If You Died Tonight... Or What Does Salvation Even Mean?

I have been writing on this page, for the past couple weeks, about the question of the fate of the "unevangelized" -- to wit: What might the Christian believer hope for the countless throngs of humanity who have never encountered the explicit Gospel of Jesus Christ or through some incapacity quite beyond their control have been unable to receive it (including infants and perhaps even the unborn). In my review of a superb text by John E. Sanders, I surveyed, in painfully broad strokes, three kinds of answers to this question: 1) Restrictivists hold that no one can be saved without an explicit encounter with the Gospel and response to it in faith; universalists affirm that, ultimately, God will save everyone; and advocates of wider hope theories (including inclusivists) assert that every human being will encounter the Gospel and enjoy an opportunity for -- not a guarantee of -- eternal salvation, whether the encounter occurs in this life or in an afterlife.

Jacob's Dream by William Blake (1805)
(via Wikimedia Commons, PD-1923_
Pondering all this convinces me that, before one can hope to adequately address this issue, one must wrestle with a meta question: Just what is the nature of salvation anyway? When I was growing up in Southern Baptist churches in the '70s and '80s, it might not be uncommon for an evangelist to begin an altar call with something like this: "If you died tonight, do you know that you would spend eternity in heaven with Jesus?" Stated thusly, perhaps, the question makes some of us uncomfortable. But prescinding from conservative evangelical, voluntarist soteriologies for the moment, I'd broaden and re-frame the question a bit, to something like this: Do you believe that some portion (or even perhaps all) of humankind will enjoy 'salvation' in the form of a blessed post-mortem existence (however we might conceive it) that retains personal self-consciousness and individual identity?

I think one can respond in one of four basic ways, with logical consistency and intellectual integrity, to wit:

1. Yes, I do. This, on my reading, is the most traditional and widely held view in the history of Christian thought. We don't have to get into contemporary debates about mind-body dualism, the putative immortality of the soul, or ostensibly outmoded "Greek metaphysics." Those discussions are important, to be sure, but that's not what I'm talking about here. Let's say Wolfhart Pannenberg, C.S. Lewis, and Pope John Paul II go into a bar.... Well, that's just it: Whether it's a pub in heaven or in some renewed and transformed earth in an eschatological future, the point is that they are getting together, somehow and somewhere, recognizably the same individuals they were during their earthly sojourns.

2. I don't know, but I sure hope so. What's interesting about this option is that it seems to suggest Christian hope might direct and inform Christian faith.

3. I don't know, but I think it's very unlikely. To my mind, that's a depressing answer, but it's certainly one that is logically and existentially possible.

4. No, I don't. This answer ramifies into three basic sub-categories: "No, I think the notion of salvation, properly interpreted, pertains to life in this world only." Or "No, I believe salvation involves the extinguishing of personal consciousness, as one's life force is reabsorbed into some sort of cosmic whole or infinite, impersonal ground of being." Or "No, I think this whole discussion about 'salvation' is bogus."

Apropos of option 4, I don't think we're forced into a false dichotomy between belief in personal, post-mortem existence, on the one hand, and a salutary concern for the concrete struggles of the world. Marxist criticisms (which I do take seriously) notwitstanding, I do believe something like the traditional understanding of eternal salvation can be integrated with a radical socio-political critique of existing powers and structures, and I've addressed that conviction in this post.

As I wrote last week, Sanders writes from the perspective of a fairly traditional evangelical Christianity, so of course, his discussion presupposes answer no 1. But what he does say (or presuppose) about the nature of salvation, and the way that these commitments shape his accounts of the scope and extent of salvation requires a closer look, but that task would require another blog post.


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Anonymous said…
Thanks for this.
Thanks for reading!
In the 60s, my home church had a booth at the fair with the theme: Where will you be, a million years from now? Of course, the point was heaven or hell. As a teen who loved my church and my pastor, I felt embarrassed. I am not sure why. Looking back, I suppose it was hard for me to focus on a million years from now when my concerns were far more immediate, including girls and what I would do with my life. In addition, all I could think of was "how can any of us know for sure?" I suppose I am still in that place. Thus, based on the resurrection of Jesus as a divine promise, I have hope for human destiny being brought "up" into divine life.
Thanks for sharing that, George. I wrote in an earlier draft -- but I erased this part -- about my own need to lean on hope in the face of intellectual doubts. I might need to write some more about that.

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