When I first became a Christian, I was taught a certain view of salvation. Confess to God that you are a sinner. Acknowledge that as a sinner, you are bound for eternity in hell. Recognize that belief in Jesus as your savior is the only way to go to heaven instead of hell. Pray the sinner’s prayer confessing that you trust in Jesus. And be saved—once and for all.
But I wonder: Is it God we are saved from or God we are saved by? If not God, what are we saved from? And, what are we saved for?
Being saved from God?
The theology I was first taught as a Christian implicitly told me that it was God from whom I needed to be saved. God is furious at each of us because of our sin. So we are doomed—and we fully deserve our doom. Our only way out is through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. God visits upon Jesus the violence we deserve because God must punish sin. Jesus is our substitute who saves us by paying the price required to satisfy God’s righteous anger.
Ultimately, this picture of an angry God simply did not jive with my own experience. I am sure, like most of us, my deep down experience of God has been closely related to my experience of my parents. With my parents, there was never any doubt about their love. I think of an image. My wife Kathleen and I reach out toward our grandson, baby Elias, and he reaches back, meeting our reach with his. I likewise, see my father moving toward baby Teddy, hands outstretched. Would I flinch, fearing his anger? Or would I move toward him, expecting his embrace? It would always be the embrace.
So it has been with God. At the times of my greatest vulnerability, of coming face to face with my failure or loss, there was no question that God was present with me, the source of comfort not condemnation. So how could it be believable to me theologically that God’s disposition toward me was one of anger, that God would be the one I needed to be saved from?
I also came to see that the Bible does not actually support that angry view of God. Certainly the God of the Bible gets ticked off with human beings—sometimes deeply ticked off. However, I believe it is a mistake to see these instances as definitive of God. Let me mention two representative passages, one from the Old Testament, one from the New, that make it clear that God is savior. God is not the one to be saved from, but the one who saves.
First, Hosea 11. This passage has interest for us partly because God here seems to acknowledge the temptation to act in such a way as to evoke terror in God’s people. But ultimately this kind of punitive response is a human response, not the response of a holy God. The Holy One in Israel’s midst is free. God may choose simply to forgive and to heal. Because of holiness, Yahweh “will not come in wrath.”
Jesus taught equally poignantly about God’s initiative in salvation. In Luke 15:1-7, he defends his welcome of sinners with a parable of the shepherd’s joy at finding a lost sheep. He goes on in this same encounter to tell two more parables illuminating God’s initiative and unilateral mercy. He tells of a woman who searches thoroughly for a lost coin and rejoices when she finds it (15:8-10). Then, he tells a longer story, the powerful account we call “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” (15:11-32), a parable many justifiably have called “the gospel in miniature.”
This is the crucial point in both the Hosea and Luke passages: God does not need sacrifice. There are no complicated cosmic transactions necessary. In fact, as Hosea tells us, because God is holy, God simply forgives. Because God is holy, God seeks healing, not punishment.
Hosea 11 tells the Bible’s salvation story. The Egyptian empire enslaves the children of Israel. The Israelites cry out in their pain. God hears, and acts to liberate them from their oppression. At its heart, this is simple mercy. God does not need to be appeased, or manipulated by sacrifices, or convinced by good deeds, in order to bring salvation. God simply does it because that is the kind of God that God is.
God seeks out broken, damaged people to heal. That’s the core reality of God’s character. So we get to Luke 15, and we hear Jesus telling us several stories to illustrate what God is like. Jesus, God’s very son, “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). In doing so he sets to grumbling those who speak of God’s righteous anger, those who want a God who cares only for those “worthy” of God’s care. Jesus doesn’t back down a bit. This is what God is like: the shepherd who, after desperate searching, celebrates the finding of his lost sheep. God is also like the woman who rejoices over finding her one lost coin (15:10).
And, most powerfully, God is like the father who welcomes back his wayward son with a big party. The son, first, actively hurts his father, taking his inheritance and deserting the family. But then he hits bottom, and has no place left to turn. He “comes to himself” (the key moment) and heads home. On the way, he plans his speech—“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (15:18).
Now we come to the truly powerful part: the father does not need this speech. While the son “was still far off [before he could say a word], his father saw him and, filled with compassion; ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Only then does the son give the speech—and the father brushes it off. “Quick bring out a robe,” let’s celebrate, “this son of mine [that’s right, this son of mine] was dead and is alive again.”
I think the son’s speech was important for his own healing; it showed that he truly had come to himself. But it seems not to have mattered one whit to the father. This is what God is like (just as Hosea had said, just as was seen in the exodus): God saves because God wants wholeness. God saves because God wants damage to be healed. God saves because God wants all the families of the earth to be blessed.
So I have an answer to my first question. Are we saved from God or by God? The prophets and Jesus make it clear: God saves; we don’t need to be saved from God.
