“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part X: The Christ – He Is Not the Savior of the Fallen
by John S. Spong May 23, 2012
In my studies of the origins of life and its evolution, I have become convinced that the traditional and primitive claim that involves the concept of “original sin” has got to go! This mythological misunderstanding was based on the assumption that human life began perfect, but that we had our perfection destroyed by our disobedience, which left us separated from God. This was our “original sin” and no human life escapes its effects. In the light of all we know about the origins of life “original sin” has first become quaint, then bankrupt and finally harmful and destructive of our humanity. The Christianity of the future must jettison this outdated idea if it intends to live and to participate in the world that is emerging in the 21st century.
This will not be an easy transition for the Christian Church or for individual Christians to make. The concept of “original sin” has been so deeply instilled into the heart of the way that Christianity has defined itself, that for many people abandoning “original sin” feels like abandoning Christianity itself. The task before Christian leaders is therefore the task of developing a compelling new understanding of Christianity that can provide an alternative to this former understanding. This alternative will have to be far more radical and far more extensive than most people in the church can now even imagine. It will also have to be positive and in touch with what we know of the origins of life.
One aspect of this alternative Christianity will be that we must see that the word “savior” is no longer a title that we can use for Jesus. Think of what that title assumes. One cannot be the “savior” unless there is something or someone who is in need of salvation. One cannot see Jesus as the “savior” unless one believes oneself to have fallen from an original perfection into the mire of “original sin.” Since that is not the way we now understand human life, what content is left in the title “savior?” What do evangelists mean when they ask: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” What is the meaning of either the Protestant mantra: “Jesus died to save me from my sins” or the Catholic mantra which describes the Eucharist is the “Sacrifice of the Mass,” that is, a liturgical reenactment of the cross on which Jesus died for our sins?
So extensively has the title “savior” permeated the Christian story that it is the primary way that Jesus is described in most Christian liturgies. Other forms of the word “savior” are the words “redeemer” and “rescuer.” We Christians even name some of our churches “The Church of the Redeemer.” We speak of redemption in Christ Jesus. This word means to restore full value to that which has been compromised, to make whole that which was broken. One redeems one’s valuables from a pawn shop by paying a premium.
“Rescuer” is the word that lies behind many Protestant hymns like “Throw out the lifeline,” “Love lifted me” (when I was sinking deep in sin) and a variety of others. We are told in thousands of ways that Jesus’ act of saving us had to do with his death and with the shedding of his blood on the cross. The images are somewhat gory as we sing words such as “Washed in the blood,” “Saved by the blood” and “There’s a fountain filled with blood,” all of which imply that we are “dirty,” that we are sinful and that the blood of Jesus is endowed with cleansing power. For many people there is no other way to understand either Jesus or the Cross. It might, therefore, surprise us to know that Paul, the earliest writer of material that came to be included in the New Testament, never used the word “savior” to describe Jesus. Paul wrote between 51 and 64 C.E. If Paul is representative of the thinking about Jesus in those years before any gospel was written, we get the hint that to think of Jesus primarily as “savior” was not present among the followers of Jesus in the early years of Christian history.
Neither Mark, who wrote the first gospel in the early years of the 8th decade, nor Matthew, who wrote the second gospel in the middle years of the 9th decade used the title “savior” for Jesus. So, we can surmise, that “savior” was still not the title of choice for Jesus when the 9th decade of Christian history arrived. The word “savior” makes its first appearance in Christian writing in the Gospel of Luke, a work written in the late 9th to early 10th decade of Christian history, somewhere between the years 88-93. Luke uses the word “savior” twice. The first time is in the song sung by Mary called “The Magnificat.” There she says “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Note that the first biblical use of the word “savior” is not a reference to Jesus, but to God! The second Lucan use of the word “savior” does apply to Jesus and is found in the song of the angel in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The only other use of the word “savior” as a name for Jesus in the gospels comes in John’s story about the Samaritan woman by the well who, after her conversation with Jesus, returned to her village and announced that “This is the savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Both of these gospel uses of the word “savior” could better be translated “messiah,” for they are references to the messianic function of bringing about the “Kingdom of God” on earth in which the Jewish people would be rescued from such perils of history as slavery, defeat, exile and oppression. In the Hebrew Scriptures to ask God to save meant to save the Jewish people from the clutches of an enemy, a natural disaster or a personal tragedy. It was never a reference to being saved from one’s sinfulness or one’s fall from an original perfection.
