A Pentecostal Christian once asked me: “Are you saved?” Somewhat facetiously, I replied: “From what?” One of my professors at theological college wisely pointed out that my rejoinder ought to have been: “For what?”
Either way, the issue of salvation is one that exercises my mind from time to time. Or, to put it a slightly different way, I on occasion find myself pondering the question of salvation in the negative; that is to say, I wonder about the whole issue of damnation.
How, afterall, do we square the notion of damnation with the concept of God’s loving goodness? The two seem diametrically opposed: how can a good and loving God damn anyone? Is the contradiction insolvable? Or is there some way we can walk through this conundrum, holding the opposites in some kind of tension that enables faith to avoid degenerating, on the one hand, into a mushy sentimentality, or, on the other hand, into an oppressive nightmare?
Let me begin by saying that I, for one, refuse to believe that damnation is based on non-membership of the Christian Church. Afterall, if my reading of the Gospels has amounted to anything, it is this: that Jesus often spared his harshest criticism for the “insiders”, the smug, complacent ones who imagined that they enjoyed the especial favour of God simply because of their membership in a congregation. I think this especially the case in respect of those people who’ve never heard of Christianity or heard the Gospel preached to them: God’s salvation is not circumscribed by the limits of Christianity’s membership.
If, afterall, in order to be saved, all one had to “do” was be a Christian, then Baptism alone would surely suffice – there would be little point in doing anything else, let alone making the effort and taking the time to go to church on Sundays or otherwise participate in the life of the community of faith. Moreover, the notion of salvation being contingent upon membership of a church veers perilously close – in my view – to the heresy of salvation by works; that is to say, that it is what we do (in this case, join a church) that somehow “earns” us salvation. This is a notion which the Church has firmly rejected from its earliest days, since it leaves little or no room for the operation of God’s grace. Indeed, it practically renders God irrelevant!
So it seems to me that salvation is not simply a consequence of “being a Christian”. But this only raises the question of what it is about Christian life and practice that brings us within the orbit of God’s redemptive grace? Obviously, for an atheist, this question is irrelevant: there being no God, it follows that there is no salvation, either. But for many people who believe in “a” God or “higher power” or whatever other description they want to apply to the conviction (or sneaking suspicion) that human life is not an end in itself, this question is often of critical importance. Especially in light of the fact that many such people are often reluctant – and sadly, just as often with good reason! – to become members of a Christian faith community.
What of the people who stand outside the Church? And what, also, of those people whom we might describe as “evil”, of whom we might imagine that there is nothing redemptive or redeemable?
Firstly, I think it needs to be said that there is nothing intrinsic to Christian life and practice that ensures salvation for Christians. To think otherwise is to trip once more down that slippery slope of salvation by works. Indeed, one of the many criticisms levelled against religious belief by the polemicists of the “new atheist” movement is that religious belief is “only” adhered to for the sake of getting into God’s good books and thereby securing a place in Heaven once Judgement Day (or, depending on the theology involved, the Rapture) arrives. In other words, religious belief is not about a relationship of faith, it’s a cynical quid pro quo designed to deliver mutual goods and benefits. “Good works” and “moral” behaviour are thus reduced to another expression of religion-as-club: they are simply a means to an end, as opposed to being the end in itself.
So what, then, is the purpose of Christian life and practice, and of being a Christian? It seems to me that the point of a life of faith (which necessarily includes a life lived in the context of the life of a community of faith) is to recognise that it is precisely because salvation is a matter of God’s sovereign grace that any notion of becoming a Christian in order to be “saved” is entirely invalid. Indeed, the notion of becoming a Christian in order to be “saved” involves a contradiction in terms: we become Christians, not because doing so will ensure our salvation, but because we recognise that it is through God’s sovereignty and grace that we are already saved. Profession of faith thus becomes, not a means to an end (as if humans could leverage God’s compassion!) but an acknowledgement of, and witnessing to, the end which God has already achieved: namely, the salvation of humankind.