Salvation from our damage
So, what then do we need to be saved from? In a word, our damage. We are damaged. Human beings, when we fail to trust in God, trust in idols. Doing so diminishes our humanness and damages us.
From the beginning of Genesis, we learn that a consequence of the damage that human beings suffer is violence. Cain murders Abel, the first outworking of damaged social life. The ancient Israelites in Egypt needed to be saved from the damaging violence of the empire. If we add a thought from Luke 15, we could also say we need to be saved from the damage caused by views of God that portray God as unmerciful and retributive.
Violence tends to follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this “logic” rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution; using violence is justified as the appropriate response to violence. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires punitive retribution (defined as repayment of violence with violence, or pain with pain).
The legitimacy of retribution seems to be almost a cultural universal in Western culture—as it has been in many other cultures. Where does this commitment to retribution come from? In the West, the affirmation of retribution links directly with mainstream Christian theology. We find deeply ingrained in our religious consciousness the belief that retribution is God’s will.
That the nature of the universe requires retribution is a part of what most Western Christians believe, especially those in the United States. A theological framework we could call “the logic of retribution” underlies many rationales for the use of violence. The logic of retribution understands God most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness, seeing God’s law as the unchanging standard by which to measure wrongdoing.
This framework understands human beings to be inherently sinful. God responds to sin with punishment. Jesus necessarily died on the cross as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings to escape deserved punishment. We Americans justify violence as in some sense being an expression of this deserved punishment (“punishment” defined as inflicting pain in response to wrong-doing). The logic of retribution requires violence in response to violence.
According to the logic of retribution, then, inflexible holiness (in effect) governs God’s behavior. Because of the fundamental nature of this holiness, God may not freely act with unconditional mercy and compassion toward rebellious human beings. Simply to forgive would violate God’s holiness. Compassion without satisfaction is not possible for God.
The doctrine of the atonement enters here. Due to the extremity of the offenses of human beings versus God’s law, God can relate to us only if there is death on the human side to restore the balance. This can happen only through the enormity of the death of God’s own son, Jesus, whose own holiness is so powerful that it can balance out the unholiness of all of humanity.
Human beings, when they confess their own helpless sinfulness, may claim Jesus as their savior from God’s righteous anger. Jesus satisfies God’s retributive justice (pain for pain) on our behalf. Within the logic of retribution, salvation (defined as the restoration of harmony with God) as achieved as the result of violence, is consistent with the basic nature of the universe as founded on impersonal holiness. Salvation happens only because the ultimate act of violence—the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ—satisfies God’s holiness. In this view, God is no pacifist. In fact, it is part of God’s plan that God’s own Son be violently put to death.
In light of this understanding of the nature of God and of the fundamental nature of the universe, the logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence.” Violence may be the best response to violence.
A God who heals our damage
In contrast to the assumptions of the logic of retribution, the Bible from the start presents us with a God who shows us (and tells us) that life lived in trust in God heals the damage that has so diminished our humanity.
The core of the basic story line of the Old Testament may be seen as three moments of salvation: the calling of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12), the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1–15), and the proclamation of mercy to the Hebrew exiles (Isaiah 40–55). Salvation in each of these three key moments is given clearly to unworthy recipients. Abraham and Sarah are portrayed as having no particular virtues; they are simply “wanderers.” The Hebrews in Egypt were lowly, demoralized slaves who showed no evidence of worshiping the God of their ancestors. And, the exiles of Isaiah 40–55 had lost all their pillars of identity as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to Torah.
The explicitness of the unworthiness of those being saved by God makes clear that they had done nothing to earn God’s intervention. The logic of retribution tells us that God must act to destroy the unclean and unworthy, not to save them unless somehow the “balance of the scales of justice” might be restored through punitive acts. The biblical story tells us something quite different.
God the savior acts in these moments purely out of God’s own good will. In each case the action is clearly mostly God’s, due to God’s free choice simply to intervene. The recipients did nothing to “purchase” God’s favor, nothing to obligate a legalistic God to act. God required no human acts to balance the scales of justice.
For salvation to enter the Hebrews’ world, nothing is needed that would change God’s disposition. The Hebrews are not called to find ways to appease God’s anger, satisfy the demands of God’s balance-the-scales justice, or find ways to avoid impurities that violate God’s absolute holiness. Instead, God calls for human beings who receive God’s mercy to act mercifully toward others. God calls them to follow Torah regulations that provide guidance for such merciful actions. In doing so, they form Israel into a merciful society (see Exodus 20, the first account of the Ten Commandments, where the first word is God’s gift of salvation and the second word is the appropriate human response).
