Most of us (writes Tom Wright in Surprised by hope, 206-213) take ‘salvation’ to mean ‘going to heaven when you die’; implying that this present body and this present world will be left behind and the ‘soul’ will fly off to some disembodied existence.
But this view scarcely counts as ‘rescue from death’. Rather, it colludes with death by denying that God’s good creation really is good, and that he intends ‘to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last’.
Even so thoughtful a writer as Adrian Plass falls into the old trap. Plass raises the kinds of questions that puzzle many people today:-
But what is it all about? What does it mean to be saved? Saved from what? Saved for what? Should the whole business of salvation have a significant impact on my present as well as on my future? Speaking of the future, what can we expect from an eternity spent in heaven? How can we possibly make sense of heaven when our feet remain so solidly on Earth? Where is the interface, the meeting point between the flesh and the Spirit? And when all the strange religious terms and voices and patterns and mantras and man-made conventions have faded, what will be left?
The answer, for Plass, is that
[God’s] plan was for us to live in perfect harmony with him…Then something went horribly, dreadfully wrong…This truly ghastly thing that happened somehow separated human beings from God, who nevertheless continued to love them/us with a passion that is impossible to comprehend. Desperate to heal the rift, he devised a rescue plan…Because Jesus was executed on the cross it is now possible for any or all of us, through repentance, baptism and obedience, to recover the magnificent relationship with God that was destroyed in days gone by…If you and I accept the death and resurrection of Jesus as a living, divine, working mechanism in our own lives we shall one day go home to God and find peace…The Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus himself after his death, offers support and strength for those who call on him. [Wright’s emphases]
So: ‘salvation’ is about ‘my relationship with God’ in the present, and about ‘going home to God and finding peace’ in the future. But, Wright asserts, this is simply not what the New Testament itself teaches.
As long as we see ‘salvation’ in terms of ‘going to heaven when we die’, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see ‘salvation’, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth, and of our promised resurrection to share in that new, and gloriously embodied, reality – what I have called ‘life after life after death’ – then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.
If we put all our emphasis on ‘life after death’, then ‘life before death’ is under serious threat. If we are hoping for a disembodied, out-of-this-world existence, by bother putting things right in this world?
But ‘salvation’ is not ‘going to heaven’, but ‘being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth’. Rom 8:24 makes salvation as past action, but one that looks forward to future completion. Enitrely in accord with this is the way, in the Gospels, that ‘salvation’ is so often spoken of in relation to bodily events within the present world (“Daughter, your faith has saved you”), and yet these are juxtaposed with passages in which ‘salvation’ is spoken of in terms that go beyond present healing or rescue. All of those individual present ‘salvations’ are so many anticipations of that ultimate ‘salvation’, ‘that healing transformation of space, time and matter’.
Understood like this, it is impossible to view salvation as a purely private matter. If salvation means becoming more fully and truly human, then it will mean fulfilling God’s original mandate for us to look after creation, to bring order to God’s world, to create and maintain communities.
The point is this. When God ‘saves’ people in this life, by working throug his Spirit to bring them to faith, and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos…What’s more, such people…are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.
And if salvation is present, and not entirely future, then our task of working with God in the transformation of the cosmos begins in the here and now.
To summarise: ‘salvation’ is about whole human beings, not just ‘souls’; it is about the present, not simply the future; and it s about what God through us, not merely in and for us.
All of this is not only very good, but very important. As is so often the case with Wright’s writings, however, there is a problem. And that is the old problem (mentioned by Moo and Carson) of Wright’s habit of reversing the foreground and the background. He would have us believe that evangelism and mission are both important, but the former is paid little more than lip service. The ‘restoration of our own relationship with God’ is regarded as ‘vital’ (p212), but it is given nothing like the place accorded to it in the New Testament.
Thomas Schreiner, while acknowledging the very real strengths in Wright’s book, comments pertinently, if somewhat tartly:-
I could perhaps understand why Wright would stress social concerns if England’s churches were full and thriving—as if almost everyone was a believer. But what is curious is that England’s churches are empty, and unbelief is common. It seems that a bishop in these circumstances would vigorously call upon the church to evangelize, and would emphasize the need to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ and to turn from one’s sins. I don’t see that urgency in Wright’s writing, and therefore he veers from the message of Jesus and the apostles.