What is salvation and how is it attained?
The Christian Church uses the metaphor of a judgmental Father who demands perfection before grace is meted out. The death of Christ is an atonement for the sins of the world or, as some would say, the sins of those who believe in him. How did the Church come to that understanding?
Well, it wasn’t always the commonly accepted understanding of salvation.
The early Church thought Jesus was the Messiah the Jews were looking for and the Messianic age would come soon. Well, it didn’t come soon. It didn’t come at all. The Jewish Jesus movement fell into disrepute. So what then did this death and resurrection mean?
A very early church father by the name of Origen, who lived around two hundred AD, postulated that the role of the resurrected Jesus was to lead the fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil who were led by Satan, and thereby save the world. His emphasis was on universal redemption as opposed to individual salvation. He was attempting to bring the principles of Greek philosophy, particularly Neo-Platonism and Stoicism, together with the Christian theology of the day. Origen’s metaphor served the Church for almost one thousand years until a fellow named Anselm came along in about eleven hundred AD.
Anselm was the Archbishop of Canterbury and he contrived a proof for the existence of God from man’s idea of a perfect being. Origen’s paradigm didn’t fit into that proof or model. A perfect God, a less than perfect man. How are they to be reconciled? Anselm lived in the middle ages when there were serfs and feudal lords. He borrowed a metaphor that would be understood in his time. Just as the serf could never pay the price of his freedom, sinful mankind could not measure up to a perfect God. Jesus by his death paid the price to set the sinner free and we have the metaphor of the atonement.
The Reformers adopted Anselm’s paradigm for themselves and it continues in many parts of the Church to this day. If the commonly accepted concept of the atonement we have today is necessary for salvation, what about all those folks who thought they were good Christians who lived before the time of Anselm? Was heaven closed to them because they didn’t understand the concept of the death of Christ as an atonement for their sins as we do now?
There certainly is good scriptural basis for Anselm’s paradigm. The passage in First Peter; Chapter Three, “…For Christ also died for our sins, once and for all. He, the just, suffered for the unjust, to bring us to God.” But the same Peter in a later chapter fuels Origen’s understanding as well when he writes, “…Awake! be on the alert! Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, prowls round looking for someone to devour.”
The image of the Devil as a roaring lion or as serving on the Supreme Court writing the opinion to keep prayer out of the public schools would serve the technique of some TV evangelists who attempt to scare the hell out of folks, literally.
This Devil has been used as a convenient whipping boy on which to heap the blame mankind ought to accept for themselves. Mankind is evil enough without the need of a superimposed evil persona. ‘The devil made me do it’ is a good comedy line. There certainly is the possibility of a fallen angel, but it’s unclear that he plays as important a role in mankind’s evil bent as we have given him credit.
On the other hand, Mark Twain is reputed to have said, ‘…we may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talents. A person who has for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race, and the political head of the whole of it, must be granted the possession of executive abilities of the loftiest order’.
It can be said there is good scriptural basis for believing that it is not the death of Christ that is the hinge point of Christianity. It’s the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The resurrection whereby God singularly blessed the life and ministry of this Jesus and gave his teachings force majeure and further made him unique in all of history to date. And what was the life and ministry, the teachings of Jesus? He proclaimed the grace of God and modeled out a life of love for and obedience to the Father and service to mankind.
But keep in mind, there is not, nor can there be, a completely accurate human metaphor or paradigm, all of which at their best are human constructions of what’s impossible to understand, let alone define. Origen, Anselm, the Reformers, we in the twenty-first century — all we can construct are stammering attempts to express the inexpressible.
Can you accept my stammering attempt and include me in the household of faith?