It is not until one gets to the Pastoral Epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) and the General Epistles (I & II Peter, I, II & III John and Jude), all of which are dated from about 90 to about 135 C.E., that the word “savior” comes to be applied regularly to Jesus. These are the biblical data that cause me to question just how this title “savior” comes to be the one by which Jesus is primarily known today. It clearly was not the original way the disciples thought about him.
To see human life as distorted, fallen and in need of a “savior” is an idea that does not get attached to Jesus until the 4th century and was, I submit, the contribution of a man named Augustine, who was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and whose writings shaped Christian thinking for about a thousand years. It is his view of the origins of human life and the birth of sin that still infect the Christian message in 2012.
Augustine collapsed the two competing creation stories in the book of Genesis into a single narrative to form the background for telling the Christ story. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:3) he got his sense of the original perfection of the world and all that is within it. That story says that God created the world in six days and when God had finished, God looked out on all that God had made and pronounced it not only good, but complete. Human life, this story says, shared in this perfection for in the “image of God,” the man and the woman were fashioned. From the second creation story (Gen. 2:4 -3: 24) Augustine got his understanding of human rebellion, disobedience and the fall into sinfulness. Eve, tempted by the serpent, ate the “forbidden fruit” then fed it to Adam and “their eyes were opened.” God’s creation was ruined by this act of disobedience. Their sinfulness resulted, according to this primitive story, in the banishment of the original human family from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. It caused human distress from the woman’s pain in childbirth to the man’s need to gain his daily bread from the soil of the earth. The ultimate punishment for this act of disobedience was death. The fact that everyone died meant two things to Augustine. First, it meant that everyone shared in the fall and, second, that sin was universal and original. It could not be escaped. It was part of the “being” of human life into which we were born. We needed to be saved from it, redeemed from it, rescued from it. That was the human condition. In order to free the world from its sinfulness the “savior” had to be external to the world, which of course meant that the savior had to be sent from the God who lived above the sky. In time, it became clear that the savior had to be, in some special sense, of the very nature of God.
That became Augustine’s frame of reference and into that frame, he told the story of Jesus. Messiah no longer meant the one who would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth but the one who would save human life from the fall and from the power of original sin.
That is thus the context in which the Jesus story has traditionally been told and it is obviously dependent on that understanding of human life’s origins. You and I, however, live in a post-Darwinian world in which this story is nonsensical. There was no original perfection from which one could fall; there was rather the emergence of life out of an evolutionary process in which survival became the driving principle and the highest value. Our ancient forebears interpreted this basic survival drive, present in all living things but self-conscious in human life, to be a manifestation of a self-centeredness that resulted from the fall, thus viewing self-centeredness moralistically when they should have viewed it biologically. Our survival-driven self-centeredness is, however, not sinful, it is in the DNA of life itself.
Being saved, therefore, does not mean that someone has to pay the price of our evil in order to satisfy the judging God and to restore human life to a status it has never before possessed. It cannot mean that “Jesus died for my sins.” It cannot mean that baptism is the liturgical act to wash away the stain of the fall. It cannot mean that the Eucharist is the liturgical reenactment of the divine rescue operation accomplished on the cross. When one pulls out this central plank of the Christian story, then the whole superstructure of doctrine, dogma, creeds and liturgy collapses. That is when we know that we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.” The future of our Christian Church depends on our doing just that. So we will continue to develop these new themes as this series continues.
~John Shelby Spong