The central issue for the version of Christianity I grew up with was whether you would go to heaven or hell after death. The churches I attended all taught that your ultimate destiny depended on whether or not you had been saved. They said that being saved involved a specific act of repenting of your sins and accepting Jesus as your savior. Those who accepted Jesus would receive an eternal reward after death. Those who did not would receive eternal punishment. Worship services in these churches always ended with an invitation in which a person could “walk the aisle” to the front of the church and publicly accept God’s offer of salvation.
Being saved, as these churches conceived it, was an all or nothing matter. You were either saved or you were not; there was no in between. You might falsely imagine that you had been saved and experience the real thing later, but when you died, your status was fixed. There was no more opportunity for deciding. Sermons often included warnings about people who put off the decision until it was too late. This way of thinking tended to generate anxiety about our own status, as well as anxiety about the status of others. On the whole, it was more conducive to responding to God in fear than to responding in love.
As I see it now, there were multiple ways that our ideas about being saved distorted biblical teachings. One is that our form of religion was about escaping from earthly life, whereas Jesus’s message was fundamentally about transforming it. Because we saw the central issue to be life after death, we tended to miss New Testament teachings about what God sought for this world. If we noticed in Jesus’s model prayer the request that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” we assumed that God’s will being done was primarily a matter of getting people to make a commitment that prepared them for eternity. We thought of earthly existence as a lost cause that God would soon bring to an end. So, we shouldn’t expect things to get better or waste our energies on improving life on earth.
Another distortion is that our view of salvation as a single event that settled the question of whether you had received God’s forgiveness tended to undermine any significant concern with spiritual growth. We did think that there were particular behaviors that someone who had been saved should avoid. But the question of whether some kind of change was occurring that made it more likely you would love your neighbor (or your enemy) tended to be eclipsed by the question of whether a transaction had occurred between you and God that secured your place in heaven. Systematic instruction in things we could do to advance our spiritual growth would likely have raised our suspicion that we were imagining that God’s grace needed to be supplemented by good works.
A third distortion is that we thought of salvation as an individual good. It was a matter of your sins being forgiven so that you could receive your eternal reward. Sure, you should go to church, but the idea that communal life was a central part of what salvation was about would have been foreign to us. The teachings of Jesus weren’t a major part of our theology, but when we looked at them, we tended to miss their social import. We saw them as a set of individual prohibitions or commands, rather than descriptions of a different kind of communal life through which God’s intentions for human beings are to be fulfilled.
Finally, our ideas about being saved led to a distorted view of God. When everything depends on whether an individual has just the right beliefs or says the right prayer at the right time, God comes across as more legalistic than loving. The idea of God not only threatening, but carrying through on threats to torture forever anyone who doesn’t have the right beliefs or who fails to make the required affirmations is not conducive to actually believing biblical claims about God’s love for everyone. The story we told meant that God has set things up so that most people are going to miss out on divine blessings and be sentenced to everlasting misery.
There are better ways of understanding what the Bible teaches than the ones I grew up with. We can think of the message of salvation not primarily as about a transaction that secures a ticket to heaven, but as an offer of transformation that enables us to live a more human kind of life. If we think of God as wanting this kind of transformation for everyone, we might expect that God’s transforming work can begin even with people whose theology is defective. A person can be on a path that will lead ultimately to transformation even without saying the sinners’ prayer or walking a church aisle, and we don’t need to posit that everything has to be decided at death. If further opportunities after earthly existence might lead to a more favorable result, then surely God would want to provide those opportunities.
Salvation is fundamentally about participating in a community in which the kind of love characteristic of God’s nature prevails. Learning what we need to be a part of such a community is likely to be more like a process than an event, a process of developing our capacities for living the kind of communal life God intends. To develop these capacities leads to a kind of existence we could call heavenly; failing to develop them leads ultimately to a hellish kind of existence. In this way of thinking, heaven and hell are not so much places to which we are sent, but ways of living we have chosen when we either embrace or resist God’s intentions for our fulfillment. What God seeks for us extends beyond our present lives, but what we are offered is not just about future destinies. It’s about how we live in the present.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 10 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (Being Saved).