by Will Small
I used to believe salvation was a tough game to win.
(And by salvation, I essentially meant ‘going to heaven when you die’).
Of course, I would never have worded it like that. Quite the opposite. I would have said things like salvation was free. Accepting Christ was easy. We are saved by faith alone and no action on our part. All a person needs to do to be saved is receive the gift of Jesus (by believing some stuff and saying some stuff).
Pretty standard phrases in evangelical Christianity. But there were some hidden catches.
It was easy for me to say these kind of statements because:
- I grew up in both a household and a culture where Christianity was socially understood and acceptable.
- I was not raised within another faith system.
- I had never been abused by church leaders
- I had the appropriate intellectual faculties to accept the mental propositions I was required to believe for my salvation.
- I had a metric butt-load (technical term) of opportunities to receive Jesus on Friday nights, Sunday mornings, Sunday nights…and at my Christian school at least once a term.
This list could go on. But the bottom line is, the deck was stacked. Of course salvation was an easy game to win with all of these conditions, and of course I could claim that accepting Christ was a free gift that required me to ‘do nothing’.
And it’s true – I didn’t do anything to choose where or when I was born, who my parents were, what school I went to, how well my brain and body worked and who the other influential figures in my life were.
Salvation is free and easy – if you get the luck of the draw?
On the flipside, if you draw a short straw…and suffer abuse in a religious context, or are born into a household or culture with a different dominant worldview, or if you aren’t exposed to a metric butt-load of emotionally hyped Friday night sermons….then this model of salvation is a tough game to win. And it actually requires a lot of you. It requires you to potentially renounce your family or your cultural identity. It requires you to have a more open mind than most of the Christians I knew (including myself) who wouldn’t budge on the core set of beliefs we were raised with (but of course you should do that when we present you with our correct set of beliefs). Even a basic understanding of neurobiology would recognise that you don’t just ‘drop’ a new set of beliefs into your brain like an iOS update; it actually requires a substantial amount of ‘work’.
When I began to realise this, it deeply challenged some of my long held assumptions and beliefs. It felt like my evangelical framework led me to desire that other people would completely change their worldview, while we did everything possible to let the cement dry on ours.
Let me go on the record and say I don’t actually have a problem with sharing faith or ‘evangelising’ in a certain sense of the word. And of course, I believe peoples worldview can change (and the shifts my own has undergone is proof of that!) Perhaps where I find the biggest issue is with the self-righteous double-standard of seeking to change others, while assuming we are the tribe that has a monopoly on truth (particularly when that truth is understood in very exclusionary terms).
Evangelism shouldn’t depend on the threat of eternal fire, or dividing the world into an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group. If you’ve experienced something that is healthy, life-giving and liberating, it makes sense to share it. These are words that describe my experience of Jesus. So, I’m happy to share that with people in an open-handed and gentle way that assumes we’re on equal metaphysical ground as fellow humans seeking divine truth, rather than fuelling my ego’s ‘saviour mentality’ and asserting myself as an expert who knows what is best for you. And trust me, I’m a naturally evangelical dude. I rave about podcasts and books and films and cafes that I think everyone should check out. And I don’t necessarily think this is that different from sharing passionately about the peace Jesus gives me and the way my faith gives me a grounding meta-narrative and an embodied spirituality helping me to navigate life on this unpredictable planet. But, I’ve done my best to tap out from and repent from ‘colonising’ evangelism that has everything to offer and nothing to receive. I want to participate in mutual exchange with my friends who have different worldviews. I want to offer them the best of the Jesus story and tradition, while also opening my heart and hands to receive what they offer in return. My friend Rob Waters, a Gomeroi man who has shared with me beautiful First Nations perspectives on this land we live, describes the ‘overlapping’ space between our stories. I love this image.
I no longer believe the mechanism for God renewing all things has to do with the effectiveness of my ability to change peoples minds. Or the ‘length of the straws’ they drew depending on where and when they were born and raised and their positive or negative religious experiences. (if you think about it, this model seems to give an abusive religious leader more power to alter the eternal trajectory of a person’s life than God’s grace has. Problematic, right?)
