Some Christians have a narrow understanding of salvation that makes it all about the afterlife (going to heaven).
They think they know who has it and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s out, and they consider the work of the church to be largely about converting others to their version of the truth of salvation.
It’s hard for me to be too critical of these Christians because, at one time, I also held to that exclusive version of salvation.
Progressive Christians (and more evangelical Christians are coming to this realization also) insist that there are multiple images and metaphors for salvation in the Scriptures and different contemporary ways for understanding salvation.
Many Christians are surprised to learn that not a single reference to salvation in the Old Testament relates to the afterlife. And only a few references in the New Testament relate specifically to the afterlife.
One of the dominant images in both testaments is salvation as liberation from bondage.
In the Old Testament, this is Israel’s primal story: Israel’s liberation from the domination system of Egypt.
In the New Testament, this is understood primarily as liberation from entrapment, liberation from the anti-life pull toward alienation, disintegration and addiction (what Paul called the “flesh” and “the law of sin and death”).
This image, as it is found in one Gospel story, is particularly illuminating. Just after Jesus predicts for the third time his suffering and death, James and John ask if they can sit by Jesus’ side in his kingdom and share Jesus’ rule (Mark 10:35-37).
This continues the bitter dispute the disciples had been having over who would be the greatest (Mark 9:30-37).
Jesus says: “This is how the prominent people of the world function. They strive for places and positions of power in order to lord it over others. Not so with you. If you want to participate in God’s dream for the world, then you must become the servant of all” (my paraphrase of Mark 10:42-44).
Then, Jesus offers his own life as an example, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The word translated “ransom” could also be translated “redemption” or “liberation.”
Jesus is not specifically speaking of his death, though his death is the culmination of the life he lived.
This text is saying that the self-giving, sacrificial life of the Son of Man (Jesus) becomes a means of liberation for his disciples as they follow his way of life.
The afterlife is not in view at all. The liberation here, in this passage, is from a life of grasping for power and position, from the need to lord it over others.
The disciples wanted to turn the old pecking order, where they were on the bottom, into a new pecking order, where they would be on the top. Jesus wanted to liberate them from the pecking order altogether.
Jesus wanted to ransom/redeem them from the whole game of competing with and comparing themselves to others so they would be free to be “servants of all” – without regard for social status, without bias or prejudice, without favoritism toward any.
Some Christians like to think of salvation only in terms of the afterlife because then they don’t have to struggle with the need to die to the ego-driven self and become a humble servant of all people, which is what Jesus requires.
It’s much easier and more convenient to make salvation about going to heaven. One hardly has to change at all; just believe the right doctrines or obey the right Christian rituals.
Healthy Christianity is about personal, communal and societal transformation. It’s about liberation from egotism, greed and selfish ambition.
It’s about reflecting the image of God in all our relationships, embodying the love and compassion of Christ in all that we do and serving all people without discrimination.