251. more thoughts on salvation
I’ve been watching those TED videos and continue to be impressed but something I saw a few days ago has stuck with me. I already linked to his presentation in the previous post, but at the end of Robert Wright’s talk, he talks about salvation.
He claims that the idea that salvation is about keeping people from going to hell and gaining them access to heaven instead is a modern interpretation of the word. And for the most part, I happen to agree with him. When Jesus came on the scene, Israel was looking for a specific kind of salvation – deliverance from Roman rule. The last time I blogged about this, I came to the conclusion that perhaps a better way to understand salvation is to see it as being delivered (saved) from slavery to sin.
But while I think that’s closer to a Biblical (as opposed to a cultural) understanding of salvation, I think it still misses the mark. Here’s why. When Jesus talks about what he’s came to do, he talks a lot more about large units of people rather than individuals. The first sermon he preached was all about the kingdom of God. And when he ascended back to heaven, he left us with the Great Commission which instructs us to make disciples of NATIONS.
I believe our modern, American understanding of salvation (not going to hell) comes more from cultural, societal sources than from the word of God. We live in a nation where the customer is king, where individualism is a virtue. I can’t remember where I heard it or who said it, but someone observed that we’ve gone from Life magazine to People to Us to Self magazine. Now we even have magazines with celebrities names as the moniker – Oprah and (the once cute, now irritating) Rachel Ray. And look at me, I’m a part of this whole blogging trend where we (I) go out and just publish my own ranting and raving.
What I’m getting at is the idea that we live in a culture that emphasizes the individual. Now I’m no anthropologist or historian, but I think it’s safe to say that prior to the Industrial Revolution, life throughout the world was far more communal (and life still works this way in much of the world), and by that I mean that people relied on one another to make things work. There was no such thing as one-stop-shopping.
In our me, me, me (and mini me) culture, it’s no wonder that salvation has become individualized as well.
Now let me clarify something before I go on. I don’t mean to say that there isn’t a personal component to salvation. Every individual must, at some point, make a conscious decision to follow Christ, but that’s merely the beginning, the entryway into a new way of living. But I’m trying to get at is the idea that this personal component of salvation is only a part of what salvation is about.
Which brings me back to Robert Wright’s talk at the TED conference. He makes the claim that the original meaning of “salvation” was about “saving the social system.” When the Israelites cried for salvation, they were usually asking for God to get them out from under the thumb of a foreign oppressor – the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans. They wanted God to save the nation of Israel.
With the advent (a useful pun) of the New Testament, the scope of salvation expands to a world-wide scale. Salvation (nations living harmoniously with their neighbors) is made available not just to the Jews but to all nations (Romans 1:16).
Now I don’t know if I fully buy into this larger understanding of salvation, but I gotta say that it’s very appealing. Read through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) with this in mind and you’ll find sparkling new insights. Read Matthew 22:39 as “love Canada and Mexico the way you love the US” or “Love Aisa, the Middle East, and Europe the way you love North and South America.”
And I know at first glance, the verses I cited seem like they refer to individuals but what if the larger, cultural aspect was assumed? Remember that in Jesus’ day, the Jews understood salvation to mean Israel being rescued from Roman oppression – the salvation of their nation. And Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. What if by this he meant that in addition to the old understanding of the law (national, Israeli laws), he was reminding us that there is a personal component as well.
Now it sounds like I’m going back on what I said earlier, but here’s what I’m trying to get at. The first century Jews understood the law to be that which God gave them to obey and through this obedience, God would prosper their nation as he promised to Abraham. This was knowledge ingrained into Jewish thought from birth. Jewish holidays and celebrations all point back to God’s covenant with Abraham. What I’m suggesting is, maybe we’ve been reading the New Testament without this common cultural assumption.
We’ve been focusing too much on the personal, individual side of salvation because that’s how the New Testament reads to us but what if it reads that way because the larger view I’m suggesting was assumed (too obvious to mention)? And again, there are allusions to this assumed view in places like the Great Commission: “make disciples of all nations.”
I don’t know, I’m no theologian. I could be way off the mark here, but I’m willing to put my ideas out there because, as for myself, I need an understanding of Christianity and salvation that’s bigger than the common Evangelical view (each one save one). Again, I don’t want to discard that view, I want to see if there’s more that we’ve been missing.