The Post-Enlightenment View of Salvation

Our understanding of salvation has been dramatically affected by the Enlightenment Compromise. Salvation is reduced to its private religious context. When Paul writes that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, this narrow view supposes that Paul is only taking about something personal and religious. Salvation, here, is generally understood in two ways. Most directly, salvation is commonly understood as a personal rescue from eternal damnation. In this view, my participation in this salvation will occur after I die. Salvation can also be viewed as something spiritual I experience now once I realize what Christ has done for me in the past and what I will be saved from in the future. While this view does acknowledge the work of Christ on the cross in the past and a spiritual experience I have now, the focus of the action is in the future. I will be saved from Hell and go to Heaven in the future after I die.  While this narrow view of salvation is included in Paul’s words, we believe his view of salvation was a much bigger, more powerful idea than this personal view.

The Problem with the Post-Enlightenment View of Salvation

The basic problem with our Post-Enlightenment view of salvation is that it is completely anachronistic. We cannot impose our 21st Century framework back on to Paul living in the First Century. Paul was a Jewish thinker living in a Hellenistic culture ruled by imperial Rome. The separation of Religion from politics was unimaginable to him. An individualistic view of salvation would be completely foreign. If the main focus of Paul was how do we get to heaven then he would have repeatedly addressed this issue directly in a single passage. He never does this. Instead we have to pick and choose passages (think “Roman road”) to make text say what we think it should say. This should be a very troubling fact for those clinging to the narrow view of salvation once this is recognized. A good writer would repeatedly stress his main point, clearly, directly and simply. By forcing our anachronistic view on Paul we have made him into a very poor writer who cannot convey his message in a simple passage. I assume that anyone who is inspired by the Holy Spirit is a fairly good writer.

Salvation and Exodus

Paul was a Jewish thinker living in a Hellenistic culture ruled by imperial Rome. A safe starting point would be to assume that his view of salvation is primarily Jewish but shaped and colored by both his Hellenistic Roman surrounding but also by his audience who did not always share his background. On top of this, all his traditional understandings are being transformed by the revelation of the person of Jesus. Lets begin with examining a Jewish idea of salvation.

Salvation is a central theme in Jewish thought. The foundational story of the Jewish people is the Exodus. This is the story of how Yahweh brought his people together and made them his people. The central way Yahweh binds his people to himself is by rescuing them from the most powerful empire of its time: Egypt. Exodus is thus the primary lens through which the Jews understood salvation. Note how different this view of salvation would be from our Post-Enlightenment view. The Exodus is a story of a people not an individual. The salvation from oppressive slavery and the promise of a land of their own is not primarily a “spiritual” salvation but a very physical salvation. Finally, there is not one hint of the afterlife. Salvation is finally won here and now after a long period of oppression.

Salvation and Resurrection

The Exodus lays the groundwork for the later Second Temple Jewish view of salvation. Unlike the earlier Jews who experienced the salvation of Exodus, the Second Temple Jews were still waiting for their salvation. Israel had been sent into exile with the capture of Jerusalem and destruction of Solomon’s Temple. Many Jews had returned to their homeland and a second temple had been built but the long promised salvation had not been accomplished. They may be in their land and they may have a temple but the long promised King of David’s line was not on the throne and the glory of Yahweh had not returned to the temple. Exodus had set the pattern that salvation was to be a physical this worldly salvation but for the Second Temple Jews their salvation lay in the future.

It is in this context that salvation gets tied up with Resurrection. Resurrection brings together the physical this worldly aspect of salvation with the future salvation that will be experienced long after we die. The Jewish faith (and the Christian faith likewise) had always emphasized this world rather than the afterlife. This is summed up in its praise of Life with the enemy always seen as Death. It has been the platonic and gnostic traditions that had emphasized the afterlife and had seen death as a release from suffering in this world. Resurrection is the return to life in-spite of death. Death is not natural or ultimate. Death does not have the last word. Yahweh does. He will raise all people on the last day and judge all people. The Jewish people trusted that they would be among those vindicated by God and thus saved. Here, salvation brings together the this-worldly aspect of salvation with a future salvation after we die through the belief in resurrection.

 Christian Salvation in Jewish Context

 The Jewish world at the time of Jesus was extremely fragmented. Even with the limited sources that we have today we can still name at least four factions: The Essenes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. All these factions looked for some type of “Exodus event” to save them from their present predicament. Yet, there was little agreement over when this happen, how this would come about, or who who be the principle actors to bring this about. Into this confused expectant people, Jesus comes to his people. The Gospel writers describe Jesus’ ministry as an “Exodus-like event” bringing salvation not only to his people but to the whole world. While this is not the place to describe the expectations of all the Jewish factions, we should note that of all these factions, the salvation that Jesus offers is closest to the faction of the Pharisees. This is surprising since throughout all the accounts of Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees are made out to be the principle opponents of Jesus! Yet again, God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus reserves his most bitter criticism not for those whose views are furthest from his but for those who are closest. Thus, the point of Jesus’ criticism is not condemnation but a call of repentance to those who are close to the Kingdom of God.

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