What Does Salvation Mean?

Scripture Readings: Acts 7:55-60, John 14:1-14

"Given the existence in the works of Puncher and Wattman of a personal God qua qua qua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine Athambia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda who for reasons unknown but time will tell is plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames and who can doubt that it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven . . . but not so fast for reasons unknown but time will tell . . . "

This is how I remember the beginning of the speech delivered by Lucky, a character in Samuel Becket’s play "Waiting for Godot." Almost forty years ago I played Lucky in a campus production. His single speech goes on for about five minutes, making little sense yet filled with sensing and longing. The characters in the play are waiting for Godot to come, waiting for God, waiting for salvation. "Given the existence of a personal God, who loves us dearly, with some exceptions, for reasons unknown, but time will tell . . . "

What does time tell us about the biblical hope for salvation?

The biblical story of Israel was given its present form while leaders of Judah, exiled in 587 BCE after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, were longing for God to deliver them. Salvation for them meant returning to Jerusalem and restoring the temple, renewing their life in "the promised land," and re-establishing their special place among the nations as God’s chosen people.

After the Persians conquered the Babylonians in 539 BCE, those exiled were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah 45:1 refers to Cyrus, the Persian king who freed the exiles, as "anointed one," which is a translation of the Hebrew word "messiah," a word rendered in Greek as "christ." For those who compiled the Hebrew scriptures at the end of the sixth century BCE, salvation had come from Cyrus, the christ, who delivered them from bondage in Babylon and allowed them to restore the Israelite temple in Jerusalem.

Their descendants, however, who in their diaspora become known as Jews, discover that salvation has not come as their ancestors had hoped. During the five centuries before the time of Jesus, the land of Judah (now called Judea) is ruled by one great power after another and only briefly achieves a measure of independence before the Romans impose their brutal rule. In the face of this harsh reality, two new ideas about salvation appear in the Hebrew scriptures. First, the salvation of the chosen people of Israel is envisioned not in history, but outside history – at the end of time on the Day of Judgment. Second, a reforming party of Jews, the Pharisees, teaches that salvation will mean resurrection for righteous Jews on the Day of the LORD.

The Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, who after his conversion is known as the apostle Paul, places resurrection at the heart of Christian teaching. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul argues that resurrection is spiritual rather than physical, and means a new form of life "in Christ" after our death. In contrast, the four gospels of the New Testament, which are written after the letters of Paul, present resurrection as both physical and spiritual. At the end of the New Testament, in the Revelation to John, the hope in resurrection is vividly portrayed in visions of the coming Day of the Lord.

We see, therefore, that the New Testament hope for salvation modifies the hopes expressed by Jews in their scriptures, which Christians read as the Old Testament. Jesus replaces Cyrus as Christ, and Jesus Christ offers salvation to Gentiles as well as Jews. The end of time marks the beginning of the rule of Christ, as the Son of God, and resurrection is the means by which Jews and Gentiles, who have been faithful, will enter into the kingdom of God under the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Strikingly, New Testament passages clearly state that the end of time will come within the lifetime of those for whom the letters and gospels were written. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever."

After Paul’s death, the author of the gospel of Matthew has Jesus give his followers this warning in Matthew 24:29-34: "Immediately after the suffering of these days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ [Daniel 7:13] with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other….So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place." A similar passage is found in Mark 13:24-31. Moreover, in Luke 21:23 Jesus again says: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place."

Yet, as Lucky says, "time will tell." The hope in Paul’s letters and in the New Testament gospels is not realized, for the end of the world does not come within the first generation of the church – and has not yet come. Salvation, for some reason, is deferred. Which is why churches teach that although the salvation of the world is achieved in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation is not fully realized until the end of time when there is a "second coming" of the Lord.

Today, many Christians read the Bible as predicting that the "day of rapture" will come after Jews all return to their homeland. For these Christians, re-establishing Israel on the land that the scriptures say God promised Abraham and his descendants is a precondition for the completion of God’s plan. The American Christian lobby promoting this interpretation of scripture as God’s will endorses the claim of Orthodox Jews in Israel to the land presently occupied by Palestinians. Moreover, it pressures our government to support the Israeli government’s political, economic and military repression of the Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza. These Christians believe Jews will not be saved on the Day of Judgment, but they support the expansion of the State of Israel to its biblical borders as part of God’s plan for saving Christians like them, who are God’s "new chosen people."

Other Christians simply think of salvation as life after death, without going into the details. In the first century, Pharisees believed the dead remained in Sheol, a place under the earth, until the time of resurrection. Passages in the New Testament, such as the story of Stephen in the reading from Acts this morning, seem to depict heaven as a place where God "lives." The reading from the gospel of John also reinforces this image of heaven as the "house" of the Father with many rooms, where those who are faithful will go after they die. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Christians often think of salvation as simply going to a heavenly place after death.

What really happens after death? As Lucky says, only "time will tell." Yet, even as Paul uses the metaphor of planting a seed in 1 Corinthians 15:37 to explain resurrection, we may understand scripture references to heaven and the end of time as metaphors expressing the faith of the church. As Christians, we do not have to believe that heaven is literally a place, nor do we have to believe that the descriptions in scripture of the Day of the LORD/Lord will literally come to pass. These images reflect a first century worldview as well as the faith of the church in the eternal presence of God. We can embrace this same faith and have our own beliefs about salvation, which will reflect the worldview of the twenty-first century. Time tells us that beliefs change, even as faith endures.

Also, we know that contemporary Christians may share a faith and have diverse beliefs. Yet, beliefs that deny the core affirmations of our faith must be challenged. Salvation cannot mean rejecting God’s call in the Christian Bible to love our neighbors (Mt. 19:19, 22:39; Mk. 12:31, 33; Lk 10:27), to forgive our enemies (Mt. 5:44. Lk. 6:27, 33), and to care for the least of those among us (Mt. 25:40). We must resist beliefs that deny the equal human dignity before God of any person, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian (Muslim, Christian, atheist, or agnostic). Also, we must oppose Christian claims that God’s will requires purging "the promised land" of Palestinians so that Jews may return to live in an expanded State of Israel and Christians can finally be saved.

Clearly, Jews and Christians have understood salvation in various ways, but both have affirmed that God’s steadfast love for those who live faithfully does not end with death. Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39 that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Moreover, he says in Romans 9-11 that salvation will include faithful Jews as well as Christians. Without fail, “time will tell."

28 April 2002

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016