I came to recognise the cognitive dissonance between my espoused belief that salvation is an easy, free and simple gift (that simply required people to adopt my worldview). And the actual reality of the world we live in, and the complex diversity of people’s circumstances, cultural influences and life experiences. As well as my own epistemic biases and blindspots. All that shiz makes salvation on my original terms complicated at best. And sheer luck of the draw at worst. And leads me to believe humility is the only appropriate posture in conversations about divine things, even if you have deep and genuine convictions.
So, what do I believe now?
The way I see it, the honest options for resolving my cognitive dissonance were:
- Acknowledge that salvation as I was taught it actually is a tough game to win. It is unfortunately dramatically influenced by a wide range of variables including your sociological context, experiences of trauma and abuse, and mental faculties. It’s a huge cosmic lottery we can influence in roughly the same way as someone choosing their lucky numbers.
- Acknowledge that if salvation actually is a free gift from a creator who loves the whole world and everyone in it, then all kinds of people who don’t hold the ‘right’ beliefs in their head or tick the same box as me on the census will be swept up in the divine work of restoration and shalom that I perceive I am part of, because of God’s love, and not our luck.
Some people may wish to amend the first option with various caveats (probably appealing to the mysterious ways of God and the role of the Holy Spirit. Both of which I believe wholeheartedly in, and yet I don’t find satisfactory in solving this genuine theological dilemma).
A stereotypical Calvinist response would run roughly along these lines: you don’t get to decide what God is like. Or what goodness means. If God wants to make salvation an easy game for a select few and a near impossible challenge for the masses that’s his prerogative. Praise him!
Sorry. I can’t sign up for that. Because if it’s true, words like God and goodness and salvation and grace and love are meaningless. Think about it. If these things actually look nothing like our general intuitions about these things….then neither our language or our logic is actually anything except a cruel illusion.
In which case, why bother with any of it? Ironically, people with this view often argue the hardest for objective truth. And yet, their argument also essentially puts that very truth out of reach from us because we are constantly prone to the self deceptions of our fallen minds.
So, it’s option number 2 for me.
I don’t believe salvation is a game to win or lose. No short or long straws to draw. This world is full of inequality. It is built on systems of advantage and disadvantage. Systemic privilege and poverty.
But the kingdom of God is turning the universe upside down. Or right way up again, depending on how you look at it. (insert sermon on the mount here).
If the good news is good, then it is actually good.
If salvation is a free gift, equally available to all, then the terms on which we may receive it must be genuinely equitable.
It can’t rise or fall depending on where and when you were born. What traumas you’ve experienced. How cringeworthy the evangelist was. Or whether or not you had the right set of thoughts in your head on a particular day and time.
My earlier definition of salvation was almost entirely concerned with ‘life after death’. Now, when I conceptualise salvation I am thinking about the healing of all things, the renewal of body, mind and soul, restored relationships between people, their creator and the earth, here now and into eternity. This, I believe, is the kind of salvation Jesus offers. This is the work I believe is unfolding throughout history and into eternity, touching every square inch of the cosmos along the way.
The story of Jesus and my Christian faith is still how I make sense of the world. From the darkest corners of our hearts, to the persistent beauty that shines through. The call to love our enemy from the God who incarnates and enters the human neighbourhood and proclaims forgiveness after crucifixion. This is still the story I am deeply embedded in, committed to and oriented by. But I humbly acknowledge that this probably has a lot to do with where and how I was raised than I would like to admit. And my deepest conviction – that God is actually unconditional love – leads me to believe that whilst I get to participate in sharing the shalom and goodness of God here and now, these things will be distributed universally, whether or not I change anyone’s mind (even including my own).
Note: This reflection is largely a critique of a certain belief about the conception of salvation that I was raised with and the language we used around it being a ‘free/easy gift’. What I’ve written leads into a view about universal salvation, though I feel I should say this article isn’t itself necessarily a robust argument for universal salvation. David Bentley Hart’s book ‘That All Shall Be Saved’ has certainly influenced my thinking in regards to these overlapping issues though, and if you are interested in a thorough and compelling argument for universal salvation/reconciliation, I recommend you go and check out that book. I also appreciate the insistence of Hart, and others in recent years that this view is completely compatible with historical, orthodox Christianity (and, I agree).