The meaning of salvation (part 1)

One day in eighth grade, our English teacher wrote a list of eighteen “values” on the blackboard. While I certainly don’t remember most of the list, it was probably something like the list of “terminal values” in the second column of this document. Our assignment was to rank these different values, from the highest at 1 to the lowest at 18, according to our personal views.

(If that sounds like it had little to do with English class, no, it didn’t. Our teacher did teach us some grammar, and we read and discussed Call of the Wild and various short stories in our reading textbook. But he was more interested in getting us to think deeply about life than whether we mastered the idiosyncrasies of the English language.)

As I looked over the list, my initial inclination was to assign number 18 to “salvation.” It wasn’t a word in my active vocabulary, as the church I had attended since I was a baby didn’t talk about it. I knew some churches did think salvation was important – whatever it was, but at that point I was an agnostic about both the existence of God and life after death.

I thought there probably was some kind of existence after physical death, but I was skeptical about it being much like either the eternal bliss in heaven of much traditional religion or the many-lives-via-reincarnation that my mother espoused. Whatever it was, it was nothing I could either know or do much of anything about, and it seemed pretty irrelevant to life here and now.

As I continued to ponder the list, however, I thought that it was all in how you define the word salvation. While it might be traditional to think of it as a posthumous reward for being the right kind of religious person, perhaps it should be defined much more broadly.

My mother always talked about health as being more than just physical health, comprising also emotional, mental, and spiritual health. It would make sense to also think of salvation as all-encompassing. If salvation meant every aspect of life being made right, then that would put it at the very top of any list of values. 

I’m not sure whether I actually wrote down “1” next to the word salvation on my list. If there was one adult I trusted, it was my English teacher. But even with him, and even if we didn’t have to turn in our lists (I’m pretty sure we didn’t), I was hesitant to take even that small risk of expressing an opinion that might sound foolish.

When we were done ranking our lists, our teacher told us his answers. And his take on salvation, I found out, was just about exactly what I had been thinking. I felt good about that. I don’t remember whether he gave any indication what would bring about “salvation” in that broad sense, though I imagine it would have had to do with people loving each other.

The following year, I had an assignment for confirmation class at church that also involved thinking about the meaning of salvation. Each of us had to write a personal credo. We were supposed to figure out for ourselves what we believed, but there was a list of questions to help us think of some ideas we might want to include.

I don’t remember much about what I said in my credo, other than that I didn’t believe Jesus was God. I think I pretty much skipped the section on salvation, since I still couldn’t think of much to say about it except that I didn’t think it depended on any particular religious beliefs or practices.

I kept thinking about God and about faith, though. The idea of having faith in God seemed very appealing, not because of something called “salvation” (whatever it was) but because people of faith seemed to have peace of mind, compassion for other people, a sense of purpose in life, and joy. I wanted to believe, I just didn’t know how to.

I formally joined the church the first Sunday in June. I had hoped that taking that step might somehow help, but as far as I could see it did nothing. Three weeks later, I visited a fundamentalist church with my older sister (recently converted from unbelief to faith in Christ while at college). The pastor preached about the Spirit-filled life, and it was exactly what I was looking for. I responded at the invitation at the end of the service.

A woman met with me in a back room, showed me verses from the New Testament, and put forth a very different concept of salvation than what I had learned at home and at church. It was all about believing that I was a sinner, deserving and condemned to eternal punishment in hell, and that salvation was about being forgiven and being able to go to heaven through faith in Jesus Christ.

I had not been brought up to believe I was a sinner; my mother taught that sin was immaturity, something we grow out of over the course of many lifetimes. I knew I wasn’t the kind of person I would like to be, which was why the pastor’s sermon had appealed so much to me. But I didn’t think of myself as deserving God’s condemnation.

Still, it appeared that the way to the Spirit-filled life the pastor talked about meant going through these initial steps of changing my beliefs about myself, my position before God, and the need to believe in Jesus as Son of God and Savior. I made the profession of faith, and did my best to really believe it.

It was a very different concept of salvation from what I had pondered in eighth grade English class. What hadn’t changed was its priority – if anything, it was even more important than I had thought. Understanding salvation and how it should shape my behavior became a major focus of my life.

6 Responses to The meaning of salvation (part 1)

  1. modestypress says:

    Less than 95% of human beings are “sociopath/psychopaths.” (Social science on this seems fairly solid to me.) Human beings are certainly (to my mind) animals with large brains and self-awareness of our mortality. As such we are the only animals (possible exception whales) aware of our own mortallity. No animal “wants” to die; yet we are essentially the only animal that commits suicide, in part due to our mortality despair. I do not tend to religious belief because I have a deep aversion to believing in claims that do not seem true. I would feel less aversion to Christianity (or other religious beliefs) if there were less obsession with guilt (about our imaginary original sin Adam and Eve ancestors) and with an imaginary Hell, and with condemnation of people who do no harm (e. g. non-believers and homosexuals). It’s certainly understandable that people want to believe they will not die, but there is too often too much unpleasant baggage attached to a lot of religious belief.

    • Pauline says:

      I would hope that a lot fewer than 95% of us are sociopaths/psychopaths! If the numbers were anything close to that percentage, I doubt we could ever have built large and complex civilizations.

      Are you suggesting that religion should have less “obsession with guilt” because most people aren’t that bad?

  2. modestypress says:

    I am sorry. I am clearly losing it. I meant that 95% of humans are NOT sociopaths/psychopaths. I am also persuaded that when societies (such as Nazi Germany/USSR) engage in sociopathic behavior under sociopathic leaders such as Hitler or Stalin, most of their followers are deluded non-sociopaths. Most Germans were deluded into thinking that Jews/Gypsies/Ukranians, etc. were not human beings. Similar delusions in USSR about kulaks destroying the glorious (if imaginary) Communist Revolution.

    It’s difficult for an atheist to converse with religious believers, as our assumptions are so different. I think the Genesis story is a brilliant legend with many insights about human psychology. Basic “rules” (deriving from human evolution) of ethics are Don’t murder; Don’t torture; Don’t rape; Care and aid each other. That’s the “rules” that the 95% NOT sociopaths instinctively follow. As we are all clearly in error much of the time and clearly tempted to engage in “naughty” behavior and sometimes do so, any sensible human being is going to have some “guilt.” However, to my evaluation going from sensible guilt to we are all fallen and we are all going to go to (an imaginary) place called “Hell” gets no traction with me.

    I like the phrase, “Love is a verb.” That is if your religious belief tells you to not murder, not torture, not rape and to help people in distress because these are instructions from Jesus and they tell me the same thing because it’s my evolution and cultural indoctrination, we have a basis for cultural co-existence even if we don’t agree on metaphysics.

  3. Karen O says:

    Even the thought of up to 5% of us being sociopaths/psychopaths is pretty scary.

  4. modestypress says:

    If it’s any consolation, not all sociopaths/psycholpaths are murderous; some just steal.

    On the other hand, if your religious belief is correct (as I understand it), everybody is damned unless they are born again in Christianity, so in God’s eyes, everyone (except Jesus, of course) falls into the socio/psycho category.

  5. Karen O says:

    Even if they don’t commit murder or other mayhem, they can cause a lot of trouble for those who know them.

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