they were the means by which God has "delivered us from slavery to sin and death."  Salvation involves our rescue from the power of sin, but this rescue is possible only because Christ has delivered us from the power of death:  "If Christ has not been raised, faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (I Corinthians 15: 17).

 My understanding of salvation as salvation from death in all of its dimensions has come to me primarily through the influence of the teaching of the ancients, but I think it has relevance for the mission of the church today.  The traditional Western Christian emphasis upon salvation as salvation from sin presumes that people are burdened with a sense of guilt or shame, and they are seeking the release we find in the good news of God's forgiveness of our sins because of Christ's death for us.  I doubt that many modern people have a sense of guilt or shame.  I am not saying whether they should feel guilt; I am only saying that I do not think that they do feel much guilt.  Our awareness of the reality of our sin and our guilt are more likely to be felt after we have professed faith in Christ rather than before.  But modern people do have a passionate desire for life.  The Christian message that Christ saves us from death in all its dimensions and brings us life is the message that is likely to get a hearing in our secular society.

On Easter we celebrate the gift of God's salvation through Jesus Christ.  In the words of the Easter hymn sung in the Easter Christian churches, Christos Anesti, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs, granting life."


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