Contrary to many Christian soteriologies, for Jesus the salvation story of the Old Testament remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truthfulness of the old story.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures. Matthew presents Jesus making this point explicitly: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
Jesus’ God is not a God who demands repayment of every ounce of indebtedness. Rather, God is a God of abundant mercy. Jesus taught that debts would be released without any kind of payment (Luke 4:19). The nature of the salvation Jesus proclaims turns the debt motif on its head. His Jubilee theology does not accept the logic of retribution that portrays human beings having an overwhelming debt to God. That logic sees this debt leading God to demand perfect obedience or a violent sacrifice as a necessary basis for paying the debt and thereby earning God’s favor. Instead, Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming a word of pure acceptance—the poor, the captives, the oppressed are given a simple word of unilateral acceptance by God. God simply forgives the debts.
Jesus’ gospel message does lead directly to his death. This death, though, is not the necessary means to affect the salvation Jesus the Savior brings the world. Rather, the death stems from the response of the Powers to the salvation already given by God. Jesus’ straight out mercy reveals to the world God’s saving will with unprecedented clarity.
Jesus’ death adds nothing to the means of salvation—God’s mercy saves, from the calling of Abraham on. Rather, Jesus’ death reveals the depth of the rebellion of the Powers, especially the political and religious human institutions that line up to execute Jesus. Even more so, Jesus’ death reveals the power of God’s love. Jesus’ death does indeed profoundly heighten our understanding of salvation. It reveals that the logic of retribution is an instrument of evil and that God’s love prevails even over the most extreme expression of (demonic) retribution.
We learn more about salvation from Jesus’ own teaching. The Gospel of Luke includes a powerful story where Jesus is asked directly about eternal life. An “expert in the law” (Luke 10:25 NIV) asks Jesus about inheriting eternal life. This question follows after Jesus blesses seventy of his followers who returned to him after sharing his message. The “expert” asks, in effect, what about those of us who are not privileged to be part of this group, how do we enter into God’s blessing of salvation?
Jesus asks the lawyer to say what he thinks. The lawyer answers with his summary of the Tradition, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”). When Jesus affirms this response—“you have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (10:28)—we see one more explicit statement of Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament understanding of salvation. The lawyer’s answer reflects accurately the biblical teaching on salvation, and Jesus gives this teaching his full affirmation.
Granting that the way to salvation includes loving both God and neighbor, an inseparable combination, the lawyer asks for clarity concerning who the neighbor is. Jesus’ powerful story underscores that “neighbor” is an all-encompassing category. “Neighbor” includes even one’s national enemies—the “Samaritan” being a neighbor to the Jew even while representing Jews’ long-time enemies.
In portraying neighborliness in this way, Jesus characterizes eternal life in terms of mercy toward the one in need. Jesus unites his own way of life as God’s Messiah (seen in his healing ministry) with the way of life characteristic of those who gain salvation. As the Hebrews learned with God’s two central gifts (liberation from slavery in Egypt and Torah to guide their lives of grateful response to that liberation), so Jesus’ listeners now hear reiterated: love of God directly results in love of neighbor.
Jesus follows the prophets and Torah: God initiates salvation, first, last, and always. God does this out of love and with the intent—reflecting God’s total commitment to human beings – to bring healing to the alienated human race. Nothing needs to happen to change God’s disposition toward human beings or to enable God to overcome limitations imposed on God’s mercy by “holiness.” God does not need some sort of sacrificial violence in order to satisfy God’s honor or appease God’s wrath so that God might provide salvation for alienated human beings.
Jesus’ saving message was simple. Turn to God and trust in the good news of God’s love. That is all there is to it. To make this message perfectly clear, Jesus expressed the good news of God’s love in concrete ways. Jesus healed physical damage. Jesus overpowered demonic oppression. Jesus reached out especially to the vulnerable ones, the ones labeled “sinners” and outcastes who were excluded and oppressed due to the sin of the powers-that-be in Israel. There is no hint of salvation according to the logic of retribution in Jesus.
Trusting in God as peaceable frees us from the damage of trusting in “the myth of redemptive violence”—the belief that violence solves problems—and damaging our souls by acting violently toward others. Trust in the ultimacy of this peaceable God frees us from the damage of trusting in things as ultimate, such as possessions, or nation-states, or religious structures, or social status that when idolized deprive us of our humanity.
Trust in God as merciful frees us from the damage of fearfulness. It is telling in Genesis three, that after Adam and Eve eat the fruit, God still reaches out to them, walking as always in the garden to be with them. But Adam and Eve hide from God; the alienation comes from their fear, not from God’s anger.
What are we saved for?
What are we saved for? As the prodigal son’s father insisted, we are saved for celebrating. When damage is healed, and it will be when we turn to our merciful God, God is like the shepherd finding the lost sheep and the woman finding the lost coin – and God invites us to join this joyful celebration (Luke 15).
Because of God’s transforming mercy, we may devote ourselves to being agents of that mercy, blessing all the families of the earth. We may live a life of creative and healing nonconformity to the ways of empire, creative and healing nonconformity to the dehumanizing ways of the Powers, creative and healing nonconformity to the violence caused by our projecting anger and retribution onto God.