I look around, and I see evidence of the brokenness everywhere. And so there’s this tension between the ugly truth of our reality and where scripture teaches we were intended to be. And while I believe in human potential and progress and the ability to create beauty from ashes, I also believe we all are salvific wanderers. We cannot save ourselves — not wholly. Not in the way that recreates and restores. We need something more, something beyond our mere flesh and bones, for we truly are dust and to dust we will return.
That something more for me is Jesus. I don’t know how it all works; the theories of atonement don’t much interest me, if I’m being honest. All I know is that I read the scriptures, and in the brown-skinned rabbi from Nazareth, I see all that is righteous and kind and good.
I see that he offers a new way of living. And I guess that’s what salvation really is, at the end of the day.
But here’s the thing: we were not created to be saved OUT of this world. That thinking is not only theologically incorrect but it’s also cowardly. Churches teach (both implicitly and explicitly) that the ultimate goal of salvation is heaven — to be assured one day we’ll live in our mansions in the sky, for earth as we know it will be destroyed. But. But. But. … Nowhere in scripture does it walk about heaven as the eternal destiny for Christians. Nor does it teach that heaven is a separate location from earth. We, as created beings, were made to dwell in and care for this world, this world that’s also God’s good creation. He loves it. The new heaven and new earth does not mean that what we have now will be wiped away. It will be redeemed, which quite literally means to be saved. Ephesians 1:9-20: God will gather up all things in both heaven and earth. Acts 3:21: we hope in a “universal salvation that God announced long ago.” If we truly understand the entire narrative of the scriptural story, then we ought to believe redemption is for the entirety of the created order — including the earth.
My problem with the Western Church (well, one of them, anyway) is that it is tragically misguided in how it approaches and talks about salvation. We’re taught that there’s a mansion somewhere up in the sky with our name on it, that we’ll all be floating around like disembodied soul wisps in the clouds, and that everything on the earth will essentially be destroyed when Jesus comes back so it doesn’t realllllllly matter, does it, what we do until then? But Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that the kingdom of God was to come — he said it was already here, among us. He, as well as his audience in the ancient world, understood that salvation aims towards a full and extensive transformation of the world. As my brilliant advisor J. Richard Middleton wrote, “No dimension of earthly life is in principle excluded — neither bodily health nor social and economic realities.” Today’s Christianity is seeped in dualism, which teaches that there’s a divide between what is “spiritual” and what is not, which has led to a softening of what salvation really means. It doesn’t look like the kingdom we’ve been expecting — that’s precisely the point. Many are tempted to dismiss it because, to them, it looks too much like the defamed “social gospel.” Yet God cares for people in their minds, bodies, hearts, and souls; it *all* matters. Refugees finding safety matters. Hungry people being fed matters. Those who are sick having equitable access to healthcare matters. No area of our world or our culture is meant to be untouched by Jesus; we are the ones who have drawn lines in the sand to keep him out, to relegate him to help with this but not that, with those who *deserve* it but not those free-loaders. We, fellow Christians, are the problem. I’ve written before about the Hebrew word “nephesh” (in English, “soul”) and how ancient Jews understood the soul to be inseparable from the body. The idea of a soul that is separate didn’t come until much later, with Plato and the Greeks. So when we’re telling people their souls need saved but neglecting to make sure they have access to basic human rights? We’ve strayed from the ways of Jesus.