Implicit within this understanding of faith is the further understanding that Christians are not a membership of the “elect” or the “chosen” in the pejorative sense in which both words are commonly understood. Christianity is not a club of the elite who stand apart from the “unsaved” masses. Quite the contrary, being a Christian is an explicit and public acknowledgement of one’s own brokenness and unworthiness; to be a Christian is to confess that one is, in fact, utterly incapable of earning any merit that might facilitate salvation. The human person is utterly dependent upon God.
But this acknowledgement is neither masochistic nor is it oppressive. For with the acknowledgement comes a responsive celebration: that notwithstanding our brokenness and unworthiness, God in God’s own sovereignty has deemed humanity to be acceptable to God; humanity is thus saved and saveable through God’s own election and initiative. This, afterall, is the Good News: that God, in Christ, has entered into the depths of human existence so thoroughly that, our brokenness and mortality notwithstanding, we now enter into the eternal life of God through the solidarity of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
This combination of acknowledgement and celebratory response is designed to elicit humility. And not a fearful, grovelling obescience; but a deep joy that is both awe-struck by the unfathomable depths of the mystery, and which is also reacts with astonished – almost disbelieving – delight at its implications. It is humility that stems from an awareness that it is not because we are worthy of salvation, but for precisely the opposite reasons, that God has elected to make salvation available to humankind. For humankind – and creation – emerged from the well-springs of God’s love; and it is this love that directs God’s salvific initiative.
In this context, good works and morality are transformed: they become not a means to an end (and, effectively, a mechanism by which we bribe our way into Heaven) but the love of God for humanity made manifest in and through broken human beings for the sake of human beings. In other words, Christian life and practice is to be understood, not as an activity we undertake on our own initiative, but a response we make (however imperfectly) to the gracious initiative of God. We “become” Christians not in order to “be saved”, but to celebrate the fact that we are saved.
But what, then, of those whom we might deem as “evil” – are they beyond the scope of God’s loving goodness? Indeed, is it to such as these that damnation actively applies?
My simple answer to these questions is that I simply don’t know. Beyond the fact that it is not for me to judge and condemn (by which I do not mean to imply that humans ought not react to the presence of evil in their midst, nor possess standards by which to assess the evil qualities of human behaviour), I simply cannot say.
However, what I suspect is that if salvation is not a matter of works, of earning or meriting redemption, then this necessarily cuts both ways. Like C S Lewis, I do believe that it is possible for a person to be so thoroughly evil that they alienate themselves from God and achieve their own annihilation thereby. However, if we understand God’s judgement as redemptive and not condemnatory, then it seems possible that the alienation/annihilation that follows from evil can only ever be temporary: God’s loving goodness overcomes even the power of evil to destroy and ostracise, precisely because such power is human and self-inflicted; God’s loving goodness, by contrast, supersedes and overcomes all human power. Paradoxically, this does, to some extent, make God’s judgement condemnatory in effect; except that the condemnation extends to the effects of evil – alienation and annihilation – and not to the evil-doer themselves. This is not to say evil-doers escape “scot-free” or are in effect “rewarded” for their evil; rather, they undergo a judgemental process that redeems and restores their humanity, liberating it from its enthrallment to evil.
In which case, it may be that the evil are already in hell, rather than condemned to an eternal hell that follows from a Judgement Day. In other words, the alienating and annihilating effect of their evil has already condemned them to the absence from God that is hell. In this context, God’s eschatological judgement upon the evil will be a matter of condemning the alienation and isolation to which they have consigned themselves, and through a judgemental process of “redemptive condemnation”, effecting their restoration to the abundance of a fully human life resident within the eternal life of God. Hell may very well be a condition which the truly evil experience through the fullness of time until their liberation in the eschaton.
At least, this is what I suspect. Of course, I do not know; and I could also be wrong!
© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2017. All rights reserved.